29 July 2012

LIFE: Gun Control Italian Style

SARONNO, Italy – While I usually manage to concentrate on things Italian and not comment on what’s going on the United States, I confess the recent massacre in Colorado is too tragic to pass without comment. My heart weeps for the victims, their families and the shooter too for he’s a victim as well, a victim of his own sick mind aided and abetted by liberal gun laws unlike any found in other civilized societies. Unfortunately the Colorado incident is only one in a long list of massacres, senseless deaths that take place every day on the streets of America. You have to wonder just what it is going to take for people to write to their representatives and say enough is enough. Are they waiting until someone in their own family is gunned down? 
 Such a Heartwarming Sight
While it may be a constitutional right of Americans to bear arms, where are our rights to move freely within a society without fear of some whack-o popping up from behind a trash can, or through the door of a movie theater, wielding an automatic weapon and letting loose?

I used to tell people that you can’t even own bullets in Italy, let alone a gun, but that isn’t exactly true. In this duly elected democratic country of Italy guns and bullets are not outlawed, but they are strictly controlled. The Italian Constitution does not recognize a citizen’s right to keep and bear arms. There are strict rules about who can own a gun and for what purpose. Private ownership of military style weapons (e.g. machine guns) is strictly forbidden and military ammunition is also forbidden. Guns are also limited to a certain capacity (e.g. maximum 15 rounds in handguns), and there are also restrictions on the total amount of ammunition which can be owned and how and where guns must be stored (e.g. in a locked cabinet).

To obtain a gun license applicants must be 18 or older, prove they can handle and use a firearm safely (new gun owners are required to attend a  firearms course at a registered shooting range and earn a certificate of completion), certify that they have a clean criminal record (which is verified by the Police) and must not be mentally ill or be a known abuser of, or addicted to, alcohol or illegal drugs. 

National Firearms Catalog
Italian law prescribes that any rifled-barreled firearm imported or manufactured in Italy after 1976 must be identified by a progressive catalog number, assigned by a commission composed of police and government officials and representatives from the Italian arms industries. The national firearms catalog describes the characteristics of the weapon (barrel and overall length, number of rounds in the magazine and other technical specifications) which cannot legally be altered without resubmitting the weapon to the commission. Common firearms with certain features (sights, type of action) can be classified as sporting firearms and can be used for self-defense in extreme circumstances (ei. during a home invasion) but which cannot be carried for other purposes.

Weapons Possession
All private firearms must be registered at the local police department within "72 hours" after purchase or transfer. This time limit starts from the time the firearm is actually taken to the place where it is to be registered, for example, the firearm may be bought on a certain day and picked up a week later from the retailer; only then is the owner required to register the weapon.

Citizens are allowed to own: up to three common firearms ( such as 10-gauge shotguns, and some .22 rimfire rifles), and up to six weapons that have been specifically engineered and/or manufactured for shooting sports.  An unlimited number of hunting weapons (both rifles and shotguns) and up to eight antique or historical weapons (designed before 1891, regardless of when produced). In addition, an unlimited numbers of single shot muzzle loader replicas, are allowed with no registration needed. An unlimited numbers of airguns under 7,5 Joules of muzzle energy, specifically approved by the Ministry of Interior, do not require registration either.

Carrying guns in public places
In Italy it is illegal to carry any type of weapon in a public place, but the law provides the following exceptions: A hunting license, along with a special hunting permit issued by the region of residence, allows Italian citizens to carry hunting weapons only during hunting season and only within the confines of game reserves. When transporting them outside game reserves, the shotguns must be kept unloaded and locked in their case.

Concealed Carry License
A concealed carry license allows a citizen to carry a handgun for personal defense; this license is usually much more difficult to obtain than other firearm licenses, and must be renewed every year (while hunting and shooting sports licenses are valid for 6 years), and the applicant has to provide a valid reason to carry a concealed gun (e.g. a salesperson of valuable goods such as jewelry). 

Operational limits include a maximum capacity of 15 rounds for handguns (effective since 2004), a maximum capacity of 5 rounds (sometimes 10 rounds or even more according to some specific case, such as the M1 Garand) for non-smoothbore long arms (rifles and carbines. Restrictions on the ownership of ammunition include a maximum of 1500 shotgun shells and/or rifle/carbine cartridges, and a maximum of 200 rounds of pistol ammunition. Any exceptions to these limitations require a special permit from the local authorities and is issued only for competitive shooters who must demonstrate participation at local/national championships.

International Transfer of Firearms:
The international transfer of firearms is regulated by a number of recent European Union directives which apply to all member states. The primary objective of the legislation is the complete traceability of each and any firearm and gun, with easy reconstruction of its movement thru complete paper (and electronic) documentation.

Currently it is virtually impossible for any legal gun in Europe to fall into criminal or terrorist hands thru legal loopholes under the European firearms law, as any transfer must be authorized by the proper police authorities within the various member countries. For example to transfer a gun from Italy to France, the owner must notify both the Italian and French police authorities and, upon authorization, register the gun at the new location. Upon registration the police of the receiving country notify the other country authorities which keep notification of the transfer in their databases.

