Thursday, March 31, 2011

more images from Filicudi

 The view of Capo Graziano from Luigi's, my neighbor on Filicudi. Just below the old crater in that small mountain is the excavated site of a Neolithic village dating at least 8,000 years ago.

This is Chiesa di Santo Stefano, the church and graveyard where much of my family for the last 200 years is buried.

The view from Guia's terrace in afternoon shadow; steep and rugged to the sea.

My dear friends Nunciata and Giovannino Lopes. She suffers with paralysis.

The porto house, alone on the right side of the frame.

Take the cannoli

Discovery is the joy of life. Add fresh ricotta cream, and you’ve really got something.

When Anna and Chad, my daughter and son-in-law, passed through Milazzo on their way to Filicudi last year, they made a couple finds that they recommended to me: the Hotel Cassisi, and a particular pastry shop.

So Rick and I stayed at Cassisi before and after Filicudi. Within 100 meters of the hydrofoil pier where we caught the aliscafo to and from the islands, the Cassisi is comfortably modern, and roomy for hotels in Italy, which offer smaller accommodations than most Americans are used to (keep in mind that many hotels in Italy are fitted into very old buildings, narrow and tall). The staff is considerate, speaks English well, and offers a pleasant breakfast.

They also filled in the blanks on the cannoli.

Chad insisted: I should find the bakery suggested by the Cassisi staff, for the most delicious cannoli he had while traveling. I don’t know how many of these cream-stuffed crispy tubes of fried pastry Chad has tried; I do know he has clear sensibilities about food similar to mine. It’s one of the many aspects of Chad I enjoy. More than once before I left the Methow, Chad fixed me with a steady stare, and told me I had to find the cannoli.

I, for sure, have sampled countless versions of this classic Sicilian treat, famously referred to by Clemenza in Godfather I: “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.”

From the Brooklyn sweet shops of my childhood vacations, to dessert at the homes of friends in Palermo and Naples, to my own mother’s painstaking efforts in our home kitchen, I have come to know cannoli.

So with Chad’s and Anna’s encouragement, I, too, asked at the Cassisi front desk where I could find the most delicious cannoli in Milazzo.

Without hesitation, the two young women behind the counter said Bar Merrina. I asked for directions. I called Anna. She confirmed the name and the general location. We went. It was closed for midday. We returned to the hotel. The staff looked up from their work. We shook our heads.

We returned that evening and, as Anna had described, the fellow at the bar ran across the street to the kitchen. Not only are the cannoli filled per order; the cream is freshly made, with ricotta made that morning by the cook. Bar Merrina is non-descript, a modest small family-run coffee shop along a quiet neighborhood street. Just passing by, you would never guess what was possible inside.

We carried our cannoli to a sunny bench along the seawall promenade, carefully unfolded the crackling paper, and took a bite.

I started laughing. With a mouthful of the most delicious, smoothest cheese cream I could imagine, I laughed. That’s what happens when I can’t believe my luck. I laugh. These were, without a doubt, the most delicious cannoli of my life (forgive me, Mom), and very possibly — as asserted by several of the patrons at Bar Merrina — the most delicious in all of Sicily.

Madonna, com'è buoni!

Monday, March 28, 2011

been dark

As it turns out, I’m not a reliable blogger. It’s been, what, more than a week, nearly two since I last posted. I haven’t been fasting all that time; there have been some delicious meals in Rome and a couple in Sicily. Have my expectations or senses shifted, or is restaurant food in the south less inspired than I remember? Maybe it’s another sad result of globalization, EU homogenization: less eccentricity in the cooking, all the deep roots of the authentic Sicilian kitchen yanked and peeled and boiled, purèed bland in color and taste; where’s the richness of culture and cuisine that used to arrive at the table? Now, just like Americans, the Italians use tomatoes out of season, hot house imposters, and boxed and packaged ingredients from who knows where. It’s ironic: the Sicilians resisted thousands of years of invasion — the Greeks, Moors, Normans. But in the face of a currency tsunami, rising up out of Clinton-era initiatives to blend industries and economies around the world for who’s benefit, and the co-opting strength of a unified Europe, they’ve handed over so much of their culture... including their cooking.

The best meals I’ve had in the last ten days were in private homes; my neighbors on Filicudi, Luigi right next door; and Guia, just down the hill.

