Longing

It seems like every time I close my eyes and imagine Perugia, via Mazzini or our apartment, I can’t stop this awful ache from welling.  The details are easy to picture, yet it’s so inaccessible now.  It feels far, far away.

I had a good year, a great year; maybe the best year of my life.  It felt purposeful, alive, delicious, challenging, melodic and stunningly gorgeous.   I felt a lightness I haven’t felt in six years.  I miss those feelings, but mostly, I just miss being surrounded by Italy.

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It was a life-changing experience, and I was hell of lucky to have it.

Yet, truth be told, while I’d like to beam myself there for a couple hours every day, it’s not where I want to live with my family permanently.  It’s not even where we want to live for another year.  For the boys, the familiarity of friends and the freedom of a grassy back yard have rekindled their social lives and athletic interests.  For Matt, the stimulation of work and the warm embrace of the English language have elevated him to the top of his game.  We are here, to stay, by choice.

So now it’s time for the busy work of transition, or rather, integration: How to take all the richness of a year of art, tradition, and history along with that proud, food-oriented, family-centric, festive, passionate lifestyle and make it work here . . . in the suburbs of the East Side . . .

A couple ideas:

Clear cut the tangle of blackberry bushes at the end of the street and build a piazza where the local farmers could sell their grapes and cheeses and where a dapper barista could pull espresso for the neighbors (no caramel macchiatos).  A church, too.  I don’t really care what religion it is as long as there is a bell tower.

Offer Italian in the Bellevue public schools.  While it’s practically useless in the Pacific Northwest, it’s beautiful.  And there’s something to be said for speaking beautifully.

Throw annual medieval festivals in the neighborhood and hold raucous horse races with other neighborhoods.

Have all the working moms and dads come home for lunch and fill the streets with the aroma of garlic and tomatoes and the sound of pouring wine.

Decide on a neighborhood patron saint or some kind of folk hero with whom we can identify ourselves.

Honk our car horns more.

Transitions take time, and while we sort out the details of change, we count our blessings for the two most important aspects of Italian lifestyle going for us:  This hill is full of awesome neighbors (talented, creative, very smart, etc.) and most importantly, we have a community fountain.

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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”.

Sardinia, First Stop, San Teodoro

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Sardinia is the Italian island-region just off the western coast of the mainland.  Its jagged shore weaving in and out of the Mediterranean Sea creates hundreds of small, sandy coves.  These secluded beaches make Sardinia famous, and with the weather in the 80s, lots of Italians are taking a ferry or catching a cheap flight and coming over for a visit. It was hard to decide where we wanted to stay first.  Each seaside town seems to overlook spectacular shades of clear, turquoise water. But after seeing a postcard hanging in a restaurant in Umbria last month, we chose to visit San Teodoro.
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We found the hotel on the internet: “close to the beach . . .good for families . . .wifi available . . .breakfast included.”  And the website offered a discount for paying in advance.   As we drove up, Tom took one glance at the bouncy house and said, “This must be a five star hotel!”
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We entered the reception area at 9pm to loud music from the pool area.  They enthusiastically told us that there was dancing every night until midnight right outside our room.  As we walked past the grassy common area and to our little hut, someone stopped us and listed off the activities for the next day.  There would be games and more dancing and competitions and kids’ crafts and themed evenings.  It sounded like a Carnival Cruise.
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But by 10 the next day, we were all on board.
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Most of the guests at Hotel Hexagon were seniors.  All were Italian with the majority from Naples.  They kindled an endearing, energetic, sometimes brash, southern atmosphere during our stay.  The first day, several of the older guests broke out in traditional Italian dance.  By the second night, they were timing those same steps to “I Follow Rivers” by Audiogroove.
a pre-lunch dance party.  Ilaria taught new dance moves every day at 12:00

Pre-lunch dance instruction

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Matt and Tom entered a two-day bocce ball tournament, and came in third place.Matt and Tom entered a two-day bocci ball tournament, and came in third place.

Matt and Tom entered a two-day bocce ball tournament, and came in third place.

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Our friend Stacia took anther break from her Sardinian sailing job to hang out with us.

And our friend Stacia took another break from her Sardinian sailing job to hang out with us.

Even though we only stayed two nights, saying goodbye was pretty hard.  We all regreted our plan to continue south to Cala Gonone.  We no longer wanted to see “some of Sardinia’s most beautiful hidden beaches and grottos.”  We wanted more pool side dancing and bocce ball.  So as fate would have it, we did get to return.  Half way to our next destination, we realized we left a bag back at Hotel Hexigon.  We made a u-turn and got to see everyone back in San Teodoro for another goodbye.

