The Great Plotnik

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Under the Rainbow

After ten thousand trips on the Ventura Freeway, we finally saw the light.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013


Mom's not ill. She's just so tired. She's wearing the mask now, the look that says I am closer to sleeping than being awake. I don't know if she's crossed over a line, or whether she's just temporarily out of gas, or ... If she's just really, really tired.

She's got a right to however she feels. Ninety nine-plus means she's earned it.

It's hard for me though. Last Thanksgivng was fun and she had a great time. Maybe she'll bounce back. That's my story and I'm stickin' to it.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Sicilian Datteri

Dates filled with almonds and brandy. Zow!  You can see that Sicily is close to North Africa.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

I Had Forgotten This One

Two beauties and Manhattan...taken on the Circle Line, I believe.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

New First Verse to 'Who Will Be Our Mandela"

"Politics, a plague
Hatred out of scale
A hurricane, a gale
Of lies and obstruction

A country of such wealth
We're in declining health
It's each man for himself
We're weapons of self destruction

Where is he?
Where is she?
Who will be?
Who will be our Mandela?"

Friday, November 15, 2013

Sicilian Comfort Food in Saint Plotniko

We didn't have to go to Sicily to make this fabulous Tagliatelle Amatriciana, but it helped. Smaller servings of pasta, simple ingredients and above all freshly made pasta, rolled very thin with a little saffron added to the dough.

Giovanna Tornabene's cookbook arrived today and it's full of recipes we're going to try, one after the other. The Great Plotnik World Headquarters Meatball Kitchen is going to be a good place to be for the next few weeks.

Now, where to find a five-pound swordfish steak cut from the tail end of the fish below the gills?

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Serious Eating, Part 2

Italy: The Serious Eating, Part Two

Cooking with Giovanna

By Lynn Gweenie, GP World Food Correspondent

We've made it to Gangivecchio. Cooking class has begun.

Giovanna is stylish and imposing but not unapproachable, standing in front of her stove, using a wooden spoon to saute a chopped onion in a hot skillet. She wears dark glasses and a white double-breasted chef's jacket with the name "Paolo" sewed on it.

"This is my brother's," she said. "Mine is dirty."

I am guessing late fifties. This is based on the cover of her first cookbook, which she co-authored with her mother Wanda Tornabene. In that photo, her mother looks to be around sixty and the pretty, thin young woman standing beside her can't be more than thirty-five. The book was published in 1996.

But Wanda Tornabene has passed away. Giovanna has her sleeves rolled up and a very hot flame under the saute pan. She stirs like she means it, talking all the time.

"Don't smoke," she says. "I started smoking when my mother died. It was hell to stop. I've gained 20 kilos. The onions are almost ready."

Four of us are standing in back of the stove facing Giovanna: my partner, Ducknik, and our friends Patter and Peetsy Shmick. I've got a note pad and a pencil. So far, I've written down "Hot stove" and "Don't smoke."

It took us most of yesterday to wind our rented Opel through the interior mountains of central Sicily, passing through medieval villages above valleys terraced with olive trees, just to get to Gangivecchio and take this class with Giovanna. Peetsy had discovered her cookbook in D.C. and it mentioned the 14th Century Benedictine abbey where Giovanna lives with her brother Paolo and gives cooking classes. The recipes were fantastic. I e-mailed her, one thing led to another and here we are.

"Today we are making Caponata," Giovanna says. "I cut up and precooked this eggplant this morning." She nods towards a large bowl holding perhaps three quarts of cooked, chopped eggplant.

"Did you soak it first?" Peetsy asks.

"Sicilian eggplant is not bitter," Giovanna answers. "We just cut it up and cook it in olive oil. You don't have to soak eggplant if it's good eggplant,"

I write down: "Good eggplant."

"Now, the celery." She takes two stalks of celery and dices them quickly and coarsely on her wooden countertop, then tosses them from the blade of her knife into the pan with the onions. "Boil the celery for five minutes first," she says.

"Boil celery," I write.

A handful of chopped carrots go in too, then one or two stirs and she calls curtly in Italian to her assistant Peppe, an old man wearing a checkered long-sleeved shirt, gray three-button vest and rather rumpled pants. I hear the words "olivo" and "tagliare."

