Tag Archives: friends

Levanzo

Levanzo is one of the three Egadi Islands off the western coast of Sicily (the other two are Favignana and Marettimo). A 20 minute hydrofoil ride from the port of Trapani, Levanzo is super tiny, with a total area of 5.82 square kilometers (2.25 sq mi). About 65 people live on the island year round. I spent several days there last month.thumb_IMG_1761_1024

This is how it happened. I was having dinner with the Upstairs Vegetarian and our friends Marzio and Giulia one night in the dead of winter when Giulia started rhapsodizing about this island where she had spent a lot of time when she was younger: Levanzo. She described the island as a paradise: beautiful, unspoiled, quiet and super-undiscovered. My buddy Jane and I had been talking about a beach holiday this summer and when I sent her the name of the island she snapped into super-organized holiday planning mode and quickly made all the arrangements.

As it turns out, I probably should have asked Giulia a few more questions. My idea of the perfect beach holiday is lying on a sunbed with an umbrella, a book and a big bottle of water. Every so often I’ll wander down the sandy beach to the water’s edge and have a little paddle. Levanzo is not a place of white sandy beaches and lazy long days with a good book. There are three beaches on the island — Cala del Faraglione, Cala Tramontana and Cala Minnola. Two of them are very pebbly and unprotected from the blistering hot sun; Cala Minnola is a sort of concrete slab once used for landing boats. The concrete beach is backed up by a copse of trees, which provides some shade but getting there requires scrambling up a rocky hill. I tend to be clumsy and to fall down a lot (loyal readers may remember the Great Broken Back Caper of 2015) so I’m pretty unenthusiastic about rocky hills. Getting into the water is also a challenge — more rocks, many more rocks. Great for snorkeling though, which is Jane’s thing. It’s possible to rent boats to take around the island and swim from the boats, neatly avoiding the rock issue, but three of the five days we were there were windy and the boatmen wouldn’t take us out. On the plus side, the ferry couldn’t cross from Trapani, cutting down on the number of day trippers. On the other hand, by the end of the three days, the island had nearly run out of supplies — Levanzo has no agriculture to speak of and completely depends on Sicily for produce and water.thumb_IMG_1757_1024

Levanzo has just one tourist site: the Grotta del Genovese, a cave containing prehistoric cave drawings (we didn’t get there). I understand that there are lots of nice hikes to be taken but that’s not really my thing. There is a tiny grocery store and an excellent bakery. If you are looking for lots of restaurants and nightlife, this is not the island for you. I don’t care much about nightlife but I really, really care about food. As you know. Fortunately, Levanzo did not let me down. There are two restaurants, one of  which is attached to the slightly down-at-heels Paradiso Hotel, and one of which is a bar/superb lunch and dinner spot: the Romano Bar, Pizzaria and Restaurant. We ended up having breakfast and dinner there practically every day (we tried the Paradiso but it was just so-so). At lunch we went to the bakery for a cabucio (also known as pane cunzatu), an amazing Sicilian sandwich on a soft bread loaf with fillings like tomatoes, oregano, anchovies and different kinds of cheeses.

Here’s some of what we ate.

Stuffed mussels

Stuffed mussels

Roasted squid

Roasted squid

Mixed fishy antipasto, mostly variations of marinated anchovies, squid and shrimp rolled up in marinated veggies. So good.

Mixed fishy antipasti, mostly variations of marinated anchovies, squid and shrimp rolled up in marinated veggies. So good.

And more

And more: raw shrimps and some fried stuff

Fried squid and some local (bony) fish

Fried squid

Gigantic shrimps

Gigantic shrimps

And the very excellent Sicilian salad of tomatoes, onion, capers and basil, which we had at every meal

And the very excellent Sicilian salad of tomatoes, onion, capers and basil, which we had at every meal

Even though Levanzo might not be my first choice for a beach holiday in future, we did have a lovely time. We stayed in a very clean and comfortable little apartment (La Plaza Residence). The main drag along the port is about two blocks long and practically everything you need is there (there is a bank machine up the hill a bit). Everything else is dirt roads — virtually no cars on Levanzo. Very quiet and relaxing. And because there are so few people, it only takes a few days to pretty much know, or at least, recognize everyone. It’s a friendly place. Everyone pulls their weight: the guy who sold you coffee in the morning might be taking you out for a boat ride at noon, unloading the ferry at four and waiting on your table at night. So that was fun.

And then there’s this. thumb_IMG_1767_1024

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Looking back and moving on

Last week I was in the States helping my parents get ready to move house. They are moving to a smaller place so significant downsizing was required. Cleaning out the closets was not so problematic: the bridesmaid dress I wore in my sister’s wedding and the beautiful red silk mandarin gown that neither Mom nor I will ever fit into again went off to the thrift shop; my cap and gown, the little dress Mom wore to tap class when she was six and Dad’s pea coat from the navy all got a reprieve. Books and photos? Not so easy. It’s a family thing to have tons of photos adorning all available wall space (we call this the Rogue’s Gallery).

