The Great Plotnik

Thursday, October 31, 2013

So long Siracusa (Whistle)

Archidemes is the hero of Syracuse, although the brilliant old mathematician was killed when the Romans invaded in 212 BC, when he was 72. He had been asked to help defend the city and had done so for two years, including devising huge mirrors that burned holes in the Roman ships in the harbor and caught them on fire. But eventually he was killed by a Roman soldier, despite strict orders not to do so. The soldier was himself garroted for killing Archimedes, and today the name Archideme is everywhere.

We stayed at the Hotel Archideme where they have a parrot whose name is Archideme. 

When you say "Hello Archideme, you pretty bird!" he stares at you. As soon as you walk away he whistles.

Peter heard of a parrot who answers the question "Hello, pretty bird! Can you talk?" with "I can talk. Can you fly?"

We stayed three nights in Siracusa, which was one too many, but the market was the best we've seen anywhere in Sicily and the fish were fresher and more delicious too. Our hotel was old and crumbling, but clean and cheap (around $50 bucks a night which is a great deal these days), which included breakfast, but it was laughably bad so we bought a box of cereal and went down the street for coffee from the old lady in the apron.

In the Siracusa market the fishermen sit on boxes on the street cleaning sea urchins and mussels and preparing octopi and calamari for sale. The fish are still alive, their hearts beating as people line up to buy them. 

In the little shops they serve a hot ricotta with fresh oregano that you eat with a spoon and is so good you understand why everyone invades this island. In the seafood risotto all the little creatures taste sweet, like the sea. No rubber.

We said goodbye to Archimede the parrot this morning and caught the 10:30 train to
Taormina, which is a tourist town but is perched on the side of a hill overlooking the Ionian Sea. Archideme said nothing, but when I dragged my suitcase out the front door I heard him whistle.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Volaré, Wo Oh...

We are really having a good time. We made it to Siracusa, on the east coast of Sicily, late yesterday afternoon. It took three days to go what anyone else would drive in three hours because of our detour into the mountains to cook with Joanna in Gangivecchio. 

Also, there was the stop in Piazza Armerina to see the astonishing late-Roman mosaics which had been buried for centuries, and therefore preserved, by mud from a landslide. This villa, at whose floors we can once again marvel, belonged to a wealthy Roman importer of exotic animals from Africa and Asia.

Remember, you are looking at floors. The wealthy landowner must have been the Larry Ellison of his day. Some of these floors are 100 feet long. This is all mosaic, not paint. Each tiny color change is a natural piece of stone.

But the Roman Empire, that was already split up and in decline when the villa was built, really began when the Romans defeated the Greeks in Siracusa, Sicily, in 212 BC. 

And even older than that is the volcanic underpinning of Sicily, which comes from Mt. Etna, north of Siracusa. Theee days ago Etna erupted again. The smoking mountain is clear from the autostrada.

It's a strange feeling, life. Sometimes you feel like you got to the theater 2500 years late and you're the only one there and the show has closed.

But then you realize everything just begins and begins and begins again.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Happy Birthday in Gangivecchio

It's a good thing to celebrate a birthday with good friends in a place where there is no
Internet and no cellphone. Here in Gangivecchio, our connection with the outside world is by car, if we want to leave the premises of this 14th Century Benedictine Abbey, which has been in the Tornabene family for 150 years. We are to take a cooking class tomorrow morning from Joanna Tornabene, an accomplished cookbook writer and James Beard Award winner, who lives up here in the backside of Sicilian nowhere with her brother Paolo, who operates the inn where we will sleep and eat dinner tonight.

When Joanna Tornabene comes to Northern California she stays with Alice Waters.

It was such a trial to find this place this afternoon, winding around the hills and villages of middle Sicily, that none of us feels like moving, though there is supposed to be a village festa tonight with music and barbecued sheep.

These hill villages are medieval. They were built for horses, not cars. We got caught in one called Panteleria la Sottana, where we had to steer our rented Opel down twisty cobblestoned streets, through a street festival crammed with people, and around cars parked on both sides with sometimes no more than half an inch clearance between the rock wall on one side and somebody's parked Fiat on the other. The last time, when I was very sure our 500 euro deposit on the rentacar would now be forfeited, we were followed by a little sportscar with the fuming driver sitting on his horn and gesticulating angrily.

"Va al inferno!" It's the same in Italian as in Spanish.

It's my birthday. Normally I would be excited to hear from our kids, but not up here, not without a cell tower anywhere close. I feel a little bereft, because I know they are trying to reach us. We don't forget each other on our birthdays. 

