May 31, 2009

Friggione recipe

Scarpetta, literally means "little shoe," God knows why. Scarpetta is the word for the act upon which a small piece of hand held bread mops up any delicious food residue in a plate and is devoured. 

Essential. Frowned upon in etiquette manuals. Not the thing to perform at a formal seated dinner. I don't usually care for that sort of table manners, so I do it all the time, regardless of dress code. That is if whatever is left in my plate is worth it and the bread is soft enough.

I'm a huge fan of scarpetta, so my dishes are usually a bit overdressed, in order to enjoy a conclusive good sweep. Be they pasta dishes, fish or meat. I usually clean the plate with the bread so carefully that I have been often called names. Or fed more food thinking my plate had been empty to begin with.

Preeminent scarpetta applies to those dishes that require large amounts of sauce, like for example a slippery plate of Bucatini all'Amatriciana, or homemade tagliatelle al ragù or a very juicy roast. Once you've eaten the food, whatever's left in the plate, is scarpetta material. Otherwise, scarpetta can be performed with those dishes whose sole purpose is being sopped by a spongy chunk of warm bread. Friggione falls into this second category.

Friggione is a tomato and onion sauce typical of Bologna, the epicurean city also known as la dotta (the learned) and la grassa (the fat).

This sauce is exclusively intended for dipping bread as a fully authorised scarpetta antipasto. Rich and absurdly tasty, friggione takes forever to make, and employs politically incorrect amounts of onion.

The time-consuming recipe to exquisite friggione, dating back to 1886, is made with the following ingredients:

1 kg (2.2 lbs) white onions, thinly sliced
500 g (1.1 lb) ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and finely chopped (or a 28-oz can of preserved tomatoes)
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp kosher salt
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Thinly slice the onion (for best results, use a mandoline) and leave it to macerate with the salt and sugar in a large bowl.

Pour the onion – and the resulting maceration juice – in preferably a terracotta stewpot (not iron, non-stick, copper or enamelled) with the oil, and over a gentle heat, cook it slowly stirring with a wooden spoon.

Keep cooking at a very low simmer until the onions wilt, making sure they don’t stick to the bottom of the pot. Add a little broth or hot water should the onions dry. This could take a while.

At this point, add the chopped tomatoes over very low heat, stirring for 2 hours. Yes, maybe even 2 and a half.

No, I'm not kidding.

Adjust seasoning and keep moist with water (or a little vegetable broth) if necessary.

When your patience has completely run out and the onion and tomatoes will have become a lovely geranium-colored purée, the friggione will be ready. And it will have been worth the wait, believe me.

Buon appetito!

May 28, 2009

Filming The Life Aquatic with Steve ZIssou in Anzio

Daybreak at Anzio, 2003

This photo was taken on a chilly December morning on the Anzio coastline during a day filming. Part of the reduced crew I was working with and I were waiting for the Belafonte ship to sail by for a second unit shot. We sat there in awe of this beautiful sky, hoping the moment could be extended.

During the filming of Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, this sunrise on the calm Anzio waters is among the fondest memories of those busy days.

May 27, 2009

Pomodori al Riso recipe

Today I'm posting an Italian summer standard: rice-stuffed tomatoes. This is a refreshing and portable summer dish, perfect for a tasty picnic on the beach.

For it you'll need: 

8 medium heirloom tomatoes
150 g (7/8 cup) Carnaroli or Arborio rice
1 bunch of fresh basil
1 pinch of dried oregano
1 clove of garlic, minced
2 large potatos, peeled and cut into small wedges
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven at 200° C (390° F).

Cut off the stalks at the top end of the tomatoes without discarding, you'll need them later. Spoon out the pulp and seeds and save. Place the empty tomatoes in a greased pan, cavity up, seasoning each with a pinch of salt.

In a mixing bowl, add a fistful of rice per each tomato, minced garlic, oregano and coarsley torn basil leaves. Dress with oil, season with a dash of freshly ground black pepper, and mix.

Put the tomato pulp through a food mill and fold in half of it in the rice mix. Fill the scooped out tomato shells to the brim with the dressed rice and top with the saved stalks, and pour over them the remaining tomato sauce and a little more oil. Scatter the potato wedges among the tomatoes, and season them with a pinch of salt and pepper.

Cover with aluminum foil and bake in a preheated oven for 40 minutes or until the rice is no longer al dente, but soft.

Done. Go pack the cooler with the chilled wine and the fruit salad.

May 25, 2009

Tiny Heroes

The Florence American Cemetery and Memorial site covers 70 acres, chiefly on the west side of the Greve stream. The wooded hills that frame its west limit rise several hundred feet. Between the two entrance buildings, a bridge leads to the burial area where the headstones of 4,402 military dead resting here are arrayed in symmetrical curved rows upon the hillside. They represent 39% of the U.S. Fifth Army burials originally made between Rome and the Alps. Most died in the fighting that occurred after the capture of Rome in June 1944. Included among them are casualties of the heavy fighting in the Tuscan Apennines shortly before the war's end.
Miracle at St Anna Spike LeeIn the fall of 2007 I worked on a film that narrated those very events. Miracle at St. Anna follows four African-American soldiers of the 92nd Infantry Division – known as the Buffalo Soldiers – who find themselves caught behind enemy lines and surrounded by German soldiers after one of them risks his life to save an Italian boy. They take refuge in a small Italian village on the Gothic Line, that has been temporarily vacated by the Germans during the Italian Campaign of WWII. In their company is Angelo, the small boy, shell-shocked and feverish, who seems only to speak to his invisible friend Arturo.

Miracle at St Anna Spike Lee
The story is inspired by the August 1944 Sant'Anna di Stazzema massacre perpetrated by the Waffen-SS. On May 2, 1945, the enemy troops in northern Italy surrendered. Shortly before withdrawing, the Nazi left a wake of horror, atrocity and devastation behind them. The manic rush of violence and mad killing that followed as the enemy fled these lands, accounted for the vast majority of casualties and mass-murders on the Italian peninsula.

On August 12, 1944, retreating SS men of the II Battalion of the 16th SS-Panzergrenadier Division, commanded by Hauptsturmführer Anton Galler, rounded up 560 civilans between villagers and refugees – mostly women, children and older men – brutally shot them in cold blood and then burned their bodies on the holy ground in front of the town's small church.

church sant'anna di stazzema
When we arrived in Sant'Anna on the day we were to film the massacre scene, the dawn sun was shining, much like on that dreadful mid-August morning. Young extras in period costume were shivering by the craft service table, blowing into their steaming cups of early morning coffee, and trying to get a glimpse of Hollywood. Children played football by the trailer base camp, in their 1944 attire, oblivious and giggly.

We respectfully brought about our daily chores and duties, and commenced our filming day as usual, busily organizing the first shot. It involved two simultaneous tracking dollies and a wide angle crane shot. As the grips and gaffers built the tracks and the camera department assembled their gear, I took a little stroll. I met a few silent glances from my colleagues and continued on, respectful of the place's history and aware of the stagnant negative energy surrounding me. It felt so strange to be walking on the very spot where 62 years before, such horror had occurred by the hands of other men.

