I Have Never Done This

Until now.

Okay, not exactly only now, like today.  It has been a few weeks, perhaps a month, that I have, somewhat tentatively, engaged in this unusual behavior.

I actually cooked a meal for myself!

Not for my family, not for guests, not for a friend or a neighbor, not for any other human being.

I sort of felt guilty, in the sense of why am I bothering to waste time cooking a dish that only I will consume?  Preposterous. 

If you know me personally, or have been following my blog, you should be aware that I absolutely adore cooking, and especially baking, as you can see from the numerous videos I posted on my website, but I always had an audience, a houseful, a holiday, a reason to hit the stove, and create something awesome for everyone to enjoy.

I never considered myself one of the recipients, because why would I ever dream of cooking something just for myself, when there is lovely Amy’s Frozen Pizza, lots of crunchy cereals, plenty of leftover rice, or asparagus, or a jar of scrumptious Italian sour cherry jam ready to eat?  That and a few crackers, a cup of applesauce, or even some tender sardines in olive oil (which I love!).

I wouldn’t dream of wasting any of my precious time making a meal for myself – better things to do, like work, write, teach, clean my house, watch Italian television, or a decent show on Netflix, munching on raw almonds.

Then my daughter gave me a recipe for quick and easy shrimp with butter, garlic, herbs, and lemon. She bumped into it on Pinterest, and seemed delighted with the results.

Okay, I love shrimp.  I’m not much of a fish cook, not enough experience, but if I’m ever in a restaurant (rare occurrence), I will order a fish dish, simply because I never make it at home (unless they offer a hefty, juicy, medium rare prime rib with horseradish sauce).

I love shrimp so much that I have been known to eat almost the entire tray (including the replenishing) of plump, tasty shrimp at an all-you-can-eat buffet.  Of course, I was embarrassed, but not enough to stop.

I remember being at a Christmas party at an acquaintance’s house, when I was eight-months-pregnant with my third child, wearing an elegant maternity outfit of a sparkly top and silky black skirt, four-inch heels, and carrying a dainty black leather clutch with gold detail.  I did not know most of the guests, the living area was very crowded, and you could barely make your way to the tentalizing and abundant buffet, but I sure did! Cradling my sizeable baby belly with my hands, I inched my way to the tub of shrimp, determined and focused to get my share.  About ten times.  I’m pretty sure no one else got a chance at more than a couple of those plump, jumbo shrimp that night!

Getting back to this fabulous, super-easy dish, I tried out the recipe one day, meaning to share it with my husband for dinner.  He was not interested (not a fan of fish), and had already had something to eat. 

So, I ate it myself.  All of it.  One pound of shrimp over rice. Bliss. I genuinely believed I was in heaven, at least for that half an hour or so.  The shrimp was frozen raw, quickly defrosted under cold water.  I minced some garlic, chopped a handful of fragrant fresh cilantro, squeezed a juicy lime, added some spices, and a generous glass of white wine.  I replaced the butter with extra-virgin olive oil (lactose-intolerant, unfortunately), and just barely reduced the delightful sauce over medium heat, then spooned the steaming shrimp and all over freshly cooked hot rice, watching it soak into it, envelop each grain, infuse it with a fantastic, exotic flavor, the kind you only experience in your dreams.

I plated it in one single large plate, poured a substantial amount of chilled white wine in a goblet (a must!), and enjoyed this luxurious, heavenly, sophisticated meal, that was actually the easiest thing in the world to make.

Here is the original recipe, my friends.  You can use lovely butter and fresh parsley, with a good squeeze of lemon – more Italian-style -, or follow what I do, with the olive oil, lime, and cilantro.  Either way it is delectable, and I’m pretty sure it will become your favorite dish also.

Serve this glorious personal feast on a gorgeous plate, or on a stunning Indian metal thali, like I did (check out photos). A meal fit for…well, a princess, which is how I feel while I’m consuming it.  Yes, a princess who cooks her own meals…and would not want it any other way. Do cook, my friends, it is the highest of highs!

Go ahead and indulge, even if just by yourself, in front of the TV, Netflix on. 

It will soften your blues, pull you together again, when you feel you are just hopelessly free-falling, and no one is there to catch you.

