Wearing the American Flag

All four walls of this boutique were decorated in red, white and blue

Here’s a little follow-up to yesterday’s observations on Italian summer fashion.  I first noticed this trend at the swimming pool, but the colors come out in full force during the evening passeggiata.  Italian men, women, and children are wearing the American flag.  And it’s not just limited to shirts.  The stars and stripes are blazoned on bikinis, scarves, hats, shorts, skirts, tanks, and sweatshirts.  On Corso Vannucci alone, there are at least 10 window displays that include Old Glory apparel.  At first I expected to see familiar slogans attached like, “Don’t tread on me”, “These colors don’t run”, and “Freedom isn’t free”.  Instead, the Italians seem to pair the flag with hearts.  In fact, it’s not uncommon to find the flag in the shape of a heart.

From my limited experience here in Perugia,  I’ve found that the Italians love all things American.  The first question people ask once a conversation starts is, “Where are you from?”  When we answer the United States, they smile; they light up; they often swoon.  “My dream is to see America!” is a typical response.  This favorable impression has been reassuring.  When we arrived, I expected to encounter a little chill.  I didn’t know how the Italians felt about the war, fast food, or giant Starbucks lattes.   I worried there may be blame and negative judgement directed at us.  All those fears are at rest; people are nicer to us once they learn we are American.

However, I still wanted to find out what the flag craze is all about.  So this week, I went into a store and asked the shop keeper if she could explain its popularity.  She said that it started last fall when Ralph Lauren featured the American flag on some of his clothes.  Ralph Lauren is a big deal, she continued.  Italians love his line, so when he added this little design, it exploded.  The flag has been very popular since November.  By the way, I’m not a big follower of the fashion giants like Ralph Lauren.  I tried to learn more about this pivotal fall insignia, but my search has revealed nothing.  Let me know if you’re familiar with what she’s talking about.  Until then, I’ll resist buying Matt a red, white and blue speedo.

This shopkeeper told me she had just recently sold out of this shirt.

 

La Passeggiata (plus summer fashion)

Corso Vannucci intersects the historic center of Perugia just one block from our apartment.  This is the main street – a pedestrian only street – where Perugians take their evening stroll (la passeggiata).  In every Italian city beginning every night around 6:30 pm, the energy of the town goes up a couple notches.  The women dress up.  The men might dress up.   Friends, couples and families join the crowds for a couple hours before dinner.  It’s the most vibrant time of the day.  We can hear the noise from our windows.  When we look outside, the gelato line extends past the doors.  The outside cafes start to fill up.  The streets crowd with people walking slowly from “Piazza Italia” to “Piazza IV Novembre” and back again.   Often they’ll pause, light a cigarette, and look in a fancy window display or stop for an aperitif (more on that later this week.)  It’s hard to resist.  As we join in the parade, we realize it’s not about the destination (because, like I said, you just go up and down the street).  Instead, it’s about seeing and being seen. It marks the festive transition from the work day to an enjoyable evening.  It’s about getting a second wind before you start cooking in a hot kitchen.  And for us, it’s also an introduction to Italian fashion.  I don’t pretend to be an expert on dressing well (I just got rid of my fanny pack a few years ago) but here are a few observations.

A view towards “Piazza Italia”

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A view from the opposite direction, looking towards “Piazza IV Novembre.” (I think metallic is in. And smoking has always been in here in Italy)

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Skinny jeans and bright colors.  Pop.

 

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Pastels

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Lots of bright pink polo shirts on the men

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Ankle boots with skirts and dresses

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Ankle boots with shorts (on the younger crowd)

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Coordinating shoes and handbags

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Classic black

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Big, bold necklaces. Even mom’s shirt is wearing one.

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Sandals that cover the ankles.

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Animal prints and colorful pants. Also, notice the man’s hat. (More on that tomorrow)

Italian Grocery Shopping: the deli and fruit stand

This is my favorite thing to do in Perugia.  I love grocery shopping.  I love that the fruit stand, fishmonger, butcher, baker, and deli are all within a five minute walk from our apartment.  I only buy what I need for the day  because   1. it’s too tiring to carry more than one bag up our six flights of stairs and  2. it’s just fun.  It’s my best chance to practice the language, meet people, and learn how to cook the local dishes.