I entered the church at my own risk. I had been warned by the sound engineer, my friend Maurizio. He had gone in minutes prior and exited sniffling. He's usually a big smile person, so a sad face on him stood out. I wanted to go in nonetheless, to say a little prayer for those 560 people that died on a morning not unlike that one.

The entire east-facing wall of the tiny chapel was covered floor to ceiling with small plaques, faded photos, scribbled inscriptions and epitaphs. The age of the oldest victim honored on that wall was 16. The youngest was a 2-week old infant. That wall was the children's memorial section, and the images of those 110 innocent faces staring back at me gripped my throat like a tight Nazi fist. The majority of the victims of the massacre that took place in Sant'Anna di Stazzema were children and young women. The men were either fighting, dead or hiding in the mountains surrounding the town. The few invalid elders in Sant'Anna died by the same two MG34 machine-guns that swept the church ground that day.
A sign by the exit read that the church organ was riddled with machine-gun bullets and the christening font completely destroyed by a grenade. The pews were then used for a bonfire to burn bodies. Many of the corpses were doused with petrol and then set alight. When the SS unit ran out of petrol, they used phosphorous.

As the day progressed, we reenacted the horrible events that took place on that day. I couldn't get the image of those children out of my eyes and had a very hard time trying to stay focused and do my job correctly that day. I was never that close to a war as on that sunny autumn day. I had never really understood what it must have felt like to be living it. I never quite caught the true meaning of a day to celebrate the memory of the military. Until then.


Italian war veterans are celebrated on June 2, on the Day of the Republic. On the Last Monday in May, I salute all the American soldiers that gave their life with valour during battle here in Italy. Besides Florence, the city of Nettuno also is home to another monumental American war cemetery. I've been there recently and it is a peaceful, incredibly quiet place by the sea, where a carpet of white stone crosses blankets the closely mowed lawn.

But today it is for those 110 children and 450 innocent victims of Sant'Anna that my Memorial Day thoughts go to. They too are heroes, and I wish to remember them because they too fought a battle on their last day. They faced fear and death with honour. They are not buried in a cemetery. They do not rest with their beloved or in holy soil. They nonetheless deserve to be mentioned and celebrated on this day. Those 560 represent the many faceless civilian victims of our wars that in each combat, give their life for no cause. For no apparent reason.

victims of sant'anna di stazzema massacre, under the age of 16
The youngest victims of the August 12, 1944 massacre

May 24, 2009

Explain the Ecstasy of St Theresa to a 3 year-old

"I saw in his hand a great golden spear, and at the iron tip there seemed to be a point of fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it repeatedly into my heart, penetrating all the way down to my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it."

Chapter XXIX; Part 13, Theresa's Autobiography

That's ecstasy. Here it is described with surgical precision by the saint who chronicled her own experience. The saint's name is Theresa, and the scene she describes happens every day in the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria on via XX Settembre, in Rome. It takes place in a secluded chapel owned by a noble Roman family, the last one to the left before reaching the altar.

ecstasy of st theresa rome
The statues of the marble complex known as the Ecstasy of St. Theresa depict the moment described by Saint Teresa of Avila during her vivid vision of an angel piercing her heart with a golden shaft, causing her both immense joy and pain. The flowing robes and contorted posture abandon all classical restraint and repose to depict a more passionate, almost sensuous trance.

Mr E. and I walked into the chapel this morning after the last pews had been cleared following Mass. We stood there, muted by the monumental Baroque sculpture complex. The natural light coming down from a skylight above, made it all more powerful. The pain described in Theresa's bio was there displayed before us, condensed in the hardness of the snow white marble sculpted by Gianlorenzo Bernini in 1646: the solar plexus heaving, the angel's pike menacing down, the saint's face glowing with divine light. There's been copious literature written on that face. The Marquis de Sade (expert on the subject) said: "One doubts she was a saint."

There I stood, bashful and flushed, holding the sweaty, chubby hand of my astounded 3 year-old, before a stone figure having a transverberation orgasm. Bernini, a devoted church-goer, firm believer and artist of immense stature, would never have intended to depict here an episode of lust fulfilled. Instead, Bernini I'm sure, aimed to simply express the facial and body equivalents of a state of divine joy. But Theresa's face speaks volumes, nonetheless.

Next time you're ever in Rome, do take the time to visit the Conero chapel in the above mentioned Roman church, and see for yourself. Was Bernini trying to test his good fortune with a slew of wealthy benefactors by immortalizing a Saint in unsaintly attitude, or was the sensual voluptuousness of the times he lived in, take his hand too far while chiseling away?

May 22, 2009

Torta di Pane recipe

Recovering leftover foods has been the leitmotif of the recipes described in this post here, this one here, and this recent one here. It has become somewhat of an obsession. In these financially shaky times, recycling food is among the few viable options for frugality and palatable thrift.

Torta di Pane, or Bread Pie is a dessert I make when I have too much leftover bread and I've already recycled half of it making homemade breadcrumbs (which I flavor with different spices according to need. I will talk more about that in a future post). For your own fragrant Torta di Pane here's what's required:

500 g (1.1 lb) leftover bread
500 ml (2 1/2 cups) whole milk
4 eggs, beaten
200 g (1 cup) brown sugar or sugar substitute (quantity may vary according to taste)
1 cinnamon stick
1 shot glass of cognac
1 tbsp raisins, soaked
1 tbsp pine nuts, lightly toasted

Preheat oven at 180° C (356° F).

Boil the milk with the bread and cinnamon until fluffy, stirring well with a wooden spoon (this mix tends to stick). Remove the cinnamon and whisk in the sugar, raisins, pine nuts or almonds, candied fruits, chocolate chips... whatever tickles your fancy. Stir in the cognac and remove from the stove. Set aside to cool, and then fold in the eggs.

Transfer the mixture to a buttered bread-pan and bake for 15 minutes or until when poked, the toothpick or raw spaghetti strand comes out clean. Serve sliced along with an energizing shot of espresso or dunked in a bowl of caffellatte for breakfast.

May 21, 2009

My 100th

This is my 100th post! So in the grand tradition of bloggers, I have written 100 random factoids about myself.

Eleonora Baldwin
1. I am drawn to creative, dynamic people with extensive vocabularies.

2. I occasionally work as voice-over actor in feature films, cartoons and tv commercials. I first started when I was 16 years old, I tagged along a bunch of girlfriends who were going to a voice test and I ended up getting the part.

3. I hate scarcasm. Someone once said it was the lowest form of wit. I agree.

4. One of my worst fears (spurred by a recurring dream) is plunging into an ice-covered lake, and the surface freezes over my head. I imagine myself trapped and swimming desperately, looking for an opening in the ice. I am terrified of it. I go as far as envisaging the mourners at my funeral.

5. I am no longer intrigued by the film business, the industry that however is paying my bills at the moment. I would rather be a food show host, or a freelance food writer. Or both.

6. The first actual surgery I ever underwent was a serious tooth operation when I was only 13 years old. The surgeon (whose name was a foreboding Dr. Hertz, ouch!) administered a potent drug to blur my alert pubescent senses during the procedure. Dressed inapropriately in a crisp white oxford shirt and a pair of white jeans, there I sat in the op chair, wide awake, novocained and high on this thing which made me see kaleidoscope geometric shapes of every color ooze out of the surgeon’s scrub sleeve. I think the George Benson tape the nurse decided to play in the complimentary Walkman (we're talking pre-iPod era) may have helped spur the psychedelic trip. Also from age 15 to 17, I had to wear horrible clear braces, which made my smile look like Shrek's.

