Who knew?! I sure didn’t know I could slice, dice, and shred zucchini and toss it in the freezer. No hot stove and a pot of boiling water for blanching. No standing over a pot of steaming stuff with sweat pouring down my neck. All I needed was some local advice – grazie Carmella and Zia Vittoria.
The fields were laden with zucchini. In the morning the orange/yellow zucchini flowers would open to entertain the local bees. The color was almost as appealing as the yummy fried stuffed with mozzarella zucchini blossoms we have eaten all summer. Problem. How many fried zucchini blossoms could one person eat before succumbing to death by gluttany? Solution. Freeze the flowers to use with pasta, stuff a ravioli or add color and flavor to rice. Freezing the flowers took soooo much work. I don’t know if I should share the process, it may be taxing.
Wash blossoms – I picked them with clean hands from a chemical free garden. I just tossed them in cold water for a bit.
Drain and let blossoms dry thoroughly. I actually patted the babies dry with paper towels.
Toss in freezer bags.
Put in freezer
Have a glass of prosecco to celebrate.
Carmella told me to make a simple pasta sauce by sautéing onion in olive oil then adding shredded zucchini and chopped zucchini blossoms. Some salt, pepper and grated pecorino cheese rounded out the dish. This was a great way to use up two zucchini and about 8 blossoms but what about the rest?
You can shred and freeze the zucchini! That is exactly what I did with about a third of my zucchini haul. Listening to the blues, I was bouncing and shredding. It went quickly. Soon the bags of shredded zucchini were in the freezer. Imagine a winter yen for zucchini bread and popping a bag out of the freezer. Brrr it is a cold December and you want to make zucchini fritters or “crab” cakes. Oh no, need to bring a quick dish to a party – zucchini frittata cut into bite sized squares. With a smile you will remember that the prep is already done.
I have also diced zucchini to use in soups and sliced zucchini to use in – well something or other. Those too went into bags and then into the freezer.
It is embarrassing to admit this. Please don’t tell anyone. We went out and bought a second refrigerator with a huge freezing compartment just so that I wouldn’t feel guilty about not using all the produce we got from Zia Vittoria. I love the freezer!
One day I went over to Zia Vittoria’s and found her in her work/canning kitchen frying up huge batches of something. I could smell the onions – who doesn’t love the smell of sautéed onions. Since the garden was also full of tomatoes, she was doing a quick sauté of onion, tomatoes and zucchini. She keeps saying “dura” hard. Then I got it. This was a flash plop in the olive oil and the vegetables were still crispy. She uses this mixture with pasta but I figure it is a quick side dish too.
I promptly went home and gathered up all the ingredients – did I mention a bunch of basil too. As speedily as you could say “chop-chop,” I cooked up a fast batch. When I would rather write than cook or rather have cocktail hour than cook – all I need to do is grab a bag. I freeze in tiny sandwich size bags that I thrust inside a big freezer bag – it really is just grab and go.
We are blessed to live in a place that is rich in fresh produce and friendly neighbors who love to share with us. I hope you are having a safe, healthy and farm to table summer! (Local farmers rock!)
PS. Great news to share – I just got a publishing contract with Read Furiously for my new collection of Pontelandolfo centered short stories. “Cars, Castles, Cows and Chaos” will be out in 2020. Don’t fret – you all will be the first to know!
We were so excited to be invited to cousin Giusy’s La Promessa di Matrimonio. I didn’t have a clue what that meant – besides an event that warranted a glamorous after party. All we could figure out was the couple had to go to city hall and do something and then, a couple of months later, they could get married in the church. Was it just getting a marriage license? Was it an actual civil wedding first? This inquiring mind wanted to know!
My cousin and her fiancée, Antonio, have reserved Pontelandolofo’s Chiesa San Salvatore for a September wedding. Before that can happen – or even if they were going to have a civil ceremony – they had to head down to town hall and in the presence of an official, like the registrar, go through the process of La Promessa di Matrimonio.
On April 4, 1942, Article 79 of the Italian Civil code was finalized. La Promessa, was established. From what I read, it looks like it stopped forced marriages. Hmm did that mean the sale of brides and grooms for ten sheep and a goat? It protects marital freedom and insures that the couple both consent to marry each other. It also nullifies previous obligations – like the secret ex-husband you forgot to mention.
La Promessa is not a super binding legal contract. You can always jump ship and change your mind – as long as you are willing to restore any economic loss your former fiancée suffered.
