17 October 2010

LIFE: NOT GOODBYE, JUST ARRIVERDERCI

SARONNO, Italy - Because of continuing health problems this blog, which I love writing, has to be temporarily suspended. With a little bit of luck I’ll be back in December with more tales of Mrs. Clean and Mrs. Mean and an update on how Aldo and Carla are doing as well as adventures and travels through Italy. My alter ego, Auntie Pasta, will also be back with her views and news on Italian food.

The problem is that the rheumatoid arthritis, that has plagued every bone in my body for the past few years, has found a new playground – my eyes. Is that not bizarre? My eyes, however, are not as cooperative as my bones and they did not responding to conventional treatment. What that means is that I now have to be subjected to further tortures, and there is no guarantee the further tortures are going to solve the problem either. But, either way, I have to drastically reduce the amount of time I spend on the computer, at least for the time being.

Thanks so much for your support, it is much appreciated and I look forward to “seeing” you all again in a few weeks.

Phyllis Macchioni






11 October 2010

AUNTI PASTA: Shhh, It’s Ossobuco Time

Ossobucco alla Milanese
SARONNO, Italy - You should never say the word ossobuco, or l’ òs büüs in Milanese dialect, out loud in Milan. Just the name of this slow braised veal shank is enough to bring the strongest of the strong Milanese to tears. Mention that you paired it with risotto Milanese, that is risotto with saffron and parmigiano cheese, and you’ll have them on their knees.

The Makings of a Good Soffrito

Few dishes affect the ever-so-busy, ever-so-chic Milanese like this one does. And yet it is a simple dish to make. The traditional recipe calls for veal shanks, patiently braised in white wine and broth, with the addition of a battuta of celery, carrots, onion and parsley and served with Risotto alla Milanese. It is one of the few “piatti unici”, or one dish meals in Italian cooking.

Veal Shanks

It takes a couple of hours to prepare ossobuco but the results are worth it. The veal shanks, which should be at least two inches thick, are first dipped in flour, and then browned in a rather heavy pot or deep frying pan. If the shanks are very large, one per person should be enough, otherwise two, or even three will do if they are very small.

You can find dozens of recipes for ossobuco on the internet so I won’t publish one here, but I will tell you that the wine, a couple of fresh tomatoes or a small can of peeled tomatoes, a cup or two of beef broth, a soffritto of onions, celery and carrots paired with the veal shanks creates the most delicious sauce. It even goes well even with mashed potatoes, but don’t tell anybody I said that. If you decide to take the traditional route and make risotto as a side dish, you might want to reduce the amount of parmigiano cheese you normally would use in the risotto.

Makings of Gremolada

For many Milanese the best part of the dish is the marrow. There is a special long-handled spoon called an esattore that they use to dig it out of the bone. But don’t despair if you are a marrow fan but don’t happen to have an esattore on hand. A demitasse or baby spoon works just as well. In Milan the act of scooping the marrow out of the bone is called riscuotere le tasse or tax collecting, maybe because of the determined way marrow eaters try to get every little bit of marrow out of the bone. Actually one of the secrets of making a really good risotto is to mix in a spoonful of bone marrow in with the rice before you start adding broth.

The Winning Combination: Ossobuco with Risotto Milanese

The most traditional way to serve ossobuco is with a simple condiment called gremolada. It is made with parsley, garlic, a little lemon zest and half a canned anchovy all finely chopped together. If you intend to eat the bone marrow add the gremolada to the center of the shank bones just before serving the dish. Otherwise you can add a little to the sauce. Either way it adds a certain zing to the dish, or as the Italians would say, si sposa bene con ossobuco.

10 October 2010

LIFE: Il Giorno di Colombo

SARONNO, Italy - "God Bless America", my grandmother used to say. My grandfather used to say something else. She was thrilled to be in America, and he, well that's another story. My grandparents were just two of the two million Italians who immigrated to the United States at the beginning of the 1900’s.

My Grandparents when they were still just dreaming of America

My grandmother was fiercely proud of her heritage. She loved Italy, she loved the food, the weather, the closeness of her family. She just didn't want to live there, and mostly she did not want to raise her children there. She was not alone.

Between 1870 and 1920, almost 5 million Italians boarded steamships for America. Only Germany matched that exodus - one of the largest immigrations in modern history. Whole towns in Southern Italy, and some of the poorest areas of the Veneto and Tuscany, were emptied as people jumped at the opportunity for a better life. And yes, maybe even riches. In all fairness my Grandmother and her family were not starving, it was just that she saw America's open immigration policy as a once in a lifetime opportunity not only for her children but for herself and my Grandfather as well.

The town they left behind - Piansano

My Grandfather was a furniture maker, but in the impoverished province of Lazio, there was little money for furniture. To supplement the family income he had turned to making wine barrels and was managing to make ends meet, but barely.

And then one day a stranger came to town with an offer my Grandmother couldn’t refuse. The stranger was an agent. His job was to travel throughout Italy spreading an golden image of America, rich and generous, democratic and open, a country with endless possibilities for success. And best of all the company the agent worked for would take care of the paperwork. It was an irresistible combination: the agents were salesmen true and the product they were selling was good.

