31 May 2015

LIFE: The Pot Holder Guy

CHIAVARI, Italy - One subject that never fails to intrigue me is why some people find it easier to adjust to living in a new country than others. I have a couple of theories on the subject, starting with this: it’s easier to adjust if you are the person making the decision as to which country you are going to live in. From the ex-pats I have met in the 25 years I’ve been in Italy, this has been true just about 99 percent of the time.
That's Diane on the Left 
One exception was Diane, one of my Italy “daughters”. We both lived in Genoa Nervi in 1990, both of us new to Italy and trying to figure things out.  She was the first to adopt me as her “home away from home” mom, someone she could talk to and able to help out   when she needed a hand.

Diane, an all American girl, born and bred in Florida, has a big smile, a breezy personality and a backbone made of steel. She ended up in Genoa after her husband was appointed Director of the new aquarium that was being built as part of the Columbus celebration planned for 1992. As if facing a new culture wasn’t difficult enough, imagine trying to do it with three babies under three, a large house to manage and a husband who was working 16 hours a day. But she never gave up. 
Nope, No Dried Parsley Here Either  
While Diane never learned to speak Italian, it didn’t seem to hold her back. Were there things she didn’t understand? If you ask her she’d say tons of them, but she approached every situation with a positive attitude and a smile that even the grumpiest of the grumpy Genovese found hard to resist.

I thought about her the other day when I found a video on You Tube posted by an American in the Dominican Republic. He claims the reason ex-pats give up on living abroad is because of cultural fatigue. While he makes some valid points, for me, he seemed to be the one most suffering from cultural fatigue. His theory is that most of the time ex-pats are simply worn down by the never-ending challenges of everyday life in another culture. He uses potholders he bought at a local market as an example. 
Kids Are More Resilient  
He says when he bought the potholders, he had an expectation of what he could do with them – i.e. pick up hot pots, but the reality of the situation was that when he picked up a hot pot with the potholders, the fabric melted. He then thought that perhaps he had used the wrong side of the potholder to pick up the pot, and tried it again. This time the potholders didn’t melt, but they did stick to the pot.

Now you may not think this incident in itself is significant. The man bought potholders and they turned out not to be very good, which brings up the question why doesn't he just throw them away and move on? Except, as he rightly points out, things like this happen a hundred times a day. You approach a familiar situation, in this case buying a couple of pot holders, with the expectation that they are going to do what in your logical mind pot holders are designed to do, help you handle hot pots, and when they don’t, it is frustrating. 
The Pot Holder Guy  

Multiply those frustrating incidents over a period of time and you end up with cultural fatigue and an overwhelming desire to just get back to where ever your normal is.  Simply put, you just get tired of trying to figure out things that you know you know, but now, in your new environment what you thought you knew turns out not to be right, and so you have to figure out what all those things that you thought you knew actually mean in relationship to your current culture.  

A while back I read an interesting book entitled La Seduction – How the French Play the Game of Life, written by an American journalist, Elaine Sciolino.  Sciolino lives in Paris and was the Paris Bureau Chief for the New York Times, so she knows a thing or two about living abroad. What struck me the most about her book was how similar the French and Italians are, although neither would ever admit it. Behaviors that I had always thought of as ‘so Italian’ were popping up on every page. And, closer to the point, so was the rationale the French use to justify certain actions and behaviors that she, as an American, still can’t wrap her head around. 

She’s been in Europe longer than I have so I don’t think it’s a matter of time, I think it’s a matter of acceptance, and a matter of choice. You can laugh at the differences, like the time Gary, Chris and I got stuck in an elevator with a real estate agent and instead of calling for help, he called his wife to tell her he was going to be late for lunch.
The Game of Life  
I realized after reading Sciolino’s book that somewhere along the way I have given up getting upset over things I can’t change, especially Italian things. I wish some ex-pats I know would do the same, they wouldn't be quite so miserable. I may not understand the why behind certain actions or ways of thinking, but I think I have figured out that a whole country isn’t going to change just because I, or some other ex-pat, don’t understand something. 

The potholder guy would be well served to learn how to just accept the fact that there are going to be many things he isn’t going to understand as he travels around the world. It’s not always an easy thing to do, but in the long run it’s better for your health an well being. By the way his name is Andy Lee Graham and he posts rambling videos on YouTube on how to travel the world on $10 a day. His backstreet world may not be your world, but you can check out his posts at the HoboTraveler.com.

