30 June 2013

LIFE: Game Changer

CHIAVARI, Italy - A couple of years ago the UK’s Guardian newspaper published a series of articles written by writers about a defining moment in their lives. The series was called Once Upon a Life and out of the 80 or so writers the only names I recognized were George Pelecanos, the brilliant mind behind The Wire, and Peter Leonard, whose claim to fame is unfortunately based on the fact that he is the son of Elmore Leonard, one of the greatest writers of all time.

My Favorite Piazza, Rome, Italy
Some of the writers, in fact most of them, talked about experiences in their childhood – going to summer camp for the first time, going away to boarding school or other events that took them out of their ordinary day and put them in unfamiliar and often challenging circumstances. For Pelecanos it was his father’s heart attack that pushed him at the age of 18 into running the family business, a diner in Washington, D.C.,  and for Leonard, it was being arrested in Rome, Italy for stealing a taxi cab and ending up in an Italian jail.

It got me wondering if I had ever had such a defining moment in my life, and I decided no, I had not.  Nothing as dramatic as their events had ever happened to me, at least not an event that changed my life. I have had some life changing experiences, but totally normal ones which did not affect me anymore than they affect anyone else – getting married for example, having children, getting divorced.  But then I realized I was wrong and sometimes life-changing events take place in a very un-dramatic way.   

 Rome's Fiumicino Airport
You might think that moving to Italy would qualify as a life changing event, but I think it was something    that occurred long before that that was really the game changer. It happened on my first trip to Italy, and no it wasn’t the glories of Rome that seduced me, or the beauty of Florence or even the Italian Riviera. I hadn’t gotten to that part yet, I was still in the airport.

We had just gotten off the plane and were making our way across Rome’s Fiumicino Airport when a very strange feeling came over me. It was in that moment I knew that I would live in Italy. I didn’t know when, I didn’t know how, I just knew it would happen.  And all the time I was there I felt as if I had  come home after being away for a very long time.

Still Near and Dear to My Heart, Philadelphia, PA 
When I got back to Philadelphia, I started to study Italian.  There were some forms that took forever to master and even years later, the best fashion photographer I ever worked with, Davide Maestri, would always correct me when at the end of the day I would say ‘siamo finiti’, which in Milanese jargon translates to ‘we are dead’ instead of ‘abbiamo finito’, we have finished.   
Italian is a tough language to learn.  I was a single mother, I had plural children, I was also in a full time relationship and held down a full time job. Time to study? What a joke. I barely had time to buy groceries. But study I did. Every morning for one half hour I sat with my ‘Learn to Speak Italian’ book and struggled through those beastly conjugations as I sipped my first cup of coffee of the day.

Then I discovered RAI International had started broadcasting in the United States – RAI being the Italian state-owned radio and television company and I could now watch programs direct from Italy, in Italian right in Philadelphia. But because of the six hour time difference between the USA and Italy, the programs were broadcast when I was at work. So I taped them – using those big black reels of tape and my VCR. That meant that every minute I was in the apartment there was an Italian program playing on my TV. 

Le 'Veline" of Mediaset 
It drove everyone mad, but I persisted and listened to speeches by the then President of Italy, by the Prime Minister, watched scantily clad ‘veline’ (showgirls) prancing around on stage under one pretext or another and through it all I understood nothing. But I persisted.

Inside my apartment I lived in Italy, but outside my door it was still Philadelphia. I remember thinking how happy I would be when I would walk out the door and find Italy.  It took more than 10 years to get here, 10 years of times, many times, when I wondered if I would make it. But whatever it was that happened to me that day walking through Fiumicino Airport, was my life changer. I never really believed in destiny, I always believed we made our own destiny – until that day, until Italy.

26 June 2013

AUNTIE PASTA: The Color of Summer - Aubergine

CHIAVARI, ITALY - One of Italy’s most famous salads is Sicilian caponata, a sweet and sour mix of aubergines, aka eggplant, celery, tomatoes and onions. And like much of Sicily’s cuisine it was brought to the island by the Arabs, or in this case the main ingredient, eggplant, was brought to Sicily by the Arabs. The Arabs have contributed much to the enrichment of Sicilian food and the Sicilian language as well, and continue to do so.    
 Street Market in Palermo, Sicily
You see it not just in the ingredients such as lemons and oranges, rice and saffron and sweet and sour combinations like caponata, but in the way the Sicilians combine fruit, meat, nuts and vegetables.  Sugar and almonds, and the techniques to make sweets using those ingredients, like confetti, were also brought to the island by the Arabs, along with sorbetto.

From the very beginning eggplant had a difficult time being accepted in Europe. In fact in Italy it was called mela insana, or crazy apple, which later linguistically morphed into melanzane in Italian. People really thought they would become insane if they ate it, so they didn’t. Part of the problem was that eggplant is not a vegetable you can eat raw like carrots or celery, it doesn’t taste good and it really is slightly toxic, so it is easy to understand their reluctance to pick up a fork and dig in.