Rogues Gallery, Rome edition.

The notion of decimating the Gallery (fewer walls in the new place) was highly troubling to the parents: how to choose which photos to jettison? Would their subjects be upset? It was decided that a slight reduction in the number of grandkid pix was acceptable and this cut back the photos by about 50%. Finding a similar formula for the books was less straightforward. Me: Dad, you’ve had this 600 page book on Oliver Cromwell for 30 years and you’ve never read it. You never will. Can we give it to the library? Dad: I might read it. Me: Mom, you’ve had this 600 page book on gardening for 30 years and you’ve never read it. You never will, especially since your new apartment doesn’t have a garden. Can we give it away? Mom: But your sister gave it to me for Christmas. She signed it and everything. I can’t give that away. As if this wasn’t hectic enough (and don’t even get me started on the three ribs Dad broke while carrying a box out to the garage. I don’t know how many of you have experience with cracked ribs — I have plenty but never more than one at a time. I cannot even conceive of the pain of having three broken at the same time), my parents also decided to sell their house in the mountains at the same time. I understand why — the house no longer gets enough use to justify its expense, what with taxes and trees falling onto the roof when it snows — but it’s still very sad. I have a lot of great memories of that place. So, to say goodbye, I invited my college roommates to the house for the weekend.

My parents’ house on Lake Naomi in the Pocono Mountains (known to its friends as the Pokes).

Joanne (in DC), Andy (in Anne Arbor), Anne (in Clarksville, TN) and I (in Rome) don’t get together often enough (the last time was in Mexico about 3 1/2 years ago), but when we do it’s as if no time has passed. Or rather, it’s as if lots of time has passed — and we’ve all been through ups and downs, heartache and jubilation in the meantime — but we’ve pretty much stayed the same. Still goofballs and still (in our minds) 18. We had a fantastic time reminiscing (thanks to Andy who remembers everything) and catching up with each other.

Ruth, Andy, Anne and Joanne do some catching up. © Joanne.

Oh yeah.

Sadly, my beloved Jubilee Diner was closed all weekend due to a massive power outage that occurred when a truck crashed into a nearby utility pole.

I’m going to miss Rib Night at the Jubilee.

But we made do. Any Martians searching for an explanation as to why over a third of Americans are obese need look no further than the Poconoes, where pretty much every available eating spot is of the hoagie/pizza/ice cream variety. This perfectly suited our plan to spend the entire weekend eating just like we did when we were in college.

Note the broccoli: this passes for health food in the Pokes.

We did draw the line this time at cold pizza, a common breakfast item our senior year when I worked at the campus pizza agency and brought home the leftovers. We also walked around the lake, an activity that may have burned off 1% of the calories we consumed at any given meal.

A stormy day on Lake Naomi

On Sunday, we found our way to the Hickory Valley Restaurant in Swiftwater, which dates back to 1949 and started out as an actual farm specializing in hickory-smoked ham, sausage, turkey and bacon, done the Pennsylvania Dutch way.

The Hickory Valley Restaurant, Swiftwater, PA

The homemade corned beef hash is apparently world famous (I think that’s world defined as in the World Series).

Barbecued pulled pork sandwich (are they sure that’s Pennsylvania Dutch?).

Remember that diet I was going on some time back? I think that needs revisiting, and pronto.

Bistrot del Duca

Città della Pieve. ©antmoose

Diane, my sophomore year roommate, has been staying in Arezzo with her family for the past week. We decided to meet up in Chiusi, a short 1.5 hour train ride from Rome. It was lunchtime when I arrived (the second best time of day after dinnertime) and I gently prodded them in the direction of Città della Pieve, site of one of my favourite places to eat, Bistrot del Duca. We had a terrific time there, eating and catching up.

But first, Città della Pieve is a small city of fewer than 8000 inhabitants, just over the Tuscan border in Umbria. It is notable for several things. There are some Etruscan tombs around the place if you like that sort of thing (which I do, having written my senior thesis on the subject). It is a medieval city in a country dominated by the Renaissance and is mostly constructed from laterizio, the golden brick that is characteristic of the region. Very pretty and glowy in the sunset hour. And it was the birthplace of the Renaissance painter Pietro Vannucci, who took his nickname from the provincial capital to become Perugino. He taught Rafael and various of his artworks are strewn around town, apparently. But no time for that today. It’s on to the Bistrot del Duca!

I discovered this place a few years ago when I rented a small place in nearby Porto for a couple of months over the summer. I came up most weekends and spent August there, the plan being to work on the novel. But enough about that.

