Italian Stars

Milena and Sergio on top of the world

Milena and Sergio on top of the world

We’re in the Dolomites.  We are surrounded by towering, jagged, snow dusted mountains.  Specifically we are staying outside of Cortina d’Ampezzo in northern Italy with friends from Perugia who come here during their winter vacations. They are giving us the red carpet treatment.  We are seeing things, tasting foods and visiting places we would never have experienced on our own.

Milena and Sergio found a hotel for us near their cabin.  We are tucked in the woods. We wake up to coral sunrises on the powdered sugar mountain peeks.  It’s a fairy tale.  During the first day here, we rode a chairlift to a nearby sledding park.  The kids were required to wear helmets which turned out to be a good thing because Tom took off before mastering the the lesson on “brakes.”  Moments later we watched the second biggest wipe-out of the day.  Matt raced down quickly and put the pieces back together.

less than a minute before the crash

I hung out with the less adventurous where we watched the sledding and joined in the tradition of drinking cups of “bombardini” (little bombs) which are a delicious mixture of hot rum, eggs, sugar, and cream.

Our friend Chiara serves a round

Over one of these bombardinis, we met a good friend of Sergio who lives here year-round.  He and Sergio share a passion for astronomy.  We got to talking about stars and quickly came to recognize that their shared passion extends well beyond a hobby.  Alessandro devotes much of his time to Cortina’s planetarium and mountain-top observatory.  Sergio started working with him about 12 years ago.   Then in 2009, Sergio created a computer program that allows anyone in the world to manipulate Cortina’s impressive telescope via the internet.  Through this program, one can search for  planets and supernovas at home (with the understanding that all findings be reported back to the observatory, of course).

Sergio asked Alessandro how things were going since they last spoke.  Alessandro announced that on December 24 he discovered another supernova.  Congratulations were given, and then plans were made to take all of us stargazing that night.

But the highlight began with our moonlit walk to the Col Druscie Observatory.  After a short drive up the mountains from Cortina, we left our car and hiked 30 minutes up a snowy trail to the peak.

View of Cortina from the observatory.  (Photo courtesy of Alessandro Dimai

View of Cortina from the observatory. (Photo courtesy of Alessandro Dimai

We entered the control room and ascended to the dome where the equipment is housed.  One by one we then climbed a ladder to peer through the lens of the telescope.  Alessandro pointed it first to the moon and cautioned us to take short turns so we didn’t damage our retinas with the brightness.  Then we looked at Betelgeuse and finally Jupiter and its moons.  Between visual destinations, we asked hundreds of questions ranging from the magnitude of the universe to the age of stars to the composition of comets.  My uncle showed such aptitude for astronomy that Alessandro and Sergio took a break in the stargazing session to open an account for him on Sergio’s on-line program, “Sky on the Web”.  It turned out to be just as interesting to observe the workings of this website.  And now my uncle can aim Cortina’s telescope anywhere he wants and download his own pictures of the heavens.

Col Druscie Observatory (Photo courtesy of Alessandro Dimai

Col Druscie Observatory (Photo courtesy of Alessandro Dimai

Sergio, Matt and Alessandro  in the observatory with the kids

Sergio, Matt and Alessandro in the observatory with the kids

The control room:  a tutorial on

The control room: a tutorial on

It wasn’t until 9:30 pm when we finally recognized how hungry we were.  We slid down the mountain on our coats and ended up at the coziest restaurant imaginable warmly perched on the secluded mountainside.  We tasted three northern Italian specialties including beet ravioli, bread balls in broth, and deer gnocchi.  The kids stuck with buttered noodles and then started falling asleep.  We were all in bed by midnight.

While it seemed impossible to compete with the rare opportunity of the night before, Sergio and Milena succeded.  On our last day in Cortina, we met for lunch at Malga Misurina, a dairy farm outside of town.  The driveway was so snowy and slippery that we needed a forklift to rescue us and bring us the top of the hill where everyone else was waiting to order lunch.

the snow tow

The six of us at Malga Misurina

Everything we ate had been grown or raised on the farm.  We shared ten plates of cheeses, salami, sausages, pork ribs, polenta, bread balls with speck, and cabbage salad.  Later, we took a snowmobile–pulled sled beyond the tree line to the summit of Tre Cime and then rode individual sleds down a 1-mile course. It’s hard to describe.  It was fast.  It was fun.  It was incredible.

