30 April 2015

AUNTIE PASTA: Sicilian Granita

CHIAVARI, Italy - Compact and decidedly Sicilian Baroque, the town of Acireale  on the east coast of Sicily is 10 miles from Catania and 26 miles from Mt. Etna. The distance from Mt. Etna is important as that’s where Acesi used to go to collect snow when they wanted to make granita. 
Winter on Mt. Etna, Sicily
The Aces don’t climb Mt. Etna for snow any more, those days are long gone, but their passion for granita is as strong as ever. In fact there is a grand Granita Festival held here every year called "A ‘nivarata” (http://www.nivarata.it/en/blog/#).

The name “nivarata” comes from the word “nivaroli”, which is what the people who used to collect the snow from Mt. Etna were called. In order to keep the snow from melting, they stored it in special stone buildings that they built over natural caves called “case (houses) di neviere”.
Peach Granita 
While granita we eat today was created by Sicilians, the idea originated with the Arabs who ruled the island for almost four hundred years. During that time they introduced the locals to a refreshing iced drink which they flavored with fruit syrup or rose water. The Sicilians took the idea one step further. Instead of an iced drink, they collected snow/ice from Mt. Etna and during the hot summer months the ice was grated and covered with fruit syrup or rose water creating what we now know as granita.

This simple,but ingenious idea has evolved over the centuries, and now frozen snow, aka granita, comes in a infinite variety of flavors from lemon, almond, mandarin orange, jasmine, coffee, mint, pistachio, tangerine, and when in season wild strawberries and blackberries. 

Refreshing Sicilian Breakfast - Pistachio Granita and Brioche  
There are actually dozens more exotic flavors and flavor combinations such as "oro verde di Sicilia” with pistachio and tangerine, and 'za Tanina "with chopped almonds, “the Delights of Etna” with almonds, cream, vanilla, orange juice, fresh strawberries and pistachios and "Cremeuse of Sicily "with almonds, lemon, anise, mint, cinnamon water and mandarin orange, and Acireale is the best place to sample all of them.

Acireale’s most famous ice cream/granita maker was a man they called Don Angilinu 'u gilataru. He learned how to make ice cream and granita working in a local gelateria. After a few years he went into business for himself. He converted a three wheel bicycle to hold containers of ice cream and granita and peddled  from piazza to piazza and through the streets of Acireale selling his frozen confections.

 Don Angilinu 'u gilataru
”During the 1940’s when my father was selling granita from his bicycle, the favorite flavors were almond coffee and chocolate,” says Santo Trovato, the son of Don Angilinu ‘u gilataru. “He would start making ice cream and granita at 3 in the morning producing about 80 kilos (160 lbs) of granita each day. It wasn’t all for him, there were four others who also sold from bicycle carts and they each carried about twenty liters each.”   

The granita Don Angilinu ‘u gilataru produced was smooth and sweet. It had a different texture than the granita you’ll find on the other side of the island as the texture of granita changes slightly depending on where you are. In Palermo, and on that side of the island, granita is a little grainy, while in Acireale and the east side of Sicily it is smooth. The variation is the result of different freezing techniques. The smooth versions are produced in an ice cream maker while the grainier version are frozen in metal containers and stirred by hand every once in a while.   

Here’s an easy recipe for lemon granita you might like to try. If you like your dessert on the sweeter side, increase the amount of sugar shown in the recipe to 1/2 cup.

Lemon Granita  

2 to 3 large lemons (pesticide free)
1 cup filtered or bottled still water (not distilled)
1/3 cup superfine granulated sugar


With a vegetable peeler remove zest in long pieces from 2 lemons. Squeeze 1/2 cup juice from lemons.

In a small heavy saucepan heat water and sugar, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Stir in zest and transfer syrup to a bowl to cool. Chill syrup, covered, until cold. Discard zest and stir in lemon juice.

For smooth eastern-Sicilian granita:
Freeze lemon mixture in an ice-cream maker until spoonable but not crumbly. Serve immediately.