 Piansano: The cars may be newer but not much else has changed

So my Grandmother made a plan. My Grandfather, and her brother Joe would go to America first. They would get jobs – which according to the agent there were plenty of -  earn money, buy a house and then send second class steamer tickets for her, my father and my Aunt Louise, who was just a baby. My Grandmother wanted to go to America but not in steerage. I don’t know how much resistance there was to her idea, all I know is that on Feb 18. 1913 my Grandfather, and his brother-in-law Joe Bronzetti, were walking around in that land called America.

There were millions of immigrants

As soon as they stepped off the boat they were offered work. The Pennsylvania Railroad was being built and the railroad company needed men to help lay railroad tracks. So my Grandfather and Uncle Joe signed on. The company offered to provide food and inexpensive shelter along the way, the cost of which would be deducted from their pay. When the project was completed they would get the money they had earned, less their expenses.

You probably already know the end of the story. When the project was completed, there was no money, the paymaster had left town and taken the payroll with him. My Grandfather and Joe had heard from other Italians they had met while working on the railroad that some families from the province of Lazio had settled  in upstate New York, in a town called Siracusa.  It was their only hope. Stranded in a foreign country and unable to speak English, the two men began walking from Reading Pennsylvania to Syracuse, New York. To survive the journey they were forced to beg for food and shelter along the way.

What they longed to see

Newspaper articles published in that period claimed that Italian immigrants, especially those from Southern Italy, seem to beg for the pure pleasure of begging. Obviously they never met my Grandfather and Joe. When my Grandfather and Jot got to Syracuse they both found work, got settled and bought a house. Uncle Joe went on to own a string of bars in Syracuse, and I doubt there is an old timer in Syracuse who doesn’t recall with nostalgia hanging out in Joe’s Bar and Grill on Lodi Street, including yours truly. On April 14, 1915 my Grandmother, my father and my Aunt Louise, who will celebrate her 100th birthday on Nov. 1 boarded a ship bound for America.

 In few other countries in the world have the Italians had as much success as those who went to America. The children and grandchildren of the factory workers, masons, laborers , and waiters who landed on Ellis Island in the early 1900;s have gone on to become accountants, lawyers, doctors, engineers and managers, and yes even journalists. They have opened shops and restaurants. They have become business owners and politicians. With their sweat and tears they built America. They are the embodiment of the American dream.

Many Italians settled in New York's Lower East Side

The first Italians immigrants in America had to jump through a lot of hoops in order to survive. Many were embarrassed to be Italian and changed their name to make their lives easier. When I was growing up we lived next to the Bond family. Their name wasn't really Bond, it was Bonacci. And my cousin Jimmy;s favorite story is about his friend Mario who changed the name of his auto mechanic shop to sound more American. Instead of calling it Mario Bianco's, he renamed it Mario White's. My cousin still shakes his head over that one.

What brought on this wave of nostalgia is the Columbus Day celebrations that will take place across America tomorrow. On October 11 thousands of us, the descendants of all of those who sacrificed and suffered to get to America, will celebrate Columbus' discovery. It's an important day for Italian-Americans, because with this celebration, Italian-Americans can rediscover their pride in being Italian and they have a lot to be proud of.

Still happy after all these years

There are now between 25-50 million Italians in America. Four million just in the metropolitan New York area, 8 million in the Tri-State area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. According to a recent study by the Angelli Foundation, the average income of Italians in America is 25% higher than that of the average American. Imagine that. The population of beggars has become 25% richer than the average American. Not bad.

On a trip back to the United States a few summers ago, I spoke with a number of Italian-Americans. Many of them have never visited Italy and they were very interested in hearing about life in Italy today. In talking to them I heard a curiosity about the land their families left nearly a hundred years ago. It was nice. It was also a major factor in deciding to write this blog. Happy Columbus Day.

07 October 2010

AUNTIE PASTA: Sign of the Season: Figs

SARONNO, Italy - It’s October. The summer is over and the weighty watermelons that filled markets of Saronno during those warm months have been replaced with brimming baskets of plump, ripe figs. Figs have been around for ages, remember what was in Adam and Eve’s closet, and they are an integral part of Italian culture. According to Roman myth the wolf that nurtured the twin founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, rested under a fig tree. Even back there were about 29 varieties of figs.

 Statue of Romulus and Remus in Rome
 While fig trees (fichi) grow all through Italy, figs seem to have originated in western Asia. From there they spread to the Middle East and then to Greece, Tunisia, Spain, and of course Italy. In the ruins of a prehistoric village near Jericho in the West Bank, scientists found the remains of figs that they say appear to be the earliest known cultivated fruit crop, grown as the first domesticated food production almost 12,000 years ago.


Figs are one of the healthiest and most nutritious fruits you can eat. They are particularly rich in fiber and minerals, such as calcium, iron and magnesium. And during times of famine, of which there have been many over the long course of history, figs have saved entire populations. So it's not surprising that here in the Old World, the fig tree represents blessing and bounty.