At the peek

The ride down.  Tom steering with his boots


Christmas Chickens, Hats and Hunchbacks

It’s Christmas Day.

We celebrated in the morning with the annual routine:  wake up excited, open presents and then play.

Puzzles from Santa

Then the afternoon focused around local traditions.  As with every holiday in Italy, it’s all about cooking and eating. Months ago I started consulting friends and store owners and anyone I could talk to.  We found that three dishes comprise the traditional Perugian Christmas dinner.  Each recipe was described with swooning detail and passion.  I tried to listen carefully and take notes.  Each one sounded difficult, and they all required hours to prepare.   So we started early.  The past several days were full of visits to the butcher, the grocer and the vegetable market. This was followed by prep sessions in the kitchen.  Together with Matt, Tom and Heidi, we faced a handful of obstacles and put our heads together when problems needed solving.  We moderated recipes and finally made a delicious Perugian Christmas feast.

Preparing vegetables and meat for a stock

1.  Capelletti and Brodo  (little hats in broth)

I practiced making this one back in September.  I wrote the recipe in a post on pasta.  It’s the easiest of the three Christmas courses.  While the broth takes about three hours to cook, it can be made ahead and kept in the refrigerator.  And with Cristiano down the street, I can skip making the capelletti by hand and just watch him make them.  (It felt like cutting corners, but everyone else is doing it.)   So this afternoon, we started with a bowl of capelletti and broth; our first course.

2.  Galantina (Christmas Chicken with a cup of gelled broth)

This dish is considered very Perugian.  Armando at the grocery store assured me that it’s so provincial that you won’t even find it served in nearby Assisi. Basically, it’s a whole skinned and deboned chicken that is then ground with veal, prosciutto, pistachios, eggs, parmesan cheese, salt and nutmeg. Then all the ingredients are wrapped up in the chicken skin and sewed up with a regular needle and thread before being boiled for two hours, pressed under a heavy weight for another hour and then chilled overnight.   People looked at me skeptically when I said I was making it.  “It’s very difficult,” they reminded me.  Rinaldo, the butcher, walked me through it.  He deboned my chicken and removed the skin in one entire piece.  He ground all my meat for me and explained the process.

Stuffing the skin

Stuffing the skin

Tom sewed like a surgeon

Tom sewed like a surgeon.

3.  Gobbi Parmesan (layered hunchback with meat sauce and cheese)

“Gobbi” means hunchback in Perugian dialect.  In Italian it’s “cardi.” In English it translates to “cardoon.”  It’s a member of the artichoke family.  When it’s ready to be picked, it falls over a bit, resembling a hunchback.  Anyway, I made the meat sauce for the dish several days ago.  Then yesterday I went to Marcello’s vegetable stand to get my gobbies.  But there were none left.  Apparently, no one waits until Christmas Eve to start preparations on this bad boy.  There was one produce seller with a couple boxes left, but they were wilted and brown.  So I decided to make eggplant parmesan instead.  In doing so, I bypassed hours of gobbi cleaning, stripping, and boiling.  And the final product looks similar.

the word in Italian is "brutto"

Heidi fries the eggplant

It all came together this afternoon.  We poured prosecco and toasted to being together and our attempts at creating an authentic Italian Christmas dinner.


A plate of galantina and meat gel.  Trust me, it was great.

The evening is winding down.  Aunt Deanne and Uncle Richard gave us the six Star Wars movies for Christmas.  We are already on the second one. Merry Christmas and lots of love from Perugia.

One Beer in “Perugia” (written by Tom, Jill’s uncle)

written by guest blogger Tom, Jill’s uncle

This is me

This is me.