27 May 2015

AUNTIE PASTA: Black is Back

CHIAVARI, Italy - Spaghetti with squid ink sauce is a culinary extravaganza that you will find in the most humble of trattorias and the most chic – and expensive - restaurants from Venice to Palermo.  
 Fishing Boats, Cefalu (Palermo), Sicily
There is a drawback however. You have to have a lot of confidence to eat this dish in public. The intense squid ink turns your teeth a ghoulish black color that really puts a damper on table conversation. And if that is not embarrassing enough, the delicious flavor is so addictive it keeps you slurping away at the spaghetti until you have devoured every strand.

I’m not talking about the black colored spaghetti that you see in gourmet food shops. That’s sissy stuff. I’m talking about the real deal, spaghetti dressed with a sauce made from the ink extracted from squid caught in the Mediterranean Sea.  

If you order this dish in a restaurant, you can tell immediately which one it is. If it is the real deal the sauce will be jet black, if it’s the sissy stuff, it’s the spaghetti that will be black. 
The Real Deal, Spaghetti al Nero di Seppia 
Italian author Andrea Camilleri’s popular crime solver, Sicilian police Inspector Salvo Montalbano, will stop in his tracks for a good meal, especially if it is for the exquisite spaghetti in squid ink his boss’ wife prepares. In fact, he will do just about anything to appease the cranky Superintendent in order not to jeopardize an invitation to their table.

The dish affects a lot of people that way. My love affair with spaghetti al nero di sepia goes back a long way, at least more than twenty years. It was one of my first food discoveries when I moved to Italy and started to shop at the open-air fish markets in Santa Margherita Ligure and Rapallo. 

You will find packages of black squid ink, also called cuttlefish ink, in the refrigerated section of Italian specialty shops, or some big supermarkets. In Italy it is sold in packages of 4 individual packets of 4 grams each.  

Here are two recipes from the back of the package of squid ink that I bought: one for spaghetti and the other for risotto. Italian recipes tend to be quite general and assume you have a basic knowledge of how things culinary work, so I've added a little additional info in parentheses to clarify some points.
Scary Looking But Oh So Good 
(serves 4)

Finely chop an onion and two cloves of garlic and fry them in a little (extra-virgin) olive oil. (until they become soft and translucent). Add 300 grams of squid (about one cup and a half), either rings or cut into pieces. Cook the squid with the onion and garlic for a minute or two, then add a glass of white wine and 8 grams of squid ink (two packets) and continue to cook until the squid is tender (about 15 minutes). 

In the meantime, cook your spaghetti al dente. When it is cooked, drain it and add it to the sauce and squid. Let it all cook together for a couple of minutes. Serve hot.
 Risotto al Nero di Seppia
(Serves 4)

Finely chop an onion and two cloves of garlic and fry them in a little (extra-virgin) olive oil. (until they become soft and translucent). Add 300 grams of squid (about a cup and a half), either rings or cut into pieces. Cook the squid with the onion and garlic for a minute or two, then add a glass of white wine and two packets (8 grams) of squid ink.   

After about 5 minutes add 5 handfuls of rice (Aborio or Canaroli are both good for risotto), and cook on a low flame for about 15 minutes. Add fish broth (as needed) and a pinch of hot red pepper or black pepper. Serve very hot. 

You can also add fresh, rough chopped tomatoes to the onions and garlic, and at the end put in a handful of chopped parsley. Whatever way you chose what you will create is an deliciously intense culinary potion worthy of a medieval sorceress (or sorcerer).

23 May 2015

LIFE: American Military Cemeteries in Italy

CHIAVARI, Italy – This is Memorial Day weekend and just like the United States, America’s fallen heroes will be honored in Italy too. The only difference is that they will be honored by the very people they were liberating when they  lost their lives for the sake of their freedom. The ceremonies will take place at two of the American military cemeteries in Italy, one in Anzio and the other in Florence.
Sicily Rome American Cemetery and Memorial, Nettuno (Anzio), Italy  
The idea of American military cemeteries started after World War I. Given the number of soldiers killed on all sides, the U.S. did not know what do to. How could they bring so many bodies back to the United States? They also had to figure out a way to commemorate their sacrifice. So an idea was developed to establish cemeteries overseas, and let the soldiers become the monuments to their service.

Families of deceased World War I soldiers were given choices regarding the remains of their loved ones. They could choose to have them buried overseas in cemeteries with perpetual care, or returned to a national cemetery or family grave site in the United States. Their other option was  to have their loved ones remains shipped somewhere else in the world, in which case they would be responsible for the funeral costs. About 20% of families chose the first option, overseas cemeteries.
Memorial Day Services, Camp Darby, Livorno, Italy  
According to the American Battle Monuments Commission there are 24 cemeteries in foreign lands where nearly 125,000 service men and women are buried. The Florence American Cemetery and Memorial is one of them. It is in the outskirts of Florence, Italy, next to an ancient Roman highway, the Via Cassia.