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.

American Lessons

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I started tutoring last February.  Once a week, I give English lessons and teach American culture to a 17-year-old who is preparing for his senior year in the United States.  I met him after visiting with a ceramic artist in Perugia who mentioned that her son was planning a year abroad as a foreign exchange student and needed someone to help him improve his language skills.  It sounded fun, so I volunteered.

This student, Giovanni, is another one of those people I am so glad to have met.  I love Tuesday afternoons.  Our weekly sessions turn out to be just as culturally insighful to me as we contrast the differences of growing up in two different countries.  Tom and Ray also look forward to these days because Giovanni can relate with their homework rants and complaints about mean teachers.

Yesterday, Giovanni interrupted the lesson to ask Ray if he would play a game of chess.

Yesterday, Giovanni interrupted the lesson to ask Ray if he would play a game of chess.

When we first met, we started with the basics. I tried to give Giovanni an overview of American culture by suggesting that he watch Forrest Gump, Crash and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off as well as some Vietnam movies. Then we converted the metric system into American units.  That way, if someone asks Giovanni how tall his is, he can say 5’11 instead of 180 centimeters.  We also looked into Fahrenheit so he knows to bring a jacket if it’s under 60 degrees or to bring a swimming suit if it’s in the 80s.

Since he likes to cook and is a little worried about adjusting to American cusine, we spend time in the kitchen.  One of the first questions he asked was how to make coffee in the USA.  He’s never heard of drip or a French press so I showed him some pictures on the internet and explained the process while naturally making coffee for ourseves with the traditional Italian moka machine.

The lesson begins with coffee.

The lesson begins with coffee.

In preparation for dinning out, we pulled up some menus from typical American restaurants and sorted through the various dishes and discriptions.  Among the most confusing aspects of a meal was the amount of choices in salad dressings.  Italians use only oil and vinegar.  This led me to pull up a photo of a grocery store with an entire aisle dedicated to salad dressings.  I tried describing the flavors of 1000 island, ranch, French and Russian.  I also cautioned him about seeking out “Italian” restaurants.  After looking at a few menus, it became evident that we all have different interpretations of true Italian cooking.  Giovanni has never heard of fettuccini alfredo and he sternly insists that carbonara sauce never has shrimp or chicken in it.  Besides salad dressing and Americanized pasta, I explained some other novelties such as the bagel, the club sandwich and several possible answers to “How would you like your eggs?”  Later we looked at recipes and translated the following abbreviations:  pkg, tsp, tbl, and gal.

One afternoon we made a box of Kraft mac and cheese that one of our American guests brought over.  Pretty funny.

One afternoon we made a box of Kraft mac and cheese that one of our American guests brought over.

One of my favorite days was when we read emails from some high school students. I enlisted the help of relatives and former babysitters from home who then wrote Giovanni letters describing school in America.  Beyond the classes, sports and social functions, they naturally used common phrases that were unfamiliar (but necessary to learn) such as “hang out, “a bummer” and “pretty cool.”  Giovanni even started a pen pal relationship with one of these high schoolers from Portland.

Finally, this week, Giovanni received the news he’d been waiting for all year – his American destination.  I was really happy to hear that out of all the towns in the United States, it turns out he is going to live with a family in a small, seaside town in Oregon just five hours from our home near Seattle.  This means we will easily be able to visit him next year.

Impressions

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It’s grey and cold in Perugia today.  We only have five weeks left before we pack up and fly home.

I can’t help getting into reflective moods these days.  I think about regrets and highlights.  I think about the year in Italy nearing its end.  I think about coming home.

Lately, whenever we bump into people, they ask us questions about our experience here and our return to America.

Several have asked us if we wish we could stay longer. The thought of leaving gives me knots in my stomach; however, I think a year is probably just right. We’ve seen the four seasons, experienced all the holidays and worked through an entire school year.  We’ve had enough time to really get to know Perugia, see most of Umbria and visit 18 cities outside this region (with six more planned).  We’ve lived big, and we’ve embraced each day.  We’ve been observers of the Italian culture for nearly 11 months.  However, by the end of June, I’ll be ready to return to where I belong.  I’ll be ready to be part of my own culture and be with friends/family who really know us.

