29 November 2012

AUNTIE PASTA: Semolina Gnocchi alla Romana

SARONNO, Italy – I seem to be on a Roman food kick this month, it may be the change in the weather that whets my appetite for a taste of an Italy where it is definitely sunnier than it is here in the north. These semolina dumplings will do the trick. They are a typical first course in Rome and throughout the province of Lazio, easy to make and quite delicious. Certainly they are one of the oldest types of “gnocchi” dating back to days of the Roman Empire.
Sheep Grazing on the Outskirts of Rome
To make authentic Roman gnocchi you need two things: semolina and pecorino romano cheese. Semolina is the base of the dish while pecorino cheese gives the dish additional levels of flavor.


6 tablespoons butter, plus 2 tablespoons for sheet pan and baking dish
3 cups milk
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup semolina flour
1/2 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese for the preparation, plus 1/2 cup
4 egg yolks

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F/204 degrees Celsius 


 Step 1
Step 1 
In a large pan, heat the milk until it just barely begins to boil. Add the salt and pepper. Pour the semolina into the milk in a thin stream, taking care to mix it in well after each addition in order to avoid lumps from forming. Let it cook for a few minutes.

 Step 2
Step 2
Once it has thickened, take the pan off of the heat, mix in the yolks and the nutmeg.
 Step 3
Step 3
At this point, add ¾ of the grated Pecorino and mix carefully.

 Step 4
Step 4
Blend in the butter, and roll out the dough on a surface greased with melted butter or oil. Lightly grease the surface of the dough and with the aid of a sheet of oven paper and a rolling pin, roll out the dough to a thickness of 0.2 inch. Let it cool.

Step 5
Step 5
With a teardrop-shaped pastry cutter, or a small glass, cut out the “gnocchi”.
 Step 6
Step 6
Arrange them on a greased baking pan.
 Step 7
Step 7
Sprinkle the dumplings with the remaining Pecorino cheese and brown them in the oven at 400 degrees F/204 degrees C for a few minutes. Watch them closely! 

Overlapping Gnocchi
You can also arrange the gnocchi so that they are leaning up against one another (overlapping) in a buttered baking dish and sprinkle with the remaining grated cheese. Place in a preheated oven (425 degrees F/218 degrees C) and cook 15 to 20 minutes, or until top is deep golden brown. Remove and serve immediately.
Another variation is gnocchi with gorgonzola. Sprinkle the gnocchi with crumbled gorgonzola and the remaining grated cheese and bake as above.

A couple of tips: The semolina must be added to just boiling milk, otherwise it will not thicken, and add the nutmeg when the semolina mixture has been taken off the heat.  If added during cooking you will lose its aroma and fragrance.

Also the egg yolks and pecorino cheese should be mixed into the dough after it has been removed from the heat, otherwise it causes havoc with the egg yolks and your gnocchi won't be good.

25 November 2012

LIFE: The Vatican's: Raphael Stanzas

SARONNO, Italy - There are four rooms known as the Stanze of Raphael that form the public part of the Papal apartment at the Palace of the Vatican. They were commissioned by a man who was called the ‘Terrible Pope’, and the ‘Warrior Pope’, a man who had little sympathy for his enemies but who also was one of the Renaissance’s most influential patrons of the arts, Pope Julius II.  
Vatican City
When Julius II became Pope in 1503, he fervently wanted to restore Rome to its former glory was singularly blessed in having two of the greatest architects of all time at his disposal. The first, Michelangelo, whom he  put to work on the Sistine Chapel in spite of his furious objections, and the second, a young painter from Urbino, Rafaello Sanzio, known simply as  Raphael, who had no objections to working for the Pope at all.

 Pope Julius II The Terrible
It was Donato Bramante, a famous Italian architect and painter best known for his work on St. Peter's Basilica, who told Julius about Raphael’s genius. He said the young painter was equal in every way to Michelangelo, which piqued the Pope’s interest.  Julius, who genuinely loved art, had inherited a set of rooms that had been beautifully frescoed, but unfortunately they bore the imprint of his arch enemy, the Borgia Pope, Alexander VI.  