I don’t know how long he really marinated that leg of lamb; probably a couple days. Olive oil, fresh rosemary, plenty of salt (don’t be afraid of salt), white pepper; that’s probably it, maybe a little white wine and/or fresh lemon juice, because you can lean over the terrace bench right now at Luigi’s and pick a lemon. He cooked it at a steady 200 degrees centigrade for about an hour and a half in the small domed wood-fired oven on the side terrace. We drank a white wine from Calabria — this is lunch — and chatted and admired the view of the Tyrrhenian from fifteen hundred feet up the steep old volcano, a brilliant spring day with sharp sunshine and a breeze that sharpened the air, too. A friendly group, mostly neighbors and the island’s doctor, guy’s idle most of the time he’s been there, 12 years. This leg of lamb, coming to the table on a big platter, is maybe 12 pounds of bone and moist meat, glistening from the forno’s deep heat, with an aroma as heady as an essential oil on the skin.

Two days later, lunch at Guia’s. Meat again, this time a veal roast, very simple, familiar, rich flavors of the clean meat and salt slow roasted together. The beautiful moment — and there are always beautiful moments with Guia — was the timbale. She called the sauce Sugo Mediterreano, something she just made up while she was cooking. But here’s the beautiful secret to Guia’s touch in the kitchen: she uses every supporting flavor of the Sicilian countryside, everything fresh: lemon, sage, rosemary, sea salt, parsley, oregano, sun-dried tomatoes from last summer refreshed in a cold water bath for ten minutes, patted dry and soaked in olive oil overnight.


The blackout in the blog the last ten days has been because there’s no internet service on Filicudi. Now that I’m back in Rome, I hope to connect at Paolo’s, where I’ll be staying for the next few days while I meet with lawyers, somebody with a velvet hammer to hit Nuncio, hard, on his hands, make him let go of the keys to our house.

That report is coming. Plus, the best cannoli I ever tasted.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

In Pantheon's Shadow

 The day began and ended on foot: seven hours of walking a crescent of Rome, from my hotel below the Spanish Steps toward the Tiber River and Campo di Fiori, and the thronging Saturday farmers' market. But on the way, a stop for caffè and bombolino, a cream-filled sugar donut at Piazza Lorenzo, always a gentle and quiet corner near the busy Via de Corso.
 At Campo di Fiori, the crowded displays of produce are a dizzying array of colors and textures overflown with shouting and chatting and hawking. The radicchio was delicate and leafy; and barba di preti — priests' beard, below — was one of the unusual vegetables I saw. Coincidentally, I tasted them last night at a friend's house: they were delicious, a tender, mild green. The classic preparation is elegantly simple: boil for 4 minutes, strain, drizzle with fresh green olive oil and sprinkle with salt.

 Tomatoes from Sicily

For lunch, pizza from Forno Campo di Fiori — one of Rome's hallowed sites. Delicious pizza and traditional Roman cookies.
 After lunch I visited an old friend, the National Museum of Modern Art. From Rome's historic center, the walk to the museum takes me through the Villa Borghese, one of the most beautiful parks I've ever experienced, a green shaded scarf around the neck of my beloved Rome. I sit on red velvet quilted benches in rooms all to myself, and rest in the quiet, gazing at landscapes of mid-nineteenth century Italy. Every time I'm lucky enough to find myself there, I remember that life is exquisite and mysterious and sad and miraculous, where the highest artistic expressions of humanity — exemplified by these paintings — match the glory of the natural world.
Tonight, I ate with dear friends at Settimio, Via delle Colonnelle 14, in the shadow of the Pantheon. Carciofi alla Romana is very possibly my favorite vegetable in Rome, and no kitchen produces a more delicious version than Settimio's: Stripped of all but the tender heart and core of the stem, the artichoke is grilled, then marinated in local olive oil with a sprinkling of sea salt; that, along with a Tappi favorite, Terradora Falanghina, wine of the ancient Etruscan grape falanghina. After artichokes, house-made fresh pasta with butter and black truffles; then veal with peas. My friends and I finished the evening together with a peaty single malt spiced with good conversation and warmed by a decades of affection for each other. 

Life is beautiful.

Tomorrow, a train ride to Sicily and Monday, Filicudi.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Friday 3/18/11

 Campo di Fiori
Piazza Trinità

Ah, Rome

You know I love Twisp. 

But this evening I was standing outside my favorite shirt store on Camp Marzio, staring past the reflections of rain-slick cobbles and the people above them walking arm in arm under umbrellas under soft yellow street lights, and I was thinking: I want one of those shirts. 

Maybe the blue chambray with contrast white stitching. Or the small red windowpane. Or the ribbed dress blue with a classic spread collar and the lightweight cashmere cardigan in baby blue with the red and cream silk tie...

because I’m in Rome, the greatest city on earth, where men who love women dress as though they love themselves, too. And I’m picturing myself in these beautiful clothes walking in Rome with a beautiful woman (and I happen to know one), enjoying my life as though I’m always on vacation. Of course I imagine all this. Because right now I am standing in Rome! But Twisp, bless its heart, would discourage the blue shirt and certainly the baby blue cashmere sweater and the red tie (but not the beautiful woman). It is because I’m in Rome that any of this makes sense.