7. I learned to ride a bike without training wheels when I was 7 years old. It wasn't my dad who cried the proverbial "I'm holding the seat, keep pedaling," rather a young lady, a family friend who happened there by chance that day. I never again had the chance to meet her, nor the opportunity to thank her. She taught me ho to ride in one afternoon at the beach, and I don’t even remember her name.

8. I have an unhealthy and incurable addiction to Blackberry Chiaverini jam produced in Florence. And "addiction" is not too strong a word in this instance.

9. Coming from a theatrical family, I am superstitious. I love the color purple, but I can't wear it casually. I will not proceed if a black cat’s crossed my path. I never lay a hat on the bed. I can’t pass the salt shaker hand to hand. I bow 13 times with coins in my hand upon spotting a new moon crescent, reciting a special greeting/luck beckoning formula; and I do it even if that means in public. I still make wishes on stars, on birthday candles, on eyelashes...

10. I have a crush on Jack Bauer and Doctor Gregory House.

11. I'm a sucker for vintage period pieces. I secretly wish I could wear a corset and drop all contractions from my vocabulary.

12. I wish my mother could turn back the clock and become 15 years younger.

13. I can't drive a stick shift. I got my licence at age 16 in California (which made me hugely popular among my school mates here in Italy – where instead one is granted a driver's permit a month after turning 18) practicing on my dad’s Mercedes SLK, and never again took the time to learn about gears, clutch and so on.

14. I love getting manicures, pedicures, relaxing massage and aromatherapy treatments all in one day. I usually then have the uncontrollable urge to pig out, devastating the entire beauty therapy effect.

15. I could use losing 10 pounds. And I won’t linger on that any further (I’m very touchy when it comes to overweight problems: one of my biggest hang-ups).

16. I am not bulimic or suffer from any eating disorders, if that’s what you’re thinking. I hate vomiting.

17. Coffee. I love it. And by coffee I mean no other than potent Italian espresso.

18. Bad coffee. I hate it.

19. But bad coffee is better than no coffee.

20. I currently have no pets (unless you count the mite colony living under my bed).

21. My son has manifested desire for a chocolate brown Labrador Retriever. And a daddy.

22. I make mental notes to write a love letter to Ben Harper every time one of his ballads randomely comes up on my iPod.

23. I have a lot of Ben Harper on my iPod.

24. I have one older half sister, one younger half brother and one younger half sister. We are 4 only-children siblings. Cool!

25. My first ride was a 1990 two-door automatic Lancia Y10. I loved that car. It was shaped like a wedge and would rattle upon hitting 55mph, but to me driving it felt like Formula1.

26. I like to make people laugh. When the mood is right, I’m great at it.

27. My cell phone is battered and beat up. It buffered a mid-air scissor kick vaulting act on the steep, oily Ariccia hillside street some ignoramus had decided to wash down with soapy water. My 4-inch platform sandals didn’t help much either. I landed on my considerable arse, and the Nokia device was lodged in the back pocket of my jeans. It’s been 8 months, and I still wear a pale remnant of a bruise. And I can no longer take pictures with the phone either.

28. I love high heels, peep-toe shoes and all kinds of sandals. Then again - I have astoundingly fabulous feet (despite what the rest of me looks like) and they are best showcased in a great pair of strappy heels.

29. You have never really peed quickly and with great urgency until you have had to in the tall grasses of sub-Saharan bushland with the feeling that something is not only watching you… but stalking you.

30. Dark chocolate and robust Super Tuscan red wine: the greatest combination known to mankind.

31. I suck at math.

32. I have not learned to play chess, nor type with 10 fingers. But I’m planning to.

33. I absolutely abhor women who smoke in outdoor public spaces while walking. I find it slutty and vulgar. I was once a smoker myself, and hated it back then too. Smoking in Italy is still very popular. If you have to smoke, take the time to enjoy your cigarette while seated in an outdoor cafe, preferably before a tall glass of wine or beer. But not while you walk, please.

34. I've smoked pot a couple times, but I don't like its effect on me. It just makes me nauseous. And stupid.

35. I much prefer the toilet paper to roll off the top.

36. I secretly still want to be a restaurant critic. When I was a kid and my girlfriends would say ‘ballerina’ or ‘teacher,’ when asked what they wanted to be when the grew up, I would answer “the person that votes restaurants in guide books.” I was maybe 6, then.

37. Being politically correct 24/7 is illogical. Society has taken the entire concept way too far.

38. I find excessive use of exclamation marks annoying.

39. I often wish I had the oriental patience my nanny seems to so easily embody. I can’t seem to deal with tantrums.

40. I love to sing. Loudly. I sing obnoxiously loud while driving my car.

41. Inside the singing sounds quite good, but I’ve been told I’m not quite the Sarah Vaughan songbird I think I am.

42. The worst sounds in the world are the proverbial nails on a chalkboard and a spoon scarping the bottom of non-glazed earthenware. Horrid. I’m cringing just writing about it.

43. I will be the one to mercilessly tell you if you have spinach in your teeth or if your fly is open or if you have hair hanging out of your nose, and you will love me for it.

44. I have serious wanderlust issues. I wish I could live to travel, and travel for a living.

45. I will take tango lessons one day.

46. A cappuccino and cornetto (Italian for ‘croissant’) breakfast in the historic center of Rome and then a stroll on the Gianicolo hill on a weekday is the height of romanticism.

47. I love Steven Spielberg movies. I absolutely adore the films E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Jaws and Duel still scare the crap out of me.

48. I think my father has a brilliant sense of humor. I still roll my eyes when he tells jokes. Inside - I'm laughing.

49. I am a professional napper. Midday riposino is my religion.

50. I have an awesome memory. I remember faces, names, facts, numbers and addresses at a glance. Rain Man-style. I could easily be a secret agent.

51. My Apple computer Thesaurus feature and I love each other.

52. I respect true faith but hate all religious fundamentalism. It's just a way to use God as an excuse to be violent and cruel.

53. I think President Barack Obama is hot. Nevermind the world-changing progress, energy and hope he’s infused in his fellow countrymen.

54. I love buying posh French makeup and Japanese beauty products. But my limited funds make it a rare event.

55. I have no idea how to laugh quietly. I laugh loudly and often.

56. I could sit on a quiet beach and listen, really listen, to the ocean all day long.

57. I dislike living inland. I have always lived inland.

58. I named my last dog 'Cotoletta,' which means schnitzel, in Italian. His big, droopy Beagle ears really looked like two breaded cutlets. Cotoletta liked running around in wide circles and eating the plaster coating off the walls. Cotoletta was crazy.

59. I love the feel of someone else washing my hair.

60. I am a hopeless believer in the power of true Love... if one is lucky enough to locate it.

61. I get a huge kick out of quietly humming a few lines of a catchy song and then watching people around me get it stuck in their heads, unable to figure out why. Tee hee...

62. I am systematically working my way through everything that Russell Crowe has ever starred in. I have yet to encounter a poor performance. He’s hot too.