But, hey. We broke open the delicious bottle of wine I bought in the Bologna Airport, a deep red Anghelus from Friuli, near Trieste. We opened the kilo of green olives from Agrigento we purchased at the Capriccio di Mare restaurant last night, and the fontina and bleu cheeses from the market outside of Castelveltrano, and we had the breadsticks we swiped from breakfast in the nothing-works hotel this morning, and we ate and drank it all up sitting in the little patio in back of Peter and Patsy's room in Paolo Tornabene's inn.

Then it was time for dinner.

The restaurant is down a stairway. Wood paneling, windows that open out onto the grounds of the old abbey, a bar stacked with cups and glasses that seem to not have been used for quite while. My guess is they are closed for the season but opened up when we asked for a reservation.

There were two tables set, one for the four of us and one near the kitchen for Paolo, Joanna, an old woman who had been friends with their mother and an old man with a limp whose name was Pepe. Pepe has worked for the Tornabenes for 43 years. He would serve us our food.

Dinner at Paolo and Joanna's Ristorante

Pepe brought over a  bottle of red wine and a basket of home made crusty bread and a plate of Joanna's hot pepper jam, with several slices of a rich, white cheese.

A few minutes later: Coddura Patedda. This is a Sicilian fried bread, topped with two thin slices of local coppa. Joanne then walked over to explain the bread is an old Sicilian specialty of Paolo's and that she had made the jam, and that the coppa came from the backside of the leg of the pig. Joanna's English is very good but she slapped her rear end to make sure we knew the source of the coppa.

The Coddura Patedda was really good, a cross between a flat bread and a wide cracker. The coppa was salty and perfect on top of the hot bread. No butter or oil, just the ham on top.

Pepe cleared the plates away and brought over the Primi: taglietelle with Sicilian ragu (carrots, ground meat, mushrooms), dotted with strings of an unnamed Sicilian cheese. This pasta dish was amazing. The tagliatelle were thinner and eggier and cut in shorter strips than the tagliatelle in Bologna and the sauce was fragrant and sweet with fresh porcinis. But these are not porcinis like we buy, even when we can get them fresh. I first thought I was tasting some kind of onion, because the stems of the mushrooms were so sweet and unique tasting. But they are simply regular old everyday fresh porcinis that the Sicilians probably take for granted like we take parsley.

Pepe cleared away and brought the Secondi: Involtini with fried potatoes. Joanne told us the involtini are made from a thin slice of pork, pounded thin, then formed into an oval and filled with breadcrumbs, ham, carrots and cheese, then braised a long time in a brown sauce. This meant we had started with bread, moved on to pasta and now were eating potatoes. The involtini were delicious, and the potatoes crispy and roasted with oil and rosemary, but, really, I shouldn't have eaten that whole plate of pasta. Only Peter cleared off his plate this time.

This Italian-style eating can get painful. But what can you do?

Then came dessert. It was called Dolci al cucchiaio, which means Sweet Spoon. It is a pudding made from pastry cream, biscuits, mixed fruit, amaretto, rum and cognac. It was really delicious, not too rich but sweet and melting in the mouth. 

This was a meal for the ages. We are apparently eating our way across Sicily. The next day it gets even better.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Our New Caps

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Unexpected Festa

We arrived in Selinunte with enough time to run to the side of the hotel to see the sun splash down into the Mediterranean. After a day of driving through the cities of Marsala, Mazara del Valo and Castelveltrano, where we had bought olives, grissini (breadsticks), San Marzano tomatoes, cheese, grapes and salami, we had dinner on Peter and Patsy's balcony, with the rest of the wine from Trapani, and went to bed early.

The hotel seemed deserted, here in Low Season. But at 9pm they started lighting bonfires at the end of the street for barbecues...

...and by 9:30 there was a 4-piece Latino band playing in the hotel lobby, a buffet of eggplant dishes and pizza, and maybe 200 people buying drinks and dancing. Maybe it was the Festa d'Santo Plotti.

Dinner at Baglio Nuovo

The backstory is that in Italy the food is fabulous. Every region is different -- in Western Sicily it's olives, capers, tomatoes, fresh fish, eggplant, oregano. Very little garlic. A pasta called busiata- a tube, kind of  a cross between a thick spaghetti and a rigatoni. Patsy says it's a fusilli suffering from spina bifida. Usually Americans order one primi each, and split an appetizer, glass of house wine and out you go. We eat small. The Italians think we're nuts.

So. Last night we are driving down a totally dark country road of olive groves, when a roadhouse appears. The owner of the farmhouse where we are staying, Don Carlo, has told us it's a simple country restaurant. We pull in. It is very fancy. 