Another common question people ask is what our favorite Italian cities are.  This is a tricky one to answer because Italians act offended if their hometown is not the favorite.  So naturally, we agree with them. Secretly, Ray likes Florence, Tom likes Lucca, Matt and I like Rome the best.

A few weeks ago, someone asked us to describe our impressions of Italy.  He wanted to know the little things that surprised us or struck us as unexpected.  As an example, he commented that on a trip to America, he was amazed that people bought milk in one-gallon containers.  How would you ever finish it before it expires? he asked.  He also thought Costco was weird.  After thinking about this question, we listed our observations:

The presence of hazelnuts.  It seems to be everyone’s favorite flavor of ice cream.  It’s often in chocolate bars.  And many breakfast pastries and desserts have hazelnuts or a combination of chocolate and hazelnuts.  I haven’t met an Italian who doesn’t LOVE HAZELNUTS.
Today's flavors: chocolate/hazelnut/vanilla, hazelnut/chocolate chip/grapefruit and vanilla/hazelnut/strawberry

Today’s flavors: chocolate/hazelnut/vanilla, hazelnut/chocolate-chip/grapefruit and hazelnut/vanilla/strawberry

School work is an art form.  The correct answer isn’t as important as color-coding each step.  It’s no wonder some of the greatest artists were Italian.  Grid paper is also used to align the various components of an assignment.  It’s taken the boys all year to accept the “form over content” mentality.
compare September vs. May

compare Tom’s work: September vs. May

Regionalism.  Everyone is proud of their own city and their region.  Being Italian is secondary to being Roman or Florentine or Perugian.  At home, if I brought someone a gift from another place, it would be special, unique and cool.  Here, to most Italians, it would be an insult.  I tried this with Theos chocolate from Seattle.  I gave some to a friend and later wished I hadn’t. Banana-chocolates from the local “Vannucci” chocolatier are a more appropriate hostess gift than an exotic brand from outside Perugia.
Gestures.  Italians talk with their hands.  Someone told us this is because every region has their own dialect.  Sicily and Sardinia have their own language.  So before the peninsula was united and schools taught standardized Italian, people relied on hand motions to help communicate.
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Eating.  I don’t understand how Italians eat so much and so fast.  I can never keep up. I’ve seen disapproving looks when we go out to eat with friends.  Someone once shook her head at my unfinished dinner and said, “What a shame.  It’s better your stomach bursts than leave food on a plate.”
Drinking.  At sporting events and parties, Italians don’t drink much.  They act drunk, but they aren’t.  In America, we drink to liberate ourselves, open up, and feel happy.  Italians are like that without drinking.
The customer is always wrong.  Here, you have to look out for yourself.  If you buy the incorrect size, you keep it.  If you buy a defective product, you keep it.  There are no cash returns.  You are responsible for leaving the store with the right merchandise.  I’ve been burned several times, even in a restaurant.  The other day I ordered cherries for dessert. The waiter brought a bowl of wrinkly, sour, old looking cherries. I could only eat a couple.  When he asked how my dinner was, I explained the problem with the fruit.  He looked at me like I was an idiot and said that it’s still a little early for good cherries.  My fault.
Protection of children.  Italians don’t leave kids alone, not even 14-year-olds.  It’s considered dangerous and bad parenting.  A couple times, Matt and I have left the kids in the apartment while we go across the street for dinner or on an evening walk in our neighborhood, but I’d never tell an Italian this.  Once, when Tom was playing by himself right outside our apartment, he was picked up by the police and brought home.  They told me that I shouldn’t let my 12-year-old play by himself outside even though it was still sunny out.  Ray, in fifth grade, is not allowed to walk five minutes home alone after school.  Teachers will not dismiss him without a parent.
Finally, it is becoming evident to me that Italians don’t have a lot of experience saying goodbye.  This may be because an Italian doesn’t move around the country the way an American does.  They usually don’t live outside the town of their birth.  Many Italians live within a block of their mammas, papas and siblings. And several of our friends live in the same building as their parents.  So they don’t get much practice saying goodbye. When we talk about leaving, Italians say, “Don’t worry, just come back and live here again.” They don’t seem to understand that while we may visit sometime in our life, we will never come back to live.  The awkward sadness that I’m feeling doesn’t translate well.
Therefore, next month, when we say our final goodbyes and close the door to this apartment for the last time, I’m handing out postcards of Seattle with our address on it. We have room in our house for visitors and I’d love to bring some of Italy to our home. When they tell us to “just come back” I will invite them to come to America.  In the meantime, there are still five weeks if anyone can make it over here.

