28 June 2015

LIFE; Up on Montallegro Redux

CHIAVARI, Italy – After my brother’s first visit to the Italian Riviera, I was curious to know what he had enjoyed most.  I was a little surprised when instead of naming one of our famous seaside towns like Santa Margherita or even historic Genoa, he said Montallegro.
 Church of Montallegro
It must have been the part when we were having lunch under the leafy trees looking out over the harbor and town of Rapallo far, far below us that he liked. It surely couldn’t have been the harrowing ride up the side of the mountain in the cable car because I saw him gripping the handrail as we sailed high above the trees.  Nor could it have been the part where we were climbing the steep slope to get to the Basilica of Our Lady of Montallegro either, because I wasn’t the only one gasping for breath at the top of the stairs.

Truthfully other than the church and two hotel/restaurants, there isn’t much else up on that mountain, unless you count the hiking paths through the woods that lead down to sea. What it is, is a very peaceful place far from the reach of the hustle and bustle of the posh seaside towns below.  But the main reason I had brought my brother all the way up the mountain was to see the Basilica of Our Lady of Montallegro and all the ex-votos in the church.
 The Easiest Way to Get There
The Basilica is the centerpiece of Montallegro. It’s the only church I’ve ever been in where the walls are covered, practically floor to ceiling, with ex-votos, those small offerings often given in gratitude to a saint for fulfilling a vow. The ex-votos in Our Lady of Montallegro were given for help in passing a school exam to recovering from an illness to being rescued from the middle of the sea during a war time bombing. Some ex-votos are photos, others are hand drawn pictures or copies of school exams or medical results, but mostly they are little silver hearts tied with a small red ribbon. Ex-votos are part of a very old tradition that dates back to ancient Egypt, and like the Egyptians, the people of Rapallo had many reasons to be grateful.  

During the 16th century, when the church was built, Rapallo was just a small village of about 1,300 people. With easy access from the sea, the village was often attacked and sacked by the Ottomans and Barbary pirates.  With only a small civilian army, it was fairly easy for the famous Turkish pirate Alì Dragut Rais to overtake the village. During one brutal attack he sacked the village, captured many of the village’s inhabitants and then sailed away to Algeria to sell his captives as slaves.   
Delegation of Priests from Naples Visiting Montallegro 
After that devastating event, the villagers decided to build a fortress near the waterfront, and get themselves a cannon. Both the fortress and the cannon are still in place, just in case they are needed, even though the pirates are long gone.

But less than ten years after the attack by Ali Dragut Rais, Rapallo once again became a battleground. This time the war was between the two local noble families, the Bianchi and the Del Torre, who were fighting each other for control of the territory. At the same time, an equally dangerous threat was looming, the Black Plague. 
Ex-Voto Dated 1899  
The Black Plague, which had already killed thousands of Europeans, was rapidly spreading throughout Liguria, and if by some miracle you managed to avoid dying from the plague, you had a good chance of dying from small pox or TB, as both of those diseases were also spreading like wildfire. And if you did manage to avoid those diseases, there was always the threat of dying of hunger because of widespread famine caused by the fact that so many people were dying there was no one left to tend the fields, which were flooding because of torrential rains.  In other words, life was tough.

It was during this period that a farmer, Giovanni Chichizola of Canevale, claimed that the Virgin Mary had come to him while he was tending his goats in the hills above Rapallo, and told him to build a church on that site. To make a long story short, the church was built and even during the period of construction, life seemed to miraculously improve for the people of Rapallo.
After Visiting the Church, Lunch Under the Trees
The townspeople thanked the Virgin Mary for their improved fortune and began showing their thanks by bringing ex-votos to the church and putting them up on the walls. Farmers would give thanks for healthy crops, the merchants and artisans for continued success. Even seamen and fishermen would go to the church and make their vows and pray to the Virgin Mary to keep them safe at sea. 

Just because the pirates weren’t attacking the town any more didn’t mean that they were not lying in wait in one of the many coves that line the Ligurian coast, ready to pounce on the ships hauling cargo or bringing in treasure from far- away places.  And let us not forget the ever present danger of violent storms at sea and what that meant to fragile fishing boats and sailing ships out on the open sea.
Breathtaking View 
And if they survived, even salty sailors would trek up the mountain and show their gratitude with a heart or a painting or a souvenir brought back from where ever they had sailed home from. From its position high above the town, and closer to heaven, Montallegro was the perfect place to sit and give thanks to the Virgin Mary for their survival for they knew just how precarious their journey had been.  

But I’m not a sailor or a merchant or even a farmer, I’m not even a believer but there is something truly spiritual about being in Montallegro that brings me peace. I cannot think of a better way to spend an afternoon than sitting out under the trees at the Il Pellegrino hotel/restaurant, looking out over the sea, thinking about things and enjoying that feeling of renewal that I get when I’m there. It’s no wonder the Italians don’t talk about this place. They probably want to keep it all to themselves, and I don’t blame them.

