My 5 Favorite Memories of The Beach House

Our family beach house of 57 years is now a memory. I spent much of my childhood here, in the tiny 1929 blue cottage with brick-red shutters along the shores of Mission Beach. Her living room was covered in a driftwood-type paneling, a fish net hung in a corner, stuffed with shells. The floors and furniture were all a bit sandy. I often wonder why we didn’t name her. We just called her “the beach house.” To me, it was heaven on earth. My sanctuary being the wide blue ocean in her front yard.

Best beach house
1965 beach house

My mom’s memories: First, it was finding the house after renting apartments for several years in Mission Beach. It was  perfect because it was right on the beach and the way into the ocean was gradual. Just right for young children learning the ways of the waves. Close enough to watch from the kitchen window. The beach was rarely crowded. The boardwalk lent itself to learning to ride a two-wheeler.

Memory #1:

Riding the Waves

Rafting
Action rafting
Floats

Surfing the white ruffles of waves on an orange canvas float is heaven. My dad is my raft caddy, teaching me how to get through the surf. After I learn the ropes, I am off on my own. My arms paddle with ferocity out to the last set of waves. I glance over my shoulder, waiting for that perfect swell of water to lift me up, then plunge me downward into her curl. The salty water sprays over my body as I am propelled, at an angle, toward the shore, finally stopping with a thump as my float hits the sand. A rush of adrenaline always makes me giggle with delight as I turn my float around to paddle out for more. The cool water sends shivers down my thin body at the same time as the warmth of the sun gives it a glow. I smell like Sea & Ski and am either slathered in sunscreen, while swimming, or in cocoa butter while tanning. My hair dries with salt crusts and bleaches with blonde streaks naturally.

Mom calls for me to come in for lunch and I reluctantly leave my water home. After eating, I am told I must wait 1/2 hour before returning to the sea. It seems like an eternity as I nap in the warm sand, awaiting the A-Ok. I have this routine, day in and day out. There is nothing I’d rather do and nowhere I’d rather be. 

Memory #2

Family

It seems we are almost always together – my mom and dad, brother John and babysitter Claudia. We sure know how to play! Swim, sunbathe, ride bikes, repeat. Every kid’s dream and we are living it!

Mom & JW
Dad and bikes
MEK
MEK buried in sand

Mom and Dad and the infamous fishnet!

 

Memory #3

Beach Combing

Shell hunting
Claudia smile

Early misty mornings at low tide, my babysitter Claudia and I awake early to see what gifts the ocean has delivered to her shore. An aroma of salty seaweed hovers in the still air. Bucket in hand, my eyes downward, I scan the beach for scallop shells, tiny clam wings and the prized sand dollar. It takes a special awareness to find the sand dollars, whose “bump” is usually the only thing visible, the rest of the fragile shells covered with sand. I create art with the shells, making hanging mobiles to decorate the beach house and my room at home. I glue my finds onto picture frames and pile them into glass jars for display. Shells are my visible connection to the ocean, even when I am not there.

My mom’s memories: As the children grew and friends were invited to come for a week in the summer, it became a destination to enjoy the ocean, lie on the beach to “cook” until a good tan was visible, and to eat the sweet rolls from the Parker House and to savor the fish and chips from the authentic English vendor, Jubbs, wrapped in newspaper and dosed with vinegar.

Memory #4

Sandcastles and Sunshine

My mom and Claudia taught us how to design a sandcastle!

It is almost an everyday occurrence. Building a sandcastle and then watching it disappear with the rising tide. Running to the water with our buckets for water to drizzle on top, like icing a cake. Each one has its own character and theme. Mostly of fairy tales, like the kind Claudia would read to us at bedtime. All of us contributing one special tower or a moat to a work of love.

Memory #5

Watching the sunset with my dad

The best time of the day!

Every night, my dad calls us outside to view the orange ball of sun sink into the horizon. This is his favorite part of beach living. Quietly, we gather on the deck, like a nightly ceremony. Sometimes the sun vanishes in a tangerine glow. Sometimes, when it is very clear, we are rewarded with a “green flash.” This phenomenon does not occur often and you must not take your eyes off the sun. Not even for a second! As soon the last bit of sun hits the horizon line, a flash of lime green light bursts forth, hence, the green flash. Every night we watch for it. The best part of our sunset viewing is actually after the sun has set and the clouds light up the evening sky with layers of fuchsia, fire-red and salmon orange. The colors become more vibrant, then begin to fade with the darkness to become glowing embers. Afterward, my dad and I give each other hugs, not saying a word, just sharing the emotion. Every sunset I watch now, I feel my dad’s embrace and know he is in my heart, admiring the color-splashed sky alongside me. 

My mom’s memories: When Jim retired we spent free time at the beach house hosting friends and relatives. It was a great getaway. Everyone enjoyed the lazy days and the magnificent sunsets. Time marches on and it was time to say farewell to “this old house”. It was good to all of us and its walls hold just as many memories as I do. May its new inhabitants give the walls new memories to hold.

