Mar 16, 2020

Italy on pause

This is actually happening.

Italy is in lockdown. Zona Protetta, as Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte defined the country: a protected area.

"The country needs the responsibility of each and every one of you, it needs 60 million little big sacrifices. Let's keep a distance today to hug each other more warmly and to run faster together tomorrow. All together we will make it through."

The day after the decree was issues with hashtag #iorestoacasa (I'm staying at home) as national directive for people to stay put and help stop the contagion from increasing, the World Health Organization elevated the outbreak to pandemic.

I have to keep reminding myself, this is actually happening.

The perception abroad, given the media coverage––both domestic and foreign––is of Italy's deserted streets and monuments, hoards of people fleeing home from Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna and Veneto aka "red zones" where the contagion and casualties are higher, and general hysteria at the supermarket.

It's a lot more than that.

Being here and living this surreal situation feels more like the country is on pause.

We are living in one of those strange nightmares. The ones where time is prolonged and everything feels unknown, like a heavy burden. Trying to run away from the monster with lead in your legs.

What exactly is a lockdown? And why are we in it?

What: Lockdown means the entire Italian population is asked to stay home and only leave the house for absolutely necessary errands like buying food, going to the pharmacy and taking a short walk with our kids and pets. Italy is essentially shut down at least until April 3.
We don't congregate, we keep 3-ft social distancing and we wash our hands much more than usual.

Why: We are closed off from the outer world so that we don't infect others and put countless people at risk, and by the same token we potentially avoid contracting the virus from others who may be infected. That's because coronavirus is sneaky, its symptoms appear after a 2 to 14 day incubation period.

A monumental effort. But necessary.
I feel proud that I'm doing this for our elders, our community and our country.

We can no longer go to the bar for espresso (or a grappa, or both). It was tough enough grabbing a coffee while maintaining the 3-ft distance between barista and other customers, given our average personal space is much smaller than the rest of the world's. Now I miss my cornetto like it's crack.

Buses are still running, but the few I see driving by are always empty. We can no longer visit museums, watch a match at the football stadium, attend a concert. We can't hug our aging relatives. We can't go to the gym. We can no longer do impromptu pizza night with friends. We'll hold off on going to the cinema, theater, ballet, getting manicures, haircuts. You'll just have to accept my grey roots showing.

No more day trips to the lake or the countryside. In order to leave our region of residence, we have to carry a signed self-certified declaration stating the reason for the transfer. Work and emergencies are permitted, trespassers without the signed form (or a not good enough reason) outside of their region/province will be fined up to €290.

Don't think martial law. Just strictly applied rules.

The general feeling is of melancholy. A strange new sadness.

So many questions are flooding our minds.

Will my family and I stay healthy?
Will cancellations continue to pour into our mailboxes?
Will I have to homeschool my teenage son who in June is supposed to take a major final written and spoken exam to advance to high school?

We're so used to multitasking and going about our busy daily routine that all this "spare time" is also, quite frankly, driving us a little nuts. But we Italians are also creative, resourceful and never forget our sense of humor.

Lack of work and restricted activities are obviously causing everyone trouble. The travel industry is on its knees. People's livelihood is at risk.

My heart goes out to Venice, my beloved Venice. After the acqua alta in October, now this.
Forza Venezia, we can do this!

As soon as the quarantine lifts, and when it will be safe to travel again, I personally will go to Venice and support its artisans, guides, gondoliers, restaurateurs, bartenders, hotel managers and the general population with my presence, my money, my love. I will do the same with my friends in Bologna, Parma, and other gravely affected areas.

This suspended time will furthermore allow us to do all the things we had previously put on the back burner in the name of fast-pace stakhanovism.

Little sister and I will teach our 82 year old mother (who lives 2 blocks away) to use Skype and Facetime, so we can do video-calls.
I'll make it a habit to check in with family and friends more regularly.
I'll have more time for writing.
I can polish off the book pitch.
Get free pet therapy with our new puppy.
I'll beat my son at scopa.
He will defeat me at Monopoly, as per usual.
I'll finally have the time to read, work out, and do nothing––rare commodities for self employed entrepreneurs…

We will beat this.
We'll find solidarity, our sense of compassion and community––all at a distance.
We'll wash our hands for 60 seconds humming the alphabet or "Tanti Auguri a Te" twice.
We'll try not to touch our face.
We'll stay at a safe distance from others.
And we will make it through this moment.

We will resume complaining about traffic and crowds.

There is a silver lining to all this (because I always try to see the glass half full).
The air smells amazing. Smog levels have dropped. In the early morning when I take the dog out for his first walk, the dawn smells of flowers and springtime. Reminds me of when I was 17.
This is not going to last forever.
We reach out more and talk to each other on the phone/FaceTime instead of messaging.
Banding together as a community and following the rules feels empowering.
It will be fun to declutter
There will be time to learn a new language... Russian is high on my list.
We Italians, so famous for our love of sharing food, have made no visible effort to raid shelves and panic buy. We've left enough for everyone.

If across the web you've been seeing photos of handwritten sticky-notes and rainbows on banners hanging outside windows, you may be wondering what AndrĂ  tutto bene means.
Literally: "Everything will go well."

Dec 16, 2019

What makes a good Italian coffee bar good?

Given how picky and demanding Italians can be regarding food, furiously sending back a dish if the carbonara has even a hint of heavy cream, it's curious how patient they are when it comes to espresso, sometimes settling for pretty awful brews. Why is that?

