Food we loved in Florence

Food memories, like song lyrics, stick.

One of our favorite places in Florence was San Michele all’Arco, a farm-to-table “resto” (kitchen in the photo above) with the most marvelous local olive oil, prosciutto, and cheese. The soup pictured below was just exquisite—every flavor came through, every flavor mattered. The same was true for everything else we enjoyed there.

We stumbled on  another neighborhood spot, I Ghibellini, in Piazza San Pier Maggiore,  just after we arrived in Florence.  We’d been on the train for half the day, we were starving, and it was the closest restaurant still serving lunch. Lucky for us! Oh, that pasta al limone! Oh, those exquisite white beans! Oh, that bistecca!

The things is… even though you can buy superior imported Italian products here, they don’t—they can’t— taste quite the same as they do at the source.

We returned to both restaurants several times, which is our habit when we find places we especially like. So often, the neighborhood places that don’t show up in the tour guides end up being the most memorable.

Everyday kindnesses

Here in the United States, it is Mother’s Day; and I find myself reflecting, once again, on two things—first, how blessed and lucky I am to be a mother, and second, on my own mother’s extraordinary generosity of spirit.

Little gestures can mean a great deal in the press of ordinary life. I learned this at my mother’s feet. My mother was wonderful at responding to others’ needs in the small ways that can truly make a difference. She reached out to the little ones in the neighborhood, greeting them when she saw them outside, inviting them into a conversation that continued as long as they lived there. In the days when we had milk delivered to the house, she always greeted the milkman. If she happened to have fresh blueberry muffins that day (which she often did when berries were in season), she would give him one. She did the same for our mailman. She welcomed newcomers. She took walks on summer evenings and stopped to talk to everyone along the way. Although I was an only child, she made sure that I had frequent opportunities to spend time with my many cousins, and that my friends knew they were always welcome in our home.

Consciously or otherwise, she practiced what we Catholics call the corporal works of mercy. My father, who typically worked out of town during the week, joined her in these good deeds, large or small, whenever he could. She visited hospitalized friends and family. She went to viewings and funerals—not just for family, but for friends from childhood, neighbors, people she had met through her work, church members—to comfort the grieving. When her long-time customers became too frail to come to her salon, she went to their homes to do their hair—not for money, but in gratitude for their patronage.

She cooked for everyone—the ailing, the grieving, those whom she thought just needed a lift. She delivered dozens of Christmas cookies to the priests first, and then to relatives and neighbors every year. She entertained friends and family graciously. She called her sisters, brothers, nieces, nephews, and cousins regularly, sometimes nightly, if she thought they needed attention. With my father, she made a point to continue the Italian tradition of visiting our older relatives on Sunday as a demonstration of respect. She volunteered tirelessly at church—assuring that vestments were crisp and fresh, taking charge of the altar flowers, making cakes for bake sales, helping out with Girl Scouts. She did anything the school asked of her.

Always a gracious host, she opened her home to my father’s New England family many times, assuring their comfort and spending hours preparing memorable meals from scratch, usually in the summer months when the kitchen was hotter than Hades. She took my father’s brother in at a low point in his life, and with my father helped him to recharge.

Throughout their 49-year marriage, she was a loving, completely committed wife and partner to my father. And when I became a mother, she became a “Nonnie” of infinite, loving patience, who took obvious joy in every minute she spent with her grandchildren.

The remarkable thing is that my grandmother died of the Spanish flu when my mother was only eight. Her notion of mothering, within and beyond her immediate family, was developed in her heart, on her own. She took seriously the values she heard about in church and, consciously or otherwise, lived her faith throughout her life, mothering those around her with everyday kindnesses.

Photo: My mother and me just before my cousin Sally’s wedding. My mother was in pale lavender; I was in buttercup yellow. Sadly, the original color photo has faded.

Consistent with the time, I have almost no photos of her taken in the context of ordinary, day-to-day life. Cell phones have changed all that, and that is one benefit of technology for which I’m very grateful.

 

Cinque Terre delights

Whenever we travel, I take photos of what we eat—unless, of course, we’re in a restaurant where doing so would constitute bad behavior.

