Time Machine Please!

Piazzale Michelangelo, Firenze

As I go over my plans for our virtual Italian class next Tuesday, I reflect over the assignment I gave my students.

Una vacanza mai dimenticata. An unforgettable vacation.

I have had a few in my life.  Most of them happened long, long ago, when I still lived in Italy with my parents.  They were travelers, my parents, passionate and inquisitive tourists, and that trait was passed down to me.  In my naïveté, I used to think that I would spend my life traveling the world, visiting all of the continents (minus Antarctica, which holds zero interest for me, not a fan of ice or penguins).  That was not to be, unfortunately, as my life, after the first dramatic and future-changing turn, settled into a more routine pace, leaving me with an unfulfilled taste for adventure.

Last year, however, I can indeed say that I had the most marvelous, relaxing and rewarding vacation of my life.  This time, going back to my native Italy did not feel melancholy, stressful and, yes, even somewhat tedious, as it often does.

Perhaps because I traveled to Northern Italy this time, not to my neck of the woods,  guest of my mother’s relatives in Modena, where I had not gone for decades, and actually met my cousins, my hosts, for the very first time.  My twenty-three- year-old daughter also came with me, my first time traveling with an adult child.  I didn’t know what to expect.  But all of these elements melded to create magic.

The two of us, boarding the train – together with my cousin and her husband – a couple of days after arriving, toward Florence, made my heart beat almost in a frenetic rhythm.  I was exhilarated, barely able to stay in my skin with excitement.  Beautiful, glorious Firenze, a precious, elaborate jewel, warm and ancient; the narrow, cobblestoned streets inviting you to immerse yourself into its medieval past; the breath of history at every step, the always comforting buzz of delighted and enthusiastic tourists, crowding every corner and filling the air with all the languages of the world.

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Summer vacation in a city: nothing like it.  Take all the white sandy beaches in the world, the luxurious cruise ships, the exotic cocktails by the pool…and get them out of my way.  I want a vibrant city to explore, bursting with monuments, dazzling churches, stunning museums showcasing artistic treasures, true masterpieces, not the tiresome, childish, contemporary ‘art’, mono-tone canvases, but real art, created by the most brilliant artists of the Renaissance.

It was a seriously hot day, that time in Florence, which only added to my joy.  Summer is the only season that can make one feel alive, when the sky is turquoise, the clouds are few and just fluffy trimmings, your clothes are light and your hair dances in the breeze.  Walking, walking, spinning around to take photos with my phone, overwhelmed by such magnificence, an ode to the genius of Man who is capable of such accomplishments.

The picturesque river Arno, green and tan, calm and serene, donating that liquid mirror to the fortunate ones who reside in the City of Art, crossed by simple bridges, bridges that have always been there, intrinsic part of Florence, defining the traditional passeggiata.

A simple lunch of bread and prosciutto, packed by my cousin, consumed sitting on a stone bench, in a hidden enclave shaded by trees, resting our tired feet, and drinking from not-so- chilled water bottles.  Looking at maps and discussing our next stop, another piece of Florence to explore, the lovely shops to seek, the straw hats to buy, and the spectacular Mercato del Porcellino, one of my favorite open-air markets.  Hello red leather bag!  Soft and supple as baby skin, handcrafted by local artisans, with that unique aroma of sophisticated luxury that only real leather gifts you.

Leaning over the balustrade of the Piazzale Michelangelo, moved nearly to tears by the splendor of the city below, wondering if I were indeed in such presence, or simply indulging in daydreaming.

Exhausted and emotional, I relaxed on the train seat, lovingly watching my precious daughter doze off, lulled by the motion, tired and content.

An exhausting day in a perfect city: this is a vacation.

Yes, una vacanza mai dimenticata.

Pasqua ai tempi del Coronavirus

Certo, una Pasqua come questa non me la sarei mai aspettata.

Neanche a inventarsela.  Da scrittrice, di trame improbabili e intriganti ne congiuro parecchie, ma una roba del genere neanche nelle mie idee più audaci.

La vita ai tempi del coronavirus.