63. When I was 10 years old I was madly in love with Han Solo from Star Wars.

64. I don't see the glass as half empty. I don’t see it as half full. I see half a glass of water.

65. I can laugh and/or cry at the same film countless times.

66. Maps. Our Earth is so beautiful. I collect maps. Globes, too. Vintage and new ones. Big and small.

67. Writing is like breathing. I have no choice. It’s almost an obsession. I would continue to write even if there were no one there to read it.

68. I like to peel lables off mineral water bottles. Not wine or beer, just water.

69. Asterix adventures are the greatest comic books ever written.

70. Biceps. A man’s well defined arms can make me weak in the knees.

71. I have a favorite poem, and it is of course sensual and sentimental. Here are the last few verses:
How you must have suffered getting accustomed to me,
my savage, solitary soul, my name that sends them all running.
So many times we have seen the morning star burn, kissing our eyes,
and over our heads the gray light unwind in turning fans.
My words rained over you, stroking you.
A long time I have loved the sunned mother-of-pearl of your body.
I go so far as to think that you own the universe.
I will bring you happy flowers from the mountains, bluebells,
dark hazels, and rustic baskets of kisses.
I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees.
~Pablo Neruda
excerpt from Poem #14 of Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair

72. People are inexplicably drawn to me when they need advice. I don’t understand it. I do however end up giving good avice (to others than myself).

73. I have only in the last 10 years begun to discover and appreciate the music and brilliance of The Beatles.

74. I don’t have any tattoos. But I love them, tattoos are sexy and mysterious. They have grown to be very common and to a certain extent, thay have outdone thier primary significance. They however spell naugthy and mischievous to me. I will likely get one soon. Piercing, on the other hand, revolts me.

75. When sleeping (in a time before motherhood) I would blacken the room. It had to be dark. Light had to be blocked out with heavy drapes, because the tiniest glow of light would irritate me all night long. Now, my son and I co-sleep and he insists we keep a night light on. What mothers do for the love of their cub.

76. Flowers. I really have a thing for them. White roses, pale pink tulips, bold orange gerberas, sunlit daffodils, delicate irises, virginal lilies… Potted, planted, crawling on a trellis or clipped into a topiary shrub, whatever. I love flowers.

77. I wish I lived in a house with a secret (vegetable) garden. By the sea.

78. I’m nervous around needles.

79. I listen to all kinds of music, with the exception of punk rock, heavy metal and apocalyptic goth.

80. If you are still reading this then I am absolutely astounded.

81. My home is in Rome, but I really don’t know where I belong.

82. Newspapers irritate me and leave nasty blackish marks on my fingers. For my daily dose of bad news, tainted information and heartburn, I read online versions.

83. I want to fly on a broomstick and play Quidditch.

84. Despite #13, I am a rather aggressive driver. Maybe this is how I was able to navigate 3 years in Napoli and survive Italian streets in general. I also swear a lot while driving. Unless my son’s in the car, in that case I try to refrain from unleashing the Irish in me.

85. Hey look, number 85. I graduated from high school in 1985. Go Falcons!

86. I often take weekend or day trips to a gorgeous nearby lake. I don't swim in it, though because lake water totally grosses me out.

87. Books, movies, and TV shows dealing with the subject of courtroom drama will inevitably draw me in like moth to flame. No lawyers or attorneys in my family, and I’ve never been involved in any trials or ever served jury duty.

88. My name is Lola and I’m a cheese addict. I went to rehab for a year, lost 25 pounds, got clean and then just fell right back in. All it took was one Parmigiano flake and that was it.

89. I have eaten beef, veal, pork, chicken, turkey, fish, crustacean, mollusks, lamb, goat, rabbit, hare, buffalo, deer, crocodile, wild boar, pheasant, quail, duck, ostrich, frogs, snails and I'm sure many other creatures that are simply not coming to mind at the moment. I could never be a vegetarian.

90. I have been known to crank up Fatboy Slim and dance around my living room with my son. This usually results in subsequent bouts of uncontrollable laughter.

91. My son responds to a number of different nicknames: Nano, Topolino, Munchkin, Pulce, Looney, Passerotto, Dude, Pulcino, Ciccio Pasticcio, Broccoletto, Tontolone, Bambolo and recently Mr. E.

92. Televised golf. I really don't get it. Why do the announcers whisper as someone is taking a putt or a drive, when they are actually secluded in a media box somewhere far, far away from the golfer?

93. I detest confrontation and go to great lengths to avoid it. As a child I remember covering my ears and pressing hard to block out the sound out when STRANGERS on the street were fighting, let alone parents. I’m better at it now, if I need to speak out for myself and that entails fighting for my point, I actually will.

94. I love compliments. I can never get enough of them. They stimulate me on all levels, automatically and magically extracting my inner (and often hidden) beauty, skills, talent etc.

95. It is a proven fact that I make the most divine tiramisu ever.

96. I have had the same cell phone number since I first got a mobile in 1999, and I absolutely refuse to change it despite the fact my system provider does not pamper me with gifts and free bonus perks contrary to most people I know (who are constantly getting them).

97. Goodnight Moon is the greatest children's bedtime read of all time.

98. I sometimes talk to myself when briskly walking or driving in slow traffic, and I hum in public places.

99. If it’s worth it, I can read an entire book cover to cover in one night. It’s impressive, except for the next morning, when I totally restent it.

100. I sometimes need a pat on the back and need to be reminded more often that I am negotiating a monumental uphill endeavor.

That’s me(me). What are your 100 yous?

May 20, 2009

Summer vegetable soup recipe

Soup is the primary comfort food, the product of cuisine and Nature combined to nourish the soul. Bisques, broths, vellutatas, chowders, bouillons – whatever.

I love to make and consume large quantities of soup. It's my weakness, perhaps more so than chocolate. My family and regular guest have been raised on my borscht, my Asian egg drop soups. I express myself at best equally on miso and barley Scotch broth. 

Over the years the people I cook for have demanded I constantly update my soup recipes, introducing new ideas and flavors in their bowls.

summer vegetable soup

I personally make soup year round, regardless of season and temperature. A ton of gold tortellini swimming in hot clear chicken consommé can restore peace and heal the deepest of wounds, whatever the climate.

Cold winter nights call for liquid nourishment, so a steaming cup of lentil zuppa can uplift spirits and turn a simple dinner gathering into a festival of laughter. By the same token in summer, a chilled bowl of minestrone or gazpacho, a mug of vichyssoise, or a room temperature cup of thick Pasta e Ceci can be of great solace in times of heat distress.

Here's the recipe for a summer remedy tested to replete perspired souls, the failsafe vellutata fredda, summer vegetable cream.

In Rome it can get fiercely hot in the summer. The humidity level is equal to a Turkish hammam and your brain feels (and therefore acts) like a gelatinous inert blob. This cool, refreshing and revitalizing soup is ideal when it's 40° C (104° F) out and sloth has completely overtaken control of limbs.

Do what you must to drag yourself to the kitchen and assemble:

100 g (1/2 cup) zucchini, roughly cut
30 g (1 oz) peas
50 g (1/4 cup) carrots, roughly cut
6 asparagus spears, tails removed
50 g (1/4 cup) whole wheat bread, crusts removed
200 g (1 cup) yogurt
Extra virgin olive oil
2 bunches of fresh basil
Salt and pepper to taste

Boil all the vegetables until fork soft, save the asparagus tips and whir the rest in the blender with the yogurt. Stir in the oil, salt and pepper, and the basil leaves. Refrigerate and serve chilled in small bowls garnished with asparagus tips and whole wheat dry toasted croutons.