For more textured western-Sicilian granita:

Freeze lemon mixture in a metal bowl, stirring every 30 minutes to remove ice crystals from side of bowl, until liquid has become granular but is still slightly slushy, about 3 to 4 hours. Serve   immediately.

26 April 2015

LIFE: The Abbey of San Fruttuoso

CHIAVARI, Italy - There are places in Italy where time stands still.  One of those places is the Abbey of San Fruttuoso di Camogli, on the coast of Liguria. The Abbey sits on a breathtakingly beautiful bay between the towns of Camogli and Portofino. It has remained pristine for centuries, only accessible by boat or by a foot path through the mountains.  
The Abbey of San Fruttuoso
In addition to the Abbey and the church, the only other buildings in San Fruttuoso are three slightly ramshackle houses, a restaurant with a few rooms to rent, and a 16th-century watchtower. While it may not look like much now, the truth is San Fruttuoso has had more lives than a cat. In different centuries it has been a Benedictine monastery, a pirates’ den, a humble fishing village and for a long time, the private property of the Doria princes, a very wealthy family from Genoa.   

The problem with going back to the beginning when you are dealing with properties that are this old, is the story tends to get a little muddled.  This case is a good example. It seems the Abbey was built by Greek monks sometime in the year 900. It was named after Bishop Fruttuoso, a Spanish martyr who was burned alive in the year 259, during the eighth persecution of the Christians under the Roman Emperor Valerian. 
A Place Where Time Stands Still
The ashes of the Bishop and two other martyrs who were burned to death at the same time, were transported to Liguria by another Spanish Bishop, San Prospero. Prospero had gotten on a boat and fled Spain in 711 after the invasion of Islamic forces from Morocco.  Some stories claim an angel led him to San Fruttuoso, but however it happened, that’s where he ended up.  

One of the first things San Prospero did was build a church. If you go to San Fruttuoso and walk the hill behind the Abbey, you will reach an area known as “Old Church” where you will see the ruins of an ancient building. Are they the ruins of the church Prospero built a thousand years ago? No one really knows.  
Listen to the Quiet
What did become apparent during a recent restoration of the complex however, is that the part of the Abbey that dates from the 1200’s had been built on top of an older Romanesque structure. And given the practice of building and rebuilding on top of previous construction, it makes me wonder what they would have found if they had dug a little deeper. 

What was found however, were a number of important artifacts which document the history of the Abbey and the life of the monks who lived there. The artifacts are now on display in the small museum that was set up in the main body of the Abbey.  

 There is Beauty Everywhere You Look
If you go through the lower level of the cloister you can access the deep, barrel-vaulted space that the monks used as a burial chamber. It’s not spooky like the Catacombs, it’s actually a lovely, open space.  Members of the Doria family were also laid to rest there in tombs of alternating stripes of white marble from Carrara and black ardesia from Lavagna, a design combination reserved for the church and very rich Ligurians, and the Doria were the richest of the rich.

During the 1500’s, the Genovese - in particular the Doria family -  were heavy into shipping and trade. This meant there were large sailing ships with holds full of gold or spices and sometimes slaves docking daily at the port of Genova. For the Barbary pirates who cruised the Mediterranean looking for ships to attack, this floating parade of merchandise was like honey to a bear.

The Stones Stand in Silence
But the one thing that was not on those gold laden ships but of intrinsic importance to the pirates was fresh water, and the easiest supply of fresh water they could get to was in San Fruttuoso. But that was not okay with the Doria family, so in 1562 they built a watchtower, decorated it with their family coat-of-arms, brought in a few guys from  their private army in Genova and proceeded to defend the fresh water supply.  

Leaving the Doria and their problems behind and fast forwarding to today, you might be interested to know that the original statue of the Christ of the Abyss is in the waters just off the coast of San Fruttuoso. The bronze statue of Jesus with his arms raised upward is located about 50 feet (15 meters) under the sea and was placed there at the request of legendary Italian diver Duilio Marcante. He wanted it placed there in remembrance of his friend Dario Gonzatti, who died in that spot during a dive. 
The Christ of the Abyss, Camogli, italy
The statue has been recently restored to preserve it from corrosion and to reattach the hand that had been knocked off by an anchor. The Christ of the Abyss has become a tourist destination for scuba divers around the world.