Niente bella e animata festa in famiglia, con tutti i miei figli e i loro piccoli a casa mia, tavola imbandita nella sala da pranzo, la lunga tovaglia giallo-paglia come sfondo allegro e primaverile, coperta da tutti i manicaretti pasquali che preparo ormai da una vita; il capretto arrosto, fragrante di aglio e rosmarino, con contorno di patate dorate e croccanti; niente rustici caldi e farciti di ricotta, salumi e formaggi, rivestiti da una pasta frolla dolce e friabile; niente spettacolare pastiera napoletana, morbida e cremosa, con quell’aroma di primavera tra i fiori d’arancio, cannella e vaniglia, il suo cuore di grano il simbolo della rinascita.

Chiusa in casa, timorosa di avventurarmi al supermercato, ho deciso di non cercare i vari ingredienti necessari per preparare il mio pasto tradizionale, ma di adattarmi a questa situazione surreale.  Strana Pasqua a casa, solo noi tre che abitiamo insieme; gli altri, nonostante vicinissimi, li abbiamo salutati solo virtualmente, grazie a Zoom, sfiorando con le dita il monitor del computer per sentirci insieme.  La messa su YouTube, seduti sul divano nel soggiorno, tazzina di caffè in mano.  Grande la tecnologia, però, che ci permette di fare queste cose.

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Ovviamente di provviste ne avevo in abbondanza, essendomi preparata all’inizio di questo incubo, per cui la dispensa era piena di tanti cibi.  Frugando, ho trovato tutto ciò che mi serviva per preparare il timballo di maccheroni, un piatto che non conoscevo finché non mi sono sposata, antica ricetta di mia suocera.  Erano anni che non lo facevo – preparazione lunga e di più fasi – ma di tempo ne ho anche troppo adesso, per cui mi sono messa all’opera.  Un pasticcio di pasta condita, straripante di polpettine e di formaggi, rivestito di sfoglia a base di sugna, infornato per poi riemergere bello dorato e aromatico, un profumo che riempie la casa e ti invita a tavola.  Naturalmente accompagnato da polpette e salsicce cucinate in un tipico ragù napoletano denso e saporito.  Bello grande, questo timballo, il mio pièce de résistance, durerà a lungo, forse ne metto anche una fetta nel freezer.

Niente colomba delle Tre Marie quest’anno; ribadisco che non sono uscita.  Però, perché non provare a farla? Il tempo ce l’ho, e anche il preziosissimo lievito di birra, nonché la meravigliosa frutta candita comprata al mercato coperto di Modena l’estate scorsa, durante forse il più bel e rilassante viaggio della mia vita, con mia figlia, ospiti dei miei simpatici parenti modenesi, che ci hanno accolto con tanto caldo affetto da farmi commuovere.  Ed è uscita una meraviglia, questa mia colomba casalinga!  Di forma perfetta, quasi identica a quella comprata, con quella crosticina dolcissima e croccante, e dal profumo meraviglioso!  Vero, mi mancavano le mandorle intere, ma insomma, ci si adatta. Poi la mia figlia più piccola, che ho la gioia di avere ancora a casa, ha deciso di fare un dolce con delle banane che si stavano un po’ annerendo.  E che dolce! Un Banana Cobbler americanissimo, cremoso e delicato, con una crosticina a base di fiocchi d’avena.

Pasqua è avvenuta, nonstante tutto.  Cristo è risorto e ci porta la speranza di un futuro pur sempre luminoso, presto liberato dal diabolico Covid 19.

Non mollate, amici!  Siate dolci, siate fiduciosi!  Anche questo passerà.

Happy Easter!

Not Your Typical Easter

Yup, definitely not the way I anticipated spending Easter.

Just the three of us who live together.  Not the rest of the family, even though they live just a few miles away. Mass on YouTube, sitting on the couch.

A strange Easter, in this surreal, Twilight zone-like period of Coronavirus.

I stayed locked up at home, unwilling to venture out, even to go food shopping, determined to be realistic, and chose safe rather than sorry, with the rest of my family.

