Blog with a View

Still adjusting to my American life.  It never fails: I return from Italy, and stumble back into my daily reality, slightly dazed and wobbly.  For days I’ve been attempting to produce a decent written piece, but thoughts and words are fuzzy, my skin still tender from the fiery touch of the aggressive Southern Italian sun.  My memory box is bursting, each image a sweet stab to my newly fragile heart.

Hence, dear readers, as I await steady nerves and solid, tangible impressions to type on my computer, I offer you living images of my journey, two short videos of two very different and wonderful places: A quaint and unusual shoe shop in spectacular Sorrento; and my beloved open market street in my town, Portici.

Slip into my videos and live Italian for a precious few!


Mara at the Gardens of San Giorgio a Cremano

So, I’m on a video roll, what can I say. Well, I had filmed a ‘couple’ of things in my travels and professional events, and I wanted to share with you, my dearest readers.  This one is a little particular in the sense that the beginning…didn’t happen.  By some unfortunate glick fabricated by the mind of my digital camera, even though I introduced the video, meticulously explaining where I was, that fundamental part disappeared!  Pazienza. But I can write about it, no?  In this video I’m in the charming town of San Giorgio a Cremano, next door to Portici (Italy, of course), a lively community at the foothills of the Vesuvius.  On this picture-perfect mid-October afternoon, I visited – thanks to the kindness of a local friend – two stunning aristocratic villas, originally built in the 18th century.  The first one is called Villa Vannucchi, and it was abandoned and partially buried for a couple of centuries.  In the 1980’s, it was restored to its full glory, following the original blueprints found in the ruins.  It was the summer residence of a very wealthy noble family, and, I’m told, the site of quite a few ‘wild’ and opulent parties. The gardens are gorgeous and the setting serene and elegant.  Now it is the home of Italy’s first online university, Università Telematica Pegaso, offering courses in law and humanities.  This brief video starts in the gardens, since, as I explained, the segment taped inside the palace at the beginning, was mysteriously deleted.  From Villa Vannucchi, I walk a few hundred meters to another villa cum park, Villa Bruno, also a stunning place from that era, where you can also find an outdoor theater that, in the summer, offers live performances.  Tucked in the back, we also find an adorable, picturesque bar, calledGoethe Café, in honor of the great German writer who was enamored of all of Southern Italy, especially the Naples area, and spent some time at this villa.  Here local writers gather to this day to read and discuss their pieces.  What an extraordinary coincidence, no?  I suppose I’m home now.

The Market Street in Portici

It hasn’t changed much from my childhood days.  Okay, so my family in Italy tells me sure it has a bit, certo, non ti ricordi i venditori ambulanti…?  Perhaps, but the feeling is the same.  The sounds in my beloved Neapolitan dialect, the glorious visual – bright  red cherry tomatoes, deep-orange squashes and the sizzling emerald of the “friarielli”, the greens of my childhood, similar to broccoli di rape, but not quite, a specialty of the countryside around Naples, super-delicious with sausages – the scents of brioscine and cornetti fresh out of the oven, bursting with custard or jam.  The piles of adorable dish towels, aprons, tablecloths for hardly anything (we’re talking about 1 euro or less, seriously), the silky tunics for 5 Euros, delicate espresso cups for next-to-nothing, and of course the traditional statuettes of Neapolitan mascot Pulcinella… My childhood and adolescence live on the market street in Portici, crazy/wild/absurd/much-loved Via Marconi, traffic jams and all.  Take a look at the past that is also the present, life on a stage, melancholy, regret, heartache, love, joy, all that we are… Video-taped this October by yours truly.

Red Wine and Rosemary Cake: A Taste of the Renaissance

So, what can I tell you, even though is nearly 90 degrees, I felt like baking.  I turned on the oven (and the air conditioner) and got quickly to work on the making of cake and video.  This is a lovely, aromatic, pretty cake that combines savory ingredients flawlessly into a sweet and light batter.  Delightful for breakfast (always my favorite way), or with coffee or tea.  I created this recipe after I heard someone talking about this Renaissance-type cake on a radio cooking show many years ago.  Thus, with a little investigating of ingredients, a photo in a catalog and the help of my extensive cookbook collection, I worked out this little gem with an ancient taste and a pleasantly rustic appearance.  Here is the recipe!

A Sweet Christmas to All

So here it is, my seasonal video.  I thought I’d show you ‘live’ some of my Christmas desserts, instead of simply posting photos.  Come into my kitchen, take a look at my Neapolitan Struffoli, made in the most time-honored and true manner, crunchy (never soft!), cooked in a thick honey syrup (not simply coated), redolent of lemon and orange, scattered with delectable cinnamon confetti that I bring back from Portici every year, livened by colorful diavolilli, adorned with slivers of Italian candied fruits.  For me, pictureChristmas can’t be such without the sumptuous Struffoli which mean childhood, the purest joy of those innocent times and the ancient traditions that must be held tenderly in your hand, then placed ceremoniously in the ones of future generations.  Behold, now, the Pasta Reale, exquisite petit fours, lovingly made individually by hand with homemade almond paste and satiny fondant.  A labor of love (and oh so much patience), these sophisticated Neapolitan miniature pastries are always present on my Christmas table, perhaps my favorite dolce of all.  Naturally, being this also an American Christmas, I dive breathlessly into the baking of hundreds of traditional cookies, happily celebrating the creative bounty of my magnificent adoptive country.  Oh, the delightful Jelly Thumbprints, buttery, vanilly and tangy withcherry and apricot preserves.  Sweet and crunchy Sesame Cookies, Chocolate-picturedipped Coconut Sticks, subtly flavored and crisp; delicate and tender Almond Crescents, simple and elegant under their snowy dusting of powdered sugar.  Brilliantly decorated by my daughters, the Gingerbread Cookies infuse the air with the spicy scent of Christmas that we expect.  And, of course, an abundance of the one and only Chocolate Chip Cookies, which I made with an assortment of chips and flavorings, from milk chocolate to mint to white to butterscotch.  Welcome to my Christmas dessert celebration, my friends.  May your Christmas be kind and serene, may love surround you, may you feel its exhilarating embrace. Buon Natale a tutti!

