Monthly Archives: January 2008

Family Meals in Italy

I suspect my previous posting explaining I had dinner twice at my Italian cousin Guido’s house last week might prompt some questions about what an Italian family eats for dinner. So, for those interested, I thought I would post the menu, please feel free to skip this entry if you are hungry or not at all interested. Sorry I don’t have pictures, perhaps next time I will be brave enough to pull out the camera.

Tuesday night was the ‘family dinner’ served at the kitchen table. The menu was:

There was no antipasta (the lack of which prompted my cousin’s wife, Elizabetta to apologize about for the first 10 minutes I was there)

First course: Pumpkin risotto (pumpkin is in season right now and it seems to be ending up in everything—ravioli, soup, risotto, etc)

Second course: something they called pizza though it was more like a flat quiche with egg and some form of Italian ham on a pastry crust cut into squares like they cut their pizza. I’m learning that here in Italy, pizza can be used to describe anything flat with toppings.

Third course: Salad.

Dessert: A custard with prunes and a prune sauce that Elizabetta had been given by the Brazilian home-nurse of her mother. This was looked on with great suspicion by the entire family for several minutes before Luca (Guido’s brother) decided to be brave and try it. He pronounced that it tasted like ‘fried air’ (I can’t remember how to say this in Italian). Everyone proceeded to take a bit to test it, but most of it ended up in the garbage. I have had several people (Americans and Italians) tell me that Italians are ‘food-phobic’ and don’t like to try new foods. Even when they travel they prefer to stick with pizza and pasta. This would explain why the hesitation over the dessert which every American I know would have inhaled in minutes without a second thought.

Friday night’s meal:

Antipasta: pizza with broccoli

First course: Spinach lasagna with a béchamel sauce

Second course: Thin slices of eggplant rolled around chunks of Italian ham that were then baked (though it was explained to me that these are typically fried)

Third course: cheeses from Sardinia and salad

Dessert: a Sicilian torte type dessert with pistachio and chocolate semi-freddo center (purchased from a bakery) and Venezuelan chocolate which my cousin Guido acquired on a recent trip there to do some consulting work.

Internet Woes

Last week I had dinner with my Italian cousins Tuesday and Friday. In the course of two meals I learned a great deal about Italians, their perceptions of the current state of affairs in Italy, their thoughts on Americans, Germans, and French; and of course, I ate like a king.

The first dinner was a family meal – just my cousin Guido, his wife, daughter, son, and Guido’s brother Luca. The second was a dinner party with friends and family. During both meals, many people ate with their cell phones at the table. This was less of a surprise at the ‘family meal’. However, I must have looked a bit shocked when cell phones came out of pockets and were set beside plates during the dinner party because an Italian woman sitting across from me said “We Italian’s love our cell phones. In fact, many of us have two.” I told her I was beginning to figure that out from watching people in the street and on buses and in restaurants, grocery stores, etc. However, what I find more surprising is the number of people over 50 or 60 sending text messages or SMS messages as they are called here.

In fact, I almost walked right into a grandmother in her 70s the other day as I was rounding a corner, walking top speed to catch a bus and there she was, head down, walking my direction, sending a text message. I couldn’t have been more shocked because I’m fairly certain my parents don’t even know their cell phones can be used to send text messages and they are much younger that this woman appeared to be.

To return to the dinner party, I asked this woman if the cell phones were used in place of e-mail because I had heard a rumor that Italians weren’t as obsessed with their e-mail as Americans or Germans. She said yes that was true and that people only have internet access in their homes if they have children who need it for school. This would shed some light on the problem I am currently having.

First of all, I had a really difficult time finding an apartment with internet access to rent in Rome. I saw a lot of advertisements that read “Internet on demand” but my friend Laura (an American who has lived here for 12 years) explained that this meant “no matter how much you demand it, you are not going to get internet.” I did find one place with internet access where I am living currently.

For first two weeks, all was well, I had fast reliable internet access. Then one day last week, it just stopped working. I depressed every button, unplugged everything, and played with everything that looked like it might make a difference. I had a small meltdown over this because I knew that getting it fixed would involve getting in touch with the rental agent who would then need to get in touch with the landlord who would then need to get in touch with the ‘fastweb’ people. I know from experience this is too may Italians to depend on to get a problem solved quickly. So, imagine my surprise when I wrote my agent on Thursday and heard back two hours later that my landlord would come Monday with a technician. I thought to myself, this could be an Italian miracle . . . if it actually happens.

This was the e-mail I was greeted with when I logged into my e-mail an hour ago:

hello Rose,

landlord with technician (he has a problem today) will come tomorrow afternoon.

Giovanna

Of course.