 An Eggplant Plant
One interesting bit of trivia I found was that during the Second World War, the leaves of the eggplant plant were dried in the sun and used as a substitute for tobacco, and cigarettes and cigars were actually manufactured using the eggplant leaves. 
A few years ago I made caponata for a party organized for and by a group of New Yorkers in Milan. At one point I remember asking one of the Italian guests, a Sicilian, what she thought of the caponata, not letting on that I had made it. She said, quite bluntly, that it was ‘schifo’ – in other words pretty bad. Needless to say I was crushed as most of the time my food is pretty good. I couldn’t figure out what I had done wrong.

It turns out I hadn’t really done anything wrong, it was a decent caponata, it just wasn’t the type of caponata she was used to. I had added peppers to the mix and classic Sicilian caponata doesn’t call for peppers.  Even the tomatoes are a relatively new addition, well, new in Italian time which could mean anything from yesterday to 500 years ago. It’s a good thing I didn’t make Sicilian "Baroque" caponata which calls for a sprinkle of powdered unsweetened Modica Chocolate before serving. I wonder what kind of reaction that would have gotten from her.
Caponata - The Real McCoy

Today’s recipe was taken from an old recipe book by Arabella Boxer titled Mediterranean Cookbook. I chose Ms. Boxer’s recipe because it has the same ingredients and amounts as Italian caponata recipes with the added benefit of European and American measurements.  However, because the Italians do things a little differently than Ms. Boxer, I’ve also included caponata making suggestions culled from several Italian cooking sites that you might find interesting.


1lb/450 g eggplant
1 medium onion
Approx ¼ pint or 150 ml extra virgin olive oil
2 stalks of celery (without leaves)
½ lb/225 g tomatoes
12 green olives (no pits)
1 tablespoon of capers (well rinsed of salt or brine)
Black pepper
1 tablespoon of sugar
2 tablespoons of white wine vinegar

Cut the unpeeled eggplants in cubes about ½ inch/1 cm square. Lay them in layers in a colander and sprinkle each layer with salt. Cover with a plate and place in a bowl large enough to collect the bitter juice from the eggplants, and weigh the plate down with something heavy, like a 2.5kilo/5lb bag of sugar or beans and let sit for at least 1 hour.

Chop the onion and cook it gently in 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a sauté’ pan. Dice the celery and add to the onions when it starts to color. Let them cook together for a few minutes. Then skin and rough chop the tomatoes and add them to the celery and onion mix. Cook gently until it thickens, then add the olives, capers, sugar and vinegar. Do not add salt.

In another frying pan, heat the remaining oil. Rinse and dry the eggplant cubes and sauté them. When they are brown and soft, lift them out with a slotted spoon and mix them in with the other vegetables. Pour the caponata into a shallow dish and allow to cool to room temperature. Do not chill. Serves 4 or 5 as a side dish.

Keep caponata in a covered dish in the refrigerator, and bring to room temperature before serving.

Here are some of the suggestions given by the Italians. You’ll notice they also add pine nuts which gives the dish a nice texture.

1.  Boil celery chunks for a couple of minutes, drain them, dry them with paper towel, and cook them in a little olive oil. When they are cooked put them in a colander over a bowl to allow the excess oil to drain off.
2.  Fry onion in olive oil then add capers, pine nuts and olives.
3.  Add fresh tomatoes, cut into pieces more or less the same size as the celery
4.  Cook over medium high heat for at least 20 minutes.
5.  Rinse the eggplant cubes after they have drained for an hour, and dry thoroughly with paper towels. Fry them in olive oil in a separate pan. When the eggplant cubes are cooked, and browned, add them to the onions.
6.  Add the cooked celery chunks
7.  Then add the sugar, which has been dissolved in ½ glass of vinegar, and cook it with the vegetables, stirring often, until the vinegar smell is less strong. Let sit for at least one hour. Serve at room temperature.

24 June 2013

LIFE: Interupted Again

CHIAVARI, Italy – If you are wondering what happened to Auntie Pasta this week, I can tell you it is the same thing that happened the last time I wasn’t able to post – no internet service.  But this time things are different, or rather they will be different soon, like this week.
Sorry Vodafone, You are in the Doghouse 
I have given up on my current telephone company (Vodafone) and found another, one that hopefully is more reliable (Telecom).  It had gotten to the point of ridiculousness, with a blackout of service just about every two weeks.

Sometimes I wouldn’t have service for an hour or so, or sometimes a little longer, other times it went on for days as you who read this blog with any regularity can attest to. Sometimes it was both phone and ADSL line, sometimes just the ADSL line. This time is was both for a few hours  then phone service was somehow restored but not the ADSL line. This morning, just as I was heading for the Wi-Fi Café to post this blog, I discovered that the ADSL line has been re-activated.

When and how that bit of magic happened is a mystery to me. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I called Vodafone to ask where to send the cancel my contract letter and the temperamental modem that has been on strike for the past week. You just never know the impact your words will have on those who are listening to them.

But like the wayward husband who has strayed one too many times, there is no going back Vodafone.  Our relationship is over.   Kaput. Finito. And no cute little doggy ads are going to make it better.

