Italy

This category contains 9 posts

Distant Land of Famine

I sit down at my favorite Ristorante Il Panino (FYI – you order panini only if you want 2 or more), which has undergone an impressive renovation since my last spaghetti alle cozze e vongole (spaghetti with clams and mussels), and say, “Hit me.”

When the waiter asked why he hadn’t seen me “in awhile” (note, not even in a long while), I explained I was living in Jordan (leaving out the countries in between). He waited to hear no more and brought me un quarto del vino rosso and asked me what he could get me – although he already knew what I would say – from the seafood menu.

(When I told him it was Ramadan, during which I thought I might have to write posts entitled “Cool Clear Water” and “Killing Me Softly” until friends in Rome rescued me with a house-sitting offer, he brought me an unnecessary basket of bread.)

Even the 20-minute drive from the Trieste airport is calming: surrounded by lush fields of green, along the marshes of the bird sanctuary, where le zanzare (the mosquitos) welcome me like I’ve never been away.

Much of what I’ve written about Italy is about this far NE region, Friuli Venezia-Giulia (F.V. Giulia to friends), where I’ve spent many happy summer days along the Adriatic Sea during, after, and long after Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.

Proof positive: my 2-part series Prosecco Paradiso.

Prosecco notwithstanding, I would travel all this way just to see all 3 generations of the Tomaselli/dall’Oglio hotel family holding court on via Giuseppe Verdi.

Nonna doesn’t recognize me anymore; she’s getting up in her years now. But she hasn’t lost a bit of her charm, saying that even though she doesn’t remember my face, she knows I’m as beautiful as ever, to which I reply (truthfully in her case), “As are you.”

The family knows all about my humanitarian work over the years and would like me to consider, they said humorously, coming back for 2 months – basically the remainder of the tourist season – as they’re in need of some “humanitarian assistance” themselves. The European recession has hit them hard, although having been through the wars, literally, they’ve weathered the economic storm a bit better than their island peers.

Grado is far from its heyday in 2004, my first summer here. The good ol’ days when the Saturday night dinner rush began like clockwork, church bells + 15 minutes, and continued long into the night.

Ilene e Giorgio, nota bene: THE pre-dinner gelato place (for heathens) is BACK. Different owners, same great pesca e basilico!

Historically, the vast majority of the island’s clientele has been German and Austrian, exactly who’s been cutting back on beach holidays in recent years. But I see a new marketing strategy paying off: selling Friuli and its neighboring Slovenian province as one contiguous tourist destination, to – judging from languages heard on the street – French, British, Russian, even Arab travelers.

But the Tomasellis/dall’Oglios have been in the hotel business since the 1920s and despite its founder’s passing have, on balance, flourished through the generations, the 4th of which are are entertaining themselves in the children’s playroom: French-speaking preschoolers who call Bruxelles home.

This morning, Signore, after making sure I’d already had breakfast (proving that Italian fathers can be as bad as Italian mothers), suggests taking the early ferry to Isola di Barbana. (My café owner friends, subject of Our Lady dei Bambini, sadly were victims of the economic downturn.) He further suggests saying a “substantial” prayer to the Madonna before heading straight to the beach.

Which is exactly my plan. Except for the prayer part.

Il Giorno del Ringraziamento Con La Polizia

I could’ve done without the before-and-after photos of the turkey, newly dead for my benefit.

It was one of those predictable misunderstandings between the Italians and their American daughter-in-law. When she told them that American Thanksgiving dinner required a “fresh” turkey, I knew exactly what she meant: “not frozen.”

But in Europe, where your choices are fresh, fresh, or nothing, “fresh” means “fresher than you can get at your local butcher.”

In the Italian tradition of taking things a bit too far in general, this logically translated to “you need to kill the turkey yourself on the spot.” And that they did, photographing every detail with relish for the absentee chef who was on her way from London, where people, while they know theoretically where protein comes from, prefer not to dwell on those last gruesome moments.

I reminded the daughter-in-law of another unfortunate poultry incident, in Africa, where we’d spent a summer pre-Italy doing public health projects. In one village, the women announced they’d be serving us chicken for lunch.

This chicken. Right in front of you.

They slit its throat and laughed as I lost my breath and turned white. Not my finest moment in the field.

Beyond embarrassing, actually, when in a prior developing world experience I’d stitched up a few gaping wounds with an upholstery needle and thread − sterilized with an unnamed alcoholic beverage provided clandestinely by an unnamed person, since this was a Muslim country − without a thought, only to be taken out a few years later by a dead chicken, of all things.

Like many things in Italy, Thanksgiving arrived late, kind of like this post.

We’d planned the dinner for Saturday night. However, when our hosts learned that Thanksgiving is traditionally celebrated on Thursday, it seemed only natural to start eating on Thursday and continue through Saturday.

…which working backwards meant the Thanksgiving drama needed to begin well before Thursday, and that, i miei amici, meant compiling the guest list.

Being suckers for lost causes, we decided to limit the guest list to 20, plus or minus 4 percentage points. Immediate family and close friends only. No aunts, uncles, cousins − “i parenti,” who aren’t parents (“i genitori”), but rather relatives, extended family − of which in Italy there is simply no end.

How lucky, then, that we’re not on speaking terms with the families who live within shouting distance of the house!

We’d miraculously capped attendance at 23 guests, within the realistic margin of error, until midway through the salad course…

…which in Italy is called “i contorni” and comes at the end of the meal, but for which we provided a completely fictional explanation from American history placing it at the beginning of Thanksgiving dinner, mostly to buy me time for the complex hot food deployment, but also as a food-stretching measure…

…when the uninvited contingent began to arrive, under the guise of dropping off gifts for the new baby (read on). Naturally, they’d heard about the Thanksgiving “party” and assumed their invitations had been “lost in the mail.” They, of course, were welcomed to stay, as they knew they would be…so, please pass everything.

