27 April 2014

LIFE: A City to Treasure - Genoa

GENOVA, Italy - In "The Innocents Abroad," Mark Twain describes the narrow streets of historic Genoa as "crooked as a corkscrew." "You go along these gloomy cracks, and look up and behold the sky like a mere ribbon of light, far above your head," he writes. Twain may have been looking up, but the first time I set foot in Genoa's old city, my eyes were riveted on the North African drug dealers and the "we've seen it all, honey" prostitutes that were leaning against dirty walls and grimy corners.

 Genoa City Gate
Genoa was my city of choice. I had chosen it from the maps and travel books piled high on my dining room table in Philadelphia as the place I wanted to live when I moved to Italy. It seem to offer everything on my wish list: a city on the sea, close to Tuscany and the South of France. But I had never been there. When I finally did get there, my first thought was that I had just made the biggest mistake of my life.

On that first day, when I set out to explore my new town, the streets of the historic center were deserted. In the distance a church bell rang. It was 1 o'clock. The cramped alleys were shrouded in shadows, the midday sun blocked by the tall stone buildings. With their morning grocery shopping done, neighborhood housewives were already home preparing lunch for their families. Retail shops and offices were closed, local merchants and clerks off somewhere eating. The only people left on the streets were the drug dealers, the prostitutes, and me.
 My New Neighborhood?
In spite of my first unsettling reaction, I ended up staying there for six years. Genoa, I would eventually discover, is a regal city filled with art and architectural treasures, as mysterious as a Byzantine bazaar.

The city sits like an open shell, facing the Mediterranean Sea. The vertical landscape runs from the harbor to the mountains above, and you can count the number of almost straight, flat streets on one hand. Genoa is old, at least 2,000 years old, and boasts the largest continuously occupied historic center in all of Europe. Strolling along the streets of the old city with me were crowds of sailors in strange foreign uniforms, the cacophony of languages yielding bits of rolled R's and guttural H's. The sights and sounds and smells that greeted us were the same ones that have greeted merchant galley crews and sailors since the days of Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus.

In those long-ago days, sailors coming into port after months at sea would hang over the rails for a glimpse of the Lanterna, the 16th-century landmark lighthouse, and rejoice. Condemned prisoners would shudder at the same site, for the lighthouse is next to the Molo Vecchio, the old dock, where they would be given the Church’s blessings and promptly hanged.

 Our Troops Won the War but These Streets are too Rough for them?
I was warned to avoid the dark, narrow alleys near the Molo Vecchio, and I did, mostly because they smelled bad. Then one day I came across a tattered old sign tacked up on one of the alley entrances that said "Off Limits," and discovered that the area was once also banned to American sailors. In the first years after World War II, Genoa was an open city. There was rampant prostitution, severe drug problems and an uncontrolled influx of illegal immigrants. In fact, the only organized thing about Genoa was the crime.

Wandering around now, I felt disoriented, then realized why. Some of the buildings I once used as landmarks have been torn down in an attempt to gentrify the harbor area. The port is no longer focused on commercial shipping but on the largest aquarium in Europe. Genoa has also become a port of call on the cruise ship routes. But don't let that put you off -- the city is still very much a real experience.
 Streets of Old Historic Genoa
Just a few steps up from the port is Palazzo San Giorgio, former home of Banco San Giorgio, the powerful bank that held sway over the finances of the Maritime Republic of Genova for more than three hundred years. It was here that Marco Polo, sweating out his prison time in the building's dark and dank dungeon, recorded the story of his travels in Asia. He had been captured and imprisoned by the Genovese during a sea battle against the Venetians in 1298. A couple of centuries later, Christopher Columbus came knocking at the door looking for money to finance his exploratory voyage to the Far East. But we all know how that story ends.

For centuries, the Genovese made their living on unpredictable and often dangerous seas. While they may have pretended to be tough-as-nails sailors, their fragility and faith is demonstrated by the delicate marble Madonnas set in the mini niches found on just about every corner in the city. And before heading out to sea, many sailors would stop at the Basilica of San Lorenzo, the town's main cathedral, and pray for a safe return.