Ah, Rome.
Tonight my friend Rick and I found a favorite restaurant, Cul de Sac. Beyond Piazza Navona, at Piazza Pasquino 73, Cul de Sac is quintessentially Roman: narrow, long, high-ceilinged; casual and crowded, literally thousands of wine bottles above our heads as we sit in tight booths along the skinny aisle. The wine list is a soft-covered book of a hundred pages with comprehensive selections from Italy's 20 regions, and the menu comprises small plates of typically Roman cuisine, from wild hare patè to tripe ragu to beef braised with radicchio — rich meats, vegetables rich and hard-cooked, big dark wintery wines. Despite the fact that Cul de Sac has been popularized in many U.S. journals, from the New York Times to Men’s Health. Get here at 8:30 and take a number and wait outside under the canopy with rain pouring down. It’s worth it.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

the orphan thief

Nuncio was the best cook I knew.  Disheveled and grinning, he was a combination hunter, tinkerer, fix-it man and kitchen wizard. He would present us with rabbit, cooked in wine, grapes and oranges for dinner, that hours earlier had been running through thickets. His preparation of lobster was simple and exquisite: plucked from a deep water trap, boiled, and anointed with olive oil and mint. He grew his vegetables, butchered his chickens, gathered wild herbs from the remote heights of the island. He climbed the mountain in the dark with a shotgun and a gunny sack and was back by morning coffee with killed birds and wild greens and flowers for the table. He hardly spoke; when he did, he mumbled.

My parents loved him like a son. My sisters and I loved him like a brother. He cared for us and we cared for him. When we arrived he would drive us to the house and we celebrated together at night with a feast from his kitchen.

He was like an orphan on Filicudi when my mother and father first met him. He came out of the hills of Sicily, never speaking of his family, working in my father’s cousin’s restaurant. He lived alone in a back room, wore the same clothes every day, and left fresh eggs and prickly pears in a bowl at the doorstep of my parents’ house. My mother cooked for him and he sat with my father on the patio under bougainvillea, looking out together at the blue Tyrrhenian.

My parents gave him love and they gave him money. Plenty of both. Now, seventeen years after my parents died, he has very nearly succeeded in stealing the house. In Sicily, it’s easier than you might think.

I’m on my way to take it all back — the house and my family’s loyalty. I go now with a trusted friend and armed with legal documents that prove our ownership and money for bolt cutters to snap the chain Nuncio has locked around the gate.

How could I think about food at a time like this?

I’m Italian.

On our way, Rick and I will hold over in Rome for three days. Each of us knows that city; our internal maps of pizzerias, trattorias, cafes and wine bars overlap. We share some favorites, living shrines to la dolce vita, where we will pray in appropriate ways: slices of pizza rustica at Forno Campo di Fiori; the morning cappuccino and the afternoon espresso at Sant ‘Eustacchio; fresh tagliatelle with white truffles at Settimio near the Pantheon. I will take all of these like sacrament.

The plane boards in six hours.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

fight on Filicudi

How do I pack for this one? Bolt-cutters? Black belt? Bib?

Early next week, I leave for Italy, heading for home ground on that remote island north of Milazzo, Province of Messina: Filicudi. My people have been there for a long, long time; lived there, worked in orange trees, grape vines, wheat fields and on the sea for thousands of years (Phoenicia-Phoenicus-Bonicus-Bonica). Built homes and families on rusty volcanic soil, on steep hillsides and mountain tops and along the black rock coasts.

There's a house there, my father's house, that someone is trying to steal from us. Someone who was like a son to my parents, like a brother to me and my sisters. Now I'm headed there, by plane and train, bus, ferry and hydrofoil, to take it back.

As it turns out, the story unfolds in Italy, so this blog will include adventures in food and wine. I'm really writing to my family — my sisters, our children, our grandchildren, and my guests at Tappi (the little Italian joint that keeps me occupied in Twisp, Washington) who are my extended family. Besides breaking into the garden gate (the bolt-cutters) and maybe coming face to face with the brooding bastard grabbing our property (I'm brushing up on my Taekwon Do hand/foot defenses), I'll be ducking through the doorways of some of my favorite restaurants, trattorias and pizzerias and seeking out new experiences in food and wine.

You're invited along. I'll post whenever I can as long as I have internet access; on Filicudi where there is no computer hookup, I'll Tweet. You can find me through the Tappi website,

My writing skill is flabby, so thanks in advance for your patience and persistence slogging through my knee-deep ramblings.