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.

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Corso Vanucci with the Cathedral of San Lorenzo just as mass ended.

Piazza IV Novembre with the Cathedral of San Lorenzo (just as mass ended).

For most Italians, the weekend lasts a single day, Sunday.

Kids get a one-day break from school.

Stores are closed (except the cafes and bakeries).

Families go to church and then meet relatives for Sunday lunch, the biggest meal of the week.

There is an elegance and energy on the streets.  It feels like a holiday.  In fact, a common greeting in Italy is “Buona Domenica!” (Happy Sunday).

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By 11:00 this morning, Corso Vanucci was full of people.  Many stop by Sandri, one of the oldest cafes in Perugia, to buy pastries for dessert.  In Italian bakeries, trays of sweets are wrapped in paper and tied with ribbons. (I love seeing people carrying presents down the street.)

Pasticceria Sandri.  A popular spot on Sunday

Pasticceria Sandri

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Residents from the outskirts come into the city to take walks and meet friends in the piazzas.  Some go to church.  As usual, Italians know how to look good, even when they are all bundled up.

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Because no one has to work today, meals are a little more extravagant and take longer to prepare.  A traditional Sunday lunch may includes lasagna or another pasta al forno (oven baked pasta).  Because Ray was especially interested, I asked around and found a couple recipes.  Most of them require a ton of ingredients and take all afternoon to prepare, so we try to make enough to serve on Monday too.  One of our favorites is made with sausage meatballs, béchamel sauce, tomato sauce, hard boiled eggs, breadcrumbs, herbs, fresh penne, parmesan and provalone.

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The meatballs are ready to add to the tomato sauce where they will cook before becoming one of the layers in the baked pasta

The meatballs are ready to add to the tomato sauce where they will cook before becoming one of the layers in the baked pasta

Ray adds a layer of sliced hard-boiled egg and cheese then I cover it all with the pasta.  Once it's assembled, the trays of pasta al forno cook for a half hour.

Ray adds sliced hard-boiled eggs and cheese, then I cover it all with béchamel sauce and tomato pasta with meatballs. Once it’s assembled, the trays of pasta al forno cook for a half hour.

While the four of us often spend Sunday visiting cities outside Perugia, the boys prefer to stay here where the pace is less dependent on train schedules and restaurant reservations.  There are times when I agree.  Cold winter days like today remind me how easy it would be to settle into the comfortable Italian pleasures of relaxing at home with the family while cooking lots of good food.

Curds and Whey, Making Cheese

Signor Marco with a wheel of pecorino cheese

I met a cheese maker this week.  His name is Marco Sotgia.  He lives on a 400 acre farm outside Perugia. He has an olive orchard, a vineyard, a cow, a horse, three pigs and 250 sheep.  For three generations, Marco Sotgia’s family has been raising sheep and making cheese.

The boys and I spent the entire afternoon at his farm with a group of students from my Italian class.  We witnessed the magical transformation of sheep milk into two of Umbria’s most traditional cheeses:  pecorino and ricotta.

Keeping the temperature under control.

When we arrived, Marco was just filling up a vat with the day’s milking.  We gathered around while he lit a flame underneath and scooped a spoonful of brown paste from a container to add to the milk.  This brown substance is rennet, an enzyme harvested from the stomach of a cow.  Rennet is the ingredient responsible for separating the solids from the liquid (thus creating the curds and the whey).  Not all sheep cheese is made from the insides of a cow’s stomach; there are vegetarian enzyme as well including lemon juice and cardoon extract.  Once the rennet had dissolved, the warm milk started to become thick and gelatinous.  Marco then broke up the solid substance with a long wooden stick all the while slowly increasing the temperature until it reached 108 degrees Fahrenheit. At this point he turned off the heat, and the solids settled to the bottom.

Then Marco rolled up his sleeves and reached deep down to collect the curds.  He packed them tightly into a cylinder shaped colander and pressed it all together so that any remaining liquids could drain.