 Figs on a Plate
There are many varieties of figs on the market. Mostly they differ in their color, from green to red to bluish purple, with an inner pulp that can range from a very light orange to a violet red. The types of fresh figs I see in my local market are either green or dark, bluish purple. For most of my life I thought the green ones were just the dark ones that were not ripe yet. But now I know that isn’t true. I’ve tried them both while there are those who rave about one type of another, I don’t seem much difference in them, other than the green ones have a slightly thicker skin.

Signora Carmella, my local fruttivendolo, told me that the best figs are plump and very soft. She said that while there may be a small opening at the bottom of the fig nothing should be oozing out. She also said that figs are very perishable and spoil rather quickly so it’s best to buy them no more than a day or two before you plan to eat them.

Fig Tree So Pretty
  
One of the most popular ways to eat fresh figs is to wrap them with a savory prosciutto. It’s the perfect combination of sweet and salty. Another way of eating them is with a tangy cheese like pecorino or parmigiano. They are also good with creamier types of cheese, like marscapone. It’s easy to make.

Simply wipe them with a clean kitchen towel and cut off the stems. Slice the figs in half or in quarters and arrange them in a circle around a plate. If you want you can put a dollop of mascarpone in the middle and drizzle a little honey over them. The only secret to eating figs is they have to be ripe.

 Hmmm, So Good
  
Another easy recipe is an Insalata di rucola, prosciutto, fichi, e Parmigiano Reggiano (Arugula salad with figs, prosciutto and parmigiano).

After you clean, wash and dry your arugula, spread it evenly on a flat plate. Sprinkle with extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Arrange three or four ripe figs, which have been cut into quarters, skin side down over the arugula. Add thin slices of prosciutto crudo, (Parma or San Daniele), and top with slivers of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.

A Tisket a Tasket, Figs in the Basket
Figs are only in our market place for a short period of time, and so while I’m not exactly ready for fall yet I think I’m going to put them on this week’s shopping list anyway. I think they will make the perfect desert for next Sunday’s dinner.

For the latest in fashion news and views from the fashion capital of the world follow me on twitter.com/Italianlife

03 October 2010

ON THE ROAD: The Vatican

This is another in a series of monthly travel articles inspired by a New York Times article on 31 places to see in 2010. All of the towns on my list are in Italy, most are small, rich in history and art and interesting. This month it's Rome.

Papal Coat of Arms

VATICAN CITY

There is a brick wall that divides Rome from Vatican City. It is called the Bastions of Michelangelo after Michelangelo Buonarroti, the reluctant painter of the Sistine Chapel. It could have been named after any of the other artists who worked for the Vatican, artists like Raphael, Caravaggio, even Fra Angelico, but as any visitor to the Vatican will tell you, it is the name Michelangelo that you hear over and over again.

Vatican City rests on Vaticanus Mons, Vatican Hill. While we consider the Vatican a sacred place (it is the burial place of St. Peter), and the seat of the Roman Catholic Church, it was a sacred area long before the Vatican was built. In fact, two thousand years ago, long before the arrival of Christianity, if you were standing in front of the Bastions of Michelangelo, you would have been in the Etruscan town of Vaticum. And during the days of the great Roman Empire, this part of Rome was known as ager vaticanus. It is from these names that the Vatican gets its name.
Overview of the Vatican



The Vatican City-State is the smallest state in the world, just 110 acres all within the confines of these walls. The Vatican state has its own postal system, armed guards, mini-train station and the Vatican radio station, KPOP. While we may consider it an amazing place, for historians it is only a fraction of the vast Italian territory that the Papal States ruled for centuries. That all changed in the late 1800s when the seeds of democracy started to take hold in Italy. Even though the pope was under a great deal of pressure to give up his territory to the newly unified Italian state, he refused. For years the fate of the Vatican territory was in limbo. But in 1929, Pope Pius XI and the Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini signed the Lateran Treaty and the autonomy of the Holy See within the Republic of Italy was established.

Follow the Red Brick Wall

If you look along the middle of the brick wall, you will see the Vatican coat of arms. Each figure on it symbolizes an important part of the church: the crossed keys represent the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus gave to Peter, the first Pope. The keys are displayed on a shield, joined by an embroidered stole, a symbol of the Papacy. Above the keys, is the three-tiered Papal tiara. When popes are crowned, the tiara is placed on their heads and the following words are spoken:
The Papal Tiara

Accipe thiaram tribus coronis ornatam, et scias te esse Patrem Principum et Regum, Rectorem Orbis, in terra Vicarium Salvatoris Nostri Jesu Christi, cui est honor et gloria in sæcula sæculorum.” “Receive the tiara adorned with three crowns and know that thou art Father of Princes and Kings, Ruler of the World, Vicar of Our Savior Jesus Christ on earth, to him be the honor and glory forever and ever.”

