31 July 2014

AUNTIE PASTA: The Truth About August

CHIAVARI, Italy – After starting my Italian life on the sunny Riviera where things are popping in the summertime, you can imagine my surprise to find that in other parts of Italy, life in the summer is quite different. For example: when I moved to Milan I found myself living in a concrete jungle that was bustling and busy in July, but in August it was as empty as a dried out bee hive.  
The Galleria, Milan, Italy
I woke up one morning and Milan had been evacuated. Every business around my apartment had closed and “Chiuso per Ferie” (Closed for Vacation) signs had suddenly sprouted up everywhere. After a few days, I started to worry. The cupboard was getting dangerously bare and there was not a sighting of anyone selling food anywhere.

What to do? I took to the quiet, traffic free streets and began wandering up one and down another, dragging my empty grocery cart foraging for food like a Neanderthal housewife. There wasn’t even a bar open in my neighborhood where I could get a sandwich. I was starting to question the wisdom of moving to Milan. The plummy job offer I had received wasn’t going to do me much good if I starved to death over the summer, now was it.
 Chiuso per Ferie - Closed for Vacation
I was down to my last can of tuna when I discovered that as a public service, the Corriere della Sera, the local newspaper, published lists of the grocery stores in Milan that were open in August. There were only a handful of them, mostly in remote neighborhoods I had never heard of. And I’m not talking mega-super marts, I talking mom and pop shops that were so small they only had room for 5 cartons of milk and half a dozen loaves of bread. In other words, get there early.

To be honest, that was at the end of the 90’s, and things did improve with time. But not much. So, in the name of the Freedom of Information Act – which doesn’t actually apply here in Italy, here’s a list of bars in Milan that make it a point to be open in August travelers who think mid-August is a good time to visit the city. Like the Corriere della Sera’s list of grocery stores that were open in August, it’s a short list and    not in any particular order.  I’m just thrilled to have a list. For certain there are other places that are open, you’ll just have to pretend you are on a city safari and seek them out.

Pattini Buenos Aires
Pattini Buenos Aires
Corso Buenos Aires 55, Milano
Tel. 02.29516010

They would like you to think all the shops along busy Corso Buenos Aires are "open all year", but they are not. However, Pattini is. This bakery/bar offers bread, foccacia, cakes of all types – which you can also buy by the slice, and of course that cornerstone of Italian breakfast, that bit of uber-deliciousness the French call croissants, our one and only Italian brioche/cornetti. You know the ones I mean. Those horn shaped pastries that come with a shot og custard or marmalade indifr. Or sometimes, if they are whole wheat brioche, they are filled with honey. Or just plain. Who can resist?  

 Princi Cafe
Princi Cafe
Piazza XXV Aprile 5, Milano
Tel. 02.29060832

In Piazza XXV Aprile, Princi is always open. The baker is always baking, the bar man is always doing what bar men do. On offer, along with bread, foccacia and fancy cakes you can have a coffee or a nice cup of tea or even snack or an aperitif. The cocktails are summery and pretty with lots of fresh fruit. You can sit out on the terrace and enjoy the quiet of summer in the city in August. As they say in Italian, “si sta bene”.  

Bistro Elettrauto Cadore
Elettrauto Cadore
Via Giacomo Pinaroli, 3, 20135 Milano
Tel. 02.55191781
Elletrauto Cadore, as the name implies, was once a garage. Now it is a cool place where you can have a cocktail, light lunch or a cup of coffee. The happy hour buffet, along with the usual pieces of foccacia, salami and cheese, offers something new  – something new for Milan at any rate -  chicken wings.  When the weather is nice, you can sit outside under the umbrellas. If you have a good imagination, you can pretend you are on vacation.