Save for the yogurt and croutons, this recipe works for both the vegan and the gluten intolerant. Yields 4 servings.

May 17, 2009

Espresso coffee

We Italians, and especially Neapolitans, who are Italy's most famed coffee fundamentalists, pay special attention to the preparation, the selection of the blends and the use of accessories, that are all part of a special culture focused on the dark and mysterious drink.

In this excerpt from the Eduardo De Filippo theater play Questi Fantasmi, Professor Pasquale Lojacono - played by De Filippo himself - discloses the secrets to making the perfect demitasse of coffee with the trademark Napoletana drip brew coffee pot.
I have followed his instructions in this step-by-step Napoletana tutorial.

The venue where Italians drink coffee is called a bar, which is a coffee bar that also serves cocktails and spirits, but also sandwiches and croissants. So in a bar you can drink coffee beverages, fruit juices, alcoholic drinks and also eat pastries, panini, gelato, etc. (with many possible variations). Sometimes you can even gamble with a slot machine. Some bars are only a counter and a cash register with no bar stools, others may have tables and serve a warm meal for lunch.

But mainly, the bar, to be called one, has to brew coffee. Il caffè is normally enjoyed at the bar, and either with friends or alone, or chatting with the barista (Italian for barman), and it implies asking for an espresso. Espresso is always served with a saucer and demitasse spoon, and sometimes with a complimentary wrapped chocolate and a tall glass of cold tap water. While caffè espresso is normally drunken quickly, often standing up and on a rushed break, Napoli tradition imposes the strict rule to drink your espresso seated to fully enjoy its pang.

Here in Italy, you will not be able to replicate your experience of ordering and consuming a coffee beverage as you would, say in an American coffee shop. In Italy, each beverage comes in a predefined size (an espresso cup or a cappuccino cup) and with a standard type of milk (usually pasteurized whole milk). Concepts like medium, large, tall, fat, slim and non-fat are foreign to us. Decaf is (barely) accepted. You may be able to obtain soy milk in some establishments, but you’ll be looked upon with suspicion.

In Italy we don't walk around drinking coffee, so the concept of "to go" is quite foreign. Because we do not routinely use disposable coffee cups, we don’t see the need to bring our own to reduce waste. We also don’t feel compelled to fill containers to the brim. In fact, in some cases, that is a veritable no-no. For example, a shot of espresso will never fill the cup. If it does, the coffee is considered annacquato, watered down, thus denoting inferior quality.In Italy we drink un caffè for the pleasure of tasting an intensely aromatic nectar that leaves behind a heavenly aftertaste. Water makes us skeptical. "Acqua fa ruggine", my old nanny used to say. Water generates rust.

Most Italians do not have an espresso machine at home: they use a stovetop coffee brewer pot called moka. In 1933 Alfonso Bialetti revolutionized home coffee-brewing in Italy with the introduction of the Moka Express aluminum stovetop brewer. This simple, reliable machine became a design icon of the 20th century and even today can be found in nearly 90% of Italian households.

I think if I were a woman I’d wear coffee as a perfume. 
~John Van Druten

May 16, 2009

Biscotti brutti ma buoni recipe

A biscuit is a small baked morsel of love. The exact meaning varies markedly in different parts of the world. In the United States and Canada, a cookie is what the same small, flat-baked treat is called. It is usually round, containing milk, flour, eggs, and sugar, etc. In most English-speaking countries outside North America, the most common word for this is biscuit. In many regions both terms are used, while in others the two words have different meanings – a cookie is a plain bun in Scotland, while in the United States a biscuit is a kind of quick bread similar to a scone.

The origin of the English word "biscuit" is from Latin via Middle French and means "cooked twice," hence bis-cotti in Italian. Whatever their name, origin or exact meaning and shape, biscotti rock. Some harder than others.

Brutti ma Buoni recipe

The term brutti ma buoni means 'ugly but good,' and is quite apt, because these traditional drop cookies don’t look too attractive, but vanish off the serving plate in minutes. They take a little effort to make, but are well worth it.

250 g (1 1/4 cups) powdered sugar
100 g (1/2 cup) blanched peeled, and toasted almonds
100 g (1/2 cup) toasted hazelnuts, shelled
6 egg whites
A healthy pinch of powdered cloves and powdered cinnamon
1/2 tsp of vanillin or a few drops vanilla extract

Grind the nuts to a powder, ideally using a mortar and pestle (the toasting of the nuts makes this operation much more successful). If you don’t have a mortar and pestle, either chop the nuts very finely by hand, or pulse them to a powder in your blender.

Beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form, and carefully fold in the nuts, sugar, spices, and vanilla.

Turn the batter into a saucepan and heat it, stirring gently, over a low flame until it thickens and just becomes golden in color; this will take about a half hour.

While doing this, preheat your oven to 160°C (320°F) and butter a cookie sheet.

Take the thickened batter, and drop it, less than a tablespoon (about half a walnuts' worth) at a time, onto the cookie sheet, leaving some space between drops. Bake the Ugly but Good for about 40 minutes. Let them cool thoroughly and enjoy with a glass of robust red wine and a good book.

And if you simply cannot bake, head over to Biscottificio Innocenti and ask Stefania for the best brutti ma buoni in Rome.

May 15, 2009

Rome's best pizza bianca

There is something ancestral in sinking your teeth in a warm slab of pizza bianca. A traditional Roman recipe for a simple, flat, salty bread that is neither that nor pizza. It is simply pizza bianca, which translates to 'white pizza.' The dough is similar in style and texture to pizza dough, consisting of high-gluten flour, oil, water, sugar, salt and yeast. Pizza bianca is the one and only. Its texture is chewy and crisp at the same time. Pull apart the bread in ribbons, and hidden beneath the thin, crackly crust, lies a soft gluteny heart. It is beautiful.
pizza biancaUpon first encounter, the mouth perceives the olive oil the pizza bianca's top has been lightly dabbed with after leaving the wood-burning womb where it has been baked. But lips also simultaneously meet the flour which dusts the bottom part of the slice, almost parching. This sensation immediately vanishes after the second bite, as taste buds marry the rock salt. The following sensory perception, is the crunch. This all-Roman delicacy is not a focaccia, and in the Eternal City, 'delectable' is never synonym of 'resilient,' when it comes to pizza.

Pizza bianca can be purchased at every corner fornaio, charcuterie, bread oven or specialized pizza al taglio establishment, where yard-lengths of pizza are sold by weight over the counter. These listed above are the small gastronomic temples where the tasty and mundane pizza bianca ritual is carried out every day. A very affordable, simple ritual. Pizza bianca is the perfect mid-morning snack for the hard working, those who wake at 5am and who by 11am could eat a horse; it is the preeminent after-school nibble and a great way to calm fidgety kids while mom does the grocery shopping and tantrums brew on the horizon.

Pizza bianca in Rome has a very high social value. It renders the maximum result with the least effort. For a handful of pennies. And it tastes divine.