The owner greets us, smiles, seats us. There are three forks on the left side of each china plate (but paper napkins.) We are the only ones there. There is no menu. The owner speaks not one word of English (though he spent one month in Detroit and Cleveland), but uwe recognize the expression "fix-price."

First he brings a bottle of (chilled) red wine, and, a bottle of fizzy water, a bottle of still water, and a basket of bread. Home-made, of course. We are wondering how much this is going to set us back. Barb wants me to ask. I don't have the balls. So Patsy orders Peter into the kitchen, and Peter goes. He returns, says "twenty five each?" "For everything?" I ask. We think so.

And then!!! Here come:
The antipasti.

Fried cubes of chestnut flour (panzelle)
Eggplant fritters
Fried eggplant
Little biscuits stuffed with prosciuto
Sun dried tomatoes

Lamb Innards
Mushrooms with garlic

Eggplant parmesan
Chunks of Ricotta
Plate of prosciutto and provolone

And then!!!!! The Primi.

Tagliatelle with sausage
Busiate with bacon
Ravioli filled with ricotta and tomato cream sauce.

We will be happy to die right now. 

And then!!!

A platter of grilled veal, sausages and pancetta. The pancetta tastes like a can of grilled pig fat. It is heavenly, if lethal.

All along the wine is being replenished.

And then!!!

A plate of grapes. I am thinking Please, God, let this be the dessert.

But no.

 The dessert: cassatella. Amazing balls of dough, shaped like a bear paw, fried turnovers filled with creamy, molten  ricotta cheese. OMG

And two bottles of grappa.

And espressos all 'round. 

After we have recovered, and ask for the check, the owner comes back and says: "100."

"That's it? Tutto?" I ask.

"Tutto." He says, moving his hands side to side and smiling a huge smile.


The best?

Plotnik says: "the dessert."
Duck agrees, though everything was fabulous, except the snails.
Peter says: "The guts. (I don't get this at home.")
Patsy says: "the funghi (mushrooms) with the busiati a close second."

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

West from Palermo

Castellamare del Golfo

Patsy with Accordionist in Erice

The Castle in Erice

Cappuccino in Train Station in Palermo


Temple Dedicated to Venus in Segesta

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

It's All About The Cannoli

Monday, October 21, 2013


The jury is out on Palermo. Soul and garbage. The Arab-Norman presence, visible in the narrow streets, the huge, indecipherable churches, the historical overlay of a city occupied by invader after invader for thousands of years, very cool. But, the garbage.

Everything is behind a wall. You walk down an alley and hear someone singing opera. Small children kick a soccer ball, several sit on stools in the alley eating bowls of pasta, while as you pass you catch a glimpse through a small door of a kitchen table covered with an oilcloth and plates of food, chairs pulled up for Sunday supper, but then you pass and you're once again outside, where you started, behind the wall. Church bells blanging away.

A dead rat in the narrow cobblestoned street outside our sumptuous designer apartment. Every day it gets run over by more and more motor scooters or tiny cars, its fly-ridden bloody corpse pushed further down into the cobbles.

The huge outdoor markets, the cheese stall where the old man cuts off pieces of caciocavallo, pecorino and some other Sicilian sheeps-milk cheese, hands pieces to each of the four of us with a scowl, the salami stand, the biscotti and marzipan stand, the place where the tops of loaves of fresh bread poke up from a basket, the North African kids selling sheaves of green herbs and over-ripe tomatoes. The man in an Arab caftan selling enormous broccolini, and next to him a pile of broccolini trimmings the size of the pile of leaves Charlie Brown used to leap into, smelling like old cabbage, along with rotten fruit and tomatoes and dog and horse shit.

Jeez, man, clean it up, somebody!

They say the Americans brought all this on, during WW2, when they recruited the Sicilian mob bosses to protect the island, so the Allies could begin the European invasion there. Which they did. Everybody was happy. After the war the mafia took over the politics of the entire nation, but in Sicily most of all. The mob has been involved in every huge construction project ever since, and has ignored the old city centers. Not enough profit. 

Is this it? Is this why? The Mafia? I don't think so. I think people must just be used to it. How about just a few (hundred) trash cans? And people to empty them? And a place to dispose of it all?

At night, Palermo is incredibly lively and crowded. It feels like the mean age of the population is 17. Strutting boys, groups of 4 to 6 young women holding hands, bass-heavy music thumping, everyone smoking and laughing and eating slices of pizza.

A whole sea bass, baked in rock salt, served with olives and capers and peppers.

Two hours later, after some invisible clue, the streets are completely empty, like a curfew was imposed on fun. Silence. Church doors. Garbage.

