Wednesday, April 1, 2015

How to (properly) cook pasta...

If you want to live in Italy one day, then of course you’ll have to learn to cook. And nothing says "Italian food" quite like pasta. 

We can't envision an Italian table, restaurant, or family dinner without picturing a heaping dish of spaghetti with tomato sauce, right?  Fair enough. But let's examine our picture a little more closely.

Are you sure that the pasta has been cooked properly? Are those spaghetti as hot as they should be? And are they perfectly al dente?  Do they meet all the requirements of a dish of spaghetti, worthy of the name association? In countries outside of Italy, all too often, the answer is a resounding "no." I'm afraid that what we frequently see is an anemic, overcooked glob of sticky noodles served as a side dish to just about anything. Alas.

As expats (or would-be expats) let's try not to ruin our reputation by making some blasphemous mistake against this symbol of national pride. There are kitchen protocols that any native-born Italian totally takes for granted.  But for the rest of us, it might be useful to peek behind the curtain and see what the wizard is up to...

First, put the water to boil and use plenty of salt. Note that the salt should be generous, and coarse sea salt is preferred for this purpose. It has a better flavor than table salt and is easier to dose. We're going to use a big pot, with a lot of water, so do not assume that all the salt you add will be absorbed by the pasta. Most of it will just remain in the water and consequently discarded.  A tablespoon of sale grosso in 2.5 to 3 liters (about 3 quarts) of water is about right.

Add the pasta.  Stir at least every couple of minutes. You don't want the pasta to "attaccarsi," to stick together.  For certain shapes that have a tendency to do so (orecchiette, fusilli), you might want to stir more frequently. Do not abandon your pasta! Let it know you care. Stir with tender love and don't traumatize it in the process. If you stir properly, you won't need to add any oil to prevent sticking.

How long do we cook our pasta? You want to avoid overcooking at all costs! It is the worst and yet most common mistake. No Italian would ever eat overcooked pasta.  If you follow the instructions on the package, you'll want to reduce the cooking time by a couple of minutes. Not because they fib about the actual cooking time, but because you need those couple of minutes to make the pasta "jump."

When your pasta is ready (a minute or two under-cooked) you are going to drain it, but not the way you think, with a drainer (colander). No, that is only used for very large quantities or for some very particular kinds of sauces. If you're just cooking for yourself and your partner/family, all you'll need is a big kitchen spoon with holes, or in the case of spaghetti, a prendispaghetti (literally, spaghetti taker), which has some "fingers" to grab it with.

OK, your pasta is two minutes under-cooked and you're draining it with the proper tool. In fact, you're not draining too much, because a little water will be absorbed during the jumping. 

As you transfer your pasta to the saucepan, turn the fire on again. You are actually going to complete the cooking process, for a couple of minutes, by making the pasta jump (tossing it) with its sauce. If you're not an expert, you can just stir carefully. And adding a little of the salty water (the one where you cooked the pasta) if the sauce seems to thicken too much is a great tip.

In Italy, there is no such thing as cooking a plain dish of pasta then putting the sauce on top.  No. You stir, you jump. Every single rigatone must first flirt with, then embrace, and finally consummate the relationship with its portion of sauce.

Serve immediately, as you don't want to spoil it all by making another 10-minute conversation with your guests. Your table must be already set. Your kids' hands washed. When pasta is ready, everybody sits down and eats. No exceptions.

By the way, are your plates warm? Do you want to risk dropping the temperature of your perfectly cooked pasta by placing it on cold plates? No, of course not.  This is the little-known 4th law of thermodynamics, proposed by Galileo two centuries before Carnot, et al. (Joking)

Italians keep their plates warm. There are various techniques for this: put them in warm water while you're cooking, or else keep them around the stove. Whatever you do, just don't let them get cold.

Is that all we need to know about how to cook pasta?  Well, that's the basics, but of course there are subtle nuances in cooking pasta that are as mysterious as witchcraft and they can't be so easily explained. It requires practice.

One last bit of advice. I shouldn't have to say this, but experience has taught me that it's necessary to point it out: 

Don't EVER reheat pasta leftovers from the day before!

