Oct 7, 2015

Mal d'Africa

I cried the first time I flew out of Africa. I sat numbly gazing down as the plane pulled away from the thick gum tree foliage and the red dirt roads I'd gotten to know intimately. That moment taught me mal d'Afrique, the inexplicable sense of loss and heartache rooted above all in a place. When it bites hard, the Africa bug leaves you bittersweet and charged with mysterious longing and nostalgia.

A similar kind of irrational, romantic attachment enters American journalistic essays on the Italian experience. The angle? Very often it's food. Long-form articles promoting Italy speak less of Stendhal Syndrome and the Bel Paese's world-famous artistic attractions, natural wonders and historic treasures than of the eating experience. These enraptured pieces, a mainstay in newspapers and magazine, prompt a mal d'Afrique-style question: What it is about the Italian mood (and the food) that sweeps Americans off their feet and leads them to write unbridled love stories and food-forward reportages?

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Sep 28, 2015

Recipe for Scabbardfish Involtini

Some people are under the (wrong) impression that cooking fish is a complicated affair. It is not! Actually fish is much easier to cook than meat.

When I last visited Siracusa in spring, the Ortigia market was jumping with activity already in the early morning, with the fabulous fish stalls attracting my attention. A vast array of fresh-from-the-sea gleaming, silvery creatures of every sort, including scabbardfish, which is such an underestimated marine delight.

Should you be lucky enough to chance upon sensational scabbardfish, here is a fantastic involtini recipe I learned in Siracusa...

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Sep 22, 2015

ProLoco D.O.L., dining in the Centocelle suburb of Rome

ProLoco D.O.L. is not easily categorized. It's a place where you can shop for sublime local products as well as pick up your CSA box every Wednesday. But, it's also a place where you can stop for a quick lunch, grab a glass of wine or a beer with snacks after work, or book a table for a full five-course dinner.

And, this is no ordinary dinner! Dining at ProLoco D.O.L. equals traveling across Lazio – the region of which Rome is the capital – without ever leaving your table. Vincenzo Mancino, mastermind behind this deli-restaurant in the Centocelle suburb of Rome, is a tireless scavenger. He scouts out the region in careful search of the area's best ingredients originating in Lazio (the acronym D.O.L. stands for "di origine laziale") and he succeeds: his shop boasts an unrivaled and always growing supply of local, quality products, such as...

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Aug 28, 2015

Guide to the Beaches of Positano

Forget long sandy stretches, the majority of beaches on the Amalfi Coast are mostly rocky. Shores in this part of Southern Italy are pebbly coves pulled from towering cliffs, with rapidly plunging deep blue sea underfoot.

Positano is often known for its main spiaggia grande central lido, but the “natural crèche village” boasts several other beaches to choose from. You can pick one of the Positano beaches listed below and lounge there all day, or hop from one to the next, chasing the sun as it starts to dip behind the mountains when evening approaches.

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Aug 21, 2015

Etna is a "she"

Locals refer to Mt Etna as a "she", and it doesn't surprise me since constantly active 'a muntagna is a goddess of fertility and energy. Its rich volcanic soils support extensive agriculture, with vineyards and orchards spread all across the lower slopes.

During my recent stay in the Etna town of Linguaglossa I had a nearly constant view of the volcano. Every morning on our way to a granita breakfast we'd always peek uphill to look at "her", and punctually she'd greet us with white billowy plumes, or hide  in dark veiled clouds concealing her summit craters.

On our last day we decided to meet Etna face to face. We drove up in the late afternoon in order to see the volcanic landscapes at sunset. The twisting hairpin curves carved into the slopes winded in and out of thick pine forests, tall and dark, redolent of piney resin and clean mountain air.

At 1400 meters above sea level we switched off the AC and rolled down the windows. In the woods the sticky summer air quickly shifted to crisp, with an even more intoxicating woodsy aroma. Vegetation and surroundings abruptly changed as we turned a curve, finding ourselves cut off from the ancient forests and plunged into a jagged lunar landscape of more recent lava flows. It felt like someone had used a dimmer on the color dial in our vision: as we proceeded upward, it all became black and white. Shiny snow-colored birch trees replaced the pine trees, creating a bizarre contrast with the dark lava rock forest floor.

Grazing sheep on Etna, Sicily

And then more monochrome magic happened when in the silence of this powerful moonscape we found ourselves surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of sheep herded by not a single human and a pack of Maremmano sheep dogs and mangy pups. These duly defended the herd that grazed on lichen and sparse tufts of dry mountain grass, chasing the car and barking loudly – even going at the tires if we dared to move. We waited patiently, showing the pack that we had no intention of harming the herd and the dogs eventually moved away allowing us to proceed.
When we stopped further ahead, we saw the herd slowly making its way into another birch forest. It was an incredible, surreal vision which I will never forget.

Grazing sheep on Etna, Sicily

Grazing sheep in an Etna birch forest

Grazing sheep in an Etna birch forest

Further up along the climb, past ski facilities with chairlifts and rental shacks at 1800 meters, we decided to get out of the car and walk up the 2002 eruption lava flow. Off the road we negotiated a leisurely climb up the lava fields with crunchy black pumice gravel underfoot and clouds so close above our heads we could actually reach up and touch them.

My child was giddy and – charged up by the electromagnetic energy the surroundings exuded – ran around bouncing like a little mountain goat.

my child on Etna, Sicily

I couldn't believe the silence.

No wind whistled among the lava rocks. Not a sound blew through the trees way, way below. No echoed voices came from the small group of hikers up at the Sartorius mound (the remnant of an 1865 eruption) three hundred yards from us on the flank. Nothing.
The silence was pneumatic and still. And it screamed in my unaccustomed ears.

Monte Sartorius, 1865 eruption Etna - Sicily

After a meditative moment, and a few captured stills, we gathered a handful of black volcanic gravel and filled our pockets with it to bring home some of the mountain's magic force.

Volcanic gravel and rocks, Etna Sicily

The drive down was quiet, each of us still pervaded with deep emotion. Under a crescent moon, a solemn promise was made to return here soon and climb up even further. The word "camping" was uttered as well as donkey trekking. I also am curious to meet Gianni, a seasoned guide who can take us to even more remote and unvisited locations, lending his geologic and botanical knowledge.
Therefore this is not good-bye, Etna.

This is the closest moment to when we shall meet again – this is only arrivederci.

More photos and media on my Sicilian vacation can be viewed on my Facebook profile, Twitter and Instagram feed, and on the Casa Mia Italy Food & Wine blog.