We met Peppe last night. Walking with a pronounced limp, he served us our dinner in the dining room, where we were the only guests. In fact, with the exception of Giovanna, Paolo, Peppe, an old woman who had been a friend of Giovanna's mother and a dog named Pedro, we seem to be the only ones here.

"Peppe is eighty three," Giovanna whispered to us last night. "He has been with our family for forty five years."

Last night's dinner was prepared by Giovanna and Paolo and was absolutely magnificent -- antipasti of a mild cheese with Giovanna's red pepper jelly, hot Sicilian flatbread covered with coppa ham, a primi of a Sicilian version of northern tagliatelle with meat ragu, a secundi of pork involtini with rosemary potatoes and a creamy pudding of fruit and cookies for dessert.

"Bread, pasta, potatoes and cookies," I said to Giovanna. "Can it get any better?"

Peppe takes a large bowl of green olives from the refrigerator and begins removing the stones by first smashing each olive with the flat of his knife and then sliding out the pit. He wears a look on his face that says:

"She didn't have to tell me about the olives. I was just going to get them out of the fridge."

Giovanna continues sauteeing, then when Peppe brings the de-stoned olives she throws them into the pan with the onions and celery. After a few minutes she tosses in wine vinegar, a handful of capers and the chopped eggplant.

"Remember to wash a little salt off the capers and olives," she says.

The inn's kitchen looks nothing like the modern kitchens you see on TV cooking shows. People actually cook here. There are no cabinets, only open shelves, no off-camera crew doing all the work, only Peppe. Spices are in old greasy containers. Fresh herbs dangle from wooden planks. A collection of at least twenty five different-size boxes of dried pasta are precariously balanced against one wall, looking like a modernist sculpture that could crumble any second. The six-burner stove is on an island in the middle of the kitchen and there is an old-fashioned sink behind.

It is starting to smell really good in here. Giovanna continues stirring and talking. She does a sweet Julia Child imitation. We mention going to Chez Panisse in Berkeley. She says Alice Waters is a good friend of hers.

"When I come to the Bay Area I stay with Alice in Berkeley. We sit in her kitchen and eat pizza and drink wine."

I write down: "Alice Waters."

She jerks her head. "Pepe! La zucca!"

Peppe hurries to one of the counters where a large oval pumpkin sits with one slice cut out of it.  He begins to cut the rest into serving pieces. Giovanna speaks quickly to him. I hear "olio de olivo" and "menta, tutti piccolo."

"Si, si, menta. Io so. Menta." Mint. He knows. And everything in small pieces.

"And now, the tomatoes," she says, but instead of grabbing fresh tomatoes she takes a quart-sized bottle out of the refrigerator and pours half of it into the pan. It seems to be tomato sauce.

Peppe looks over and smiles.

"This tomato sauce is Peppe's pride," she says. "Every August he makes hundreds of pounds of it. The kitchen can't be used until he's done. Tomatoes everywhere. We grow them here. He cleans them, chops them, cooks them, then puts everything through a food mill until it is smooth. We put them into jars and cook them just a few minutes until they are hot. Then they are sterilized and we'll use this sauce all year. Here, taste."

I put out my hand and she pours a little bit from the bottle into my palm. I dip my finger and taste it.

"Mmm," I say. It's a good tomato sauce, but very mild. My Mexican-tinged tomato sauce would never pass muster with Giovanna Tornabene.

"Did you know that 'caponata' is a joke name?" she says. "Like 'Welsh Rabbit' that doesn't have any rabbit in it? A capone is a special chicken that only the rich could afford. Poor Sicilians had to use eggplant instead, but called it 'caponata' anyway. OK, we'll let it sit now. We are making Pasta Al Forno -- baked pasta. Let's start the ragu."

She grabs another saute pan, cuts up another onion and more celery, adds a few shakes of olive oil and begins sauteeing. Then she opens a package of meat that looks like it came from Safeway. She tosses it into the pan with the onion and celery and sautees it over a very high heat, breaking up the meat with her spoon.

"This is ground veal," she says. "I buy it at the store, it's just as good as anybody else's."

Perhaps our faces register surprise. "You have to understand," she says. "In the old days, women had cooks. And maybe we couldn't get good ingredients in the store. But today -- women are too busy, working out of the house, raising their families. They have no time. They can't spend the day shopping and preparing everything from scratch.  Like puff pastry -- why take hours to make what you can buy in the store? It's very good quality and nobody will know the difference."