Thus, no ricotta, salumi, and cheeses to make the traditional orange flower, cinnamon and vanilla scented Pastiera, and my savory Rustici, with their tender, golden, sweet pasta frolla crust and the rich, hearty, salty filling, a combination made in gourmet heaven.  No fragrant leg of lamb roasted slowly with garlic and fresh rosemary either.

However, needless to say, in these crazy days of panicky overstocking of foods and paper products, I had plenty of other ingredients to create my family Easter dinner.

I made an old-fashioned, traditional Southern Italian timballo, a sort of a deep pie made with savory dough that encases a filling of cooked and sauced pasta, mixed with tiny meatballs, parmigiano and chunked cheese, baked golden brown, to emerge as a spectacular ‘drum’, steaming and filling the entire house with the sweet smell of serious comfort food, in an elegant, haute cuisine form.  Plentiful meatballs and sausages, cooked in the traditional Neapolitan ragù, accompanied the imponent pasta pièce de résistance.

This regal dish does not belong to my childhood, but I discovered it, in all its glory, on my mother-in-law’s table; she eventually offered me her super-secret oral instructions, which I eagerly scribbled on a a sheet of paper. Time-consuming and involved, but oh what a presentation!

I even decided to try my hand at making a colomba di Pasqua, a beautiful, light, almond-encrosted Italian Easter bread shaped like the dove of peace.  This is usually purchased in boxes, since it is, like panettone for Christmas, a popular delicious commercial product that nobody bothers to make at home.  But I did not get to the stores, this time, so I figured why not make it, since I have all the ingredients in my pantry, including precious yeast and perfect candied fruit, bought in Modena last summer, during my unforgettable trip to Italy to visit my mother’s relatives. Well, I was missing whole almonds for the top, but, what the heck, will do without.

Easter happened anyway, my friends.  Jesus has risen and is bringing us new hope for a future still luminous, soon to be free of evil Covid 19.

Be strong, be kind, have faith!

Buona Pasqua!

Virtual Italian Class: We Must Adapt!

Well, here I am, teaching Italian  Language and Culture through Zoom.

Very strange, never thought I would have to do this.  Honestly, I never even heard of Zoom until three weeks ago!

But we are smart, strong, flexible and must adapt to different situations, even surreal ones like the one we are experiencing right now.

I’m thrilled and touched that so many of my wonderful students dove right in, and joined our virtual class with great optimism.  Oh yeah, we had issues with connection, video, positioning of cell phones and computers, sometimes only seeing somebody’s top of the head or the ceiling, students accidentally disconnecting, some appearing only as a green rectangle, but we resolved these issues, laughing and taking everything in stride.  We will all become real pros at this online teaching, I’m confident!

Si parla ancora italiano ad Armonk!

Looking forward to the next online sessions, now that I’m not so anxious about them anymore.  We all learn something new everyday, and can conquer what scares or intimidates us.

Thank you, my awesome students and friends, for keeping our precious Italian Class going.  I missed you all so much!

I’m planning easier lessons, more manageable online.  We will keep having fun, don’t you worry!

And, yes, of course, we will see each other in person again at some point soon (And I can finally start wearing all my beautiful shoes again! :-).

Because this, too, shall pass.

Because I LOVE Cooking with Glorious Rosemary

 It has been quite a while since I posted a food video.

I’ve been super busy with work, of course, and had to put aside some of my favorite things to do.

But here I am now, trying to keep busy in a different way, and also to escape to my happy place: my kitchen.

This super easy pasta sauce is my adaptation of one created by the outstanding cookbook author Marcella Hazan.  I found it accidentally, while I was looking up another delicious sauce recipe by her, made with tomato, butter and onion, and I bumped into this one.  Being lucky enough to already have some glorious fresh rosemary in the fridge, I got very excited and decided to try it.

This is definitely one of the best sauces I’ve ever had, and my family agrees!

Just the first step, heating the golden olive oil with the sliced garlic and rosemary sprigs fills the entire house with the aroma of an Easter roast baking in the oven.  Yes, there is no meat in this sauce, but it smells and tastes like there is!  Magnificent.