It kind of reminded me of the day Jack and I went to the Asbury Park City with a video cameraman and a witness to get our marriage license. The couple here had to present the usual bureaucratic documents plus a couple extra – proof of identity, birth certificates, tax stamp that you paid the fee, request form for the marriage bans by the parish priest, request form for the publication of the bans and probably something else that I forgot. Oh yeah, Antonio belongs to the church in Casalduni. He had to get a letter from his priest there and supply his birth, baptismal and communion certificates.
The marriage bans, public announcement of the upcoming nuptials, take place in the church and the town. This gives advance notice to folks who may know of some dastardly impediment to the wedding and race out to stop it.
Someone told me, or I read that this civil action takes the couple from being engaged to absolutely betrothed. Sort of a throwback to the ancient request for the hand in marriage by the groom. It is also kind of the official meeting of the two families. Or simply a great excuse to have an intimate party – think engagement party!
The date was bright, sunny and hot! Jack and I parked as close as we could to Palazzo Rinaldi. It is an historic building that has been totally renovated. It even had magic doors that opened when you got close. I looked around the foyer and figured the Council chambers should be here somewhere. Seeing a directory, we realized that it was on the second floor. The second floor of an ancient building and its huge marble staircase. The staircase had a landing or two so I could attempt to breathe. Clutching my lungs we made it to the second floor and couldn’t find the room. I peaked in an office and asked. It was up yet another flight. I gasped and the wonderful woman showed us the modern elevator! Duh – the second floor in an Italian building is really the third level. I should know by now the ground floor isn’t in the count. The elevator whisked us up to the next floor. We arrived at 4 minutes to 5. The event was to start at 5:00 PM. The room was empty! Jack looked at me and asked if we were there on the right date. I checked my calendar and my WhatsApp messages. Then I assured him that it was the right time and the right date. He looked at me and we both said “questa è Italia.”
The handsome groom to be, Antonio, arrived with his family. They were decked out in cocktail dresses, jewels, suits and ties. I looked down at my casual summer dress. Gulp. Another thing I should remember is that any event is an opportunity to dress up and look fetching. Oh well, next time.
Where was Giusy? The registrar appeared with the necessary items for the signing. Where was Giusy’s family – which is my family? Suddenly, I heard heavy breathing and panting. They all staggered in having climbed three ridiculous flights of stairs. Like us, no one knew there was an elevator. It was worth the wait – Giusy looked like a movie star. Her backless white jumpsuit festooned with lace at the shoulders was a whimsical reminder that she was the bride to be. Everyone took a seat. I happily noticed a bottle of Prosecco made it’s way to the front of the room.
The registrar opened the proceedings by reading both Anonio’s and Giusy’s recorded history. Dates of birth, parents names, place of birth and residency. I knew that stuff so I didn’t pay close attention. Then she got to to the important Article 79 of the Civil Code and read part of that. The cute couple signed something and bang – it was all over. The bang was the popping of the Prosecco cork. The whole thing took less than ten minutes.
Time for the second half of the event – the party! After asking other guests, I discovered this was a Southern Italian tradition. Though others said, not everyone did it. The site, La Rossella, is a restaurant about fifteen minutes out of town. If I tell you everything we ate you will drool on your electronic device. I’ll give you the quick version. We started out side in a lovely garden. Thank the goddesses I brought my anti mosquito juice and shared it with the other barelegged women. I hate mosquitos but they adore me. The Prosecco glasses were held high to once again toast the couple and then we each grabbed a paper cone filled with crispy tempura fried pieces of fish. Yummy. The fish kept us occupied while each family group lined up for the de rigueur photos. Photos done? Check! Time to move inside and leave the marauding mosquitos for the next group.
We had an absolutely huge table set up for the scant party of 20 – absolute Covid social distancing. Then the feast began! The appetizer of steamed octopus coupled with thin slices of swordfish and salmon was exceptional. As was the wine that freely flowed. The tone of the party was light, filled with laughter and applause. Literally applause. For example, I shouted out auguri ai genitori and everyone cheered “I genitori” (parents) and clapped wildly. This happened sporadically throughout the evening until everyone was toasted.
The appetizer was followed by not one but two primo piatti! The first pasta dish was homemade linguine and clams but with a creamy sauce. The second was pasta with swordfish. I will try to replicate that one. Then came more and more and suddenly it was after midnight and out came the delicious cake with it’s whipped cream frosting and pistachio cream filling. Sigh….
