A magical meal in Italy

I felt I should have been reporting for  Bon Appétit magazine.  It was one of those fabulous food and people spreads – a multi-course meal in the huge, homey kitchen of a 500-year-old house in a tiny Italian village shared by Italians and Americans.  And, I was lucky enough to be part of it.  Too good to be true.cucina7

Thanks to our friends Noel and Carol, whom husband Bob and I know from our days together in Germany, we were included in this memorable feast which went on for five fun-filled hours.  Noel and Carol have retired to northern Italy where they enjoy la dolce vita.  We were their houseguests.

Carol and Noel
Carol and Noel

The lunch hosts:  Fabio and his American wife Victoria.  Fabio is a vintner (www.policreti.it)  with a passion for precious gems as well as grapes.  He has been trading in gem stones since the age of 18, worked for the up market jeweler Bulgari in New York as well as in Italy, and is also dedicated to restoring his

Fabio
Fabio

family’s ancient home, Palazzo Policreti Negrelli in Aviano, which has 47 rooms and has been in his family for more than 200 years. The original owner, engineer Luigi Negrelli , played a significant role in the construction of the  Suez Canal.

Fabio  met his warm and gracious wife  Victoria in California.  She is employed by a German construction company as a translator and much more.  “I am lucky to have an American wife,” says Fabio.  “Italian women often have headaches or give you headaches.”

The guests: In  addition to me and Bob, Noel and Carol, seated at the table were  Riccardo and Zeta, two jolly Italian characters who have known each other since the age of 3, met Fabio  in Los Angeles years ago, and call themselves “professional  travelers.”    Riccardo said he “doesn’t belong to one place,” while Zeta calls himself  “a man of the planet.”   ”We can’t retire, we don’t work,” explained burly Riccardo, who says he has four wives, each in a different country, and claims his only possessions are “an old car and a bicycle.”

Riccardo
Riccardo

Zeta, a chef,  does work six months out of the year at his brother’s restaurant in Greenville, S. C. “When Zeta visits us the first question is ‘what’s on the menu?’  His creations are famous at our hose,” says Fabio. “Instead of making a grocery list, he just looks in the refrigerator and his imagination begins to spin.  He can literally put together a feast by using all the various items which have been abandoned in our frig.  Needless to say, I like to work around him as there is always something to learn or a new taste to discover.”

Zeta
Zeta

The food: Zeta was the coach, Fabio the student who made a big patch of Ligurian pesto with guidance from the chef.  They wanted to share their creation with friends, hence the lunch party.

The French are obsessed with food — Italians perhaps even more so.  Most Italian men cook, Fabio told us, as he checked the boiling pasta for texture.  “A cucina10big part of the day is based on food,” he said.  And, it  is essential that ingredients  be of top quality, he explained.  He claims that Victoria  is “thankful to me for showing her the true secrets of Italian cooking improvisation.”

A refreshing cocktail, a combination of Campari, white wine, Prosecco, and Schweppes, got  the afternoon of to a festive start.

The meal began with fresh ricotta, so creamy and delicate, served with homemade mango chutney and caramelized figs with balsamic vinegar.  The cheese was locally produced, and it was exquisite with the tangy chutney and figs.  There was a platter of prosciutto from the local butcher who cures it cucina1himself, we learned.  And a salad — greens, tomatoes and  luscious mozzarella di Bufala with pungent olive oil from Puglia and black salt from Cypress.  The main course:  trofiette, a  Ligurian pasta,  with the pesto which had been prepared with pecorino.  “Never use parmesan,”  insisted Fabio.

This was followed by a bowl of spaghettini  with the same pesto.  The flavor of the pesto changes with the different type of pasta, we learned.  It seemed hard to cucina2believe, but it was true.  I preferred the pesto on trofiette, others liked the spaghettini  version.  This initiated an animated  discussion of the difference between trofiette and trennette, another type of pasta… Food is definitely serious business in Italy.

For dessert, aged Sardinian pecorino and pears. “It’s hard to get good pears…these are organic from Trentino… Never tell a farmer he has good cheese.  Then he will eat it all, ”  said Riccardo. The cheese was knock-your-socks- off strong.  I loved it, but it was too much for Bob.    He had several  helpings  of the  perfectly diced fresh strawberries that followed.  This prompted Fabio to tell of his cucina6grandmother’s fantastic crop of strawberries in 1986, the year of the Chernobyl disaster.  A boost from radiation?