Ecco la gran festa!

24 novembre 2011

Infatti siamo qui di nuovo a pensare a tacchini ripieni, crostate cremose e lunghe tavolate festive. Beh, la tavolata, io no.  La mia famiglia consiste di poche persone, e tutti i miei cari originali si trovano sempre in Italia.  Siamo in pochi noi, ma la tavola sarà ben imbandita con i piatti tradizionali americani (e no) che tutti si aspettano e non vedono l’ora di assaggiare. Comunque, amici italiani, v’invito a festeggiare anche voi questa bellissima giornata di ringraziamento, con l’offerta delle mie ricette per il tacchino farcito e la crostata di zucca, che ho tradotto in italiano apposta per voi. Via, provateci, non sono difficili, ci vuole solo un po’ di tempo e, naturalmente, grande amore per la cucina.  Ma questo ce l’abbiamo tutti (o quasi), no?  Happy Thanksgiving to all of you!

A live taste of Portici

I know, some of you might think I’m exaggerating with my fervent accolades for my hometown.  Portici, that is, the one and only.  Nostalgia, you might say, rosy remembrances of a lost time, a golden childhood, a thrilling adolescence steeped in romance, my ‘wonder years’ immortalized in a still picture forever glowing.  Not so. Though my memories are caressed by the hue of wistfulness, there was often the harsh reality of extreme sorrow, as my heart was torn out – fragile and still pulsating – not a few times.  But one gets strong (and, yes, touched with cynicism) when slapped by pain, because that is the essence of human survival.  But Portici is real.  It was then, it is now.  A small Mediterranean city with all the qualities of such a place, and you know them – the nearly perpetual sunshine, the shimmer of the calm sea lapping at the foothills of Vesuvius, the boulevards lined with aristocratic villas, yes, faded these days, some slowly crumbling, but clinging with tenacity to the dignity of their glorious past.  Then, still within walking distance, you can step into the ancient Roman past at the Ercolano excavations, not less fascinating than famous Pompei. And the abundance of food, of course, really,really good food, the one you dream about on frigid New York winter nights.  But Portici is so much more.  Vibrant with people that explode on the beautiful downtown streets in the evening, wearing chic boots and super-long scarves arranged and knotted in such creative ways (which I’m still trying to figure out).  People who are exuberant, wise and accepting, even in these hard times, most of them smoking freely, and I walk into the clouds of their smoke, trembling with my memories.  Glittering boutiques selling Emilio Pucci and Dolce & Gabbana at exorbitant prices, and those the thrills that only your eyes can enjoy.  But stroll down a few more meters and a glorious saldi sign beckons from a cheerful little shop, where you can indulge in an elegant charcoal-gray shrug for only a few Euros.  Or a pair of suede platform pumps (coral red, perhaps), not signed by Ferragamo, but just as delicious.  Of course it’s a city of great contrasts, my Portici, but isn’t this what makes a place mysterious and exciting?  I love (LOVE) Via Marconi, the open market street, the melodious (or not so much) cries of the vendors, praising their just-off-the-fishing boats at the Granatello (the picturesque harbor) seafood, which you know it’s going to be tender and exquisite in a light sauce aromatized by the local white wine.  Snatch up (and I do) a warm and flaky cream-filled cornetto for less than a Euro at a unassuming bar, where the espresso is (always) the best you ever had.  I hear the sharp tapping of my heels on the artistically placed sanpietrini (a kind of cobblestone made from lava), and the snapping noise reverberates through my body, spreading through my veins, and I feel my revitalized blood flow energetic, bearer of new hope.  Walk with me, my friends, on those sanpietrini, even if for just a few minutes.  Let the green, velvety afternoon light that ensconces the Vesuvius warm your heart, tease your imagination.  Let my Portici seduce you too. (For more videos about Portici go to YouTube, search my name or MaraWriter.)

Good food from Colli and memories with my brother


It is here that we’ve gathered in the last few years.  My autumn trips to Italy, revisiting those old photographs that spin around my head, constantly intensifying as time passes.  My places, my people, my stories, the essence of who I am.  So, when I see my brother, it is usually in Colli al Volturno, my father’s native village in the mountains of Molise, where the old Di Sandro family’s house still stands, ancient and massive, its thick walls impregnated with 150 years of families, dramas, war, and the scents of strong wine from the family’s vineyards and green-gold olive oil from the uliveti on the hills.  The restaurant Volturno where we have our pranzo, at the outskirts of town, is also a small hotel, run by a local family of fabulous cooks. Fischiotti alla carbonara is one of their specialties, rich with eggs and pancetta, aromatized by onions sautéed in olive oil.  The only shape of pasta they use is the traditional fischiotti, a curvy, spiraling short pasta that goes by different picturenames in other areas.  Now, my mother always made it with spaghetti, but I – not a fan of long pasta – much prefer it this way.  The link is to my recipe (actually my mother’s), since the restaurant’s dish is a jealously concealed secret.  But I can assure you that mine is almost as good.  I cherish these moments in my life – sadly much too brief and rare.  Grazie to my brother Glauco for kindly agreeing to be in this video.  Glauco, sei grande!