I know I’m just another blogger in an ocean of bloggers but I am truly horrified by this tragedy. And it’s not just the recent Colorado incident that horrifies me, it’s all the drive-bys and gang war shoot outs and the mentally maladjusted who think they can lean out of their second story windows with a loaded rifle and use the neighborhood kids for target practice – as actually happened on a street I lived on once. I’m just a person trying to understand why such horrible things are still allowed to happen to innocent people. The reasonable control of firearms is not a loss of personal freedom as touted by the National Rifle Association, but the contrary.

As we mourn the victims of America’s most recent tragedy, let us remember past victims as well.

1. August 1, 1966 Austin, Texas, University of Texas massacre 16 killed
2. May 4, 1970 Kent State University,  4 killed
3. Jan. 1/7 1973, New Orleans, LA 9 killed
4. March 30 1975,   Hamilton, OH, 11  killed
5. Sep. 25 1982   Wilkes-Barre, PA 13 killed
6. July 18, 1984 San Diego, California, San Ysidro McDonald’s Massacre 21 killed
7. Dec. 22-28 1987, Russellville, AR 16 killed
8. June 17/18 1990, Jacksonville, FL 11 killed
9. October 16, 1991 Killeen, Texas, Luby’s massacre  22 killed
10. January 8, 1993 Palatine, Illinois, Brown’s Chicken massacre 7 killed
11. April 20, 1999 Littleton, Colorado, Columbine High School massacre 15 killed
12. March 21 2005, Red Lake, MN  9 killed
13. March 25, 2006 Seattle, Washington, Capitol Hill massacre  6 killed
14. April 16, 2007 Blacksburg, Virginia, Virginia Tech Massacre  32 killed
15. April 3 2009,  Binghamton, NY, 13 killed
16. March 10 2009,  Geneva, AL, 10 killed
17. November 5, 2009 Ft. Hood, Texas, Fort Hood Massacre 13 killed
18. January 8, 2011 Tucson, Arizona, Tucson supermarket massacre 6 killed
19. May 30, 2012, Seattle, WA, Café Racer Massacre, 6 killed
20. July 20, 2012 Aurora, Colorado, Colorado Movie Theater Massacre 12 killed

You can agree with me or not, but think about this: the number of massacres in Italy from 1966 to 2012 was zero. Zero.  

26 July 2012

AUNTIE PASTA: The Question is: Zuppa o Minestra?

SARONNO, Italy – a sweet summer lull has settled over Saronno this month, I decided to tackle a question my cousin T asked me a while ago, back when the weather was not hovering in the 90’s.  “What is the difference between minestra and zuppa,” she wanted to know.  But after a bit of research, here is what I came up with.
Summer Minestrone
Minestra is much older than zuppa, by quite a few centuries. The word comes from the Latin ministrare, which means to ‘administer’, and references the fact that minestra was any type of  food served from a single bowl or pot by the head of the household. Traditionally minestra was the primary, and only meal the servants got.

Today the word is used to mean a ‘first course’ in a traditional ‘three course’ Italian meal. I’m certain you’ve seen the word Minestre or Minestre Asciutte on menus here in Italy followed by a list of vegetables and legumes and pasta or rice cooked in stock, including some risottos and pasta dishes like spaghetti with clams.
 Cannallini Beans
Minestrone, which is a variation of the word minestra, is just one of many minestra soups. Minestrone a great vegetable based summer soup and traditionally includes fresh or dried beans or other legumes, potatoes, pasta or rice. In the summer it is served at room temperature and you will see bowls of it sitting out on buffet tables as an appetizing first course in many trattorias. For a good minestrone soup recipe, see http://thisitalianlife.blogspot.it/2011/08/auntie-pasta-summer-soup.html ).

Zuppa is something completely different. Zuppa, with few exceptions, is a broth that has slices of bread in it, but never pasta or rice. The word zuppa comes from the Gothic suppa, meaning soaked bread. As you no doubt remember from your Italian history courses, the Goths, or Visigoths , were the Germanic tribe who invaded Italy in 410 AD and sacked Rome before they moved on to Spain and Portugal. So in Italy we got zuppa from the German suppe, while in Spain and Portugal suppe became sopa.  Brothers from different mothers, but they all had the same Daddy.
Italian Bread - The Real Deal
On the tables of the nobility in medieval Europe, there were no dishes or plates as we think of dishes and plates today. Food was served on slices of bread, called trenchers. At the end of the meal, the ‘bread plates’ were saturated with the juices of the meats and other foods that had been placed on them. The servants would then take those left over bits of bread and recook them in water or stock for their own meals.   