This cemetery holds 4,402 of our military dead. Some are the men and women who died in Italy during the last days of World War II, a fight that ended on May 2, 1945 when the last of the enemy troops were surrounded and captured in northern Italy. But most of them died in the fighting that took place after the liberation of Rome in June 1944. These dead Americans represent 39 percent of the total U.S. Fifth Army’s burials.
  Florence American Cemetery and Memorial, Florence, Italy
Ex-servicemen and women are drawn to this cemetery to honor those who have served and died in a cause they believed in. The band of brothers is more than just a movie title, it is the bond soldiers feel toward each other that only they truly understand. And even though their “brothers” are in a cemetery, those bonds are still strong.

At the Florence American Cemetery there are over 1,400 names on marble slabs called “The Tablets of the Missing”.  The stone markers have no names on them and are marked only with the sorrowful phrase “Here Rests in Honored Glory a Comrade in Arms Known But to God.” These are the unknown soldiers who have been buried with their comrades. Their families only know that they died, but not where they are buried. 

The second American cemetery, which honors the heroes of World War II, is the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery and Memorial. It is located in Nettuno, Italy, near Anzio in the province of Lazio.
Florence American Cemetery and Memorial, Florence, Italy  
The Sicily-Rome American Cemetery and Memorial covers 77 acres. There are 7,861 American military war dead here, their graves form gentle arcs on the wide green lawns shaded by Roman pine trees. Most of these men died in the liberation of Sicily, which took place from July 10 to August 17, 1943, and in the landings at Salerno of September 9, 1943, and the heavy fighting during the landing at Anzio Beach, which started in January 22, 1944 and didn’t end until May of that same year.   

At the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery there is a wide central mall that leads to the Memorial Chapel. The names of 3,085 whose bodies were never found, are engraved on the white marble walls of the chapel. The names of those whose bodies have since been recovered and identified are marked with rosettes. In the map room there is a bronze relief map and four fresco maps that show the military operations in Sicily and Italy. At the end of each section of the memorial there are carefully tended ornamental Italian gardens.

The very people who were liberated by the men who are buried here, now care for the American cemeteries in Italy. The cemeteries hold the stories, great and small, of Americans who volunteered to march long miles with little sleep and in desperate conditions, and in the end lost their lives. The sacrifices they and their families made are not forgotten by the Italians, and never will be.

This article was first posted last Memorial Day. I felt it was worth repeating. I hope you agree. Happy Memorial Day.

21 May 2015

AUNTIE PASTA: Naples, the Mecca of Pizzalandia

CHIAVARI,  Italy – Ahhh, Naples, the Mecca of Pizzalandia.  It’s a place where they take their food very seriously. So seriously they even got the European Union to pass a law stipulating how a pizza must be made, and what it must be made of in order to be called a Neapolitan pizza.
Pizza Neapolitan Style 
The number one qualifier is the crust; it has to be soft and light. To get to that quality of texture the dough must be made the day before and allowed to rise for at least 10 - 15 hours. Then it’s up to the pizzaioli, or pizzaiuoli in Neapolitan dialect, to work his magic. It is a craft that must be learned. In most cases it takes at least two to three years of apprenticeship just to learn how to handle the dough. It’s not as easy as it looks.

Neapolitan pizza is not finger food. The centers are goopy, slightly undercooked, and you need a knife and fork to eat it. Pizza served in Italian pizzerias are about 8 or 9 inches across, individual size, and even if they don’t have a goopy center Neapolitan style, you still eat them with a knife and fork. The only pizza you pick up and eat is the pizza you buy on the street. And even then, it comes wrapped in paper so your hands never have to touch the slice.
The Queen of Pizza, Margherita 
Under the pizza law, unless a pizza is cooked in a wood-burning oven, it can’t be called a Neapolitan pizza. But then again, no self-respecting Neapolitan pizzeria would cook their pizza in anything but a wood-burning oven. Pizzas cooked in that blazing heat cook fast, 60-90 seconds, and taste better.  It’s a very old method of cooking food and the traditional wood-burning ovens you see today are based on designs handed down from the Romans.