My friend Laura told me that recently she was scheduled to take a friend to visit The Golden House of Nero (also known as the Domus Aurea). To visit you must reserve tickets in advance and now they are no longer taking reservations over the phone, you must do it via the internet. Laura did so and when she arrived at the Domus Aurea and went to the ticket booth, they claimed they did not have her reservation. After debating with the ticket agent for several minutes over what had happened he finally looked at her and said: “Signora, this is a beautiful country, but . . . we are not so organized.”

Gelato Tour of Rome, I

I had been trying to resist or at least hold off exploring the gelaterias of Rome lest I create a four visit a week habit (which has happened to me in the past) and return home after four months ten pounds heavier than when I left.

That was going well until last week.

Friday afternoon I took a few of my classmates from the language school I have been attending on a tour of a few of my favorite churches in the city: the Gesu (the first Jesuit church in Rome), Saint Ignatius of Loyola (a church built after the death of Ignatius, once he was made a saint), both of which have fantastic painted ceilings; and to San Luigi dei Francesi (the French National Church) to see the three paintings by the notorious Caravaggio in the Contarelli Chapel depicting scenes from the life of Saint Mathew.

Gesu Ceiling Fresco and Stucco

After our tour, my classmates insisted on taking me for gelato at one of their favorite gelaterias.

They took me to Gelateria della Palma, Via della Maddalena 20, near the Pantheon. Della Palma has over 100 flavors, ranging from the classic—pistachio and nocciola (hazelnut)—to the more Americanized ‘snickers’. (But, more on this place when I visit again later). Needless to say, a few spoonfuls of my combination frutti di bosco (which means: blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, currents, etc combined) and crème caramel and resistance was futile. I realized I was going to have to start exploring the gelaterias in Rome (perhaps not four times a week) without delay. Afterall, I do have visitors coming beginning mid-February, and it seems important to be able to lead them to some of the cities best gelaterias.

fiocca-di-neve.jpg

So, I began my tour with another place, also close to the Pantheon, which seems to be a locus of good gelato. Its called Fiocco di Neve (Snowflake) and is located at Via del Pantheon 51. It’s a tiny place but after standing back on the corner for a few minutes to size-up the clientele and noticing it was only locals, I suspected this might be a place to try.

At this point, I would love to provide a history of gelato, but there seems to be a debate on the origins (Chinese or Italian, I think there is a similar debate over spaghetti) so I will have to research this further and add it to another post on gelato. In the meantime, I can offer an explanation of the difference between gelato and what we call ‘ice cream’ in the US. Gelato is made primarily with whole milk and has a richer flavor because it contains less air and is kept at a lower temperature (almost semi-frozen).

Gelato at Fiocco di Neve

To return to Fiocco di Neve, as you can see in the pictures, the selection is not enormous as you might find in some of the larger places, but to my mind, this suggests they are focusing their energies on getting a few flavors right. Since I am doing a gelato tour of sorts, I decided that I should depart from my standards like stracciatella (the Italian version of chocolate chip but so much better as it combines a flavor called fior di latte and chocolate shavings) and pistachio and I tried Crema di Nona (Grandmother’s Cream) and something called Spagnolo which you can see in one of the pictures—it is cream colored with swirls of red. Spagnolo seems to be a combination of a cream flavor and cherry with actual pieces of cherry. Crema di Nona was a rich, cream flavor with a hint of caramel—an ideal partner for Spagnolo.

Stay tuned for further entries on my gelato tour.

Also, this weekend is Carnival and based on the number of people already scattering confetti around the streets and little girls I’ve seen in princess costumes, this promises to be something worth writing about so stay tuned.

Art Everywhere

One of the things that has always struck me about being in Italian cities like Rome and Florence is that there is art everywhere. I was walking around the city this afternoon enjoying the first sunny day we have had in about a week (as was everyone else in Rome) and every time I turned a corner, I walked into either a stray ancient monument or remnant of one, or a 15th, 16th or 17th century palazzo.

I like the idea of contemporary artists responding canonical works of ancient, Renaissance, and Baroque art and architecture in the city so I was thrilled when I read about one such event this week on the ECool blog:

http://eternallycool.net/?p=1007

Enjoy.

Let Me Out

Rome is the one big city where I’ve always felt safe. Sure there are no shortage of pickpockets, but those are primarily in the more touristy areas and for the most part, as long as you are careful with your bags, wallets, etc, you are fine. I feel very safe walking the streets at night alone and I’m fairly certain I am not going to be held-up at gunpoint for my wallet – not really the Italian style of thievery.