An earthy piece of life, of resilience; a spark of attitude and determination.  Maybe even a secure rope to grasp.

Paint a smile on your face, and cook some shrimp.

Tomorrow will be better, I promise.

Buon Carnevale a tutti!

We are celebrating this ancient festival today, when anything goes (or almost!).

There are many foods associated with this event, all involving the consuming of rich and fatty foods, since the following day is Ash Wednesday, when, in the past, all meat was forbidden for the forty days of Lent, as a sacrifice.  As a matter of fact, the word Carnevale comes from the Latin carnem levare, which translates to ‘take away meat’.

The point of Carnevale, also known in the US as Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), is to enjoy this day in every possible way, eating a variety of delicious foods.  Many traditions are associated with the Italian Carnevale, including celebrating with amazing costumes and masks borrowed from the famous Commedia dell’Arte.

In my family, when I was growing up in Italy, we wore cute cardboard masks, sometimes costumes, and there would be lively plays and poem reciting at school.

My mother always made the delicious Frappe di Carnevale, also known as Cenci, or Chiacchiere. They are dough ribbons, fragrant with lemon and wine (or brandy), deep fried till golden, tender and light.  They are super easy to make, and here is my recipe!

Buon Carnevale, and eat up!

Learn Italian!

Do you have a smattering of Italian? Did you take it in high school, or studied it on your own? Well, then you are welcome to join us!

Our Italian Language and Culture Class happens happily every Tuesday night through Zoom, snow, or rain not-withstanding.  Yes, we definitely need  to thank technology these days, which allows us to interact easily with anyone anywhere.  No small thing.

Go the North Castle Library, click on the calendar, find our Italian Class, and follow the prompts.  You need to register to join.

Looking forward to meeting lovely new people, who have my same passion for Italy and all things Italian!

A presto, miei cari!

The Storm

The storm can engulf you suddenly.

While you go about the business of life.

Working, creating, worrying about the stupid things.

Because this is how we roll, we imperfect human beings, who are trying our damndest to be…what?

Nothing, really.  We are just attempting to survive, and, if we have any whimsical, always unrealistic, dreams, we put them aside till the right time comes.

My dear friends, the right time never comes.

So we cower, and follow the most traveled road, not realizing that only some of us are good travelers.  Some keep stumbling, taking all the wrong turns, turning back, getting lost and smashing into walls, crying in the shadows, cursing fate, regretting decisions taken decades past, when we could barely count decades, but we trusted.  Others, dreams, the future.

The future is now, and it is as cloudy as a London sky.

The brilliant ones seize the future before it happens, twist it and mold it like Murano  molten glass.  The others – the weak, the fearful, the responsible – just find themselves projected there, broken, confused, scrambling to just stay afloat.

And, mostly, fail. 

Try your damndest, as I said, but the winds can be so instantly overwhelming that you are swept away before you have the chance to realize that it is windy.

You cannot fight the storm, dear ones. Just close your eyes, and allow it to divert you where it will.

Then, if you can, try to pick up the pieces.  Yes, difficult task, some are unreachable.

The storm is wicked. 

But so is life.

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.

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).

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!

Modena Rivisited

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I never thought it would be so beautiful

Modena.

Okay, sure, I had been there several times, mostly when I was very young, since it was my mother’s hometown.  I have vague memories of my nonna with her hair pulled up in a tight bun, and it had a sort of a bluish hue.

I recall being there as a teen, unhappily dragged along by my parents for some holidays, begrudging the fact that I would not see my boyfriend for several days.  But I was too involved in my own dramas to pay much attention.

This time it was different.  And I owe it to them, my wonderful cousins, whom I hardly knew, but who gave me the precious opportunity to spend a longer period in this absolutely lovely city, welcoming me and my daughter to their pretty home with touching warmth and kindness.  Not a reception one receives often as a guest.