Zuppa was essentially cooked dishwater and would never have been seen on the table of the rich, not in any form. Today, there are many variations of zuppe, souped up variations if you’ll excuse the pun, that appear  on restaurant menus and dinner tables of Italians from one end of the country to the other. For example: Tuscan ribollita. This thick soup of bread, beans, black cabbage (cavolo nero), green cabbage and other vegetables is a Tuscan classic, found on every trattoria and restaurant menu in Tuscany.  It is always made a day or two before it is to be eaten to allow the flavors to develop, which makes it a great dish to prepare during the week and served on the weekend.
Tuscan  Cavallo Nero -
                 1 can of Cannellini beans, drained.
                4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
                1  onion, thinly sliced
                1 leek, white and light green parts only, thinly sliced
                1 carrot, cut into 1/4-inch dice
                1 celery stalk, cut into 1/4-inch dice
                1 garlic clove, thinly sliced, plus 1 whole garlic clove
                2 sprigs fresh thyme
                1 sprig of fresh rosemary
                1 bay leaf
                1 pound chopped cavolo nero (black cabbage), roughly chopped
                1/2 pound chopped green cabbage, roughly chopped
                2 scant tablespoons tomato paste
                3 cups water
                4 (1/2-inch) slices good quality Italian bread
                Salt and freshly ground black pepper
                Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

In a 12-inch sauté pan, heat the oil over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. Add the onion, leek, carrot, celery, sliced garlic, and herbs. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables begin to soften, about 5 minutes. Add the black and white cabbages and cook until the cabbage has softened and the flavors have blended, about 10 minutes. Add the drained can of cannellini beans. Salt and pepper, to taste. Remove the sprigs of rosemary and thyme and the bay leaf. Add the tomato paste, and stir until the tomato paste is well distributed throughout the vegetable mixture.

Let cool to room temperature and then refrigerate overnight (or up to two days).

Before serving, gently reheat the soup and sprinkle with a little Parmigiano. Serve with garlic bruschetta on the side.


22 July 2012

LIFE: Summer in Saronno

SARONNO, Italy – July is the wind down to vacation month in Italy. Towns like Saronno hold religious festas honoring their patron saints, or community festas like the ‘notte bianche’  all night fun, food and music fests.  Saronno held its ‘notte bianca’ last week and according to the local papers, more than 40,000 people turned out for the all night celebration.  
Saronno's Notte Bianca
On these warm summer nights a lot of families come out after dinner for a walk around town   and an ice cream. The stores stay open late on Thursday nights, almost to midnight, and the summer sales are in full swing, so there are things to look at and things to buy. On the weekends there is live music and dancing in the area behind the old Padre Monte church, or you can walk over to the piazza near the old town hall and sit out with your neighbors to watch the latest Hollywood offering, dubbed in Italian of course.  It’s a ‘walk in’ movie, the Italian version of the American ‘drive-in’ movie that used to be popular back in the day.  

Saronno in July, is a lot like my computer. If I leave it alone too long, it slips into sleep mode. But in Saronno the sleep mode is just the prelude to the total close down in August. It’s not just true of Saronno, most of the towns here in the north go through exactly the same hibernation period in the summer, even Milan.
Summer in Milan
When I first moved north from Genova Nervi, it was scary to be in Milan in August. Nervi, and the rest of the Riviera are boom towns in the summer, shops are open late, they are open on Sunday, there are outdoor concerts and processions and fireworks all summer long. It's party time! But Milan in August was like a clam in cold water. Nothing was open. All the shops were closed including grocery stores. It was so bad the daily newspaper had to publish a weekly list of where you could buy bread and milk and a few other necessities of life. That’s all changed of course, now that most of the large grocery stores are owned by the Austrians or French. These days some grocery stores are even open on Sunday morning – which I’m sure never would have happened if the stores were still owned by the Italians. 

My favorite thing to do during these lazy days is pour myself a tall glass of lemonade, put my feet up and read a good book. Right now I’m reading Pirates of the Levant by Arturo Perez-Reverte. It’s part of Perez-Reverte’s series of swashbuckling adventure stories of a sword for hire soldier, el Capitan Diego Alatrieste and his young sidekick Inigo Balboa. The series is set during the Golden Age of Spain when Spanish galleons ruled the seas and a great read if you like that sort of thing, and I confess I do.
 Viggo Mortensen as the dashing El Capitan Alatrieste
I recently read and loved The Paris Wife by Paula McLain. It’s the life and times of Ernest Hemingway before he became THAT Ernest Hemingway and it was comforting to know that he too had to sweat bullets to hobble together enough sentences to make a paragraph.  McLain writes beautifully, her tone and pitch are perfect and even if you don’t give two figs about Hemingway, the story is so good you’ll wish it would go on forever.  

Another book I didn’t want to end is Niccolo’ Ammaniti’s Steal You Away. It’s about an 11 year old boy whose father is an alcoholic and his mother is mentally challenged. Jonathan Hunt did the Italian to English translation and while translators never get much credit, if any, they can make or break a book, especially a novel as intricate and complex as this one. I also loved Ammaniti’s I’m Not Scared.
 So Many Books, So Little Time
One book I read that I didn’t care for was A Fine and Private Place by Chistobel Kent. The book is 320 pages long and I read to page 277 and still didn’t understand what she was trying to say. I gave up at that point, I just lost interest. I’m always disappointed when that happens because I want the story to be good, to be interesting, to make me care about the people in it. But not every book can be a winner and some winners, like A Visit From the Goon Squad, are real losers.  