Then there’s the charming Italian…power grid. The family home is on a secluded country road outside of a secluded village outside of Rome, in which the lights dim every 5 minutes and you have a full-on power outage a dozen times a day. Save the mashed potatoes, the Thanksgiving menu is primarily an oven-roasted menu and Italy is electric oven country.

Since if the oven is on, the lights cannot also be on, you the chef have 2 choices: you can either see the food you’re cooking or you can actually cook it. Finally, the perfect excuse for burnt pecans!

Cooking a 400-year-old menu for a couple dozen people is usually not this big a deal.

Our theatrical production had a most reluctant headliner. The 11-kilo (24.2-pound) turkey, who came within millimeters of not fitting into “il piccolo forno” (the tiny oven), tried his slippery best to slip away, but we dealt with him just like a desperate criminal being arrested by the police: somebody hold his wings, somebody hold his legs, somebody put an elbow on his chest and read him his rights.

The attendees, both family and friends, are mostly policemen and every branch of law enforcement was generously represented. The state police, who are the civilian authorities. The carabinieri, a branch of the military along with the Army, Navy, and Air Force, whose motto “Nei Secoli Fedele” (faithful through the centuries) tells us really all we need to know.

Then there was a guy in the Palidoro, a mobile unit out of the UN police headquarters in Rome, one of 9 located across Europe. These officers are called up on missions to protect EU interests around the world. He told some fascinating stories (in warp-speed Italian) about their recent mission in the West Bank to monitor the political situation there, reinforcing the discouraging conclusions about prospects for Middle East peace that I’d just been reading about in the Corriere della Sera − the Italian equivalent of the New York Times − on my flight over.

Since the house was swarming with cops and I couldn’t tell who was who, I just saluted everyone and answered every question “Si, Signore, certo,” and then offered them all extra dessert, which they all gladly accepted, joking that they were used to people trying to bribe them, but not usually with baked apples stuffed with brown sugar, walnuts, currants, and fresh vanilla.

One of the carabinieri is an exceptional cook, according to his adoring wife, who freely admits she initially fell in love with him for precisely this reason. With his expert interrogation skills, he got me to confess one of my secret recipes, after first correctly guessing several of the key ingredients.

Sorry, Officer, you caught me. I did grate nutmeg into that. I just forgot. My day started before 6:00 and here it’s 23:30 (11:30pm) and the dinner is still going strong.

Please, just this once, let me off with a warning.

By this point in the evening, “il rustico,” the little cottage out back, had dinner guests hanging from the rafters. Singing, toasting, conversing, eating, drinking, kissing the baby, holding the baby, taking photos with and of the baby…

…and it was more than a little disturbing to realize that the baby’s daily take of gifts was equivalent in value to what we paid for the ingredients of Thanksgiving dinner.

The new baby’s imminent baptism has everyone in a tizzy. She’s the first grandchild and her father is one of these archetypal Italian playboys about whom his resigned family felt that settling down with an American woman was better than nothing.

Actually, just the opposite is true. The grandparents are crazy in love with their daughter-in-law, although they do hope this baptism nudges her in the direction of conversion to Catholicism.

(I could tell them right now that women will wear red robes at the Vatican before that ever happens, but hope springs eternal.)

Preceding the caffé, grappa, and 3 dessert courses, which included caffé liqueur served in edible dark chocolate cups, were the savory elements I adore. Turkey stuffing with mushrooms, apples, roasted red peppers, spiced (by me) sausage, and fresh rosemary. Potato purée, as the Italians call it, with roasted garlic and fresh parsley.

“Fresh” this time means “out of the garden.” Where our salad greens came from, too. Hand-delivered through the kitchen window. In late November!

Fresh salad greens on the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving table in Massachusetts? Sorry, we’re fresh out.

Pizza My Heart

This is the cheesy (sorry) name of the most popular pizza place near Stanford University.

I’ve never eaten there; it’s not my demographic. It’s always full of undergrads and moms of grade-school kids, who walk right past a dozen award-winning gourmet restaurants on University Avenue and settle into sticky booths with either Pizza Margherita ‒ cheese pizza, but with dry, grated Mozzarella that Italians would send back to the kitchen in disbelief ‒ or Meat to the 3rd Power pizza that my nephews favor. Something like sausage, pepperoni, ham, chicken…oh, and don’t forget that tri-tip on the side, medium rare.

Italian pizza is key to a highly motivating − at the gym later − high carb, high protein diet. Start out with the classic Quattro Formaggi (4 cheeses): fresh buffalo Mozzarella (more about that below), plus 3 other cheeses, which might include ‒ but definitely aren’t limited to ‒ ricotta, Gorgonzola, and Parmigiano-Reggiano. None of that pre-grated parmesan weirdness; we don’t know any other kind except the “Riserva” 3-year-old cheese in the block.

We don’t know what cheddar is, either, but it’s orange and that’s a big no right there…on pizza or anything else.

There’s a reason why so many Italian pizzas are red, green, and white: they’re the colors of the Italian flag (called “Il Tricolore”)! My summer favorite is the pomodoro pachino e rughetta (cherry tomatoes and arugula) with, of course, fresh buffalo Mozzarella!

(I led a few Mozzarella-tasting-by-bicycle tours in Emilia-Romagna one summer. Even I was wondering where one could acquire a buffalo for this purpose. If you bring along your REI waterproof cold pack, you can buy as you ride, within reason, and make pizza when you get back to that apartment you rented in Bologna, Parma, Reggio nell’Emilia, or Modena, the balsamic vinegar capital of the universe, in which every generation of a family makes vinegar for the next generation, in 20-year increments).

Personally, I like veggie pizza. When I teach cooking classes for pre-school kids, sometimes we make little pizzas that look like little people: broccoli hair, cherry tomato nose, mushroom ears, bell pepper mouth. In Italy, a delicious compromise when sharing with meat-eaters: Quattro Stagioni (4 seasons). Artichokes, mushrooms, and tomatoes with either salami or Prosciutto cotto (“cooked,” as opposed to crudo, “uncooked”).