Jack and I wished the couple a happy engagement and rolled out to our car. What a night! What a perfect first time experience of La Promessa di Matrimonio.
Last week Italy played England in the UEFA EURO 2020 match. Until last week, I didn’t know there was a UEFA or that it stood for the Union of European Football Associations. I also didn’t understand why this was the 2020 match – duhhhhh – the pandemic squashed last year’s. As our entire village started preparing for this event, I realized I better do some research or would be a really stupid Italian – American.
AHEM, said the professoressa with rich but boring academic tones, Italy has been in 10 major tournament finals – 6 world cup, 4 EURO. Among the European nations, only Germany has played in more. The not so staid English have never been in the finals of a European Championship. This was their first try at a major tournament since winning the 1966 World cup. Sadly, for them, but not for us THEY LOST!
The night of Italy’s win, I finally began to understand calico. Don’t be silly, I still don’t understand the rules or why a sport that is supposed to take 90 minutes takes a lot more than 90 minutes. What I finally began to understand was that the game wasn’t as important as the opportunity for neighbors, friends, soon to be friends and outright enemies to have a communal focus. Joining the majority of the village in the Piazza that night, I saw everyone from infants to people older than Jack staring at movie screens and holding their collective breaths at the same time. Cries of alarm went up when goals were missed. Chairs were knocked over as the crowd leapt to its feet when a goal was made. In-between these specific moments people were talking to not only those at their table but those around them.
All the bars in town, who had starved during lockdown, had prepared for the onslaught of customers – who were more than customers. Surrounding each bar, staring at television and movie style screens, were people who had been trapped in their homes for over a year and were now not only supporting their country’s team but supporting each other. Babies were passed from person to person, drinks and food were bought and sent to different tables, bar owners were assisted by family and friends who are like family, strangers and “the local Americans” were embraced. (There was no embracing but lots of elbow touching.)
For one night, no one was worrying about the latest designer version of Covid or what would happen when the region moved from Covid White status to yellow or worse. The angst of the past year was lost as a team of Italian men chased a ball across the pitch. (That is what they call the playing field – don’t ask me why I haven’t a clue.)
At the beginning of the match, as fireworks filed the air, all stood and sang the Italian national anthem. Italians were coming together with one focus – winning. We won the match and we in Italy will beat this pandemic.
We were driving through a neighboring town on our way to buy a new refrigerator, . It was a glorious day. Blue sky, the sun was shining down on us.
“Jack that light is red.”
“I can’t see the light. The sun…”
“You just went through that red light.”
“Maybe it doesn’t work – those cars stopped too.”
“They stopped so they wouldn’t broadside us. Shit.”
We headed down the street when at the next intersection who should appear but un carabiniere – policeman – holding up a paletta, the very small yet very scary circle on a stick that means pull over or we shoot. They do carry guns. Sometimes they carry very big automatic guns.
Damn, we went through a stop light and got caught. My stomach dropped to my toes. Jack sat up straighter and assumed his remembered State Police posture. I rolled down my window and smiled – cripes I am seventy-two years old, flirting ain’t gonna work – maybe dimwitted old lady?
“Buon Giorno,” I say with a smile.
Jack followed my lead, “Buon Giorno.”
The police officer does not crack a smile, “Patente e libretto.”
I open the glove box and tons of scontrini – reciepts – fall out. I find not one but two plastic folders holding documents. I drop the blue one. I feel the police officer staring at me. I open the black folder but haven’t a clue what I am looking for. What is il libretto – is that the registration? He touches my hand – I freeze. He points. I give him the grey thing he points at. It must be il libretto.
The carabinieri always seem to work in twos. The rear of the police car was open and a computer appeared. The second officer grabbed il libretto, which when I read it later was the registration, and started typing away. Rats, I think there goes another ticket to the car. The car that is in my name driven by Jack who couldn’t see the freakin’ red light.
By now I have the insurance and our international drivers licenses ready for him.
“I documenti per favore.”
I try to give him the international drivers licenses – he pushes them aside. He doesn’t care about the insurance either.
“I vostri passaporti!” He says a bit severely.