Go ahead and make this recipe next, then let me know what you think!

Stay safe, stay healthy, eat well, and drink wine!  (A good red is perfect with this dish).

Living in Paris? Not so sure

Sometimes I read a book that genuinely touches me.

No, not often, even though I’m an avid reader.

But this one made my day (month).

Because it is so FUNNY!

Indeed, in this crazy, infuriating, depressing period we are stuck in, with this damn invisible enemy we need to fight blindly, the only way to be able to get through each challenging day is (besides eating) LAUGHING.

The book is called L’Appart, by David Lebovitz.  Published a couple of years ago, it has been in my reading wish list for a while, till I was finally able to download it on my Kindle for a decent price.  I could not put it down!  David Lebovitz is a pastry chef/cookbook writer who lives in Paris.  I have read most of his other books cum memoirs, and they are filled with delectable recipes and hilarious anecdotes of life in France.  But this one is a masterpiece of comedy, information and the – often ignored – reality of life in Paris.

Those of you who know me personally might be aware that my cherished dream is to go to Paris, where I have never been, and spend a sizeable amount of time living and writing there, in the Marais perhaps, sitting at my computer near a window overlooking the famed roofs of Paris, and possibly with a romantically hazy view of the Eiffel Tower, while sipping espresso (yes, the Italian one, since there is no comparison).

Well, although that dream is still intact in my heart, I now know for a fact that I would never want to move to the City of Lights, let alone buy an apartment there.

Which is exactly what this talented writer and pastry chef has done, describing the entire harrowing experience in this brilliant book.  Anybody who has ever gone through a difficult and frustrating renovation should absolutely read this lively story.  And maybe your past (or current) problems, with contractors toward whom you might have had murderous thoughts at the time, won’t seem so bad after all.  This is the ultimate money pit story, told with ironic humor lined with resignation and a touch of C’est la vie.

Thank you, Daveed Lebovitz, for writing this fantastic memoir, and for relieving me from my (unrealistic) desire to move to France.  Wishing you the best, and keep those books coming, please!

La Storia del Gallo: Ricordi della mia infanzia a Napoli

Forse avevo sette, otto anni.  Non ricordo bene.

Ma un giorno mia madre ci annunciò che avevamo un nuovo inquilino: un bel gallo!

Allora abitavo ancora a Napoli, a Capodichino.  Infatti ci siamo trasferiti a Portici quando avevo nove anni e cominciai la quarta elementare all’Istituto Cristo Re, dove mio padre era il dirigente scolastico (chiamato direttore didattico, a quei tempi).

No so precisamente come ciò sia successo, ma immagino che una bidella della scuola dove i miei genitori erano docenti abbia voluto dare loro un regalo per qualche gentilezza ricevuta.  Oppure era stata la signora che ci guardava ogni tanto, quando mia madre era a scuola per riunioni pomeridiane.  A quei tempi, la periferia di Napoli era ancora abbastanza bucolica: i campi coltivati ci circondavano, e anche i prati fitti di papaveri scarlatti dove si poteva correre liberi e felici nelle belle giornate di sole così frequenti nell’Italia del Sud.  Molti abitanti di quella zona venivano in città a lavorare, ma tornavano nei loro casali la sera.

Il gallo fu sistemato nel pianerottolo vicino alla porta della terrazza.  Allora noi affittavamo un appartamentino al primo (e unico) piano di una palazzina che era proprietà di un carabiniere.  Bravissima persona, molto comprensiva.

Così noi, topi di città, diventammo all’improvviso quasi agricoltori/contadini.

Naturalmente, essendo bambini, l’idea di avere un gallo da accudire ci rendeva molto felici, anche se un po’ nervosi e confusi.  Che fanno i galli?  Un gran chiasso, pare.  E non solo all’alba come eravamo stati istruiti, ma cantano (in modo tutt’altro che melodico) a tutte le ore del giorno e della notte.  Certo il carabiniere doveva essere un santo.