"But you still make your own pasta," I say.

"Oh, pasta, that's different. We are Sicilian."

She waves with her free hand to the boxes of dry pasta on the other wall. "We use many dry pastas, and they are all good, but fresh pasta makes all the difference in a dish where the sauce is featured. Like last night's ragu -- Paolo made the taglietelle here in the kitchen."

Paolo Tornabene walks in. He is stocky and wears a red vest the color of a deer hunter's. He speaks no English at all, but when he does say something he is gentle and soft-spoken, almost like a country priest.

Paolo is not only a chef, he is the architect who rebuilt the ancient stables on the property into the inn and kitchen we are staying and cooking in right now.

"We loved your flatbread last night," Patter says. 

Paolo smiles a shy smile, nods his head a little, says nothing. Giovanna repeats in Italian what Patter said in English. Paolo's reaction is the same: small smile, smaller nod.

Now she adds the rest of the tomato sauce bottle into the onion-celery-veal mix, and after a few seconds opens a box of milk and pours in maybe a cup and a half. The heat is very high under the pan and before long the whole thing is boiling and bubbling.

"This is the proper heat," she says, before we can ask. "You want to cook it hot and fast, to concentrate the milk into the meat.

Paolo says something to her in Italian.

"Yes," she says. "Paolo doesn't use milk. His ragu is more Sicilian. Our great-grandmother came from Emiglia, in the north, near Bologna. So I make mine more like she did."

She tastes, smiles and says: "OK. Now, we make the besciamella."

In a mixing bowl, she mixes together four pats of butter and a cup of flour, transfers them to a pan, then turns off the heat, opens another box of milk and pours some in. She continues to stir until she has the consistency she wants, then she sets it aside while she pours the rest of the milk box into the ragu. A few minutes later, she tastes the ragu with a soup spoon and adds more milk.

"Taste, always by taste," she says. "No recipe is exact. Learn to trust your own taste."

She does this several more times, tasting, boiling it all rapidly until the meat sauce has thickened, and then she adds a considerable amount of nutmeg.

"Nutmeg is from Indonesia. The Spanish controlled Sicily for several hundred years. It wasn't all bad. They brought nutmeg to the Caribbean and then from there, we got it. You can't make ragu without nutmeg." One last taste, a little more salt and then she takes it off the fire.

"We'll use dry anneli for the pasta," she says. Peppe is already waiting with a box of dried cheerio-shaped pasta circles. He has boiled a huge pot of water and he takes back the box of anneli and adds the pasta to the pot, stirring all the time. When it is ready he removes it with a skimmer and turns off the kettle. He stands at his version of attention with a slouch. They are ready to assemble the dish.

First the ragu, spread out in a 9x13 baking dish. Then the pasta on top of that and the besciamella on top of that. Pecorino cheese gets grated liberally over the top and the whole thing goes in the oven, looking a little like a pound cake.

"Ai, Peppe!" Giovanni cries. Peppe stands up straight. Giovanna points to the chopped pumpkin -- the pieces are too big. Peppe squinches up his eyes but every piece of pumpkin now has to be cut into three smaller pieces. It takes awhile, but he does his work then adds the pumpkin pieces to a saute pan with a lot of olive oil. Perhaps this stove only has one heat-- high -- Peppe cooks the pumpkin quickly in oil, then removes it. Off the stove, he adds the chopped mint, Giovanna tosses in sugar and salt, and it goes into the oven with the pasta al forno.

While she has been making the caponata, pumpkin and Pasta al Forno, she has also been walking back and forth to the marble pastry counter to put together the Cassiatella for dessert -- poached and peeled pears blended with ricotta cheese and layered into a crust of flour, chocolate, melted butter, eggs, yeast and vanilla. That has also gone into the oven. For the moment, we have finished.

"Time to go into the dining room," Giovanna says, wiping her hands on a dish towel. We see they have set two tables, the same one where we sat last night, by the window overlooking the garden, and a smaller one behind a pillar next to the kitchen for the four of them plus Pedro the dog. Class took around two hours but passed in an instant.

The others sit but I walk around the room, smiling at the old photos on the wall of Giovanna's family, of her mother Wanda and her father Enzo hunting in Sicily in 1949, of her maternal grandfather and great-grandfather, a distinguished looking big-moustached army man in full uniform. I see that most of the inn's tables, chairs and flatwear have already been packed away for the season as it is late October and cold weather is coming. There is a cloth draped over the espresso machine and the power cord has been wound around it and tied in a knot. This must be why we weren't offered coffee last night.