The Abbey of San Fruttuoso is one of the treasures of Liguria, it’s a spiritual place, and a lovely way to experience the peace and tranquility of a place where time stands still. 

23 April 2015

AUNTIE PASTA: Come On a My House

CHIAVARI, Italy - From Rome to Paris people are going out to eat, not at restaurants but in the homes of people just like you and me. Men and women who rely on traditional family recipes are cooking up the specialities of their region and offering them to strangers. They are not just your hosts, they are your chief cooks and bottle washers too.  
Welcome to Our Home Restaurant 
In Italy, the women are called Cesarine or if it’s the man of house who wears the apron, they are Cesarini. But man or woman, this type of activity was tailor made for Italians because everyone knows we are compulsive feeders by nature.

Ninety-six year old Signora Leonida Tomasinelli is a good example. She just opened Genoa’s first “home” restaurant where she cooks what she knows best. Her Genovese specialties include artichoke pie, ravioli, braised rabbit with olives, and of course focaccia al formaggio and farinata. 

Signora Tomasinelli - Genova's Only "Cesarina"
“Home” restaurant groups are small, usually no more than ten people, and because everyone generally sits at the same table, it’s easy to get to know your fellow diners. It’s more like going to a dinner party than a restaurant. A definite plus. The idea started out as an underground movement, and you could only find out who was cooking and where they lived from another person. But now that the idea has spread and has become very popular, it’s easy to find  homes where they offer home cooked meals. 

Here in Italy an association called Home Food (http://www.homefood.it/en/) lists about 500 Cesarine. They are located all the way from the top of the boot in Piedmont to Sicily, so no matter where your travels take you, you are sure to find a Cesarina, and a delicious home cooked meal, nearby.
Company is Coming 
You can book your culinary adventure via the Home Food website, but first you have to register - which is free - and then you will receive confirmation of your membership. Choose your location, date and time (lunch or dinner) and then check to see whether a Cesarina is available. 

Payment is via PayPal. Home Food will send you a confirmation of your reservation and payment with the address and phone number of your Cesarina. The cost for an evening meal is about 40 euros per person, wine included. Not bad for a real Italian meal cooked by an Italian Mamma in her own home using local ingredients and family recipes. 
Is There a Spagetti alla Carbonara in Your Future?
You may find yourself dining in a spacious mansion or a cosy apartment, but big space or small there are four common sense regulations guests are asked to follow:
  1. Please arrive on time, it’s just good manners; 
  2. Don’t cancel at the last minute - remember you are going to someone’s home, so a housewife or househusband has done all the shopping and cooking just for you; 
  3. You will be served a fixed menu, please don’t ask for substitutes;  
  4. if you have a food allergy, please warn your host in advance.
And last of all, don’t worry if your Italian isn’t the greatest - most likely your hosts’ English won’t be all that great either. But trust me, you will muddle through just fine. Truthfully the only words you really need to understand are “mangia, mangia” (eat, eat),  “bevi, bevi” (drink, drink) and grazie (thank you), but I think you know those already.

19 April 2015

LIFE; Summer in Sicily

CHIAVARI, Italy - As I sit here by the window this morning watching the rain, my mind keeps pulling me to sunny Sicily.  This happens a lot this time of year. I used to think it was because I lived in Milan where early spring days can be cloudy or foggy and a bit on the chilly side. But I don’t live there anymore. There is something else going on here and I think I know what it is.

Taromina, Sicily  
“Go to Noto,” wrote the Sicilian writer Gesualdo Bufalino, “it is a place where if one happens to come in, he is trapped and happy and never goes away.” What he wrote is true, but not entirely. Bufalino only wrote about Noto casting a spell on the unsuspecting visitor, but the truth is it happens no matter where in Sicily you are. 