Pope Julius decided to move to another floor and be free of the Borgia influences. With Michelangelo totally immersed in the Sistine Chapel, the Pope turned to the young Raphael, realizing that with the talented young painter he had a real opportunity to make his own mark on the Vatican and possibly eclipse  the fame of the Borgia. The pope offered Raphael the opportunity to fresco his newly chosen private apartment never imagining that his painter would become far more famous than he.

Detail of the Disputa
 The first room in the papal apartments to be decorated by Raphael was the study in which the "Signatura Gratiae" tribunal was originally located (Stanza della Segnatura). Each wall is decorated with an allegorical painting of one of the four elements that make up the universe: air, water, fire and earth.  The first, started sometime in 1508, is the Disputa, or Disputation of the Holy Sacrament, an Adoration of the Sacrament. Then, toward the end of 1509, Raphael began work on the second fresco, the School of Athen, which represents the truth acquired through reason. One year later he began the third composition which represents Parnassus, the dwelling place of Apollo and the Muses and, according to classical myth, the birthplace of poetry, while the two scenes  on the fourth wall  contain the Cardinal Virtues. 

 Expulsion of Heliodorus
The room  known as the Stanza d'Eliodoro, was painted sometime around 1511, after Raphael had seen the first half of the Sistine Chapel. This is a political work, reflecting Julius' obsessive hatred of the French and his determination to drive them out of Italy. Julius appears in person at the left, a majestic figure, while his enemies ore destroyed by heavenly intervention.   

In The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple, Raphael illustrated the biblical episode from II Maccabees (3:21-28), the story of Heliodorus who was sent to seize the treasure kept in the Temple of Jerusalem but was stopped when the prayers of the temple priest were answered by angels who flogged the intruder and chased him from the temple.

The Meeting of Leo the Great and Attila illustrating the legendary encounter between the Pope and Hun conqueror, and the Deliverance of Saint Peter, showing how Saint Peter was liberated from prison by an angel, and symbolizes the power of the Vicar of Christ to escape human restraints  are shown on the other two walls.

Vision of the Cross
The fresco of The Vision of the Cross in the Sala di Constantino tells the legendary story of a great cross appearing to Constantine as he marched to confront his pagan rival Maxentius, son of the Roman Emperor Maximian and his wife Eutropia. 

The other frescoes in the Sala are The Donation of Constantine, inspired by the famous forged documents that granted the Popes sovereignty over their territorial dominions, and The Baptism of Constantine, which was not painted by Raphael but by Gianfrancesco Penni, and shows the emperor on his deathbed.

Fire in the Borgo
The Stanza of the Fire in the Borgo was named for an event documented in the Liber Ponticalis regarding a fire that broke out in a Borgo near the Vatican in 847. The fire was contained by Pope Leo IV when he made the sign of the cross and the raging fire was extinguished. This room was orignially prepared as a music room for Julius' successor, Leo X which is why the frescos depict events from the lives of Popes Leo III and Leo IV.

The other paintings in the room are The Oath of Leo III, an oath of purgation which he took on December 23, 800 AD, in connection with charges brought against him by the nephews of his predecessor Pope Hadrian I, The Coronation of Charlemagne by Leo III, showing Charlemagne being crowned Imperator Romanorum (Roman Emperor) on Christmas Day in the year 800, and The Battle of Ostia, celebrating the naval victory of Leo IV over the Saracens at Ostia in 849.

While this is only the most superficial of explanations for these wondrous works of art, I hope that in some small way they tweak your interest to explore their stories and other treasures found not only at the Vatican, but throughout Italy.