 Cathedral of San Lorenzo, Genoa, Italy
The city’s Cathedral, a massive Lombard Romanesque-Gothic structure, is wedged into a tiny piazza and seems too big for the space it's in. Its alternating black and white bands of marble are typically Genovese and were allowed only on major churches and palazzi of the rich and powerful. The bones of St. John the Baptist, Genoa's patron saint, are said to be here, as was a very large bomb that was dropped on the church – but didn’t explode -during World War II. Unnerving. The bomb has been removed, but the memory lingers on.

Genoa was, and still is, an incredibly rich city. The city's merchant fleets once reigned supreme from Spain to the southern Russian ports on the Black Sea, and huge fortunes were amassed here. Families with names like Doria and Grimaldi built large, impressive palazzi next to each other on Via Garibaldi, a few short blocks north of the cathedral. The Genovese claim it is the most beautiful street in the world. And it just might be.

Palazzo Reale, Genoa
 Many palazzi in town are now museums, government offices or banks, although some, like the Palazzo Pallavicini, are still very much lived-in private residences and their owners make up the upper crust of Genovese society. When the Queen and Prince Philip are in town, they usually sleep over at the Pallavicinis.

I had been in Genoa only a few months when they started cleaning up for the big-bang Columbus 500th-anniversary celebration in 1992. It was the summer of 1990 and things were starting to move -- after all, Columbus was a homeboy. The Americans were in town working on the aquarium, and trucks were finally starting to haul away the 50-year-old pile of rubble that was once the city's opera house, hit by a bomb during the World War II. 

 Palazzo Cicala, Genoa
One by one buildings were wrapped in scaffolding and plastic, and the sound of old stone and glass rattling down chutes into huge bins became commonplace. The Genovese, known for their frugal habits, would just walk around the work sites and shake their heads at the money being wasted on such nonsense as cleaning old buildings. Even after that dirty ugly duckling of a Doge’s Palace was transformed into a gleaming pale yellow jewel by a magic wand full of detergent, skepticism remained.

In spite of the fact that Genoa was once named Europe’s City of Culture by the European Union it doesn't do much to promote itself. At the tourist bureau, questions regarding the Filippo Lippis, Van Dycks, Pisanellos, Caravaggios and Genoa's own Bernardo Strozzi on display at the city's most important art museums, draw blank stares. And even though hotels have sprung up around the port and the large warehouse once used to store cotton is now a convention center, Genoa can't seem to decide if it wants tourists, packaged or otherwise, to visit.  

It is a very private place, where things may not always be what they seem. Even the Christopher Columbus house near the 12th-century Porta Soprana is a fake, but it doesn't matter. No one goes to Genoa to see Columbus's house anyway. What is worth seeing here is an unedited version of Italy, a raw and in-your-face quality that so many Italian cities have lost in this day of global merchandising and fast-food outlets. Yes, there are Benetton stores and McDonald's, but they seem to fade into the background, paled by the Genovese doing what they do best: buying, selling and trading.

 Banco di San Giorgio
As for me, I really was an innocent abroad. When I set out, I had fixed my position from a map and unknowingly headed right into a storm. Nothing I had learned in a lifetime of living in America prepared me for life in Italy. Every day was a challenge. Slowly, but ever so slowly, I developed the skills that made navigating in this traditional society a little easier.

My Italian life took on a rhythm all its own. I learned to drink coffee standing up, a quick stop at the bar for a frothy cappuccino on my way to somewhere else. I learned to grocery-shop in grams and liters, measure in meters. I learned not to take the indifference of my neighbors personally. Their aloof behavior was in direct contrast to that of other Genovese I met who took me under their wings, introduced me to their doctors and dentists, electricians and plumbers, important contacts in a society where you don't trust anyone you don't know. They taught me to live in the moment. The future, they said, would arrive all too soon. And so it did. The day I moved to Milan to  write and edit an English-language magazine was bittersweet indeed. I was still exploring Genoa.
 Palazzo Doria, Genoa
For you see, Genoa, is not a city you can rent for an hour, or even a day like the ladies who hang around the port. It is not a city that opens itself willingly to those passing through in a hurry, heading for other faraway places. It is a city that first seduces you, puts you under its spell, and then only little by little allows you to see its magic. While it is a city of gray stone and dark medieval alleys, it is also a city of magnificent palaces and palm-treed boulevards that run along the Mediterranean Sea. It is a city of contrasts and contradictions, the gateway to the mimosa yellow, oleander red Riviera. A city to treasure.