My friend Gary was here a couple of weeks ago and brought me a copy of The Help by Kathryn Stockett.  I’ve been picking it up and putting it down every time I hit the book shops in Milan, for some reason never quite managing to conjure up enough interest to actually buy it. Everyone I know who has read it has loved it, so I’m hopeful.

So other than a few days in Lugano, Switzerland next week to see some friends before they go back to the USA for the summer, and maybe a week or so on the Riviera, I’m really looking forward to a nice, slow summer with time to read and write and get my house in order. How about you?

19 July 2012

AUNTIE PASTA: Balsa Me, Balsa Me Mucho

SARONNO, Italy – There’s something going on here that I don’t quite understand. Every other food product produced in Italy, be it olive oil or saffron or any of the thousands of others, have one or more stories regarding their origin. We know that olive oil, for example, has been around since the days of the Etruscans, and that saffron made its way to Italy via the Middle East. A few details may have been altered over the years, but the basic histories are there. Italians know the where, when and how and sometimes why these food products became part of Italian cuisine. Except for one: balsamic vinegar.
 Este Ducal Palace in Modena
It's true that there are some mentions of a balsamic vinegar ‘special’ that appear in the 1508 court records of Duke Alfonso I d’Este of Modena, the husband of Lucrezia Borgia, however, it isn't until 1747 that the first official record of the word ‘vinegar’ appears next to the word balsamic (balsalmico in Italian) in the Official Register of grape harvesting and wine sales for the Duke of Modena’s secret cellars. 

Then there are the 1796 documents and manuscripts that talk of reinforcements guarding 36 barrels in the third tower of the Ducal palace that were destined for S. Dominic's. Since there is no S. Dominic church in Modena, I have to think they are talking about the Cathedral of S. Dominic in Bologna, which isn’t all that far away. It was not that unusual for the ruling family of a region in the Papal States under the control of the Pope in Rome to make a ‘donation’ or two to the local churches.
 Trebbiano Grapes
What I don’t understand is why there isn’t more information on just how this elixir of a vinegar was developed. Did it happen in an secluded monastery like grappa and brandy? Did a winegrower from Modena have a AHA! Moment when some of his wine went bad?  Did the mad alchemist Giuseppe Balsamo have anything to do with it? He was, of course, a man accused of heresy, magic, conjury and Freemasonry and sentenced to death by the Inquisition. Who’s to say he didn’t have his hand (or magic wand) in the development of balsamico too? After all his name was Balsamo.
Guiseppe Balsamo
And just what is balsamic vinegar anyway? First of all, vinegar in Italy is always made from wine. Ordinary vinegar is fermented and can be produced in 6 months. Good quality wine vinegar takes a little longer, about a year and a half. Then there's balsamic vinegar. 

There are actually two kinds of balsamic vinegar made in two different ways. The centuries-old traditional way begins with late-harvest grapes (usually white Trebbiano) that grow in the providence of Emilia-Romagna. The sweet, raisiny juice, skin, and seeds, called grape must, is boiled in open vats until it reduces to about half of its original volume. This concentrated must is then added to the largest of a collection of aged wooden barrels. 
 Balsamic Vinegar Barrels
There are barrels of different sizes and types of wood including oak, cherry, juniper, and mulberry, and the barrels are not closed or sealed but merely covered with a cloth to allow evaporation. Each year, before the vinegar maker adds the new must to the largest barrel, he transfers some of more concentrated must to the next largest barrel and so on down the line, before finally removing a liter or two of the oldest vinegar from the smallest barrel. What he pulls from that small barrel is traditional balsamic vinegar and can cost more than $200 dollars a bottle – a bottle being 125 ml or 4.25 fluid ounces.

Balsamic vinegar has become America's culinary sweetheart and accounts for 45 percent of all vinegar sales in the USA. You can buy a 500 ml/16 fluid ounce bottle in the grocery store for  $2 or $3. Is it the same vinegar that has been aged for 12 years in wooden barrels? Not quite. Actually supermarket vinegar isn’t aged at all, and the flavor comes from a chemical formula that is added in rather than developed. There is also something for sale in the USA called ‘essence of balsamic’ that you can sprinkle on your salads to give them that ‘balsamic’ taste. But in my humble opinion that really is scraping the bottom of the barrel, if you’ll pardon the pun.
Filet of Beef with Balsamic Vinegar Sauce
Here is a very simple recipe of beef with a balsamic vinegar sauce. Thinking back now to the great hamburgers with béarnaise sauce I used to devour with such pleasure at a small French café in Old Philadelphia, I think this sauce would work on a good quality hamburger as well. But you never read that here.