22 November 2012


SARONNO, Italy – Half the fun of cooking in Italy is finding the stories behind the recipes – and as you all know by now – everything you eat in Italy has a story behind it - absolutely everything. Today’s recipe for zabaglione, a wonderfully simple dessert made of egg yolks, sugar, and Marsala wine is no different.  
 Zabaglione and Cookies
My love affair with zabaglione goes back a long way. Whenever my grandmother thought I was looking a little pale, she would whip up a glass of zabaglione and serve it to me as part of my afternoon snack, like an Italian smoothie. As I had my snack she would tell me stories about the brave doctors and nurses who were saving lives in far off Africa. Of course I had to take a bite of whatever she was feeding me to hear what happened next, but it was exciting stuff for a four year old. She wouldn’t have been able to tell me the story about zabaglione though, it’s definitely not suitable for four year old ears.
Actually there are several stories out there regarding the origin of zabaglione, but this is my favorite. This zabaglione story starts in the northern Italian province of Piedmont – home of the Slow Food Movement. It seems a Spanish monk, a certain Fra Giovanni de Baylon, arrived in Torino sometime in the late 1500’s, and was assigned to the church of San Tommaso, the same church that is still on the corner of Via Pieto Micca and Via San Tommaso. 
San Tommaso Church, Torino
One of the things Father Baylon brought with him from Spain was his favorite recipe of eggs and sugar fortified with a large dose of a sweet wine from Cyprus. He soon settled into his duties as pastor of San Tommaso church but after a few months of listening to the women of Torino complain about their husbands lack of interest in making love to them, Father Baylon started giving them his special egg, sugar and wine recipe telling them to feed it to their husbands. It will rejuvenate them, he told the signoras of Turin, and you will be as happy as a new bride.

Apparently it worked. In 1680 Father Baylon was sanctified by Pope Alessander VII and the people of Turin began proclaiming far and wide the wondrous rejuvenating recipe Father Baylon had given their city.  Saint Giovanni de Baylon’s last name soon became San Bajon in Piedmontese dialect, which, when applied to his famous recipe was transformed to l’Sanbajon, and later Italianized to zabaglione.  And that is how zabaglione became famous throughout the world and Saint Giovanni Bajon became Turin’s patron saint of food.   
You can serve zabaglione with cookies, fresh fruit or whipped cream or just with a little story and lots of love.

Serves 4

8 egg yolks
100 ml of dry Marsala, Vin Santo, Moscato, Kirsch or Rum
160 grams white sugar

Separate the 8 eggs, discarding the whites (or freeze them to use in other recipes). Put the sugar (1) and the egg yolks in an deep stainless steel bowl (that you can place over a bagnomaria), and whip them together with an electric mixer (3) until it forms a foamy, smooth almost white cream (4). 

Slowly add the wine little by little continuing to beat the mixture so it absorbs the liquid (5). When all of the ingredients have been well mixed, place the bowl over simmering water (the bowl must not touch the water) and continue to beat the mixture for 10-15 minutes or until it becomes smooth and creamy and dense (6). At that point the zabalione is ready to serve. 

If you prefer to serve it cold, remember to stir it as it cools in the refrigerator to avoid the wine from separating and setttling on the bottom of the bowl. 
A Simple, But Effective Bagnomaria
It’s important that you use very fresh eggs and make sure the water in the bagnomaria just simmers and never boils, otherwise the texture of the zabaglione will be compromised.

P.S. Today is Thanksgiving in the USA. Happy Thanksgiving everyone. Have a great turkey day. Are those Pizza Hut turkey pizzas my pizza loving cousin Ray is holding? Could be. Anything is possible.

18 November 2012

LIFE: Street Life

SARONNO, Italy - Ask any Genovese and they will tell you that the Genoa’s Via Garibaldi is one of the most beautiful streets in the world. And they may be right.  It is a street lined with elegant palaces, one more beautiful than the other, but the Via Garibaldi has a checked past. Back when it was still called Via Montalbano it was home to a number of public brothels which were as famous and infamous as any found in Pompeii.  

 No Rough Stuff Allowed
 Genoa at the time was a commanding Maritime Republic, a city that was as prosperous as Pisa and as powerful as Venice thanks to Genoa’s participation in the First Crusade in 1097 and 1100.  The Genovese have always been concerned with money and so nothing, not even prostitution, was a free trade. If the city’s prostitutes wanted to work on the Via Garibaldi, they would have to pay.