Some vegetables I like, just not on pizza. Carrots, for example. Peas, which you’ll occasionally run into on Sicilian pizza, believe it or not. (Aside: the further south in Italy you go, the greater your risk of pizza with anchovies, “le acciuge,” or anchovy paste, commonly served with sardines.) Then there’s corn, the indispensable Japanese pizza ingredient.

Sometimes corn is the least of your pizza worries.

Let’s jump to the other side of the world and to the story of Charles, a friend of mine in Tokyo, and how pizza nearly derailed his love life.

Charles was marrying into a Japanese family, a minefield in itself. He didn’t speak Japanese very well back then, although he’s fluent now ‒ some years and 2 grandchildren later. He’s this well over 6 feet teddy bear of a Midwesterner for whom fitting into clothes, taxis, and conference room chairs are daily challenges. Every day until he met Yumi he wondered whether this job relocation had been one…huge…mistake.

Assuming his prospective in-laws were less than thrilled with him, he decided the way to impress them would be to give them a full-on American experience. He’d make them homemade pizza, which the 4 of them would eat while watching the Academy Awards show on American TV.

Things in the Midwest tend to be big. Big skies. Big smiles. Big appetites. Naturally, Charles was used to big pizzas, having grown up near Chicago eating at Gino’s East, the mecca of deep dish, if that’s your poison.

So, “all out” meant “the biggest and best pizza on record.” Looking back, “overkill” was an “understatement.”

He hit every expatriate food market in Tokyo and came away with the world’s most expensive flour and other American-style baking ingredients. He looked at the quantity of yeast to flour in the dough and, having no previous bread making experience, thought that 1 package of yeast couldn’t possibly be enough. Two would be better and 3 should do it.

(Next time, Charles, just swallow your pride and call your mom back in Illinois.)

You already know what happened next. The Best Picture Oscar goes to…“The Mutant Bread of Ueno”!

…and the more he pounded it down, the more the gluten did its thing and the more it rose and rose and rose.

When he finally got the dough enough under control to put a few ingredients on it, the dough curled up on every side and swallowed them whole, resulting in what looked like a massive “hum bow” (Chinese round savory pastry).

You’d need a crowbar to eat a delicacy like this. Silverware wouldn’t cut it, let alone chopsticks.

He was sunk and he knew it.

As any good product marketer knows, if something bad happens that you can’t fix and have to explain, you call it a feature. Thus, Charles cut his creation in generous slices like a bundt cake. (Now those he knew a little something about, having eaten a piece every Sunday noon growing up.)

Charles’ fiancée Yumi, seeing his distress watching his prized pizza turn into a first-class disaster, cooked the rest of the voluminous topping ingredients and helped him serve them over the top of each slice.

Hey, that’s what I’d do.

Because the plating of food in Japan rivals only France in its importance to the meal, Charles’ presentation saved him and all was forgiven. His in-laws, who it turned out liked him just fine, pizza or not, named his creation “American Pizza Cake.”

Every year, for old time’s sake, the whole family ‒ plus me, one year ‒ watches the Oscars together, eating Charles’ “American Pizza Cake,” the pizza my heart.

Prosecco Paradiso, Capitolo Due

Picking up where we left off yesterday at the end of Capitolo Uno (Chapter 1): Prosecco, Luigi’s enoteca, 17:00.

Luigi agrees that people like Prosecco Frizzante primarily because it’s “low gas,” not as bubbly, and less alcoholic (only 10.5-11%). It’s one of those crisp, flowery aperitivi, with a vanilla sensibility – didn’t we mention this yesterday? – that, short of steak, goes with just about anything. People say it tastes like citrus fruit and tart green apples. That sounds about right.

More importantly, Prosecco Frizzante is both good tasting and “an amazing value” = cheap! That means even teachers in Italy on meager summer grants can indulge regularly and not break the bank.

If you want to do some Prosecco tasting, you need to rent a car and drive inland (due north) from the Adriatic Sea 65 kilometers/40 miles or so. Check out the Cormôr Valley while you’re up there and the Byzantine mosaics in Udine on the way home. If you reach the Slovenian border, you’ve gone a little bit too far.

Or, you could head toward Veneto, she says, with not much enthusiasm.

Friuli is Pinot Grigio country and if that’s your poison, there are a multitude of choices. For Prosecco, there are a couple three wineries up there that are only a couple three decades only, very new by Italian standards. Unlike other wineries in Friuli and around Italy, most of which are hundreds of years old, they’re as high-tech as it gets and probably are run with something off AppStore.

Green business advocates: these wineries take Italy’s Slow Food heritage seriously and are certified organic and low environmental impact.

However, I know another wine guy named Luigi who isn’t so amendable to this high-tech viticulture. He was none too pleased to find out there was an Enology-Grape Chemistry program at Virginia Tech, which is pretty much a degree in everything he doesn’t believe in.

He’s a young guy from an old, old family in the region – one of his forebears was a famous poet – and is of course a believer in the old ways…for very young reasons.

The old ways, he says, result in a better long-term ROI. I doubt that acronym was ever in the vocabulary of his long-deceased poet relation.

His reasoning: many countries − Australia, Brazil, and Argentina, but America in particular − have gotten very good at this software-industry-speed winemaking (my editorial reference to Napa and Sonoma’s proximity to Silicon Valley). There’s not much motivation to ship overseas something basically identical to what local competitors can produce more cheaply and deliver more quickly, unless you’re in the business of giving away your product.

That makes sense to me, given that you can by a very nice bottle of Italian Prosecco in the USA for less than $15. Not much of a markup.

