Advent Calendar Christmas Memories Italian Holiday Foods

December 5, 2009 at 06:02 | Posted in Carnival of Genealogy | Leave a comment
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Growing up in Italy, Valentino remembers the wonderful Christmases with his family. They kept the tradition of the 7 Fishes for Christmas dinner. They would all go to Midnight Mass together on Christmas Eve at the small church near his home. Only a few doors from their house, the family would all walk together. Christmas Day all the extended family would gather for a huge feast. Mama Concetta had spent hours cooking for everyone. Although the family was quite poor in Post WWII Italy in the early 1950s, he remembers the food at Christmas always seeming to fill the table to overflowing!

There would be the traditional fried smelts, small fish dipped in flour and fried. Then vinegar and garlic would be sautéed for a moment and poured warm over the smelts. Bacala (dried cod) was served along with big platters of steamed mussels. There would be fresh anchovies with basil and lemon, calamari in oil and fried, perhaps a white clam sauce over pasta. Naturally there would be huge bowls of Seafood Fra Diavolo.

We still try to keep this tradition for our family. Many times over the years we were not always able to afford all the fish varieties but we would spend time in the kitchen making the seven dishes with what we had. We live in Florida so our sons would go fishing and shrimping with their dad. They would also catch crabs so we would manage to save a nice assortment for the feast! When our finances began to improve we added stuffed lobster tails to our menu too!

The Policeman and the Case of the Silver Spoon

August 22, 2009 at 19:39 | Posted in ancestry, Bits and Pieces, Carnival of Genealogy, family history, genealogy | 2 Comments
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One of those crazy earliest memories of my early childhood is my Uncle Clifford. It was always a toss-up in my mind as to who was more handsome, Uncle Cliff or Uncle Harvey. Even as a little one I knew they were both very handsome but Uncle Cliff in his wonderful police uniform usually won the toss-up! We always had wonderful family dinners together, everyone gathered for the Holidays. My dad was a big believer in family and loved entertaining everyone. My mother would make fantastic dinners with enough food for an army. Even her buffets were sumptuous meals. She used pure white damask linen tablecloths that I would watch her iron until no wrinkles were left. Then she would set out stacks of her beautiful china and her prized silverware. Plastic and paper plates were never used inside – only rarely and then only for picnics!

  

Uncle Clifford

Uncle Clifford

               I was about four years old the Christmas I tagged after my Uncle Cliff at one of these dinners. This was the era when women would dress in their best right down to their high heels and men wore suits and ties, even to family dinners. Uncle Cliff, where did you find the patience to tolerate a little one hanging on your every move? As we all progressed through the buffet line juggling plates over-laden with food, I was in awe as Uncle Cliff tucked his silverware in the suit coat breast pocket near his handkerchief. I was sure no one else in the entire world could possibly be that smart!

Soon enough the evening came to an end and family were leaving. One of my aunts was helping my mother clean up in the kitchen. This was before automatic dishwashers, mind you! My mother could not sleep if there was a dirty dish or glass in the sink. Every piece was washed, dried, and put away. Silverware was counted as it was slipped back into the silverware chest. She always worried a piece might get tossed accidently and this had been a special wedding gift! Sure enough – the count was wrong and a spoon had gone missing. They searched kitchen, dining room, and living room looking for it. And then began the messy task of looking in the garbage! I tried to explain that Uncle Cliff had the spoon in his pocket! The two women looked at me mortified! Uncle Cliff was no thief!? What was I talking about? I was in tears now. My Uncle Cliff WAS TOO SMART! He had the spoon in his pocket! My poor mother was so confused by my carrying on! A few minutes later Aunt Bev called. They had made it safely home and then Uncle Cliff realized he still had a spoon in his pocket. Aunt Bev knew Mom was probably searching everywhere right now and wanted to reassure her the spoon was safe! Mom told her I had insisted that Uncle Cliff had the spoon and everyone had a good laugh as Uncle Cliff explained. I was finally appeased as everyone agreed with me that my Uncle Cliff was indeed a clever fellow!

For years family would tease at every family gathering and tell Uncle Cliff to check his pockets. Uncle Cliff has been gone a few years but even now as I wash and dry my own silverware, I remember again my handsome uncle with a smile in my heart. Once again I am four years old tagging after Uncle Cliff, the policeman with a silver spoon!