Il gallo era legato alla ringhiera delle scale, vicino alla porta della terrazza.  Mia madre metteva qualcosa da mangiare (non ho la minima idea di che si trattasse) in una ciotola e lo portava su, esitante e rassegnata, lasciandolo in prossimità del gallo affinché potesse avvicinarsi facilmente, ma non beccarla.

Non voleva che noi tre bambini curiosi la seguissimo, ma naturalmente era impossibile.  “Attenti che vi becca!” ci avvertiva.  E ammetto che la paura io ce l’avevo.  Ma mio fratello – temerario!- non poi tanto.  Sempre il più avventuroso, lui saliva su per le scale, mentre io e la mia sorellina, ci fermavamo qualche scalino prima, e cominciava a provocarlo.  Smorfie eccetera.  Roba da bambini, ovviamente.  Ma quando il gallo si arrabbiava, cominciava ad agitare le ali e a schiamazzare, via di corsa giù per le scale, tutti e tre, cuore in gola!

La sera li sentivo.  Il babbo e la mamma che discutevano.  Che cavolo si deve fare col gallo? Sono stanca di occuparmi di pollame, ho già tutti i miei alunni… Sì, lo so, la signora ha detto che fa un brodo strepitoso, perfetto per i tortellini, e anche molto abbondante, ma… Io non l’ammazzo, gli porto da mangiare da una settimana…

Il gallo era comunque diventato il nostro “cucciolo” e non perdevamo occasione per andarlo a trovare.  Però un giorno, quando arrivammo sul pianerottolo della terrazza dopo la scuola, trovammo solo delle piume rosse, bianche e gialle vicino alla cordicina.  E l’odore di pollaio.

Pare che la mia esasperata, stressatissima mamma abbia chiesto alla signora di riprendersi il galletto, grazie mille per il pensiero, ma noi siamo gente di città e il pollame lo compriamo in macelleria già bello preparato.  Lei avrà alzato le spalle, sbalordita, e, arrivata in campagna, tirato per benino il collo del povero pennuto e cominciato a preparare il pranzo.

Certo, noi ragazzi siamo rimasti un po’ delusi, avendo perso il nostro quasi pet, ma, almeno io, mi sentivo piuttosto sollevata di poter andare su in terrazza senza cercare di aggirare un gallo che non era mai di buon umore.

Comunque, grazie galletto, per questa simpatica vignetta della mia (lontanissima) infanzia.

 

 

The Rooster: An Italian Childhood Memoir

We were still living in Naples at that time.  Before we moved to the suburb of Portici, where my formative years happened.  I was under nine years old, since I started fourth grade in Portici.  My memories of those early days are somewhat vague, but some are more vivid than others.

Like the rooster.

I’m not sure exactly how this happened, but somehow my very urban family ended up owning a live rooster. I seem to recall that it was an unexpected gift from someone my parents knew.  Perhaps the sometimes cleaning lady, who also happened to watch us when my mother was at school.  Or a kind school custodian who was grateful to one of my parents for a favor granted, I don’t know.  In those days, the outskirts of Naples were still mostly countryside, with farmland, and many people who worked in the city lived more bucolic lives out there, surrounded by fields, chickens and other farm animals.

Fact is that one day, my mother mentioned that we now had a rooster residing upstairs! At the time, my family was renting a small apartment in a two-family house in the neighborhood of Capodichino  (yes, where the airport is located).  We lived on the first floor (which would be considered the second in the US),  next door to the landlord who was a carabiniere.  A very nice family, who obviously allowed my poor bewildered mother to temporarily house the lively and not tiny rooster on the floor above, where the entrance to the rooftop terrace was.

Needless to say, we kids were enthralled, excited, scared, giggly, curious, ‘helpful’.  Can we feed it, please, please?!  The rooster was tied to the handrail, on the landing right above our apartment, where nobody lived, and the only door was the locked one to the terrace.  Also needless to say, it wasn’t a quiet rooster, but it squawked, shrilled, a total nuisance at all times of day and night.  My mother would regularly bring it some feed and water, hesitantly climbing the stairs, heart in her throat, terrified and resigned at once.  My brother, sister and I would follow behind, at a safe distance, even though mamma had told us not to, because she was afraid the strange creature would peck us.  She shakily placed the stuff near it, then quickly retreated.