These other countries are not only very good at it, but they also “have a passion for it” − as he turns up his nose, as if somebody could possibly have a passion for those embarrassing wine coolers you take by the 6-pack to BBQs.

Our family isn’t into volume, he says, because once you go that route, you’re reliant forever on the Costcos of this world (which exist all over Europe, too, under other brand names). If you make a high-quality, small volume, locally showcased product – made the slow way, which in his mind is the right way and the ONLY way – and take advantage of the infrastructure your great-great-great…can’t remember how many…grandparents willed to you, which not everybody had the luxury of inheriting, sure your development time is much longer, but rather than investing in stainless steel tanks, you’re investing in more and better training, more and better plantings.

(In case you thought the run-on sentence above was a misprint, all Italian conversations are like this.)

Luigi’s is one of the couple three other wineries experimenting with the “metodo classico” − just what it sounds like − of making Prosecco.

He does more marketing, too, including “portable tastings” for events in nearby villas. (No such term exists in Italian, but trust the Americans to make up something and can I use it? Be my guest.) So, you manage your growth instead of your growth managing you. (Where do you come up with this stuff? asks Luigi.)

I won’t hold your “made-in-a-tin-can” Prosecco against you, but we’re after a more sophisticated group of customers (ouch) and we like it that way. In the long term − which is our family thinking, obviously – we’ll come out ahead.

Also, says Luigi #2 on the hill, my great-great-great…how many ever…grandparents would roll over in their graves if they saw me injecting bubbles into perfectly good white wine and would probably come back to tell me so. Can’t risk it.

Back to Luigi #1 on the sea, who’s hedging his bets by offering BOTH products. Just on principal, he prefers the high-tech Prosecco Frizzante because it comes from really young wineries with really young wines for really young people. Like us, you mean. He laughs.

Using that same logic, I don’t mind Prosecco Frizzante at all. I actually kind of like it. (Don’t tell anyone.) In summer, I keep tasting it every so often, just to make sure.

Prosecco Paradiso, Capitolo Uno

Wine = Red

Anybody who doesn’t know this about me already finds out when they ask me for a white wine recommendation and my eyes glaze over. “It’s for fish,” they say, hopefully.

There are red wines that go just fine with fish – even better, in my opinion. In a pinch, there’s always “dell’acqua con limone, per piacere.” Champagne at weddings is OK, a sip for the toast to be polite.

Otherwise, pass.

Yes, I did all the wine training at Le Cordon Bleu and have the piece of paper to prove it, but it didn’t change my opinion that white wine is for making white wine syrups for minted fruit desserts with fresh vanilla (recipe upon request).

My Cuban “lab partner” at Le Cordon Bleu led to me make one important exception: vinho verde. It’s a Portuguese wine from the Minho region and is called “green wine” more for its youth than for its color.

There was a café a block from school run by a charming Portuguese couple. Often our day started at 7:30 or 8:00 and didn’t end until 21:30 or 22:00, so we had a habit of stopping by there on the way home with a few culinary partners in crime, mostly to decompress in 3 languages at once, with people who weren’t either yelling at us or giving us bad grades (hey, speak for yourself).

Vinho verde is definitely pleasant and refreshing, but that wasn’t the real reason we drank it and sometimes we just had espresso instead. (If you have to get up at 5:30 again anyway, why bother going to sleep at all?)

That was all before my first summer in Italy…in Italian WHITE wine country.

On the Adriatic coast in summer, siesta (in northern Italy, “il pisolino,” a little nap like little kids take) is between 13:00 and 17:00. This is me at 14:00 daily: “Una giovane donna stanca di prendere un pisolino.” (“A tired young woman taking a nap.”)

It makes total sense to hide out from that punishing heat. However, if you either forget or have other obligations right up ’til the witching hour (and don’t have a kitchen in your lodgings), you’re stuck, either hungry or raiding your stash of stale biscotti, until everything − including the grocery store − reopens.

(To understand how sacrosanct il pisolino is in Italy, here’s what happened when 6-time Italian Premier Amintore Fanfani once dared to suggest that the Cabinet open for business at 8:30 every morning, with “only” a 2.5-hour (13:00-15:30) break mid-day. CHE COSA (“WHAT”)???!!!)

Anyway, that means there are an awful lot of hungry people at 17:00 who definitely won’t be waiting until dinner at 21:00 at the earliest. Or, if not working, might have a night class in Italian opera we wouldn’t miss for the world.

Thus, in tourist destinations in coastal Italy, “lungo al mare,” the 17:00 stampede.

I drink very, very little. Never hard alcohol and maybe a half a glass of red wine every few months, at dinner for a special occasion. Partly this is for health reasons, but mostly it’s just my preference. Therefore, when I do have a sip on occasion, it needs to count.

Same philosophy for dessert, which I like a whole lot less. If I feel obliged to eat one, it’s definitely not going to be one of those egg-free, sugar-free, gluten-free, sinks-to-the-bottom-of-your-stomach-and-stays-there-for-a-week vegan…uh, delights. That’s not a dessert; that’s a punishment. My dessert is going to have ALL the sugar, ALL the butter, and LOTS of all that other hurts-so-good stuff, as much as you can fit into that tiny, tiny piece.

(Like-minded Kiwis reading this, check out Vaniyé, my friends Sonia − another Le Cordon Bleu alum − and Laurent’s fabulous and award-winning French pâtisserie in Auckland. Oh la la. Now that’s what I’m talking about.)

Back to happy hour on the Adriatic.

The nice thing about Italian people in the food business is that they’re no different from Italians in any other line of work: they’ll talk about anything, anytime, with anyone, forever. (If you’re trying to learn the language, this is a gift.) No matter how busy they are, if you show an interest in their products, they’ll take time to explain them to you.

This is how I learned about Prosecco (or, next door in Croatia, Prošek), proving at the same time that not all guys named Luigi are enforcers for mafia bosses and shoot people in the knees. Some of them are nice guys with nice families who run enotecas that serve appetizers to die for.

