Tagliatelle and Rock n Roll

marie pasta laugh

Students Singing to their Pasta

The first time I walked into Maria Di Ciero’s kitchen, I realized I wasn’t walking.  I was bopping and rocking to the music that was as much a part of her kitchen as fresh fruits, vegetables and local meats.   While Maria kneaded and rolled her way through a batch of tagliatelle and instructed us in Southern Italian cooking, music filled the air.  What happens in Pontelandolfo stays in Pontelandolfo – but some of the visiting women played air guitar with rolling pins and spatulas.

Maria is  part of the creative duo that created “Perugini Franco Marcelleria Moderna.”   She and her husband,  Franco Perugini, have a butcher shop committed to selling local meats, developing recipes for sausages – fresh and dried – and torcinelli.  Their torcinelli, sono fatti con budelline di agnello (made with lamb intestines), is served in restaurants all through the province.  Torcinelli is a regional delicacy and theirs is top-notch.

Even though Maria works in the butcher shop, she still makes lunch for her extended family.  One of the recipes that she shares with the folks who participate in Cooking in the Kitchens of Pontelandolfo is her tagliatelle.  Take lots of grovin’ music, flour, eggs and a crazy fun filled kitchen and you get golden tagliatelle to sing about.

The ingredients are simply – 1.5 kilo semolina; 14 eggs – you use one egg per person you are feeding and she averages 14 people a day; and a little salt.

The first thing Maria did was plunk a HUGE pasta board down on the table.  It has a lip on one end so that it hooks itself to the table and doesn’t wiggle and jiggle as you dance your way through kneading and rolling.

Here are the steps:

  1. Dump the flour into a pile on the wooden board,
  2. Using your hands dig out the center and make a bowl out of the flour.
  3. Crack open the eggs and dump whole eggs in the center of the flour. She does this with one hand and it looks seamless.  I did it with one hand and got egg on my sleeve, the table and everywhere but the flour bowl.egg flour
  4. Scramble the eggs.  My question was, why couldn’t I scramble them in a bowl and then dump them into the flour.  Everyone in the room looked at me like I was the devil’s spawn.
  5. Gradually pull flour into the center with a fork.  You are making the moist dough – this is not a quick process and can be messy.  Well, when I did it there was a mess – my flour needed a little Dutch boy to plug the dike. Everyone else managed easily.
  6. Then start kneading by pushing away and pulling towards you. She used the heel of her hands and the dough folded over itself and made a little smiley face.
  7. If the dough is too stiff add a little water.  Small eggs could be the reason the moisture to flour ratio is dry.
  8. Ouch, ugh, push, pull – really work the dough with your shoulders and your back.  Maria doesn’t need a gym – she cooks!
  9. Too much to handle? Cut the dough into smaller hunks. Let one hunk rest and work another. Actually, she said this is the better way to do it.
  10. Knead for a minimum of 15 minutes. You cannot over knead.  When your hands become warmer it is easier to work pasta. Fold and push, push and fold, dance to the rhythm of the flour.
  11. When you work on it, pay attention to wrinkles and folds. Make it into a ball and at the same time take all creases out.
  12. Do not cry.  Do not admit you don’t have the stamina of an Italian homemaker.  Do not whine.  Drink wine and knead.
  13. It is done when you can feel that it is done – no holes, no strings. It is completely smooth.
  14. When one hunk is done wrap in plastic to keep the moisture in.
  15. Let dough rest a minimum of 1/2 hour.
  16. Take off your shoes, rub your feet and have another glass of wine.