22 April 2014

AUNTIE PASTA: Nonna's Little Lamb

CHIAVARI, Italy – This Italian life that I live began long before I moved to Italy. It started back in upstate New York when I was really young. We lived in an apartment next to my Italian grandparents, in a big building that had a large basement. My Grandfather used to make wine in one section of that basement and I remember going down there with him. Every now and again would check on the fermenting grape juice to make sure it was doing what  it was   supposed to be doing – turning into wine.
 Lamb grazing under a Roman Aquaduct
Every now and again there would be something else in the basement, a baby lamb. It would be tied up in the same area as the wine barrels and when I would go down to check on the wine with my Grandfather, I would play with the lamb while he did whatever you do when you are checking on fermenting grapes.

And then the lamb would be gone. I didn’t think too much about it, in fact it never occurred to me that the only thing that had happened between the last time I played with the lamb to the next time when the lamb was gone, was Easter.
 Butcher Shop at Eataly in Torino, Italy
So ever since I’ve been in Italy I’ve been looking for a leg of lamb that looks and tastes like the one my Grandmother used to put on the table on Easter Sundays. That leg of lamb was crispy brown and juicy and studded with slivers of garlic and rosemary that even thinking about it makes my mouth water. But I’ve never found it. The lamb they sell here in Italy is baby lamb, but so baby that there isn’t any meat on it. To me, the lamb they sell looks like a pile of bones. It is a pile of bones.

But once, a few years back, I saw what looked like a real leg of lamb (my idea of a real leg of lamb). It was at Carrefour, a French grocery chain that is very popular here in Italy. I snatched that leg of lamb up and practically ran home with it, put it in a roasting pan and cooked it. There was no waiting around for a special occasion to eat that baby,  it was enough of a special occasion to have found it.

It may have looked like the leg of lamb of my dreams, but it didn’t taste anything like it.  I knew I had cooked it alla Nonna because I’d cooked legs of lamb before, but there was something about this lamb that just didn’t taste right. The store only offered legs of lamb that size that one time. I’ve never seen them again.  So I’ve given up . However, on the outside chance that you can find some meaty lamb where you live, here’s an Italian recipe from Italy’s leading newspaper, Corriere della Sera, for lamb alla Romana.

After the recipe was published one viewer wrote, “Anchovy filets and vinegar in lamb alla Romana? Who invents these recipes?”
 Roast Lamb alla Nonna
It leads me to doubt the authenticity of the recipe but if you take out the anchovy filets, vinegar and the flour, it’s basically the same recipe my Grandmother and I use. The difference is I cut slits in the meat with a sharp knife, sliver the garlic and with a little rosemary push them into the slits. I rub the leg of lamb with some olive oil and it is ready to go into the oven.  If it isn’t browning enough, you can simply turn up the oven temperature for about ten minutes  toward the end of the cooking time. a Or you can be brave and give the Corriere della Sera recipe a try. I just hope my Grandmother isn’t reading this.

Abbacchio alla Romano
Serves 4
2 lbs of leg and shoulder of lamb (or a decent size leg of lamb)
3 cloves of garlic
3 anchovy filets (preserved in salt)
1 sprig of rosemary
3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
½ cup vinegar
Salt and pepper

Crush the peeled garlic along with the anchovy filets (that have been well rinsed). When the garlic and rosemary become a smooth paste, dilute it with the vinegar.

On the stove, add the oil to a frying pan and add the sprig of rosemary. When the oil begins to smoke, remove the rosemary and add the pieces of lamb that have been lightly floured.

Brown the meat well on both sides, then remove it from the frying pan and set aside. Season with salt and pepper.

Reduce the cooking juices by two thirds. Put the lamb back into the frying pan with the cooking juices and cook for another 10 minutes. Remove from heat and serve immediately.

Preparation time: 25 minutes
Cooking time: 30 minutes

20 April 2014

LIFE: A Vatican Easter

CHIAVARI, Italy - For the past few days the Italian television airwaves have been taken over by the religious Easter festivities in Rome. Here in Italy the celebrations officially start on Holy Thursday with the Mass of Chrism, (holy anointing oil).  This mass includes the reading of the Passion, which  chronicles Jesus’ capture, suffering and death. 
 Vatican, Rome
Later in the day, at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, Pope Francis will wash the feet of 12 men, following the tradition of Jesus and his Apostles. Both masses mark Christ's founding of the priesthood at the Last Supper on the night before he died.