Luigi’s enoteca, appealing for its walls of native stone (superior to any AC), serves, in addition to the usual Prosecco Spumante − wrongly called Champagne, which can originate only in the French region of the same name, so say the French – a stellar local brand of Prosecco Frizzante.

News to me, she says, looking up from White Wine for Dummies.

The only thing I knew about Prosecco was that “spumante” meant “sparkles a lot” and “frizzante” (or “gentile”) meant “sparkles a little.”

That’s not exactly true. I also knew a couple of nice cocktails you can make with Prosecco. The most popular – and my least favorite − is the Bellini, made with peach juice. This drink only really works if peaches are in high season and the juice is freshly made. Otherwise, it’s just alcoholic mush, with weird tinges of green. Yum.

On the other hand, the Poinsettia − Prosecco + vodka + cranberry juice (or, for non-imbibing guests, the visually similar cranberry juice + sparkling water) − is not only a tangy and crisp holiday beverage, but is also beautiful on a summertime brunch table, “sull’ombrellone” (under the umbrella), on your balcony overlooking the sea…

Tomorrow, Capitolo Due (Chapter 2) of Prosecco Paradiso!

Cucina del Sole, Sonetti d’Amore

“Prego.”

You need only 1 word in Italian, plus a mandatory gesture, to offer to share your table at a café in Italy.

I don’t understand people at Starbucks, who drink like they drive: by themselves. There’s only 1 person at every table. When I see somebody looking around, I offer them the chair opposite mine. Usually it’s…oh, that’s all right. Thanks, though. (Must be a trick.)

Hey, just being nice. No tricks. Except in Italy, where I really AM working an angle: I want you to speak Italian with me! Even now that I’ve mastered Shakespeare’s Sonneti d’Amore (one of which I’ll be reading at an upcoming wedding and thus have become inseparable from my highlighted text, praying for pronunciation tips), literature isn’t nearly as interesting as…you already know what’s coming…FOOD! And what better way to learn about talking about food than while eating food? You tell me.

In summer, on the Adriatic, I put my table-sharing plan in motion almost every day. German and Austrian tourists look at me funny and always decline. First of all, you look German, but you don’t speak German. That’s just wrong. Second of all, you speak French. Even worse. Don’t even get us started on French food!

French food is divine. I love cooking it. I savor every morsel. It’s perfection…but it’s moody perfection. (Poorly executed, it’s just bland synchronicity.)

My first term at Le Cordon Bleu, I felt like I was in a straightjacket every single day, trying to resist channeling my inner curry. Please tell me I didn’t spend all this money to go to the wrong school, as she heads to the principal’s office – detention, again, for excessive seasoning.

Intermédiaire, post-Italy, I was irreverent; Supérieur, post-Thailand, I was insufferable.

All seemed lost until I met Chef Thiry. He’s French, but worked the majority of his career on the French Riviera, right next to the Italian Riviera, which makes him an honorary Italian chef at the very least.

So, I’d been looking to rock the house and finally I’d found a French chef who understood me. Yes!

Chef Thiry never spared me criticism on technique or presentation. When I deserved it, he was brutal. But when it came to flavor, he gave me a lot of leeway.

Chefs are like parents. If you show us we can trust you with the small stuff, you get more and more freedom. If you disappoint us, we take away all your privileges and ground you for a month.

Once, during our “tour” of international cuisines (my best subject, naturally), I made this Moroccan dish. I can’t remember what it’s called and haven’t made it since. But − somehow, some way − it was out of this world.

We had some amazing chefs in our class, with years of professional experience, so almost never did I make a splash. Most days, I was lucky just to tread water and stay alive.

But this was my day. My food was amazing. Chef Thiry thought so, too. He made everyone else in class taste my dish.

“This is perfect. This is exactly how it should be. JUST LIKE THIS,” he said emphatically, pointing.

I was ridiculously thrilled.

During that term, he gave me the highest compliment I received as a student at Le Cordon Bleu: I trust you with spiciness. There’s a very fine line between flavorful and ridiculous and you know exactly where that line is. You can go right up to it and not cross it. Not everybody can do that. It’s not how I would make it, nor expect any of your fellow students to. But it’s well-executed, delicious, and I’m going to send it down to the faculty lounge so the chefs can eat it for dinner and you have nothing to take home. Again.

Thanks for nothing.

Just as there’s a fine line between flavorful and ridiculous, there’s just as fine a line between free-spirited and reckless. The way you know you’re grown up is when knowing where that line is comes second nature, too.

Infine (“at the end of the day”), I did learn Sunny Cuisine, with a side of Discipline, at the most famous culinary school in the world.

Back to our Italian café, seaside… Prego. Please sit down. I’d love to talk to you. About anything.

Well, as it so happens…

I hear about all kinds of stuff from my fellow diners. Soccer: favorite teams and players, upcoming matches, epic stats and epic arguments about them. Grandma’s recipes (“aveva fatto la nonna” – Grandma made it, so you don’t have a choice about trying some). Who’s in love with whom and how and what for…and in Italy it doesn’t matter whether you actually know the people.

But one adjective I never expected to learn: autistica.

My first summer, one family sat with me: a young couple with a son (8) and daughter (5). Although they were staying a ways down the beach from me, I’d seen them on the boardwalk a time or two.

The little girl seemed very bright, but wasn’t verbal. She wouldn’t look at anybody, either. The first time I offered my table to the family, she refused to sit there, so they let her drag her chair away from the table and sit by herself across the patio. Eventually she figured out I wasn’t a threat. She wouldn’t go to any other café after that and her parents said she would always look around for me.

Conditions like autism must be complex in Italian society because, while children are revered and loved to the point of bad behavior sometimes, there’s still this fundamental emphasis on appearance, on presentation, on social refinement that autistic kids just can’t fathom.