Rolling the dough:

  1. Put a clean cotton cloth down somewhere to hold and dry the pasta on. Maria has another huge board that she balances between two chairs in front of a grand window.  Draped in a tablecloth, the pasta alter waits for an offering.
  2. Roll out the dough into a circle. Constantly rotating it and using your hands from the center out  – pushing on the dowel.  Yes, a dowel.  A really long dowel was used for this and Maria’s hands raced from the center to the ends as she rolled.  Her hands were cupped and really spread the dough on the rolling pin.IMG_6291
  3. The dough is ready when it is almost transparent.  She made us hold it up to see if we could do shadow puppets behind it.  It was fun and relaxed our hand muscles.
  4. Let big circle rest for about 10 minutes.  This is a good time to sneak outside of her house and stare at the mountains.
  5. Use a spirone– pastry cutting and ravioli wheel. Cut the pasta into thin strips. No problem if they’re not the same size exactly.  This is home-made not precision machine made pasta.
  6. You can use the dough and wheel to cut smaller pieces – pinch the center and voilà you have a bow tie pasta.
  7. Or if you are in the mood for a hearty dish – cut it wider for lasagna.
  8. Dry whatever pasta you made on the cotton cloth.

This pasta can be frozen.  Maria makes huge batches – I wonder why???  Oh yeah, she works and runs home to make a huge lunch.  If you freeze the pasta do not defrost it.  Just put the frozen pasta in the boiling water.

That day, we made a simple pesto – that allowed us to really taste the pasta. With a mortar and pestle we smashed together fresh basil, olive oil, garlic and pignoli nuts.  Walnuts are great to use too.  (This lazy author would probably pull out my food processor!)


Yummy!  Come play with us!  

We still have some spots left in our September 8-15th and May 12 – 19th

Cooking in the Kitchens of Pontelandolfo weeks!  

You too can soon be dancing and cooking in Maria’s kitchen.

 E-mail info@nonnasmulberrytree.com for more information.

Ci Vediamo!


Cavatelli with Carmela

Mario Carmella

Walking into the house Carmela Fusco shares with her husband – ace mushroom harvestor, Mario Mancini, and her family, the first thing the one notices is a petite elderly woman sitting next to an open fire.  Zia Peppinella, Carmela’s mom, lives with the family.  This sense of family and great outpouring of love make a trip to Carmela’s a wee bit like going back in time to a place where we all felt loved and safe.  It is not unusual in Southern Italy for multiple generations of a family to live, work and share their lives together.  That is something that I remember growing up in rural New Jersey – unfortunately it seems to have ended with my generation.

Carmela Fusco is a Pontelandolfese through and through.  As passionate about her home town as she is her cooking, Carmella was willing to leave it behind and help advance her husband’s career by moving to Milan.  With a degree in primary education and an experienced teacher, she looked at the Milan assignment as a culinary adventure.  She had the opportunity to explore and embrace the fare of Northern Italy! During her 13 years there, her spontaneity, smile and neighborliness insured her a circle of friends. Through them, she cultivated her appetite for cooking and explored the secrets of Milanese cuisine.

Back now in the village she loves, Carmela takes care of her large extended family.  Every day, in a kitchen filled with great smells and laughter, Carmela cooks lunch for a minimum of eleven people!  She looks at that as an opportunity to further experiment and cultivate her devotion to cooking.

Carmela’s dishes are an interesting mixture of traditional Southern Italy cuisine, learned from her mom, and the best Milanese traditions. She shops daily for the freshest ingredients and is fortunate to have a husband who forages the mountains for truffles, mushrooms, spring asparagus and more.  You too can feel like you are invited to lunch – read her cooking hints on the Facebook page, A Pranzo Della Nonna!   Her motto is cooking with the heart is good for the soul too.

cichategli 2 carmella

Happy Cooking in the Kitchens of Pontelandolfo Cooks & their Cicategli!

Carmella is one of the women who open their homes to those adventuresome foodies who visit our little village as part of the Cooking in the Kitchens of Pontelandolfo project.  Cicategli is a pasta mainstay in Pontelandolfo.  Served with a thick meat sauce and lots of freshly grated  cheese it can a make any day a happy day.  My nonna’s cicategli sauce was made with pig’s feet and I still smile when I think of it.

Cicategli -Cavatelli Ingredients

Flour 0 and 00 – Fine and Extra fine.       Water as needed.

Before the class started, Carmella showed us the Cavatelli maker she bought that allows her to spin out enough pasta for 11 -15 people in about a half an hour.  We got excited about using it.  She smiled and put it away!  You will learn to make pasta the way my grandmother taught my mother and my mother taught me!