That being said, I’ve always been fascinated by what I believe is an obsession with security among Italians. Perhaps it is just second nature. After centuries of needing to protect themselves against external threats from the barbarian hoards (Ostragoths, Visigoths, etc), the Gauls, the Ottoman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, etc, they feel as though its best to be prepared just in case. In fact, you can see the this long held concern with security in the remnants of ancient Roman walls around town. These walls continued to be actively used and repaired over time. This is door called the Porta San Paolo originally built in the 4th century on a segment of one of the walls that encircles the city. The Porta San Paolo came in handy when the Ostrogoths tried to attack the city in the 6th century and in the 20th century the Italians managed to hold off a segment of the German army at this door.

porta-san-paolo.jpg

In addition to those external threats, there was also the possibility that your neighbor might get angry and come after you, particularly after the fall of the Roman Empire, in the Middle Ages, when Italian cities were run by powerful families who built defensive towers beside their homes. When things got tense among the various families ruling the town and it looked like violence would erupt, everyone retreated into these towers to fight it out. Here is an example of one that is found in Trastevere not far from where I live.

medieval-towers.jpg

So, perhaps all this would explain Italian doors. Here is a picture of mine.

my-door.jpgFor those of you who have no experience with this type of door it seems to operate like this: there are crossed bars running along the width and length of the door and when you leave, you turn a skeleton key in the lock several times which moves the bars into catches in the floor and ceiling. This, I suspect, makes lock-picking useless. In fact, I’m certain the only thing that you might use to open this door other than a key would be a battering ram. There are no doorknobs, just a catch that you slide over to open the door.

I’ve never actually felt a need to activate the moving bars when I am in the apartment, so I’m not quite sure how to do it. That is, until yesterday.

The apartment I have rented is up for sale and a realtor brought a prospective buyer over to look around. Afterward, they left, shutting the door behind them and the agent, in what she probably thought was a polite act, put her skeleton key in the lock and started moving those bars. At the time, I was sitting on the couch, working on my Italian language homework. As I saw the bars moving into place I thought: “I have absolutely NO idea how to get out of here”. I ran to the door and saw that if I pulled back a little cover there was a place for my key, but I find in Italy, its best not to assume something will work like it is supposed to. Best to expect the worst—the power will go out if you turn on the stove and the heater at the same time, there will only be 5 minutes of hot water, etc.—and if it doesn’t happen, you are pleasantly surprised.

So, after examining the door and then hearing the front door to my building close, I felt like I had only one clear option. I ran to the window and threw it open and yelled out “Scusi signora” and then proceeded in broken Italian to explain that I wasn’t sure how to unlock the door. She and the prospective buyer looked up at me probably thinking . . . well who knows what they were thinking, but she kindly walked back into the building, up the stairs and set me free. I breathed an enormous sigh of relief at the fact that I wasn’t going to have to climb out of my apartment from my second story window and managed to squeak out a ‘grazie mille, signora’, she replied ‘niente’ (its nothing) as she walked away.

The View from My Window

view-from-my-window.jpg

This is the view from my living room window in Rome. From what I can tell, it seems to be the remains of a 17th century church with sculptures on the facade of a couple of mischievous putti (“A representation of a small child, often naked and having wings, used especially in the art of the European Renaissance,” American Heritage Dictionary) pulling back curtains. Today, the building is used as a restaurant and most diners probably don’t bother to look up to see the putti or the Latin inscription announcing this is the church of Santa-Maria-in-something-or-other built in 1675.

This is what I love about Rome; it’s a city in which the ancient, relatively old, and somewhat modern have, over time, co-mingled. Everywhere in the city you run into buildings that are from the 15th, 16th or later centuries that have a supporting arch or wall from the ancient or medieval period.

I am living in the neighborhood in Rome called Trastevere, south of the Vatican. People have been living in this area of Rome since the Roman Empire and the neighborhood is a mix of narrow, winding medieval streets, and 16th and 17th century grand palazzos. Around the corner from my apartment is the Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, a 12th century church with mosaics dating to that time on the façade.

santa-maria-in-trastevere-night.jpg

There is a picturesque piazza in front of the church which during the day is busy with the comings and goings of Romans and tourists but at night it has become the gathering place of American college students celebrating the fact that there is no drinking age in Italy by hanging around and imbibing liberally of the local vino and birra and making lots of noise. (To be fair, there are also a fair amount of Italian college students hanging out around there as well). It has gotten so out of control that many Italians who lived in neighborhood have had to move because they couldn’t sleep. Others who remained organized a protest and hung white sheets out their windows calling on the mayor to do something to solve this problem. More on this here:

http://www.iht.com/articles/2007/06/25/news/journal.php

According to my friends who live here, the mayor responded by sending out the police in full-force which didn’t make the residents happy either because they then posted signs proclaiming that they didn’t want to live in a fascist state. Ahh, Italy.

As many of you know, I am here in Rome for four months to do research for my dissertation.
While I am here, I decided to keep a blog to keep in touch with people, share some of my photos and observations on Rome; and of course it could also serve as a great way to procrastinate from my work. Please feel free to comment on my entries or offer tips on how to take better photos or whatever.