It was a time of togetherness and family love. If wishes could come true, well, mine were pretty well granted. This was summer life in Mission Beach. Still my favorite place to swim, nap in the sun, watch the dolphins and the sunsets and most of all, remember how to play again.

“Happy. Just in my swim shorts, barefooted, wild-haired, in the red fire dark, singing, swigging wine, spitting, jumping, running — that’s the way to live. All alone and free in the soft sands of the beach….” 

Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums

“Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storm, but to add color to my sunset sky.”

Rabindranath Tagore, Stray Birds

Ciao for now,

 




Sicily, Seafood and Sunsets

“I’m taking you to the best seafood restaurant on the island of Sicily, maybe the entire world!” Roberto proclaimed. Roberto’s insistence that EVERYTHING in Sicily is the best is irritating at times. How can the  food be better than the meals I’d eaten in southern France, Tuscany and Puglia, my favorite places for food adventures? I was anxious to find out.
We drive north from Catania, for about 30 minutes, through narrow, winding neighborhood streets that hug the coastline to arrive in the tiny paese (village) of Santa Maria La Scala.

Santa Maria La Scala sits cradled in a storybook harbor, overlooking a tranquil Ionian Sea. Houses colored ochre, pistachio, melon and granite perch on volcanic rock facing small, bobbing fishing boats. Trattoria Scalo Grande’s location is its decoration. Simple pumpkin colored tablecloths, trimmed in white, and black chairs to match the railing keep the focus on the food. The sun is setting as we sit down at an outdoor table hovering over the harbor. The view is enchanting. The warm breeze invites me to relax into the Sicilian vibe. I glance at the menu but defer to Roberto to order the crudo I’d so anticipated. “Vino?” our waiter states more than asks. “Si! Vino Bianco Locale,” I respond. The wine comes in a recycled green bottle, is cool and delicious. We’ve mostly been drinking white wine on this vacation – weather driven – and its crispness pairs beautifully with the fish and lighter pasta dishes. The Sicilians fill their tumbler glasses a quarter full and drink slowly unlike their food which they inhale like its their last meal.

Loving every minute of this dinner.

Roberto, my guide in all things culinary in Sicily.

For our secondi, or second course, Roberto orders the sepia pasta made with squid ink and I decide to select my fish from the assortment displayed on ice inside the restaurant. The fish is priced by the kilo, so it depends on what you order. The waiter describes the fish using words like “forte,” strong and “pesce a polpa tenera,” soft flesh fish. A chubby “Pauro,” or seabream species, catches my eye. He will be grilled whole with no adornments except olive oil, lemon juice and fresh parsley.

Take your pick! It’s all good.

Our primi arrives in waves. Raw red shrimp, huddled together on a plate drizzled with a hint of olive oil and lemon juice starts us off. After the first bite, I begin to think Roberto really is onto something. Soft, sweet and fresh, melting in my mouth like a bon-bon. I could eat a bowl of these, they are that exquisite. Please be the magical replenishing plate! Alas, we must move on…

Sicilian crudo red shrimp. Fantastico!

I’m not sure how I feel about anchovies. In the U.S., they usually are oily, fishy and not fresh. But, these are different. They gleam. Butterflied to expose their delicate bodies, and dressed with the same olive oil, lemon juice and parsley, their briny and tender taste is bewitching.

Aren’t these the most beautiful anchovies you’ve ever seen?

Small chunks of warm tuna follow, then a delectable mixture of marinated octopus, shrimp and mussels.
The parade of seafood continues. A plate arrives with a trio of perfectly fried anchovies, shrimp and calamari. A squeeze of fresh lemon brings out even more flavor in these crispy bites.

Fried trio
Octopus
Warm tuna

Freshly steamed mussels, heaping in a bowl, are placed between us. I eagerly grab one and with a fork, pry out the orange meat. The subtle taste of wine and garlic accents the mussel’s tender bite. I eat in amazement as I have never eaten a mussel that has no chewiness or after taste. I’m all about texture as well as taste and these are simply the best mussels I have ever eaten. I smile at Roberto, in a fog from all the delectable flavors that have crossed our table, and nod my head. “Yes, Roberto, you are right about everything being fresher, tastier and better in Sicily.” Now there is no denying it.

The best mussels I have ever eaten!

My secondi of Pauro fish is served on an oval platter, laying in a pool of the ubiquitous garnish of olive oil, lemon juice and parsley. He is gorgeous! I expose the inner flesh and easily slide my fork under the set of bones to unlock them and set them aside. The Pauro’s meat is delicate, moist and divine with a spoonful of the sauce. Roberto is just as entranced with his squid ink pasta. Words simply cannot describe this meal.

Pauro
Squid ink pasta

For dessert, I opt for a digestive of lemon sorbetto. I taste a combination of lemon and key lime. Asking the waiter what kind of lemon it is, he replies, “locale,” or local. The different parts of the island deliver their own unique fruit flavors. I eat the cool, slushy sorbetto slowly, savoring every spoonful. Roberto’s mandorle (almond) semi-freddo drizzled with chocolate sauce is heavenly too. It melts in your mouth, is not too sweet and is just the perfect few bites to finish off the meal.