QC Terme Milano
QC Terme Milano
Piazzale Medaglie d’Oro 2, angolo Via Filippetti, Milano
Tel. 02.55199367

Aperiterme is QC Terme’s name for their happy hour. It’s held in the garden and afterwards you can sit in the sun and work on your tan in the large outdoor area, or have a facial, the new one that gives light and energy to tired skin (their words, not mine). Or, it might be the neck massage that gives the light and energy, and with all that new energy you can take a dip in the pool which is open until 12:30 AM or, head for the sauna. At any rate you’ll surely be transported to faraway places by the scent of garden flowers and lavender, and who knows, you just might forget that you are even still in Milan.

27 July 2014

LIFE: Precious Moments

CHIAVARI, Italy – In the first six months of this year more than 65,000 immigrants found their way to Italy. They come in by the boatloads overwhelming the residents of Lampadusa and other town in the south. It’s a national problem but except for the few Africans I occasionally see here in Chiavari, I have no contact with them. It was much the same when I lived in the Milan suburb of Saronno, until the day that I met Precious.
The Quiet Streets of Saronno
I first saw Precious when I was on my way home from a doctor’s appointment. I didn’t know we were both going to the same town until she sat down next to me at the train station and we started making small talk the way people do who happen to sit next to each other in public places.

She told me her name was Precious and she was from Nigeria. She seemed surprised that I was American and said I was the first American she had ever met. About four sentences later she suddenly turned serious and said to me, “do you believe in Jesus.” As she said those words, she pulled a small bible out of her handbag and held it in her hand.
 Where Are They Now?
She caught me by surprise and I didn’t know what to say. I knew if I said yes, she would roll into a discussion about the wonderfulness of Jesus and religion and how we have to venerate Him. Or she would start reading to me from the bible or wanting me to pray with her. On the other hand, if I said no, she might let the conversation take a lighter note, like most casual conversations do and we could talk about what films in English were playing at the Arcobaleno Theatre in Milan that week.

I realize now, of course, that it would not have mattered which approach I took, she wasn’t going to let me get away that easily. But at the time, I was convinced a strong stand would put an end to her interrogation. So I took a deep breath and said, “No, I don’t.”
Entering the Land of Milk and Honey
She was visibly horrified by my answer. Then she took a deep breath and asked, “How old are you?” 

I told her. Obviously I was, in her opinion, close enough to my expiration date that she felt compelled to save me and so the onslaught began. With bible in hand and a most serious and concerned face, she recounted the horrors that were in store for me. Did I really want to spend eternity burning in the pits of hell? And didn’t I see all the glories of the afterlife that awaited me in the house of the Lord, if only I would believe in Him.
Some Die Trying
The train station we were sitting in didn’t seem to be the place to discuss such a heavy subject as the pros and cons of my impending encounter with the afterlife, so I did my best to change the subject. I tried again to move her off the Jesus track and onto a lighter, more suitable discussion for a brief encounter – the weather for example. And then our train came.

When we got on the train I sat down next to a young Italian woman and Precious sat across from me. She was fully concentrated on her mission and continued her recounting of the horrors that awaited me if I continued down the path that would surely lead to my destruction. She was making me feel very uncomfortable, and as I wracked my brain trying to think of some kind way to distract her, the young Italian woman, hearing Precious and I speak English, joined the conversation. Precious immediately turned her focus to her.

“Do you believe in Jesus,” she asked the Italian woman.

I’m coming from Marrakesh, the woman replied, “where I met the most beautiful Frenchman. He’s a singer. He’s making concerts traveling around in North Africa. Do you think there is such a thing as love at first sight?”

Facing An Uncertain Future
Eureka! I had found a way around the problem. All I had to do was start another conversation with the Italian woman about the possibility of real love at first sight. So I did. I was hoping Precious would join in and we could all have a nice conversation, but she didn’t. She just sat there, clutched her bible and listened as the woman talked about her adventure with the handsome French singer.