But non-verbal didn’t mean unaware. Didn’t mean unresponsive. Not at all.

Like many autistic kids, she was very ritualistic about food. Some either demand or refuse foods of a particular color. Some will eat only fruit and desserts − anything with sugar, basically. Some refuse to eat at all, worrying their parents to death.

But this little girl was different. She LOVED food! She loved SPICY food! A sunny cuisine girl after my own heart.

Spicy food in Italy is nothing like spicy food in Thailand, which can blow the top of your head off. But there are some sausages and peppers that are right up there. Amazingly, her parents ordered for her exactly what I was having, and we enjoyed it equally.

I’d brought from the USA a tiny bottle of Tabasco for an expatriate friend who I planned to see at the end of the summer…and who survived without Tabasco until my next trip home because I gave it to this little girl’s parents. First, I put a couple of drops on my pasta, and then on hers, to show her how it worked.

She tasted it. Head down, still not looking at me, she smiled.

Ecco La Sposa!

It takes 2 years to learn French; it takes 2 minutes to learn Italian. Now, why is that?

Italian is easy because Italian people are easy.

French people are impatient, picky, and really, really critical. They’re very protective of their language – and, despite everything I’m going to say next, I don’t disagree with in principle − and nothing but perfection will do. Unfortunately, there are untold thousands of possible mistakes to be made between “Bonjour” and perfection (and, believe me, I’ve already made every single one at least once and am not near the end of the road yet).

This reality opens you up to months and years of unrelenting disdain, necessarily followed by profuse apologies and promises by you to try harder in the future. (Ask anyone with a French spouse and French in-laws whether love really gets you any breaks in the fluency department.)

Might be worth asking a neutral party to help you translate the following phrase, just to have on hand: “You’re getting on my last nerve and if you don’t back off, I might try my oleander-flavored crème brulée recipe on you in the very near future.”

Italian people, on the other hand, know perfectly well that nobody except sommeliers and opera singers has any real need to learn Italian, so they’re impressed that you’re making the effort and thus will keep blatantly lying to you about speaking well until you actually do.

Also helpful: Italian has a somewhat flexible structure. Unlike in French, where word order is carved in stone next to Napoleon’s tomb at Invalides, in Italian you can move words around, within reason, and nobody calls the language police.

Now, tell me which of the above teaching methods works for you.

One thing French and Italian have in common, both being Romance languages: lots of adjectives and adverbs. This makes for great story-telling and for great exaggeration while doing so. This also means 10 million different ways to talk about feelings, which makes American men in particular feel as though doom is rapidly approaching. “Come on. How many different feelings could there possibly be?”

Because English, by contrast, is rich in ways of avoiding this subject.

American woman: “I want to talk about feelings.”
American man: “Here we go again.” “Anything but that!” “Don’t go there.” “Oh, &@#(*).” “Give me a break!”

Which leads us to weddings.

In American weddings, as in American politics, there are 2 major parties and, just like conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats, they don’t agree on much of anything.

First, there’s the “Night Court” party: I want a 5-minute civil ceremony in a judge’s chambers attended by nobody. Sign the papers, snap a quick photo on the courthouse steps, and once we’re safely on the red-eye to Greece, change my marital status on Facebook.

Then there’s the “Sound of Music” party: I want to be the ravishing beauty in the Princess Grace knock-off, next to 9 clearly inferior bridesmaids wearing blue taffeta, walking down the aisle in front of 400 guests to a full orchestra playing Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. (Oh, and Dad, I’ll be wanting you to pay for the whole thing, even though I’m 32 and graduated from Yale.)

In France or Italy, why choose? Have both! (That’s the culture, but it’s also the law. Religion is religion, and it’s important, but you’re not really married until you go to city hall.)

“Ecco la sposa” is sort of the Italian equivalent of “here comes the bride,” but let me give you a better sense of it: I’m standing on the steps outside the cathedral with the rest of the guests, watching the bride and groom come out…next to these little boys, maybe 5 years old, so proudly dressed in their Sunday best, who are pointing and sighing, “Ecco la sposa!” (“Look at her, she’s sooooooooo beautiful!”), so longingly, as Italian men are so good at doing.

(Ask any Italian male between the ages of 5 and 95: who is the most beautiful woman in the world? No question: Sophia Loren. Keep in mind that Sophia Loren is 76 years old now. She’s still stunning and still as beloved in Italy as she was in Desire Under the Elms with Anthony Perkins, in a rather-different-from-Hannibal-Lecter role, before most of us were born, and in Man of La Mancha with Peter O’Toole, which premiered during the Nixon administration.)

Little American boys that age, who are missing the T-ball playoffs to go to this dumb wedding anyway, have only 1 question: how soon can I rip off this itchy tie and find some dirt somewhere, so I can embarrass my mom and sister for posterity by looking really messy in the family photos?

The French, ever competitive, think they have the best wedding cake.

The typical French wedding cake is “le croquembouche,” which is made with “les petits choux” (cream puffs) glued together with caramel – “réalisé avec des choux à la crème pâtissière et du sucre caramélisé montés en cône” − and there’s nothing like boiling hot caramel on your fingertips to send you right through the roof. There’s also the macaroon version, referred to as “une tour des macarons,” “une pyramide des macarons,” ou ”une pièce montée en macarons.”

Whatever you call them, done well, these are architectural feats and you have no chance of getting a pastry internship at Pierre Hermé or Lenôtre – let alone Ladurée, which sells 15,000 of these a day, worldwide − without having mastered this design.

So, here you have either little cream puffs or little macaroons, all lined up and marching together perfectly in step, just like the military parades on 14 juillet.

Just to be funny, I call it La Tour Macaronée, which can be used to describe “la pâte” (the dough), but usually refers to a style of poetry from the 16th century. I have this mental image, not of a tower OF macaroons, but rather a tower that was going along one day minding its own business and was attacked by macaroons that attached themselves to it like sea anemones. The poor tower couldn’t get rid of them, so might as well decorate them with marzipan flowers and sell the whole lot for 500 Euros.