Beef Fillet with Balsamic vinegar

4 Servings

  1 ¾ lb beef fillet
  1 ½ oz all-purpose flour
 ¼ cup balsamic vinegar
  2 tablespoons olive oil
  ½ cup meat broth
  salt to taste

Cut the fillet into thick slices, flatten with a meat pounder, coat in flour, then shake to remove any excess, then salt them. (Obviously the slices in the photo have not been pounded or floured, which are both typical Italian cooking techniques. The purpose of the pounding is to even out the slices so they cook evenly, but I still haven't figured out why they flour meat before they fry it. Any ideas?)

Cook on both sides over very high heat, basting them with some balsamic vinegar. Meanwhile, separately, prepare a fairly liquid sauce with the remaining vinegar, a little meat stock and the flour.

When the fillets are cooked, cover them with the sauce and serve hot.

15 July 2012

LIFE: Back to Nature

SARONNO,  Italy - Once, on a very hot day in July, Guilianna called and asked if I wanted to have lunch in Como. “I know a great place,” she said, “a baita up in the hills behind Cernobbio. It should be cooler up there.”
Italian/Swiss Alps
Desperate to escape the heat I jumped on the invitation and it wasn’t long before we were on the road. We drove to Como and continued until we got to Cernobbio where she made a turn up a narrow two lane road that wound upward behind the highway. 

For the next half hour or so we followed that winding road, climbing higher with every turn.  At one point we entered a very large pine forest and under the deep shade of the trees the air was deliciously cool and fresh. But as we continued to climb upward, cool and fresh became too cool and fresh to keep the windows open.
Onward and Upward Through the Dense Pine Forest We Went
The pine forest was immense, thick with trees so tall you could hardly see the tops of them. I remember thinking we had entered another world, one that was far from civilization, not realizing just how far from civilization we had yet to go. We had not seen another car since we left the highway in Cernobbio about an hour before, and I, with my limited (actually no) outdoorsy camping experience was starting to get a little nervous. If something happened to the car, who would find us? We could be stranded in this forest forever trying to survive on twigs and leaves. There are times in a city girl’s life when even a mugger is a welcomed sight, and this was one of those times, especially if the mugger had a car we could hijack.
The Baita Looked Something Like This
The baita turned out to be a large wood and stone chalet set on the edge of the forest. We had driven not to the top of the mountain, but almost, and as we walked up to the door of the baita Guilianna turned to me and said, “that’s Switzerland over there.”  She was pointing to a spot about half a block from where we were standing. We had driven to the uppermost border between Italy and Switzerland and I remember thinking how easy it would be to smuggle something or someone, or a lot of somethings and someones across that border.

The air was was again cool and fresh, a breeze was blowing across the massive stone peaks  and in the middle of one of the hottest days of the year, Guilianna and I sat and ate steaming plates of polenta with sausages for lunch.
An Alpine Dairy Farm
While we were eating lunch a young girl came in. She was a big, strong girl, dressed in a warm jacket and sweater, leather hiking boots and carrying a walking stick. With her long blonde braids, and ruddy cheeks, I figured it had to be Heidi all grown up.  Of course she wasn’t my storybook Heidi, or even Swiss as it turned out, she was actually from Norway or Sweden, I don’t remember which. She said she had a summer job working at one of the local dairy farms. Her job was to milk the cows twice a day, muck out the barn and do other similar farm related duties.Today was her day off so she decided to hike here from the other side of the mountain, Mount Grona, and have lunch.

At the time, I wondered why such a pretty girl would want to spend an entire summer stuck on a farm in the middle of nowhere, but lately I’ve come to realize that more and more young Europeans, especially Italians, are starting to look at life in a different way. Instead of focusing on technology and getting ahead at all costs, many are turning to a more simple life, the life of their great-grandparents. Life as it used to be before the wars, when Europe was still an agricultural based society.
Matteo Moretto
Since that chance encounter with Heidi’s look alike up in the mountains behind Como, I’ve met others who have taken up a more self-reliant style of living. Remember Matteo Moretto the goat farmer and cheesemaker? (If not, check out that blog at: http://thisitalianlife.blogspot.it/2011/06/auntie-pasta-farmers-market-saronno.html) He’s another feet on the ground, head square on his shoulders type of guy who chose to reconnect with the earth and live a more balanced and harmonious lifestyle.

Maybe it’s the global recession that’s driving young people back to their roots, and maybe that’s a good thing. Farming has changed, animal husbandry has changed, just about everything about living a sustainable lifestyle has changed from when their great-grandparents were giving it a go. It’s a lot easier now, there is more information available at the click of a mouse. And the beauty of it is that it really isn’t all that far from the fields to the future these days so you can have the best of both worlds. And maybe that makes a little baita on the mountainside the best place to be after all. 

I thought you might like this very short video called 'Walking in Italy Monte Grona', which I found on YouTube. Mount Grona is the mountain behind Como and in the video you can see both Lake Como, which is in Italy and Lake Lugano in Switzerland, and pretty much the area where Giulliana and I were that day.