Taking a walk around town on the very first day, I felt swaddled in a vibrant golden light: the stunning yellow and orange buildings of Modena, reflecting and intensifying the sunlight, warming the city and our hearts, as we wandered through the magnificent centro storico.  I’m fascinated by the superb architecture, the splendid Romanesque Duomo – the main cathedral- and its Ghirlandina, the bell tower that has become the beloved symbol of the city.  Elegant streets, shaded by classic arched portici, graced with chic shops, bars displaying a dizzying array of mouth-watering pastries, charming bicycle parking areas on the side (Modena is a serious bicycle town, the most common method of transportation!).  Rich in history, with its surprising, mysterious underground canals, with the beautiful Piazza grande, carpeted by thousands of river stones, smoothened by centuries of human footsteps, including my own, as I walked on them, a little tentatively in my heels, which I rarely do without.

I grew up in Naples, since my modenese mother had fallen in love with this city during her honeymoon journey, and she and the city embraced each other with a love that would last a lifetime.  Therefore, because of the distance, Modena and all of mamma’s relatives, had been somewhat placed in the background, as my siblings and I lived a totally Southern Italian childhood.

But they were there, those Modena roots, strong and everlasting, just waiting their turn to be uncovered.

With anticipation and wonder, I approach the “Mercato coperto”, the indoor market in the heart of the city.  I remember going there with my uncle, lo zio Walter, my mother’s younger brother.  He was a tall gentleman and had a beautiful shiny, flame red Fiat 600, of which he was very (very) fond.  I was an insecure and shy child, always felt a little in awe of adults, but when he offered to buy me a panino al prosciutto, freshly made at a deli counter, I eagerly accepted.  And here I am, surrounded by delectable prosciutti,  parmigiano, salami, and other local delights, and don’t even know what to look at first.  What a great food city is Modena!  Nobody makes tortellini like they do here, and those fat, overstuffed tortelloni, savory with ricotta, parmigiano and greens, the dough tender and so intensely yellow, their delicate flavor enhanced by fresh sage leaves; golden tagliatelle with a rich, white, porcini sauce; freshly made tigelle, spread with lard or stracchino, one of my favorite soft cheeses.  Breakfast is perfection when you bite into a heavenly diamond-shaped piece of gnocco, flaky and tender, warm and puffy right out of the fryer, ideal with your foamy cappuccino. And the bread, so unique in its many whimsical shapes, chalk-white and dense, yet light and easily snappable.  I also discovered a product called savor, which is a thick jam made of multiple fresh and dried fruit, used to make fantastic crostate and tortelli dolci, lovely tiny crescent-shaped pies, stuffed with various fillings and deep fried.  My mother used to make tortelli when we were small, usually filled with sour cherry jam (a specialty of Modena), and it was always a feast. I hear her accent all around me, at the mercato, as the shoppers chat and laugh, and my eyes become slightly blurry.

As I gaze at the ‘roofs of Modena”, sipping my espresso, out on the kitchen balcony, in the shade of the many trees that help cool off the fiery summer heat, I realize that this trip has changed me: my connection to my mother’s land is more solid, and I’m so fiercely proud to belong to this city and to these beautiful people.

Modena, you’re in my heart.

Modena Rivisitata

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Non mi aspettavo che fosse così bella.

Modena.

Certo che c’ero già stata varie volte, da quando ero piccolissima, siccome era la home town di mia madre, ma, insomma, non ricordavo molto, o non ci facevo caso, sempre presa da tanti altri stimoli e impegni vari.

Stavolta però ci sono stata più a lungo e ad occhi apertissimi.  Sono stati loro, naturalmente, a darmi la meravigliosa opportunità di immergermi totalmente in questa esperienza, i cugini.  Con la lora calda e sincera accoglienza, questi cugini di cui conoscevo ben poco, hanno permesso a me e a mia figlia di goderci una vera e propria vacanza, priva di stress e di drammi.  Ci siamo sentite subito a casa, già dal primo giorno, circondate da affetto, ospiti attese e volute, per cui  loro si sono fatti in quattro, organizzando numerose gite in posti stupendi.  Non succedono spesso queste cose, e gliene sarò eternamente grata.

Subito a mio agio nella loro bella casa in una zona residenziale, circondata da alberi e con una piacevole vista dei “tetti di Modena”, mi sono abbandonata a questa città e a tutto ciò che ha da offrire. E da offrire ha tanto.