Though people often talk about the Papal Tiara as if there was only one, in reality, there were many. Some of the early priceless papal tiaras were destroyed, dismantled or seized by invaders or destroyed by the popes themselves. But while most popes were content to be crowned Father of Princes & Kings and Rulers of the world, in 1978 John Paul I refused the honor. His successor, the first Polish pope, John Paul II also declined a coronation opting instead for a Papal Inauguration Mass. The current pope, Benedict XVI also chose a Papal Inauguration Mass in 2005 to the disappointment of some conservative Catholics who were hoping he would reinstate the traditional use of the papal tiara.

No church has so magnificent an approach as St. Peter's As you move across the Vatican Square you are enfolded in the lofty embrace of Bernini's colonnade, marble pillars that are meant to welcome us into the spiritual experience of the basilica itself. One hundred and forty saints stand atop; visible assurance of the power of faith to transform mankind and signaling, by their mute presence that we are moving onto sacred ground. Here, underneath the altar of the church, Saint Peter is buried, the only person from the Gospels whose grave we can still venerate. He has lain here from the earliest centuries, hidden until the 4" century when the Church was secure enough, under the Roman ruler Constantine, to begin to build what we now call "Old St. Peter's".

Twelve hundred years later, even though that church was too small and falling apart, there was a scandalized outcry when the Pope Julius II, (Michelangelo's adversary and friend), ordered it to be pulled down and a new basilica built. He had great architects like Bramante and Michelangelo to advise him and subsequent Popes fo the Church you see today took over a hundred years to build.

Basically the design is Michelangelo's. He originally wanted the church to have the shape of a Greek cross, with equal aisles, rather than a Roman cross with a long, central aisle. And his wonderful dome is not exactly as he had planned it either.

The first thing we see when we enter is an enormous atrium, the size of many a parish church. There are five bronze gates and the furthest gate to the right is the "Holy Door", which is only opened for Jubilees. The first gate on the Ieft is one of the rare modern works in the basilica. Pope John XXIII asked the Italian sculptor, Manzù, to create what is known as the Door of Death, which sounds eerie but is, in fact, extremely beautiful and inspiring. We must all die, and here we are asked to contemplate the death of Jesus and its consequence: the assumption of Mary, our representative.

Manzù shows that death is not an end. Vines must be pruned for grapes to grow, sheaves of wheat must be stripped to make bread: from these "deaths" comes life for others. And then we see contrasts. Abel dies by violence, St Joseph in peace¸ Peter is beheaded but Pope John himself died lost in prayer. All these various deaths represent various doors to God

One of the Massive Bronze Doors

Next to it, the second gate has a wonderful title - the Door of Good and Evil - and again it shows Pope John and his successor, Paul VI. The fourth door, Crocetti’s Door of the Sacraments shows the seven Sacraments and an angel. The oldest door is the one in the middle. It is made of bronze and it was rescued from the Old Saint Peter's church. It was made in the beginning of the fifteenth century and shows Jesus and his mother at the top. In the center panels are St. Peter and St. Paul in prayer with Pope Eugenius IV, who commissioned this door, and at the bottom you see Peter crucified, upside down as he requested, and Paul beheaded. Right above this door is Bernini's bas-relief of Christ entrusting the Church to Peter.

If you step inside you are in the largest basilica in the world. Before your eyes stretches six hundred and fourteen feet of nave, rising to a height that could encompass a fifteen story building. You would think the effect would be over powering, but the building is so perfectly balanced that it is only when you start to move around it that you realize just how big it is.

Down the center there are marks that show where other great cathedrals would end if placed inside this one. St. Paul's in London; St. Patrick's in New York would both be swallowed up. The intent is not to boast about the size of the Vatican but to show how all cathedrals are "within" St. Peter's, encompassed by its strength. The focal point in any church is the altar. It is the most dominant object within this huge expanse. The actual altar, the Pope's altar where only he may say Mass, is a simple block of marble with St. Peter's tomb directly beneath in the crypt. But what catches your eye is the enormous baldachin. It was designed by Bernini and Borromini, who were both young men when they created this bronze masterwork. It is the largest and heaviest work ill bronze ever made.

Bernini's Baldachin
Yet it does not look heavy. Bernini's twisted, barley-sugar columns are in honor of Solomon's Temple and they spiral upwards with that combination of dignity and vitality characteristic of this great sculptor. Borrormini worked out the mathematics of it and added the gracious and elegant swirls of the volutes that rise to the top in quiet jubilation.

Gilt angels stand around the playful cherubs, protecting the tomb of the apostle. From the back of the church the perfect proportions of the baldachin make it hard to believe that it is 95 feet high. Within its columns is framed what is called the "altar of the throne", another colossal work by Bernini, so splendidly gilded that it looks like gold. Its purpose was to hold up what was thought to be the throne or papal chair of St. Peter. Within the bronze is a throne of wood, inlaid with ivory, but this is a medieval work crafted centuries later.