This morning I started at Il Parma.  They sell cheeses, cured meats, drinks, pantry foods and dairy.  The owner’s name is Armando.  Near him, Alessandro slices meats, and Francesco rings up the bill. I don’t bring a grocery list anymore, I just tell them what I’d like to make.  Armando told me he’s a great cook, so I just follow his directions.  Today I wanted to make amatriciana, a simple red sauce.  As he weighed seven thick slices of pancetta, he pointed out the type of pasta and tomato sauce I should buy.  Then he explained how it was prepared:   Heat a little olive oil in a pan and then add half of a small chopped onion.  After a few minutes, cut the pancetta into small pieces and let it cook for five minutes with the onion. Then add a generous pour of white wine and turn up the heat until the alcohol burns off.  Next, add a jar of tomato puree and let it simmer for an hour, adding water along the way so it doesn’t get too thick.  When it’s dinner time, cook the spaghetti, and then add the drained noodles to the sauce with plenty of pecorino Romano.

When I left, he said that next time, he’ll teach me how to make perfect spaghetti carbonara.

Then I needed some meats and cheeses for our lunch.  Alessandro sliced a couple of the boys’ favorite choices, then I pointed to an especially dark salumi and asked about it.  “That is bresaola.  It’s cured beef, not pork.  Serve it on a bed of arugula with shavings of Parmesan cheese and a drizzle of olive oil.  You can finish it with squeeze of lemon,” he explained.

Armando and Alessandro

Bresaola served on arugula

On my way out the door, Francesco gave me the ingredients to make panna cotta, a cream based dessert served with fruit preserves.  He handed me his recipe.

Then I walked to the covered market which has a beautiful array of fruit and vegetable stands.  I usually go to Grifo Fruta.  Marcello recognizes us and always offers the boys a peach or a banana.  He gave Ray an entire cantaloup for his birthday.  Again, I don’t bring a list.  I ask him for suggestions.  Lately, I’ve been loving fruit salads, called macedonia.  If that’s what I’m making, Marcello fills a bag with plums, nectarines, kiwis, grapes, pears, peaches, and melon.  He also adds a lemon and an orange for me to squeeze on top.  We had the best macedonia in Mantua last week.  The fruit salad was served in tiny cut-up pieces.  It looked like a bowl full of jewels.  That’s how I’ve been making it here in Perugia.  We toss it with a couple tablespoons of sugar, and it makes a really good dessert.

Ray and I with Marcello at Grifo Frutta

Road Trip (last stop): Mantua

There have been a couple spontaneous decisions during this little trip, one of them being our  final destination.  When we asked for suggestions before leaving Bellagio, the waiter, hotel manager and pool guy unanimously agreed we should visit Mantua (Mantova in Italian.)  So we set off.  Before today, all I knew about Mantua was that Romeo was forced to move there after killing Tybalt.  But now I also know that roast donkey is the local specialty.  And I know what it tastes like, too.

As soon as we arrived, we booked a tour with Daniele.  He’s a guide we found on the internet.  The first stop was the Cathedral of Sant’ Andrea.  This is a pretty big church for such a small town.  But there’s a good reason.  Daniele explained: Back when Jesus was nailed to the cross, some drops of blood fell to the earth.  They were later collected in a jar and brought to Mantua.  This church was built to house the holy relics.  Unfortunately the containers were lost over the years.  But fortunately, they were found again in a different area in Mantua.  And so another cathedral was built.

We didn’t get to see the blood because there was an earthquake last May and many of the rooms which display art and artifacts are under renovation.  But we’ll be back because this was one of our favorite Italian towns so far.  I loved the tiny winding streets, the four interconnecting piazzas, the pumpkin tortelloni, the sparking red wine , and the lady who owns the hotel where we stayed.  Our one-night excursion turned into two.  But I would have liked to stay for a week.