Boil the water. Carmella never uses cold water to make cavatelli.  As her mother before her, she discovered that when you make this pasta kneading hot water into the flour insures the cavatelli, while boiling, won’t stick to each other.  Also, after working the dough a long time, if you use cold water, you would have to continually put your fingers in water or the dough will be too dry.

Put 500 grams of each type of flour on the wooden pasta/bread board.  Carmella’s board was huge and is used almost daily.  We tossed around the idea of just using our American counter tops.  Carmella and Zia Peppinella looked at us, smiled and said try it!  But I knew in their heart of hearts we should all go buy a board.

Make a well in the middle of the flour.  While kneading, slowly add hot water to the flour.  Knead on the floured board until you want to toss the board at your husband.  Keep kneading and add flour – lots of flour.


Using the heel of your hands – fold over each side of dough, add flour and do again.  She used up both bags of flour – 1000 grams and it still felt wet.  Knead about half an hour. Seriously, I kept sneaking a peak at my watch – we kneaded about half an hour.  No one got tired or else we refused to admit that our arms didn’t have the power of an Italian home cook!  We all kept kneading, talking and of course sipping wine!

The dough will tell you when it wants to be made into pasta.

That is not the wine talking – it is the dough talking. When you touch the dough, your fingers will come away dry.  Carmela said it was like testing a cake – when you put a knife or toothpick in a cake and it comes out dry – the cake is done.  If dough still sticks to your fingers add flour and knead.

Cut about 1 inch or a two finger width of dough off the kneaded loaf. Put that dough through pasta machine on number 1 two or three times. Or get out that trusty rolling pin and roll the dough thin, thin, thin.

Cut the thin sheet into 2-finger or 2-inch long strips.  Then cut the strip into about 1/4 – 1/2 inch slices.

cicategli factory

Using your fingers, pull the strip towards you – saying cicategli and then flick the rolled pasta away from you.  Sounds easy right?  We laughed at our mounds of flattened dough.

Carmella made us do it again and again and again. Hey!  We got it!  Thanks Carmella!  Start the 3 fingers just on the outside of the strip of dough and then roll back. Using three fingers you are pulling the dough towards yourself while saying cicategli.  It is important to the pasta gods that you say cicategli!

Now practice the two handed technique.  You have to feed your family at 1:30 and need to get these four million cavatelli done.  Carmella astounded us with her two handed technique.  She whipped that pasta out using both hands to roll and flick.  Who needs a machine!!

Put the finished cavatelli in one layer on a wooden board or cotton sheet to dry a little.

The dough will keep for 3 days in refrigerator or you can freeze it.  Making it with hot water allows you to freeze it for 3 months.  It is important to remember to defrost the cavatelli for two hours before you use it.

Carmella reminded us to never clean wooden boards with water.  Scrape the goop off the board with the flat back of knife.  Water gets in the wood and the board hates that. Make sure you wipe the board with dry rag.

Zia Giuseppina, Carmella’s mom looked at us all firmly and said, when you go back,you must continue to make pasta this way  or the traditions of our village will be lost.

She also noted, You have learned how to make cicategli now you must learn how to eat it! Cavatelli amano tante formaggio e sugo!   This type of pasta loves a lot of thick sauce and tons of grated cheese.


After boiling the pasta we covered it with a hearty meat sauce and used the local hard sheep cheese.  Because you will love the sauce do not foget the Scarpetta – little shoe – a piece of crusted local bread used to clean your plate!  Let me tell you, each and every one of us cleaned our plates.

You too can Eat, Cook and Laugh in Carmela’s Kitchen!  There is one spot available for the September 2018 and 4 spots available for the May 2018 Cooking in the Kitchens of Pontelandolfo program.  Or you and a group of pals can contact me to set up your own dates.  Just e-mail info@nonnasmulberrytree.com.

Visit us on FaceBook or our Web-Site.

Ci Vediamo!



