Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Thoughts of Italy

My friend Melinda Snodgrass and I were discussing how much we love Italy yesterday.  It was in the context of wanting to go see Letters to Juliet just to look at the scenery.  We disagree about Rome. While I love the history and historic buildings, I did not feel safe alone there.  Melinda loves the energy of the place. I thought it was like being in the seamier parts of New York without knowing enough of the language to get out.  I prefer the more civilized pace of  the hill towns of the north and the areas around the lakes.  And the food everywhere.  As a fellow photographer once said to me, "my idea of heaven is you die and you go to Italy, where you eat a little and you drive a little and you eat a little..."

My affinity for things Italian is genetic. Three quarters of my grandparents were from (or offspring of people from) the south of Italy: Padula (near Naples), Venosa (at the end of the Appian way), and Calabria. (The other quarter was Czech, from the days when they were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but they called themselves Czech, no matter what the census of the day says.) Both of my grandmothers were born in the U.S., but both of my grandfathers came here as children from Italy, during the huge wave of Italian immigration around the beginning of the 20th century.  My mother's father said they came because his mother, the terrifying Nonna who lived to be 94 and refused to speak English (though god knows she must have known plenty after 50 years here), was worried that she would lose him to a war with the Turks.  His two sisters were already living here.

Italian was spoken in my grandfather's house since his mother wouldn't speak English and it was a way to keep secrets from children. My mother learned it, and each of her siblings learned less and less, and even I learned enough that when I finally took the language in college, it wasn't too hard for me to keep up.  I can read enough to get by, I know my way around an Italian menu or grocery, but any Italian two-year-old speaks the language better than I ever will. It's O.K. Italians will love you for the tiniest try.  I spent a train ride from Florence to Rome sitting with a woman from Sardinia and we managed a long conversation with the help of my Italian-English dictionary.  I believe if you know the phrases "quanta costa," "troppo," and "dov'e il bagno per la donna," you can get by.  For food, just point.

I've been watching David Rocco's Dolce Vita on the new Cooking Channel (which has the worst tagline I've heard recently: "Cooking Channel, Stay Hungry." WTF?), which reminds me of the lovely weeks I spent in Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany taking a workshop in food photography back in the 1980s.  The show is shot in and around Florence, so I can point and say "been there, done that."  It makes me want to jump on a plane. Three weeks in Italy, never a bad meal.

For a long time I thought I deserved a trip to Italy as a delayed honeymoon for my second marriage, but after almost 20 years, that's not happening. If we don't find a house to buy soon, I may take some of the Jeopardy! money and treat myself to the trip I want.  Sometimes the fantasy trip involves taking an Equitour of Tuscany and sometimes it involves going to a cooking school for a week. If Len won't go, maybe I could get Melinda, my sister, and my friends Gillian, Karen, and Gloria to go along.  I'm sure we'd have a fine time. I've got a major birthday coming up next year--hmmm.

Since I'm more likely to go to New York in the near future, I was delighted to follow a few links from a Saveur e-mail this morning to discover Di Palo Selects, an Italian grocery and mail-order store in Manhattan.  The founders were from the same area as one of my grandfathers, and emigrated around the same time.  While I always include pilgrimages to Zabar's when I'm in The City, this place looks like a good reason to go Downtown.  I'm sorely tempted to order the cheese sampler and some fig molasses, just because it sounds so good.  I know of one pretty good Italian grocery down near LAX, but the ones in the Valley aren't particularly well stocked.  I'm open to suggestions, if anyone has them.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Oregano-crusted Tuna under the Stars

Dinner was very simple last night, but delicious.  The guys grilled steak and I grilled tuna.  They had baked white potatoes and I had a baked sweet potato.  It didn't take that much time, so I just don't understand why we don't do it every night.

The tuna was a variation on a recipe from Evan Kleiman's Cucina Del Mare: Fish and Seafood Italian Style. She does the recipe with swordfish--and I've done it that way as well--but the tuna came out just fine.

Take a piece of tuna, sprinkle with salt and pepper, rub it all over with olive oil, and then press oregano on as a crust.  Throw it on the grill until it is done to your liking.  Serve it with a squeeze of lemon.  Heavenly.

It can also be made in the broiler, but we've got the gas grill set up outside the kitchen, so it is convenient to use it and there's less to clean up.

I'm not sure what Len did to the beef, but Michael pronounced it the most delicious steak ever.

I'm a big fan of Evan's cookbooks with and without Viana La Place, and they were among the first cookbooks I replaced after the fire.  As I've written before, I really enjoy eating at her restaurant, Angeli Caffe, over on Melrose in West Hollywood.  The last time I was there was for a "Feast of Seven Fishes" family-style dinner just before Christmas (see photo for the appetizers for that dinner.)  Our table companions included Susan Orlean, author of The Orchid Thief, and her husband.  Susan had come out to California for research she was doing on the Army's use of mules in Afghanistan.  My friend Karen, who was my dinner companion that evening, is a knowledgeable mule fanatic, so she had much to offer on the topic of mules.  That's the fun of an Angeli Caffe family-style meal: meeting new and interesting people.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Remembering the French Quarter

I don't get over to the Farmers' Market on Fairfax in Los Angeles very often, but the spousal unit spent another four days in Cedars-Sinai Hospital and I needed lunch before it was time to spring him yesterday.  One of the kinds of food it is a bit difficult to find good examples of in my part of Los Angeles County is Cajun/Creole fare.  Fortunately, The Gumbo Pot at the Farmers' Market is pretty good.

I had a small bowl of the seafood gumbo, along with the sweet potato chips and beignets. These are all things I could make at home, but I just don't have the time and Len doesn't eat food this spicy. 

Since they sell it, I presume the recipe for the beignets is the mix from Cafe du Monde in New Orleans.  The boxed mix is available pretty much everywhere (including, apparently) and it is easy to make.  During one of the longest conventions I can remember going to, we were in New Orleans for eight days, and every night ended at the Cafe du Monde, across from the cathedral, with a raucous group of fantasy/science fiction writers downing chickory coffee and sugar-powdered beignets. 

For the record, I think eight days is far too long a stretch to eat in New Orleans. For all the wonderful food there is to be tried(and in eight days I had exactly two bad meals: the awards banquet at the convention hotel and dinner at what was reputed to be the oldest Italian restaurant in the city), you just know your arteries hardening by the minute.  My previous trip there had been five days, and my limited budget at the time saved me from places like K. Paul's.  I think three days is probably an ideal amount of time to spend there without dying for a fresh salad and a light lunch.