On Sunday evening, our northern Italian trip ended.  We arrived home to find a dead bat on the living room floor.  Later that night, the power went out.  Matt was able to find the fuse box on the ground floor while I stayed in the apartment.  We communicated with text messages until the proper switch was flipped.  And after hiking back up six flight of stairs, it went off again.  It was definitely time to open that souvenire bottle of lambrusco we brought back from Mantua.

Road Trip (part 2) Bellagio

Filling up at the gas station

After two nights in Bologna, we drove nearly 3 hours north to Lake Como, and after a horrible 30 kilometer drive down a one-lane road with a million turns, we arrived at Bellagio (not the real Bellagio in Las Vegas, but the Italian Bellagio.)  This little town rests at the tip of a lush green peninsula that jettisons into Lake Como.   Our guide books pronounced Bellagio “the prettiest Italian town”.  Truly, there is nothing like it.  The lake is narrow and deep and long.  The cliffs rise from the water into tall mountains.  We are nearly in Switzerland, and it’s easy to imagine how the steep precipices morph into Alps.

A view from our hotel

We spent three nights here.  During the day we swam in the pool with the Germans, Swiss, French, and English.    There was hardly anyone speaking Italian; they must have gone somewhere else for vacation.  (Certainly not Perugia or Bologna.)  But we got along with all the other nice tourists.  An English family taught us a new card game.  It was perfect for the four of us: easy to learn, entailed a bit of strategy and can be played in about 10 minutes.  A hit.  It’s called “Sevens”.  To play, deal out a deck of cards to three or more people.  Arrange your cards in numerical order by suits.  Aces are low.  Whoever has the seven of diamonds begins the game by laying his card face-up on the table thus starting a stack of diamonds which will be played in ascending and descending order.   The player to his left then plays either a six of diamonds by placing it below the seven or an eight of diamonds by placing it above.  He may also set down one of the other three sevens and begin a new pile in that suit.  The game continues clockwise.  Players must add cards in ascending and descending order and by suit.  If someone can’t play, he passes.  The object of the game is to be rid of your cards first.  Strategy is introduced when a player tries to suspend play for the others by holding onto a card.  For instance, if I have more than one option to play, I will decide which card is the most important for others to be able to play, and then hold onto it.  I would choose to play a king before a 10 because a 10 would then allow the jack then queen then king to be played.  Players must play a card if they can.  (No optional passes.)  Hope that makes sense.  Post questions on the comment bar.  Here’s a photo of the game as it nears an end:

What Bellagio lacks in ancient ruins, Renaissance influence, and an adventurous atmosphere, it makes up for it all in pretty flowers and great food.  We ate fresh fish caught daily from the lake, the creamiest risotto ever, and a meat sauce that rivaled Bologna’s.  And we always had an appetizer of gelato around 6:00.

 

Road Trip (part 1) Bologna

Perugia was feeling empty.  Many stores and cafes are closed till September.  August is the month when Italians pack up their bags and head to the beach. So we thought we’d take a little vacation too (even though we are already on vacation).  Avis gave us a good deal on this Fiat 500, so we rented it for a month.  It’s like a minivan in many ways.  Deciding on an itinerary was hard, so we limited our destinations to northern Italian towns in Emilia Romagna and Lombardy.  With a couple guide books, our GPS, and the camera, we set off for a five-day trip.  (That was seven days ago.  We’re still not back.)

Our first stop was Bologna, birthplace of  . . . bologna!  Yes, the ubiquitous pink lunch meat was invented here under the name “mortadella.”  (However, I think that after the introduction to America, it underwent some unfortunate modifications.)  Curious to sample the real deal, upon arrival, I ordered a plate of mortadella and Parmesan cheese.  It was . . . actually, I was a little let-down.  The Parmesan, however, was wonderful.  It’s made nearby in Parma.

Look beyond the boloney special.  Notice the plate of deliciousness that Ray is eating.  That’s spaghetti Bolognese.  He had a hard time fighting me off.

