29 October 2015

AUNTIE PASTA: Tiramisu, I Love You

CHIAVARI, Italy –A few years back, when I lived in Milan, I worked for Women’s Wear Daily, a fashion newspaper based in New York. As a journalist, I never worked alone.  None of the journalists did, nor do they now. We were always assigned photographers and while all the photographers were nice, my favorite was Davide Maestri.  
Treviso, Italy  
Davide started working for WWD when the office in Milan first opened and he knew everyone in the business. He also knew all the ins and outs of the Italian fashion world. Women’s Wear Daily is owned by publishing giant Conde Nast, so his photographs made the front pages not just of WWD, but all the sister publications like W and Vogue, Vogue Italia, as well as many other fashion magazines and newspapers in Italy and the USA, and they still do.

We covered a lot of assignments together, years of assignments, not only in Milan but in Florence, Bologna, Lake Como and lots of places in between. I really liked working with him, he was the consummate professional but he had one little quirk. He wouldn’t eat in a restaurant  unless they had tiramisu’ on the dessert menu. He loved tiramisu. He was mad for tiramisu, so much so that over the years he had become a tiramisu expert. No matter what city we were in, he knew which restaurants made the best tiramisu, and why it was the best.
Antico Ristorante Le Beccherie  
I often teased him about his passion and said that he and I should write a book about tiramisu, but he didn’t care about writing a book or even taking photos of it, he just liked to eat it. I confess, it’s okay as a dessert but I thought its history was interesting, even if much of the food history here in Italy is a bit muddled. The tiramisu story that I like best dates back to the late 1800’s and a bordello in the northern town of Treviso, a short distance from Venice.

It seems that the bordellos in Treviso were always trying to come up with ways to attract new clients, or steal them from their competition. When one bordello began offering a cup of espresso coffee to its patrons, the other bordellos in town soon followed suit. As competition heated up, some bordellos began offering savoiardi cookies (lady fingers) to dunk in the cups of espresso coffee, or a glass of wine or other alcoholic beverages.
Le Beccheirie's Tiramisu  
One enterprising Madam, who probably didn’t have a sufficient supply of savoiardi cookies on hand, decided to combine the cookies with the coffee and bind it together with Mascarpone cheese and eggs. She named her dish Tiramisu, which means “pick me up”, a tongue-in-cheek way of saying some of her clients may have need of a little “pick me up” after visiting the ladies of the house. It may also have been an incentive to get the men up and out, instead of wanting to hang around and take a nap.

This story is highly contested by Treviso’s Antico Ristorante Le Beccherie which claims the dish was first prepared by the restaurant's  pastry chef, Loly Linguanotto, less than two decades ago. Their story is that back in 1970, after the birth of her son, Ada Campoel, the owner of Le Beccherie, wanted to create a desert that would give her energy.  

 A Few Simple Ingredients
Truthfully, I think the bordello story is more credible because Ada could have just cooked up a pot of spinach or radicchio, which is one of the top crops in Treviso, and she would have had energy to spare. But it’s not for me to judge.  Instead, here are two recipes for tiramisu. The first recipe is from Giuliano Bugialli’s Classic Techniques of Italian Cooking. While Bugialli makes his own marscapone cheese and ladyfingers, trust me, if you buy good quality mascarpone and lady fingers, it will work just fine. The second is a video demonstration on how to make tiramisu, which you will find at the bottom of this page.

Giuliano Bugialli's Tiramisu

Serves 12

8 ounces of bittersweet chocolate
24 ladyfingers*
2 cups of strong espresso coffee cooled
6 eggs separated
6 heaping tablespoons of granulated sugar
1 lb of marscapone

*if using store bought ladyfingers toast them in a 375 degree oven for about 15 minutes.

Chop the chocolate coarsely.

Put the ladyfingers on a plate and lightly brush them with the cold coffee 

Arrange half of the ladyfingers in a rectangular or oval dish, at least 2” high

Use a wooden spoon to mix the egg yolks together with the sugar in a ceramic bowl. Mix until the sugar is completely incorporated and the egg yolks have turned a lighter color. Then add the mascarpone and stir gently. In a copper (or glass) bowl beat the egg whites with a wire whisk until they are stiff. Gently fold the whiles into the mascarpone-egg yolk mixture.

Use half of this mixture to make a layer on top of the ladyfingers in the serving dish. Sprinkle with half of the chopped chocolate. Repeat the procedure to make another layer of soaked ladyfingers, the mascarpone mixture and the chopped chocolate.

Cover with aluminum foil and refrigerate for at least 2 hours before serving.