While the Italian woman’s talked about her good fortune at meeting the Frenchman and misfortune that it happened her last night in Marrakesh, I was sorry that I couldn’t engage Precious on another subject. I would have liked to have known more about her as a person, her life, why she was in Italy, how she was getting along. I could tell by the seriousness in which she talked about her relationship with God, and her obvious concern for me, that she was a kind and caring person, a daughter any mother would be proud to have.
I also understood how difficult it is for Africans immigrants to have any kind of contact, other than the most superficial with Italians. It was difficult for me when I first came to Italy and I have the advantage in that most Italians seem to love Americans even though in reality few have ever actually met any.

But while I felt bad for Precious, the thought of future conversations that most certainly would center on my impending demise and the penalties I would suffer for my apparent lack of belief, hardened my heart.
What Does the Future Hold?
And then we got off the train.

We stood for a moment at the bottom of the stairs in the station’s sottopassaggio. As I was turning right to go home and she was turning left to go to a religious service, she said to me, “will you come to my wedding mama?”

For years I had bristled at the African vendors calling me “mama”. “I’m not your mama,” I would often reply to their attempts to get me to buy whatever they were selling. But in that moment, standing there with Precious, I realized that for Africans the title “mama” is the equivalent of “signora” in Italian. It’s a sign of respect. I also realized how much I don’t know about the Africans I pass every day on my daily to and fro of shopping and errands.
It’s not that I don’t know about immigrants. I grew up in a family of immigrants and know their stories by heart. I’ve even lived my own immigrant experience with my decision to move to Italy. But my experiences were a very different from theirs. I had many advantages my family did not have starting with language skills and life skills that helped smooth my path, advantages immigrants like Precious can only dream about.

As for my grandparents’ experiences, there is a big difference between immigrating to a multi-cultural country like the United States that was built on the backs of people like my grandparents, and a mono-culture like Italy. There are no Italian J.P. Morgans, Andrew Carnegies or Cornelius Vanderbilts building railroads or steel plants or digging for oil and providing work for newly arrived immigrants in the process. There are mostly small family run businesses doing their best to survive the global crisis and any additional competition from quarter, especially non-Italians is suspect.
 Dangerous or Desperate?
As boatloads of refugees/immigrants continue to land on the islands around Sicily the role of Italy’s immigrants still needs to be defined. Those coming ashore see Italy as the land of milk and honey, the Italians rich and prosperous. And compared to the life they left behind, it is true. But the Italians see themselves as barely hanging on, struggling through each day. The truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle.  

I never saw her again, but I’ve thought about her many times since that first encounter. I do wonder what happened to her and if she’s happy in her new life. I hope that she is. For me it was a missed opportunity to better understand others who are as much a part of this Italian life as I am. But life is like that sometimes, isn’t it. 

Photos: Ansa, La Repubblica

24 July 2014

AUNTIE PASTA: Lemony Lemons

CHIAVARI, Italy - Along with sun filled days, the ever blue Mediterranean Sea cools the soft breezes that float through my apartment. Life is easy, it’s summer in Italy.
 Sfusati Amalfitano
On my kitchen table there’s a big basket stacked with lemons that I bought at the market this week. Some of the lemons are picture perfect, smooth, bright yellow ovals from Sicily. The others are twice as big, knobby and have thick mottled yellow skins. The knobby ones are called sfusati Amalfitano as they come from the Amalfi Coast.

The perfect, smooth lemons from Sicily were brought to the island by the Arabs sometime around the year 948, when Hassan al-Kalbi was the Emir of Sicily. The sfusati Amalfitano, on the other hand, have a different story, a story that starts in the 11th and 12th centuries when the Maritime Republic of Amalfi was a Mediterranean naval power to be reckoned with. 

Roadside Stand
Of Italy’s four major Maritime Republics, Amalfi, Genoa, Pisa and Venice, tiny Amalfi was the most powerful. It was an economic powerhouse, trading  textiles, spices, precious stones and fruit with countries of Africa and the Middle East. One of the fruits they imported from India were small, round and yellow and called lemoncello de India.