24 June 2015

AUNTIE PASTA: The Delicious Scrippelle of Abruzzo

CHIAVARI, Italy – This post on scrippelles is one of the most popular posts on my blog, and one I thought was worth repeating.
Teramo, Abruzzo

Scrippelles are a typical food of Teramo, a small town in Abruzzo.  If you have never heard of them, you are not alone. I had never heard of them either until Debra Cardelli Cellucci of Philadelphia Pa. talked about them on an Italian-American Facebook page I follow.

Scrippelle are very thin pancakes made from flour, eggs and water. If you are thinking that’s the same recipe for crepes, you are right. They are one and the same. In fact, there is a real French connection to this dish according to an article published in a local Abruzzese magazine called The Abruzzo Enogastronomica, but more about that later.

The real difference between them is the way they are served. In Abruzzo scrippelles are served m’busse, which means in chicken broth. The basic idea is to first prepare a thin batter . . . but wait a minute, I think it’s better if Debra tells you herself. Here is her recipe from the Facebook page:
Scrippelle M'Busso
Debra’s Scrippelle M’Busso Recipe

“12 eggs, 3 cups of water, 1 cup of flour in a large mixing bowl. Beat eggs, add water, then slowly add flour while constantly mixing. Use a good crepe pan. Depending on the size of the pan you may want to cut them in half after rolling. Heat pan to medium to high heat, then lightly grease the pan with either fat back or olive oil.

I use a 10” crepe pan and add about half a soup ladle of batter and roll it around quickly so it spreads evenly.  It should be very thin. Lift the edges of the crepe and when the edges start to curl pick it up quickly and turn it over. It only takes about a minute or less on each side. Let each one cool for a minute or two before stacking them on top of each other.  1 dozen eggs makes about 40 10” crepes. They can be cut in half to double that to 80.

After they are cooked, mix grated pecorino cheese with black pepper to your taste. Take each crepe and sprinkle with a good amount of the cheese/pepper mix, and tightly roll the crepe. Cut them in half and stack them close to each other in a casserole dish or plastic container if you are going to freeze them. When you are ready to serve, let them come to room temperature. Place them in individual soup bowls and pour your favorite chicken soup over them.”
 Timballo di Teramo
And that, according to Debra, is all there is to it. In researching this dish, I found that some cooks like to roll the scrippelle tightly and then slice them into ribbons, like fettucine and then serve them with soup. The crepes are also used to make another delicious local dish called Timballo di Teramo.

This timballo is made in layers, like lasagna, but instead of pasta locals use scrippelle. And there is one other small difference; this timballo is made in a casserole dish rather than a lasagna pan. Using an ovenproof casserole dish, first put in a few spoons of sauce.  The sauce can be a white béchamel sauce with fried artichokes (spinach or peas works well too), and scamorza cheese. Or, you can use your favorite red tomato and meat sauce. Alternate a layer of scrippelle with a layer of sauce. The top layer should be sauce sprinkled with a good grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.
 It All Starts Like This
In the Italian recipe it says to preheat your oven to 320 degrees F/160 degrees C and bake for about an hour until the flavors blend together and a slight crust forms on the top. You can probably get the same results with a 350 degree F/ 175 degree C oven and a cooking time of 25-30 minutes. What’s important is that the ingredients heat through and the sauce and the cheese are bubbling.

As for the French connection, the story goes back to the 16th century when the French ruled Abruzzo.  It seems the French chef in charge of the officers' mess in the town of Teramo, used to serve his officers crepes instead of bread. He though they were more ‘attractive’ than the dark coarse breads that were common at that time.

As it happened, one day when Messer Enrico Castorani, the chef’s helper, was moving a heaping plate of crepes, they fell into the soup pot that was filled with hot chicken soup. 

The chef didn’t know what to do. He decided to serve the crepes and the soup, and when he tasted the crepes in the soup, he found that it was a most delicious combination, and that, according to local legend, is how scrippelle in broth was created. 

 A special thanks goes out to Debra Cardelli Cellucci for sharing her recipe with us. Thanks Debra.

21 June 2015

LIFE: The Man Called "Pinin"

CHIAVARI, Italy – There is an instinctive quality, an innate ability to grasp the soul of an object that some product designers have. It is the secret ingredient that separates design leaders from design followers, and Battista Farina, better known as Pinin Farina, car designer extraordinaire, had this talent. He single handedly reinvented the concept of the auto, moving it from a square box on wheels to a thing of beauty.
Battista "Pinin" Farina 
In March 2002, Battista "Pinin" Farina was inducted into the European Automotive Hall of Fame in Geneva, Switzerland.  He is in the company of other dedicated men who have made automotive history: Henry Ford; the Michelin brothers Andrè and Edouard; and the man who built the first practical high-compression engine with an ignition, Nikolaus Otto.