Wasting food is a sin, but eating day-old pasta is a mortal sin. If, in a moment of weakness, you commit this transgression, please seek the counsel of an ordained priest immediately, and he will prescribe an appropriate penance. The fate of your immortal soul is at stake.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Beef braciole al sugo (in tomato sauce)

Beef Braciole al sugo (in tomato sauce)

Preparation time: 30-35 min   Cooking time: 2 1/2 hours   Servings: about 4 – 6

Braciole with sauce is one of those traditional Italians meals reserved for special family gatherings. For many Italians, braciole are synonymous to their nonna’s cooking and memorable Sunday lunches. Thus, Braciole are part of the fond memories of most Italians who can recite who in their upbringing made the very best. Here’s our recipe.
  • 1 1/2 lb beef top round or flank steak – if meat is thick butterfly it or ask your butcher to do this. You’ll want thin slices of meat for rolling.
  • 1/2 c. Chopped Fresh Flat Leaf Parsley
  • 1/2 c. Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese or Grated Aged Provolone Cheese
  • 2 tbsp. Garlic chopped finely
  • Salt and Pepper to taste
  • 6 – 10 slices prosciutto or speck, halved widthways
  • Toothpicks or string (butcher’s twine) to secure the rolls
  • 3-4 Tbsp. Olive oil for browning
  • Tomato Sauce (see recipe for this to follow)
  • 500 g rigatoni

Using a meat mallet or a rolling pin, pound the steaks between sheets of baking paper to about 5mm thick. Cut steaks in 2 widthways. (You can ask your butcher to do this for you.) If making  smaller ones cut the meat into 5-6” slices.
Rub each slice with olive oil. Lay the prosciutto slices over each steak and scatter chopped parsley, cheese, garlic and salt and pepper to taste.
Roll up to enclose and secure with toothpicks. You can use 2 or 3 strings to secure the smaller ones. If making large ones, use more string or toothpicks.
In a large frypan, Brown the rolls in olive oil over medium-high heat for 3-4 minutes. 
When finished – remove them and tranfer to tomato sauce.
Cover the pan or pot and simmer for 1 1/2 hours. Stir gently occasionally to turn the braciole.
Uncover the pot for the last hour of cooking to thicken.
Remove braciole before serving and remove and discard toothpicks and strings. Slice the braciole thickly.
Serve with rigatoni, plenty of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and a nice glass of red wine.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Flavors from the Sea-Calamari fritti or Fried Calamari

Note: I grew up loving these but the first time I made Calamari Fritti was in the summer at the end of my eleventh grade. A few of us had gotten together to rent an extremely rustic farmhouse ($20/month) on the very isolated west side of the island of Paros in the Cycladic chain of islands  in Greece. It was the night of the full moon and we decided to have a party, the Calamari were one of the main courses.
This is a perfect fry with all the taste of fresh squid

Ingredients: 800 g squid, semolina, olive oil, salt.

PREPARATION: Wash the squid, and pat dry with kitchen paper. Cut into circles and turn them over in the flour until it no longer adheres well. Put the squid in hot oil and fry until golden turning with a slotted spoon. Drain them, put them on paper towels, season with salt and serve hot. The secret of a good fried food is the temperature of the oil. To find out if the temperature is right immerse the handle of a wooden spoon. If the oil bubbles around the spoon, it means that the oil is at the right temperature.

