Fish

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Umbria is the only landlocked region on the peninsula of Italy.  It’s safe to say that Umbrians are not famous for their fish.

As an American, I’m used to eating fish or any other food that traveled many miles.  I’ve had Dungeness crab in Chicago, sushi in Idaho, and Rhoda Island oysters (in Seattle).  A few extra miles don’t bother me, so I was curious to try the fish offerings in Perugia.  Every day, we passed a beautiful fish market on the way to the fruit stand.  Clearly, they were Umbrian and didn’t seem to have a problem with the seafood.   So this spring, after nine months, I finally stopped by.

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La Perla Nera is a family business.  Signora Patrizia, Signor Franco and their son Michael are open four days a week.  I loved them immediately.  They were funny, confident and always generous.  They prepared my order with great care, always gutting, skinning, filleting and slicing it to perfection before tossing in a handful of parsley.  And they never let me leave without a detailed recipe.  I decided right away that I would try every fish dish they could teach me.  I started with spaghetti and clams.  Then I made fried calamari, salmon rolls, fish coquettes, swordfish sandwiches, fried filets, marinated squid with olives, fish with cognac, and fish soup.  I kept a list of the greats and politely forgot the not-so-greats.  The more I tried, the more recipes Signora Patrizia gave me.

calamari

calamari

a sword fish and zucchini sandwich

a swordfish and zucchini sandwich

I’m getting close to unpacking the last of our belongings.  The other day I found the stack of La Perla Nera recipes, and so tonight, with very, very, very fond memories of this awesome family and their fish market, I am going to make my favorite dish: fish balls (I promise, they taste way better than they sound.)

To make fish balls, you need an assortment of fish.  I can’t find the Italian fish that La Perla Nera sells, so I’m using ling cod, Alaskan rock fish, and Petrale sole.  Combined, the fish should total a pound.  To prepare, lightly sauté them in oil and garlic.  Gently break apart with a fork as they cook.  Then add about 4 or 5 gulf prawns that have been whirled in a food processor.   Add salt to taste.  Remove the cooked fish and prawns from heat and allow it to cool.  Then add a tablespoon or two of chopped parsley, an egg and bread crumbs until the mixture just starts to hold together.  Mix with your hands and then form into rounds the size of golf balls.  Fry the balls in oil and then add to a pot of marinara sauce.  Cook for a few minutes.   Serve as is or toss with spaghetti.

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INTERVIEWS by guest blogger Tom

written by Tom

I made a Venn diagram of the Italians and Americans

I made a Venn diagram of the Italians and Americans

In two days we’ll be flying back to the USA.  I am super excited, but there was still one more thing I wanted to do in Italy.  I decided to ask four different Italians several questions about their lifestyle, interests, and dislikes.  Then I would ask the four people in my family the same questions.  Below are eight paragraphs containing each person’s answers.

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Alessandro is 11 years old and was my classmate this year.  His favorite thing about Italy is the food.  He really likes cheese pizza and pasta Norcina (sausage and cream).  His preferred gelato flavor is milk chocolate.  His favorite region is Lazio, mainly because of Rome.  The thing he dislikes the most about living in Italy is the amount of homework.  The most difficult English word for him to say is “antidisestablishmentarianism.”

Here is Giovanni with his mom, Ray and me when we had lunch at his house.

Here is Giovanni with his mom, Ray and me when we had lunch at his house.

Giovanni is 17 years old.  He is going to America next month as a foreign exchange student for his senior year in high school.  He chose America because he thinks it’s the strongest country in the world and he wants to learn English.  The thing he likes most about Italy is the pizza.  His favorite kind is sausage and mushroom.  His preferred gelato combination is pistachio and pine nut.  He really likes Rome, but his favorite region is Tuscany.  He said the worst part about living in Italy is the bureaucracy.  The hardest American word for him is “rubber” (not because of the pronunciation, but because he learned in English class that it means “eraser”, when in fact, in America, it means something else…)

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Christiano is 45 years old.  He works at a pasta shop near our apartment.  He really likes Italy, especially the weather, the people, and the quality of life.  The only thing he doesn’t like is the lack of ability to get things done.  He will eat any food (pasta, meat, dessert, pizza, etc.).  His favorite gelato, by far, is chocolate chip.  He likes Rome and Perugia, but he doesn’t like Milan.  His preferred regions are Sicily and Sardinia.  His favorite word is sole (sun).  He has gone to America three times.  He likes how unique each city is.  The hardest English word for him to pronounce is “teeth”.