Olives Olives Olives

May 19, 2009 at 20:51 | Posted in Italian Cooking, Itri, Italy | 2 Comments
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Itri Views of Olive Groves  The olives of Itri are some of the finest grown in the world. Most know them as the olives of Gaeta due to an arrangement made years ago as the port of Gaeta was more recognized than the smaller town of Itri. But the olives themselves are grown up and down all the beautifully terraced mountain groves of Itri. There they benefit from both the mountain air and the sea breezes that blow inland across the mountains. Standing at the top of the Castello di Itri one can look out in all directions and see row upon row of neatly terraced olive groves spreading up and down all of the mountains and hills.

Family Grove

Family Grove

Fires

Fires

              During the month of April one can see and smell the fires as the olive growers trim back the trees and ground scrubs to encourage more fruit growth. This also helps protect the trees during the dangerous fire seasons when lightning strikes can start the wild fires so difficult to fight in the mountains.

       Most experienced farmers will trim the trees back to the two or three main branches and then smaller ones off of those. Keeping those branches trimmed means more of the energy of the tree goes to establish roots and then olive growth instead of small branches and many leaves. The trees are kept small enough that they can use a small ladder to access all of the olives to be harvested.

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        By April most of the olives have been harvested except for those being left to fully blacken on the trees. These are considered the sweetest ones because they so ripen. The farmers take great care at this stage to not bruise the olives by rough handling but because the olives are ripening quickly now, they hang nets beneath the trees overlapping each other so as to not lose any to the ground to spoil or be walked on. 

Save Those Oilives!

Save Those Oilives!

Olives - Saved!

Olives - Saved!

 

 

Nets

Nets

 

    

 

 

     Slow growing by nature, these trees have been tended by the same family for generation upon generation. With care, they live well over one hundred years. They carefully store the olives for the family to eat as well as take some to refineries to be made into deep pungent oil. It is important for un-bruised fruit to be refined in order to monitor the acid content in order to have the sweetest oils. The cold pressed or first pressed is the deepest green known as extra virgin. Then the olives are pressed again and even again a third time to extract the most oils possible. Each pressing results in a lighter colored oil. Nothing is left to waste – after oil is pressed, the waste of the pits is often mashed to become heating fuel as well as mulch for back around the trees. Now that refineries use so much water in the pressing process, they are dealing with the issues of the waste water being toxic. This was not a problem before the larger refineries came into being as the farmers seldom used quantities of water in their smaller local refineries. Now waste water is collected to be disposed of safely and many of the commercial refineries are developing methods of cleaning this water to not foul the water supplies or ground.
       Each stage of the harvest yields a different olive. Nothing beats the flavors of these olives. The strong green new olives, the cracked olives with their more pungent flavor, the tender black olives, and the sweetness of the sundried black olives!

Olives Olives Olives

Olives Olives Olives

Food! Mangi! Solamente Verdure!

May 9, 2009 at 09:15 | Posted in Italian Cooking, Trip to Italy 2009 | Leave a comment
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Only greens!

Only greens!

 One of the things we hear constantly over and over is “Mangi! È solamente verdure!!” It’s only greens! Yeah! Let me assure you that this is the understatement of the ages! There is not, never has been, and I guarantee never will be anything approximating only greens never ever in Italy!!!! Now I am perfectly willing to admit I have several pounds to lose. And I know in my head that vegetables are good for you. A nice healthy dish not top heavy in calories, bad carbs, or fat content. I can even accept that Italians tend not to over-salt or drown in heavy creamed or buttery sauces laden with grease. But nothing that tastes as wonderful as their fresh picked salads and vegetables will convince me that is impossible not to overeat myself to 500 lbs.

    We foolish Americans look at huge artichokes in the supermarket and willingly pay $2.99 each to take them home and peel apart and discard half before we find the edible parts. Then we stuff the remainder full of breadcrumbs, butter, salt, spices, and even meats. And then we proceed to drown it in some form of greasy gravy or hollandaise sauce. But Italians will tell you that is the worst possible artichoke – one that they would toss as garbage and use to feed the animals! How can one be sure it is an artichoke anyway?  

Tender Artichokes

Tender Artichokes

Artichokes in Italy cost somewhere in the vicinity of $3.00 for eight to ten small to medium sized artichokes. I will grant the size is smaller but that is because they were picked sooner before they spread out empty and dried out. Instead one eats almost all of the smaller tender artichoke. No heavy sauces or greasy goo for these artichokes! They are stewed lightly on top of the stove or baked in the oven with a small amount of olive oil and an easy hand on any of the seasonings. Occasionally they are dipped in light flour and fried in a skillet. That means one appreciates the wondrous flavor of the artichoke itself. Yes. An artichoke actually has a flavor all its own!!!  