I stare out the window at the abbey next door, the ivy draped over brick and stone walls, the fountains and fields beyond, the cypress and Lombardy poplars and the hills beyond that we drove over to get here yesterday and will have to drive over again to leave in just a few hours.

Peppe serves us caponata, pasta al forno with besciamella, pumpkin with mint and then the magnificent cassiatella.  He smiles when we swoon at the amazing dessert.

"Sono buoni, eh?"

When we are done, he picks up the last dish and limps into the kitchen.

I hear dogs barking, birds calling. I feel the rest of our vacation banging against the calendar. I want it all to go away and let me stay right here. I want coffee. But there isn't any.

Friday, November 08, 2013

The Serious Eating

Italy: The Serious Eating, Part One

By Lynn Gweenie, GP World Food Correspondent

We flew five hours from San Francisco to JFK, six hours to Dublin and three more to Venice. We spent our three nights in Venice in a Fleabag-Plus hotel down the street from the train station. The Hotel Nazionale was small and stuffy and the first four letters were problematic. But in the middle of the night in the hotel lobby, which was the only place I could get a wireless signal, the night clerk would bring me crackers from the vending machine while I attempted to watch Dodger playoff games on my IPhone, in my pajama bottoms and t-shirt, while texting back and forth with Mary Ann Mush.

We took a two hour train down to Bologna, the food capital of Italy. Marie Hassan's two bedroom Air BnB apartment was in a Moroccan neighborhood half a mile from the piazza maggiore. We shared a bathroom with a Polish student named Maddalena. Maddalena spoke Italian with a Polish accent and Marie was French and spoke something that might or might not have been English, and I had studied some Italian for a month before we left but mostly we all just smiled and waved our hands around as we discussed restaurants.

In Bologna eating is the universal language. Everyone has a favorite trattoria. The one they sent us to had no tables available so we walked next door, where they told us they would give us the seat by the entrance if we promised to finish in an hour and a half. We said sure, and they brought us tagliatelle wth ragu Bolognaise and lasagna with a wispy besciamella, both of which were the two best pasta dishes of my life. Up to there.

Then the buses went on strike so we took a cab to the Bologna airport and flew on Ryan Air down to Palermo, the capital of the island of Sicily. We got a cellophane package of stale pretzels, then they charged us two euros for water.

In Palermo we hooked up with our friends Patter and Peetsy who flew in from Washington DC via Stuttgart. We got there first so we waited for them in an outdoor cafe where they brought us glasses of chilled orange Prosecco and a sea bass roasted in olive oil and covered with tomatoes and black olives.

We stayed in a brand new apartment that Peetsy found on a British equivalent of Air BnB called Listings. The apartment was in a medieval neighborhood of narrow, cobblestoned streets where the Mafia is in charge of garbage pickup but the Mafia is busy somewhere else. The neighborhood was a mess but the apartment was an architectural jewel. We had the whole place to ourselves, three levels, three bedrooms, three bathrooms, a huge kitchen and entertainment room and, best of all, a roof deck that looked out over the sword-spired 1165 cathedral and the trash-filled 2013 street funk. We'd buy olives and caciocavallo cheese and tomatoes, herbs, wine and fresh Sicilian bread in the sprawling Ballaró market then come back to the alley, turn right at the mosque, avoid the dead rat and walk into the magnificent apartment and eat and drink everything on the roof deck under a full moon.

We knew the apartment could not have been rented often because it was spotlessly clean and the owner left boxes filled with biscotti for us, and baskets of fruit and four bottles of wine. After you've been renting out your house for a while, and people have trashed it continuously, these niceties disappear. We stayed three nights.

Then we rented a mid-sized Opel and headed west, along the coast. We stopped for lunch in a beach-side trattoria in Castellamare del Golfo, run by a Sicilian woman from New Jersey. She made us her delicious Busiata alle Sarde, which is a specialty of western Sicily. Busiata means "knitting needle" and is a long, round pasta with little hooks on it. Sarde are sardines and Busiata alle Sarde is hand-made busiata with fresh sardines, pecorino cheese, sun-dried tomatoes and breadcrumbs made golden in olive oil.