Bologna has several other specialties as well, one being tortellini.  They are on the menu of every restaurant.  The most common preparation is tortellini in brodo, a simple bowl of ricotta stuffed pasta in a rich, clear broth.  The origin of tortellini is actually pretty interesting.  It turns out that hundreds of years ago (maybe thousands) Venus, the goddess of love and beauty, took a summer vacation to Bologna.  After she checked into her hotel, she decided to have a little nap.  The chef of a nearby restaurant heard that the famous goddess was staying, so he thought he’d introduce himself.  But when he arrived at her door, he got nervous.  Instead of politely knocking, he took a little peek through the key hole.  Venus was asleep on her bed (naked, of course).  The chef caught a glimpse of her belly button and was inspired to commemorate this delicate feature for his dinner.  Thus, tortellini was invented.

Besides eating, which we did a lot of in Bologna, we spent time sight seeing.  We visited the Duomo, a massive unfinished church that was originally going to exceed the the size of St. Peter’s in Rome.  However, the church leaders decided to use the money to build Europe’s first university.  But their motives were not entirely scholastic.  The Pope was nervous about the scientific teachings that were taking place in the homes of the local professors.  So the university was built as a way to monitor the lessons and make sure that no courses on astronomy were taught.  (It was scandalous to consider that anything other than Planet Earth was the center of the universe.)  As time went on, however, perspectives evolved.  The university’s reputation expanded, and it became a prestigious center for learning.  One of the most famous rooms in the university is the dissection room.  In here, one can sit around the table where dead bodies were opened up and studied.

Among all these restaurants, markets, and famous buildings sit the two main piazzas in Bologna: Piazza Maggiore and Piazza del Nottuno.  Here we admired the famous fountain of Neptune and his mermaids.  And here, Ray raced across the huge open square trying for a personal best.  His record was 10.4 seconds.

Tom and Neptune’s fountain

Going for a record

Another view of Piazza Maggiore. Apparently, most of the Bolognese are all on vacation too.  Next stop:  Lake Como

Wild Waves of Perugia

Make no mistake, if it were up to me, I would have chosen a charming medieval hill town to explore, maybe buy a postcard and a glass of wine.  But I’m just one vote.  So on Thursday, we piled in the Fiat and drove to the Tavernella Water Park, just 25 minutes from our apartment.  We arrived at this technicolor oasis in time to get one of the last umbrellas.  The boys quickly put on swim caps and headed up the hill to slide. Matt ordered us a cold glass of sparking wine while I unpacked our beach bag.  A giant portion soon arrived in a keg cup.  And here we played until closing at 7pm.  I humbly admit that it turned out to be the best day we’ve had all week.  The boys were super happy.  And the watersides were fast and fun.

Tom heads down backwards.

yes, that’s a speedo

Required swim caps in all Italian public pools

 

 

 

Pasta alla Norcina

Yesterday started off pretty rocky.  The boys miss friends.  I mean that in the general sense.  They miss having kids to play with.  There just aren’t many around.  The other day at lunch, Tom saw a family sit down to eat.  There were four boys.  “Kids!” he pointed, as if they were an extinct species in Europe.  Then yesterday, Ray was trying to learn some Italian phrases.  The two he practiced were, “Do you want to be my friend?” and “Do you want to play with me?”  So we jumped at the invitation to have dinner at my friend Sara’s house last night.  She has an 8-month-old!   Sara lives in Seattle.  I use to meet her weekly for Italian lessons.  But this month she is in Perugia visiting her parents.

We arrived at 7:30.  Sara offered the boys Coke Zero and poured prosecco for us.  Tom asked to use the bathroom and got him self locked inside for a little while.  Sara’s dad found the master key to the house and was finally able to let him out.  A short lesson on unlocking the door ensued.  Another round of Coke Zero was served, then Sara suggested we call her cousins to meet the boys.  This was great news, and everyone jumped to life when 3-year-old Francesco and 10-year-old Mattia arrived.  Ray and Tom started practicing their italian with them.  I heard Ray use one of his newly learned phrases.  Then they started playing catch.  It was an absolute heartbreak when, less than five minutes later, their mamma called them home for dinner.  However, we still had Sara’s baby, so we sat around and tried to teach him “Little Bunny Foo Foo.”