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By the time he gathered all the curds, he had filled six colanders.  After a while,  the rounds of cheese were firm.  Then Marco removed them from the containers and added them to a salt water bath where they would bob around for the day.  The salt coats the cheese, adds flavor and most importantly, preserves it. Then the cheese rounds sit in a cool, dark room for a month aging slowly until they become pecorino cheese.

rounds of cheese floating in the tank of salt water

Back in the work room, Marco started production of second type of cheese.  Returning to the whey, Marco made ricotta.  For the second time, he turned on the flame and heated the liquid, this time to 169 degrees Fahrenheit.  When it thickened,  he spooned it into plastic mesh containers and let it cool.  Unlike pecorino, ricotta does not need to age.  This soft, mild cheese can be eaten immediately.

ri=again; cotta=cook

A steaming batch of ricotta cheese  (ri=again; cotta=cook)

Before leaving, Marco gave us samples of pecorino and sent us home with a fresh bowl of ricotta that we ate the next day in class.

Of course, both cheeses are great on their own, but we’ve learned that there are many alternative ways to enjoy each one.  Pecorino is found on nearly every menu in Umbria.  It is served at room temperature often with several accompaniments including honey, red onion compote, fruit preserves, spicy apple jelly, and green tomato jam.

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Ricotta is even more versatile.  Mixed with spinach, it’s the most common filling in ravioli. It’s also the main ingredient in many desserts.  It can be served as a snack with sugar, salt, or with sweetened coffee on top; or it can be spread on toast with jelly or honey.  Most often, we eat it for lunch with tomatoes, lettuce, salt and olive oil.

My favorite way to eat ricotta

Tagliatelle with Luca’s Mamma

ribbons of hand cut egg pasta

I haven’t taken an Italian class in over a month, but my teacher Luca and I still occasionally get together. It’s usually centered around food, culture or history, but mostly food.  Recently, Matt and I met him for dinner at Ristorante Nana.  This wasn’t your typical rustic Umbrian trattoria.  This was fancy-pants Italian:  raw fish layered and stacked with colorful, curly, green garnishes, black squid-ink pasta, vegetable foam, and a whole page devoted to creative dishes. For dessert we ordered “coffee and a cigarette” which was coffee gelato and tobacco-infused creme brûlée.

Several days later, Luca invited us to his parents’ home for dinner. He picked us up early so we could see how his mom makes fresh pasta.  His family lives outside Perugia in a charming, old farm house.  We entered through the kitchen which occupies the space where the previous owners (many years ago) housed livestock.  Now there is a fireplace on one wall, a wood-fired stove and oven against the other, a television in the corner, and most importantly, a work table used for rolling and cutting fresh pasta dough.  We met Luca’s parents, Mirella and Giulio, who gave us Italian kisses on the cheeks and then offered the boys chocolates.  It was all so warm and cozy, and I happily spent the next four hours dressed in an apron “helping” Mamma Mirella make dinner.

We started with tagliatelle.  This is a type of pasta that Mirella has been making by hand since she got married.  There are only two ingredients, eggs and flour.  We began by measuring.  For each egg, she uses 100 grams of flour.  She piled the flour on the table and made a well in the center.   Then she cracked open the orangest eggs I’ve ever seen.  “How in the world?!” I asked.  She said that the chickens eat really well over here.  Next, she beat them in a bowl then poured them into the flour.  Slowly with her fingers, she gently mixed it all together.

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Luca, Guilio and Ray watch the demonstration.

Once the flour and eggs were combined, the kneading began.  With the palms of her hands pushing the dough into itself over and over, the mixture became perfectly smooth and evenly yellow.  Once in a while, Mirella would add just a tiny bit of water if it felt dry.

The kneading took longer than I expected.  We took turns and after 15 minutes, it was ready to roll.

The next step was to roll the dough into a thin sheet.  Again, this took some patience.  With a long rolling pin, we eventually succeeded in spreading it all the way to the corners of the cutting block.

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When our arms were exhausted, and the pasta was stretched so thin that it draped over the table, Mirella let it sit and dry out a little.  In half an hour it was ready to cut.  The sheet of pasta was folded over and over until it was about 3 inches wide. Each layer had a little flour sprinkled on top so it wouldn’t stick.  Then she sliced it all into thin strips less than a centimeter wide.  After all the tagliatelle was cut, Mirella shook the long strands out to separate them from each other.  Then she set the pasta aside until it was time to add it to the boiling water.

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Next we walked outside to the cantina where Luca’s parents store their canned foods and home-cured meats.  Giulio brought a prosciutto inside the house so he could prepare a platter of charcuterie for an appetizer.

Touring the cantina

Giulio offered us slivers of proscuitto while he worked.