It’s hard to believe now, but for a long time tomatoes were thought to be poisonous and were only used as ornamental plants. But somehow the pomo d’oro, which eventually morphed into pomodoro (tomato), found its way into pasta dishes and toppings for the flat breads that were already being sold in the streets of Naples.  
Pizza Delivery Neapolitan Style 
The pizzas were baked in ovens and then sold by “scugnizzi pizzaioli”, street urchins, usually poor kids who only went to school when they had to. They worked for the pizzerias, earning pennies hawking pizzas in the streets and piazzas of Naples.  The pizzas were kept warm in a tin stove, a “stufa” that they balanced on their heads.  

About that same time, the early 1800’s, the wives of local fishermen had started making pizzas to feed their husbands before they set out to sea. Along with tomato sauce the wives would add olive oil, oregano and salt. If they had a little meat, cheese or sardines they would add those as well, but the basic pizza was sauce, oil and oregano and it became known as pizza marinara. 
Pizzeria and Friggitoria Di Matteo  
In the Pizzaria Brandi there is letter dated June 1889 that has been framed and hung on a wall. It is from the head of the Royal Household of the House of Savoy thanking pizzaiolo Raffaele Esposito for the excellent pizza with tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil he prepared for Her Majesty, Queen Margherita. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Pizza Marinara and pizza Margherita are still made and sold in Neapolitan pizzarias  – and pizzarias around the world.  But it’s a little unfair to call them pizzarias in Naples for like Pizzaria Brandi, which has been around since the late 1700’s, they are Pizzarias with a capital P, the keepers of local traditions. The 114 year old Starita is another capital P Neapolitan pizzeria.  
  The Perfect Pie
In 1901 Alfonso Starita opened a cantina and began selling wine. It wasn’t until 1933 that Guiseppe Starita, one of Alfonso’s eleven children, started selling food along with the wine. About five years later, pizza was on the menu.  Locals have always known about the quality of the pizza at Starita, but it was Sophia Loren, who sold pizza here in the 1954 classic film L’Oro di Napoli or The Gold of Naples, who introduced it to the rest of the world.

Many of the pizzerias in Naples started out as friggitori, little fast food places with walk up windows where you buy stuffed rice balls (arancini) or fried sardines and other fried treats. There are still plenty of friggitori/pizzerias in Naples. One of the best is Il Pizzaiolo del Presidente – so named after President Bill Clinton ate there. DiMatteo is another. One of the specialities at DiMatteo is called a portafoglio – wallet. It’s an eight-inch pizza with a springy crust folded and re-folded over a tasty topping.
Pizzeria Starita - Worth the Wait  
You’ll also find portafogli on the menu at Pizzeria Port’Alba, the oldest pizzeria in Naples. It too started out as a friggitori back in 1738. About a hundred years later it became a pizzeria. If your family is from Naples, and you are in town, you might want to make a stop at the Pizzeria Port’Alba for chances are someone in your family ordered pizza from this place long before they immigrated to America, and it’s nice to carry on family traditions.

Via Tribunali, 120/121Tel. +39081210903
In the heart of Spaccanapoli, the historic center of Naples. Signore Ernesto Cacialli, a pizzaiolo since he was 7, invited former US president Bill Clinton – who was in Naples in 1994 for the G8 – to taste his pizza.  And that is how Signor Cacialli became known as the Pizzaiolo del Presidente, the President’s pizza maker.

Via Port’Alba, 18
Tel +39 081 442 1061)
This is the oldest pizzeria in Naples and Italy. Founded in 1738 as seller of street food, it became a real pizzeria in 1830, and is still run by the same family.

Via dei Tribunali, 94
 Tel +39 081 455 262)
Fifty years ago Raffaele Marigliano created an amazing pizza with alici (anchovies) and cicinielli, tiny fish just past the larval stage, also known as bianchetti. If you are not a fish eater try the pizza fritta, a deep fried pizza with ricotta cheese, provola cheese, tomato sauce and sugna (lard).  

Via Materdei 28
Tel +39 081 557 3682
It was in 1933 that Giuseppe Starita, one of Alfonso Starita’s 11 children, came up with the idea of adding food to the wine cellar his father had opened in 1901. Giuseppe and his wife Filomena started serving simple dishes like bean soup, fried anchovies, fried cod and tripe all served with homemade wine. It wasn’t until 1948 that it became a pizzeria friggitoria.

3. Brandi on Salita S.Anna di Palazzo, 1- 2 (corner of via Chiaia)
Tel +39 081 416 928
In 1889 Brandi’s pizzaiolo, Raffaelle Esposito, was asked to make three pizzas for King Umberto 1 and Queen Margherita. Margherita picked the simple tomato, mozzarella and basil pizza as her favorite.  I’ve often wondered what the other two pizzas tasted like.