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Paola turns 50 today.  She tutored Ray and me during the school year.  Her favorite thing about Italy is the history and the food.  She really likes pasta, mushroom pizza, and coconut ice cream.  Her preferred city is Rome, and her favorite region is Lazio.  The thing that she dislikes most about Italy is the politics.  Her favorite Italian word is amore (love).  The hardest word in English for her to say is “literature.”

Ray’s favorite thing about this year has been meeting new people and eating Italian food.  His really likes chocolate ice cream, sausage pizza, and pasta Norcina.  His preferred cities are Rome and Perugia, but he also likes the region Sardinia.  Ray’s favorite word is buffone (buffoon).  The one thing he dislikes about Italy is that so many stores go out of business.  The hardest English word for him to pronounce is “world”.  His favorite thing about the U.S. is the way the schools work.

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My mom said the best thing about Italy is the evening walks before dinner with all the people.  Her favorite phrase in Italian is ci mancarebbe, meaning “don’t mention it.”  She likes any pizza with ricotta cheese.  When we go out for gelato, she usually gets blueberry, mango and chocolate with whipped cream. Her preferred city is Rome, and her favorite region is Sardinia.  The English words that she has the most trouble with are “epitaph” and “potable.”  She said the best thing about America is the movies.

My dad said the best thing about living in Italy is being surrounded by beauty.  His preferred food is pasta (sausage, carbonara, garbanzo beans, etc.) and his favorite Italian phrase is ho capito (I understand).  His favorite city is Rome, but he also likes the region Tuscany.  He usually gets strawberry, mango, and lemon flavored gelato.  The hardest part about Italy for him is not understanding the language.  He also misses the efficiency of America.  The hardest English word for him is “synonym”.

For me, the best part about living in Italy is the amount of time I get to spend with my family.  My favorite Italian food is sausage and cream pasta.  My favorite pizza toppings are sliced hot dogs and French fries.  The tastiest gelato flavors that I’ve had this year were peanut butter, lemon-mint, and bubble gum (all from a place called LatoG in Rome).  My favorites cities are Lucca and Taormina, and my preferred region is Sardinia.  My least favorite thing about Italy is the school.  My favorite Italian words are oplah (oops), and bimbo (little kid).  I am excited to get back to America because of my friends, the sports teams, the variety of food, and having a place to play outside.  The hardest English word for me is “abominable”.

The End of Italian School

Ray's class presents a gift to one of the teachers

Ray’s class presents a gift to one of the teachers

The end of the school year is another cause for celebration.

Italian students and families commemorate with a big get-together centering (of course) around food.

Tuesday night was the sixth grade party.  We heard that it went so late that only two kids showed up for school on Wednesday.  However, we weren’t there; Tom didn’t want to go.  He said he would rather go to Rome for the day where he can buy glow-in-the-dark sling shot rockets from the unlicensed street vendors.  Since we all wanted to go to Rome, we took advantage of his request for a final visit.  Tom got his rockets but also got a talking-to by the police. He’s getting use to it.

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Ray’s party was yesterday.  This group of families is especially close since many elementary schools in Italy assign teachers in first grade who stick with the same kids for five years.  Even though Ray joined the class in its last year, he fit in well.  In the end, he made good friends.

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Alessia, Valentina, Gaia, Ray and Marie Elena

Alessia, Valentina, Gaia, Ray and Maria Elena

The festa was held at Il Pioppo, an agriturismo  outside Perugia where the ingredients are sourced right there on the farm.  And this was no light summer lunch.  Our plates were filled to capacity. We started with a black truffle pasta tossed with the chef’s homemade tagliatelle followed by a second pasta course with tomato and sausage. Then we had a plate of roast pork and sauted greens and finally jam crostatas. Pitchers of wine and sparkling water were abundant.  The kids’ menu was equally huge but styled to suit their tastes.  However, with a pool and grassy field, they chose not to linger at the table.

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Ray's teacher playing some type of volleyball game with the kids.

Saying goodbye to Daniele.  After we left the party, Ray said he would like to stay in Italy for another year.

Saying goodbye to Daniele. After we left the party, Ray said he would like to stay in Italy for another year.

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Saying goodbye to Maestra Milva

While the kids played, some of the parents told us about a new thing that schools are doing in Italy.  It’s called “American graduation” and it entails a celebration after eighth grade and another one after high school.  Previously, a graduation ceremony was held only after someone finished college, but several schools are importing our excuse to pomp and circumstance more often.  We told them that American kids even get to wear graduation caps when they finish preschool and fifth grade.  That made everyone laugh.