The second recipe is a video recipe (in English) that demonstrates another Tiramisu recipe. They are basically the same recipe, with just a couple of small differences. For example, the cook on the video does not toast the ladyfingers, but that may be because the ladyfingers sold in Italy are already toasty enough. I’m not sure. The video is from a very good Italian cooking site called Giallo Zafferano, and I’m sure Davide would give both of these recipe a thumbs up.

25 October 2015


CHIAVARI, Italy – Almost twenty-five years ago, just before I left Philadelphia to live in Italy full time, I bought myself a black leather travel bag. The plan was to get settled in my new country and then spend weekends checking out the little Italian towns I had always passed on my way to somewhere else. I had traveled to Italy often enough to know there were a lot of towns to see, so I figured the bag was a good investment.
Mantua, Italy
I’ve slipped those soft leather straps over my shoulder many, many times over the years and have traveled the length and breadth of Italy but somehow my travels never took me to Mantua.

I remembered reading that in the 1400’s Mantua was a dark and dank city infested with vermin, wolves and vultures, that the disease of the day was bubonic plague and that travelers slept on flea ridden straw mattresses. To make matters even worse, they had to share their beds with strangers. As I was at that moment on a train heading for Mantua, I sincerely hoped the town had changed since then and said so to the woman sitting across from me. 
Ludovico III, Duke of Mantua and his Family
“Oh, I think you’ll find things have improved a little,” she said. “It’s actually very pretty. There are three small lakes that wrap around the town like a Renaissance moat, giving it a very romantic atmosphere. It’s one of the best-preserved medieval towns in northern Italy. In fact the last time a new building went up in Mantua’s historic center was back in 1561 when the Gonzaga family was in power.

Oh yes, the Gonzaga family. They were one of the richest and most powerful families in Italy’s history. In this small provincial town, which today only has about 45,000 inhabitants, they created a dynasty so powerful it rivaled their more famous city-state neighbors of Venice and Milan. They are what Mantua is, and always has been about.
Gonzaga Ducal Palace, Mantua, Italy
After I checked into my hotel, examined the mattress for signs of straw and fleas, assured myself there were no strangers lurking in the closet waiting to share my bed, I met up with Toni Lodigiani, who was the Associate Director of the Mantua Tourist Bureau. He walked me over to the Ducal Palace and as we crossed the three interlinking squares of the old city, Piazzas Sordello, Broletto and delle Erbe, he told me about the Gonzaga family.

“Mantua owes everything to the Gonzaga,” he said. “They put this town on the map. It would still be a small insignificant backwater if it weren’t for them. They were shrewd and cunning soldiers of fortune, commoners who fought their way to power. They took control of Mantua in 1328 and held it with an iron fist for 400 years, buying themselves a royal title along the way.”
Gonzaga Ducal Palace 
With a promise to meet up later, we said our goodbyes and I walked into the palace of the Gonzaga Dukes. It was not what I expected. It’s not one large palazzo but a series of palazzo from different periods that have been hobbled together to create a massive structure. With more than 500 rooms and fifteen courtyards, it is second in size only to the Vatican in Rome. Not all the rooms are open to the public, but it still took me close to an hour to make my way through the maze of rooms, secret gardens and courtyards that are open. From the Room of Cupid and Psyche, to the Room of the Moors, to the Room of Mirrors each is decorated with ornate, detailed frescos dedicated to the power and glory of the Gonzaga family.

During the dangerous and turbulent years of the Renaissance, strong political alliances could mean the difference between survival and surrender. The Gonzaga were clever enough to survive and flourish not just through their military shrewdness, but by marrying their sons to the daughters of allies and potential enemies. The Gonzaga girls were also important as they were bartered and bargained for, and used as brood hens to produce heirs for the mutual benefit of the families.
Portrait by Lavinia Fontana of Young Gonzaga Girl
For the Gonzaga there was also a serious need to introduce new blood lines as genetic defects due to excessive inbreeding was starting to produce odd looking children. The boys who were born deformed were generally tolerated, but the girls were sent off to live out their lives in cloistered nunneries.

A painting by artist Lavinia Fontana of a young Gonzaga girl whose face is completely covered with black hair, was found hidden in a private Gonzaga gallery. There was no doubt it was the treasured remembrance of the girl’s mother who knew her daughter would soon be sent away and lost to her forever.
Palazzo Te, Mantua, Italy 
In 1463, it was the fashion for Italian royals to decorate reception areas with works of art.  Ludovico, the Marquis of Mantua, hired artist Andrea Mantegna to decorate a room at the palace not in the Gothic style that was so popular at that time, but in the newest style of the Renaissance.