He went on to relate more engaging tales of his grandmother, a remarkable woman who  “was a very special person to me.”   She lived through two great wars,  suffered the tragic deaths of several family members, but was always a positive and smiling person, Fabio recalled.  “She was the oldest car rally driver in 1996 at the age of 95.  I was the only person brave enough to be her co-pilot.”’

Fabio and his grandmother in 1996.
Fabio and his grandmother in 1996.

We drank Fabio’s Pinot Grigio, followed by a strong red wine called Stroppolatini, then a Sud Tyrol Kerner as an after dinner wine.  Some indulged cucnia9n a rare 45-year–old herb Grappa to top off the meal.  There were also chocolates, courtesy of Riccardo who brought them from a special shop in the Dolomites.

All the ingredients for a magical afternoon:  lively ambience,  fascinating personalities, excellent food and  amusing, entertaining, educational conversation  covering  everything from religion and politics, to the economy, movies — and food of course.

“Italians lose interest in politics,” Victoria said.  “That’s the problem.  They’d rather discuss food.”cucina13

Just in time for summer picnics, Super Slaw.  See recipe in column at right. Comments on blog post and recipes are welcome. See “Leave a Reply” below under Comments. Subscribers also welcome.  Don’t miss future posts.  Click on Email Subscription at top right

Vacation Fiascos

Not every trip is paradise perfect.   I’ve had my share of travel mishaps. In Buenos Aires, three gold chains were ripped from my neck (my fault for wearing them).  I missed out on an excursion to the Brazilian side of Iguaçu Falls because I did not have a Brazilian visa.

I never made it to the Brazilian side.  No one told me I needed a visa.
I never made it to the Brazilian side. No one told me I needed a visa.

The trip had been prepaid, but the travel operator failed to tell me that as an American I needed a visa, and there was no time to get one.  $100 out the window.  In New Zealand, I was so excited about the chance to swim with dolphins – something I’ve always wanted to do.  Alas, I swam in frigid water, but nary a dolphin to be seen.  (I’ve written about these catastrophes in previous posts. “Misadventures in New Zealand,” Apr.27, 2012;  “Cry for me Argentina,” Oct. 30, 2010; “Iguaçu Falls,” Nov. 19, 2010 )

Last fall husband Bob and I had some frustrating experiences thanks to GPS.  We are slow to get on the technical bandwagon, but finally decided to purchase a GPS gadget for this drive trip.  All went well in Germany.  Without it, we might still be driving around looking for some of those off-the- beat- and -track hotels I had booked.

When we got to northern  Italy and were trying to find my friend Trina’s apartment on Lake Varese, another story.  Suddenly we were crossing the border into Switzerland as directed by our GPS mentor.  (She’s British, and her pronunciation of Italian, French and German  street names is abominable, but good for a laugh.)

GPS got us to Bellagio on Lake Como, but failed us thereafter.
GPS got us to Bellagio on Lake Como, but failed us thereafter.

This can’t be right?   What’s with this wacko woman directing us?  What’s with GPS?  We stopped at the nearest gas station, and were told she was all wrong.  Reverse directions and go back to Italy.  We eventually found Trina, but with a map.

After the Italian/Swiss mishap, I verified GPS instructions with a map.  Until we were driving back to France on the autostrada in northern Italy, a stretch we had driven many times.  I relaxed. All seemed well.  Then out of the blue  we ended up at the toll booth for the Frejus Tunnel, 39 euros, no turning back.  Strange.  We had not remembered going through this tunnel before. Perhaps our GPS genius  knew a shorter route?  We had no choice but to continue.

It’s a long, long tunnel.  When we emerged, I checked the map.  Holy S—!  Where are we?  We had driven far out of our way to get home.  And, that GPS crackpot was leading us farther astray.  So much for advanced technology.