As always, your feedback and comments on what's posted on thisitalianlife blog is much appreciated.  

12 July 2012

AUNTIE PASTA: A Simple Island Salad

SARONNO, Italy - Insalata pantesca is a great, easy to prepare summer salad  original to the Sicilian island of Pantelleria.  
 Rugged Coastline of Pantelleria
It  is just one of the many local dishes you’ll find  on this little island that I have written about in the past. (see http://thisitalianlife.blogspot.it/2012/06/auntie-pasta-sailors-delight.html

It’s usually served as a side dish, but there is no reason why it can’t be a great entrée as well. Like most regional dishes there are many variations on the insalta pantesca theme, but  the original recipe is fairly simple. It calls for boiled potatoes, firm ripened tomatoes, green or black olives, capers, oregano and a sweet, red onion that locals call cavuli. 
 Just a Few Simple Ingredients
Some cooks add sun-dried tomatoes or fresh tumma cheese, a soft, unsalted, low-fat cheese typical of the island, while others add sun dried tomatoes, chunks of cold, cooked chicken, tuna fish, any kind of white fish or boiled octopus.  The truth is you can add pretty much whatever you want, there are no hard and fast rules, and this simple island dish becomes a great summer meal no matter where you are.
Easy as I, 2, 3
 Insalata Pantesca

1 glass of red wine vinegar (about 1 cup)
Fresh basil
20 capers from Pantelleria (preserved in salt)
1 sweet red onion
6 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
Green or black olives
Dried oregano
600 grams new small potatoes
 300 grams of cherry tomatoes (Pachino from Sicily are good)
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Wash the unpeeled potatoes and, (1) starting with cold salted water, boil them until they are soft. Actual cooking time depends on the size and number of potatoes used. (2) peel them while they are still warm and (3) cut them into thick slices.
 Peel the onion (4),  slice it into rings and put the onion rings to soak in the wine vinegar (5) for about 30 minutes.  Drain the onion rings (6)  and rinse them under running water.
Wash the cherry tomatoes, cut them in half (7), and gently squeeze them to remove the seeds and excess liquid (8); then put them in a colander cut side down (9)

Put the capers in a small colander and rinse them under running water to remove the excess salt (10). Remove the pits from the black olives (11), (you can use a meat tenderizer or flat knife to pound them and help the pit removing process along). In a large bowl (12) place the cherry tomatoes, the drained onions, the rinsed capers, the pitted olives, the slices of potatoes and add a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and a generous amount of dried oregano, the chopped basil leaves, salt, pepper and a few drops of vinegar. Mix gently and serve. 
Like the locals, you can add sun dried tomatoes, cheese, chunks of cold, cooked chicken, tuna fish, any kind of white fish or boiled octopus to turn this simple dish into a wonderful summer meal.

08 July 2012

LIFE: 4th of July! Che Bello!

SARONNO, Italy - There’s not a lot going on in Saronno these days, the town’s getting ready to close down for the summer as everyone heads out for their month long summer vacation. Even Milano is quiet. The only excitement in town this week were the 4th of July parties. One party was sponsored by an English language publications, and the other by the American business group. Fourth of July parties have long been a tradition in Milan, but it seems that each year there are fewer and fewer of them, maybe because the number of ex-pats living in and around Milan has shrunk as well.
 Happy 4th of July
Back in the day when there was a sizable community of ex-pats in the city, the American Consulate always sponsored a big, bang up affair for 4th of July. It was usually held at the 13th century Sforza castle in the middle of Milan and hundreds of people would be there, not just Americans but many Italians married to Americans, and Italians who love America and just wanted to be part of an authentic American festa.
The party would start in the late afternoon, after business hours, as the 4th is not a holiday here in Italy. And after everyone stuffed themselves on hamburgers and hot dogs, washed down with a large quantity of American beer, the festivities would begin. As day turned into night, the skies over the castle would light up with a dazzling display of fireworks that surely must have kept everyone within a two mile radius of the castle up until all hours of the night. But that party, along with many other government sponsored events, are now a thing of the past and it is up to the local ex-pat community to hobble together whatever celebrations there are going to be.  
 Milan's Sforza Castle - Great Place for an Outdoor Party
The other side of this coin is that most ex-pats find, myself included, that the longer you live in Italy and out of the United States, the more you become ingrained in the Italian way of life. You eat Italian food, you watch Italian TV, you read Italian papers, and pretty soon American traditions seem to slip farther and farther away as new traditions take center stage.