Friday, January 31, 2014

3 Reasons I Will Never Leave Italy

The title is probably an exaggeration. I most likely will live in the United States again. Statistically, very few expats live out their lives in a foreign country. Most, eventually, find their way back to the land of their birth.
So let me just say that these are the top three reasons that I can't imagine leaving Italy... today.
#1. Coffee. Coffee is not just a drink in is a work of art.
Starbucks may have 17,000 stores throughout the world, but Italy does not have a single one. A barista will make your espresso, simply called a caffe`, with the precision of a skilled craftsman. From the coffee beans, to the pre-heated machine, to the properly sized cup, to the exact strength and temperature of the caffe`, and milk, it will all be controlled by a professional. The "no foam, skinny latte, double shot of vanilla" order does not happen here. To drink an espresso, macchiato, or cappuccino in Italy, is to enjoy something just as it has been made for generations. The taste is exquisite....perfection. I cannot go back. And, it's the only place I have ever found that wants to drink coffee as I do, all day long.
#2. Emotion. There is just so much of it. 
My first week in Florence, I rounded a corner on a narrow side street and walked right into a melodrama. A man was crying out to a woman next to him that he was, "Frustrated. Heartbroken. Devastated." Arms raised, palms up, he wailed to her, (and the neighborhood), that he just "couldn't take it anymore." "Wow," I thought. What could she have possibly done that had him so distraught? It didn't take more than a couple of weeks of living in Italy to realize that was everyday, normal conversation. She'd probably forgotten to pick up his dry cleaning. Similar dramas can be heard from any open window, trattoria or sidewalk, on any given day. And while everything is of the utmost importance, nothing is private! Passionate, kissing couples are everywhere, while the rest of the traffic just walks around them. Life seems to be lived fully in the present, engaged and emotional. It's raw, real and refreshing. It makes me smile a little as I walk by. Good stuff here, happening just outside my door.
#3. La Bella Figura. There are rules here that simultaneously impress and frighten me. You may not know the rules exist the first time you visit Italy, but live here for a while and they become clear. This is an entire country of people who strive for "la bella figura", the art of making a good impression. These are the sometimes subtle, but always present, rituals of behavior that make this country unlike any other. As a foreigner, you may just notice how polished everyone seems to be. It's staggering. Constantly aware of aesthetic beauty, confident and manicured, they are a walking advertisement for the good life. But there are rules to be followed in creating the good impression that go beyond how one is dressed. And here's where it becomes a little tricky. You don't know the rules. You only begin to learn the rules after a certain number of withering looks. It might be from the server at the trattoria, fruttivendolo, or a full out scolding by an Italian Grandma in the market. Pretty soon, you catch on. (As a side note, these rules of behavior have been in place longer than the United States has been a country. So don't be asking why a certain rule exists. It just does.) As well mannered as you may be, no outsider is a match for those that were born and raised in the country of la bella figura. Many of the rules come from cleanliness and spreading germs. So please don't touch the produce at the market, unless you have placed on a disposable plastic glove, and if you do touch it, buy it. Don't share food, even pizza.
That's just the tip of the iceberg. There are rules on when to drink cappuccino, what sauce goes on which pasta, and what color to paint the shutters. I haven't even mentioned the language rules. There's an entirely separate vocabulary for those that must be spoken to in the formal, rather than informal, context. I am not complaining. Rather, I enjoy a society where everyone is making it a priority to be civil. But what about how they drive? And the dreadful condition of the sidewalks and public squares? Many neglect to pick up after their dogs or themselves. How is it that they continually butt in line or refuse to move over even an inch on the sidewalk? Therein lies the paradoxical life of la bella figura in Italy! I would miss the rules. I have worked so hard to learn them.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Do you know how to speak with your hands Italian Style?

Knowing some Italian makes any trip to Italy easier. But understanding Italian gestures might be even more important. Learn some with this cute video from La Repubblica... starring Dolce & Gabbana models.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

why do Italians love food so much?

Italian Food Traditions

Someone asked me yesterday, “why do Italians love food so much?”. Here is what I think. They love it because:

it is a matter of culture and identity…

In Italy “food” is more than just food. There are some people who say that in order to really appreciate an Italian recipe you should know everything about the region where the recipe comes from, meaning the landscape, the traditions, the way of life. If “culture” is the ensemble of the systems of meanings through which we make sense of what is around us, “food” here is one of the ways in which what is around us finds a way to express itself. In Italy, food is culture and you can find over 70.000 traditional recipes that are the perfect expression of a particular context. We could say that…
Italians love food so much because it is part of their roots, an essential companion of the beauty that surrounds them and one of the key elements that makes them… who they are.

 it is a matter of passion and pleasure…

I remember reading the results of a research once, a study that was carried out by an expert linguist. The researcher was trying to understand the difference between Americans and Italians when it comes to food. Looking at how typical Italian and American parents talk about food at dinner with their children, the scholar underlined that in the United States mothers and fathers tend to present dinner time to their kids saying things like “be a good girl/boy and you will have a reward… a wonderful dessert!” or “I know, you don’t like to eat, but be good and you’ll have some ice-cream later”. In Italy, however, parents talked about dinner with their children portraying it as a wonderful moment: “Guys, mummy cooked something delicious and special for us!” and “how delicious is dinner today, don’t you think?” were common expressions among the Italians. The conclusions of the piece, with which I perfectly agree, stated that…
 Italians think about food as something pleasurable, and therefore communicate their passion to their children. In Italy, people love food because it is definitively a matter of pleasure!

 it is a matter of simplicity and community…

Did you know that many of the Italian traditional recipes were born in the house of poor farmers who had to make the best of whatever they have in their kitchens? “You don’t waste nothing”, used to say my grandma. But because they didn’t have much, these pioneers had to keep their dishes simple. In doing so, more or less consciously, Italians have learned that the quality of the ingredients is way more important than the quantity. Cooking, for an Italian family, has always signaled the coming of the moment in which everyone can sit at the table and enjoy the simple pleasure of a warm meal. So..
For the Italians, then, food is always a reminder that life can be complicated and hard, sad and cold… but that happiness is just a matter of few, delicious ingredients.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Friday, August 23, 2013


Nowadays, the United States Bocce Federation (USBF) promotes it as a sport and has been sending the best American players to world championships since 1979. They are part of a movement that is trying to get Bocce into the Olympics.