We are so screwed. Here we go on a slow boat back to the United States. Or worse, the computer-generated phone hell of the American Consulate. I realize he needs to know we are Italian citizens and live in Pontelandolfo half the year. The problem is I need to get out of the car. All those car stops we have seen on the USA news demonstrate how dangerous it is to get out of the car. But my purse is on the back seat. What to do? My grandmother leaps into my body and suddenly my Italian improved two hundred percent.
“Siamo cittadini italiani. Residenza a Pontelandolfo. Potrei uscire dalla macchina. La mia borsa è sul sedile dietro.” I get out of the car, look directly into his handsome brown eyes and wish I was twenty-five. Then I go to the back seat and get my purse. Opening my wallet to get my residence card demonstrates that I happen to have a wee bit of cash too. I quickly take out my carta d’identità and gesture to Jack to take out his. While Jack arches up in the seat to get his wallet, I say. “Viviamo a Pontelandolfo sei mesi all’ anno e in New Jersey altri sei mesi.”
“I speak a little inglese. Where in New Jersey.”
“Tu parli bene l’inglese,” I say. “Siamo a Ewing vicino Philadelphia.”
He nods. I smile. He speaks English about as well as I speak Italian but hey compliments go a long way. He takes our identification cards back to the computer. Somehow, I don’t feel as frightened. Jack is still staring straight ahead.
He comes back and doesn’t look happy. “To drive in Italy avete bisogno della patente internazionale.”
He throws Jack’s New Jersey license back at him. What the #@%&!, I think. Why did Jack give him his license – all he wanted was his residence card. I leap into my “Ms Fixit” role.
“Mi scusi signore, abbiamo le patenti internazionali. Sono queste.” I hand him the same two grey international drivers licenses that I tried to give him earlier. We get them every year from Tripple A and have never shown them to anyone in ten years. Are these acceptable or do we end up in the cop car? He doesn’t even open them – just hands them back and goes back to the computer. I get back in the car. I am planning to go into my 1960’s dead weight protest mode. If they want to arrest us it will take a crane to pull me out of the car.
He slowly walks back. I slowly slump lower into the car. Jack sits up even taller. The policeman looks at me and pauses. I cringe.
“Buon fine settimana segnori,” he says with a smile.
I smile. He turns and walks away. Jack starts the car. I wave at the policemen. Thank you we will have a good weekend. But first, lets go buy that refrigerator.
It is not too early to start planning your 2022 trip to Pontelandolfo! We are organizing, cooking, writer’s retreats and farm to table weeklong adventures. Check out Cooking in the Kitchens of Pontelandolfo!
The hills were alive with the sounds of music! Just not the song you are thinking of. For the past few days, our village has serenaded us with the sounds of welcome, love and joy featuring that musical word that means so much – bentornati! Bentornati is the melodious way to say welcome back – but really more than just welcome back. I am so happy to see you! We are glad you are back!
We are glad to be back in pontelandolfo!
After our quarantine period was over, Jack and I donned our masks and made our way down to Pontelandolfo’s village center. It was the first time we had been to the piazza since covid shut us down and trapped us so very far away. Wow! So many changes! The weekly market wasn’t in Piazza Roma – but we could see the vendors trucks behind the school in Piazza Its Been So Long I don’t Remember the Name. Look, I shouted, a new outdoor bar is open on the promenade. What a great place for a quick pick me up during the pre-dinner passegiata or after dinner night out. All of the bars have a much bigger outdoor presence. Newer tables, umbrellas – wow – so urbane! Those changes were brought about because outdoor seating was the only way the bars could eke out a living during the height of the pandemic.
We continued to drive around and noted that everyone was wearing a mask. Shoppers were carrying their bags of goodies and wearing masks. Venders were wearing masks. Bar staff were all masked up. We parked the car, put on our masks and got hit with the welcoming sounds of Bentornati!
Bentornati from the owner and customers at Bar Elimar. Bentornati and conversation with a man we barely know who told us to sit in the shade with him. Bentornati and fist bumps from people we knew and passed in the streets. Bentornati and invitations to come over for coffee from folks we haven’t seen in pandemic ages. Bentornati and tell us everything you have been doing – from the pharmacists. Bentornati, from the staff at the grocery store. Bentornati and what vaccines did you get – from the florist. People knocked on our car window to say Bentornati! Bentornati and come for dinner – an invitation we promptly accepted.
This simple welcome back phrase made us feel immediately right at home. We felt surrounded by the affection and friendship that one is blessed to feel in a small town. Bentornati, ci sietemancato. Welcome back we missed you.