Elegante, organizzata, pulitissima, mi inonda in una luce dorata, mentre cammino sui suoi viali, luce riflessa dai palazzi giallo uovo e arancione, tinte vibranti e gioiose, un abbraccio caldo e antico.  Tanta storia in questa grande piccola città, nella sua architettura, nei sorprendenti canali sotterranei, nella gloria romanica del magnifico Duomo e della sua Ghirlandina; Piazza Grande coperta da un tappeto di sassi resi lisci da secoli di passi umani, inclusi i miei, se pur appena un po’ esitanti, dati i tacchi di cui non faccio mai a meno.

 Ho riscoperto il Mercato Coperto, di cui avevo una vaga memoria.  Ero piccola, forse sei-sette anni, e mio zio mi portò lì, al mercato col tetto, cosa che non avevo mai visto; ricordo i fruttivendoli con le cassette tutte ordinate e il pane, tanto pane dalle forme insolite, bianco come il gesso, denso ma leggero; e quel meraviglioso prosciutto crudo, unico al mondo. ‘Vuoi un panino al prosciutto?’, mi chiedeva lo zio Walter, un signore alto che mi faceva un po’ soggezione, non lo vedevo spesso, abitando a Napoli.  Certo che sì! Un buon panino al prosciutto rimane ancora uno dei miei pasti preferiti.  Ero felice allora, vagando con mio zio per il mercatino, mentre mi gustavo il mio snack.  E lo sono stata di nuovo, quest’estate, anche se i miei interessi, oltre al prosciutto e al parmigiano, si sono allargati ad altre delizie, come il ‘savor’, che non conoscevo, ma che adesso è il mio ripieno preferito dei tortelli dolci.

 Quei cedri canditi, lucidi e spessi, a prezzi ragionevolissimi (sono abituata agli imports, vivendo in America), fiori, tanti fiori, e la gente che fa la spesa e conversa, ed io lì incantata ad ascoltare il loro accento modenese che mi ricorda mia madre, e mi vengono un po’ gli occhi lucidi.

Tanti bei negozi, poi! Voi che seguite i miei blog ben saprete che lo shopping è un’attività da me molto amata, e ce ne sono di belle cose in questi deliziosi negozi del centro, all’ombra dei magnifici portici.  E i bar con tanti dolci da farti venire il capogiro.  Le crostate di amarena modenesi sono decisamente le migliori al mondo.  E ‘il gnocco’, gonfio, morbido e friabile, caldo e squisito.  Mia madre lo chiamava la crescente e lo faceva spesso quando eravamo piccoli, ed era sempre una festa.  Dio, come si mangia bene a Modena! Tortellini fragranti, tortelloni enormi e panciuti e così magnificamente gialli, le tigelle col lardo, le piadine morbide, le tagliatelle col sugo bianco ai porcini freschi, e il Lambrusco!  Tanto Lambrusco, tutti i giorni a pranzo un bel bicchiere (o due) di questo meraviglioso vino frizzante.

Una città antica e moderna, decisamente chic, passeggiabile, invitante.  Infatti, se dovessi tornare ad abitare in Italia, sceglierei Modena.  Certo, dovrei imparare ad andare in bicicletta, dato che è il metodo di trasporto più diffuso!

Una città serena, adagiata sulla pianura, circondata da colline verdeggianti e fresche, con panorami mozzafiato.  Situata poi in una zona talmente centrale, che puoi tranquillamente farti delle gite in tanti posti idillici, tipo Firenze, Milano, Venezia, Verona, il Lago di Garda, le spiagge dell’Adriatico e altri, e tornare a casa sazia ed elettrizzata da tanta bellezza, che poi rivivi nelle centinaia di foto scattate con lo Smartphone.

Ho riscoperto le mie origini modenesi, che erano sempre state un pò nascoste dietro alla mia quotidianità meridionale. Ma sono forti queste radici materne, solide, e ne sono infinitamente fiera.

Grazie, Modena, per aver risvegliato in me sentimenti ed emozioni un po’ assopiti.  Sono ben sveglia adesso, e carica.  Non vedo l’ora di tornare.

Grande Modena, you are in my heart.

(Nota: Questo post è stato anche pubblicato nella sezione La lettera  su “La Gazzetta di Modena”, il 29 agosto 2019.  Sono molto grata e commossa da questo onore.)