To avoid disappointments, pizza bianca aficionados must know where to flock. Which place, that is offers the best pizza bianca in its traditional and truer version. The Forno Campo de' Fiori is certainly among very reliable when it comes to pizza bianca.

My favorite pizza bianca in the centro storico is however the one baked at Antico Forno Roscioli. I am a regular here. Roscioli is where to go for the simplest form of pizza bianca, best if 5 minutes out of the oven, crisp and still warm on the tongue. It's easy to tell when the next batch of pizza bianca is about to be ready at the Forno: a conspicuous group of devotees mingling outside the small joint, nervously waiting to be served their little salty square of heaven. The smell of baking bread alone is worth the trip.

When it comes to stuffing pizza bianca, fundamentalists insist the only admissible filling is thinly sliced mortadella. I personally am a devoted fan of prosciutto and fresh ripe figs.

pizza prosciutto e fichi
Pizzeria La Parioli located on Viale Parioli n. 26 is a minuscule pizza takeout joint owned by two brothers who owe their fortune to having opened their business next door to a famous private school. Kids would stand in line for hours for a square of the pizza bianca baked here. The school is no longer there, now a condo complex, but the brothers (and their daughters) are still baking the same applause-worthy pizza bianca. Even rubbery hours later, their product rocks.

I had to go to Panificio Mosca near the Vatican more than once, because the pizza bianca changes according to the mood of the baker and the degree of humidity in the air. Excellent freshly baked, or heated at home, hours later.

Pizza Luigi in Ostiense is equally good, but I haven't been in a while.

Pinsere near Via XX Settembre is another favorite. As well as La Renella in Trastevere. Colapicchioni in Prati, Albanesi in the Marconi area, and Zaza in Sant'Eustachio.

The best thing to do at this point is take your stuffed pizza bianca and (weather permitting) improvise a lunch en plain air, sitting beneath a Roman monument or on the steps of a century-old ruin.

Only in this way will the Pizza Bianca Experience be complete. And if the above mentioned flour should accidentally leave a dusty mark on your clothes or face, who cares. It's the small price payed for having "eaten" the city whole.

May 14, 2009

Frico, soft and brittle - recipe

There are many dishes that most Italians have never heard of, and frico certainly falls into this category. Frico is a traditional recipe hailing from the lovely region of Fruli-Venezia Gulia. It is made with a local creamery cheese called Montasio, crumbled or grated into a flat cooked disk.

Frico's Carnic origin of the Northern alpine part of the region is usually presented in two versions: soft, and brittle. Both are served either as antipasto or an entrée. Although recent history sees frico as a dish eaten during holiday season, its original preparation was intended in utilizing leftover cheese scraps. In a previous post, I mentioned the importance of recycling leftover foods. Cheese hardly remains uneaten in my home, but when it does, frico's the answer.

Soft frico is made with younger Montasio added to onions, potatoes oil and seasoned with salt, blended into a kind of omelet sometimes added with leeks and a juniper-flavored ham called speck.

My Udine drinking buddies passed on this potato-less version, but ask me to mention it nevertheless. Boiled and cubed potatoes are added to the blend.

400 g (2 cups/14oz) Montasio, medium age (4-5 months)
Note: for this particular version of frico, Montasio can be substituted with any mature semi-soft chesse, like Munster or Emmenthal
1 white onion
30 g (1 oz) butter
Salt and pepper to taste

Shred the cheese. Finely chop the onion and sauté it in butter in a medium skillet over mild heat. Before the onion begins to tan, quickly add the diced cheese, sprinkling it evenly in the pan. Raise the heat a little bit and continue cooking, constantly stirring in the same direction with a wooden spoon, carefully making sure the cheese doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan. Season with very little salt and lots of freshly ground black pepper. Cook for a few more minutes, drain away any excess oil the cooking may have rendered, and when the frico has become a gooey golden frittata, you can dive in.

brittle frico

Brittle frico is instead very thin and is made only with mature grated cheese.

It is very easily pliable, therefore I like to shape this second type of frico into baskets, and fill them with polenta, stewed mushrooms, sauteed zucchini or creamy risotto. It's a very easy technique and very fancy-looking. So if you want to impress your dinner guests with a chef-like presentation, read on.

To make a cestino, Italian for basket, you'll need a pristine non-stick frying pan about 20-25 cm (9 inches) in diameter, a pair of Teflon tongs or a fork that won't scratch the frying pan, and a cup, glass or bowl to drape the cheese over. If the pan is in good condition, you won't need shortening to keep the cheese from sticking.

Which cheese for this frico, you say? If you can't get your hands on 1 1/2 cups of grated 18-month aged Montasio, Parmigiano or Grana Padano can be a good substitute, but any firm grating cheese will work, including aged Pecorino Sardo or Toscano, or Pecorino Romano (what's known simply as Romano in the U.S.).

What's important is that the cheese not be overly moist, or filante - that is a cheese that strings out in ribbons when heated, like for example Mozzarella, Jack, or Fontina.

I'm told even grateable goat's milk cheeses can work well because of their fat content. When dealing with cheese, we have to remind ourselves to ban all thoughts of diet and such similar tortures. So when I call a cheese fat, I am actually paying it a compliment.

In making your baskets, you can add flavorings to the cheese, provided they not be too moist: so, poppy seeds, or red pepper flakes, or even finely minced dry basil.

Heat the non-stick pan over medium heat for 2-3 minutes. It should be hot but not searing. Sprinkle the cheese evenly over the pan. By the time you have finished sprinkling the cheese, it will begin to melt, especially around the edges. Let the cheese continue to melt and begin to bubble.

When the edges brown, use a fork or tongs to separate the cheese a little from the sides of the pan. Another few seconds, and the cheese in the middle of the pan will begin to tan. You don't want it to brown, but simply color a little.

At this point, tip the skillet to let the cheese slide out - it will look like a disc - and drape it, browned side up, over a bowl or glass.

The sheet will set in about 15 seconds, at which point you can lift it off the glass.

The first basket's done, now you can go on to making the next... and the next... and the next...

May 13, 2009

Linguine with bottarga and hazelnuts recipe

Today I am posting a pasta recipe that here in Italy signals the onset of summer. We're experiencing a wonderful heat wave, and banqueting is my favorite way of celebrating good things. I hate the cold, you see.

Image ©
Salt gets bad press, and it doesn't deserve to. Some of the world’s greatest foods get their flavor from lots of salt. Ever had Malossol caviar (Malossol is Russian for 'a little salt')? What about Prosciutto? Do you like cheese? There is very little cheese that is salt-free. How about baccalà - salt preserved cod for Atlantic crossings? I could go on and on.

But are you familiar with bottarga–that delightful salted product that is treasured in Sardinia and Sicily and even in mainland Liguria and Calabria where it is called ovotarica? It is sometimes also named 'poor man's caviar', but this is a demeaning moniker, as bottarga is bottarga is bottarga!

The first thing to understand about this bizarre food is that it is the salted, dried roe of either Muggine (or Cefalo), Italian for Flathead Grey Mullet (Mugil cephalus) or tuna. Sardinia prefers the grey mullet roe, whereas Sicily prefers tuna roe. Both types are great, provided they are suitably dried; the semi-dried product is in fact not nearly as dramatic.