At least I’m not wearing an ankle monitor! How do Jack and I manage not to kill each other during our latest quarantine in Pontelandolfo? He reads, feeds the chickens and stares at the mountain. I ramble up and down the stairs of our chilly stone house, cook, stare at the mountain and remind myself it is only for ten days. Lets back up a wee bit. How did we get here? Why are we quarantining when tourists from the USA can take quarantine free flights?
After dealing with health issues and the Covid Crisis for what seemed like an eternity in New Jersey, we finally felt secure enough to travel back to our Pontelandolfo home. I knew I didn’t want to visit more than one airport and risk seething at wackadoos who refuse to wear masks in crowded spaces. That meant finding a flight directly to Rome and ordering a car service to drive us from one region to another. Finding the flight was easy. We bought tickets on United from Newark to Rome. Their website was incredibly helpful as were the reminder emails to do everything on the pre-boarding list. Besides the usual chaos promulgated by the TSA, everything at Newark Airport went smoothly. The mask mandate was followed by our fellow travelers. This brought joy to Jack since he wouldn’t be embarrassed by me giving the evil eye and a tongue lashing to anyone who was non-compliant. People were courteous and spatially conscious. Here is a look at that pre-boarding list –
Vaccines?Check – we both had our two doses of Moderna. They didn’t ask to see them but we had our cards ready. Actually, we provided the data in advance to United and the EU-PLF.
EU-PLF? Check – sounds like peeeyyuuuu stinky feet but it is the Passenger Locator Form that you have to keep on you. Passenger Locator Forms (PLFs) are digital and will help public health authorities do contact tracing. That means if someone on my flight had some infectious disease, the European Union/Italy could find me. The idea is to prevent the spread of disease. In Newark they just wanted to see the piece of paper with the bar code but no one scanned it. When we got to Rome no one scanned it either. I’ll keep the bar code in my wallet with the vaccine card.
Covid-19 Test 48 Hours Before Landing – Check – for $85 each we got our noses swabbed the afternoon before we left. I carried our negative test results and a United representative barely glanced at them.
Digital Health Pass Reservation – Check– we made appointments to get our noses tickled again by a doctor administrating a covid swab test in Rome. In Rome’s Fiumincino Airport this was really well organized and it only cost € 20 each. Why did it cost so much more in New Jersey? We were swabbed, waited about twenty minutes and given a certificate of a negative test. Hmm – what happens if the test is positive? I’m glad I didn’t have to find out.
Self-Declaration Form for Travel to Italy From Abroad– Check. Double Check and Tripple Check. I completed this form in English and in Italian. It states that I am not a denier – I get that there is Covid -19 and haven’t tested positive, took the swab test, will take a swab test in Rome, will self isolate and where you can find me climbing the walls during self isolation. NO ONE took the form! United staff glanced at it. On the plane they gave us another one to fill out. NO ONE took that form either. I tried to give it to the car service driver. He didn’t want it. I thought maybe Pontelandolfo wanted it. They wanted something different…
After going through Border Control, we went out front and found our driver. He waived a sign with our names on it, helped lug the luggage and made us comfortable in his clean Mercedes sedan. Anybody need a lift from Rome – www.autonoleggiocerrato.it! In a three hour super highway and winding hill road journey, we made it back to Pontelandolfo. Our masked family and friends who are like family, were waving at us from the other side of the street. Think parade of one car with social distancing. When we got in the house, our cupboard and refrigerator were both jammed packed with fresh vegetables, meat and the cheeses you can only get in the Sannio hills. Wine from the local vintner was peeking at us from a shelf. Thank you! Grazie a tutti!
We settled in, I couldn’t wait to go see the piazza! What, we can’t go see the piazza? Jack looked at me – “quarantine remember.” But we took the covid quarantine free plane? “Tough – the village expects it.”
It has been eight days. Only eight days. Soon it will be ten days. Quarantining is the right thing to do. We care too much about this village to be the bearers of evil infectious yuck. Besides, quarantining isn’t so bad when you have a view like this.