The danger is real. Sicily truly is a magical place and once you go there the spirit of the island creeps into your soul and stays with you forever. Those of you who have been to Sicily know that this is true, and for those of you who have yet to set foot on this magical island, well, don’t say you weren’t warned. 

If you are one of the lucky ones going to Sicily this summer, here’s a list of festivals you might not want to miss. 
Infiorata - Noto, Sicily  
World Festival on the Beach in Mondello. This event is usually held the second week of May (dates vary). Celebrated is everything from windsurfing to sailing, beach volleyball, music and golf.
Infiorata and Baroque Spring Festival in Noto – third weekend in May. Check the schedule for the Primavera Barocca to verify the date. The highlight of the Festival is the display of flower designs local artists create along Via Nicolaci. The Festival closes with a 18th century Baroque procession, with everyone in spectacular costumes.
Festa di San Giorgio in Ragusa on the last Sunday of May. Dates vary for this event. This is a great time to visit the illuminated Ragusa-Ibla.  There’s music and fireworks and a moving procession as the statue of St. George is carried around the city. 
Greek Tragedies in Syracuse. In May and June the Greek dramas are performed in their original site, Syracuse’s Greek amphitheater. You don’t have to understand Greek to enjoy it, as it is the atmosphere that makes this a unique event!

Carretti Siciliani  
Carretti Siciliani in Taromina on Fridays (also in September and October). You will  most likely see decorated Carretto Siciliano (native horse carts) as you travel around  Sicily, and this festival celebrates the brightly colored carts, the drivers and the horses. 
Taormina Film Fest. In the second week of June the Film Fest opens the summer season of the Greco-Roman amphitheater. It starts with the world premiere of a film and then you can enjoy some of the newest movies of the year which are presented in Taormina’s splendid ancient theatre with its spectacular views of the sea and Mount Etna. 
Taormina Arte – from June to September there are rock, pop and classical concerts, opera, dance and theatre performances daily as national and international stars perform in the splendid setting of Taromina’s famous Roman theatre.
Festa di San Paolo in Palazzolo Acreide takes place on June 29th. The festivities in honor of Saint Paul last for three days, there are masses, processions, concerts of light music and fireworks.

Festa di Santa Rosalia, Palermo, Sicily
Festa di Santa Rosalia in Palermo - 10-15 July. Santa Rosalia is the patron saint of Sicily’s  capital. The event includes processions, festivals, plays and fireworks
La Scala Illuminata in Caltagirone - 24-25 July and 14-15 August. This is one of the more famous festivals in Sicily.  The event celebrates St. James, the patron saint of the city and the famous ceramic stair of Caltagirone is lit with lanterns in his honor. 
Kals'Art Festival in Palermo – mid July to mid September. A two month long festival of young European artists: exhibitions, videos, paintings and installations. Performances in the streets, parks and piazzas of Palermo’s Kalsa quarter.
Sagra del Pesce in Giardini-Naxos - every weekend in July and August in the small port "Saja". Fishermen, music and folklore bring back the colorful atmosphere of the small fishing village of Giardini-Naxos. A great opportunity to eat excellent fish and drink local wine and enjoy an afternoon in the Sicily that was.

Palio dei i Normanni, Piazza Amerina, Sicily
Festa di San Sebastiano in Palazzolo Acreide.  Starting on August 10th there are three days of festivities in honor of Saint Sebastian.  Masses are said, there are colorful processions and concerts of lights, music and spectacular fireworks.
Madonna della Luce in Cefalu’- 13-14 August. Nighttime boat procession off the coast from Kalura to the old harbor.
I Giganti in Messina  – 13-15 August. The Passeggiata di Giganti is Messina's biggest  celebration of the year.  Mata and Grifone the Moor, the mythical founders of the city, are celebrated with a parade of floats and music.
Palio dei Normanni in Piazza Amerina (Enna) – 14-15 August. One of Sicily’s most spectacular events, and definitely worth seeing. The Palio includes Medieval and Renaissance equestrian games and shows, costumed processions and parades. The event, a competition of horsemanship and knightly combat, remembers the Norman invaders who ousted the Arabs from Sicily. Participants in full costume act out the entrance of the Norman Count Roger I to the city. There's also music, dancing and horse trials that make for a great day's entertainment. The Palio dei Normanni is one of Sicily’s oldest events.
Maritime Festival in Syracuse. This is a rowing regatta held off the shore of Ortigia, a small island connected to Syracuse. 