Michaelangelo's Pieta
There is also a work of art not originally made for St. Peter’s. Michaelangelo’s Pieta. Michaelangelo was 23 years old when he made this carving. It is so powerful that most visitors stand in front of it in awed silence. It is a poetic working of Mary holding the Jesus on her lap. Like all mothers, she knows her son is a grown man but also, still, sees him, as her child. Michelangelo lost his own mother when he was six and it could be that "mother", to him, always represented as someone young and pretty. Above the Pieta is a splendid little dome: the only dome in the basilica not ornamented with mosaic.


Part Two Next Month.

For the latest in fashion news and views from the fashion capital of the world follow me on twitter.com/Italianlife




30 September 2010

AUNTIE PASTA: Oil Change

SARONNO, Italy - Back in the day when I wasn’t even old enough to go to school, I used to hang out with my Grandfather and his cronies. The men would sit under the shade of the grape vine pergola behind our house, sip wine and reminisce about the old country and how much better the food was there.

Simply Beautiful

One day one of the cronies was leafing through a magazine and came cross an ad for Wesson Oil. It said “Wesson Oil - light with barely a taste, or words to that effect. He scratched his head. Why, he asked, would anyone want to use an oil that doesn’t have any taste? Good question. But I didn’t realize just how good a question it was until I moved to Italy almost half a century later.

Over 500 varieties of olives are grown in Italy and millions of bottles of olive oil are produced every year. The southern provinces like Puglia, Calabria, Sicilia and Campania produce the most olives and olive oil, while up north the Veneto, Lombardia, Trentino and Emilia Romagna trail close behind.

Labor Intensive Work

In Puglia, for example, more than 2 million quintale (a quintale = 200 lbs) of olives were pressed for oil last year, while in Trentino there were fewer than 3 thousand quintale; and in Calabria, 1.5 million quintale of olives were pressed compared with Lombardia’s 8,000.

But those numbers represent commercial producers. What writers love to write about, and movie producers make films about are the small, family run olive groves, usually in Tuscany, where back to nature types harvest their own olives and make their own olive oil. It’s a great story, very picturesque and romantic. What they never show is the part where you have to rid your olive grove of weeds, especially the thorny wild blackberry that multiplies faster than a rabbit and climbs and smothers anything and everything in its path. And nary a word about the grasses that form a dense mat under the olive trees that have to be eliminated before they rob the trees of scarce summer rain.


You Go First, No - You Go First

Then comes the harvest. First the weeds must be mowed - again, this time right down to the roots. This is in anticipation of rolling out fine plastic netting under the trees to catch the olives. Netting has been used since the Fifties as a replacement for the more traditional “hands’n’knees” pick them up one by one method, and is a lot faster but only somewhat less labor intensive.
 
The olive harvest, which is in the fall, runs in ten day cycles. As the olives are collected they are transported to the olive pressing mill, the frantoio where owners usually require a minimum of 200 kilos of olives (about 30 buckets or 100 lbs.) before they will press your olives.

Sometimes it is difficult for small producers to reach the minimum weight requirements. Adding to the difficulty is the fact that once the olives are collected they need to be pressed within ten days of being harvested or they begin to rot. So sometimes Mother Nature need to be helped along by picking, stripping or banging the branches of the olive trees with a cane to coax the olives down. Often a picking ladder - a special ladder with a stabilizing third let – is needed, and for that of course you also need tree-climbing skills and a strong safety belt. But no matter how you do it, it is a slow process. For somewhat experienced pickers, 45 minutes per tree on average is a pretty good picking speed.

 Only the Best Will Do

Sometimes Mother Nature gets a little quirky and brings the olives down with a strong wind or rain storm. Then they must be gathered using the tried and true hands’n’knees method, which usually yields about one bucket per hour. A novice couple, working in-between rain storms can usually manage to make the 200 kilo limit in the allotted ten days.

Once the olives are at the frantoio they must be weighed, washed, pressed and strained before the golden green oil starts to come out of the spigot. But that is the moment of truth: how much oil will your olives produce, and how will it taste.

Olive Oil Tasting

Truly excellent oil is rendered by cold pressing – using the age old circular millstone presses that were once turned by beasts or picturesque water wheels, but now by electric motors – or by a modern process that used hydraulics to extract oil from the mash. A liter of oil per tree is considered a good yield

There are basically three types of olive oil: extra virgin, which is a low acid oil (less than 1%) made from good quality olives pressed the day they are picked; virgin olive oil, pressed the next day after picking and has less than 2% acidity; and pure olive oil which has been extracted from olive pulp, skin and/or pits and has little or no aroma.

 Delicious on Bread


Olive oil producers recommend that you store olive oil in dark glass bottles and not in plastic bottles because it will pick up the properties in the plastic. Keep the container tightly closed and store it in a dark place and preferably in areas slightly cooler than room temperature, but not in the refrigerator. They also suggest not buying oil that has been bottled for more than nine months.

You’ll find about 38 D.O.P. denominazione di origine protetta, or Protected Geographical Status olive oils in Italy. The D.O.P. label ensures that the product genuinely originates in a specific region. On a cultural note, one thing you won’t find are small plates of olive oil on restaurant tables for you to dip your bread into.