On a recent snowy night, I hunkered down to clean out a dusty over stuffed plastic tub. You know the kind – large, filled with files and memoribillia you will get to some day, covered with a snap on lid and left to fade in the back of a closet. I opened the tub, pulled out a batch of files when a folded cache of browning papers fell into my lap. Was it very old love notes from a high school beau? Or recipes in my beloved zia’s hand. Giggle, I slowly unfolded the cracked paper and saw the date – January 2009. Wow, it was a love note of sorts, my notes on an earlier trip to Alghero, Sardegna and Italian lessons at the fabulous Centro Mediterraneo Pintadera. Walk with me back to January, 2009 and take an armchair voyage.
We were excited to be heading back to Alghero. Never having been there in the winter we didn’t know what to expect. The city juts out into the sea. Walking the sea wall in the summer is bliss. Will it bluster in January?
On Saturday, January 3, 2009 – courtesy of air miles we flew Primo Classe on Alitalia from Newark to Rome. (In those days there were flights out of Newark, New Jersey.) I still use the little grey tweed makeup bags they gave us filled with mini stuff that I probably tossed. .
On Sunday, January 4, tired and still tipsy from all that Primo Classe booze we lugged our suitcases across the terminal to our jumper flight to Sardegna. We had an uneventful but cramped Air One flight to Alghero. (They went out of business in 2014.) A 25€ cab ride organized by Pintadera brought us directly to the apartment they had found for us. Pintadera co-owner, Nicola, met us with keys in hand. I looked at the steep staircase from the street leading up to the apartment, muttered bad words and lugged my suitcase up. Gasping for breath I walked in and saw the sea. The steps were worth it. Wow, we have an apartment with an ocean view. The terrace was tiny but a terrace. There was a twin bed with pillows in the front room, a chair or two, table and a kitchenette. The bedroom had a king-sized bed. For the amount of time we planned on staying there it was perfect.
I love Pintadera. This was our second trip to the school. We are so taken with the place and people, that I had organized a group of Italian language students from New Jersey to join us this time. Starting Monday, January 5, we had classes daily from 9:00 AM to 1:00 PM. The weather was perfect. Staring at the sea, sipping a cappuccino at a bar with a view was heavenly. January in Alghero means very few tourists, sales in the stores and lots of sun.
The queen of not doing enough research and just diving into travel, I really lucked out. The first week in January, Alghero was transformed into a cultural Mecca. We had no idea how important Epiphany was nor how involved the arts community would be. That Monday, after class we strolled the tiny cobble stone streets and alleys following the sounds of carolers. Sparkling arches of holiday lights topped the throngs out for a pre-epiphany passegiata. Itinerant volunteer actors dressed like La Befana or the three Kings could be found in every small piazza dispensing nuts and fruit to every child. Even us kids in our second acts!
Piazza Teatro lived up to its name. A troupe of wheelchair assisted and developmentally challenged actors costumed beautifully portrayed the manger scene. The love pouring out from every actor filled the piazza and my heart. Their focus and passion for the nativity brought the scene to life.
After a scrumptious dinner of roasted calamari and l’insalata at a nameless little spot we followed the sounds of six part harmony. Angelic male voices filled the air from Piazza Civica. The crowed surged there. It felt and sounded like there were hundreds of men dressed in black with white collared shirts singing in intricate harmonies. Traditional Sardo and spiritual songs wafted over the crowd as we trailed the singers from piazza to piazza. Choiristers sang a rousing march as they moved from spot to spot. I never found out if all of these musical artists were from Alghero.
La Befanas scampered about clutching brooms and tossing sweets at children. The the night before Epiphany, La Befana traditionally flies from house to house bringing candy to good children and carbone, coal, to evil monsters. Besides engaging with the crowds La Befana was also plastered on doors or hanging from lamp posts. (The universe must be kicking me. I just had finished yet another rewrite of my play “Mamma Mia – La Befana!??” when I found this picture. Hmm – time to start pitching that work???)
Often, other amateur actors appeared dressed as angels or in traditional Sardegna garb to entertain with stories, dance and pageantry. Music and art was everywhere.