Thanks to Italian immigrants, Bocce has come to flourish in the United States although we find signs of the game before the 1800s: one early playing field was Bowling Green at the southern tip of Manhattan and we know that George Washington built a Bocce court at Mount Vernon.

Nine thousand years ago people played games similar to Bocce. Polished round stone balls with evident signs of having been rolled on the ground were found in Çatalhöyük, modern Turkey, and in an Egyptian tomb dated 3500 b.C. The Greeks played Bocce andHippocrates, the father of western medicine, considered it a healthy activity for the young and old. But it was the Romans that made it famous throughout the Empire. They invented wooden Bocce, cheaper and easier to make and to carry around. Emperor Augustus had a personal set made out of fine olive tree roots.

In the Middle Ages Bocce was played by kids and adults, rich and poor, on roads, alleys and squares. Old Bowling Green, the first Bocce club, was founded in Southampton, an old Roman colony, in 1299.

All this happiness bothered some aristocrats who did their best to ban it. Among them, French kings Charles IV in 1319 and Charles V in 1369, followed by the English kings Richard II in 1388, Henry IV in 1401, and Henry VIII, the king who had six wives, divorced two and had two beheaded.

Strangely enough, more somber people like Martin Luther (1483–1546), the German monk credited with initiating the Protestant Reformation, and John Calvin (1509-1564), the founder of Calvinism, found Bocce a fantastic game. According to legend, Sir Francis Drake refused to set out to defend England against the Spanish Armada until he finished a Bocce game, and we find Bocce in Rabelais’ novels, in Shakespeare's Richard II, in Peter Bruegel the Elder's paintings.

You can find courts almost everywhere but you can also play it on lawns, on the beach, wherever you find a leveled field. All you need is 8 colored balls, in two different colors or four different colors, and a pallino (smaller ball). 

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

COZZE CON POMODORI- Clams with Tomatoes

INGREDIENTI: 1 spicchio di aglio, 500 g di cozze, olio extravergine di oliva, pepe nero qb, prezzemolo tritato, vino vermentino di Gallura, 200 g pomodori

 PREPARAZIONE Pulite le cozze eliminando il bisso. Cuocetele in un tegame con il vino bianco e fatele aprire a fuoco vivo. Tritate l’aglio e rosolatelo nell’olio; aggiungete i pomodorini tagliati a cubetti, unite le cozze e il loro sughetto e fate saltare il tutto. Aggiungete per ultimo il prezzemolo e il pepe macinato al momento. Disponete il letto di pane carasau e aiutandovi con un cucchiaio versate le cozze con i pomodori.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Eternal Veggies

Il Geco Biondo ("The Blond Gecko") is an organic vegetarian eatery that specializes in pasta dishes.
By Eleonora Baldwin
Published: 2013-01-13
he average Italian is a carnivore, Romans in particular. Veal and beef are the norm as main courses and in pasta sauces. But the city also has plenty of vegetarian options, mainly because mainstream Italian cuisine, which hasn't changed much since the 19th century, leans heavily on vegetable, pasta and dairy products.
Driven more by poverty and availability than conscious choice, traditional regional recipes depended more on what the land produced than what animal pens had to offer. Meat and fish were costly items, usually reserved for nobility or higher social status, and often downright rare for non-hunters. Hence the birth of polenta, pizza, gnocchi, vegetable pies, the vivid selection of cheeses, hearty soups and affordable preparations that relied on leftover bread, beans and potatoes: basic sustenance that has trickled down in history into our every-day meals.
So vegetarians visiting Rome don't need to worry. Here's a shortlist of reliable vegetarian, vegan and ovo-lacto friendly havens I've dined in lately.
Arancia Blu, among Rome's pioneer vegetarian destinations, has moved from its original San Lorenzo location to a larger, more comfortable venue in the Prenestina suburbs. Equipped with a lovely outdoor patio that welcomes pets and kids, the nifty à la carte vegetarian menu is also very popular with meat people, helped by a 600-bottle wine list, homemade stuffed pasta dishes, soups, salads and a mile-long cheese menu.