Time for another gas station inquiry. I was obviously distraught,  thinking about all those extra miles and hours lost.  The kind woman in the gas station took pity on me and explained that we had two choices, one route via Grenoble, much longer but all on the speedy autoroute, and one over the Col du Galibier, a slow but scenic mountain pass.  We opted for scenery. It was an adventure, up and up a twisty road into the wilds of mountain tops with no civilization in sight, but incredible views.  It was getting dark and this was not a road for sissies, so we took no time to stop and ponder the surrounding beauty. But, it’s a drive to repeat.  Sometimes bad leads to good.

Lots of gold shops in Singapore, but it was in a camera shop where I made my mistake..
Lots of gold shops in Singapore, but it was in a camera shop where I made my mistake..

And, sometimes, as with the jewelry theft in Argentina, you learn from the disasters.  Such was the case in Singapore.  I needed a few accessories for my new camera.  This was the beginning of a long trip, so best make the purchases here.  We paid a visit to a camera shop in Singapore’s Chinatown where a very eager and fast-talking salesman convinced me to buy, not only the needed accessories, but a few other items – including a very costly filter, which, he cleverly demonstrated, would do wonders for my photos.  I was taken in and made the purchases – over $400 worth.

As we ate lunch, I pondered the purchase.  Something did not seem right.  Should they have been that expensive?  I went back to the hotel and checked the items on Amazon.  I had been royally ripped off—the total for the items at Amazon prices would have been no more than about $50.  How stupid I was.

Not to be outdone, I printed out copies of all the Amazon data and marched back to the photo shop for a confrontation. I was all smiles and friendly and took photos of our chatty salesman before presenting the evidence of his deceit. I threatened to put his photo and the shop on Facebook with a warning if he did not give me a refund. The manager, another slick operator, appeared.  He was wary and not about to risk bad publicity.  I could have the refund, but first he wanted to delete the incriminating  photos on my camera.  I obliged, took my money and ran.

Back at the hotel, I related the experience  to the desk clerk who had helped with the copies.  Never do business in Chinatown, he said.  And, never be so dumb and shell out big bucks for items if you have no idea of the going price.

Tour of the wondrous Sydney Opera House was a trip highlight. But, it was downhill after that.
Tour of the wondrous Sydney Opera House was a trip highlight. But, it was downhill after that.

No trip is without some minor aggravations.  In Sydney, when we purchased our tickets for an opera house tour, we were given coupons for a free cup of coffee valid until 5 p.m. at the opera house café.  We showed up at 4:40 pm.  “Sorry. Too late.  We had to close early today.”  No big loss.  Back to the hotel, but by bus as it was raining. We waited and waited.  Finally bus number 53 came.  We proceeded to pay the driver for our passage.   ”Sorry.  No tickets sold on buses after 5 p.m. “  They must be purchased ahead at a ticket office, he explained, but we weren’t about to track down the office, which, by then, probably would have been closed anyway.  O.K.  We’ll take a taxi.  We wandered from street corner to street corner and hailed many a taxi.  All full.  Distressed and soaked, we gave up and trekked in the rain back to the hotel – a good hour’s walk.

Not our lucky day, but far worse could happen. It’s all part of the adventure that can make travel a challenge – and an educational experience.

Black Bean Pumpkin Soup was the overwhelming favorite at a lunch I recently prepared for friends. Several requested the recipe which is listed in the column at right.

Comments on blog post and recipes are welcome. See “Leave a Reply” below under Comments. Subscribers also welcome.  Don’t miss future posts.  Click on Email Subscription at top right

 

Bellissimo Bellagio

Instead of moving to France from Germany eight years ago, I tried to convince my husband to consider Italy as our future home.  It seems such a happy, fun, cheerful place.  I love the language, the people, the food, the countryside.  But, Bob finds it all a bit too chaotic, so France won and life here is fine (see previous blog post, All about Life in France).  But, I still adore Italy and am always thrilled with visits.

Watching the boats go by.
Watching the boats go by.

On the way home from our recent trip to Germany we spent three joyful days in Bellagio on the shores of Lake Como.  Friend Trina, whom we visited later in nearby Comerio, suggested the perfect hotel, Silvio, www.bellagiosilvio.com, just outside of town where we had a room with a balcony overlooking the lake and the distant Alps.  We’d been to Bellagio twice before, once with my mother who was also a fan of bella Italia and loved Bellagio.

View from our balcony at the Hotel Silvio.
View from our balcony at the Hotel Silvio.