On the walls of the small room Mantegna pictured the Duke and his wife Barbara surrounded by their children, members of their court, their servants, their dogs and their horses. With extraordinary beauty and sensitivity the artist accurately reproduced a slice of life in the Renaissance court of Mantua. The fresco became one of Mantegna’s most famous works, and is generally known as the Camera degli Sposi, the Room of the Newlyweds, misnamed somewhere along the way as it never had anything to do with newlyweds and everything to do with a reception room for visiting dignitaries.
Banquet of Psyche and Amor by Giulio Romano - Palazzo Te
Over the next few centuries the Gonzaga family put together what was to become one of Europe’s most extraordinary collections of art and art objects, amassing more than 2,000 paintings and nearly 20,000 objets d’art. Their collection included paintings by Correggio, Mantegna, Giulio Romano, Tintoretto, and family portraits by Titian and Rubens.

As there were rumors of an impending train strike, which would mean I would have to leave earlier than planned. So instead of a little nap after lunch, I walked over to the Palazzo Te to see what else the Dukes of Mantua had on their minds besides collecting art and making war.
Dancing with the Devil at the Palazzo Te, Mantua, Italy
The entrance to the Te was crowded with stacks of tables and chairs ready for an event scheduled for later that evening. These days the Te is used for corporate meetings and special events, but back in 1525 when Federico II called architect and artist Guilio Romano to the Ducal palace, he had another idea for the space.

Federico, who would be granted the title of Duke just five years later, asked Romano to convert what was an abandoned stable on the outskirts of town into a summer retreat, a hideaway where he could entertain his mistress, Isabella Boshetti. What Romano gave him was the greatest of all Mannerist villas, the Palazzo Te.
Rotunda of San Lorenzo  
The Duke and Romano sat and planned the frescoes that would decorate his new palace. Federico explained that his interests ran to women and good times, and Romano listened. His fresco of the drunken Bacchus (the Roman God of wine) frolicking with plump nudes and exotic animals in a celebration of sex, food and wine in the Hall of Psyche, said it all.

Federico was delighted. Far from the spying eyes at the Ducal Palace, Federico felt free here. At last he could indulge in his vices and transgressions, which he happily did until he died at the age of forty, crippled by what the Italians call the French disease, and what the French call the Italian disease, syphilis.
Mantua Today
When the threatened train strike became a reality, I had to leave. I went up to my room to pack and as I glanced out of the hotel window I realized the narrow street below led to the oldest building in Manuta, the 11th century Rotunda of San Lorenzo.

The past is such a vibrant part of the present here and the idea of turning a corner and slipping back hundreds of years fascinates me. The Mantovani may prop their bikes against the old wall of the Ducal Palace with nary a thought to the centuries of violence and bloodshed that took place on the very ground beneath their feet, but I find it difficult to take the historic treasure that is Mantua for granted.
Mantua, One of Italy's Little Cities of Art

The sky was darkening as I boarded the train. I watched the shadowy gray sky outside of the train window deepen to charcoal and then black. Mantua was much more than I had expected and I hope it stays just the way it is, a simple paese with all the charm of the Italy I fell in love with all those many years ago when the scruffy leather bag sitting on the seat next to me was new.

18 October 2015

LIFE: The Great Palio di Alba

ALBA, Italy – This is a photo story of the wildest palio in Italy, the Palio di Alba. Palios are very popular in Italy, Sienna has one as does Lucca, La Spezia and many other towns.
 The Palio di Alba
Palio is a rather strange word, it comes from the Latin pallium, which was the name of the cloak the Romans wore. The Romans were really fond of horses and gambling, so it was only natural to put them together. They held races throughout the Roman Empire, and used a cloak to indicate the finishing line. The winner of the race was awarded the cloak.   It didn’t take long before everything associated with the race was called palio. 

All of the palios are pretty much the same – they all have the same rules, except for the one held in Alba, in the province of Piedmont.  The Alba palio was started as a way to thumb its nose at the now famous palio in the neighboring town of Asti. 

So welcome to Alba’s Palio degli Asini, a most competitive race in which donkeys—one for each Alba neighborhoods, or borgi— must complete four laps around Alba’s main piazza, Piazza Medford.

There are eight donkeys and eight bare back riders, and when the officials drop the rope, they are supposed to take off running, just like any other race.

They usually have to think about things before they go, and then decide which dircton they want to go in. 

They don’t always go fast, nor do they always go willingly, and sometimes they don't go at all even with the few thousand people that have traveled at least a mile or more to watch this exciting race yelling out encouragements.

And they are off!

Well, almost. 

 That's a good boy.

Forget this racing business, I'm getting out of here. 

If you think I'm going anywhere with you dressed like that, think again!

Will you two just stop it. 

Now look what you did! 

 If you go any slower I'm going to fall asleep.

 I won!

And so ended the great Palio of Alba, 2015!