Today I’m sharing a few lovely food memories from Italy’s magnificent Cinque Terre, five picturesque villages on the Mediterranean coast of Liguria. Pesto reigns supreme there, but the spaghetti with clam sauce was the most exquisite I’ve ever tasted, probably because those little clams were gathered from the sea the day I ate them.

The trattoria pictured above is in Riomaggiore; the spaghetti a la vongole was in Monterosso al Mare, where we stayed. One of our favorite meals was actually a simple pizza night there. The ebullient owner was so very proud that his pizzeria, and the town itself, had come back from the devastating mud slides of the prior year. It was a joy to chat with him, and, especially, to be among the local families enjoying their pizza. That’s the kind of experience that many guidebooks wouldn’t suggest, but being part of “real, everyday life”  is precious to us. It’s  the difference between being a tourist on the outside edges and, however briefly, feeling a part of the community you are visiting.

Okay, I’m hungry now.

 

Adriana Trigiani’s Italian-Americans

I was thrilled to receive a pre-publication copy of Adriana Trigiani’s new book, Kiss Carlo, which goes on sale June 20. This post is more of an homage than a review. I’ve loved Trigiani’s books since my cousin Nina first handed me Lucia, Lucia in 2004. Since then,  I’ve read them all.

Suffice it to say that I can relate. Take those wedding reception sandwiches in wax paper bags that Trigiani describes in Queen of The Big Time, which is set in Roseto, in the Slate Belt of Eastern Pennsylvania. The only real memory I have of my grandmother is being in her kitchen in Maine, with  all the other Italian women from Smith Crossing, as they made and packaged sandwiches in wax paper bags for my Auntie Anna’s wedding.

Trigiani is a masterful storyteller. Over the years, I’ve followed the immigrants she writes about faithfully, as they left their tiny, impoverished villages to build new lives in the US, in locations as diverse as Minnesota, Manhattan, Hollywood, the Blue Ridge Mountains, and Roseto, of course. You get to know Trigiani’s complicated characters through big screen-worthy dialogue, within a carefully honed historic and cultural context. Expect to laugh out loud at, fall in love with, get mad at, and cry over them. These are characters you miss when the book ends.

One of the things I love most about Adriana Trigiani’s books is that they have real-life inspirations. The Shoemaker’s Wife, for example, was based on her grandparents‘ story (the link is to a video trailer you will love). At the same time, her novels reveal the important mark that Italian-Americans have made on this country, what they endured, and the artistry and traditions they contributed (see her in the PBS tour de force, The Italian-Americans). The big, noisy Sunday dinners, the church at the center of family and community, the downright biblical family feuds may seem stereotypical to an outsider, but we insiders understand that they reflect what we grew up with… and, for good or ill, crawled out of.

Kiss Carlo is set largely in one of the nation’s most iconic Italian-American communities, South Philly. It’s a BIG story—a saga, in fact, through which Trigiani has wound what may seem an unlikely Shakespearean thread. This shouldn’t be too surprising. Apart from my humble opinion that everything you need to know about life can be found in Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, the play that figures in the plot, is a tale of masquerade and discovery. Throughout Kiss Carlo and all of Trigiani’s work, it seems to me, runs the theme of first and second-generation Italian-Americans struggling to find out who they really are and who they can become when they are finally confident and comfortable in their New World skin. As I said before, I can relate. I’m sure my parents could have, too.

Kiss Carlo was a great read. I think you’ll like it.

Photo: My paternal grandparents, Maria Grazia and Francesco, second and third from the left, were immigrants from the village of Centrache, in Calabria. They settled in the tiny paper mill town of Rumford, ME. They had 14 children—all but one born in this country—and many, many grandchildren. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tranquil in Bethlehem

Bethlehem is one of Pennsylvania’s treasures, for its rich historic significance and the gracious, centuries-old buildings that have held fast despite the encroachment of time, the birth and death of the steel industry, and the Sands Casino erected in Bethlehem Steel’s reclaimed brown fields. That the casino and its trappings flourish within blocks of the Northern Province headquarters of the Moravian Church in America, and rarities like the annual Bach Festival staged this time of year by the world-acclaimed Bach Choir of Bethlehem, seems more than a little ironic to me.