The ancient village is perched on the shores of this idyllic lake ringed by mountains.  Steep steps climb skinny alleys lined with intriguing shops.  Sightseeing ships and ferries blow their horns as they pull in and out of the harbor.  It’s the perfect place to hang out and enjoy il dolce far niente (the sweetness of doing nothing)

Our journey began with a car ferry ride at sunset from Colico on the northern end of the lake to Bellagio which sits on the promontory jutting into the water at the junction between the Como and Lecco legs of the lake.  Unfortunately the lens on my Canon Rebel camera froze on our last stop in Germany, so my photos were limited to my Blackberry.  I was amazed.  Not too bad.  And, there were

Lake Como at sunset.
Lake Como at sunset.

scenic, spectacular photo opps all around —  splashes of coral and orange across a dark sky streaked with wisps of clouds, rays of light dancing on the rippled water, postcard villages hugging the shore — all framed by deep blue silhouettes of mountains.

We did more than lounge on that lovely hotel balcony and ponder the Bellagio scenery.  Walk.  Down to the shore and through the perfectly manicured gardens of the Villa Melzi along the lake.  The English garden is enhanced with

October at the Villa Melzi Gardens.
October at the Villa Melzi Gardens.

sculptures, small ponds, a stream, exotic plants and ancient trees.  The complex, including the neoclassical villa, was built between 1808 and 1816 for Francesco Melzi d’Eril, Duke of Lodi, and vice president of the Italian Republic under Napoleon. www.giardidivillamelzi.it

The  garden walk led us to the village where we wandered in and out of the shops and found the perfect souvenir – an olive wood basket.  It was pricey, almost beyond our budget.  I tried to bargain, but the proprietor and craftsman, who had his workshop on the premises, would not budge.  He explained that it was a very time consuming process to create this piece.  We splurged – and are happy we did.  It’s a sensation on our table.Basket

Bellagio is known for another villa on a hill above the town, the Villa Serbelloni, owned by the Rockefeller Foundation.  It is used mainly for conferences.  On a previous visit we toured its gardens which are open for guided tours from April to October.  In town the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni is the address of class where Churchill and John F. Kennedy stayed.

Along the shore in Bellagio.
Along the shore in Bellagio.

Another day we walked up a hill and along a road to Pescallo which I had remembered as being a quaint fishing village.  My memory failed.  It was not much.  No fishing boats.  We did find a lakeside restaurant where we had an expensive but disappointing lunch.  The next day we set out by car for a hair raising ride along the all- too-narrow- winding coastal road (well suited to the Honda S2000) to Lezzeno and a fabulous lunch at the restaurant of the Hotel Villa Aurora adjacent to the lake.  www.hotelauroralezzeno.com   There, as well as at the restaurant in the Hotel Silvio, we enjoyed fresh fish from Lake Como.  Twenty-eight different species are said to thrive in its waters.  Lavarello is a favorite.

On the way back home to France, we stopped first to visit the major town on the lake, Como, and its majestic cathedral, then to Comerio to visit Trina in her gorgeous apartment overlooking Lake Varese.  I met Trina years ago in an Italian class in Germany (she was the star of the class).  Her husband Ian, who used to work in Italy, now works in London. Trina, who teaches English, and her faithful companion, Lucky, a precious 16-year-old Bichon Frisé, are holding down the fort in Italy.bellagio17

We arrived on the evening of Bob’s birthday.  Trina prepared a delicious mussels pasta dish for our dinner – and there was a tart with a candle for the birthday boy.

See slideshow below for more photos. For a holiday brunch, try the Puffed Apple Pancake, recipe in column at right. Comments on blog post and recipes are welcome. See “Leave a Reply” below under Comments. Subscribers also welcome.  Don’t miss future posts.  Click on Email Subscription at top right.

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Bella Venezia

Venice is one of my very favorite places.  It’s beautiful, unique, fascinating… how can you not fall it love with this wondrous place where streets are streams of water? Venice29

Venice is a collection of 118 islands, intersected by more than 150 canals and joined by some 400 bridges – all resting in the heart of 200 square miles of partially navigable salt march.  I’ve been several times, most recently in March for a few days.  We arrived on the last day of Carnevale. This is an amazing spectacle.  Gorgeously costumed posers wander throughout the city, stopping by monuments, on bridges, in front of churches, happily pausing for tourists to snap the obligatory photo.