Fresh Fava Beans

Fresh Fava Beans

  And so it is with most greens in Italy. Great care is taken to allow the diner to taste whatever it is they are eating – not the sauces or gravies or seasonings but the main food item itself. Even the wine is chosen to complement, not over power the food. Even in the poorest homes, dishes are changed between courses so that one flavor does not remain in a dish to over-power the next course. “Mangi! È solamente Verdure!”

Stuffed Mushrooms

Stuffed Mushrooms

     

Olives!Olives!Olives!

Olives!Olives!Olives!

La Valle del Re

May 4, 2009 at 10:07 | Posted in Trip to Italy 2009 | Leave a comment
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La Valle del Re II

La Valle del Re II

 

The Valley of the King – forgive me but this is a shameless plug for one of the most special places in Itri to visit … a restaurant opened by a good friend of ours, Mario Petrillo.

Gioielleria Petrillo

Gioielleria Petrillo

Already a well-respected business owner and talented jeweler, Mario has added the title of restaurateur to his list of accomplishments. Located on Via C. Farnese between the route to the Sanctuario and Itri proper, this is classic dining in the true elegant Italian style. It includes views of the beautiful Italian countryside making the atmosphere complete. We Americans so foolishly believe Italian food means pizza or just canned tomato sauce on pasta without ever knowing the many varied and tasteful delights of Italian cuisine. Mario proves it is much more than just this while offering you an Italian dining experience in gorgeous surroundings. It will be well worth the short drive … and tell Mario that Valentinoswife sent you!…”

La Valle del Re

La Valle del Re

 “On the 10th of February 1849, the august Monarch Fernando II with his Royal family and the Highest Pious Pontiff IX, after the ardent supplication of the mayor of Itri, they went to the Sanctuario to revere the Virgin Saint of the Civita. The hearts of the canters were filled with joy and the merry trip changed faces in devoted pilgrimage, when it had reached the strata of the mountain. This valley that from the first echo of hurrah, resounds again of then those sacred hymns…”

Next Few Days

May 1, 2009 at 09:17 | Posted in Trip to Italy 2009 | Leave a comment
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Lesson I

Lesson I

Monday: I was treated to a personal pasta-making session. My sister-in-law makes the best handmade pasta – pasta that reaps the benefit of the love she puts into everything she does for family! Soon I will be adding many more pages to the family cookbook that were given to me by all my sisters-in-laws. Leaving Tarquinia is never easy even when we are this eager to travel down to Itri to see more family.

After my crazy work schedule before I left, I have been ready for rest. I have not slept more than a couple hours here and there so I am at the exhaustion stage. While Val and sister gab on the drive to Itri, I opted for the backseat to grab some much needed rest. Once again it bears mention that the backseat of this car is NOT meant for comfort – the seat is like being on a rock bench so I have rearranged baggage to have some cushioning! It has been rainy so it is a good day to drive and not miss precious time. Family is waiting and we are all anxious to be there!

Grazing Cows in Itri

Grazing Cows in Itri

Tuesday: We are ready for our first full day in Itri. We have gotten up earlier to enjoy a leisurely breakfast enjoying the view and the sounds – song birds are doing their best to sing a welcome and we can hear the bells clanging around the necks of the white cows we see walking on the not too distant mountaintop. The view to the ocean in Formia is beautiful – almost too beautiful to pull ourselves away from but we already have a full day of plans to accomplish. First on the list is a trip to City Hall to make a request for family information. We arrive and can only interrupt our friend for a few moments of his busy schedule. Our marriage is registered properly and we are given an Atta di Matrimonio – not sure why the Consulate does not have it after thirty-two years? Seems we are still being tracked in Boston even though our Florida address relates to Miami. We leave with a promise that our friend will try to locate information on Val’s maternal family line.

While at the Commune, we visit the Information Center and again old friendships are renewed. They are only too happy to share a wealth of information with us and literature as well as posters and old photographs. Their help as well as generosity is astonishing and I am extraordinarily grateful to them. All that was asked in return is for me to give credit back to the Commune of Itri, something I am more than willing to do! No matter how many times I hear others criticize Italians for being rude or not helpful, I know this does not relate to anyone in the Commune of Itri – everyone has always given freely and generously of their time. It reinforces my dream to make Itri our second home.

Pasqua Procession in Tarquinia

April 29, 2009 at 22:58 | Posted in Trip to Italy 2009 | Leave a comment
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Procession I

Procession I

4/12/2009 Today we arrived in time to spend Easter with family in Tarquinia. Last time we visited we were shown a special video of the Pasqua Procession held in Tarquinia. A beautiful old crucifixion is carried about the town – Tarquinia is a quaint town set outside Roma – a mountainous town with steep hills but rich in charm and character. I was able to video almost all of the Procession, a real treat and a special way to celebrate!