Good Chicken

 

We try not to miss a single invitation to have dinner at an Italian’s home.  Despite the effort it takes to eat an ungodly amount of food, in the end, it’s worth it.  In the end, an invitation means we get to participate in one of Italy’s greatest rituals: surrounding a table with great people then completely covering it with platters of regional food cooked with family recipes.  By now we’ve learned the etiquette:  Ignore the hostess when she says “bring nothing” because “something” is expected whether it is a dessert, a bottle of wine, flowers (or all three.)  We also know to expect a late night.   Finally, there is no helping the hostess clean up.  I’ve never seen an Italian guest even make an offer.  And any attempt from us has been quickly refused.  The rest goes without saying:  eat a lot (always clean your plate) and accept seconds (say, “Bis, per favore!) if you want to compliment the cook.

Dinner at Giovanni and Maria Pia's.  This is just the appetizer course along with the pasta that Maria Pia made by hand that afternoon.

Dinner at Giovanni and Maria Pia’s. 

All of the courses were typical Pugia dishes since Maria Pia grew up in southern Italy.

All of the courses were typical Puglia dishes since Maria Pia grew up in southern Italy.

When we eat at Milena and Sergio P.'s, Milena's parents to the cooking.

When we eat at Milena and Sergio P.’s, Milena’s parents do the cooking. 

When we eat with Paola's family, we are served traditional Umbrian specialties like pasta with wild boar.

When we eat with Paola’s family, we are served traditional Umbrian specialties.

Dinner with Fabiola and Sergio.  Fabiola cooked Napolitano specialties.  And the kids were poured a glass of prosecco!

In-between courses at Fabiola and Sergio D.’s:  Fabiola cooked eggplant parmesan and pizza from her home town of Naples.  Sergio poured the kids a glass of wine.

Last week we had dinner with several friends at Chiara and Enrico's house.  Chiara made homemade tagliatelle that afternoon.

Last week we had dinner with several friends at Chiara and Emilio’s house. We could tell they had been cooking all day. Here’s the  homemade tagliatelle that Chiara rolled and cut that afternoon.

The meat course was a roasted chicken that was out of this world.  I also learned how to cut up a cooked chicken "Italian style".  Here is Emilio's brother-in-law with a chicken scissors.

The meat course was a roasted chicken that was out of this world. Chiara shared the recipe (see below).  I also learned how to cut up the cooked chicken “Italian style”. Here is Emilio’s brother-in-law with the “chicken scissors”.

We also had an onion pie, torta al testo, roasted potatoes, tomato sauce with sausage, zuppa inglese, strawberries with cream, and after dinner drinks.

We also had an onion pie, torta al testo, roasted potatoes, tomato sauce with sausage, salad, zuppa inglese and strawberries with cream,

Tonight we are having a guest for lunch.  My friend Stacia is taking a little R&R from her sailing job in Sardinia.  We want to show her some of the things we’ve learned to make.  I will try to replicate Chiara’s chicken.  She told me that the best way to add favor and keep the chicken moist is by making little incisions in the meet and stuffing it with lardo.  By the way, lardo is not lard (but it’s close).  It is not rendered or hydrogenated like the familiar lard from Grandma’s kitchen.  There are two kinds found in Italy.  The first is a Tuscan specialty: cured and seasoned fat from the back of a pig.  It’s common over here.  In fact, we’ve ordered it in a restaurant where it comes in thin slivers on top of bruschetta.  DE-licious.  The second kind of lardo  is what we use to stuff this chicken.  It is ground and seasoned pork fat.  It tastes like like the white part of bacon.  In fact, that might make a good substitute if you can’t find it in an Italian specialty store.

Umbrian Roasted Chicken.

Begin by combining chopped rosemary, salt, 1 clove of minced garlic and 2 tablespoons lardo

Generously sprinkle a chicken all over with a tablespoon of salt, a generous amount of pepper and two cloves of finely chopped garlic.

Next, make six slits into the bird.  Try to cut where the legs and wings join the body as well as into the breast (see below).

Stuff the lardo mixture into the incisions.

Lay several rosemary branches alongside the chicken and tie with string.

Set into a pan and drizzle with a little olive oil and then pour a half bottle of white wine over the chicken.

Cook in a 425 degree oven (220 degree celsius) for two hours.  Flip the chicken every 45 minutes then spoon the liquid from the pan on top.  If you need more liquid, add more wine or water.

When it’s done, cool for a while.  Chiara cooked the chicken before we arrived and we ate it at room temperature.  She showed me how to cut it up with a scissors which was so much easier than using a knife.

To cut like Chiara, use a scissors strong enough to cut through bones.  Her’s look like garden pruners.  Begin by pulling the legs and wings away from the body and severing between the joints.  Then, cut through the breast bone until the chicken is in two halves.  From here, it’s very easy to cut away from the bone and serve it in pretty, small pieces.

the holes are stuffed with lardo

The holes are stuffed with lardo and the chicken is ready to cook.