Presepe Vivente Morcone 2018

When I first heard about the Presepe Vivente presentation in Morcone – the town that clings to the mountain just down the road from Pontelandolfo.  I thought – a theatre or film crew couldn’t find a more perfect location to stage the Christmas story.  This ancient village dominated by the Rocca  (ancient rock fortress) has all the elements of a characteristic Neapolitan nativity scene.

My theatre brain imagined a 21st Century Location Scout: I’m tellin’ you this place is freakin’ perfect.  It could be Bethlehem. Sits on a high mountain ridge.  Surrounding hills terraced, covered with grape vines, fig trees, olives.  Cave and grotto waiting to host the couple. The buildings – man they are so old we would barely have to spend a shekel on set construction.  Settled 5th or 6th century BC – way before the big day.  (Pause – he is listening.)  I’m not lying!  Morcone – a hill top town in Compania –  is the perfect place to stage a reenactment of  the birth of Jesus!

This year, I was blessed to be able to see the 34th Annual Presepe Vivente Morcone.  Every January close to Epiphany, the entire community comes together to create a site specific theatre piece in two acts.   Hundreds of volunteers donned period costumes, dressed the sets staged in ancient buildings, hung lights, wired the city for sound and  produced an incredible living history theatrical work.

The well organized event begins in centro storico, the historic center.  We climbed ancient stone steps, crossed small alleys, stopped in the tiniest of piazzas and witnessed daily life as it may have been lived thousands of years ago. Ancient crafters, washerwomen, children racing through lanes, merchants, tax collectors, Roman soldiers, housewives, fishermen in the stream – all in period dress go on with their lives as we wend our way on the guided path.

The second act is staged in a huge field outside Porta San Marco.  At the far end was the illuminated grotto serving as a stable.  Not knowing what to expect, I only had my iPhone – next year telephoto lens and binoculars. A great sound system kicked into high gear with music and a narrator.  Suddenly lights came up far off  in the woods to our right. In a small room, Gabriele talks to Mary. Each segment of the Christmas story is staged in a different part of the woods – perfectly lit for its brief moment.  On donkey, Mary and Joseph begin their journey to Bethlehem.  Shepherds arrive illuminated by hundreds of torches. Of course the spectacle ends in the manager with a blinding pyrotechnic flash that is the star leading the Magi on horseback to Jesus.  It was incredible!  I have the attention span of a gnat and there wasn’t one moment when I wasn’t engaged.

For next year’s details visit their website – Presepe Nel Presepe.   For a glimpse of what I enjoyed this year, click on the video!

I hope to see you in Pontelandolfo!  Visit us this May – we still have a few spots left in our Cooking in the Kitchens of Pontelandolfo.  Or contact me and set up your January adventure and visit Morcone!

Ci Vediamo.

Italian Public Holidays

Keep the questions coming!  I will try to answer then!   When should we visit Italy?  As soon and as often as you can.  What are the holidays?  Many of you have asked about Italian Holidays – well, here is what I have discovered –

It takes government action to declare a public holiday. Workers – I’m guessing full time not contract or part time – are entitled to a day off with full pay.  If they have to work – like there is a giant sale at the mall – they must be paid 2.5 times their normal rate. Do not get sick, have your car breakdown or any other emergency on a public holiday.  Very little is open and hospitals are understaffed.  No really – do not get sick in August either.



Here is the list of  Italian Public Holidays –

January 01 Capodanno New Year’s Day
January o6 Epifania (La Befana!) Epiphany
Monday After Easter  Pasquetta Easer Monday
April 25 Festa Della Liberazione Liberation Day
May 01 Festa del Lavoro Labor Day – May Day
June 02 Festa della Repubblica Republic Day
August 15 Ferragosto Assumption Day
November 01 Ognissanti All Saints Day
December o8 Immacolata Concezione (This is the beginning of the Christmas season.) Immaculate Conception Day
December 25 Natale Christmas Day
December 26 Santo Stefano St Stephens Day


Religious and – as Jack call’s them – 

Greeting Card and Flower Shop Holidays –

March 19 Festa di San Giuseppe St. Joseph’s / Father’s Day
February 14 Festa degli Innamorati St. Valentine’s Day
February Carnevale Mardi Gras/ Fat Tuesday
Variable Pasqua Easter
Second Sunday in May Festa Della Mamma Mother’s Day
November 2 I giorno dei Morti Day of the Dead