Soon, dinner was served.  Sara made a couple traditional Umbrian dishes.  This usually means lots of meat and lots of salt.  We started off with Pasta alla Norcina. Tom took a bite and said it was wonderful.  He had two servings before realizing this was just the first course.  Sara explained how it was made:

1.  In a pan, place three cloves of finely chopped garlic with a generous pour of olive oil and some salt.  Add 4 oz or so of chopped crimini mushrooms.  Saute until the mushrooms are soft.  Taste the mushrooms and make sure they have enough salt.

2.  Remove 3 sausages from their casings and break them up into pieces while adding them to the pan.   Cook until done.

3.  Add a cup of heavy cream.  Heat until warm.  Add 2/3  pound penne pasta.  Stir the sauce and pasta together and serve with parmesan cheese.

The second course was lombo alle erbe e pancetta.  Equally delicious.  It was some of the juiciest and flavorful pork tenderloin I’ve had.  Sara explained how it was prepared:

1.  In a food processor, blend five cloves of garlic, the leaves from several stems of fresh rosemary and sage, some salt and pepper.  Rub it all over a pork tenderloin.

2.  On a baking sheet, spread out 4 ounces of pancetta and then place the pork tenderloin on top.  Roll up the tenderloin in the pancetta.

3.  Bake in a 350 degrees oven for about an hour.  Cool slightly, slice and serve.

When we were on our second serving of pork tenderloin, La Signora brought down another platter of meat.  As she placed a piece on my plate, Sara whispered in my ear, “I don’t like this meat; it’s raw pork.”  Then Sara politely declined a serving.  I’m kind of a when-in-Rome type of person, so I cut a piece off and tasted.  It was great.  I told Sara and she took a closer look.  “OH, that’s not what I thought it was.  That’s raw veal.”

The next course was salad.  Sara tossed a green salad with lettuce from her father-in-law’s garden.   We each had a serving then were offered fresh tomatoes and chopped red onions.  As we were finishing, two of Sara’s friends came over for dessert.

Someone suggested that we sit outside in the fresh air while we eat dessert.  So Il Dottore made coffee for everyone.  I politely declined saying that if I drank coffee this late, I wouldn’t be able to sleep.  Il Dottore laughed and said that was a myth.  “Coffee doesn’t keep anyone up!”  La Signora dished up ice cream, and we sat under the stars.

Pasta with Sardines

Chef Piero and his assistant Ernesto making sauce

Piero and Ernesto stir the sauce . . .

We spent five days in Taormina with the Halls.  During the hot afternoons, we sat for hours under the sun with a deck of cards.  We never dealt a hand until a punishment had been decided for the two losers (nothing too painful, just enough to keep the games competitive).  Some examples: fetch drinks for the winners, call a taxi when needed, wear a speedo for the day, get train supplies, plan dinner, make reservations, wear something embarrassing to the restaurant, etc.  But the best bet was paid after Matt and Lynn lost a close game of spades and were in charge of the evening’s entertainment.

On the way to dinner, they announced how a cooking demonstration had been arranged just up the street with the chef at Trattoria Rosticepi.  It was there that we had eaten a plate of pasta with sardines that was out of this world.  I couldn’t believe it.  Matt described how Lynn talked her way past some daunting resistance from the chef’s family when they initially asked to learn the recipe.  However, when we arrived, the staff (all family) were so incredibly gracious to us.  There was barely enough room in the small, hot kitchen for the adults, so the kids hung out at our table.  The hostess gave us each a chef hat and introduced us to Piero, our teacher for the evening.

Without wasting a moment, Piero pulled out a piece of fish from the fridge and first taught us how to make swordfish carpaccio.  With expressive hand gestures and unwavering confidence in his voice, he described for us, in no uncertain terms, the precise way of making a perfect appetizer:

Using a mandolin, thinly slice 5 pieces of swordfish and arrange them on a plate.  (Piero freezes his fish in order to slice it easily.)