Are we Italians just impatient?
Have we gone too long without heavy-duty caffeine, so anything will do?
Do we not want to make a fuss, since a bar is far more public and intimate than a restaurant?
Maybe it's steadfast loyalty to our neighborhood barista—a loyalty that can be deep and wide and sometimes last decades.

Romantic notions aside, no one should ever settle for a bar that fails to cut it, whether because the coffee is mediocre or the morning pastry too dry. A bar holds a crucially important, practical, and cultural role in daily life—in that way at least kin to an American "watering hole." If your local bartender can't mix drinks, there's trouble in Dodge.

But how exactly do you go about rating an Italian bar? What makes a good bar good?

Oct 3, 2019

Italian restauant no-no's

Pet peeves are personal by nature. They make waves at a gut level. Restaurant peeves develop over time and usually stick with you. It pains to report that some Italian restaurants—no matter how fine their food—manage to unhinge diner patience to the point of ruining the experience of guests who don’t know what hit them.

My own patience is limited. To me, a reputation for good food is blunted by an unpleasant atmosphere.

Collected here is a brief list of no-no's that can drive restaurant-lovers away, sometimes for good.

The acchiappino: In tourist-jammed cities (Rome, Florence and Venice) a hawker is often added to the payroll to reel in passers-by. He's known as an acchiappino, a "customer catcher."
You've seen his kind standing outside the entrance waving a menu and flirtatiously trying to lure you in using any means necessary ("Good morning, bonjour, guten tag, hola…pasta-pizza-tiramisu?") Anyplace that needs someone to convince me to enter isn't worth my money. Arrivederci.

Continue reading "Don't you dare" as appeared in The American Magazine in Italia

Sep 2, 2019

Ten (and a half) years of blogging

It's come to my attention recently that I missed the 10 year anniversary of this blog. So much for the resolution to keep it updated with original content and being strict about sticking to a publishing schedule after a 2-year slump!

On January 24, 2009 I published my first post. It's been a decade of huge change and I feel I owe much of that life overhaul to this blog, Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino.

Why I began a blog about Italian food and lifestyle

I started this blog because I felt I owed it to my son. He was going to grow up in a single-parent family with an Italian mom, the least I could do was keep a record of all the great dishes my nonna and my mother made for me (both women raised their daughters as single moms).
After starting, and becoming obsessively consistent with my blog writing, I soon understood that the recipes were a bonus, what readers were most interested in were the personal stories, the intimate reflections, the journal entries.
I was mildly intimidated by the technology and, as I expanded my professional engagements, worried about the time sink. But I felt the urge to write, it was––in a moment of deep professional change––the best therapy I could ask for.

My first post was how a bowl of Minestrone saved my psyche after a demanding rainy Sunday. For the first two years, I blogged twice to three times a week and had a blast. I wrote mostly posts that revolved around the sensorial or emotional allure a certain dish or food gave me, these posts almost always ended with a recipe. Later I slowed down to one blog post per week, then I started linking to blog posts and articles published on other platforms, like The American and Casa Mia. Now I'm down to two posts per month. If any.

From that very first entry, to the present, I have written 470 posts. Some were hugely popular, others nobody read. Some I changed the title to (but still kept the crazy URL), and some I've removed altogether. Overall, the engagement––that initially skyrocketed over the course of only a few months, and that has somewhat endured despite my hiccupping entries––has been mind blowing.

The posts my readers loved the most on Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino were:

If you look at the posts listed above, what's interesting, is how over time page views grew, compared to the number of comments, which intead slowly dwindled. In the past readers not only commented but many wrote long answers that resembled letters, or posts themselves. That's not counting spam comments, often in other languages, and linking to some form of product or service...
This was all happening before there were so many different social media outlets like Facebook where the comments turned into a virtual room where people opened conversations and sometimes actual debates.

Blogging's Changed

Life, new job opportunities, a growing child and a million other reasons account for why I slowed down my blogging, and thus engagement. But I feel I should also take into account the fact that blogging, in itself, has changed.

Now with Instagram, YouTube, Twitter and Pinterest, it's our job to engage and grow our audience on all platforms, which personally is a big challenge. Podcasts and videos have also replaced the longform written word.

Many bloggers have assistants(often virtual) to help with posting, photography and video, content development, answering emails, newsletter compiling and other chores. But for most food and lifestyle bloggers, it's still a single person hobby.

As for me, my ten (and a half) year-old blog about the Italian food and lifestyle continues to be a place where I love to engage with my readers. Thank you for joining me over the years! I'm grateful you're still here, even though I've not been consistent.

Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino is still my favorite way to communicate with you.

If you feel the same, please leave a comment letting me know what topics you'd like me to write about; what recipes you'd like to see here; and how you feel about blogging and blog-reading ten years after first landing on this site. I'd love to hear from you. Grazie!

Aug 22, 2019

9 delicious chilled dishes for beating the heat

The sun is high on the zenith, days last longer, there's sand in the car. Besides sporting ridiculous amounts of linen and hitting the rooftops for aperitivo, Italians respond to high summer with an array of refreshing cold dishes that bring lots of flavor to the table.

In addition to an endless search for the best scoop of gelato and the perfect slice of watermelon, the Italian summer menu includes creative pasta and rice salads, chilled soups and cold meat dishes, plus a fine assortment of cold vegetarian options featuring ripe summer produce. Here are a few of my cool summer favorites:

Continue Reading "So totally cool" as appeared in the American Magazine in Italia.