Natural foods on The Beehive blackboard.
I pretend to be vegetarian for their leek and almond quiche, the mouthwatering tortelli with Parmigiano filling, dressed with watercress pesto and topinambur (Jerusalem artichoke) chips. Leave room for dessert. ¶ Arancia Blue. Open daily from 5 p.m. (high tea); aperitivo and cheese/champagne tastings at 7 p.m.; dinner at 8 p.m. On weekends open for lunch only. Via Prenestina, 396e. Tel. +
The Beehive Café is a dreamy corner of peace which makes you forget you're two blocks from zoo that is the Termini train station. It's part of the eco-conscious and welcoming Beehive Hotel, a sustainable mix of budget hotel and upscale hostel. Owned by a lovely American couple, the hotel's kitchen offers daily breakfast graced by organic coffee and homemade bread, pancakes, omelets and bagels; plus weekend brunches, and evening vegan buffets three nights a week, all with healthy, organic food. You can come for that, or simply choose to sit in the garden, sipping herbal tea and surf the web thanks to the free Wi-Fi. ¶ The Beehive. Open daily 7:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Via Marghera, 8. Tel. +39.06.4470.4553.
Bibliothé is a peaceful vegetarian hub that draws indophile yogis, artists, poets, and travelers wishing to find a quiet space for reading at teatime. It serves 100 percent organic Ayurvedic cuisine (a holistic Indian approach to dietary needs). Guests are treated to candied ginger and caffeine-free tisanes; and the menu showcases dishes made with all manner of cereals, legumes, and fresh seasonal produce. I come for the tasty spelt crepes, the wonderful chutneys, homemade yogurts, and vegan desserts. ¶ Bibliothé. Closed Sunday. Via Celsa, 4 (Pantheon). Tel. +39.06.678.1427.
Il Geco Biondo ("The Blond Gecko") is an organic vegetarian eatery not far from Ponte Marconi that specializes in pasta dishes, salads and vegan desserts. It offers a wide selection of handmade gnocchi, lasagna, strozzapretiand stuffed ravioli, dressed with original sauces and condiments. Between the opening salad and the main dish, there's always a surprise, whether a protein dish, a veggie pâté, a bowl of soup, a mini cereal salad, or a side dish sampler. ¶ Il Geco Biondo. Open for dinner only, closed Sunday. Via G. Cardano, 105 (Marconi/San Paolo). Tel. +39.06.557.1048.
Margutta RistorArte is a very posh vegetarian restaurant with outdoor seating a stone's throw from Piazza del Popolo and the Spanish Steps. All is homemade here (including bread, desserts and pasta) and popular menu items include a veggie tart with smoked provola cheese and zucchini in mint marinade; risotto with strawberries and Gorgonzola; and springtime asparagus and hard-boiled egg cous cous salad. There's a four-course vegan menu, affordable buffet lunch and three brunch options, according to calendar. ¶ Margutta RistorArte. Open lunch and dinner, seven days a week, year-round (except Christmas Day). Via Margutta, 118. Tel. +39.06.3265.0577.

Ten Things NOT to Do in Italy

Ten Things NOT to Do in Italy

Posted by Fodor's Guest Blogger on January 07, 2013 at 12:55:32 PM EST
By Eva Sandoval
The more time you spend in Italy, the more you'll notice that Italians love telling you what to do...whether you ask them for advice or not. Try this wine. Try it again. Pass that semi truck—you can do it! Wear different shoes. Change your hair; you're not eighty. Loosen up. Mangia, mangia! For a change of pace, here's a list of things NOT to do in Italy—a country as beloved for its passionate people as its natural beauty and delicious cuisine.



Head to Vatican City in a tube top

We know the desire to charm the Italians with your spaghetti strap sundress might be overwhelming, but visitors in skimpy clothing are forbidden to enter holy sights. If you can't bring yourself to wear a top that covers your shoulders, tuck a scarf or cardigan into your bag, and use it to make yourself presentable when you're on holy ground.

Park inside the yellow lines

Or the pink ones, if you're eating for one. Or the blue ones, if you want to save a few euro. Few things are as gutting as heading back to the parking lot and finding a parking ticket on your rental car, or worse, a stark gap where your car used to be. In an Italian parking lot, the white-lined parking spaces are free, the blue-lined are paid, the yellow-lined spots are for disabled motorists, and the pink spots are for expectant mothers. As for potential parking spots that have no lines at all, be sure to look for Zona di Rimozione (Tow Zone) or Divieto di Sosta (No Parking) signs. Or just do as the Italians: cross your fingers and park on the sidewalk. Sideways.

Expect things to happen according to schedule

One of the first things any visitor to Italy will learn is that there's time...and then there's Italian time. Italian time is elastic (don't be surprised when your 4 p.m. Colosseum tour starts at 4:30) and so are business hours. Many businesses—even, bafflingly, restaurants—shut down for lunch and will also be closed two days a week, days which vary from business to business. Double-checking business hours is crucial unless you enjoy making empty treks. Public transportation is also often "out of order" or delayed, so give yourself ample padding between travel connections.