Generously salt the fish and then squeeze plenty of fresh lemon all over.

Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and serve immediately.

The swordfish was so delicious it warrants buying a mandolin, if only for this purpose.

Next we gathered around the stove for a lesson on cooking pasta with sardines  (There is a photo of this dish on the previous blog post):

In a saucepan, add some extra virgin olive oil, a big spoonful of diced red onions, a handful of chopped wild fennel tops, a big pour of white wine, a pinch of flour, some salt, and a sprinkle of saffron.  Slowly cook for an hour.  This makes a pretty green sauce that can be made ahead and used when you are ready to make dinner.

In another saucepan, heat some extra virgin olive oil, salt, a scoop of pine nuts, some raisins, about 7 fresh sardines or fresh anchovies (not jarred or canned) and plenty of the green sauce.  Bring to a simmer.

Cook dried pasta in boiling water with a sprinkle of flour and a cup of the green sauce.  Before the pasta is finished cooking, drain the water and add it to the green sauce to finish.  Add more sardines or anchovies with the pasta.  Serve al dente with plenty of finely crumbled fresh breadcrumbs.

Throughout the process, Piero sampled the flavor and doneness of the ingredients.  He offered us tastes along the way, adamant that we learn each step just right.  What an honor.  We left with a ton of respect for the man as well as an appreciation for the passionate Sicilian attention to food.

Top Ten of Taormina

We’ve spent the last five days in Sicily with the Halls. It began on Sunday with an overnight train from Rome.   By 8:30 on Monday, we arrived in Taormina, a beautiful town tucked into a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.  There were a couple glitches with our hotel rooms, but the staff made up for it with some fancy upgrades.  And here we’ve spent our days on a little vacation in the most southern region of Italy.

Except for some awesome restaurant suggestions, we’ve ignored most of the local recommendations, choosing instead to play cards by the pool all day.   So while there may be some pretty important sites and attractions we’ve missed, there are no regrets about the following highlights of our visit.

1.  The Poolside.  It’s been 95 degrees every day.  The pool is perched above an expansive view of the sea and the nearby beach town of Naxxos.  It is surrounded with lounge chairs and umbrellas.  And there is a bar and restaurant which serve platters of antipasto and a full lunch from 11 to 4.  We spend at least six hours here every afternoon.

2.  Mt. Etna.  This is the tallest active volcano in Europe.  It’s right up the hill from us.  It’s been smoking constantly since we arrived.

3.  Marmalade.  Citrus is a Sicilian specialty.  Always within arm’s reach of our poolside chairs, there grow lemon trees.  Oranges garnish our apertivos.  And the first decision I make every morning is what to spread on my toast at breakfast.  The kitchen has a display of seven big jars of marmalade including blond orange, blood orange, bitter orange, lemon, and mandarin orange. (There is also a jar of fig and prickly pear jam.)

4.  The Mediterranean Sea.   We ventured beyond the hotel once for a little outing.  On Wednesday, we booked a two-hour excursion on a boat to see Taomina’s Blue Grotto and swim in the salty, blue Mediterranean Sea.  This is the cleanest, prettiest water ever.

5.  Sardine Pasta.  This is one of the best plates of pasta I’ve had since we arrived in Italy three weeks ago.  Sardines.  Go figure.

6.  The View.  From our hotel room or on a walk to dinner, you see it all from Taormina.

7.  The Halls.   Being with friends during this past week has been the highlight.  The boys are happy all the time.   They have two of their best friends to hang out with all day.  And at this age, they are so independent.   We even get them their own table at dinner.  And for me, one of the best things about being with Deac and Lynn is how much we all laugh.   It is such a good feeling to have my stomach tired from all the laughing.  Their visit came at such a perfect time to break up all the work we’ve been doing while trying to move and settle in to Perugia.

That’s not quite 10, but like I said, we’ve sacrificed some of the sites for an extra game of cards or another drink by the pool.  No regrets.