Local Almafitani farmers began to cross pollinate the lemoncello de India with cetrangoli, the bitter oranges that grew along the Amalfitano coast. Over time, centuries actually, this cross pollination resulted in the knobby yellow sfusati of Amalfi sitting in the basket on my kitchen table right now. 

 Lemons, Citron and Limoncello
The sfusati grow on the steep terraced hills along the Tyrrhenaian Sea from Positano to Vietri sul Mare, a territory of no more than 700 acres. With their exceptional aroma and flavor, they are widely used in the local cuisine. The house specialties at Ristorante Donna Rosa in Positano include an antipasto of raw artichokes with lemon, caramelle of fresh pasta filled with lobster and lemon, and ravioli with lemon and ricotta.

And it’s not just the lemon juice and pulp that is used. At Albergo Ristorante Bacco in Furore, they still follow the ancient tradition of cooking food in lemon leaves. Some of the dishes they offer are grilled smoked provola wrapped in lemon leaves, rabbit roasted in lemon leaves and home-made tagliolini in lemon sauce.
 Limoncello Starts Like This
But other than being a principle ingredient in the kitchen, sfusato Amalfitano are also the basic ingredient of that delicious, sweet liqueur, limoncello that is enjoyed after dinner during the warm summer months.

In surfing the web this week I found a video of Miami chef John DiRicco making limoncello in his kitchen. I liked his straight forward approach and thought you might like it too. My only point of contention with Chef DiRicco is that here in Italy small glasses of limoncello are sipped and savored after dinner, not thrown back as he does on the video but, to each his own. 

 Homemade Limoncello

And this easy to follow Limoncello recipe:


Total time: 30 minutes, plus at least 3 weeks infusing time
Servings: about 74 (makes 9 1/4 cups limoncello)
12 lemons
2 (750-ml) bottles 100-proof vodka, divided
2 cups water
2 cups sugar

1. Remove the yellow part of the lemon peel with a sharp peeler or fine grater, carefully avoiding the bitter white pith. If any pith remains on the back of a strip of peel, scrape it off.

2. Put the yellow peels in a jar or bottle, add 1 bottle vodka and seal tightly. Leave the bottle to steep in a dark and dry place until the peels lose their color, at least 2 weeks.

3. Put the water and sugar in a saucepan and boil until it turns clear. Let the syrup cool.

4. Strain the vodka from the peels and mix it with the remaining bottle of vodka and the syrup. Put the liqueur in bottles, seal tightly and let the components marry for at least 1 week before using. For drinking straight, store the limoncello in the freezer. Don’t fill the bottles to the top though, the limoncello needs room to expand when it’s cold.

And here’s a recipe for Lemon Risotto with Sautéed Shrimp I found at:  http://www.cooksrecipes.com/seafood/lemon_risotto_with_sauteed_shrimp_recipe.html 

The link doesn't work but you can copy and paste to go to the page.

Lemon Risotto with Sauteed Shrimp

1/4 cup, divided use2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup finely chopped onion
1 tablespoon freshly grated lemon peel
1 1/2 cups uncooked Arborio rice or other short-grain white rice
4 cups warm water
2 tablespoons dry white wine
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3 teaspoons vegetable base or instant bouillon granules
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese
8 ounces medium raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 teaspoon finely chopped garlic
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 teaspoon grated lemon peel

1. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in medium saucepan. Add oil, onion and lemon peel; cook for 2 to 3 minutes or until tender. Stir in rice; cook for 1 minute. Stir in water, wine, lemon juice, bouillon and pepper. Cover; cook gently over medium-low heat for 30 to 35 minutes. Stir in cheese; stirring occasionally.

2. Melt remaining butter in medium skillet. Cook shrimp over medium-high heat for 3 to 4 minutes or until pink. Serve shrimp over risotto; sprinkle with Gremolata.

3. For Gremolata: Combine 1 teaspoon finely chopped garlic, 1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh parsley and 1 teaspoon grated lemon peel in small bowl. Mix and serve.

Makes 4 servings.