Several other guests arrived as Mirella and Giulio finished making dinner.  Earlier they had prepared a mixed grill including sausages, marinated pork ribs and pork livers wrapped in stomach lining.  We skewered them on iron stakes and set them in the fireplace where Giulio kept an eye on them while they cooked.  Finally, after Mirella boiled the pasta and tossed it with a tomato meat sauce, we sat down at the table for a feast.

The first course.

We sat around the table until after 10 pm eating plates of food and drinking wine from the neighbor’s grapes.  It was unreal.  The whole day was an Italian fantasy.  I was so happy to wake up the next morning with a bag full of provisions from Mirella and Giulio sitting on my kitchen table.  We already used one jar of sauce and a pound of tagliatelle.  I’ll save the second batch for a special dinner since I don’t know if I will be making pasta by myself away from the magic of Mirella’s kitchen.

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.

Immersion

Milena and Tom study their lottery ticket.  If they win, they'll split 50-50.  It's a big one.  The numbers are drawn on Epiphany.  If Tom wins, he and Heidi will buy the apartment next door to us.

The Italians have their eyes on the BIG ONE tonight.  Here Tom and Milena are studying their lottery ticket.  They’ve decided to share the winnings 50-50 in the hopes that Tom and Heidi can move here permanently.

We have just two days left before my aunt and uncle return to the States.  I really wish that all our guests could stay for so long.  They’ve been here nearly a month.  We’ve had so much fun without ever feeling rushed.  We’ve had time to show them all of Perugia, several Umbrian towns, and then two extraordinary spots in northern Italy.

An afternoon at Perugia's San Pietro Cathedral and medieval gardens

An afternoon at Perugia’s San Pietro Basilica and medieval gardens

Visiting the art and antique fair in Arezzo.

Visiting the art and antique fair in Arezzo.

New Year's Eve in Venice.  We joined thousands in Piazza San Marco for the countdown.  The crowds were so great needed to hold hands so as not to get separated.  Even so, we lost Matt.  New Year's is crazy.  Over 350 people were injured in Italy.  And two deaths.  We returned to our hotel by 12:30 and watched the chaos from the window.

New Year’s Eve in Venice. We joined thousands in Piazza San Marco for the countdown and the shower of champagne. The crowd was so massive we needed to hold hands to stay together. Even so, we lost Matt for a while. New Year’s is crazy, so much so that over 350 people were injured in Italy. We returned to our hotel by 12:30 and watched the chaos from the window.

By now, Tom and Heidi have been here long enough to meet Italians and experience true Italian livin’.  They have made friends with our friends.  In fact, everyone who meets them wants to hang out.  This week Signora Paola, the boys’ tutor, invited us over for dinner.  And no experience is more authentic than eating a meal in an Italian’s house.

We showed up at 8pm, which is customary since Italians like to eat late.  Paola and her husband live outside Perugia on a small farm.  They have olive trees and a big garden.  As we arrived, Paola’s entire family was waiting for us.  We met everyone including her husband, two sons, daughter-in-law and granddaughter.  The table was full of drinks and appetizers, so we sat down immediately.  Paola’s husband, Willy, poured his homemade hot pepper apertif, which was made from infusing garden-grown peppers in alcohol for several weeks.  (We liked it so much that they later sent us home with a bottle.)  Then platters were passed and we filled our plates with chicken liver crostini, pieces of pork head, fennel and grapefruit salad, anchovy and egg crostini, pecorino cheese with an assortment of homemade spreads, and potato chips.  We were all full before the official first course.

The huge table filled the entire kitchen

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Then Paola served plates of mushroom pasta while explaining that her mother-in-law foraged the mushrooms out in the woods herself.  New bottles of wine were opened.  Knowing the boys weren’t mushroom fans, Paola offered a meat and tomato pasta for them.  The next course was wild boar with a side of broccoli rabe.  We were stuffed before the first bite; however, each dish was so good, we continued to eat and eat and eat.  Next came a plate of oranges drizzled with olive oil, salt, and pepper.  One bite and I was convinced that this is the best way to enjoy a slice of orange.

For dessert Paola and Willy offered five different kinds of cookies and three home made after-dinner-drinks.

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Before we left, Paola's son performed some magic tricks

Before we left, Paola’s son performed some magic

Tom got to be the magician's assistant, but still couldn't figure any of the tricks

Tom got to be the magician’s assistant but still couldn’t figure out any of the tricks.

While I would never have enough courage to cook an Italian meal for Paola, I asked if she would consider visiting us in the United States.  She agreed, so  maybe  someday we can return the favor.

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