After class one day, I saw a sign for a children’s theatre performance at Alghero’s opera house, Teatro Civica di Alghero. Built in 1829, the space is amazing. Think a jewel box version of Carnegie Hall with draped box seats surrounding the house. It is unique because it is the only Italian theater built entirely of wood. Lavish is an understatement. We ventured in and sat down in our box excited to see our first performance in Italy. It was the worst children’s theatre I have ever experienced in my life. Disclaimer, in the 1970s I was the director of a touring children’s theater company so I kind of know what works and what doesn’t. Here are just some of the reasons it was abysmal – for the first fifteen minutes the star – a middle aged curly haired sprightly woman stood on stage directing traffic to seats. Then the curtain opens – late of course – on an amateur cardboard set. Add to that bad lighting and a shared microphone and you have all the stuff you need for failure. I love audience participation and pre -show warm ups but this crew did a warm-up that lasted an hour. Then there was a brief pause and the scripted piece began and went on and on and on. The show started at 5:00 PM. We snuck out with many others at 7:00 PM and the show was still going on. Do I sound snarky? I love theater and it pains me to have troupes produce less than professional work for children. That said, seeing the interior of Teatro Civica was worth the distraction.
Early Wednesday mornings I took an early morning jaunt to the covered market. This market is classic. One whole section is just stall after stall of fish vendors. Sardegna is an island and Alghero sits right on the sea – perfect location for the freshest of fish. Fruit and vegetable stalls, ready-made treats and more filled the space. I love wandering the aisles and discovering what I will be cooking.
I love this city! We also loved the wine and local cheese plates we enjoyed in Ovella Negra, the grotto like bar below the apartment. (We have been back to Alghero many times since and sadly, this bar is no longer there.). The owner was a real foodie. He only served local fare and treated us like visiting royalty. During our two week stay, we did go there almost every single day so I could see why they treated us well. This particular night, I must have had an orgasmic food experience – why else would I have written down every morsel. We tend to share lots of small plates – think tapas style. First, he served us a fresh, unsalted goat cheese that was so light and creamy it must have been made by angels. With that, of course we had Cardegna, a dry white wine. Next, some room temperature small plates to warm ones heart of dried tuna and sword fish. Yup, caught off the coast. We tasted bottarga, Sardinian cured fish roe, for the first time. Now, we are bottarga junkies. Bottarga is cured, air-dried roe from flathead mullets and is a Sardinian staple. After dinner, we were given a glass of Mirto – a local digestivo. It is the national drink of Sardegna and made by infusing alcohol with fresh myrtle berries. Most nights we staggered up the stairs to our apartment. The stairs seem easier when I stagger.
Saturday, January 10th we took the train to Sassari. The train ticket was 3.80€ roundtrip. It was a twenty-minute walk to the train station from our center city apartment. The ancient train meandered through a valley and we were surrounded by mountains. Sheep, sheepdogs and olive groves completed the picture. They city of Sassari was reminiscent of any neighborhood in any major Italian city. Cobble stone streets, buildings that were built during the middle ages and – of course – one of the finest restaurants on the island. We had the best grilled calamari ever at the Trattoria Gesuino. Seriously, the best ever! So very tender – I can still taste it. We visited the Museo Nazionale “Giovanni Antonio Sanna.” This archeological museum was chock full of great finds – including glass from 200 BC. We will go back someday.
Every great day takes longer than you think. Gulp, we missed the last train back. Thanks to that snafu we experienced even more of the island on the bus. The bus was 3€ – bella vista – we saw hills, small towns and more sheep. No wonder the local cheese is so fantastic! The bus meandered through villages the train passed by. We were dropped off in the park by the city wall. It was a shorter walk back to the apartment. Which of course we didn’t enter, going down to the bar instead.
Life in Alghero for educational tourists like us is magical. We didn’t know what to expect in January – except cheaper prices – and were happily surprised by the temperature, holiday culture and the food. Since I kept that journal in 2009, we have been back to Pintadera at least four additional times. We love the sea, the food, the people and of course Centro Mediterraneo Pintadera. We will return – perhaps we will see you there too.
The sky outside was grey, but my kitchen was bright and filled with the laughter and joy of Pontelandolfo’s Carmela Fusco. Disclaimer – Carmela is my talented cooking cousin. Was Carmela literally in my kitchen? Nope, we were testing the concept of a virtual cooking class. From sunny Italy, Carmela led students thousands of miles away through the process of making bignè, the airy pastry you need for profiteroles!
I felt like a cooking idiot when, during the process, I realized that profiteroles – I had only ever seen stacked in a pyramid and covered with dripped chocolate – were literally the favorite dessert of my youth. Chocolate covered cream puffs! My mother, bless her soul, used to make them for special occasions. I never tried, but when I needed a mom hug, I would buy a box of Boston Cream Pie mix and get almost the same creamy taste. It wasn’t the same but I could feel the love.