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Four hours later . . . Our guest arrived.  We served prosciutto and melon, pasta carbonara, fava beans with artichokes and a platter of chicken.  Matt and Stacia are sipping limoncello as I write these final words.

Arsenal and Pickpockets, London and Paris


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Last week we met one of our favorite families for our first and only trip outside of Italy.  We stayed together in a stable-turned-apartment near Hyde Park.  During our four days, we boated down the River Thames, spent a morning in Kensington Gardens, spun a loop around the London Eye, took a peek at the Crown Jewels, and ate at several pubs with names like “The Dog and Duck,” “Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese,” and “The Queen’s Arms.”  We also rode a double decker bus over the Tower Bridge and past Big Ben.

Build for the 2012 Olympics, the Eye of London is a half hour Ferris wheel ride high over the city.

The London Eye is a half-hour Ferris wheel ride over the city.

Ray and the Tower of London

Ray and the Tower of London

The kids with Peter Pan.

The kids with Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens

The most memorable excursion was an evening at the Arsenal vs. Everton soccer match.  After an all-day search and a shady rendezvous with a scalper, we finally held what we hoped were eight tickets to the sold-out game.  We rode a packed subway and arrived at the stadium full of fans wearing red and white.  The weather was good, and we were in England watching real football.

Outside the gates

waiting for a goal

Despite the final score of 0-0 and the surprising calm of the crowd, this was a fun night.  We bought Arsenal scarves, we cheered, and we ate dinner in our seats.  At 10 minutes before the end of the game, we decided to get a head start on the return trip.  As we left the stadium we were surprised to join throngs of others running to the entrance to the Tube.  The urgency was contagious.  We each grabbed a kid and took off sprinting.  It was pretty exciting, and at one point, Grace said, “It feels like we’re running for our lives!”  Eventually finding a pocket of space to stand on the subway gave us the feeling of victory we had been looking for all night.

The next day we left London (several hours before Margaret Thatcher’s funeral).  Our apartment in Paris was hilarious.  There were just two rooms, each with a tiny loft.  There was a kitchen too, but it was in one of the bedrooms.  We decided right away that privacy was not much of an option. We put the kids in one room and the adults in another.  The tight quarters were the basis for much of the humor during the rest of our stay.

Lynn find a place to sit on our bed while Deac finds space on the ladder

Lynn find a place to sit on our bed while Deac hangs out on the ladder

Paris was all about short stops at big sights during the day and long dinners in small restaurants at night.

Another great view of the Eiffel Tower

Another great view of the Eiffel Tower

Joining hundreds of others to glimpse the Mona Lisa

Joining hundreds of others for a glimpse of the Mona Lisa

Starting off another French feast with a kir royale

Starting off another French feast with a kir royale

The most fascinating aspect of Paris, and the one that left the biggest impression (especially among the kids) were the pickpockets.  In fact, the week before, the Louvre unexpectedly closed for a day because the problem was unmanageable.  We were further warned by many:  Always hold your belongings close.  Watch out for people holding a “petition” and asking for signatures because while you peruse the paper and write your name, hands will be busy underneath the clipboard empting your purse.  Sure enough, on day one, in the middle of a busy square, we encountered a hoard of young women looking for unsuspecting victims.  Our tour guide, Jacques, spotted them first and reminded us to be careful.  We watched the attempts from a distance.  Later, Jacques showed us all his protective measures.

Jacques has two cell phones and a wallet chained to the inside of his long jacket which covers his pants' pockets.  He only uses the cheap phone when in a public area in Paris.

Jacques has two cell phones and a wallet chained to the inside of his long jacket.

If things get ugly, he also has this for protection.

If things get ugly, he also has this for protection.

During the rest of the day, the kids tried to weasel belongings out of the adults’ bags and pockets.  I was horrified when they later offered me back my wallet, my lipstick and my sunglasses.   The only defense I had for being such easy prey was that I allow my kids closer than I would a stranger.  Still, Matt said he would be more comfortable carrying my valuables.

Ray tries unsuccessfully to rob Deac.

Later, one of the kids tries unsuccessfully to rob Deac.

The last morning in Paris started at 3am when we all woke up and caught rides to the airport for an early morning flight.  The Halls returned to Seattle and we came back to Perugia.  The first thing we did when we got home was stop for a gelato where some of the other customers were speaking French.  Later that afternoon, we noticed a new crepe stand on the street outside our apartment.  And for dessert, we ate meringues. It felt good knowing that some of Paris followed us home.