I could never duplicate this meal, this dessert. It is only meant for this place in time. An experience more than just a dinner. It will be etched in my memory forever… the warm ocean air, beautiful views, setting sun illuminating the city lights. Bellissimo!

A beautiful finale.

Trattoria Scalo Grande

66, 95024 Acireale

CT, Italy

39 328 883 2384

 

Her gaze dims as her nostalgia for Palermo overcomes her. Those smells of seaweed dried by the sun, of capers, of ripe figs, she will never find them anywhere else; those burnt and scented shores, those waves slowly breaking, jasmine petals flaking in the sun.”
― Dacia Maraini, The Silent Duchess

Ciao for now,




The Power of Agrigento

Temple della Concordia at Agrigento. Spectacular!

Have you ever been to a place that brought forth such a surge of emotion that it vibrated into the deepest part of your soul? A place so powerful, so ancient, that its energies pulsate, like a heartbeat, and still feels alive, even now, over 2500 years later? This is how I felt while visiting Agrigento or The Valley Of Temples on the south coast of Sicily. The extraordinary UNESCO site is preserved in honor of the Greeks, who built these magnificent temples to honor their gods. So humbled by this experience, I felt as if I were bowing to a lion.

Check out the view of the ocean from the temples.

The Greeks built their society on these dusty hills overlooking a turquoise sea to demonstrate their strength when viewed from below. It must have been, and still is, imposing and overwhelming in its grandeur. Almost as if giants lived here. Monumental Doric columns made of sandstone frame the temples, their walls lost to history and war, leaving a hollow, a void to be filled only by the spirits of their worshippers. But the small bodied Greeks, working their hearts out to create gratuity for their gods and goddesses, somehow designed and built temples that would last, freezing their time in existence. Hard to imagine!

A Telemone which is a male figure used as a pillar. His head is to the left and his arms are raised as if he is lifting something.

I’ve not been able to identify this statue, although I saw a replica of it in Pietrasanta a few years ago.

At every temple site, with headphones glued to my ears, I listened to the stories behind each structure; The Temples of Juno, Zeus, Hercules, Dioscuri, Persephone and Demeter. I was getting a Greek mythology lesson and I loved it. A thriving city-state housing over 300,000 inhabitants, Agrigento prospered under Greek rule and was respected for its brilliant architecture and its beauty. These people had it all. A fishing port down the hill. A valley behind, named Kolymbethra, abounding with orchards, gardens and wildlife. It came complete with a sophisticated hydraulic irrigation system, to be the envy of any present-day gardener. What more could you ask for? I guess that is why it was so heavily fortified, only to be conquered and re-conquered for its abundance of natural resources as well as its strategic positioning.

Cluster of columns
Hilltop ruin

They say the average stay at Agrigento is two and a half hours and we were there for more than five. I could have stayed longer. Kolymbethra’s garden oasis enchanted and seduced the gardener in me.
If I had lived here, my job would have been to be a caretaker of this splendid paradise. Cool breezes filtered through the orange, lemon, apple, pear, bergamot, mulberry, fig and pomegranate trees that lined a pathway on both sides of the canyon. I walked further along, surrounded by olive and almond trees, artichoke stalks, and vegetable gardens, all strategically irrigated via narrow ditches guiding water from a nearby pool. Every food I love, right here. A gastronome’s paradise. I wondered, who were the cooks, the chefs and how did they prepare this plenitude, these riches and gifts of the earth? My research revealed a lack of details on food preparation but I did find this great site about the kinds of food grown by the Greeks. The website is called Spruce Eats. If I were the cook, I’d prepare sardines and prawns with freshly pressed olive oil, fennel, cucumbers and olives served over thyme infused barley. For something sweet, I’d bake little cakes with the almonds and pistachios and maybe add a little saffron. How about figs soaked in pomegranate juice or artichokes steamed with citrus peel? The options were endless! And delicious!

I spotted this mysterious dog running from hiding place to hiding place, obviously hot. He looked like a ghost of a Greek spirit.

One side of the irrigation system in Kolymbethra.

The water travels across and into the vegetable gardens.

Kolymbethra. A tree bearing mini pears. They are so delicious!

“Agrigento!” is the first word out of my mouth when someone asks me about the highlight of my trip to Sicily. Since I’ve not yet been to Greece, these ruins gave me a  deeper perspective on life and a respect and reverence for the ancient Greeks. How did we get so far away from simplicity? Ok, I know their life wasn’t simple – I’m sure it was hard but what mattered to them were their gods and goddesses, survival from invaders and attention to nature and its natural resources. How can we, as a society, bridge the gap?

 

Temple of Dioscuri. We became friends. Very strong earth energy.

Empedocles (c. 492-432 BCE), who came from Agrigento, famously said of the city’s inhabitants and their easy living: ‘…they party as if they will die tomorrow, and build as if they will live for ever’. (Found on the Ancient History Encyclopedia, a fantastic website!)