On Good Friday, the day of Christ’s crucifixion in 33AD, the Pope says mass in the Basilica of St. John Lateran (Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano). St. John’s was built by the Roman Emperor Constantine in the 4th century. Constantine was the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity and St. John’s is the cathedral of the Bishop of Rome. It is known as Omnium urbis et orbis Ecclessarium Mater et Caput – the Cathedral of Rome and of the World.   
 Via Crucis, Rome
 On Friday evening the Pope leads a torch-lit procession from the Colosseum to Palatine Hill (Via Crucis Procession), and at pre-designated stops, they recite the prayers appropriate for each of the Stations of the Cross.

The Easter Vigil mass at the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Basilica will start at 9PM on Saturday night. No lights will be lit. The Basilica will be shrouded in darkness until Pope Benedict XVI enters. He will be carrying a long, white Paschal, a special Easter candle decorated with gold leaf. 
 Pope Francis, Holy Friday Mass
From the single flame of the Paschal, twelve candles are lit and from those twelve, hundreds of other smaller candles will be lit, one by one,  until the entire church is bathe in candlelight. As the candles are being lit, the Pope will proceed to the altar and begin Mass by saying: 

 Brothers, on this most holy of nights, in which Jesus Christ our Lord passed from the depths of death to life, the Church, in every part of the world, calls on its children to keep watch and pray.” 
 Pope Francis
He will be dressed in a gold robe, called a chasuble, with a white and gold stole around his neck. On his head will be a precious gold and white mitre encrusted with jewels. Versions of the chasuble and the mitre were part of the normal clothing worn by the Romans in the early days of Christianity, and were adopted by Christian clerics.  The Romans wore hats that were very similar in style to the mitre, and the chasuble is simply a variation of the robes worn throughout the Roman Empire. 

The colors of the Pope’s chasuble and mitre are important as colors represent qualities such as virtue and holiness.  The gold color of the Pope’s chasuble symbolizes what is precious and valuable. It also symbolizes majesty, joy and celebration, and because of its brightness, metallic gold, like that found on the Pope’s miter, symbolizes the presence of God. 

Under the chasuble he is wearing a white robe.  Visible is a part of the collar around his neck and the edges of the cuffs under his sleeves. The color white has long symbolized purity, holiness and virtue, as well as respect and reverence. It is used for all high Holy Days and festivals.
 Easter Mass, Vatican

Easter Sunday is joyful. The Vatican altar is filled with flowers in anticipation of the mass that will be said there to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus and his Ascension into Heaven. The Pope shares this special day with the thousands of faithful followers who gather in St. Peter’s Square to see him. He stands before the crowd and delivers his message of peace for the Urbi et Orbi (the city and the world).  After the Urbi et Orbi message, which is broadcast throughout the world, the Pope blesses the crowd.  

You can participate in all of the Easter events  and and information on how to do that is available on the Vatican web site (www.vatican.va). And it is all free. You do need to make reservations for everything however, including the Sabato Santo (Holy Saturday) mass at the Vatican. 

You can also make a reservation for a Papal audience on the same web site. Some tour operators have been known to charge large amounts of money for a Papal audience, but there is absolutely no charge . Actually you are better off if you organize your own visit.  You just have to do it well in advance as tickets are limited. 

 Invitation for a Papal Audience at the Vatican
To reserve a place at a Papal audience go to this page of the Vatican website http://www.vatican.va/various/prefettura/index en.html and click on the “continue” button at the bottom of the page. It will take you to an application form that you can download, fill out and return to the Vatican office. The form must be sent by fax or mail (no email) - the instructions are on the site - and when your application has been processed you will receive instructions regarding your audience and where to pick up your tickets. 

It's a good idea to stay until the end of the audience as that is when the Pope will bless everyone in the audience and those who can’t be there. And if you take your medals and rosary beads and other items to the audience, you can then give them as gifts knowing that they have received the Pope’s personal blessing.

Happy Easter.