Procession

Procession

 

 

Men of Tarquinia

Men of Tarquinia

As you can see from the photo of the main square, everyone who could possibly fit into the town’s main piazza was there to watch the Procession. Men shot off their rifles with loud bangs, showering the crowds in confetti and smoke. The bells rang out frequently. It was all very exciting and moving to behold!

Later we sat down to dinner enjoying the homemade pasta, stuffed artichokes, cooked finnocchi, salad, cheeses, and wine. Then everyone read through the family history book, adding more names of course of those new babies along with a marriage that took place not long ago. They are very enthusiastic also and want me to continue to research!

Espresso, Sapore di Italia

April 2, 2009 at 16:38 | Posted in Amore di Italia, Bits and Pieces, Fun Reminders of Italy, Italian Cooking, Itri, Italy | 3 Comments
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When I was in college (way too many years ago now) I drank tea. My mom’s family was from Scotland so tea was a family thing for us, a cultural harkening back to roots. It was a staple of my life, a main food source – so much so that I could literally distinguish between brands of tea by the taste. One tea manufacturer was a bit taken aback when I wrote a letter of complaint. I knew by taste they had changed their formula, their blend, something their taste pros told them the average customer would not be able to do!

Somewhere along the way I began to drink American coffee. Maybe it was in revolt to the tea change thing but I do not remember when or why I first started to switch my allegiance. My dad drank his coffee black but I preferred cream and sugar. My grandmother always had a little container of instant coffee on her kitchen table and evaporated milk with the tin lid that made a pour spout. I really never was a fan of instant coffee.

Then I moved to Rhode Island to Providence. Dinner at the local Italian restaurants and homes of localites always always included an after-dinner small cup of espresso. And then along the way I became engaged to an Italian – you know – as in from Italy kind of Italian! Ha! That is ANOTHER whole story by itself – but suffice it to say I was now beginning to rearrange certain aspects of my life. The Corningware™ percolator was regulated to the back of the cabinet. I still remember our shopping expedition to buy my first espresso pot, a shiny aluminum Bialetti™ with that cute little fellow in black suit, striped pants, hat, and cigar! We drove to the local hardware store, a typical mom and pop store that sold much more than just nuts, bolts, and hammers. There on the shelf was row upon row of espresso pots and right next to them were espresso cups, saucers, and tiny spoons to fit the saucers. Then we were off to the grocery store to buy the coffee… And finally back to my apartment to learn to brew my first pot of espresso at home!

On our honeymoon soon after I suddenly discovered more flavors of espresso, crema, cappuccino. Our first weekend as we strolled the Mercado I reveled in the choices of espresso pots and a love affair was begun. Now my little Bialetti was going to have lots of company as I found a Napolitano, a crema, a ceramic pot with hand painted flowers set atop the metal base, and even one with a metal base with flat top to hold the four demi-cups instead of a regular pot. But my love affair did not stop with just the espresso pots. I also fell in love with espresso cups. Delicate porcelains with hand painted flowers, chunky white serviceable cups for the kitchen, clear gold toned glass square ones with the handles on the edge instead of the flat sides, the list goes on and on! Surprisingly everyone woman who came to visit the newlyweds would feel obliged to bring cups, or spoons, or espresso pot to help outfit the perfect kitchen back in America! After all the bride was expected to “serve her husband properly” when they went back home!

Now all these many years since our collection has grown. Each time we moved, the espresso pots were carefully packed and then unpacked. Kitchens were remodeled so they could be displayed on long shelves. It was never a home until those pots and espresso cups were once again the center of the kitchen! They have never been simply decorations. Each is used as the mood strikes and the occasion calls for. A petite one cup is enough for me if I am alone. There is a gleaning stainless steel we use every day for family. There is a 12 cup Bialetti™ for parties. The choice of cups suits our moods or the occasion. Each set reminds me of where we were or who we were with as I made the purchase.

American friends often ask how I can stand the taste of the strong bitter coffee. “Doesn’t it keep you awake all night?” Indeed sipping a cup of espresso con latte or strong and black is restful, a de-stressor for me. I find that cup of espresso to be more enjoyable than an herbal tea when I want to sit and relax. I sit back with my cup and a good book or perhaps outside at first dawn light watching the mist rise and listening to birds. The only thing better is to be enjoying a small shot of espresso at the Bar Farnese in Itri!