Ciao for now

 




Scrumptious Sicilian Pastries

Sicilian Pistachio Cake

As a former pastry chef, I am constantly on the quest for beautifully crafted and tasty pastries and of course, gelato. What I saw and tasted in Sicily really wowed me and delivered an unexpected surprise. Very similar to beautiful French pastries, only using more of what mother nature locally provides, like pistachios, almonds and citrus,  from this sunny island. I thought I’d share a few photos I took of the diversity of Sicilian pastries to make your mouth water or to perhaps inspire your next creations. Be sure to check out the photo captions for links, or use these, to learn how to make cannoli, semi freddo, marzipan, and brioche.

A Sicilian pastry classic, the cannoli. Click here to see how it’s made! Cannoli

Tempting Sicilian Candied Apples

Sicilian Apple Tarte and Brioche – to eat with granita!

Sicilian Watermelon Tarte (I’d never ever seen anything like this!)

Sicilian Stuffed Lemons

Sicilian SalAmone Cake – stunning!

Sicilian Mandorle (Almond) Semi Freddo Click here to see how to make Semi Freddo

Sicilian Chocolate Cakes Almondine

Sicilian Cake Sveva. So gorgeous!

The perfect Sicilian Croissant!

Sicilian Drumsticks. I always wanted to go back to get one but never made it. Next time!

 

Sicilian brioche. The color says it all! Here’s my recipe for Brioche!

Marzipan – a Sicilian classic. Here’s a great story on the history and making of this elegant confection. Sicilian Marzipan

Gelato 3
Gelato 2

 

 

Sicilian Coffee & Pistachio Gelato

Proud Sicilian Signore Gelato!

Sicilian Panna Cotta Cake with Berries. So sweet!

 

Sicilian Festive Semi Freddo

Did you see something that inspired you? Some of these pastries are truly imaginative! I think a Semi Freddo will be my weekend project!

“All of Sicily is a dimension of the imagination.”
Leonardo Sciascia

Ciao for now!

 

 

 

 

 

 




La Festa

 

This event happened in October of 2015 in Lucca, Italy. It changed my life and I wanted to acknowledge all my friends in Lucca who have opened my heart and showed me that anything is possible. The story is longer than usual so sit back with a coffee or glass of vino and enjoy.

This story is dedicated to my dear friend Davino, who showed me the real Italy, who taught me how to eat chestnuts and who had the biggest heart, always filled with love and generosity. I miss you Davino.

Davino Lazzarini

1947 – 2017

 

The Festa
A celebration of friends and food

This birthday stung. I felt like I was being propelled from the comfort zone of my “middle ages” into the “senior” zone. A downward spiral. What would mark the “age of wisdom” was otherwise depressing. We all experience milestones in our lives. I would survive.

To make this transition bearable, my mom, our dear friend Claudia and I planned a trip to Italy for late September into October. A visit to Florence, a week’s stay in Pienza and the grand finale, a week with my dear friends Angela and Davino on their comfortable farm, La Mimosa, in lovely Lucca.
As always, Lucca invited us in with open arms.

La Mimosa nestles itself into a landscape of spring mix salad greens, rolling hills, olive trees, and villas. My favorite view from the property is a stark but peaceful and eye-catching white washed convent that seems to hover, like a pair of angel wings, at the top of a hill in the distance. La Mimosa’s vast property houses two living spaces. One home for Angela and Davino and a renovated barn we three would share for a week. To me, this is the most peaceful place on earth and I was eager to reunite with my friends, their dogs Pongo and Gilda, the many cats and three donkeys that call La Mimosa home.

I’d been to Italy many times before but on this trip I would discover why I am seduced into returning here, to Lucca, even when there are so many other places I yearn to visit. The seduction was revealed during a festa, or party, thrown by Angela, Davino and my mom so I could reunite with all the friends I’ve made here the past three visits. The party would also take the sting out of my birthday. How exciting!

***

By early October, the autumn weather has shifted dramatically from warm sunshine to cool breezes. Black skies loom overhead throughout the day giving the feeling of constant dusk. The coziest and warmest room in the house is the kitchen, and, at its heart, a wood burning fireplace tucked in at waist level, delivering instant heat. An old wooden and well-worn farmhouse table sits in the middle of the room becoming the square kitchen’s centerpiece. When friends gather, it is often around this table where wine or espresso is shared and conversation flows freely. An antique meat slicer rests on a corner counter ready to deliver paper-thin prosciutto slices whose recipients are often one of the many lucky cats living at La Mimosa. Angela’s favorite cooking gadgets and appliances line another deep counter and directly above, open shelving houses plates and glasses.

In the comfort of this kitchen, Angela begins making Zuppa Verde, a traditional Tuscan bean soup with Fagiolini, a brown bean with swirls of red and shaped like a kidney. In Italy, this labor of love has many stages, the first of which is to cook the beans in garlic and sage. She then passes the beans through a hand-cranked press that extracts the skins pushing out only the inner bean. Next, Angela makes a soffritto, the Holy Trinity of Italian flavor basics: onions, carrots and celery. These ingredients are sautéed then added to the beans along with some pomodoro or tomato water. Aromas of the soffritto, which flavors the beans, steam from the tall pot on Angela’s large rustic stove, as the soup simmers for hours. Next, Angela stirs in chopped kale, swiss chard, celery and leek and the soup continues its journey building flavor upon flavor. “We have a contest here,” she tells me, “to see who makes the best Zuppa Verde in Tuscany!” Like our chili cook-off’s, I think to myself, only more sacred.