The Bistrot del Duca is a lovely small place on the outskirts of town, a bit hidden behind greenery so it’s easy to miss. I’d advise you to persevere. There are a few tables outside under a pergola and about five tables inside for the winter months. The menu is hand-written on a little board and changes daily. Christian, the owner, has some sort of jazz association as I recall, and there is music in the evenings. The food is lovely. Fresh and inventive and all local.

I started with a hot carrot soup with cinnamon. It was tasty, although I would have preferred to have it cold, given the burning heat of summer.

Carrot soup with cinnamon, oil and a drowned crouton. I would have preferred this cold. We still demolished every bite.

Then I had a delicious veal chop stuffed with a tiny bit of provolone and sage, sort of like an inside-out saltimbocca, with cheese instead of ham.

Stuffed veal chop. Delicious but very filling on a hot day

Diane also had the veal preceded by a fantastic lamb speck – imagine a lamb flavoured prosciutto crudo, salt-cured and smoked – with goat cheese.

Thinly sliced cured lamb with goat cheese. Sublime.

And there was a carpaccio of (raw) swordfish with a lemony yoghurt and almonds. Sounds weird but it worked.

Swordfish carpaccio.

There were also tortelli (i.e. big tortellini) with ricotta and truffles. I didn’t taste these but they smelled fantastic. I (heart) truffles.

Big Boy tortellini with truffles and ricotta.

For dessert, we had home-made almond biscuits, a fruit tart and a flourless chocolate cake, which was nearly gone by the time I managed to aim the camera.

Diane’s kids, Zeke and Lizzi, make short work of the chocolate cake.

Afterwards we headed over to nearby Lago di Trasimeno. It’s a pretty spot and the town of Castiglione del Lago, which overlooks the lake, is definitely worth a gander. But the lake is very shallow and muddy. So not really a swimming kind of place. Plus it discriminates against dogs. Much better to go here.

Lago di Trasimeno: shallow, muddy and dog-intolerant. Boo to that!

Bistrot del Duca, Via po’ di mezzo 3, Citta della Pieve, Italy. Tel: 0578298008

Playing around with food plus bonus recipe

As Faithful Readers (and anyone who has ever met me) will know, I love food. I love to eat it. I love to cook it. And I love to play around with it, by which I mean that I love to come up with new and interesting ways to eat and cook it.

I’ve been playing around with food ever since I was a little girl. I used to head straight to the kitchen after school where I’d invent some snack or other (more often than not involving, among other things, toast and a stick of butter). My philosophy was then, as it is now, that if you put together a bunch of ingredients that you like, you’ll probably like the result (there have been some sensational fails, such as the infamous orange juice omelet – on toast with butter – but it usually works out). I have refined this philosophy over time to include the following codicil: if you fry it, melt cheese and/or chocolate over it, it will be delicious.

My Book Club met a few days back to discuss The Imperfectionists (fun novel, set in Rome at an English-language international newspaper loosely based on the IHT. Read it). Book Club revolves as much around the food that is served as the book that is discussed. I offered to bring an appetizer and it turned out so well I thought I’d share it with you.

I do so with some trepidation. Like most people who spend a lot of time in the kitchen (I think this is true) , I cook mostly by instinct. So I’m not real clear about measurements. Still, I think this mushroom slather would be pretty hard to screw up as long as you have a hardy food processor.

I didn't get a picture of the slather but here are some nice fresh mushrooms for your viewing pleasure.

And some dogs. 

Mushroom slather

1-2 garlic cloves, chopped

1 small onion, chopped

2 tbsp butter

½ kilo (approx 1 lb) mushrooms

1 jar sun-dried tomatoes in oil

thyme, salt and pepper

1 tub cream cheese

In your hardy food processor, chop the mushrooms until they are very fine. There is a thin line between finely chopped and mushy and you should try not to cross it. Melt the butter in a large frying pan and toss in the garlic and onion. Cook until translucent. Add the mushrooms and cook until they are very soft and all the liquid they have released has evaporated. That’ll take about 10-15 minutes. In the meantime, drain the sun-dried tomatoes and chop them up in the food processor. Add them to the mushroom mixture. Then add thyme, salt and pepper to taste (see how I cheated on the measurements here?). Cook another 3 minutes. Turn off the stove and stir in the cream cheese. Continue stirring until it’s all melted into the mixture (see codicil above). Serve at room temperature on crackers or bagel chips.

It’s also great the next day on a sandwich on toasted bread with tomatoes and roast turkey.

Feeds a Book Club with a bit left over. 

 

The women’s group

I’ve belonged to a women’s group since 1990. The whole thing started out as a sort of feminist discussion forum but that got old–for some of us–pretty quickly. The real feminists (as opposed to those of us who just liked getting together now and then to chat and eat) formed a splinter group, which quickly went out of business. The fake feminists have been meeting once a month ever since.

This is how it works. Someone hosts and someone (else) presents on a topic of her choosing. The food is–as always–a serious concern. There are some really great cooks in the group.

