Thursday, September 29, 2005

The best laid plans…

Today over breakfast I gave myself a stern talking-to. “This is serious. You’ve got to be better about keeping a real work schedule, spending solid blocks of time on your research. No more getting distracted by the artichokes piled at the grocers or stopping for a pistachio granita with cream. You’re going to become a fat tenth-year graduate student…”. There’s not much chance of that, really, but when I create an emergency it’s easier to dump the cold coffee I’m still nursing and get out the door.
So, I chugged away contentedly in the library for my morning block of time, even postponed my lunch to find one more article I thought I could get through quickly. Emerging from the building I tried some funky maneuver to free my jacket from under my backpack – shrugged up my shoulders and yanked at the bunched jacket with one hand – and in the process felt my lower back recoil from the wrenching motion. Luckily, the spasm didn’t send me sprawling in pain, but it hurt enough to distort my face to a grimace and my poised stroll to a hobbledy-hobbledy-hobble.
A warm mortadella sandwich (yes, I had a baloney sandwich for lunch!) and two Advils later, I braved the walk home with my backpack loaded with books and my laptop. I couldn’t really do otherwise – returning the books to the library would mean I’d be home without work. Of course, the farmacies are closed for lunch so I couldn’t get a hot water bottle or compress. Woe is me!

Marta returns today? One never really knows with her. I’ve been wanting to fix a dinner for her and Alvise since she first announced arrival date as Monday. I was thinking about a tribute to New Orleans, with a rabbit etouffee as the main course: reasonably cheap ingredients, easy to find in Italy, not too complicated. They have funky crustaceans here too – things that are not shrimps and not lobsters – not really crayfish or prawns or langousteens either. And what exactly are scampi? They’re tasty, but how are they a different creature from the above? Life without my Larousse Gastronomique is so difficult!

Speaking of Larousse, it is lacking the richness of the vocabulary Italians have for varieties of fruits and vegetables. For example, I’ve been eating lots of plums: prugne, susine, gocci d’oro, settembrine, ecc. I think someone (ahem!) needs to get to work on an encyclopedia of Italian cuisine (and ask those California fruit geneticists why they’re creating monster ‘UFO’ peaches and ‘Dinosaur Egg’ plums when unbelievable varieties already exist here? with better names. I’m all for new hybrids, but those Dr. Frankenfruits will smack a trademark on any odd-shaped creature to double its price. Same with the heirloom fetishists, though).

For now I’m propped up comfortably with the laptop and a pile of books, daydreaming about having a goat farm and making artisanal cheeses. Super aged, sharp goat cheeses…

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

quiet house

Woke up this morning to the terrible realization that there is no milk in the house. What to do without my caffe latte in front of the telegiornali? The caffe by itself is too strong for my morning. Ow! my stomach lining!

Then it's off to the Sala Borsa to try to combine getting work done with being around other human beings. This library is a fascinating example of the layering of history in Italian cities. Today, the building houses a library, bookstore, cafe and restaurant united by a open grand hall stretching four stories up. The bookshelves of the store line balconies and the restaurant is likewise perched on a balcony overlooking the open space. The floor of the hall is glass, revealing the ruins of an ancient Roman marketplace in the building's foundations. All the modern stylings of this complex don't disguise the origins of the Sala Borsa, most recently a municipal palace circa 1926, though its history is one of demolitions and reconstructions dating back to the 13th century. Of the hundreds of libraries in Bologna, I like this one.

Monday, September 26, 2005

it's the vendemmia time of year...grapes

in case anyone had any doubts, I'll confirm: my favorite thing to do is going to the market. I've been overwhelmed by the fruit lately and can hardly force myself to eat anything else. Today I got uva moscato, muscat grapes from Sicily that have the same unmistakable sweet flavor they impart to wines. They're gigantic and golden beige. Plums are still coming in, mostly the purple varieties now, and pears and figs and apples. With some good aged cheese, chestnut honey and some bread, I couldn't be happier. Even if I could afford porcini, I'm off them for the moment. Working up to horse tartare at Fantoni sometime soon. I have to space out the creepy foods.

I need to find out who has a family vineyard nearby that needs harvest labor for the weekend. Will pick for room and board.

At the clothes market over the weekend I scored a pair of kidskin boots that actually zip up over my calves. I'm still stretching them out, but at least they don't cut off the circulation to my feet anymore. If I get my act together with English tutoring, maybe I'll be able to have more than one pair of winter shoes.

Not much interesting going on lately. I haven't felt like being out in the late evening now that I'm finally adjusted to a good work schedule - I can't keep up with perpetually sleep-deprived undergrads.

Off to the library - just now opening at 2:30pm. By way of comparison, the NY public research library doesn't open at all on Monday.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

horror stories from my kitchen: not for the squeamish

Yesterday just before 6pm Letizia announced that a couple of her friends were coming over for dinner. “I’ll cook!” I insisted, and hurried out to the Mercato delle Erbe to get provisions. Since it was our last dinner together before she leaves for Santa Cruz, I needed to pull together something special very quickly.

It is porcini mushroom season, and I found some fat ones at a stand that I’ve bought from before, a little more expensive than some of the neighboring stalls but always the best quality. I told the grocer what I wanted to make, explained my budget constraints, and he helped me pick out two big funghi. Then I found some regular white shrooms to cut them with – getting the flavor of the porcini without having to buy a 29 euro kilo. Sometimes I wonder whether a drug habit might be cheaper than my tastes in food.