This was our second time in Venice for Carnival, but this time was somewhat disappointing as we did not see as many costumed revelers.  As the festivities go on for two weeks, perhaps many were tired and had packed up and headed home by the last day. 

Venice, however, was not disappointing. Our friend Noel Parks, an American we know from our days in Germany, is now retired and lives about an hour from the magical city which he visits frequently.  He adores Venice, and knows it inside and out. 

Venice17  Noel and friends had rented a house in Venice for the Carnival period.  A friend of theirs, obviously a gifted seamstress, had made the group lavish costumes so they could fully participate in this marvelous event. 

After serving us a Bellini (delicious Venetian cocktail made with sparkling wine and peach puree),  Noel gave us his Venice tour.  We followed him down skinny alleys,  along picture-book canals, across bridges.  The city is labyrinthine, but Noel never consulted a map.  He knew every turn and guided us to numerous hidden treasures most tourists probably miss.  His commentary at the sites was lively and entertaining.  We were mesmerized. 

I asked Noel to send me the text (14 pages) – his extensive research on Venice.  Following are some of the highlights which he pointed out during our tour. 

Our guide led us through a Sotoportego, a passage under a building and explained that Venice is a challenge to get around as there are numerous dead-end alleys.  They were designed on purpose to confuse anyone who might invade. Venice14

Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square) was called “the finest drawing room in Europe” by Napoleon.  This is the place to sit in an outdoor café and people watch, but be prepared to pay for the popular seats in these pricey places.  Noel told us this is the only “piazza” in Venice as the other squares are all called by different names, “campo, piazetta ,”etc. 

San Marco, the famous church depicted in the favorite Venice postcard, is the third church built on the spot.  It is said that every ship returning to Venice had to bring a treasure for the church.  The mind-boggling ornate interior is a collection of these objects which accumulated over the centuries. 

 
 
The campanile (church bell tower) was built in the  beginning of the 20th century as a replacement for the original which collapsed in 1907.  The city is built on pilings that were driven into the mud to support the weight of the buildings.  When rebuilding the campanile, they figured they best check the pilings since they had been in the ground for about 1,000 years.  Upon examination, the pilings proved to be in perfect condition as they were in an anoxic environment.  They were simply driven back into the mud.
 Venice19

Our visit to the ghetto where Venetian Jews were forced to live until the time of Napoleon was haunting.  Jews in the ghetto were rounded up and deported to extermination camps.  The Holocaust Memorial is a series of bronze reliefs depicting Jews who faced the gas chambers and other forms of Nazi brutality. 

A highlight of the excursion was our lunch break at one of Noel’s favorite restaurants, Sempione.  He helped us order.  We started with a glass of Prosecco, the popular Italian bubbly.  I went for a tasty seafood pasta creation.  We topped the meal with a glass of the luscious Italian lemon liquor, limoncello, and then a wonderfully decadent concoction, Sgroppino, a creamy mixture of lemon and plain ice cream and lemon Vodka.  Magnifico!   Venice11

On our last day we took the vaporetto (water bus) to the island of Murano, the glass island.  The trip by water offered spectacular views of the city.  I was in pursuit of a whimsical chandelier,  a curious creation I had seen at an Italian restaurant in the mountains during a ski vacation.  I was told it came from Venice. 

In Murano all the glass factories have show rooms with displays of their merchandise.  Vases, chandeliers, glasses, bowls, jewelry….We visited them all.  The main street along a canal is lined with shop after shop offering more of the same.  We perused them all – but no chandelier like the one I craved to be found.   Nonetheless, we enjoyed Murano.  It was quiet and calm, a contrast to the bustle of Venice.  And, even if I did not find my prize, I enjoyed looking at all the fabulous, colorful glass objects. 

There’s so much to see and visit in Venice.  This was a short trip.  No time to visit the interiors of museums, churches and palazzi.  We’ll go back for sure. 

For more photos of Venice, click on the Photo Album, center column. We ate lots of wonderful seafood in Venice. I was inspired to serve a shrimp salad at my most recent dinner party.  It was a winner.  See recipe in far left column.  And, please feel free to comment.  Click Comment below.