"The influence of Pinin Farina on the automotive industry,” wrote Rick Johnson, Editor of Automotive News Europe, “has been profound. Thanks to the combination of genius, courage and farsighted determination, men like Pinin Farina set the standard for the world of the car."   
 1936 Lancia Astura 
In 1893 when Battista Farina was born, the family lived in the small farming community of Cortanze d’Asti, in the region of Piedmont, in northern Italy. He was the 10th of his parent’s 11 children and they called him “Pinin”, or “baby” in Piedmontese dialect. In the early 1900’s the family moved to the city of Turin, to find work.

It was a time of technical exploration, and mechanization was rapidly changing people's lives, even if not all of the new developments were greeted with open arms. The future was uncertain and many new inventions, like the airplane, were thought to have no future at all.
 1947 Alfa Romeo 6C "Golden Arrow"
Even the auto was looked at as a passing fancy, a plaything for the privileged few as there were few autos being built and they were very expensive. But Pinin was convinced that the wave of the future was in the engineering industry, and that those noisy, smelly jalopies would quickly become an integral part of society.

He was not alone. Others, like Giovanni Agnelli, the founder of Fiat; Vincenzo Lancia; and later still, Henry Ford thought so too.  But the style of the times, like the architects and designers who created them, had come out of the old school of design. Their projects were overly decorated, cluttered, primped and festooned with needless ornaments. It was a look Pinin detested. He had other ideas. He thought cars should be clean and beautiful, and once they were beautiful, he believed they would take on an identity of their own.
Interior 1947 Alfa Romeo 6C 
In the early thirties Italy was changing from an agricultural based society to a manufacturing society. The latest fashions from Paris were now the rage, and new and innovative products were popping up almost daily in the marketplace. The radio became the medium of the masses, bringing news of the world into people's homes, and young film directors like Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini were packing them in at the local movie houses on Saturday nights. In the practically motionless old-world society that was Italy, suddenly everyone was caught up in a fast push to the future.

The square, sober shapes of the past gave way to low-slung, racy, rounded lines. Times were changing and autos were no longer mere playthings for the wealthy.  People were on a quest for speed. After centuries of slow they wanted to go faster, and they wanted go faster now.
1935 Alfa Romeo
Battista Farina was also fascinated with the idea of speed. He reasoned that the principles of aerodynamics were the most natural way to solve the automobile's identity problem. He made his first visit to America in 1920, where he met with   Henry Ford.

The family says that Ford, who was cranking out Model T's by the millions by then, asked Farina to come work for him. Instead, Farina returned to Italy. Using what he had learned in America, Farina took a Lancia chassis, added traditional Italian style, and developed a new version of the Astura. The results were dramatic. He was on a roll.  
1947 Cistalia 202 C 
As soon as World War II ended, he set up a workshop/laboratory in Torino. He named his new venture Pininfarina, combining his first and last names. The workshop started turning out auto bodies, and it didn't take long before the company began to attract international attention. 

In 1947 he presented the Cistalia 202 SC to the public and it was quickly declared a work of art, a "rolling sculpture". The original model was placed on permanent display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, where it still is today.

 Ad for the American Nash
After the success of the Cistalia, he presented prototypes of two other autos, the Bentley and the American Nash.  A couple of years later, when Pinin Farina went back to the United States to launch his new models, he was thrilled to see his name, and fame as an international designer, used as the basis of Nash's national advertising campaign. He had become a celebrity.   

Pinin Farina often said that when he started working with Enzo Ferrari back in 1951, he had no idea where the relationship would take him. Ferrari, the irascible motor guru from Maranello, was also captivated by speed and fascinated by the aerodynamic bodies Pinin Farina was designing. They two men struck a deal.
2002 Ferrari 550 Barchetta 
The task of designing the Ferrari car bodies was turned over to Pinin's son, Sergio. Starting with the Ferrari 212 Inter Cabriolet in 1952 to the 550 Barchetta Pininfarina in 2002, the autos produced through a half a century of the Ferrari-Farina collaboration are beautiful enough to leave even the most die-hard taxi takers like me breathless. Ferrari would later admit, albeit reluctantly, that the jump in auto sales from 81 in 1956 to 1,246 just five years later was most likely due to Pininfarina’s designs. 

Still today, the name Pininfarina is on just about everything that moves, from buses and trams to trucks, motorcycles, and even Lavazza coffee machines, Italy's Telecom Sirio 2000 Basic Telephone, Mizuno golf clubs, and Snaidero Ola kitchens. The list of exceptional cars designed by Pininfarina is much too long for this short space, but the names include the classic 1990 Alfa Romeo Spider, 1993 Coupè Fiat, 1992 Ferrari 456 GT, and actually just about every automobile worth talking about.