Easter (and Easter Monday)

Easter Sunday with my parents in the courtyard of San Pietro

Together last weekend with my parents in the courtyard of San Pietro

Easter lasts for two days in Italy.  There is Easter Sunday (Pasqua).  And then there is Easter Monday (Pasquetta) which is equally important as far as holidays go.

This was my second Easter in Italy.  The first I spent in the region of Campagna 23 years ago with my dad and brother.  I remember it well.  That afternoon as we were walking throught the streets of Naples, a moped sped by me and ripped the backpack off my back.  (It contained our passports, our train tickets and all my money.)  I was able to hold on to the strap and run after the driver for a little ways before using my last ounce of strength to yank it back.  The force of my pull knocked the thief off balance. He started to topple before letting go of the backpack and speeding away.  I had rescued our goods.  It was my first ever sensation of bad-assness.
This year was also memorable but in a much less dramatic way. In fact, by Perugian standards, we had an ordinary Easter.  But that was my goal: to celebrate with local traditions.
We started Saturday night with a little visit to the nearest church.  We brought lots of food because Perugians get their Easter meal sanctified before eating it.  When we arrived, the priest was busy in the confessional, so we decided to bless the food ourselves.  Since my mom knows the most saints, we figured she should do the honors.  Using the holy water and wand from near the alter, she sprinkled a prayer and benediction on our groceries.
Here's my mom with priest tools giving our cheese bread a proper hallelujah

My mom uses the priest tools to give our cheese bread a proper hallelujah

The next morning, we arranged the spread.  Once a year, Perugians sit down to more than just a coffee for breakfast.  On Easter, tables are filled with capocollo (a cured meat), hard boiled eggs, cheese bread, wine and a cake called ciaramicola.
picture:  once a year, Perugians sit down to more than just a coffee and cigarette for breakfast.  On Easter morning, tables are filled with capocollo (a cured meat), cheese bread, hard boiled eggs, wine, and a frosted dessert called a ciaramicola  The boys also ate a giant chocolate egg with a toy surprise inside.

Breakfast

The boys also got giant chocolate eggs with a toy surprise inside.

The boys also got giant chocolate eggs with a toy surprise inside.

Then, of course, we joined the Catholics and went to mass.  Out of the 20 or more options in downtown Perugia, we chose the Church of San Pietro, an ornately decorated cathedral near the edge of town.
My mom and I spent the afternoon preparing lamb and artichokes.   Not quite sure how to cook lamb, I decided to fry it.  The Italians say that even the sole of a shoe tastes good when fried.  It worked.
My mom talked Ray into trying lamb.

My mom talked Ray into trying lamb.

The next day was Pasquetta.  Our friends Milena and Sergio invited us to their house in the country.  They wanted to meet my parents and introduce us to some of their relatives.  We joined them for a grand lunch starting with champagne, capocollo, cheese bread, wild asperagus and pecorino cheese.  This was followed by two platters of cannelloni, four types of grilled meats, artichokes prepared two ways and another big ciaramicola.  
A walk on the rolling, green, olive-tree-covered hills of Umbria

A walk on the rolling, green, olive-tree-covered hills of Umbria

Milena's mamma serves cannelloni.

Milena’s mamma serves cannelloni.

My parents pass around a bowl of meats

My parents pass around a bowl of meats

"Ciaramicola" - the rainbow sprinkled, meringue frosted Easter specialty of Perugia.

“Ciaramicola” – the rainbow sprinkled, meringue frosted Easter specialty of Perugia.  It’s red inside because of the bright liquor used to color it.

We ended the day with a walk gathering wild asparagus from around the trunks of olive trees.  Pretty cool.

For the first time since 2007, I’ve been enjoying holidays.  Distancing ourselves from past traditions, we get to peer into those of the Italians and participate as students of culture rather than as emotionally rooted members.

It’s true what they say about holidays being the hardest days.  When you lose the person with whom you celebrated, you lose the meaning as well.  Holidays have really sucked since Luke died.  Our family’s traditions faded away, yet we were still surrounded by everyone else celebrating the same old way.  This year, the physical distance from our culture’s customs, as well as having the distraction of another’s, has brought objectivity.  Discovery has replaced menacing compulsions; novelty has replaced stagnant etiquette; and the freedom to experiment has replaced the sense of obligation to assimilate with past traditions. Instead of running from the holidays, this year, I feel more inclined to step into them.

The Art of Cars (written by Oliver)

by guest blogger Oliver

Tom, Ray and me in Florence

Tonight is my last night with the Deasys here in Perugia.  My mom and I have been here for 10 days.  We landed in Rome and stayed in a room right next to the Pantheon.  I was pretty jet lagged that first day so I don’t remember much.  The next day, I got to choose where we’d go, and I decided we should see the Sistine Chapel.  It’s at the far end of the Vatican Museum so it was a super long walk.  We saw about 500 paintings and sculptures that day.  Just before we got to the end, we walked through a small gallery with some modern art and found a painting that looked just like my mom.