It’s not that we forget we are American, we will always be Americans, but there is a blending of cultures, a blending of language, a softening of traditions. A good example of that are the group sponsored Thanksgiving dinners in Milan. They always start with a plate of pasta and finish with an espresso coffee. I’m sure those subtle changes happen everywhere there are ex-pats, not just here in Italy.
Pure Joy
Sometimes they happens for a very simple reason: the foods that make a holiday special are just not available. If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know how I tried to find a whole turkey for my Thanksgiving dinner last year, and finally had to settle for ‘capone’, which is a castrated rooster and as much like a turkey as a chicken is to a duck. In other words, it was not the same thing, not even close. No sweet potatoes? OK, roasted potatoes will have to do. No cranberries either? OK, I’ll use mostarda. No pumpkin for pie for dessert? How about tiramisu and pears poached in Prosecco? Some battles you just can’t win.

The party Gary and I went to was a little bit like that. No backyard barbeque, no grilled burgers,  no hot dogs with spicy mustard, no kids or fireworks either. This party was at a posh hotel in the center of Milan, a very elegant affair with men in suits, women with their hair freshly coiffed and dressed in their summery best. There were about 50 people there, about half of them Italian or Canadian.  But everyone stood as we sang the Star Spangled Banner, they ate the fried chicken and corn-on-the-cob, and if it hadn’t been for their accents you would have thought them dyed in the wool Americans. The gap between the cultures seems to shrink a little bit more every year.
Hotel de la Ville, Mlan, Italy
It may not have been a USA American's idea of a 4th of July party, but it was nice. I was happy, met some nice people, had some nice conversations. Gary was happy. He got to see some of the folks he knew and socialized with when he lived and worked in Milan. They were delighted to see him, he was delighted to see them, and as you all know, all’s well that ends well and that's really all that counts, no?

05 July 2012

AUNTIE PASTA: Lasagna alla Genovese

SARONNO, Italy - Last Saturday was a perfect day for the Riviera so Gary, Chris and I took an early morning train out of Milan and headed west. Fortunately we had reserved seats because it seemed like everyone else in Milan had the same idea.
Church of the Madonna of Montallegro
After a rather captivating morning in Chiavari, we took a ten minute train ride to Rapallo and headed up to one of my favorite Riviera spots, Montallegro for lunch. (see http://thisitalianlife.blogspot.it/2012/02/life-montallegro.html for more about Montallegro).  It’s a bit of a haul to get up there, first the breathtaking ride in the funicular – aka ski lift - that takes you on high above the tree covered mountain and then the trek up the stony path and open air staircase to the church of the Madonna of Montallegro.

The church itself is worth the trip, but if you go around to the back of the church and take the path through the dense forest – a little like a Hansel and Gretel - at the end of the path there isn’t a gingerbread cottage, but a small, family run hotel/bar/restaurant, il Pellegrino. It is set in a clearing of towering, ancient trees with long, graceful.  leaf filled branches that protect you from the midday sun. If you choose a table under the trees, and everyone does, you can sit and enjoy great food and one of the most spectacular views of the Riviera to be found.
The Path Through the Woods
The menu isn’t extensive, a smattering of pastas and main courses, appetizers appropriate for the season – melon and prosciutto seemed to be everyone’s appetizer of choice that day, including Gary and Chris. I passed on an appetizer, but not on the pasta. Gary ordered homemade tagliolini with Porcini mushrooms that was so delicious he swooned with every mouthful. Chris tried the ravioli with nut sauce, a Ligurian specialty, and I ordered lasagna with pesto. A mezzo litro of house white, a local white wine from the nearby hills behind Chiavari and we were in seventh heaven. 

Sitting up on that mountainside, with a cool breeze coming in off the sea, a spectacular view of the Riviera, good food, great service, it was a perfect afternoon. It’s no wonder we lingered until well past 4 PM, and we were not alone. None of the other diners seemed to be in any particular hurry to get back down Rapallo and the blistering 90 degree day either.
Fresh, Green Ligurian Basil
Lasagna with pesto is a great summer dish, light and tasty and relatively easy to prepare. The technique is exactly the same as that for regular lasagna. Sauce on the bottom of the pan, layer of noodles, more sauce, more noodles, well you get the idea. In this recipe the sauce is made of pesto and béchamel. 

You can use the no-boil lasagna noodles if you want, just remember that they need a lot of sauce to cook properly, or you can use regular lasagna noodles and pre-cook them. Or, if you are lucky enough to have a pasta shop nearby, you can use fresh lasagna noodles, which are the best.

I found this recipe for lasagna with pesto on theitaliandishblog.com and the only thing I changed was the sprinkle of oregano on top. It's probably one of those small variations that you see in all regional cooking, and there certainly isn't any harm in a bit of oregano, but in my Ligurian experiences it has always been served with a sprinkle grated Parmesan and small pieces of mozzarella on top. Other than that the recipe is a true and authentic version.  
 Pesto Lasagna
makes an 8x8 inch pan
4-8 servings

10 - 20 no-cook lasagna noodles or fresh pasta sheets, cooked or regular lasagna noodles, cooked


3 ounces of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, cut into chunks
1-1/2 cups packed fresh basil leaves
1 garlic clove
1/4 cup pine nuts
1/2 cup olive oil

1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup flour
2 cups milk (whole or lowfat)
1 chicken bouillon cube (half, if using Knorr)
1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper

1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
3/4 cup grated fresh mozzarella cheese

 Make the pesto:

Place the chunks of Parmigiano cheese into the food processor and process until finely ground.  Add the basil, garlic and pine nuts to food processor.  Process, using pulses, till finely chopped.  With machine running, add the olive oil until pesto is smooth.