I’m Jill’s uncle.  My wife and I live in Oregon on a hazelnut farm.  When Jill and Matt invited us to visit them during their year away from Seattle, we were honored.  Even though the price of gasoline had gotten pretty high and Pullman, Washington was a full day’s drive from our farm, we thought, why not?  It can’t be more boring than waiting for the leaves to fall.

The Deasy's met us on North Grand Avenue across the street from the Cordova Theater.

The Deasy’s met us on North Grand Avenue across the street from the Cordova Theater.

The Four Square Church folks are really sweet, and they let Jill use the old theater prop department down in the basement for her blog anytime she wants.  Right away, Tom and Ray were excited to give us a tour of the place, “Wait ’til you see the Moon Room!”  Turns out this is where NASA filmed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin when they “landed” on the moon in 1969.  With a resource like The Cordova, Matt and Jill figured Pullman would be the perfect place to spend their year in “Perugia”.

Matt driving the "Moon Rover" on the set.  It's actually an Italian made ATV.  How ironic is that!?

Matt driving the “Moon Rover” on the set. It’s actually an Italian made ATV. How ironic is that!?

This is the apartment at 600 SW Crest View Street where we are staying with the Deasys.

This is the apartment at 426 NW Crestview Street where we are staying with the Deasys.

Good old apartment #25.  Heidi and I are renting their Bonus Room/Laundry Closet for the next three weeks which is a win-win because face it, there’s no money in farming, and Matt and Jill are unemployed for at least a year.

Check out the bathroom.  A shower, a tub AND a sink.

Check out the bathroom. A shower, a tub AND a sink.

This is a photo of the "Mediterranean" climate taken from inside the apartment of our "quiet" neighbors two doors down in #27.

This is a photo of the “Mediterranean” climate taken from inside the apartment of our “quiet” neighbors two doors down in #27.  They weren’t home; we were just looking around after the cops left.

After an Italian breakfast last Sunday, I went with Jill to the basement of the Cordova to watch her work on her blog.  She is amazing.  Her camera skills are only matched by the rabbits she pulls out of hats with Photoshop.  Look at what she did with the picture I took of her family in downtown Pullman.

Sunday afternoon in Piazza del Duomo

Sunday afternoon in Piazza del Duomo

Get a load of that caption!  It’s sounds so Italian it hurts.  It’s pure misdirection, like a good card trick.  You see the photo, you read that text and “fish on,” you’re hooked.

I’m just so proud to be Jill’s uncle, and I’m especially proud that she included me in her trip to Italy.  Here are the two of us at the Colosseum:



Thank you so much Matt, Jill, Tom and Ray for being the best neighbors in the world.  After the cops left.

Our Company

Tom, Jill, Heidi, Ray, Richard, Deanne, Tom and Matt

Matt’s sister and brother-in-law are visiting until the end of the week, and my aunt and uncle are here for almost a month.   We’ve filled our days with short trips to nearby cities and lots of time here in town.  We been both tourists and residents in Perugia, and it’s been so much fun.  It’s different having such close family here.  There is so much understanding each other.

Richard juggling clementines

Everything is more detailed with eight people.  With everyone’s background and perspective, we notice more.  Take beer, for example.  I think Umbria makes good beer.  I can appreciate the labels and pretty bottles.  But with the help of Tom and Heidi, who grow hops and make their own IPA, we are learning to recognize the subtleties of each Umbrian brew.  For the first time, the local beer is more than just “good.”  It’s complex and colorful.  Some even have hints of coriander (which I never would have detected in a hundred years).

Most of us chose the "lentil beer" in the middle as our favorite

Beer tasting

Grocery shopping and dinner is more interesting too.  Since we are twice as big, we get to eat more.  The other day for lunch, we bought eleven types of cured meats, five types of cheeses, three different breads and four Christmas desserts.

one particular pecorino cheese aged 8 months in a well.  But it was still good.

Four seasonal desserts: a tiny panatone, a plate of almond cookies, a eel shaped almond flavored torciglione and slices of almond torrone

Four seasonal desserts: a tiny Christmas panatone, a plate of almond cookies, a eel-shaped, almond-flavored torciglione and slices of white, almond torrone.