Even the other tourists around us were laughing.

Then we went to Florence and saw The David, climbed to the top of the Duomo, and crossed the Ponte Vecchio.  We also ate tons of gelato.  After two days, we took a train back to Perugia and have been here ever since.

We have seen many churches, museums, towers and old arches, but the best part about Italy is the cars!

Lately, I’ve been really into cars.  I read Dupont Registry  on the plane ride over and then when I got here, I saw some of my favorites in person.

The Fiat 500

One of the most popular cars in Italy is the Fiat 500.  The Fiat 500 is an affordable, four-cylinder car.  This car is popular because of its size.  It can fit through the small streets of Italy with ease.  This car gets good gas mileage, somewhere between 25 and 30 miles per gallon.  The final thing is that it is a little sporty, and you can make it look cool with a little work.  For everyday use, these are the best all-around cars.

The Fiat 500

The Ferrari

The Formula One Ferrari that I saw in Rome  has a 12-cylinder engine that pumps out speeds of over 200 mph.  It’s not just the big engine that makes it fast.  Most of its speed secrets lie in the aerodynamics and the material of the car.  It’s made of carbon fiber and aluminum.

The Maserati

This car is the most amazing car I’ve seen in Italy.  The Maserati Quattroporte is one of the first Maserati 4-doors (as its name states).  This is an 8-cylinder sedan coupe.  It is priced around $130,000.  This car is large and only gets around 15 miles per gallon, though, if you can buy this car then the gas money shouldn’t really be a problem.

We saw this Maserati near our hotel in Rome.

The Fiat Punto

Yesterday I got to drive in a real Italian car when we took a day trip to Assisi.   We rented the Fiat Punto which is a cool, family style, sporty car equipped with manual transmission, like so many other cars in Italy.  It’s a medium-size car meant for five people, but we squeezed in six.   Also, I like the interior.  It has an easily accessable dash board and systems which make for comfortable, fast driving.  It was a good way to spend my last full day in Italy.

I wish I could stay longer.  I told my mom and the Deasys that I would like to live here for the rest of the year with them.  I could eat hot chocolate and cream filled pastries every morning for breakfast.  Tom, Ray and I could all share a bedroom, and I could be in Tom’s class at school. I could even get a job here because Cristiano, the pasta man, taught me how to make cappelletti.  This has been a really fun trip.

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Looking back on all the things we did and all the cars I saw, I still think the best part was hanging out with Tom and Ray.

Looking back on all the things we did and all the cars I saw, I still think the best part was hanging out with Tom and Ray.

Candles

Today at Santi Aposoli

Today at Santi Apostoli

Six years ago, Luke died.  Suddenly and unexpectedly, he stopped breathing after an insidious bacterial infection took over his body.  On that day, we started lighting candles.  That little bit of light gave us something to look at.  Now every year on February 17th, we get together with friends; we talk about Luke; we miss Luke; and we always light candles.

We are lucky here in Italy because there are candles everywhere.  Every city has a hundred churches.  And every church has a corner where candles wait for a prayer.  We started our day in Florence with our great friends Kelli and Oliver, then tonight we will return to Perugia.  We will light candles along the way.

The Duomo in Florence

The Duomo in Florence

I don’t completely understand the allure, but I know it must be done.  I want to strike a match and say his name.  I want to leave a sign.  I want fire.  These candles are our little messages in the dark.  They are our mysterious, small, hot, dangerous intentions.  They are quiet testaments to our hope and our heartbreak. And today they are proof that while I may not believe in God, I believe in something stronger than myself.

Matt in Santo Spirito

Matt in Santo Spirito

Ray, Oliver, Tom and Kelli in  Santa Croce

Ray, Oliver, Tom and Kelli in Santa Croce

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Even though it’s still morning for all our friends and family back home, we have received so many emails.  They come with pictures of candles.  There are flames across the world for Luke.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fat Week

DSC_0177 Today is Fat Tuesday.   There is music and confetti in the streets; people dress up in masks and costumes; and the bakeries are full of fried desserts.  But it doesn’t last just one day.  This is the season of Carnevale.  The word comes from “carne” meaning “meat”  and “vale” meaning “allowed.”  It use to be that Catholics abstained from eating meat during Lent. Carnevale is the period before – where nothing is denied.

The big celebrations started nearly a week ago on Giovedì Grasso (Fat Thursday) with parties and parades.  During the weekend, the festivities culminated as several neighborhoods decorated their streets, set up stages and hosted parties for the city that ran late into the night.