I have a pastry chef friend who works at a famous bakery in Bologna, the food mecca of Italy. (Notice I blog a lot about pastries and bakeries? This is pure marketing. I don’t like sweets, but I know you all do.) Although he knows perfectly well how to make un croquembouche, he isn’t impressed.

“The French, all they serve is cake? We have a dessert course!” Now who’s being competitive?

He’s right. After you’ve made it through the antipasti, followed by 10 or so – I’m not exaggerating – courses of various pastas, meats, and vegetables, including the traditional (and delicious) Italian wedding soup, accompanied by copious volumes of wine throughout, there’s the dessert course: as much fruit, pastry, and coffee as you could possibly consume. The operative word is “possibly.” Think of it as mile 23 of the marathon and somehow you’ll muddle through.

Although the content and quantity of food at these magnificent culinary events – and the operative word is “event,” so plan on staying for the whole thing – varies somewhat by season, region, and personal taste, Italian weddings all serve one thing: sugared almonds. These, like the promises of marriage, signify the union of the bitter and the sweet.

Our Lady dei Bambini

Her real name is Madonna di Barbana and her job is to get you pregnant.

Directions to Signora Barbana’s place of business, founded in 582 AD, are a little bit complicated. From the Mestre train station in Venice, take the Venice-Trieste line east about 80 kilometers/50 miles. Get off at Cervignano del Friuli. Take the bus going toward the Adriatic Sea and ride 25 kilometers/15 miles, or until you can’t go any further without a swimsuit. Walk around the harbor and along the lagoon. Catch the ferry – runs every hour or so − to the island of Barbana. Church is on your right, across the park.

Allow the better part of a morning to complete this pilgrimage. More expensive option: fly Alitalia to Trieste and take a 30-Euro taxi ride directly to the ferry dock. You could also rent a car, but driving in Europe – in fact, driving at all – is not my department.

That’s nothing compared to how many thousands of miles, kilometers, maybe even light years people travel to get some face time with the Mamma Of All Mammas in one of the most beautiful churches in northeast Italy.

I’m not Catholic, but it doesn’t take a Confirmation medal to figure out that it’s one of the worst-case scenarios on earth to be a married Catholic woman who wants a baby and can’t conceive.

Lots of couples struggle with infertility. We’ve all had friends or family in this situation. But for religious people, not just Catholics, there’s either a commandment or a really strong recommendation to have children and raise them in the faith. If you can and just don’t feel like it, you’re a slacker and need to get going; if you want to but can’t, everybody feels sorry for you, which is sad and stressful, two of the best birth control methods in existence.

I didn’t know any of this when I first met Madonna di Barbana. I just went over to the island with some friends, yet another option on our long list of keep-cool strategies when the weather crept up into the high 30s Celsius. It’s a beautiful setting, surrounded by a marshy bird sanctuary on three sides and covered with mature shade trees. I went back every so often after that, with an Italian novel and a picnic lunch, for solitude.

Once inside the church, I realized that the back walls were covered in baby photos. Cute babies of all different shapes, sizes, and ethnicities. All dressed beautifully and smiling sweetly. It was a collage of the cutest of all the cute babies I’d ever seen, anywhere, put together.

Next to these photos were notes addressed to Madonna di Barbana, thanking her for bringing this gift, this child, to us. Here’s a photo of our miracle and we’ll keep you updated annually with his/her progress.

Clearly Madonna di Barbana had an incredible batting average. There were thousands of these photos and letters, from Italy and points around the globe. She’s also prodigiously multilingual because there were letters in 6 or 7 languages I could identify, and a few more I couldn’t. Some of these people of faith must have prayed in the privacy of their own homes or parishes, but others had traveled a great distance, likely at great expense, to petition the woman who understood better than anyone their pain and frustration.

A friend of mine, her husband, and their teenage son run a café near the harbor. They start making Mimosas at 7:00, which makes them very popular. I prefer espresso and the newspaper, which is why we got to talking. I think she was mostly curious how I could read the business weekly and yet spoke such bad Italian (with a French accent, no less – my nickname in that town, from day one, was “La Francesa”). Then her husband introduced himself as a jazz musician and would I like to come back around 21:30 or 22:00 and hear his trio perform? I would.

This couple is one of the local success stories of Madonna di Barbana. For years, they tried to have a baby. Just as their parents and grandparents had done, they’d fallen in love with a childhood friend, gotten married in the local cathedral, and lived not 2 blocks from their mothers…so you can imagine what kind of pressure they were under. They couldn’t hang out the laundry without somebody asking them if they were pregnant yet, since there are no secrets in village Italy. It’s the anti-secret capital of the world.

Even 20 years ago, let alone 25, there weren’t as many technological options available. Nowadays you have an alphabet soup of fertility treatments, including the familiar (and expensive) IVF. The cheapest method, of course, is prayer and my friends had world’s shortest commute to Barbana, so at any moment they were only 20 minutes and 5.000 Lira away from a kind and listening ear, at a minimum.

In addition to pursuing some non-parochial options, my friend prayed to Madonna di Barbana. Every week. For years. She and her husband were just about ready to give up, thinking that since Our Lady had helped so many other couples, maybe she was just fresh out of blessings.

Then they got pregnant. It was the news of the year in that small town. Everyone – not just the expectant parents – experienced that pregnancy in every detail. Madonna di Barbana had come through after all and in the course of time their only child, a son, was born. (He’s a great kid and worth the wait. He’ll start university soon and wants to be a journalist. Maybe I’ll ask him to guest post.)