Some other highlights this week included a day trip to Assisi.  All eight of us squished in the car and drove to the woods high above the town to see where St. Francis lived and prayed.  Later we had lunch, walked to the famous cathedral, saw St. Clare’s entire preserved body, and visited the 2000-year-old Roman temple.

Tom and Heidi arround the Temple of Minerva in Assisi


Yesterday, while the boys were at school, the adults visited the nearby city of Deruta.  We talked with the ceramic craftsmen and bought more plates.  We toured a three-story nativity display that featured the works of 40 artists.  On the way home, we got stuck in traffic and were a half hour late to get the boys from school.  I had to call the landlady of Tom and Heidi’s apartment to ask her to pick them up.

Group photo with Monica from

Group photo with Monica from Maioliche Artemisia

This morning we went shoe shopping.  Deanne, Heidi and I looked at a pair of plastic high heals.  The salesman pointed out that they smell like Starbursts when you wear them.

They are even waterproof

We have two more days before Richard and Deanne leave and about two weeks of plans to fit into that time.   Richard is throwing an Italian wine tasting tomorrow night.  Uncle Tom’s going to make beef tongue.  There’s an ancient well down the street we need to see.  Plus a Raphael fresco.  Then a castle.  And some Etruscan tombs just outside the city wall.  And if there is time, we are going to try and cook black truffle pasta for dinner tomorrow.

Lights, Penguins and Baby Jesuses

Perugia's Fontana Maggiore with the city's brightest Christmas tree

Perugia’s Fontana Maggiore with some holiday lights

We don’t have a Christmas tree (or any decorations for that matter).  The only sign of December inside our apartment is the freezing cold.  We bought two more blankets yesterday.

But outside, it’s beautiful. Every street in downtown Perugia is illuminated with big hanging lights.  Even on the most rainy and windy nights, we make time to take a walk.  It feels so festive and winter-wonderlandy.

A view down Corso Vanucci

One of the things I love most about Italy in December are the nativity scenes.  They are everywhere.  All the churches have one.  Many of the stores too.  Even the banks.  There seems to be no limit to how grand, gaudy, quirky, confusing, unique, extravagant, or detailed these displays are.

Tonight, Ray and I walked down to Sant’ Antonio Church to see for ourselves what Perugians call the best nativity scene in the city.  It was kind of a long walk from our apartment.  But as soon as we entered the back room of this church and saw the extravagant display, my throat constricted and I kind of felt like crying.  The nativity village was animated with sounds of thunder clapping, a fire crackling, a baby crying, and soft lullabies – all the sounds you might expect from that legendary night.  Then after several minutes, everything changed.  A rooster crowed and the “sun” rose.  The entire scene changed from night to day.  Many of the tiny figurines came to life.  A woman started baking bread.  A man cast a fishing line into the river.  And two friends started playing cards.  Ray and I stayed for three or four “days” continually finding more hidden details in the scene.

A small corner of the city's largest nativity scene at Sant' Antonio Abbate

A small, but important, corner of the nativity scene at Sant’ Antonio Abbate

A game of poker occurring simultaneously with the birth of Baby Jesus.

A game of poker occurring simultaneously with the birth of Baby Jesus. 

A woman baking bread in an oven that really flickered.

A woman baking bread in an oven with flames that really flicker.

As we left, the attendant thanked us for coming and encouraged us to return when the snow machine is working and the village gets a blizzard.

Another hallmark of a Perugian Christmas are the penguins that line the street on Via dei Priori.   These penguins are all designed on cardboard.  They stand alone or nestled in groups among window displays.  This “Invasion of Penguins” is based on a story about Perugia where all the citizens disappear as penguins fill the streets.  It’s cute and kind of fun to look for hidden penguins.  But today I talked with a shopkeeper on Via dei Priori who admitted to not liking the story because of its subtle racist undertones.  So I picked up a copy of the story to try and figure out what he’s talking about. I’ll let you know.

A few penguins at the bookstore.