Something else I learned, was that bignè is also called choux pastry. There isn’t any yeast or raising agent in the dough. It has a high moisture content that creates steam and that puffs the pastry. Isn’t the science of food grand?
Carmela’s daughter Annarita Mancini, as she does for our Cooking in the Kitchens of Pontelandolfo program, was there to translate. Those of us gathered around our tablets trying to make bignè study Italian with Annarita and vowed not to ask for her help. Gulp, I needed her help. I mean, I have only been trying to learn Italian for twenty years, cut me a break. This wasn’t just a cooking class. This was a chance to use the Italian we had been studying in a real-world situation. What could be a better place to practice our language skills than Cooking in the Kitchens of Pontelandolfo? (Admission – when we obviously didn’t quite get what Carmela was saying, Annarita jumped in.)
I am only going to talk about the first step towards the light, cream filled profiteroles – making the bignè. This is the small pastry of a cream puff. Carmela told me that the neat thing about her bignè is that you can stuff it with sweet or savory fillings. She doesn’t add sugar, as I think my mom did, into the pastry. The ingredients are:
150 grams acqua – water
80 grams burro – butter
150 grams farina – flour
5 – 6 uova – eggs
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius .
Prep a cookie sheet with a piece of parchment paper.
Even though we got the ingredient list sent to us, there was a wee dilemma changing the metric measures into the British Imperial System on the fly. Correct, I had no idea that cups, ounces and pounds were part of something called the British Imperial System. Cripes, it even sounds like empire building. One learns something new every day. Time to work on my math skills or have the conversion app open on my phone.
We put the water in a big pot on the unlit stove and added all the butter. Then we turned the heat on high and melted the butter. It takes a long time to melt that much butter. When it finally melted and had little boiling bubbles we added the flour a little at a time. (Other recipes on line said dump all the flour in at once – Carmela was meticulous about drizzling the flour in.) KEEP STIRRING. This part requires a strong arm. Who needs a gym – you have a kitchen! When the dough started to cling together in a ball and no longer stuck to the pot, we turned off the heat. We stirred the dough a bit more – with Carmela warning us, “not too much we don’t want it to cool. Now, crush it so it isn’t a ball.” What?? We just stirred until our arms ached and made the bloody ball – now I have to crush it? We smooshed our balls.
This next part was kind of magical and required eyes that saw the nuances of color. We added an egg and blended it into the dough until the color of the dough was the color it was before we added the egg. When your arm starts to scream, get someone else to take a turn stirring. Finally, the color will be same as it was. Then add the second egg and repeat the process. Yup, it is a long process but the results – delicious. Once again, when the color was the same as it was before the second egg we tossed in egg number three.
No, you are crying not again! Why didn’t we just toss all the eggs in at once? Carmela pointed out it might seem easier to add all the eggs at once but the secret for a cloud like bignè is to do it this way. The dough needs time to absorb each egg. I think this should be a team sport – like a relay with someone else there to take a stirring turn. They could also keep the Prosecco glasses full.
We were laughing out loud as we tried to show Carmella our dough by tilting our iPads and phones towards our pots without dropping them in. Stop laughing! Add egg number four! We repeated the process and then added the fifth and final egg.
Whew, this was the hardest part. Where is that prosecco?
Using a spatula we cleaned the sides of the pot by drawing all the sticky dough to the center in a ball like pile. Now, taking two tablespoons, we attempted to drop the dough in cute balls on the prepared cookie sheet. Carmela is a master at this, she rolled the dough back and forth and created balls. She pointed out they didn’t have to be perfect. Misshapen was fine – except all of hers were perfect and all of mine looked a lot less than perfect.
Carmela said, “Make sure you leave space between the globs. With all those eggs the pastry will rise. When our nonnas made this pasta they used their hands to mix the dough – even though it was really hot.” Hmmm, maybe that is where I got my asbestos hands.
Almost done. Put the tray of bignè into the pre-heated oven for about 20 minutes. They will grow and get a warm toasty color. They really do grow! Well not everyone’s grew we did have a batch that kind of looked like tasty hockey pucks.
When you take these lovelies out of the oven and they have cooled you can slice them and use them for light little tea sandwiches or invite me over because you are filling them with a decadent cream and topping them with chocolate. Yummy.
We all had a great time giggling, groaning and cooking with Carmela. Can’t wait until the pandemic is over and we can really be with her in her kitchen!