On Friday night, we walked down to Corso Cavour

On Friday, we walked to Corso Cavour where floats were lined up for a late night parade.  Vendors sold horns, confetti, silly string and masks.  There was music and dancing.

We have a group of friends in Perugia who invited us to their 5th-grade class party on Saturday.  All of their children attend the same school, and Signora Paola (our kids’ tutor) is the teacher.  The parents rented a room at the community center, and everyone brought food.  As students and parents entered, they were bombarded with handfuls of confetti by the others.

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Tom and Ray didn't want to dress up, but we privately gave them each 10 euros if they obliged, so that we would all fit in a little better.   Ray liked his pirate costume so much that he wore it to school today (for free).

At first, Tom and Ray didn’t want to dress up, but we privately gave them each 10 euros if they obliged.  They thought that sounded like “bad parenting.”  We agreed, but it was worth it. Ray liked his pirate costume so much that he wore it to school today (for free).

We paid Tom an extra euro to wear the wig.

We paid Tom an extra two euros to wear the wig.

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For the first couple hours we talked, listened to music, ate platters and platters of food, drank pop and watched the kids dance.  Later in the evening, the parents brought out a karaoke machine.  DSC_0188

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The next day there were parades throughout the city.  We could watch from the window of our apartment, but it was more fun to be in the middle of it all. DSC_0108

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This morning we bought a little of everything, just in case sweets grow scarse during Lent.  Some of the traditional Carnevale desserts include frappe, brighelle and strufoli.

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Learning to Host

DSC_0116If I were home, I would not write a post on what I ate for dinner.  But somehow here, it seems interesting.  There’s subtle magic in our Italian kitchen.  Cooking isn’t a chore.  It doesn’t tire me out.  The ingredients are more compelling and everything tastes better.  I know it’s not me.  I’m not a chef or even close to one.  I’m not especially intuitive in the kitchen.  I don’t even know why certain ingredients go together.  However, we eat really well here.  I think one explanation for the elevated quality is due to the contagious passion of the Italians.  They believe in their food.  They talk about it like a sports fan talks about the playoffs.  This week I listened to a grocer describe the nuances of a tiny green legume that grows 15 miles outside the city.  He went on and on.  By the end of his speech, I was heading home with several bags of beans and a single-minded enthusiasm to cook them all.   I had never succeeded in properly cooking a dried bean at home.  Never.  (The long soaking, the slow simmering and the seasoning were too tricky.) Yet here, beans come out just right.

The beans feel good.  I'd like to have a little legume sandbox when we get home.

The beans feel good. I’d like to have a little legume sandbox when we get home.

My favorite is the local borlotti.  When Antonio the bean seller sold me a bag, he looked to the sky and gesticulated as if to say, “There are no words for this!”  But then he finally added, “This bean is so exceptional; it isn’t even a bean.  It’s . . . meat.”

Later, we tried it in soup. It gave us the confidence needed to make it for company, and that’s saying a lot, because it is so intimidating to cook for Italians.  They each have conflicting opinions about what ingredients should go in what dish.  They fiercely believe in their own family recipes.    And culturally, the whole set-up is different.

To begin with, guests arrive no earlier than 8:00 at which point the host has finished preparing the meal.  Appetizers are served while seated at the dinner table.  Wine is drunk during dinner, but the drinking isn’t as heavy.  The speed at which one eats is greater.  The servings are bigger.  But the biggest difference is the quantity of courses.

I tried to follow these guidelines when Cristiano, the Pasta Man, came to our house last night.

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He arrived at 8:00.  Of course, the bean soup wasn’t the only thing we served.  It was one of 10 plates of food we ate throughout the night including Umbrian cheeses, Umbrian meats, grilled eggplant, pasta and bean soup, a lemon caper chicken, three sides of vegetables and a tray of oranges with olive oil.  The prettiest course was the cake we bought from across the street for dessert.  The inside was chocolate.  The berries were covered in a sugar glaze.

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Eating only took a couple hours.  Then we poured grappa, vin santo and herbal digestivi while sitting around talking.  The Italian election is coming up; politics was one of the topics, as was Star Wars, Clint Eastwood, the new marajuana laws in Washington State and the Mafia in Perugia.  By midnight Cristiano left and we started cleaning up.  We had a huge mess.  The leftovers barely fit in the fridge.  We will be eating soup for a couple days, but that’s okay, because, like I said, I’m really into it right now.  In case anyone wants to try it, I’ll leave the recipe below.  God, I hope it turns out tasting good even outside of Italy.