Our friend, Nico, arrives late in the still-dark day. His contribution to the festa would be homemade spinach-stuffed ravioli. We need ingredients so Mom, Nico and I pile into the car for an adventure at COOP, a large grocery store with good prices on the west side of town. Nico carefully chooses all the ingredients to make his special ravioli and we also purchase olives, jars of marinated red onions, and bottles of Prosecco to drink with the antipasti. The Italians love their coffee and with one whole aisle dedicated to this tradition, Mom finds an espresso coffeemaker to take home. She has learned how to make espresso the Italian way and so will carry forth the tradition – way to go Mom!

The rain is relentless. On the way home, Nico wants to show me where he works, at a center for learning that encompasses acres of land for group or individual gardens. Here he teaches organic gardening to children and disabled people. I can see how this is a good fit for him as he is so patient and kind. The garden is a canvas of design, color and texture. Some rows are well-manicured housing healthy, gorgeous heads of green and red leaf lettuce, spinach and arugula. On the other end of the color spectrum, scraggly bean stalks are saying goodbye to the season. A few aging eggplants still hang on. Nico explains, “This is not only a garden for the center, but the community can use it too for the small fee of 10 Euro a year.” Nico knows all the families, which plots they have and advises them on organic gardening methods. An Armenian family has even created a large coop for chickens and turkeys. Nico points out a giant white “Cinderella” pumpkin making an appearance in an open field. Nearby, a pergola houses hanging gourds of all shapes and sizes. We duck inside from the persistent rain to be semi-sheltered. The long hanging gourds almost form a curtain in the doorway. Some gourds look white-washed with their necks stretching three feet long. Some are deep green with a skin painted like a watermelon and oblongated bodies, perfectly shaped by nature. One must weigh 10 pounds and still hangs proudly on its sturdy vine. We traipse through the beds, picking various lettuces for the party and nibbling the spicy, fresh baby arugula. I am enchanted by this special place, this little microcosm of nature outside of Lucca, like a painting with rotating artists creating their own picture, year after year.

We return to La Mimosa around 5pm to begin making the fresh pasta. Nico proudly shows off his culinary skills by cracking the eggs into the flour to make the pasta dough, and Mom, his eager understudy, rolls the dough into long sheets in preparation for the ravioli. Angela pours us all a glass of their house-made red wine and takes a break from cooking to share her zuppa recipe with me. Then, with Nico’s guidance, I make the spinach filling for the ravioli. This filling is an Italian variation using half cow ricotta and half pecorino ricotta which give it a pleasantly tangy flavor. In a large sinkful of water, we clean, then blanch the abundance of fresh spinach we’d plucked from the community garden. Yes, we will have plenty of filling! We roll the pasta dough into six long wide strands and then dot three of them with the perfectly seasoned spinach, ricotta and parmesan filling. Another pasta layer is carefully placed on top and then gently sealed with fingertips to hold in the filling. “Which ravioli cutter should we use Nico? The big one?” I ask. “Use the small one,” Angela chimes in as she stirs the Zuppa. “We could use the wheel to make squares,” Mom comments. Nico was set on round. So small round it was.

Pasta dries quickly in a warm kitchen so we add pressure to cut through both layers of dough. A dusting of flour on top and voila! we have a finished product. The dough does not make as many ravioli as we project to feed 15 people. Considering all the food that would be served, I think we will have plenty, but the good Italian, Davino, wishes copious amounts of food for his guests. “When Italians are invited to dinner,” he reminds me, “they expect to be fed well.” No cocktail parties here! Yes, a feast, an Etruscan banquet this will be. We share a light meal with Angela and Davino before heading off to bed.

Friday – Festa Day
In the early morning, Mom and I drive to the seaside town of Livorno to purchase olive wood products for my olive oil business. The rain has not let up and is actually even more deliberate in its full throttle shower. The drive is exhausting and I need a nap.

Soon Davino is at the door, asking me to go with him to pick up the sausages for tonight’s festa. The weather is behaving brutto-ugly with angry booms and cloud bursts of torrential water. Onward we drive, winding in and out of country roads, making our way to his friend’s machelleria or butcher shop. Tucked away down a tiny, rural road is a short driveway and a small store front, the butcher’s living accommodations upstairs. Davino says this is how they can make a decent living, by having their shop in their house. The butcher and his wife, a handsome couple in their 60’s, dressed in their matching white aprons, stand proudly behind the small counter. Davino chats away with them, sharing the stories of the day. I watch as the butcher cuts the sausages from a long string, counting out 35 or two per person. How can we possibly eat all this food? The cost is 29 Euro, not bad for freshly ground, fat, pork sausages. Another slice of life in Italy. Doing what you love, even if it means living upstairs from a room of animal carcasses!