   Pontelandolfo Holidays

September 19 San Gennaro Naple’s Patron Saint
May 21 San Rita Procession & Blessing of Cars
June 13 San Antonio Procession
1st Week in August San Salvatore 7 day festa, film festival, venders, rides, entertainment
August 16 San Rocco Procession

All of the small villages in our province take their holidays seriously.  There is an incredible communal feeling to be part of a procession, share a panini on the street, listen to the music and know that you are part of a larger family.

If you would like to feel like you really are living in an Italian Village – even if just for a week, take a peek at this web-site and let us create a holiday just for you.

Ci Vediamo!

Carols Set the Tone for Christmas

Casa di Babbo Natale (He is waving in the upper left window)

Christmas is my favorite holiday. I love the lights festooned on our village’s streets, the house of Babbo Natale created by the talented Nicola Ciarlo, the presents wrapped under the tree and I love most of all the music. Christmas without carols is like a night without stars. From the time I was in the children’s choir to today, I cry whenever Silent Night is sung, cheer on Joy to the World and feel the bells of Ring the Christmas Bells.  Carols personify, the spiritual side of what unfortunately has become a very commercial time of year.

Last night, in Pontelandolfo,  voices filled the theatre of Sala Giovanni Paolo II with joy and the power of the messages of Christmas. Student vocalists from the music and dance high school, Liceo Musicale G. Guacci, under the direction of Maestro Daniela Polito, put their hearts and talents into last night’s concert.

Selene Pedicini opened the concert with a plaintive violin solo.  Singers entered carrying candles and joined solemn voices on the stage.  It was the appropriate way to gather the attention of a talkative audience.  Ms. Pedicini also acted as the program’s narrator, not only announcing the song but sharing the back stories.  Saverio Coletta accompanied on the piano.  Both Pedicini and Coletta are teachers at Liceo Musicale.

Having heard the Westminster Choir, I’m spoiled.  That said, these fourteen to eighteen year olds knocked my Santa Claus socks off.  Tight harmonies that blended into one melodic message. The Maestra, Daniela Polito, had them perform Silent Night in a variety of languages.  It was stellar. Great articulation in not one, not two, but four languages.  These kids are fortunate.  Their Performing Arts High School is on a campus that includes the magnet school for languages.  They get to study languages under teachers who are native speakers.

Two other pieces that not only moved me but had me embarrass my husband by shouting during the applause were a gospel piece – complete with clapping and choreography – and Can You Hear Me not only sung but done in sign language.

Ms. Polito needs to be complimented.  Having been the director of a Performing Arts High School, I know how tough it is to encourage students in a variety of grades to work together as a cohesive performance unit.  There are thirty students in the music track and all thirty are in the chorus.

Students audition for acceptance to Il Liceo Musicale and  – Westminster peeps can relate to this – if the students do not cut it they will be asked to leave.  Most of these kids go on to University level conservatories and their passion and drive is evident.

After the concert, I interviewed the faculty and of course my first question was – are there any students from Pontelandolfo?  Of Course – Annalaua Tranchini!

Tranchini concert

Maestra Polito, Annalaura Tranchini of Pontelandolfo and I

There is something about young voices sharing the historic songs of praise, happiness and love that brings the spirit of Christmas to everyone in the room.  I must admit, that I was saddened by how few people were in the room.  It was such a fabulous concert that everyone in town should have heard it.  But then, what do I care – I heard it and it made my Christmas bright.

Buon Natale.

Ci vediamo.

Christmas Lessons

Christmas Ponte

Buon Natale a Tutti! 

May the Christmas Spirit be with you all year long.