Get fleeced by a gondolier

Taking a gondola cruise in Venice might seem like the most romantic thing on earth until you get the bill. Surprise: a gondola ride can cost upwards of $65 per person (!), and even more if you have a shady gondolier. If a $65-$130 boat ride isn't in your budget, but you still have your heart set on floating along Venice's canals, consider hopping aboard a traghetto—one of the water taxis used by Venetian locals when they want to cross the Grand Canal. The ride will be much shorter, but the traghetto boats are exactly the same as the tourist gondolas and tickets will cost around $5.

Take that Google Maps shortcut

Should you be renting a car to explore the country, you'll probably be using a GPS or Google Maps. You might be tempted to save on autostrade tolls by taking one of the outlined shortcuts. But the farther south in Italy you go, the worse-kept the roads tend to be. Razor-narrow passages, huge potholes and an absence of streetlights can make navigation difficult for a traveler unfamiliar with Italian motorways; the SS7 (Via Appia)—a mostly-unlit winding coastside path running from Rome to Brindisi—is particularly perilous. You might have to pay a bit extra to take the autostrade, but at least they're well-kept.

Get yourself psyched for authentic spaghetti alla bolognese in Naples

In Italian restaurants outside of Italy, all of the boot's many regional cuisines are slapped with the giant umbrella title—ITALIAN FOOD—so you'd be forgiven for not knowing that pesto was invented in Genoa and Limoncello is from Sorrento. But you wouldn't head to Los Angeles hoping for the best barbecue of your life, would you? Do yourself a favor and stick to local foods on your Italian trip. A (very) quick cheat sheet: Genoa for pesto; Naples for pizza; Bologna for bolognese sauce and filled pastas like ravioli, tortellini and lasagne; Milan for risotto alla milanese and ossobucco alla milanese; Rome for spaghetti alla carbonara, spaghetti all'amatriciana and lamb. Gnocchi, bresaola, polenta dishes, and the ultra-popular Italian dessert tiramisù are found all over the country, but are native to the northern Italian regions like Lombardy and Veneto. Prosciutto—or Parma ham—is most commonly associated with central and northern Italy.

Tip everything that matter what they tell you

Tipping is not obligatory or common in Italy. However, tourist-savvy service people may have heard that Americans are genetically programmed to tip everything from waiters to performing rabbits, so the cheekier ones might try to work you for some spare change. Unless they gave you the best service in the history of the planet, resist. They're getting a living wage.

Ask your waiter for parmesan cheese to put on your seafood pasta

Unless you want to see a grown adult cry, that is. One of the holiest commandments of traditional Italian culinary etiquette is that cheese and seafood never, ever mix. Only very recently have certain cheese/seafood pairings cropped up—i.e., ricotta with sea bass, gorgonzola with clams—but this is considered very avant garde (the elder generation won't touch such dishes). Regardless of your age or level of sophistication, mixing parmesan cheese with seafood remains a cardinal sin, so don't even ask. And for the love of Saint Peter, don't let an Italian see you cutting your spaghetti with a fork and knife.

Kill yourself trying to fit Rome into a crowded itinerary

Twenty regions, so much to see! Most visitors enter Italy through Rome, but if you plan to enter via Sicily or Milan and can't bear the thought of missing out on Roman ruins during your trip, take heart: the Romans were a busy bunch. Spectacular Roman ruins can be found throughout the peninsula, namely Volterra in Tuscany, Villa Jovis on the Isle of Capri, Pompeii and Oplontis in Campania, Piazza Armerina in Sicily, Verona in Veneto, and Mediolanum in Milan. Use the money you'll have saved on extra flights to fill up on wine.

Plan on conducting your entire trip to Italy in English

Yes, the movies would have you believe that any time you travel, your host country will be chock-full of citizens who speak your language perfectly, albeit with a charming accent. But Italy consistently earns moderate to low proficiency rankings on English proficiency indexes—among the lowest-rated in Europe. You'll do all right at hotels, historical sites, and restaurants in heavily-touristed cities like Rome and Naples, but set foot outside of those perimeters and, well, in bocca al lupo.
P.S. That means "good luck" in Italian.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Italian Sign Language...

Old Neapolitan gestures, from left to right: money, past times, affirmation, stupid, good, wait a moment, to walk backward, to steal, horns, to ask for.

From: "Speak Italian: The Fine Art of the Gesture" by Bruno Munari (originally published in 1958)

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

How to Make an Italian Pizza: The Simple, Step-by-Step Guide

Yes, we ate this pizza in Naples. But if you follow our recipe, you can make pizza like this at home!