The Lies Italian Men Tell (and other lessons)

A week of handouts from Comitato Linquistico language school

A week of handouts from Comitato Linguistico language school

This week I signed up for a one-week intensive Italian course.  I had been in a rut.  I was stuck between several verb tenses.  I keep hearing beautiful words, but didn’t know how to use them.

So I filled the last five days, mornings and afternoons, with Italian school.  The classes were small; there was only one other student in my morning lesson (a 17-year-old from Australia) and I was the only student in my afternoon class.

Sara (our teacher) Georgia, and me

Sara (our teacher) Georgia, and me

Our grammar and history teacher, Luca

Our grammar teacher, Luca

I LOVED it.  The teachers were outstanding.  The time flew by.

The first couple hours focused on grammar, but it usually meandered into a history lesson instead of a worksheet.  Luca has written four books on Perugia alone.  He has the dirt on all the famous Italians.  He knows which Popes had children and how many.  He can explain all the gory details of the medieval coups and assassinations.  We talked about the Borgia family, the Guelfs and the Ghibellines and, of course, the infamous Perugian Salt War.   As he explained, Italian history is all about blood and sex.

Then after a short break, we would meet Sara to read and talk about contemporary Italian culture.  She usually started the lesson with a magazine or newspaper story.  For instance, on Monday, we read an article about Italian men and the lies they tell.  Each of the many lies can be broken down into categories.  I learned a lot.

First of all, there are gallant lies such as, “I am married, but one look at you and I recognize my mistake.”

Then there are social lies: “It’s not that I don’t have a job, it’s just that knowing you has turned me into a poet.”

The generous lie: “You convince me that women just get better as they age.”

There is the light lie: “I misunderstood, I thought you were going to call me.”

And the heavy lie, “Of course I’m not seeing anyone else!”

The bedroom lie:  “You were really great last night”  (meant to flatter and encourage).

And finally, the liberty lie, “I need to work late tonight”  (meaning there’s something else I’d rather do).

We learned, however (according to the author of this article) that the best way to curb this deceitful behavior is for Italian women to take it all with a grain of salt.  Recognize the underlying message and call him out on it.  Watch out for the compliments, no matter how tempting.   If a man doles out praise, it might be only in his own self-interest.  And if an Italian claims to want you to come inside so he can show you his butterfly collection, he’s just trying to get you to watch the last half of the soccer game.


On Tuesday, we learned the words for 11 different kinds of Italian mental disorders including depressione, personalita multipla, paranoia, and bassa autostima (low self-esteem).  We then explored the relationship between Italians and psychology and why they find it so shameful to see a therapist.  I explained that it’s way different in the USA, and that many people I know (including the four of us) have seen a counselor or therapist at some point.  Sara said it sounds like it would be super fun to sit for an hour and just talk about yourself while someone listened, but that in Italy, you are considered a nut if you go to counseling.

On Wednesday we discussed superstitions.  Interestingly, “13” is considered good luck in Italy.  And “17” is the most unlucky number of all.  That reminded me of my recent experience at the bakery when, after taking a number and waiting for my turn, I was skipped because I had drawn a “17.”  Seriously, it went from 16 to 18.  I approached the counter and showed them my number.  They let me order this time but encouraged me to throw number 17 away if it happened again.


In class, I learned that it’s also bad luck to wish someone happy birthday before his or her actual birthday.

It is good luck in Italy, however, if you accidently step on dog poop with your left foot.

It’s also good luck to wear a little red pepper (called a cornetto) around your neck to ward off negative energy.

That's a cornetto around Matt's neck

That’s a cornetto around Matt’s neck

On Thursday we talked about contemporary Italian directors.  We discussed Roberto Begnini, the director and actor from the film Life is Beautiful.  This country is crazy for him.  I hear his name more than any other.  He is probably one of the most famous people over here.  Later we talked about music and listened to songs by Edoardo Bennato, the “Bob Dylan of Italy.”

We wrapped up the week with short film from the 1990s called No Mamma No, a story illustrating the relationship between Italian men, their mamas, and food.