Tonight, Pontelandolfo is hosting Concerto di Natale by the chorus from Liceo Musicale G. Guacci.  When I saw the poster of young singers in their tuxedos and black dresses, I flashed back to my teaching time at Westminster Choir College and my first evening of “Lessons and Carols.” Teaching at Westminster was one of the most rewarding and special times of my life.  Surrounded by music and students who were accepted because they had great musical talent, academic ability and drive, I formed relationships that mean a lot to me today.  As my brain twirled, racing from those young musicians singing their hearts out during a Christmas Lessons and Carols to our life today, I realized there was a lesson that I should have learned then but really hit me now.

This year, Jack and I decided to to try on a different holiday experience and spend Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Italy.  The Christmas lessons began in Milano, continued in Vienna and seeing the lights in Piazza Roma were reinforced in Pontelandolfo.

Thanks to Stefania, Nina, Kristie and Silvia, Non importa dove vai, importa chi incontri, became so evident to me.  It is not important where you go but who you meet along the way.  Strangers become reflections of who we are and where we are going. That first night, tired and hungry we walked a scant few blocks from our favorite B&B – Il Girasole – to Tony’s, a jam packed local eatery. We were given a deuce next to a woman eating alone.  When I say next to, I mean our elbows touched.  What could I do but say, buona sera.  Stefania, was no longer eating alone, and we had a great conversation about her early life as a dancer with the Royal Ballet in England and now in a government office here in Milano.  Politics, political appointments, the problems facing Milano and the rush from hearing the sound of applause wafted from table to table. The back story that stayed with me is one we have all known – a young woman with a promising career as a dancer comes home to attend to the elders in her family.  Family is so central to the soul of Italy and central to me.  Eating and connecting with a local woman who was as interested in us as we were in her made the night magical.

One morning, our eyes finally no longer glued shut, we wended our way to breakfast.  There were only three of us in the room.  What else could I do but say buon giorno?  Nina replied in perfect English, Good Morning.  A German international political science Ph.D who had spent a year working for a major California university, Nina provided a European view of world events and the plight of academics.  Munching our corentti and sipping our cappuccini, I found interesting her perspective of the rise of fascism in the United States. What really smacked me was just how spot on the old men in Pontelandolfo’s bars where when they warned us that candidate Trump would lead the USA in a goose step toward a fascist regime.  Too bad they didn’t get a chance to manipulate FaceBook! When Nina explained the hiring process in German and other European universities, I responded on how I had been F*&!ed by an institute of higher learning. We were sisters under the adjunct banner. While we did not agree on all global issues, we had a robust discussion that helped me understand even more clearly european perspectives.  If you never leave your hometown you miss the opportunity.

The universe always provides – even sweets and prosecco after a day of exploring.  Arriving back at the hotel and wanting to anty up our bill, we went into the breakfast room to find our hosts.  There we met Silvia Pitoni whose goal in life is to open a pasticceria in her home town of Rieti (suburb of Rome.)


I’ve been graced with impeccable timing.  Silvia had just gotten back to the hotel from a master class with a famous Milanese pastry maker and was laden with samples of the delights she created.  While munching away, we listened to Silvia talk about the Roma Academia Italiana. She is  studying for a professional diploma as a chef.  More importantly, we listened to Silvia’s dreams of having a pastry shop that features both sweet and apertivo style treats.  Silvia’s enthusiasm for baking and her love of local, natural ingredients gave me an “Ah Ha” moment.  Maybe the universe sent her to add a Roman dimension to Cooking in the Kitchens of Pontelandolfo?  (Check out our groovy new web-site.)  Perhaps the adventuresome foodies that come to cook in Pontelandolfo homes could do a pastry add on in Rieti!

Jack and I headed off to Vienna – I really wanted to hear the music and see the Christmas bling.  We did do that but coming full circle – we ate dinner in a crowded local restaurant and were fortunate to be squished next to a couple from North Carolina.  Kristie, a realtor, and her husband were great dinner companions.  We talked about politics, living abroad, places one should visit, lack of travel leading to limited vision, life in a red state when you have blue politics, the state of the nation and the world.  None of us wanted to relinquish our tables to waiting diners.  We enjoyed the company and the conversation.

When we finally, got home to Pontelandolfo and became immersed in conversations in the bars, library, restaurant, I knew the the journey we’ve taken to become part of a different community has been a blessed one.