Here's what you'll need.  Plus several cups of short pasta

Here’s what you’ll need. Plus about 1/2 lb. of short pasta

Pasta e Fagioli serves 6

2 cups dried cranberry beans

4 oz guanciale

2 tablespoons of olive oil

1 onion (plus and optional 1/2 onion for the beans)

2 medium carrots

2 medium stalks of celery

4 oz. smoked, diced pancetta

8 cups or more of vegetable, chicken or meat broth

salt and pepper

Begin the day before by covering the beans in water and soaking them for at least 24 hours.  Two hours before you start the soup, begin simmering the beans in a pot of water.  You can add a little flavor by adding half an onion or some garlic to the pot.  Cook for a couple hours or until the beans taste done.

When you are ready to cook the soup, cut the guanciale into small pieces.  Fry it in a pan over low heat with a tablespoon of olive oil for 5-10 minutes.  Before it browns, add the finally chopped onion, celery and carrots.  Cook together until the vegetables are very soft.  Then add a cup of broth and cook until the liquid has evaporated.  Meanwhile, in a second pot over low heat, cook the pancetta in a tablespoon of olive oil.  After about 10 minutes, but before the pancetta crisps, add the cooked, drained beans.  Mix them together and then add the broth.  Let the beans absorb the broth for a bit then add the guanciale/vegetable mixture and cook together for 5 minutes.  In a separate pot of boiling salted water, cook the pasta for half the recommended time.  Then drain and add the pasta to the beans and cook until the pasta is al dente.  Add salt and pepper if you need.

Me in Italy (written by Ray)

by guest blogger Ray

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School has been going really well for me ever since Christmas break and the week I was sick.  I’ve been understanding a lot more in Italian.  I use to get easier work than the Italian kids in school, but now I do the same exercises and homework as them.  I think it’s fun.  Also, conversation is easier to understand.  I hardly ever have to say “Non capisco.”

My favorite class in school is Italian grammar because the teacher is really nice to me and it’s the easiest class.  Right now we are studying comparisons and superlatives.  For instance, if something is good, we say it is “buono.”  If something is better, we say “migliore.”  If something is the best, we say “ottimo.”  At first it was confusing, but my tutor Paola helped me understand.

In history we are learning about the Etruscans.  They lived before the Romans.  Where they came from is a mystery, but they lived in here Umbria and around the center of Italy.  They were the ones who invented the arch.  They were really good architects.  When they wrote, they wrote from right to left, and they did not have spaces between their words.  They wrote with a different alphabet than ours.

This is an Etruscan arch.  It's the most famous arch in Perugia.

This is an Etruscan arch. It’s the most famous arch in Perugia.

My least favorite class is science.  Right now we are studying the body.  We are learning about breathing, muscles, bones, intestines, nerves, veins and cells.  There are some funny pictures in my science book like a rotting orange, the Italian food pyramid, a little baby sitting on a potty, and an angry boy riding a bike.

This is a picture from my science book.

This is a picture from my science book.

We always have a break at 10:15.  That’s when we get to have a snack and talk.  My friends are Alberto, Andrea, Gaia, Anna, Alessandro and Teresa.  During break the boys sing Gangnam Style or play charades.  Actually, I don’t play charades because I have no idea what they are acting out.  Sometimes they do things and I don’t know what it is suppose to be.

This is me with my classmates.  I'm sitting between Andrea and Gaia.  In the background is poster of me that my class made at the beginning of the year.  It says, "Welcome to our school."

This is me with my classmates. I’m sitting between Andrea and Gaia. In the background is a poster of me that my class made at the beginning of the year. It says, “Welcome to our school.”

Today during snack time, I talked with Gaia.

Today during snack time, I talked with Gaia.

After school, I come home for lunch, check my emails, do my homework and get gelato.  I go across the street to Grom for gelato.  Right now my favorite flavors are cream, lemon, chocolate and stracciatella.  The most common flavor is hazelnut.  Vanilla is not very popular, and it’s hard to find.

Sabrina and Verenna and me.  Today I ordered three scoops and some whip cream.

Sabrina and Verena and me. Today I ordered three scoops of gelato and some whip cream.

We are half way through the year. It has been fun when people visit us, but I’m also excited to go home.  I miss our backyard and our house and our neighborhood and my friends.  But when I leave I will miss the gelato, the food, my Italian friends, all the traveling on Sundays and vacations.

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 http://www.cortinastelle.it/

View of Cortina from the observatory. (Photo courtesy of Alessandro Dimai http://www.cortinastelle.it/)

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 http://www.cortinastelle.it/)

Col Druscie Observatory (Photo courtesy of Alessandro Dimai http://www.cortinastelle.it/)

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 skyontheweb.com

The control room: a tutorial on skyontheweb.com

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.

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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