We return home and Davino insists that my mom goes with him to pick out the pastries for the party. He tells me I can’t go. “But pastries are my thing!” I whine. “No!” Davino says with a smile. “Only your mom and I!” They will drive to Davino’s home town, nearby, and meet his sister, the baker. I learn later that they are picking up my birthday cake and didn’t want me to see it before the party. My mom returns with stories of Davino’s home town and a glimpse of his past life. I think they really bonded!

I wander over to the main house to see how the preparations are going. Nico is busily poaching the ravioli and a pomodoro (tomato) ragu, to accompany them, bubbles on the stove. They look divine. Davino teaches me how to use the large, antique slicer to make thin salami slices for the antipasti. Nico prepares a gorgeous Mediterranean farro salad with beans, mint, tomato and onion. I place this in bowls and set up the antipasti area in the next room before going back to the barn to change my clothes. I wish I’d had something more appropriate to wear but had not packed for a party. The weather has shifted, fall is early and all my dresses are sleeveless. I put on my garnet-colored sweater and matching tank, some eye makeup, my favorite dangle silver earrings, rose-colored lipstick and now am ready to meet and greet.

Annalisa, Angela’s painting friend arrives first, followed by Mattia and Michelle, the incredibly talented opera singers I had stayed with the year before. Simonetta and Federico, Mattia’s parents whom I had met last year at their Vendemmia (grape harvest) came next and then Antonio, a well-regarded Tuscan painter, Liliana, his dentist wife and their daughter, Francesca, a concert pianist. The two Germans staying in La Mimosa’s studio also join us. A diverse, educated and artistic crowd will make for a lively evening. It is a quiet sort of mingle for the antipasti. Everyone gathers in the living room for Prosecco and Nico’s delicious farro salad. Soon Angela calls us all into the kitchen for La Cena. The kitchen table is flanked by two more tables creating a dining space the length of the room. A white tablecloth, white plates and simple white cotton napkins line the table along with carafes of Tuscan red wine. The food is to be the centerpiece. The fireplace roars with crackling wood, filling the room with warmth.

Presentation is everything. Angela lines a very large green ceramic bowl with day old bread slices, spooning the steaming Tuscan soup, Zuppa Verde, on top to soften the bread. Fantastico! From this bowl, she then scoops out some of the bread and ladles the hot zuppa on top into individual bowls for the guests. We all complete the zuppa with a ritual drizzling of Italian extra virgin olive oil. There is a hush and the only sounds are of spoons clanking the sides of the bowl scooping out every savory, creamy drop. The bowls are cleared away and new ones appear. Soon Nico’s ragu-baked ravioli are placed into the bowls along with a slice of thin, meat lasagna. It turns out Davino didn’t think there would be enough food so bought a beautiful homemade meat lasagne just in case. I am already getting full. Our ravioli are bursting with the delicate spinach and cheese filling and every mouthful dances on my tongue.

Listening to the various conversations is challenging since everyone is speaking in Italian but I manage to understand quite a bit. Mattia is clearly the entertainer, making everyone laugh and occasionally bursting out into song. His wife, Michelle, obviously adores him and enjoys bantering back at him. Antonio is a quiet and serious man with a big heart. I imagine him constantly creating a new painting in his mind’s eye. I hear him chiming in to comment, adding only a few words here and there. He is mostly focused on the food and like any artist, appreciating, with gusto, Angela’s masterpiece of the zuppa.

Angela comes alive, leaving her soft-spoken self and with animation, recounts a recent news story of people in Austria (her home country) trapped and locked away in a house for years. She has the entire table under her spell. It is a time to continue the digestion before more food.

Again, Angela clears away bowls and fresh plates arrive. She must have a magic replenishing cupboard! While we devour the ravioli, Davino is busy grilling the fresh salsicca (sausages), over the open fire in the kitchen. A cat appears and rubs up against my leg. He apparently smells the meat and invites himself to the party. The hot, aromatic sausages are delivered to each guest by Davino. How could I possibly eat more? But every bite tastes so good! Still the food keeps arriving. It is a dream I never want to end.

Earlier, Nico and Angela prepared fagioli, beans, simmered with copious amounts of garlic, onion and sage. So rich in flavor, I could eat these everyday. This is the accompaniment to the sausage. Dio Mio! By this time, my stomach is swelling out of proportion. Thankfully, after this course, we all retreat upstairs for some entertainment.

Francesca, Antonio and Lilliana’s 19 year-old daughter, is a classically trained pianist and treats us to a Beethoven concerto. I am mesmerized as her slender fingers slide so easily over the keys, making musical notes leap into the air. It is a masterpiece only to be understood by those of us lucky enough to be present in her company. Mattia and Michelle sing “Ol Sole Mio” and with gusto, everyone sings along. I have goosebumps. How can an evening be more perfect? I am about to find out.