For the latest in fashion news and views from the fashion capital of the world follow me on twitter.com/Italianlife

26 September 2010

LIFE: Passion for Fashion

SARONNO, Italy - You would think that after working for Women’s Wear Daily and all the other Conde’ Nast fashion publications for years and years, I would post more fashion oriented articles on this blog. There’s no real reason why I’ve stayed away from writing about it, especially since my tweets are  fashion oriented, it just happened.


Corso Vittorio Emmanuele, Milan
But September is fashion month in Milan, and like the elephant in the room – it is impossible to ignore. On Sept. 9th Vogue Magazine sponsored Milan’s Fashion Night Out, which simply means an evening of fashion extravaganza when the designer shops of Milan’s Fashion Quad stay open until the wee hours of the morning, bands play, people dance in the streets, it's a festa

The Quad, which is sometimes called the golden Quad, is the area between Via della Spiga, Via Sant'Andrea, Via Montenapoleone and Via Manzoni in downtown Milan. It  is where you will find glitzy boutiques like Giorgio Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, Versace, Prada, Krizia, Fendi, Louis Vuitton, La Perla, Bruno Magli and all the others.

From Sept. 21 to Sept. 26 Milan will be gasping in the grip of Moda Donna Spring/Summer 2011. It is one the biggest fashion events of the season and all the major fashion houses will be strutting their stuff on the runways. Milan is buzzing with fashion editors, buyers, photographers and gorgeous, long legged models, both male and female, crowding and pushing their way into the subways and onto the trolley cars.

Tickets to the private parties and backstage events sponsored by fashion houses are in great demand as everyone wants to feel they are part of the “in” crowd, the insiders who dictate what the rest of us will be just dying to wear come spring.

Daily Flower Delivery on Via Montenapoleone

Even before the madness started the Italian fashion magazines could talk of nothing else. One article I found interesting (more commercial than fashion oriented however) was in the weekly woman's magazine Corriere della Sera publishes.   

I thought you might find it interesting what Italian women are wearing this fall, and  the prices. I checked the internet (http://www.x-rates.com/calculator.html) for the most current euro to dollar exchange rate.

Here’s what I found:


1. Sunglasses by Borsalino: $295
2. Zip-up leather jacket by Caractere: $697
3. Silk blouse by Conbipel: $67
4. Leather gloves by Emporio Armani: $241
5. Stretch tube skirt by Max Mara: $226
6. Platform shoes in black and red by Love Moschino:$315
7. Leather handbag by Serapian: $603

The clothes in Io Donna are pretty much a cross section of what is in the shops now  here in Milan and Saronno, except for the Max Mara store. Every outfit, including coats, boots and gloves in their Milan store windows was black. That’s absolutely fine with me but sometimes even I like to get a little wild and step out in something bright and colorful, like beige. 

Here are a few of the other outfits featured in Io Donna.


Cashmere turtleneck, Lanificio Colombo, €290$369; corduroy pants, Incotex, €185/$235; handbag, Fendi, €908/$1,248, boots, Chloe’ €545/$694.

Denim shirt, MCS Marlboro Classics, €115/$146; jeans, Chloe’, €390/$497; leather moccasin Tods, €280/$356.

Alpaca and wool cardigan, Daniela Drei, €790/1,006; corduroy pants MCS €115/$146; snakeskin moccasins, Armani, €311/$396
Wool and tricot cardigan, Midali Toujours, €198/$252; silk plisse’ blouse, Sportmax, €249/$317, wool flannel wide leg pants, Stephan Janson, €500/$637.

You have to admit the clothes are beautiful, albeit expensive. I could do with a few new outfits myself this fall and if I could only find that sack of gold I hid somewhere in this apartment, I would go shopping. 

For the latest in fashion news and views from the fashion capital of the world follow me on twitter.com/Italianlife

23 September 2010

AUNTIE PASTA: And Now Meet Nonna Stella

SARONNO, Italy - After last week’s post on the TV cooking program Nonna ed Io, I found another Italian Nonna demonstrating Italian recipes, Nonna Stella. But this cooking program does not take place in a television studio, it takes place in Nonna Stella’s kitchen in Bari. It is a typical Italian kitchen with no gourmet pots and pans hanging from decorative ceiling racks or an endless supplies of trendy serving dishes. There are no shiny kitchen appliances; in fact her food processor looks like it has seen better days. In other words, it is a normal Italian kitchen with a real life cook.

 Meet Nonna Stella
In one of the early videos Nonna Stella, who is 88 years old, explains why she is doing the series. It seems her grandson Michele wanted to learn more about her cooking techniques. So she cooks, he films, he eats and they are both ahppy. It’s obvious how much he loves her, and her food and I suspect he may have suggested the video cooking lessons just so he could eat more of it. But whatever the reason I for one am delighted that she agreed. Let me tell you what I learned just watching a few of her videos. You may already know these tricks, but they were new to me.

Tip No. 1. When you make orechetti with cima di rape, one of the typical dishes of Puglia, put the cleaned and chopped cima in the same pot as the orechetti when the orechetti are about half cooked and let them finish cooking together. I always cooked the cima first, taking it out of the pot and then cooking the orechetti in the same water, but her way is so much easier and it accomplishes the same thing.