The roe is expertly removed from the fish and then salted for about a week before being pressed and then hung to be air dried for about 30 days. In fact the length of drying is important.

Now what do you do when you pawn a family heirloom for some of this salty luxury? The answer is to keep it really simple. Either eat it sliced as a vodka appetizer, like during Roman Jewish Seders; or use it to make a very simple pasta dish.

Linguine with Bottarga and Hazelnuts

If bottarga is absolutely impossible for you to obtain, you can substitute it with this little trick an aforementioned chef friend taught me: blend 4 anchovy fillets with 4 tablespoons of olive oil, and 2 fistfuls of breadcrumbs. Toast the mixture in a non-stick pan for 3-4 minutes, and proceed as follows, assembling:

500 g (1.1 lb) linguine
80 g (1/3 cup) bottarga (or its clever substitute replacement)
50 g (1/4 cup) shelled hazelnuts, coarsely ground
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 small sprig of Italian flat leaf parsley (optional), chopped
100 ml (1/2 cup) extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly milled black pepper

Sauté the garlic in the olive oil for a few minutes, then discard. Add the ground hazelnuts to the oil, and toast them briefly. Add the chopped parsley (if you're using it) and remove the saucepan from the stove, setting it aside for the moment.

Cook the pasta in a large pot of very lightly salted water. While the pasta is cooking, pare very, very thin slices from the block of bottarga with a vegetable peeler. For a milder effect, simply grate the bottarga into a bowl, add the hazelnuts in their oil, and stir until you obtain a paste. Drain the pasta and pour it into a large skillet; stir in the sauce and cook over a brisk flame for 1 minute, tossing the pasta energetically.

Go crazy with the pepper mill and splash just a suspicion of lemon juice.

May 12, 2009

Breakfast at Antica Latteria

Vicolo del Gallo in the morning is very silent considering its proximity to Campo de' Fiori, one of the city's trendiest open air farmer's and flower markets.

There, in the 'rooster's alley,' as the small street name translates, further beyond the nobility of Palazzo Farnese and the mundane piazza where Giordano Bruno was burned to the stake, the atmosphere returns to its genuine traditional self again. Here, pilgrims and time travelers will immediately perceive the authentic Roman centro storico feel: folkloristic, busy, aged. It's like turning a corner and bumping into Rome's unmade face, crow feet and marionette lines showing, frayed hair and parched lips. No glamour, no historic ruins or rich churches here to admire, only truth. People. Faces. Aromas. And a small crumbly monument whose entrance is well hidden.

The paint on the wooden frame of the glass paned doorway is chipped. Inside, the senescent universe of the Latteria - one of the last in existence here in Rome - survives the lures of modern design, the newfangled habit of having breakfast on the run, the Anglo Saxon brunch, or the popular fashion of consuming industrial aromatised brews. Latteria means dairy store, and in this specific sense, it is a place where people go to simply have breakfast, shop for cartons of milk, and pass the time.

The tables in the Latteria are the same shaky ones from sixty years ago. The wooden chairs are the osteria-type with sturdy legs and woven straw seats; the sink is an old stained marble basin. This is because the venue is 100 years old, give or take a decade. Walking in the Latteria equals to diving head first in the breakfasts of my Italian childhood. A gift from days past, hanging suspended in an imaginary time, populated by young students skipping the first school bell; workers and artisans on their mid-morning coffee break; '68 revolt activists secretly meeting over a bowl of caffellatte (in the Latteria, magnum cappuccinos are consumed in large cereal bowls). What has remained unchanged over the years is the smile on the elderly signora behind the counter. It still shines the same way today.

The characteristic furnishings are so out of date to have become actual modern art pieces, appreciated for their dusty, vintage look. The nearby second hand clothing stores match the Latteria style to perfection, as does another one of my favorite Roman places: Anticaja e Petrella, a snaking tunnel of antique furniture and old trinkets for sale, at the far end of which a bar gathers people who meet to watch football matches on the communal TV set.

Folks take their time at the Latteria. Patrons remain well over the hour, often not doing much. Staying enough time to quietly study the details layered about, day after day, cappuccino after cappuccino. Sitting at one of the tables by the large steam-operated coffee machine, one's eye wanders on the mural of theater billboards coating the walls; the glance glides over to the old humming refrigerators, the piled biscotti boxes, the 10,000 packets of sugar. Behind the counter, rows and rows of stacked soda cans line the back panel, creating a continuous yellowed tin surface. At the very end, the back door opens to a small outdoor courtyard leading to an outhouse, its skeleton key dangling from a darkened keyhole.

The Latteria's caffellatte costs a bit more than at your regular cafe. It is best enjoyed in the above mentioned bowl rather than the usual cup or stout mug. Only in this way will you be able to indulge in the complex croissant-dipping manoeuvre. Anywhere else public, this sacred morning ritual is regarded as a wrong to etiquette and table manners. But this is la Latteria, and within these walls, this little sin is forgiven. Rather more, encouraged.

The best thing to do here is stay a little while longer than your schedule allows. Read the complimentary newspaper, chat with the smiling signora, play pinball. Or simply stare at the history peeling off the walls before you, as you slowly wait for your second steaming bowl of caffellatte to cool.

Antica Latteria
Vicolo del Gallo, 4
00186 Roma
Tel. +39 06 6865091

May 10, 2009

Night fishing in Positano with Mamma

"Destitute pea pickers living in tent in migrant camp. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two."
Nipomo, California - February 1936 by Dorothea Lange

Grown don't mean nothing to a mother. A child is a child. They get bigger, older, but grown? What's that suppose to mean? In my heart it don't mean a thing.
~Toni Morrison, Beloved, 1987

This quote makes me think of my mom. She always says how I am forever her baby. My Mother is the woman I admire more than anyone I know. She is beautiful inside an out, she means the world to me. She is now my son's nonna (grandmother), and it has been a healing rebirth for her. Her name is Emi, short for Emilia. She is about 5'3" with short silver hair, big brown eyes and an intoxicating laugh. She has olive skin that tans quickly and smells like in my childhood. I like it when people say I look like her. Mamma is my best friend, source of guidance and comfort, and the strongest woman I have ever known. There are so many reasons why I admire her that I could go on for days talking about her. Those of you who have been snacking here for a while, know that I have posted about my mother a lot, and quoted her in this recipe roast post.

The episode that follows is one of the million similar events experienced with my mamma. I wish to share it here with you because it also portrays a beautiful moment of my early youth. A time before my own motherhood.

Night fishing excursions in Positano always meant 3.00 a.m. wake up calls and wearing itchy wool sweaters in the middle of summer. My mother would drag me out of bed with the promise of an exciting experience, and indeed it always turned out to be just that. 

On one particularly tense night, the four expert fishermen occupying the boat – who would usually welcome us on their vessel with a silent nod (females apparently bring bad fishing luck) – were oddly silent, casting sideways glances. As I squirmed in my stiff navy wool pullover, the engines roaring beneath us, I noticed one of them looking up at the sky and mumbling as the fishing boat set out to sea in the pitch black of the night. Something to do with foul weather coming in. Not the best way to begin.