Want to know how to make a real Italian pizza? The most important part is getting the Italian pizza dough right! More than just the base of the pizza, the dough is what gives the pizza its texture, holds together the flavors, and—if done right—can make you feel like you’ve been transported right back to Italy.

But first:
Just a bit about pizza in Italy…

A traditional pizza margherita of Naples, complete with the thick crust

Even though it’s become the most popular Italian food abroad, pizza and Italy didn’t always go together like, well, pizza and Italy. In fact, pizza wasn’t even invented until the 19th century, when it started out as a fast food on the streets of Naples. In the beginning (and, we’d argue, even today), the simpler the pizza, the better: The classic pizza napoletana was just dough with a tomato sauce of Marzano tomatoes, oregano or basil, a little garlic, salt, and olive oil.
It’s another pizza from Naples, though, that has the neatest pedigree. When Queen Margherita came to visit Naples in 1889, she was charmed by a local pizza baker who had made, in her honor, a pizza with the colors of the new flag of the just-unified Italy—red tomatoes, white mozzarella, and green basil. Yep, you guessed it. It’s now called the pizza margherita (or margarita, on some menus).
Roman pizza
Traditional Roman pizza (check out that thin crust!)
Of course, Italian food is very regional, and so are Italian pizzas. (Although any real Italian pizza should always be cooked in a wood-fired oven; in fact, a pizzeria without one can’t even, legally, call itself a pizzeria!). That world-famous pizza in Naples is known as“pizza alta” (thick crust), while pizza in Rome is traditionally thin-crust and crisp.
Like the rest of Italian food, Italian pizza is best—and most authentic—when it’s made with fresh, delicious ingredients. We’re not talking the microwaved dough and synthetic cheese that you see now both in Italy and abroad, but something completely different.
The best way to try it, short of going to an authentic pizzeria with great ingredients and a wood-fired oven? Make it at home!

What you need to make an Italian pizza

(makes dough for 4 pizzas, each one about 12 inches in diameter):
  • 600 mL of warm water
  • 7 cups (1kg) flour, type “00″*
  • 2.25 teaspoons (25 grams) yeast
  • 6 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
  • 1.5 tablespoons salt
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
*A note on the flour: In Italy, “00″, or “doppio zero,” flour is the most highly-refined and finest-ground flour available. Not available where you are (or too expensive?). An all-purpose flour should work just as well!

How to make your pizza:

Kids can make their own pizzas, too!
Kids love making pizza, too!
1. Sprinkle the yeast into a medium bowl with the warm water. We don’t mean hot, and we don’t mean cold… we mean warm! That’s the kind the yeast likes best. Stir until the yeast dissolves.
2. Place almost all of the flour on the table in the shape of a volcano. (Think Mt. Vesuvius… appropriate since Naples is the king of all pizza cities!).
3. Pour the yeast-and-warm-water mix, along with the other ingredients, into the “crater” of the volcano.
4. Knead everything together for 10 to 15 minutes until the dough is smooth and elastic, keeping your surface floured.
5. Grease up a bowl with some olive oil and put the dough inside. Turn the dough around so the top is slightly oiled.
6. Cover the bowl and put the dough aside to let it rest for at least four or five hours.
7 (optional for those who want their pizza really authentic). Make a cross on top of the dough with a knife. An old Italian tradition, this is seen as a way of “blessing the bread.”
8. Preheat the oven to about 400°F, or about 200°C.
9. Dump the dough out of the bowl and back onto the floured surface. Punch it down, getting rid of any bubbles. (Note: Now’s the time to enlist a kid with more energy than they know what to do with!).
10. Divide the dough in half and let it rest for a few minutes.
11. Roll each section into a 12-inch disc. Now’s your chance to decide how thick you want your pizza to be! Do you want it pizza alta (Neapolitan-style) or pizza bassa (Roman-style)? Just remember, your crust will puff up a little bit as it’s baked!
12.  Transfer the dough onto an oiled pizza pan or baking sheet.
13. Add tomato sauce, if you want a pizza rossa (red pizza). Lots of pizzas in Italy are actually pizza bianca, without tomato sauce, so don’t feel like you have to! Brush the edges of the crust with a little bit of olive oil.
14. Bake each pizza for about 10 minutes, then add mozzarella cheese (sliced or grated) on top, as well as any other ingredients.
15. Let the pizzas bake until the crust is browned and the cheese is melted. By lifting up the pizza to peek underneath, you can make sure the bottom has browned, too.
16. Remove your pizzas from the oven and, for a real Italian touch, garnish with a few basil leaves. And enjoy!!
 Thanks to Walks of Italy’s Loredana of Le Marche, Italy for providing her tried-and-true, authentic Italian pizza recipe!

Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Vatican Museum's Spiral Staircase

The Vatican Museums spiral staircase is one of the most photographed in the world, and certainly one of the most beautiful. Designed by Giuseppe Momo in 1932, the broad steps are somewhere between a ramp and a staircase. The stairs are actually two separate helixes, one leading up and the other leading down, that twist together in a double helix formation. Little did the Vatican Museum know in 1932 that this formation would come to represent life itself, with the discovery of the double helical DNA strand.

The Spanish Steps...

The Spanish Steps (Italian: Scalinata della Trinità dei Monti) are a set of steps in Rome, Italy, climbing a steep slope between the Piazza di Spagna at the base and Piazza Trinità dei Monti, dominated by the Trinità dei Monti church at the top. The Scalinata is the widest staircase in Europe. The monumental stairway of 138 steps was built with French diplomat Étienne Gueffier’s bequeathed funds of 20,000 scudi, in 1723–1725, linking the Bourbon Spanish Embassy, and the Trinità dei Monti church that was under the patronage of the Bourbon kings of France, both located above — to the Holy See in Palazzo Monaldeschi located below. The stairway was designed by architects Francesco de Sanctis and Alessandro Specchi.

Monday, November 5, 2012

You Gained Weight!

Most goods vendors in Rome are Senegalese, but many are referred to as Moroccans

By Nicole Arriaga

Published: 2012-10-31

Something that's always taken me back about Rome Italians is their complete lack of politically correctness. Most people in the U.S. work to avoid using words and phrases that might cause needless offense. Italians on the other hand seem to blurt out whatever's on their mind, giving very little thought to the impact of what they're saying.

This can be refreshing at times, admittedly. The downside of the American way is that we often think too much before speaking. Italians might even say we're a bit phony.

Maybe we are, but we're still polite.

Rome's Chinese community is growing, and still faces considerable discrimination.

A good example is the way many Romans still refer to street vendors. Whether the vendors are peddling umbrellas, bracelets, handbags or scarves — spend a little time in Italian cities and you'll notice there is a difference between who sells what — they're often generically called marocchini, Moroccans. There's no mystery as to why: it's based on their skin color and alien-ness.

Though this bothers for a variety of reasons, the first one is pretty straightforward. The vendors are rarely Moroccan. Most are typically from Senegal, Bangladesh or Nigeria (in fact, most of the vendors are typically Senegalese, just as flower-sellers tend to come from Bangladesh).

Italian actually has a phrase for illegal or unauthorized street vendors, venditori ambulanti, which basically means traveling salesmen. But it's a clunky to say aloud. And though Marrocchino is clearly derogatory, no one pays much attention since it's been built into the language.

The same kind of insensitivity goes for the description of babysitters or caregivers. Italians have the bad habit of attaching racial slants to any kind of help-out job, since such work is seen only as menial. I remember a stretch when I was working so hard I had little time to clean up. The suggestion of an Italian friend? Ma perché non ti prendi una filippina? ("Why not hire a Filipino to help out.")

A large Filipino community made its way to Italy in the 1960s and 70s, with most of them taking household jobs, basically the only ones they could get. Many married and started families in Italy. Since then, Filipino has become a going synonym for maid or helper.

Like most countries, the U.S. has its own share of racial and ethnic slurs, but they're usually used in anger. In Italy, north or south, Filipino and Moroccan are part of day-to-day speech.

Live in Italy long enough and some of that language profiling rubs off. The other day my husband called me to ask me where I was. Sono al negozio dei cinesi, I blurted out, "at the Chinese shop."

Chinese families in and around Rome run household item stores that literally sell everything but the kitchen sink (like Korean markets in New York). These shops have names, and in New York many locals actually learn the name of the owner, but in Rome everyone calls them I cinesi. It may be good-natured but it's still discriminatory. I try catching myself, but bad habits die hard.

Another issue is weight. I'm neither fat nor thin, but whenever there's a slight change in the pounds department I'm almost immediately called out. Ironically, the observation often happens immediately after a cordial greeting, as in:

"Hi, how are you? Long time no see! Looks like you've gained a few pounds, no?"

Great. Why don't you tell me how you really feel?

It's at moments like those that I envy Rome bluntness. I could return fire saying,

"Wow, so nice to see you again! It's been so long! Turn around and let me get a good look at you. Yep. You're still ugly."

But I'm not there yet.