Bethlehem, of course, is appropriately known as the “Christmas City.” Its Christmas decorations are resplendent, and it’s fun to tour the shops and the Old World Christkindlmarkt, while carolers in Victorian garbs walk the streets. There’s an annual Celtic Festival, and Musikfest during the month of August. All of these are fine, but a cast of thousands rarely appeals to me; I much prefer the city, especially its historic heart, in quiet times.

I took these photos a few years ago on a gorgeous spring day in early May, on Moravian Church grounds. In another life, I spent quite a bit of time in the shadow of Central Church, the Bell House, and Moravian Academy’s Lower School. I always found this spot to be an oasis of great tranquility. You can learn more at the Historic Bethlehem website: Do enjoy. And visit if you can.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sibling revelry

I may have mentioned in a previous post that I’m an only child; my history is absent the dramas of siblings one-upping each other, swiping each other’s toys or clothes, falling out over a girl/boyfriend, fighting over who-did-what-to-whom. In a word, my childhood was boring by all obvious measures.

Although I feign a yawn when Hubby and his two brothers retell the same childhood stories we wives have been hearing for lo! these many years, I’m a little envious deep-down. All last week, my husband and his brothers engaged in sibling “revelry,” laughing themselves silly over secret “Apple Club” meetings, being chased around the house by Grandma Sadie, late night noshing with their dad, or engaging in various exploits with a neighborhood full of mischievous chums. But to say that their storytelling is only about enjoying a mutual laugh would be to sell it way too short.

Reams have been written on the importance of storytelling. The drawings on the caves affirm that it’s an occupation as old as time itself,  an integral part of our eternal quest for understanding ourselves and the world around us. My husband and his brothers, like most of us, are still putting together the jigsawed pieces of their personhood. Our parents’ generation—and I believe this is true across ethnic boundaries—was far more private, even secretive, about “personal” matters; little of significance was discussed in the presence of the kids. Thus, there will always be some question marks about what shaped them and why they behaved as or did what they did. The nature of our speculation changes over time, given our vastly different trajectories, but the curiosity never ceases. The storytelling helps.

 

 

So… why blog?

One of the most delightful, and, perhaps, a tad intimidating, aspects of blogging is exposing your work to a literal world of other bloggers. I can’t tell you how much fun it is to see that  your posts are being viewed on other continents, and to be able to correspond with so many good writers, worldwide, who have fascinating experiences, observations,  and information to share. As the old maxim goes, “The sky’s the limit.”

Years and years ago, when I was teaching writing at a small junior college, no one imagined that writers would have this wide-open window on the world. We emphasized the importance of cogent  presentation, using legitimate research to support hypotheses, and, of course, adherence to the structural “rules.” Don’t get me started—I will NEVER give up the Oxford comma!

As educators, we knew that being able to speak and write with clarity and grace could shape our students’ success not only in other academic disciplines, but also in the world beyond the campus. How many times, later in my multi-layered career, did I hear that “so-and-so” was a capable worker but just couldn’t express him/herself well? Being articulate, in writing and speech, matters.

Back in the day, if you aspired to be a writer, the pathways were somewhat limited: journalism; advertising or public relations; or business/technical/scientific writing. I started out in the first, moved to the second, and then the third. For much of my work life, I longed for the time and inspiration to write whatever I wanted to, driven not by the illusion that I had anything remarkable to say, but by my own need for a creative outlet. Judging by all of the blogs I’ve come to enjoy, I’m not the only one.

Much as I might deride the way we have become slaves to our electronic leashes, it is precisely the electronic universe that has given me and many fellow bloggers the opportunity to communicate with, reach out to, learn from, or laugh with, just about anyone. That’s fairly miraculous, isn’t it?

There’s a blog out there for just about every interest and taste—art, photography, travel, food,  parenting, style, faith, and that fascinating form we now call “flash fiction.” Now that we are #retired, we have time to enjoy them. Now and then, I’ll be sharing some of my favorite posts from other bloggers with you. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

First suggestion:  Take a stroll with restless jo.

 

Photo: Looking out over the Androscoggin in Oxford County, Maine.