While I was there I also bought two kinds of plums: deep purple prunes with a grey blush and translucent gold and pink ones just because I thought they were the prettiest things I’d ever seen. I think I “awwwed” over them the way most people do with kittens. Picked out some pears and a box of “uva fragole”, which are actually nothing more than Concord grapes, a native American variety. They’re not unlike the wild scuppernongs my brothers and I used to squeeze out of their leathery skins in North Carolina, just smaller and not leathery. (since when does MS Word autocorrect the spelling of scuppernong? How did that make it into the dictionary???) Uva fragole are used here to make a wine, fragolino, which I haven’t yet figured out – I think it’s a sweet dessert wine. Better than Manischevitz, I’m hoping. Final stop: a shop where I knew I could find fresh tagliatelle.

Back at home I started cleaning my funghi and put water on to boil. I very carefully brushed all the soil off the caps of my porcini but the stalks are stubborn, so I started scraping with a knife. One careless swipe cut further into a stalk than I intended and revealed…tiny squirmy white worms. I managed not to drop the knife on myself (the “coltellone”, big knife I purchased my first week here, to the dismay of cutlery-shy Letizia), and not scream (I didn’t want Letizia to know anything was going wrong) and calmly pared away what I thought was the part of the stalk infested with these vermin. Even further up the stalk I found the same hideous wriggling. Dropped everything and googled “how to prepare fresh porcini”, hoping to find a solution, which I did: they're harmless. One article even suggested they’re a good sign, since the worms go for the tastiest mushrooms. I double and triple checked to confirm, I really didn’t have to throw these out or soak them in something? So, totally creeped out, I came back to the kitchen to finish cleaning and chopping the mushrooms and just tried not to touch anything that was moving.

I sautéed the porcini and white mushrooms, in olive oil until they gave up all their liquid, then further until the liquid evaporated. Mushrooms are like sponges, they hold amazing amounts of water. Cooking out the water concentrates the woodsy flavor. In a separate pan, I cooked two cloves of chopped garlic, then added the garlic and oil it was cooked in to the mushrooms, now sitting off the heat waiting for the pasta to cook. Seasoned the funghi up with salt and plenty of black pepper and fresh parsley, and grated a ton of good parmesan (another “Is this more expensive than gold?” product). Done until guests arrived, when I’d cook the tagliatelle and toss with funghi sauce, reheated a minute to meld the flavors.

Then I prepared the cheese course, washed and arranged my pretty fall fruits on a platter and laid out honey and fig preserves and cheeses that I’d brought back from Stresa (thanks to US Customs, the grandparents couldn’t take them back!).

This was all a big hit, and we had a laugh that it was the American who prepared an Italian autumnal dinner. I had moments of creepitude eating the tagliatelle, but comforted myself with the thought of the many other times I’d happily eaten porcini in ignorance of the creepy-crawlies, as our guests were doing. Let’s write Randy Cohen: “Is it unethical to serve your guests creepy crawlies without their knowledge, if they’ve surely eaten them every other time they’ve had porcini mushrooms? What if they’re vegetarian?” I hope I don’t ruin porcini for anyone.

I'm devastated that Leti is going. We've been such good roommates and friends. I have plenty of company in missing her though, I bet we'll be lamenting for weeks on Via del Pratello that she's left.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

bo morning

summer decided over the weekend to give up and let fall take over. we've had pleasantly cool weather, the kind that gives you an appetite. i've been waiting for this, since so many classic bolognese dishes are rich and based on meat and cheese and pasta. truffles and porcini mushrooms are coming in soon.

by way of explanation, lago maggiore is in the foothills of the alps, on the italian border with switzerland. one side of the lake is in piemonte, the other in lombardia, the top of the lake is actually in switzerland. stresa is on the piemontese side. piemonte is famous for wines: barolo, barbaresco, gattinara, nebbiolo, dolcetto... and i enjoyed being there with grandparents who really enjoy wines.

now i'm reacclimating myself to student life in bo. i awoke this morning to find many members of the p---- family in my kitchen - letizia's parents have been visiting and just left after breakfast. mom and dad came over, as well as brother gabriele and boyfriend jacopo here to see them off. i walked in bleary eyed and said, "che brutta figura faccio adesso", "what an ugly impression i'm making now", since it was the first time i'd met papa. laughs. but i scored an invitation to sicily next summer.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

finally, my recommendations for the area

At the Cantina del Castello in Sillavengo, I ate all of this. really.

this osteria was recommended by the concierge at la palma, who was right, it was very particular. i had spaghetti with bottarga (fish roe cured whole (ie an ovary) and grated) and pomodorini, followed by conger eel in lemon leaves with a tomato olive sauce. for dessert, pears poached in barolo.

we followed a note in the slow food osteria d'italia guide to this cheese shop, where the proprietress overwhelmed us with samples of excellent local cheeses. i asked for aged cheeses, piquant, typical of the region and we were offered an unbelievable variety, came away with several bags, wine, a jar of fig preserves... she threw an extra cheese of their own production, a mild young toma, in a bag as a gift. worth a stop in intra.

apropos slow food, the guide to osterie d'italia was indispensible. armed with this book, we couldn't miss.

more fotos II

borromee gardens

borromee gardens

spiral stairs in the borromee palace

more fotos

grandma on our balcony

Monday, September 19, 2005


I just got back from Stresa, on Lago Maggiore, where I spent the weekend with my grandparents. The mountains and lake are gorgeous - but I'll let the pictures speak for themselves:

views from our hotel balcony

(brief glimpse of the sun)

sunset from the balcony

Isola Bella, where the following pictures of the 17th century Borromee palaces and gardens were taken

(self portrait in the greenhouse)

out a palace window

borromee gardens

A view from Cannero

Thursday, September 15, 2005

just a quick one.

Things seen in the street yesterday:

A dog riding a scooter. I love that. Only beagle-sized dogs, between the driver's feet.

A small carry-on bag in a luggage store labeled: carrion.

A group formed by CGIL, one the major labor union organizations (like AFL-CIO), called "Well Old Order Folks" goes by the acronym "WOOF".