These encounters may not seem like much.  However, hearing, listening, responding and understanding the places that people come from and the journeys they have taken enhances our journey.  As our pal Nicola from Il Girasole Hotel said, Non è importante la destinazione ma il viaggio.  The destination is not important – it is the journey.


Buon Natale, Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Happy New Year.  May 2018 bring you joy, laughter, health and incredible journeys.

Ci Vediamo.

An Accidental Visit to Basilica di S. Ambrogio

The sun was shining, the air was clear and we were energized to take the Metropolitana to the Duomo. Every time we come to Milano, like tourist lemmings we head for the Piazza Duomo, gawk at the Gothic marvel constructed of pink veined white marble and enjoy the energy of the crowd.

The outside is amazing. The facade features more than 3,200 statues. We have stared and created narratives to go with some of them. Today, we were determined to see the inside of this incredible house of worship.

Have I ever mentioned that I run from hordes of tourists? That backpacks attack me? That lines that go on forever are not enticing? Now, we knew it might be crowded. It was after all a glorious December day but we had no idea…

First clue – the armed guards at every door. Second clue – long lines waiting to get into the church. I asked when the next mass was and if you had to stand in line for that. The guard put his hand on his gun and looked at me. We went to the back of the line and discovered that to go inside the Duomo you had to buy a ticket. Ok. Ok. We can do that. Where the hell is the ticket booth? We wandered around the gigantic exterior and across a side street finally saw the ticket and Duomo souvenirs store. Upon entering I was handed a number – 40. I was number 40 in the longissimo queue to buy a ticket to stand in a two hour line to wander with a pazillion people in the duomo. NOT!

I remembered reading about the quality of art and architecture of Basilica di Sant’ Ambrogio, pulled out my map and dragged Jack in that direction. Boy, am I glad I did! It wasn’t a short walk but it got us out of the tourist crunch and into a neighborhood. The amount of graffiti I see in Milano confounds me. We were in, what appeared to be, an upper middle class neighborhood and there were graffiti tags everywhere. Tired of walking and ready for wine and sustenance, we happened upon Caffe’ Della Pusterla (Via De Amicis, 22). Yummy, friendly and full of local folks who were happy to help us on our journey to Sant’Ambrogio. We both had Stinco e Patate – pork shin, think ham hock braised to perfection and served with lemon roasted potatoes. I flashed back to my grandmother’s Sunday dinners. Ahhhh. After a great meal, wine and the local digestivo – Fernet – we set off to the Basilica.

Coming upon the complex, I felt like I was stepping back centuries. Saint Ambrose (Sant’ Ambrogio) is the patron saint of Milan and was the driving force behind getting the building done. The church, originally built between 379-386 A.D., is a great example of Romanesque Style.

For great pictures – CLICK HERE. The Basilica’s website has a super surround view gallery.

Today, the Basilica of Saint Ambrose’s crypt is the final resting place of the patron saint. It is below the main church, in an area called the “Tesoro di Sant’Ambrogio”. Numerous martyrs from Roman times have also been buried there. For €2 you can head down to the Tesoro see the Basilica’s artifacts. We walked through the iron gate, paid our €2 and slowly walked through the exhibit of gold and silver artifacts and other objects of high artistic and religious value from the 13th to 19th centuries. The works of art that had the greatest impact on me, were not made of gold, silver, silk or jewels but of found objects, scraps of cloth and stolen pieces of wood.

In 1944, Italian soldiers who were held at Wietzendorf, a German Concentration Camp, created this nativity scene. Determined not to compromise on their religion, these brave men created something special with a Boy Scout knife, small pair of scissors and door hinge as a hammer. We joined another couple staring at the installation, soon tears were sliding down all our cheeks.

Leave Piazza Duomo behind and visit the Basilica di S. Ambrogio located at Piazza S. Ambrogio 15. You don’t need a ticket and there aren’t any lines. All you will find is a pleasant opportunity to explore a historic venue in a great neighborhood.

Ci Vediamo!