Being a prostitute was job, and like all jobs there was a tax on their income,  5 Genovini per day.  And just like other workers of that era the prostitutes had Saturdays off and on Sunday they went to Mass, strictly dressed in yellow of course so no one would mistake them for respectable women.

When the weekend was over, the ladies went back to work . The Via Garibaldi was blocked by a gate on each end, manned by porters who kept the peace and discouraged violence. They also would step in if one of the girls was injured and the person responsible for injuring her would be forced to pay a per diem fine equal to the amount the girl would have earned if she had been able to work. 

The prices for the prostitute’s services were regulated by marks on the candles used to light their rooms, and the amount a client paid depended on how far down the candle burned during the time the client was  - shall we say – otherwise engaged?   
 Prices Were Always Posted
Around the middle of the 1500’s, Genovese bankers, merchants and traders were making money hand over fist – so much money that the 100 years that followed became known as the Century of the Genovese. With their newly found wealth the ever more powerful families began building massive palaces along the edges of Genoa’s crowded historic center. Palaces that still stand to this day like the palazzo Doria-Pamphilly and the Royal Palace.  This encroachment on the territory once controlled by the prostitutes and criminals eventually resulted in the closure of the houses of ill repute along the Via Garibaldi and the transfer of the prostitutes to houses of ill repute located closer to the port.

There was some grumbling about the changes but then the rich built their palaces, the prostitutes plied their trade, and life in Genoa went back to normal. Nothing changed again until the early 1800’s when Camillo Paolo Filippo Giulio Benso, Count of Cavour became Italy’s first Prime Minister and decided to create a new law regarding brothels.  His law stated that the houses now had to have shutters, and that the shutters had to be closed during working hours so no one could see inside. The houses were also counted as luxury dwellings and regularly taxed.
 Waiting, Waiting, Waiting
And luxurious they were. At least some of them were luxurious, the ones that served caviar and champagne to their clients and hung velvet curtains on the windows.  Others were simply unoccupied low level warehouses with wooden benches with rough weave curtains used as dividers. 

In the period between 1900 and the end of World War I, the most famous of the Genovese brothels was called the Hare, and was run by a certain individual known around town as ‘Rina’.  ‘Rina’ later earned the nickname “Tiger of Gondar’ when he fought with the Italian army in Ethiopia. No one seems to know what happened to ‘Rina’ but his reputation lives on.

What Do You Mean You're Closed
Another famous house was on a narrow alley aptly called Vico dei Ragazzi, or Boy’s Alley. The brothels were off limits to minors but the police would often look the other way, encouraged by handsome compensations from the house madams.

Some rule­­­s were applied th­ough. During the Fascists era,  prostitutes were forbidden to wear black underwear as black was a color associated with the Fascists Party and not considered suitable to be worn on certain parts of the body. So they said. Rates were more regulated as well, and clients no longer had to check the candles in the room as the prices were listed on the wall.   
Country Road in Piedmont
At the House of Joy a ‘regular’ visit cost 1.30 lira, a ‘double’ 2.50,  a visit of 15 minutes cost 3.05 lira, while a half an hour was 4.50. You could also stay for an hour, that would cost you 7 lira while two hours were discounted to 10 lira. A bargain no matter what currency you traded in. In 1948 there were 700 legal brothels and 3,00 0 registered prostitutes in Italy.  

A Genovese friend of mine once told me that at the beginning of his career as a lawyer he worked for Fiat in Turin, and in Turin the Fiat factory workers used to come in from the outer villages on bicycles. The Fiat factory was at the end of a long and lonely country road where prostitutes would line up every morning and evening hoping to do a little business. But because the family finances were usually controlled by the wives, the men pedaling down the country road never had enough money at one time to pay the prostitutes. So they devised a simple payment system. The men would give the prostitute of their choice a few cents every day until they had accumulated enough money in their accounts to pay for a tryst and then with joy they would ditch their bikes and jump into the bushes with the girl  – and their wives were never the wiser.   