I have been a Vodafone client for a long time, I always found their customer service people to be extremely nice as well as helpful. They were nice this time too but what brought me to my knees is that when the nice customer service person couldn’t help me I was passed to a technician, a ‘first level’ technician. When he couldn’t help me, he passed me on to a ‘second level’ technician, which in Italian thinking is a more accomplished technician than a ‘level one’.

When every suggestion the ‘second level’ technician offered resulted in the same sorry result, he suggested I call a computer technician that I trusted to see if he (of course it would be a he) could resolve the problem. In other words, he threw in the towel.  Now I have to say they were all very nice, extremely nice, but they simply lack the resources to resolve the problem. So I took his advice and made a phone call.

Actually I made two of them. The first was a phone call to find out where I have to send a “notice of cancellation of contract” letter  because enough is enough, and the second call was to another telephone company requesting service.

And that is my sorry tale.  The Telecom technician is scheduled to be here Thursday morning to cut the cord with Vodafone and reconnect me with what I hope will be more reliable service and at a better price too.

16 June 2013

LIFE: Holy Smocks

CHIAVARI,  Italy –   Women’s Wear Daily, better known as WWD, is an fashion industry newspaper published in New York City by Conde Nast, the same company that publishes W Magazine, Vogue, Glamour, Allure, GQ and many others.

Fashion World's Bible 
WWD is part of a line of publications of specialized journals for the fashion industry. WWD is, in fact, the fashion world’s bible. It tracks industry trends, reports on industry mergers, who’s getting rich, who’s going bankrupt, in short, anyone and anything that had even the slightest wiff of fashion or design about it.   

When I worked as a journalist for WWD in their Milan office, I covered fashion events, industry fairs, interviewed designers and many, many public relations directors.  Fashion is big business in Milan, and one of Italy’s largest exports.

What's What in Fashion 

Apart from the twice a year Fashion Weeks with their headline grabbing fashion shows, there were trade fairs for make-up, shoes and leather goods, kids clothes, women’s ready-to-wear, emerging designers, fabrics, mens fabrics, gold and jewelry, housewares, bathing suits, underwear, and everything in between. The only fashion event we didn’t cover was religious fashion. 

Clergy Fashion Week isn’t held in Milan, Paris or New York. It’s held in Vicenza, a small town in northern Italy on the road between Verona and Venice.  The week long fashion fair is held every two years and is part of a larger exhibition of furniture and liturgical objects such as chalices and communion cups, as well as clothing.

Vincenza' Main Square 
It’s all pretty calm compared to the spectacles the fashion houses of Milan offer during Milan’s Fashion Week. No blaring disco music, no tall, leggy models swishing down the runway, no cocktails and industry chit chat at the bar, but that doesn’t mean the Italian designers like Laura Biagiotti, Fendi and Nanni Strada aren’t represented. They, along with other top designers,  invest time and creativity to dress the clergy.

It takes a considerable amount of that old Benedictine precept ,  ‘ora et labora’ -  time and labor,  to create fabrics and designs the Vatican will find acceptable, and do it all within a limited color palette.  There’s not a lot of creative wiggle room designing chasubles or the dalmatics needed for more solemn occassions. 

Elisabetta Bianchetti, Queen of Clerical Fashion 
Just like the big fashion houses of the non-ecclesiatical fashion world, clerical fashion starts in Milan, and the name at the top of the list is Manifatture Bianchetti. Manifatture Bianchetti is a family run business that has been designing and manufacturing priestly fashions since 1916. There are Bianchetti stores in all the major Italian cities including Rome, Milan, Florence, Torino, and an extensive distribution network which supplies parishes around the world, from the smallest in the Philippines to the Vatican.

The stylist-designer and sole director of the company is Elisabetta Bianchetti. She produces high fashion exclusively for the clergy, and has very clear ideas about her products. She never stops looking for new ideas, new approaches that can be applied to line of religious clothing and accessories. After seeing the abstract art of Italian artist and sculptor Lucio Fontana, she decided to try working with antique fabrics, and out of the initiative came a miter for Pope John Paul II.  Inspiration comes in all forms.

Variations on a Theme  

But don’t compare her to Armani or Gucci. She’ll tell you her company is even more exclusive than those two design houses. Bianchetti’s products are unique. There is an incredible amount of research that goes into the delicate embroidery work found on every garment, so much so that the famous fashion houses often ask her to produce prototypes and decorated fabric designs.

“Designing for the clergy has its own challenges and limitations,” she explained in a recent interview for La Repubblica. "In addition to the elaborate vestments needed for special occasions, priests and nuns also need practical, comfortable clothing. They need to be immediately recognizable as clerics, but they also need a place to put their cell phones and car keys. The cassock worn today is based on the same design as the tunic worn in ancient Rome under a toga, but time has moved on and while the design hasn’t changed, needs have.”  

Pope Benedict Had a Passion for Prada
And times have changed as well. It may seem odd for us to think of priests buying clothes on the internet but internet sales have become an integral part of Bianchetti’s operation. It allows parish priests an opportunity to see the latest in clerical fashion and purchase what they need with the click of a mouse. Of course if the client is a bishop or the Pope, Elizabetta and her team are always happy to make a trip to Rome.