Couscous Fest, San Vito Lo Capo, Sicily  
Madonna della Luce in Mistretta -  7-8 September. This religious event includes a procession of two enormous warriors following the statue of the Madonna around town. There are floats, plays and costumed participants.
Couscous Fest in San Vito Lo Capo – end of September, date can vary. This is a gastronomic feast with plenty of opportunities to sample North African cuisine. One week music, dance and plenty of couscous, prepared by chefs from all over the world.
ViniMilo in Milo - first 2 weeks. Wine festival at the slopes of Mount Etna - guided wine tastings, workshops, themed dinners, visits to wineries. 

Be sure to confirm the dates before you go - things (like dates) can be flexible in Italy and Sicily.

16 April 2015

AUNTIE PASTA; Easy Sicilian Fish Dish

CHIAVARI, Italy – It’s been a busy week with little time to cook. After having used a PC for about 20 years, I have just changed over to a MAC which is good but it has meant spending a lot of time trying to figure things out. 

 Fish Market in Sicily
Fortunately I found some PC classes on the internet that answered most of my questions, like how do you copy and paste on a MAC. Elementary for sure, but when you don’t know, you don’t know. As it turns out it is pretty much the same process as on a PC, now if I could figure out where or what the delete command is - oh well, by the end of the week i should be a MAC Pro pro and be able to get back to my life.

With no time to shop, let along cook, I decided to raid the freezer and take out  a fish dish, an old Sicilian recipe that I had prepared a couple of weeks ago. Then I boiled some rice and abracadabra! lunch was ready.

Cherry Tomatoes
Freezing the fish didn’t alter its texture at all, which is what I was afraid of since the fish was frozen to start with. You can use any white fish for this recipe, which is super simple and practically fool proof. I use codfish because I like it, especially for this recipe which needs a fish you can taste through the tomato sauce. This recipe feeds two people, for four people, just double it.

One trick I learned from a cook down in Tuscany was to pre-cook onions in the microwave until they are soft.  You have to add a little water to them, unlike other vegetables i.e. broccoli or carrots, because onions don’t contain water and they will burn.  I don’t know if there is a real name for this recipe, but I call it Sicilian Fish in Tomato Sauce.

Tomato Sauce

Sicilian Fish in Tomato Sauce

2 frozen codfish filets
1 can of peeled cherry tomatoes (or any type of peeled canned tomatoes)
¼ cup (more or less) water
1 clove of garlic (peeled and crushed)
1 onion, roughly chopped and partially cooked in microwave
1 teaspoon of capers (in brine)
1 teaspoon of extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon of oregano or marjoram

In a frying pan, sauté the onions and garlic until the onions are completely cooked. If the garlic turns brown, discard it, and turn the heat under the frying pan down. Add the can of tomatoes, juice and all, and the water. You can also add a little dry white wine instead of the water if you want. The fish will not complain. 

Let the tomatoes cook for a few minutes, about 5 minutes, and then add the frozen fish. They do not have to be defrosted. Cover the frying pan and let it all cook until the fish is soft. Add the capers and the oregano and let cook for another 5 minutes or so until the fish is thoroughly cooked. 

At this point you can turn off the heat and let it sit until you are ready to eat. Actually the longer it sits the better it is, even overnight is not too long – in the refrigerator of course. Just let it cool to room temperature before you put it in the refrigerator.

Serve hot over rice or cous cous, spaghetti or curly pasta, I think even mashed potatoes would work. 

This is a recipe my mother used to make, but instead of adding capers she added raisins and it was just as delicious. If you don’t have capers and you do have raisins, you might want to try her version.