Tip No. 2. If you put celery, parsley, basil, carrots and onions in a food processor and whiz it, adding a little olive oil about half way through the process, you end up with what Nonna Stella calls “pesto.” She calls it pesto because she mashes it together, and that is what the word pesto means, to mash together. She uses it as a seasoning for just about everything else she cooks, including spaghetti sauce. She puts the five ingredients in a blender and when it is liquefied she saves it in a canning jar with about a half an inch of olive oil on the top. Then she puts it in the refrigerator. The olive oil keeps the pesto fresh, and she says it will stay that way for up to three months.

 Orechetti with Cima di Rape

Since I just discovered Nonna Stella this week and love almost everything she makes, I was in a quandary trying to figure out what to try first. I finally decided to try the Pennoni Rigati alla Pizzaiola. It’s Video Lesson No. 1 on Youtube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qnh-2xC-SjM) if you want to take a look at it.

Nonna Stella is so smooth the way she moves from one step in the recipe to another, you can see that she is a woman who knows her way around a kitchen. And because I too have been cooking since the Dark Ages I figured it would be a simple dish to try. It was. But it didn’t turn out to be quite as good as I thought it would. In watching the video again today, I see the mistakes I made. First of all I added parsley to the basil and garlic. Far too much parsley, as it turned out and it drowned the taste of the basil. Not good. And I didn’t mix the ingredients as often as she did which meant that the pasta and the tomato sauce were not as well combined as they should have been. Also not good.

 Getting Ready to Cook
 When I tasted my pasta dish I understood why she mixed the just cooked pasta with heavy cream. It cuts the acidity of the tomatoes. I could have used more cream. And in my opinion the tomato sauce could have used a little seasoning instead of being used straight from the bottle. It was my mistake. I should have tasted the sugo before I added it to the pasta.

Another thing I found very clever was her advice to only cook the pasta for 2 minutes instead of the 9 minutes called for on the package. She says on the video that the reason she does this is because the pasta will cook in the sugo, and it does. So now that I know better, I’m sure the next time I make this dish it will turn out just fine.

 My Version of Pennoni Rigati alla Pizzaiola
Another recipe of hers I like is oven roasted leg of lamb with potatoes Here she uses parmigiano, tomatoes and the basil, celery and parsley, (this must be where I got the idea to mix parsley in with the basil) mix it all together to season the lamb and the potatoes. It’s Lesson No. 23 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TLKLq5-UOZg) if you want to watch the video.

You’ll find all of Nonna Stella’s videos on Youtube.com. Even though they are in Italian I think you can follow what she’s doing. Just make sure you get the Nonna Stella from Bari and not the Nonna Stella with the agriturismo in Tuscany.

It's Fashion Week in Milan. For the latest in news and views from the fashion capital of the world follow me on twitter.com/Italianlife

19 September 2010

LIFE: Where's That Chicken With the Map

SARONNO, Italy - It’s such a simple thing. Even chickens can get to the other side. But in Italy crossing the street is easier said than done.


As Italian journalist Beppe Severgnini points out in his book “Italians in Italy”, Italians think obedience is boring. They want to be the ones who decide whether or not a particular law applies to their situation. A red light is the perfect example. While in other parts of the world a red light means stop, here in Italy it is an opportunity to reflect on what kind of red light it is. Is it a pedestrian red? If it is, and at this hour there are no pedestrians, why bother stopping? Is it a red at an intersection? If you can see in every direction and there are no cars coming, no reason to stop here either.

I finally learned that pedestrians have to apply the same rules of the road when crossing them. Each situation has to be evaluated. For me, trying to get across the street in front of the white marble “wedding cake” monument to Victor Emmanuel II at the end of the Via del Corso in Rome was a nightmare.

I could never muster up the nerve to cross by myself. With cars zooming around the piazza and taxis swerving in and out of lanes, I would stand there terrified waiting for other people, preferably nuns or ladies with babies. After all I reasoned, this is Rome, the Pope lives here, they wouldn’t run over a nun would they? And with all the fuss they make about Italian mammas, I felt pretty safe with them as well. But even with my selected entourage I would scoot across to the other side as fast as I could, my heart in my mouth.

Happy Tourists Waiting to Do the Deed

But now that I have learned the secret of street crossing, I have a great deal of sympathy for my guests when I take them firmly by the arm as we are approaching a street. I hear them gasping as I step them off the curb right into oncoming traffic, and sometimes it is difficult to keep them from bolting across the street. But one of the secrets is to just walk at a normal pace, not to hurry and not to look to the left or the right. And when we do get to the other side of the street my guests always pull away from my grip and say: “Are you are trying to kill me?” Honestly, I’m not. It just looks that way.

One of the major difficulties with crossing streets in Italy is getting used to the fact that the cars are not going to stop, they go around you. Some may slow down, others may not, but it doesn’t change anything. Your part of this drama is to just keep walking.