Over the years we’ve had some pretty interesting meetings. We learned how to do that Japanese flower arranging thing with sticks. We had a knitting bee. We discussed the OJ Simpson trial and the evidence botch in the Amanda Knox case. We learned how to make sushi and had a demonstration of molecular gastronomy. We also learned from our resident biologist how sex reassignment surgery works and it ain’t pretty. We’ve shared photos of ourselves when we were teenagers and opened up about our greatest wardrobe disasters. We’ve had authors, artists and chefs as guest speakers. Elizabeth Gilbert stopped by during the ‘Eat’ portion of her ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ tour and read excerpts from her one of her books.

As Friend Susan said in an email this morning, “Honestly, without the monthly fix of the women’s club, how could one keep up with world events and current scandals, Roman happenings, good books, tips on food,  insights into health issues, what’s what and who’s who in the sit-com world, and more?”  Indeed.

There are 12 of us in the group. People have come and gone (and sometimes come back) over the years but most of the members have been with the group for at least a decade. It’s not the kind of thing you walk away from willingly. We’ve been through illnesses, births and deaths together. We’ve shared recipes and hairstylists and skin care tips. We’ve grown up (or at least middle-aged) together.

Eating and laughing: what we do best

The meeting was at my house last night. I made enough food for 20 women’s groups. Friend Elizabeth came and gave a presentation about diet and nutrition while feeding us cookies that were probably about 3 000 calories each. We giggled and gossiped and ate. Today, I’m just really grateful to know these women and to be lucky enough to be part of a group that has given me so much support and friendship over the years.

Thanksgiving

I was lucky enough to be invited to two Thanksgiving meals this year–dinner on Thursday (the actual holiday) and lunch this past Sunday. The great majority of the guests at both feasts were non-American and it struck me as rather wonderful that so many people were eager to help celebrate this quintessentially American holiday. There was the food of course and boy howdy was there a lot of it. This being Italy, we talked about the food before during and after we ate the food. Judith, who hosted the Sunday lunch, told the story of how, many years ago, she had a Thanksgiving dinner for a number of Italian friends. Long afterwards, one of the guests revealed that it had been the most awful meal of her life. Now Judith is a great (and abundant) cook so I found that pretty hard to believe. The mean guest of yore went on to explain why: all that food, both hot and cold, and all on one plate! Disgusting!

In the Italian context, that reaction–although frightfully rude–makes a certain amount of sense. Here, you very rarely see more than one food item on a plate. Everything comes on the side. And salad is traditionally served after the meal, which strikes Americans as odd since we are used to having it first.

Disgusting? Or incredibly yummy? All I know is that I'm in the fat pants until Christmas when it starts all over again.

But back to my Thanksgiving feasts. The usual suspects were there of course: turkey, gravy, dressing,  mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie. The first meal featured a truly miraculous stuffed pumpkin courtesy of friend Vicki who hosted and very generously allowed turkey to enter her vegetarian home. But I missed the two side dishes I grew up with. My Nana always made coleslaw with a special secret ingredient (pickle juice). And Mom insisted on rutabagas (which my brother still calls Rude Bagas to this day) every year, even though she was the only one who ate them. Because that’s what she grew up with.

My point? Not sure I have one. I just love Thanksgiving is all. And I love sharing it with people from all over the world, people who may not fully understand the roots of the holiday but know how truly wonderful it is to commune over a groaning board. That’s something to be thankful for. I’m also thankful for the leftovers, which mean that I don’t have to cook for the dogs for a few more days.

Judith presides over the kitchen.

Friendship

My dear dear wonderful friend came over for dinner the other night and we ordered Chinese food and watched the latest episode of Glee as we often do. She took me to task for my recent whiny post (Boring! Whiny!) and liked this one. It got me thinking about friendship.

I have nothing particularly new or profound to say on the subject. A lot smarter and more interesting people than me have written about friendship over the millennia. But it’s on my mind.

In college I was all about quantity. The number of people I could call my friends was more important than whether or not I could really like or trust them. I made mistakes and got disappointed and sometimes felt betrayed. I guess that happens to everyone. I was also sometimes too casual with my friendships. I know better now than to ever take something so priceless for granted.

The past year was very hard. I had to watch while everything I built over the past 20 years was taken away.  I had to put up with a whole lot of humiliation. I cannot even imagine how I would have survived it without my friends. They looked after me, made sure I ate and generally kept me from going insane. Or at least more insane.

The friend I mentioned at the outset has had a rough couple of years health-wise. It was Thanksgiving yesterday and it’s her birthday today. So it’s appropriate for me to say how super thankful I am for her friendship. She lives upstairs, loves the dogs and never gets tired of watching Glee. She’s the silliest and the bravest person I know. Happy Birthday Betta!

It's fun to nap with a friend!