We navigated for at least an hour, neither east nor west, just plain out in the middle of the dark Mediterranean waters before us. Our hair blew tangled in the black air and a distant look sank in our eyes, as the town lights behind us became few indistinct flickering pinholes, far far away.

Once we reached the designated spot, the anchor splashed into the deep and engines were turned off, the only sound was the swaying water, its tiny waves lapping against the walls of the boat. The sky was incredibly starry and the salty breeze made my nostrils tickle. The stillness and quiet lasted only a brief moment.

As the frenzy of preparation and excitement grew each minute, my mother and I sat nestled in a corner watching the angling miracle from a secure vantage point. With slow repetitive movements, the men began pulling up the fishing line from the crow's nest. It came up virtually empty. Only a dozen small silvery fish and a lot of seaweed caught in the mesh netting. The mood was not good.

The engines started again and we moved off to a second further location where a flag planted on a buoy signaled the presence of a palamito top line. As the fishermen began to harvest the sea, my mother and I looked at each other and simultaneously shared the same thought. We're never getting invited on board this barca again.

The first line came up empty... the second: nothing, as did the third. We began to worry that our presence indeed jinxed the expedition. The men were hissing and panting as they hauled up arm lengths of glistening nylon line. Their excitement, effort and expectations dulling as each bait came up prize-less.

And then suddenly, the miracle happened. A single mute signal and the men alerted their senses. A different weight in the lifting was perceived and the word uttered was a serious, hushed "Ecco." As each dropper surfaced with a precious silvery wiggling creature hooked to it, the men grew more vocal. Their usually comprehensible Neapolitan dialect became an obscure mix of Arabic, Greek and Testosterone in loud manly exclamations we failed to understand. Wet, chilled and slippery calloused hands, chaffed by the wind and cut by the nylon line, heaved up disproportionate weights. Scales and bloodshot gills glistened in the moonlight at our feet, we sat in awe.

The men pulled and pulled, retrieving the booty with glazed eyes and deep incantations aboard our vessel. Each catch was welcomed with a growing roar of pleasure and we became intoxicated with the spreading euphoria, pitching in with applause and squeals of joy. Gigantic groupers with bulging eyes surfaced from the deep, silvery sea bass behemoths, writhing tentacled octopus, slithering conger eels, a 50-pound bluefin tuna... one after the other the sea creatures appeared and progressively crowded the boat floor darting in a wash of salt water, seaweed and blood. The air around the vessel was soon filled with squawking gulls and the water surrounding us, a wriggling pool of silvery anchovies and sardines waiting for delicious bait debris. This went on for several hours.

Dawn escorted us back to shore, exhausted and elated. Docking the fishing boat and landing our crates after crates, full of sea treasures, I felt alive and excited. The exhilaration of the catch had me on a natural high for days.

I have returned many times on board that same boat, the old San Giovanni, again in the heart of darkness, but never was any event as miraculous as that 1978 mid-August night.

Happy Mother's Day to all the brave, wise, young, senior, zany, single, married, gay/lesbian/transgender, lonely, in a relationship, focused, forgetful, busy, lazy, accomplished, mindless, slender, overweight, working, jobless, underpaid, overworked, ill, healthy, laughing, sad, obstinate, flexible, indigent, wealthy, rational, crazy, worried, relaxed, stable, unbalanced, playful, intellectual, bookworm, outdoorsy, pregnant, menopausal, sophisticated, simple, intuitive, caring, devoted, sacrificing, endurably unselfish, compassionate, forgiving, protective, affectionate, superhuman, loving mothers of this world.

May 9, 2009

The sea in winter

The gorgeous day beckoned us to the beach. We left after a lazy morning of cartoons and late pyjamas, caffellatte and toast.

The gingerly 30-km drive handed us over to the shore in time for a seafood lunch and a stroll on the water's edge. The crisp, windy air in Maccarese was incredibly clear and we could see the coastline vividly for miles and miles. Funny how a clean atmospheric conditions shorten visual distances. 

Everything looked closer.

The lifeguard flags flapped fiery red atop makeshift poles and couples laid half dressed on canvas sunbeds, soaking up the early summer sun. We sat on a canopied deck overlooking the beach, at a corner table. We shared the terrace with few other patrons: a Roman family with dog, a young dad on weekend shift with his joint custody kid, 4 young girls giggling into their mobile phones and the 2 sashaying daughters of the cook who waited tables gracefully.

E. and I shared a seafood antipasto of escabeche anchovies marinated in vinegar and lemon; sauteed wedge clam bruschetta; octopus salad; deep fried moscardini and stewed mussels (E. omitted the shellfish). I felt like beer today, so I ordered a chilled Menabrea beer.

We didn't have to wait long for the divine orata gilt-head sea bream baked along with crispy potatoes and halved cherry tomatoes. We devoured our two definitely large portions so avidly and quickly, that I forgot to take a picture to post here.

E. played in the shade while I closed my eyes on a lounge chair, relaxing. I could feel the past week's tensions seeping out of my body as the beer played its usual narcotic effect on me. I tried to stay awake and keep close watch on E. as he quietly shoveled sand, drew maps and built dams at my feet. I kept nodding off but I was scared of falling asleep, so I drank a piping hot double espresso and spotted the man selling kites.

We flew a little orange borrowed one for 30 minutes, and then headed back to the car as the sun began to bid its farewells among a colony of pink, orange and yellow clouds.

This was a good day. I needed it.

May 7, 2009

Diary from the set, part IV

Here are 2 more photos I forgot to upload after my return from the recent location shoot.

These were taken at the Medieval Abbey of Casamari, where many scenes from the film were shot over the last 4 days.

The story we are telling is the interesting life of an Italian poet living in France in the tumultuous times immediately following the demise of King Charles V. The poet's name was Cristina da Pizzano, or Christine de Pizan (1363–c.1434) she - to quote Wikipedia - "was a woman of the medieval era who strongly challenged misogyny and stereotypes that were prevalent in the male-dominated realm of the arts. Cristina became well-known and highly regarded in her own day, she was born in Venice but spent most of her childhood and all of her adult life primarily in Paris and then the abbey at Poissy, and wrote entirely in her adoptive tongue of Middle French. Her early courtly poetry is marked by her knowledge of aristocratic custom and fashion of the day, particularly involving women and the practice of chivalry; her early and later allegorical and didactic treatises reflect both autobiographical information about her life and views and also her own individualized and protofeminist approach to the scholastic learned tradition of mythology, legend, and history she inherited from clerical scholars and to the genres and courtly or scholastic subjects of contemporary French and Italian poets she admired.Supported and encouraged by important royal French and English patrons, Christine had a profound influence on fifteenth-century English poetry. Pizan completed forty-one pieces during her thirty-year career (1399–1429). She earned her accolade as Europe’s first professional woman writer."

She wrote in defense of the poor, of women and the destitute victims of political oppression and struck a mighty pen at the tyrants of the time. In our romanticized version of history, we have Cristina maintain an epistolary and platonic affair with an ordained prelate to whom she remains a loyal friend until the end, and with whom she co-wrote many interesting essays , one of which on the figure of Joan of Arc.

On Friday we wrap our third week of photography and the next three will be on a sound stage in Cinecittà, Rome's leading film studios. I will post photos of the constructions built especially for the film and capture more images of my days "behind the scenes," sharing my thoughts and my days with you.