Naturally, we were aware that it wasn’t a permanent pet, and its demise would be imminent, because that’s what happens to roosters.  Nevertheless, any time we could get away with it, we would run up the stairs and check il gallo, intimidated by its fierce expression, its constant, fitful motion, that regal, stiff red crest and the rust/brown/yellow feathers, which he seemed to shake off quite frequently, calling to him, making faces, trying to touch it for a second without getting pecked.  My brother especially, the reckless one, liked living on the edge: he would get so close that my sister and I would watch him frozen with apprehension, as he teased him into squawking loudly, then we would all run back down the stairs, even though the bird couldn’t get too far chasing us.

I overheard my parents discussing the stressful situation at night, arguing of course, what  were they going to do with that thing up there?  The landlord’s patience was wearing thin, my mother was not happy to have to take care of poultry, and surely was not expected to kill the darn bird herself, even though the well-meaning giver had said that it would make excellent stock, and, sure, my mother admitted, it would make a delicious broth for tortellini

Well, the day came when we ran up the stairs after school, and the noisy rooster was no longer there.  A strange smell and a couple of colorful feathers still lingered, next to a string.

We were saddened and alarmed at once, and wondered with trepidation what would be served for pranzo within the next few days. Not a pretty thought.

Indeed, my mother had dealt with the situation as best as she could.  The woman who had given us the unusual gift had quickly and matter-of-factly snapped its neck and handed it to my mother, nicely plucked and ready to cook.  My poor, traumatized mother had tactfully returned it to her, saying that she could not possibly ingest a bird that she had known alive and tended to for a week or so.  Grazie mille for this thoughtful present, but we are just not used to this kind of thing, we purchase our chickens (which we don’t know personally) at the butcher shop.  We are city people, forgive our squirminess.

Yes, of course, I was relieved.  My brother was particularly disappointed by the loss of our temporary ‘pet’, and pressed my parents to get another one to keep upstairs, just for a little while.

It was good to be able to get back to the terrace, without bypassing the nervous creature, and I certainly realized then I wasn’t made for the country life.

But grazie for this childhood vignette, galletto!

You too are deserving. Really

Bottom line:

It’s just you.  Always and only you.  Your biggest supporter, cheerleader, sympathizer.

Pick yourself up, shake off the grip of potential depression, get a steely control of your emotions, and put them in their place.  They don’t belong on your face.

Stay cool, detached.  Activate the powerful gray matter, focus on practicality.

They will stab you.  Sometimes unconsciously, accidentally.  But think: Shouldn’t they know better if they truly cared?

Reality: You are the one who needs to care about you.  Be your own advocate, wear your bullet-proof jacket, remain reasonably detached.

Build your immunity, start early.  Don’t allow the world to kick you in the face, even when the kicker is gentle and offers you a persuasive explanation.  There is no acceptable explanation.

Sacrifice is overrated.

Living in pain and anxiety, dwelling in the deepest unhappiness, simply not to rattle someone else’s life.  Allowing them to turn the other way not to get involved in a difficult situation that might offset the bricks they placed so neatly to pave their happy future.

This is unhealthy, self-destructive behavior.  Don’t self-destruct: you are worthy.

One cannot build personal happiness on the misery of others.  It doesn’t work that way.  Oh, they will comprehend at some point, of course they will.  But not now, focused as they are in conquering their brilliant future.

Stay resolute, freeze your tears before they show.  Stay true to yourself, don’t waver because that unfair sentiment known as guilt knows how to disassemble your soul.

Don’t give up. You matter.

Take that trip, you deserve it.  Love that city just because.  Even when they try to make the mere idea of your timid wish weigh on your conscience, and not necessarily in words.

Be brave.  Courage is real, simply concealed under deceiving, self-imposed responsibilities.

At the end, it’s always just you, forever.