During my week at this school, a member of the faculty asked if he could interview me for the school’s blog.  It basically consisted of my reasons for being here in Perugia as well as some questions about my feelings on Italy.  I got my revenge on Tom’s middle school teachers when they asked me what my least favorite thing about Italy was.  The article was posted later that evening.

One week might not seem like much, but I felt I learned a ton.  I’m committing to at least one more session before the end of winter.

Luca and a grammar lesson

Luca and a grammar lesson.  I still need practice with the “congiuntivo,” a verb tense that doesn’t even exist in English.

First Course, two recipes

Lenticchie di Norcia

Italians divide a meal into courses.   First there is an antipasto, or appetizer, which may  include bruschetta, grilled vegetables, cheeses and meats. Then there is a primo (a first course of pasta, risotto, polenta, soup or legumes) then a secondo (a main course of meat or fish) followed by salad or vegetable, and then fruit, dessert and coffee

When we cook here, we just take one of these courses and turn it into our entire meal.  Our favorite is il primo, and it’s always pasta.   But after months of noodles, we’ve decided to branch out and try something else.

During the past several weeks, we’ve learned a couple alternative primo courses.  One features lentils, the other chickpeas.  These are the easiest dinners to cook as well as some of the best.  In order to make these, you need vegetable stock.  I’ll start with that.

Any variety of vegetables can be added, but we like using 2 potatoes, 2 zucchinis, 2 tomatoes, 2 carrots, 2 celery stalks, 2 onions, a small bunch of parsley and two teaspoons of course salt.  Back home I just throw it all together in a pot of water, but Italians wouldn’t hear of it.  They carefully wash and peal everything. Only then do they put it in a pot, cover it with water and set it on the stove to simmer.

After at least two hours, turn off the heat and let the stock cool for a bit.  Then strain.  At this point, choose a couple pieces of vegetables and puree them with a cup of broth.  Add it back to the pot and stir.  This will thicken it up a little and add extra flavor.  Use this broth for the following two recipes:

Lentils with sausage

Umbria serves their  famous lenticchia, a small brown lentil that grows nearby.  Our friends from the bean store in Perugia explained how to make this traditional recipe for four people:

1 ½ cups of lentils

8 or more cups of vegetable broth

2 tablespoons olive oil

½ a medium onion, chopped

4 Italian sausages

3 tablespoons tomato sauce

Parmesan cheese

1.  Put the lentils in a small pot and cover with three cups of water.  Bring to a boil and then simmer for ½ an hour.  Add more broth if needed.

2.  In a separate pan, sauté the onion until it is soft and translucent.  Remove the sausages from their casing and crumble into the pan.  Cook until done.

3.  Add the lentils with their liquid to the onion and sausage.  Add the tomato sauce.  Continue cooking for at least another ½ hour, adding the remainder of the broth one cup at a time.  Dinner is ready once the lentils are soft and cooked through.  It is best served in bowls, as it resembles a thick soup.  Add Parmesan cheese if you’d like.

Everything is on the stove:  sausages in the pan, lentils in the pot and broth simmering away

Bowls of lentils

Chickpeas and squares

Monia from Il Parma told us about this recipe.  We’ve made it at least five times, and we’re having it again tonight.  You can use dried chickpeas if you want, but I’m just terrible at cooking dried beans, so I resort to a can or a jar, which is what Monia uses anyway.

All the ingredients

2 jars or cans of drained chick peas (garbanzo beans)

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 cloves of chopped garlic

1 sprig of rosemary

6-8 cups of vegetable broth

3/4 cup of very small dried pasta squares or 1 1/2 cup fresh pasta squares


1.  Sauté the chopped garlic and the rosemary in the olive oil over medium heat for about a minute.

2.  Puree one jar of drained chick peas with a little broth.  Add it to the garlic and rosemary.  Add the other drained jar of whole chickpeas.  Add the vegetable broth and and cook for half an hour.  You can remove the rosemary after 10 minutes so it doesn’t fall apart.

3.  Add more broth if needed then add the pasta squares and cook until they’re done.

4.  Add salt if needed and serve.

Olive oil is nice on this dish too.

Olive oil is nice to add on top.