Baci, Baci! Irregular Regulars

Baci, baci! Grand abbraccio! Kiss, kiss, big hugs. Within half an hour after landing at Malpensa in Milano, Jack and I were embraced by Milanese warmth and passion. Right off the plane we were welcomed back with gusto. For us, the hugs started at the Taxi queue. Since we were traveling with four – count them 4 – giant bags, we wanted the next mini van in line. Bentornati, welcome back, echoed from the cache of drivers waiting for fares. Three helped our driver put the hernia inducing bags in his van. One stole his keys, which – after a bit of kibitzing about why does he always get the bella gente, nice people – were returned. Bentornati? Who did they think we were? How could they know us? My kind husband smirked and noted that I chat up everyone, how could they not remember us? The standard fare from Malpensa to the city center is €95. After the driver belly lugged our bags to the door of the hotel, I handed him €100. He thanked me profusely and gave me a big hug. Bentornati!

We rang the bell at Il Girasole High Quality Inn’s portone (humongous door blocking the complex from the street) and announced ourselves. Midge, Jack Bentornati! The words rang out before the door was fully open. Nicola Negruzzi, one of the vivacious owners of our favorite little hotel, pulled open the door and wrapped me in a cocoon like embrace. Next, Jack’s turn for a huge hug. Whenever we come to Milano – which is about once a year – we stay at Il Girasole. Co-owner, Matteo Negruzzi came in – saw us – and….. Bentornati! Baci, baci, grande abbraccio. Big hugs and kisses to both of us. Matteo reminded us that Il Girasole is our Milanese home away from home.

Jack and Matteo

We always truck over to Mail Boxes ETC and ship our suitcases to Pontelandolfo. If we are arriving from the states and off on other adventures, it makes sense to off load some of the baggage. Jack schlepped the bags over the threshold of the store and the owner joined the Bentornati chorus. He knew exactly why we were there, whipped out the right forms, asked where we were off too and guaranteed our luggage would make it home before we did.

Up the street and around the corner is Tony’s, an inexpensive restaurant that serves pretty good fish and just about anything else you could find in a higher end local place. We walked in, asked for a table for two, took off our coats and whomp – heard Bentornati! The waiter looked at us and said – New Jersey right? Glad you’re back – but you always come back!

I could give you two more examples – Vineria San Giovanni and the Restaurant Mamma Lina – but you get the drift.

Wow – I must look like someone famous! In high school I could pass for Sally Fields in her flying nun phase and once in an airport Jack was confused for Tom Wilkenson (British actor). Maybe we give off a famous person auro? Baaammm – then it hit me. We are irregular regulars! There is no schedule. No one knows when we will return to Quartiere Villa San Giovanni, this friendly Milanese neighborhood. We are absolutely irregular regulars!

Except to see the sites, listen to music and window shop, we avoid the tourist packed historic center of Milan. A few years ago, thanks to Nonna’s Mulberry Tree subscriber Lynn Y., we got turned on to Il Girasole. Located at Via Doberdò 19, close to Metro stop Villa San Giovanni, the hotel has all the bells and whistles of the big guys – free wi-fi, parking, more than continental breakfast and incredible staff. Every time we fly to Italy through Milan or venture north with our car, we stop and stay in this neighborhood populated by real people and featuring non tourist prices in restaurants and shops. At il Girasole, my favorite room is somehow always available for us. The afternoon registration ritual turns into aperitivo e spuntino and we like the local eateries. Bam – irregular regulars.

Becoming an irregular regular sort of comes naturally to me. I like things that are familiar and good. If the service, price and goods are great – why not go back?! Are you wondering how folks remember us? The former mayor of Princeton, Barbara Sigmund, taught me a great politicians trick – stick out your hand and say your name. Then make sure you get the waiters, store owners, etc. name and use it a few times while you are there. Of course, ten minutes later don’t ask me their names but I’m good while I’m in the place. Also, name badges and writing on uniforms help a lot. Why not joke, laugh and chat with folks where ever you are? It feels good, makes the time pass pleasantly and BONUS – you too can become an irregular regular and hear that pleasant bentornato – welcome back!

Ci Vediamo!