So, what about the churches? ALL the churches? Can't the fathers ask the brothers to ask the sisters to ask the bosses to help the people clean the place up? Wouldn't this please God? Can't bleeding Jesus up on all those crosses look down for just a few seconds and send over a request?

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Ryan Air ---well, it's Cheap

   Ryan Air is the Unemployment Office of Airlines, the Welfare Line of Air Travel, the Department of Motor Vehicles of Passenger Inconvenience.

Buying a ticket, as well as the On-line Check-in service, are surreal shopping opportunities. All clicks, and there are many, lead you to purchase-able products, services, ads for new films, records, tv shows and other entertainment opportunities, hotels and guided tours of the city to which you may or may not be traveling, flight and medical coverage, bicycle and automobile rentals and cases of freeze-dried potato chips. 

Often, you can't figure out what they are asking you to do. If you go back, or take too long, you get brand new ads. ("Didn't want freeze-dried potato chips? We also offer Nuclear Hello Kitty!")

It's cheap, by far the cheapest option, but it doesn't end up as cheap as you think. Our ticket from Bologna to Palermo, Sicily, a distance of approximately San Francisco to San Diego, starts out at only 36 euros, maybe a fifth of the major airlines like Alitalia. But you pay to check in on line, you pay to choose a seat, you pay to check a bag. You pay for water! (But this was also true on Aer Lingus --€2.50 for a little bottle of water.)

A stewardess walks down the aisle and slugs you in the face for only €5. ( Credit cards only.)

The boarding process -- they don't announce the gate. At some indefinite hour, people start lining up at an empty gate. They post the flight and open the gates at the same second. So you have a hundred Italians, to whom 'standing in line' is as unfamiliar a concept as telling cheetahs to walk and eat more fruit, pushing forward through one little opening, beyond which stands a uniformed hostess checking passports. But the line is too disorganized, so the hostess begins making announcement after announcement, in Italian, each one more frustrated than the last, probably starting with "People, Please!" and then "People! Holy Shit!" and finally "God, I HATE this job!" It's a little like getting on a freeway at an exit ramp.

Finally, you get through and are herded down a concrete stairway into a basement, where you stand for fifteen minutes, no announcement, no reason given. After ten minutes all the Italians are getting hot. The two Americani, Ducki and Plotti, are wondering where they will hide when the fight breaks out.

Then, they bang open the door and everyone starts for the air stair on the plane which is parked out on the tarmac. Another chaotic mass of people now try to elbow their way up one stairway.

What makes it a little more problematic is that we are, remember, heading for Sicily. Everywhere we look, we see Vito, Sonny, Fredo and Michael Corleone, Virgil Sollozzo, Fat Clemenza and Skinny Tessio, the baker who baked the cake at Vito's funeral, Al Martino, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Marlon Brando and Fabrizio, who shot Michael's wife. Look, is that Diane Keaton?

No, you idiot, that was a movie, this is an airplane. Still, the dark glasses, the skinny shirts and scarves around the neck, the looks of supreme annoyance mixed with arrogant disdain, the bit of fear that engenders --- I won't lie to you. It's all there.

We get on the plane. We are flying on a 737 but it's like a cartoon 737. The seats are ridiculously small, like when you try to sit at a nursery school desk. There are no net bags or containers of any kind behind the seats, so there is nowhere to store anything or toss away trash. So people have stuffed candy wrappers or pastry bags into all the available crevices, or just left them on the floor. Apparently Ryan only flies the planes, they don't clean them, so when we board my chair is covered with cracker crumbs, which I can brush onto the floor, but Duck's seat is covered with water. She can't sit down and they won't stop to bring over a paper towel.

Eventually a passenger brings a few kleenexes. Ducknik sits. Is she seeing red? Guess.

But finally, with a smooth little bump, we detach from the earth, as the Italians put it. We're off, and on time, too. Below, I can see white clouds and far off to the right, the Ionian Sea. In fifteen minutes or so I expect to see beautiful Sicily below our Toon Plane, maybe even catch a glimpse of Mt. Etna or the ancient Greek temples that dot the southern shore.

"Attenzione! Staring out window? Two Euros." (We accept alla major-a credit cards-a.")


Friday, October 18, 2013

Six Days on the Road

Tagliatelle with Salsa Bolognese at Biassanot in Bologna

Artichokes at Gam Gam in Venice

Lasagna at Biassanot in Bologna

Rosa del Desserto from la Clavatura in Bologna

Chicory in Produce stand in Bologna

Arichoke Bottoms in brine at Mercato Centrale in Venice

Huge porcini mushrooms at Il Mercato de l'erbe in Bologna

Fresh herbs on steeet in Venice

Little Piggies and Little Lambie in Butcher's case in Bologna