Sapore di Italia

March 31, 2009 at 16:59 | Posted in Bits and Pieces, Fun Reminders of Italy, Itri, Italy | 1 Comment
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This weekend we were mightily blessed as the guests of special friends. (Yes, Annette – you are a very special friend) With a hectic work schedule for me, babysitting for grandbabies as needed, and planning for our vacation, free time is rather difficult and precious. So it was tremendous joy to be invited to dinner with our friends. As they are always fun to be with, we anticipated we would once again have an enjoyable evening. And of course, we did! Stepping into their home is to feel at home! Their lovely home is a slice of Italy right here in Florida – and their warm welcomes and fabulous meals are lovingly shared in true Italian style. Our host grilled the main course to perfection while we chatted around the table. That began a sumptuous dinner of tomato salad, fried zucchinis, roasted potatoes, steaks,, delightful wine, homemade stuffed breads (Annette I need your recipes!) that were a meal in themselves – a dinner to rival any four or five star restaurant! Desert was an assortment of Italian pasties with steaming cups of espresso and frosted glasses of limoncello!

But it is the good conversation, the exchange of stories, laughter, and family that makes this the beautiful home it is! Talk of home, family, and of course Itri, and again the evening turns into the wee hours! Especially as we plan our meeting together in about 3 weeks in Itri! Their trip will have them turn southward to visit family while ours will take us northward to Milano but it is the anticipation of time together in Itri that excites us all. For it is Itri that is always central in everything we know now – a beginning, a middle, and an end to our plans and hopes and dreams – it is home!

Thanks Annette and Frank for your hospitality and friendship – a wonderful example of why we so love Itri – GRAZIE MILLE – BUON VIAGGIO!

Cooking with Family… or… How I hate to Diet!

March 13, 2009 at 17:04 | Posted in ancestry, family history, Itri, Italy | 2 Comments
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We’re a typical Italian family (even if I am was not born Italian, my husband claims I am one now thanks to 32 years of marriage with him!). This means most of life takes place around the dining room table – or in the kitchen, laughing, yelling, crying… all the stuff that makes a family real and vibrant and breathing! It seems almost every family story starts or ends in the kitchen, sitting eating, or cooking! We have four young adult sons who all still enjoy returning home to family meals — and now our granddaughters are falling right into line.

We laugh till we cry when the girls start begging mommy to let them go to grandma and grandpa’s house because they are hungry. Meg visits several days a week for lunch and enjoys grandpa’s fresh baked bread. Katie and Julie insist it is “pasta zoulie” at our house that is best. That’s pasta fagioli (pasta and beans) for the rest of you!

So this Christmas I visited the MyCanvas program on ancestry.com to make a family cookbook for everyone. I realized that those times in the kitchen were pretty special about the time the sons had good friends returning on furlough from the service who came to visit, too. We are “mom and pops’ to a lot of great guys who have been friends for most of their lives with our sons. Yet these young men so mature and even married will still look forward to “coming home for dinner” at our table!

So it was that I decided to make family our own family cookbook. I filled it with photos of great meals over the years, someof us in the kitchen actually cooking, and, of course, the finished presentation! Each recipe page featured a few lines about who taught me the recipe or who was the best at making it or when we enjoyed it the most. Anything that would make the recipe relevant to each other and remind them years from now of family times together no matter where life takes them. Hopefully it will be the memories of long talks until late in the evening at the big table that will guide and sustain them no matter what curves life throws them or what the economy does or who comes into or leaves their lives. Because as every Italian knows, if the sauce is cooking and the smell is tempting them to stir the pot and dip a piece of bread, Mama and Papa’s love is still surrounding them, embracing them, holding them tight!

Try this sure to please everyone recipe:

Spaghetti Carbonara

1 lb. bacon 2-4 eggs 1/4 cup basil

2- 4 tblspns. cream (I use milk)

at least 8 ounces grated cheese – good quality 1-2 lbs. spaghetti

Brown bacon until crispy and crumbly. St aside. Drain pan but reserve 2 tblspns. bacon grease. Add cream to the bacon grease and let simmer for a couple of minutes. Set pan aside. Boil spaghetti. While it is boiling, scramble eggs in separate bowl. add basil and cheese to the raw eggs and mix. It will be a thick batter consistency. When pasta is cooked, drain and rinse. Add back to pot – add warm milk and bacon grease to pasta – then stir in egg and cheese mixture. The heat of the cooked pasta and warm milk will “cook” the raw eggs. Toss well with the crumbled bacon, reserving some as garnish – put in large bowl – top with last of crumbled bacon. Once they stop eating the only thing you will hear is “Why didn’t you make more of this?”!

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