Make the béchamel: 

In a heavy medium saucepan, melt the butter.  Whisk in the flour and stir for a couple of minutes, until the flour is cooked.  Add the bouillon cube and allow to dissolve. Whisk. Add about a third of the milk, slowly, and whisk over medium heat.  Add the nutmeg and pepper.  When the sauce is smooth, add another third of the milk and whisk.  When the sauce is smooth again, add the rest of the milk and whisk until smooth. Transfer to a heat proof bowl or Pyrex cup and let cool slightly. (If your sauce is lumpy, just strain it.)

Assemble lasagna:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

In an 8x8 pan, place about 1/3 cup of béchamel to coat the bottom of the pan. Lay first layer of lasagna noodles.  Add enough béchamel to coat the noodles.  Add some pesto and spread into the bechamel.  Add a handful of grated Parmesan.  Continue to layer the noodles, béchamel, pesto and Parmesan until the last layer of noodles.  On top of this, spread béchamel only, add the rest of the Parmesan and top with the mozzarella.  Wrap tightly with foil (preferably Reynolds No-Stick foil).

Bake for one hour (if using regular, cooked noodles) or one hour and 15 minutes (if using no-boil noodles). Remove foil and bake for 10 minutes more, until top is golden.  Remove from oven and allow to sit for 15 minutes before slicing.

01 July 2012

LIFE: The Curse of Montecristo

SARONNO, Italy – There is a small island, about 40 miles off the coast of Tuscany, called Montecristo. It’s coastline is rugged and rocky, the black volcanic stone riddled with dark caves. Nothing grows there, no one lives there, no one has ever been able to live there although many have tried. That is the curse of Montecristo.
Tuscan  Island of Montecristo  (photo AP)
Over the centuries the Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Spaniards and Genovese desperately tried to colonize Montecristo, just as they had colonized other islands in the Tyrrhenian Sea, islands like Capri and Ventotene. But to no avail. Montecristo, like a wild stallion, refuses to be tamed.

In the glory days of the Roman Empire, a Roman senator once built a summer villa on the island. but they say he never lived there. He was fascinated by the island's wild beauty, and believed Roman mythology which said Montecristo was one of the seven jewels that fell from Venus’ headband when she bathe in the Tyrrhenian sea.
 All That Remains
It sounded like an earthly paradise to the Senator, but he soon fled in desperation from the huge rats that dominate the island. The rats fascinate me. They are the true keepers of the island. They have been there forever, and they are still there. Every method conceived by man has been tried to eradicate them, including bringing in snakes to dropping poison pellets from airplanes. The rats always win. Could it be that they are the reincarnation of dammed souls, forced to live out eternity on a speck of volcanic rock in the middle of the sea? Are they the manifestation of the curse of Montecristo?

So many questions, with no real answers. But nonetheless man has persisted in his effort to conquer the dark forces of nature that are at work there.  In 1852 an Englishman, George Green Taylor, spent a fortune fixing up the island for colonization. But after eight years of struggling to complete his project,  he gave up. They say the final blow came when a band of pirates set fire to all he had created, but other rumors say he had given up long before that, defeated in his effort to break the curse.
Thirty years later the Marquis Carlo Ginori-Lisci thought the island would make a good private hunting ground and so he stocked it with wild game. For reasons we will never know, he then gave the lodge to Italy’s King Victor Emanuel II to use as a royal retreat during World War I. The Marquis told the King about the island’s ancient curse, but the King went ahead and built a 26 room palace anyway, only to abandon it several years later.  

Then an Italian construction engineer, Dino Vitale stepped in. He too saw potential in the island, but once again the problem with the rats surfaced. If only he could find a solution, a way of getting rid of them permanently. He spent a lot of money to refurbish the King’s old palace, but then the project stalled.  Viale, who had managed to acquire the title of Count became the first  Count of Montecristo. There was another, a fictional Count, immortalized by the French writer Alexander Dumas in his swashbuckling tales of the Count of Monte Cristo. While Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo gets rich and destroys his enemies, Vitale, the real Count of Montecristo, suffered a fatal heart attack leaving behind a dire warning of the island’s dreaded curse.  
 Perfect Hide-a-Way for Pirate Treasure
The Italians, who are very superstitious, have given up on trying to populate the island. Instead they have given in to nature and created a protected nature reserve. Only 1,000 visitors per year are allowed to visit the island, and only during specific periods during the year (from April 1 to July 15 and from August 31 to the end of October). The Italians are very clever and never openly discourage visitors, but in order to visit the island you must apply in advance for a special permit and then sit through a lecture on the environment of the island the day before the trip. The word curse never passes anyone’s lips.