Even the Ex-Prime Minister of Italy (the guy in the middle) Does It

If you are going to try this on your own, here’s what you have to remember:

 Rule One: Crossing the street in Italy is a lot like skipping rope with two friends. With your friends turning the rope, you have to gauge the exact time to jump in, otherwise it doesn’t work. It is exactly the same with street crossing. Do not step out in front of a car that is going too fast to react to you stepping out in front of it.

Rule Two: Once you start across the street, keep a steady pace. Drivers are adjusting their speed in direct relationship to how fast or slow they see you going. If you suddenly speed up or slow down you throw them off and your chance of being hit increases substantially. So calm and steady is the rule. Keep in mind that the traffic is not going to come to a full stop and allow you to cross. The cars will slow down so you can pass in front of them, or they will go around you if traffic allows.

Rule Three: Don’t look at the oncoming cars. Let them look at you. They will do just about anything and everything, including drive up on the sidewalk, to avoid hitting you. This is a truth you have to know in your heart for it takes courage to step off the curb and into oncoming traffic, it’s a little like a bull fighter entering the ring sans sword.

My Mama Always Told Me To Look Both Ways

Now I'm having second thoughts about advising you to step out into traffic. Maybe it's not such a good idea after all. Maybe it's the kind of thing you have to ease into instead of jump into, I'm not sure. Anyway the pictures in this video is worth more than a thousand words. In this video a young American couple is trying to put some logic to road crossing rules. The old guy you see at the end of the video is obviously Italian, maybe it's a gene thing.



Can you tell who is Italian in this video is and who isn’t? Warning: the music is horrible.

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16 September 2010

AUNTIE PASTA: And a Good Ragu' to You Too

SARONNO, Italy - Now that summer is over I’m starting to think about cooking real food again and I happened to mention to my neighbor that I was thinking about making a fresh tomato sugo. She looked at me and said, “you mean   salsa, don’t you?”

Fresh from the farm tomatoes 

The whole idea of salsa and sugo has always confused me, but according to my neighbor salsa is sauce, like mayonnaise or Béarnaise, and sugo is juice. Which is all fine, but if that is true how come you put salsa al pomodoro on pasta but you would be run out of town if you poured tomato juice on pasta? She didn’t know the answer to that. “Some things just are,” she said.

In his cookbook “Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well,” (1891), Pellegrino Artusi wrote that a sugo di pomodoro (tomato sauce) is made from tomatoes that are simply cooked and run through a food mill. At the most, he says, you can add a small rib of celery and a few parsley and basil leaves. Salsa, he claims, is made to accompany food like the salsa verde (green sauce) often served with boiled meat and the mayonnaise and salsa tonnata (tuna sauce) most often used in veal tonnata, both very popular dishes in Torino and in my house.

Yummy Pene all' Arrabbiata

To add to the confusion, there is also ragu'. Technically ragu' is a meat based sauce, and while sugo and salsa are often used interchangeably, sugo seems to be reserved for pasta.

In looking up ragu' recipes on the internet, there were a couple of things they all had in common. One is that they were all made with meat and two: they all required a very long cooking time, often up to six hours. And then I tuned into Nonna ed Io, (Grandma and Me) and watched Chef Adriana Montellanico teach Adriano Rosa, who in my opinion is not her grandson although I may be wrong, how to make ragu'.

Chef Adriana Montellanico and Adriano Rosa

There were a few things she did that surprised me. The first was after she chopped and cooked her soffrito, which is a mix of celery, onions and carrots, she set it aside. Then, in another pan, she began cooking her meat, which was chopped beef. If she added a little bit of olive oil to the pan before she started cooking the beef, I didn’t see it. When the beef was browned, she added the soffrito and mixed it into the meat. Then she added:
- about ¾ of a cup of white wine
- a couple of whole cloves
- and a bay leaf

In the meantime, the (fake) grandson put a can of whole tomatoes into a food processor and whizzed them. When they were almost smooth she added them to the meat mix, along with a few basil leaves, saying that the sauce/sugo now had to cook for at least a couple of hours.

 Italian Tomatoes

I had never heard of cooking the soffrito separately and adding it to the meat after the meat was cooked. I always cooked my meat in the soffrito. Another thing that surprised me was the idea of putting a couple of whole cloves and a bay leaf in tomato sauce, errr, sugo, and adding white wine. I always used red wine, but I was wrong about that. Italians do use white wine in tomato sauce, not red. But where was the garlic? Where was the oregano? I always thought those two ingredients were the backbone of the meat sauce, but I guess I am wrong again.

There were literally hundreds of sugo recipes on the internet, using all kinds of meat including lamb, duck, pork, veal, pancetta (bacon) and, of course, beef. Some recipes called for adding sugar to the sauce, others did not. I think it depends on how sweet your tomatoes are. And some recipes called for a few tablespoons of tomato paste, something my Grandmother always did. And she always used pieces of beef and pork, but Chef Adriana used plain old ground beef with no sugar, no tomato paste, no oregano and no garlic. Her (fake) grandson said it smelled yummy, so once again I end up more confused than when I started.