I follow the rest of the guests down the stairs and back into the kitchen. To my surprise, the kitchen is dark and on the table sits a large gorgeous cake with “Happy Birthday Mary” written on it. A tiny firecracker sizzles and I blow out the candle that read “60.” Everyone sings Happy Birthday. It is beautiful and I feel a surge of love for these Italians who have become my family. This outpouring of food and genuine well wishes is overwhelming. I make a wish (to someday live in Lucca!) and cut the first slice of “Svoglia.” The cake is a giant Napoleon. When Davino ordered the cake, from his sister’s bakery he asked for a cake for 15 people. Instead, he got a cake for 50 people! A thin cookie crust creates the base, followed by layers of puff pastry, then panna (cream) and a thick layer of dark, gooey, delectable chocolate pastry cream fills the center. The entire cake is frosted in whipped cream with pretty flowers piped decoratively along the edges. A pink rose garnishes each corner. It is fantastico!

My incredible birthday cake!

Davino loves gelato and no party is complete without it. After cake, he brings out his four favorite flavors: Hazelnut, Pistachio, Chocolate and Cassata. I am ready to explode. Oh, all this with more Prosecco.

Nico, who is sitting next to me, gets up and presents me with a beautiful white bag. Inside is a bottle of perfume encased in a gold and white box. I am stunned. “Nico, sei troppo gentile.” What a sweet, sweet gift from this gentle man. Michelle then stands up and comes back with another white bag. This one holds a tiny dark blue bag closed with raffia. Inside are a pair of silver earrings studded with two rounds of emeralds. “Bellisima!” Again, I am almost in tears. This outpouring of love and gifts is almost too much for this person who is so unused to attention. The group cries “Speech, speech!” With Nico whispering in my ear, the Italian words I want to convey, I thank my guests for coming, express gratitude for their friendship and then say “Amo i miei amici Lucchese!” I love my Lucchese friends. Everyone claps and the chatter returns.

I sit in between Nico, who speaks English, and Simonetta, who doesn’t and try desperately to carry on a conversation with her in my intermediate Italian. She is a fabulous cook as well as an accomplished Flamenco dancer and I love her confidence and style. She has made my favorite Italian dessert, her specialty of Semifreddo, an Italian frozen mousse. We don’t even get a chance to eat it – we already pushed the gastro limits beyond capacity. It will wait patiently to be appreciated the next day.

I have an epiphany at that moment. Italy itself is oozing out of this table, like a tube of oil paint and with each squeeze and stroke of the brush, coloring the event with art and artists. Everywhere, art is complementing art. I am surrounded by artists all in their own right. Three fine art painting artists, two opera singers, one concert pianist, one European architectural restoration artist, one dancer, three cooks, and one garden expert and historian. This is Italy. Living, breathing, art. I am a part of this art, drinking in all its humility on one side and its ownership on the other. It has taken me years to fully grasp this concept even as “art” keeps singing in my ears.

The evening is ending and I say goodnight to all. I will always remember this very special day and how my mom, Angela and Davino planned the perfect surprise just for me. That night as my mom and I lay in bed, she tells me how she had planned this party back in March as soon as she knew we were coming to Italy. She wanted me to feel happy and loved after the year of struggle and ill-health I experienced. I am learning to accept love and attention. This is a start. I am so grateful for my mom and all the friends who truly care about me. Lucca is a gift and a treasure and I cherish every moment I am here to experience her loving arms and joyful vitality.

Ciao for now,




Volare!

Volare sing-along

Place: Pulignano a Mare, Puglia, Italy

The True Italy

The pistachio gelato I had just consumed made me sleepy and I headed back to our beautiful white-washed hotel overlooking the ocean. As I turned the corner, a group of young men waving Italian flags gathered in front of a life-size statue of Domenico Modugno, the Italian hero who wrote the iconic song, “Volare.” At first it looked like a political rally until in unison, they all broke out into song and with gusto sang “Volare” for all the town to hear. So moved by this experience, this respect and outpouring of admiration and Italian pride, their voices seemed to silence the waves of the Adriatic Sea, crashing behind them.

This joyful group might have represented the entire country of Italy and their joy of singing and life. Volare is now one of my favorite songs and I never, ever, tire of hearing it and singing along.
Be sure to listen to Domenico belt it out on The Ed Sullivan Show, 1958.

Domenico sings Volare!

Me and Domenico

Ciao for now!




The New Look!

Infant San Marzanos. My ode to Italy!

Spoon & Suitcase

Welcome to my new blog site! I have a new name, Spoon & Suitcase, that reflects my passions  for eating, cooking and travel. I really like it and hope you do too! I’ve categorized my recipes, stories and travel information to make it much easier to access. Also new is a “print” option for the recipes.

Take a look around and let me know what you think. I am grateful for you, my readers, and love writing about my cooking and traveling adventures. In June, I’m off to the island of Sicily, complete with my tour guide and fratello Roberto, a native Sicilian who is featured in a few of my stories. I’ll share all the great little Sicilian haunts that are local favorites!

Me and my Sicilian tour guide Roberto.

Ciao for now!

 

 

 

 




La Vendemmia

Grape vines

La Vendemmia means the harvest, in this case of the Campetti’s beautiful vines near Lucca.

Every day in Lucca gets better and better. Mattia’s family invited me to partake in La Vendemmia, an annual event, in late September and early October, to harvest grapes for wine. I feel privileged, and lucky, to share in this day long celebration of family, food and friends.