12 April 2015

LIFE: The Porticos of Chiavari

CHIAVARI, Italy – It’s not hard to imagine what life was like in Chiavari during the Middle Ages, any early morning stroll through the old portico covered streets of this small town on the Italian Riviera will take you back thousands of years, and do it faster than a time machine.
Chiavari, Italy
What I like the most about Chiavari are the porticoed streets of the historic center. They are called “carruggi” in Genovese dialect, and while many of them look like movie sets, they unify the center of town better than any other architectural detail ever could.

 The porticoes were the idea of the Genovese, who took control of the town in 1167. The Genovese were merchants and traders and realized that Chiavari, which was located at the crossroads of the Roman Via Aurelia and the roads for Emilia and Lombardy, was in a strategic commercial position.
Friends Meet and Greet Under the Porticoes
And precisely because of its position, the town was often under attack by other city states who also recognized the commercial possibilities, as well as by Barbary pirates who lurked in the watery coves waiting for an opportunity to haul away cargo and sell off the locals as slaves.

Within a year of taking control, the Genovese fortified the town by building a castle/fortress on the edge of town. Less than ten years later they drew up a plan for what was to be the new Chiavari, safe and secure, enclosed by a circle of walls complete with a moat and a drawbridge. To develop balance in the urban core of the town they created a commercial area of porticoed streets.
The Center is Closed to Traffic 
The most important porticoed street is via Martiri della Liberazione, known locally as the “carrugio lungo”, the long street. From its conception in the 1100’s, it was designed to be a commercial street occupied by artisans and merchants. On this street, more than in other parts of town, the columns and capitals that form the bases of the porticos are made from a variety of materials, including marble and granite.

Because of the differences in the materials, town historians think that the columns and capitals came from China, carried as ballast on Genovese cargo ships on their return trips. It’s entirely possible as the Chiavarsi, as well as the Genovese, had been actively doing business with, or living in China since the days of Marco Polo.
Not All the Porticoes Look the Same
There was a lot of money to be made in those early days, and if you were a merchant or trader in this town, chances are you were very rich. And if you also happened to have a Pope on one of the branches of your family tree, you were probably richer than most of your richer-than-all-get-out neighbors. In fact, you were probably richer than anyone in the entire territory.

That was the situation with the Ravaschieri family who were related to Pope Innocent IV.  Sometime after the year 1250, they built themselves a palazzo the likes of which Chiavari had never seen before.  The palazzo was – and is still – called the Palazzo dei Portici Neri, the Palazzo of the Black Porticoes and it is on Via Ravaschieri. Of course it is.
A Corner of the Palazzo dei Portici Neri
Not only are the porticoes on this Gothic building black – as they are made of slate -  but they are twice as wide and twice as tall as any porticoes in town. The building’s façade is made from alternating bands of marble and slate, giving it the characteristic black and white stripes that have set the palazzi of rich and royal Genovese apart from the run-of-the-mill palazzi owners for centuries.

But for all the grand buildings and soaring porticoes, I confess the parts of Chiavari I like the best are the back streets with the squatty old porticoes, the ones where the posts look a little bow-legged and a little tired. I like the posts that seem to have shaken off the layers of cement put on them over the years in an attempt to give the old bricks a make-over. I’m glad they resist.  They have been standing in place for almost a thousand years and no doubt they’ll be standing long after those who want to fancy them up are gone.

Not far from my apartment there is a building that dates back to 1493.  From what you can still see of it, it was a building of rare and haunting beauty. On its façade there is a slate carving of exquisite workmanship, and an inscription on a column that has been almost entirely worn away by time. There is also the bust of a man, clearly from the Renaissance, but nothing is known of him. Why he is there is a complete mystery, but he has left his mark.

Going Home
You can almost feel the spirits of the many Chiavarese who have passed this way as you walk along the oldest of the old streets, the ones with the short, squatty porticoes that pull you in and protect you. And I’m convinced that one of these days I’m going to turn a corner and actually run into Christopher Columbus. I"m convinced it will happen.