Of course that was after the houses of prostitution were closed and the girls were left to fend for themselves. When the houses were open, the prostitutes were subjected to periodical police checks and were obliged by law to have medical examinations. If a woman became ill, she could be, and most likely would be, thrown out of the house where she worked, but at the same time, she was not allowed to leave if she decided to quit her profession. It was that piece of the problem that spurred Lina Merlin, a member of the Italian Parliament, to start a campaign to close the brothels. It took her more than 10 years but she finally succeeded and on January 1, 1958 the Merlin Law was passed and all the brothels were closed marking the end of an era. 

This article was inspired by an article written by Adriana Morando in Era Superba (http://genova.erasuperba.it/rubriche/storia-genova-case-chiuse­) 

15 November 2012

AUNTIE PASTA: When in Rome

SARONNO, Italy – My cousin Ray loves pizza. If he had his way he would eat pizza morning, noon and night. And sometimes I think he does. I don’t know when his passion for pizza started, maybe it was about the same time that he developed an undying love for red Ferraris – hard to tell. It’s been a while though, years I would say.
 Pizzeria Panattoni, Rome
Ray isn’t alone. Almost everybody loves pizza. It’s been a favorite since the days of the Etruscans and they were making a pizza like flat bread 6 centuries before Christ was born. So were the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. 

But it wasn't until 1730, when a baker in Naples decided to add a little tomato sauce to the olive oil and spices that normally went on his flat bread that pizza as we know it was born. While it didn’t take long for more shops serving pizza with tomato sauce to spring up around the city, it took another it took another hundred years before pizza spread to other parts of Italy and then, thanks to Italian emigrants, to the rest of the world. The rest, as they say, is history.
 Hill Town in Lazio
My grandmother, who was from the Etruscan area of Lazio called Tuscia,  used to make a wicked pizza, but she didn’t make Neapolitan pizza, which is thick and chewy, she made Roman pizza which is thin and crisp. You can buy dough at most bakeries that make their own bread, or at some grocery stores, or try your hand at the pizza dough recipe below. 

I don’t recommend the pre-formed shells you find in the grocery store simply because they tend to have preservatives and other things in them that may extend the life of the product but are neither good for you nor taste good. Remember the Italian Golden Rule of Cooking – only best quality ingredients makes best quality (and best tasting) food. 

Roman Style Pizza

Makes 8 individual dinner plate size pizzas

For the dough

2 lb Italian "00" flour or all-purpose flour

1 oz fresh yeast (you should be able to find this in the dairy section of your store)

2 cups water

A pinch of salt

A pinch of sugar
For the Topping 
4 mozzarella cheese (the best quality you can find)
fresh basil leaves (enough to sprinkle over the top of the pizza)
1 lb canned tomatoes (Italian Marazano tomatoes are best – rough chop or pulse in blender)
3 oz capers (thoroughly rinsed, especially if salt packed)
20 anchovy fillets in oil
salt to taste (remember the anchovies are salty)
extra virgin olive oil -  to taste 

25 minutes preparation + 10 minutes cooking
Step 1 - Make a mound of flour on the table and pour the yeast you have melted in a little water in the center. Start kneading, add the salt. Knead until you have a smooth dough that is elastic in texture. Set aside for a few minutes, then separate into small balls and allow to rise (also called leven). 

Step 2 - Once the dough has risen, roll out into regular-shaped disks.


Step 3 - Spoon the fresh (not cooked) tomato sauce onto the disks, raw and pureed, season with salt, pepper and basil.

Step 4 - Sprinkle diced mozzarella on the disks and drizzle some olive oil over them.

Step 5 - Place anchovies and capers evenly over the disks, in oven at 220°C (428°F).

Step 6 -  Remove from oven when outer surface of the dough is crisp and golden.

And one last thing:
The quantities to prepare the dough in this recipe could vary a little depending on the type of flour you  use. So have some extra flour and water handy to add to the dough if needed to achieve the right consistency, which is a smooth and elastic dough, easy to clean off your hands and the working surface.