Michelle & Nico

Harvesting grapes is just as much fun as it is work. Michelle and Nicola crack me up!

The vineyards are on Frederico and Simonetta’s property, Carpineta Ranch, a beautiful 20 minute ride from Lucca. The drive follows narrow and winding roads up the hills where the vistas get wider, deeper and so visually stimulating that I become hypnotized, my eyes drinking, like parched desert, the equally balanced green and stone cropping of old churches and houses. A visual feast.

Welcome to Carpineta Ranch!

Welcome to Carpineta Ranch!

When we arrive, Angela, a friend of the family, is busy making a wood fire for cooking the lunch. It is a deep oven, large enough to fit four-foot pieces of wood and to create intense heat.

The master fire cook Angela.

The master fire cook Angela.

The sky is blue and the air is warm. I tuck my feet into a pair of rubber boots, grab the clippers and off I go. We clip like mirrors. One person cuts clusters on one side of a row and the other clips facing them, insuring that all the grapes are found. Sometimes my mirror partner is Michelle and we chat away; sometimes it is Alberto, and we clip in silence, exchanging glances and mm’s as we taste the juiciness of the grapes. A giant bucket lies nearby ready to be filled. The clipping is rhythmic and before I know it, my bucket is bursting with the purple jewels.

Future wine

Michelle showing off an exceptional cluster.

Michelle showing off an exceptional cluster.

The buckets are loaded onto a tractor and Frederico transports them to his wine-making shed.

Frederico with our pick is off to unload the precious cargo into the vats.

Frederico with our pick is off to unload the precious cargo into the vats.

A metal crusher sits at the entrance, pushing the grapes through, expelling the stems and leaves.

Into the crusher for the first stages of wine making.

Into the crusher for the first stages of wine making.

Copper vatsThe red pulp, skins, seeds and all, is immediately pumped into large vats where they will rest for five days to soak up the color of the skins and ferment. The white grapes are crushed, then poured into an ancient wooden slat barrel where they are hand pressed. This barrel sits on a platform and has slits at the bottom to catch the juice as it flows into a large bucket. Pressing the grapes to release the juice is an art form and a labor of love. One must use a very long smooth wooden stick to carefully push down through the grapes, along the side of the barrel. If the push is too strong, juice will spill over the side, wasting valuable soon-to-be wine.

Mattia hand presses the white grapes to release the juice.

Mattia hand presses the white grapes to release the juice.

I give it a go. It's not easy!

I give it a go. It’s not easy!

The stickiness of the grape juice permeates my skin. Following tradition, the cool pool refreshes sweaty bodies.

Revitalizing!

Revitalizing!

A tavola!

A tavola!

“Pronto” calls Simonetta. Pranzo (lunch) is ready. This is the best part! A long table under the pergola is neatly set with green dishes.

Ummmmm.

Ummmmm.

Simonetta arrives at the table with a huge pan of baked pasta. Fantastico doesn’t even begin to describe it. Pasta is tossed with ragu and poured into a baking pan. Bechamel sauce anoints the top and swirled into the pasta. A sprinkling of Parmigiano and finally a thin layer of a butter crust coats the entire pasta dish. This bakes just until the crust browns and the inner pasta is hot. Wow.

The art of wood fired food.

The art of wood fired food.

Angela now leaves the table to remove the rest of the dinner from the fire.The food could not be fresher. Tomatoes, potatoes, the chicken and cannellini beans are all grown on Angela and Carlo’s nearby farm. This is such a treat I must pinch myself!

Patate Pomodoro Pranzo Plates are whisked away to make room for the dolce. How can I possibly fit any more into my swelling belly?

Simonetta's version of semifreddo with pinenuts.

SemifreddoA yogurt cake and pine nut semifreddo appear on the table and Frederico does the honors of cutting portions and plating. Another perfect complement of desserts. i eat it all. Cafe is the finishing touch. Is it nap time yet?

Mattia donning a recently shed snake skin. Eek. I hope we don't run into any with the skin on!

Mattia donning a recently shed snake-skin. Eek. I hope we don’t run into any with the skin on!

Frederico's transformation of a hunchback tree trunk. Her name is Bess and she resides at the bottom of the hill. Bellisimo!

Frederico’s artful transformation of a hunchback tree trunk. Her name is Bess and she resides at the bottom of the hill. Bellisimo!

Frederico and his best mate Fiori.

Frederico and his best mate Fiori.

After a stroll in the woods to hunt for porcini mushrooms, which had recently been plucked by someone a step ahead of us, it really was nap time. Comfortable cots line the pool and the warm sun seduces us into relaxation.

Napping

Even Buck is sleepy.

Even Buck is sleepy.

The light softens as the sun begins its descent into the hills. Colors intensify. An ancient church on the hill is distinctly visible against the darker green of the hills. A pumpkin colored home pops out against the landscape. I love this dream of Tuscany. Or Paradiso as Mattia calls it. Another perfect day among new friends. I could not be more grateful.

duskCiao for now!

Love,

Maria