My friend’s mother-in-law colored in some of the details from her generation. Barbana was known as a pilgrimage site for wannabe moms when she was a little girl, too. Back then, her parents ran a guest house closer to the dock, in a building that now houses a mobile phone retailer, and occasionally people who came to Barbana from out of town stayed there. She recalls how hopeful they were, despite Madonna di Barbana being their last-ditch effort to have a family.

That afternoon, I looked at the photos on the cathedral walls, and read the accompanying notes, for a long time. When I turned around, I noticed a young woman sitting in a pew, alone, crying. To give her privacy, I slipped out the side door.

I never saw her again. I wonder where she came from and if she ever had reason to write Madonna di Barbana a letter, ecstatic and thankful, precious photo enclosed.

“O! why the deuce should I repine…”

…And be an ill foreboder?
I’m 23 and 5 feet 9,
I’ll go and be a sodger.

Robert Burns
1782

A World War I army recruitment poster I saw added this editorial: “What Burns said in 1782 holds good in 1915. Take His Tip!”

Robert Burns was the national poet of Scotland, a long way from coastal Italy, where my World War I education took shape. I had this gaping hole in my history knowledge – roughly between the Spanish-American War and the League of Nations – that desperately needed fixing.

Jump to the Adriatic coast near Trieste, Italy and to 3 of the past 7 summers.

First, some background:

World War I was a disaster for Italy partly because they sat on the sidelines for too long, deciding what to do, which pretty much describes the Italian government today. In fall 1914, they were still waffling. In spring 1915, they entered the war on the side of Britain, France, and Russia.

Why the change of heart?

See, Italy secretly signed the Treaty of London in 1915. Britain’s opening bid was Trentino, but the Italians cleverly negotiated a bigger payoff: South Tyrol, Trieste and Gorizia, Istria, and the northern Dalmatian coast, too. The Italians had had this prime real estate on their radar for a while (think snow skiing, wine tasting, and sunny beaches), so it was an opportunity they couldn’t resist.

But there was a catch: Italy wouldn’t get anything unless a) they helped Britain and France open up a new front and got the Austro-Hungarians to back off, and b) that project was a clear military success. Didn’t happen.

Imagine you’re an Italian guy from Venice. You’re sent to fight some Austrian guys in the Alps. How is that a fair matchup?

Then, the bloodbath: Caporetto, October 1917. Italy actually had more military divisions in play than Germany and Austria combined, but weak leadership and supply chain issues continued to dog their every move. The Italian army took 300,000 casualties at Caporetto. It was a HUGE hit, both physically and psychologically.

By the end of the war in 1918, Italy had 600,000 military dead, an equal number of civilian casualties, and well over a million wounded.

People say that in only 3 years at war, the Italian government had spent more than it had in the 50 years before that, and they haven’t stopped spending money they don’t have ever since.

Now, at this point, we could get into Italy’s disappointment in the Treaty of London, followed by their total humiliation at Versailles (by the leaders of the “Big Three” – Britain, France, and the USA – sound familiar, anybody?), and those resentments plus high inflation and high unemployment contributing to the rise of nationalism (and Mussolini)…and here my history education finally kicks in again.

But let’s go back to the Adriatic, to the port of Trieste, which was part of this whole mess and wasn’t annexed to Italy until 1921 – and then again in 1954, but that’s another post.

The problem with arbitrary borders, as we continually refuse to learn, is that people who are connected to each other are on both sides of them.

Take the aptly-named Traversin (elsewhere in Italy, Traversini) family, for example. These people did all the right things. Lived conservatively. Pooled their money to buy strategic real estate. Branched out into Trieste proper and beyond, along the coast that’s now Croatia, and also in the direction of Venice parallel to the train line. Kept the business in the family and made seamless transitions from one generation to the next.

They were a multilingual, multicultural, jovial, and popular clan – which describes them today – and this worked hugely to their advantage in this busy coastal area, a holidaymakers’ favorite with a large return clientele.

Here’s the problem: the Traversin family had business interests on both sides of this arbitrary border. They had family, friends, and employees over here and over there. They simply switched languages and currencies at various points along the coast road. They’d done this for decades without a problem.

When you start to suspect somebody’s talking to somebody else about giving away your town, that’s worrisome, not to mention the fierce fighting going on along the Ilonzo River, not many kilometers northeast of you. Then, winter quarter of 1916, your son, who you thought was away at college, writes to say the city’s been destroyed and he’s been evacuated!

On the home front, the Army’s calling and you might end up fighting against your brother-in-law on the opposing side…which is what side, again?

I started learning this story in reverse because I visited a cemetery – not because I was paying my respects, but because it was shady and cool – and saw over and over again the same surnames. I don’t know where the Traversin men fought, nor for whom, but I do know that a large number of this extended family went away to war and either never came home at all, or came home to rest in peace – under the arbor, among the roses.

Luckily, the Traversin women had been intimately involved in the business from the get-go. They wisely realized it was time to step up.

World War I was a turning point in their family and in their family business. It was foremost a personal tragedy – many of those fallen soldiers left behind wives, and children – but a business failure meant those left behind weren’t going to eat. The Traversin women devised what we’d call in business today a “turnaround plan.” Bottom line, they took their own battle for survival to their own front and won victory over (“avévano riposo una vittoria su…”) their own sorry situation.

The woman helping me make sense of all this is the grandniece of one of the men in that cemetery. She insists I call her Nonna (grandma), but it seems wildly inappropriate for such a vibrant, nothing-gets-past-me-are-you-kidding matriarch of this extended family.

The Traversin family business, now much diversified, is in its 6th, going on 7th, generation. To this day, the women run the show. After the setbacks of World War I, they roared back with a vengeance, survived World War II, employ hundreds of people, and once again own some of the very real estate they lost in the shuffle.

That’s quite the story, I say, what you’ve overcome. “Non importa,” says Nonna, waving her hand.

The great book I should have read before I wrote this post: A World Undone: The Story of the Great War 1914-1918 by G. J. Meyer, Random House, 2006.