An hour before dusk we pulled into the Don Carlo agriturismo. An agriturismo is a working farm that offers rooms to rent, in this case a few motel-like quarters on an olive orchard. Don Carlo's last name is Zichichi, which is pronounced Zee-KEE-kee. Don Zichichi's helper, Anna, baked all the breakfast delicacies by hand, including sun-drying her own tomatoes and curing her own olives and making fresh yogurt and ricotta cheese and Sicilian cakes. We bought extra mosquito repellent and stayed two nights and could have stayed a week.

We hiked in the hills among the olive and pomegranate trees. Don Zichichi wore old jeans and work boots. He told us we should try his friend's restaurant, Baglio Nuovo. He showed us on a map, but it was daylight. By the time we left it was dark and the roads in the country are windy and unmarked. We saw a light in the distance and aimed the Opel towards it. We expected maybe a red checked tablecloth and a plate of spaghetti.

There was a small parking lot. We walked into a restaurant that was surprisingly fancy. There was no one there but us. After awhile a nicely-dressed man came out of the kitchen. I told him we were friends of Don Zee-KEE-kee and asked if he was open and he said "Prego, Signore!" and ushered us into a dining room towards a table for four. We sat down. He explained to us, in Italian, that there was no menu and asked us if we wanted red or white wine. We were concerned about how much dinner might cost. I asked him. He said thank you and disappeared into the kitchen.

He delivered some bread and bread sticks and bottles of sparkling water. Then he began bringing out tray after tray filled with antipasti on small plates. He placed one after another plate on the table and told us in Italian what each was. We were surprised to see so many. We recognized some, not others. He kept going back for more.

Porcini mushrooms. Marinated peppers. Eggplant with thick parmesan. Eggplant fried into dumplings. Eggplant caponata with black olives. Green olives. A few small fish. A few less bigger fish. Cubes of fried chestnut flour. Couscous. Many kinds of cheese. Croquettes. Tripe. Snails. Prosciutto. Salame. He set down each plate gently, like a beloved pet. In the absence of a better plan we began helping ourselves.

We ate like we were starving, which we hadn't been, but now were.

After he cleared away the antipasti he brought larger plates of pasta: Tagliatelle with Sicilian sausage, Ravioli with winter squash, tomatoes and ricotta. A twisty maccheroni with mushrooms and bacon. These plates of pasta alone were too big for four people to finish, but then he came back with a sizzling platter of grilled veal, sausages and pork belly.

The sausages were filled with wild fennel and the veal slices were basically pan-fried steaks, but the pork belly, or pancetta...well, it was either inedible or the most extraordinary thing I have ever eaten. It was like thick bacon, grilled, with an extra order of pig and a side of fat. Grilled crispy but syrupy inside, it was too rich. Too fatty. Too porky. I couldn't swallow it. I couldn't not swallow it. My life passed before my eyes as I reached for chunk after chunk.

For dessert: local, chilled green grapes. Ahhhhh. But aiiii, here he comes again.

The owner stood formally in front of us, a white towel across his folded arm, holding a tray with four plates on it. He explained that the next course was his own creation. He gave it a Sicilian name: cassatella. He set the plates down and waited until we dove in.

It was simple - a Sicilian donut, the size of your hand, filled with sweet and molten ricotta cheese, lemon rind, candied fruit and nutmeg. You got the crunch, then the heat, then the sweet, then the lemon finish. After each bite we stared at each other and shook our heads.

Then he brought out two bottles of grappa. Grappa is fortified slightly sweet wine. It is highly alcoholic and burns all the way down, nose to toes. It shouldn't be good after a huge meal, and isn't, at the start, but after two or three shots you stop worrying about how much you're going to have to pay for this dinner.

Capuccini all around?

Of course. Piú vino?

No, signore, grazie.

Altri espressi? Capuccini?

No, grazie mille. Il conto, per favore.

Though I had just asked for the check, there was no check. The owner just said "Cento." One hundred. I thought he meant each, especially including the wine and the grappa.

"Cento? Total? Per tutti?"

"Si, si, signore. Cento."

One hundred euro for everything, tip included, and out the door, many grazie all around.

Somehow we got our stupefied and oversatiated selves back to Don Carlo in the darkness. There was still a sliver of moon. Patter and I tried to sit outside on the veranda with a nightcap but the mosquitos wanted some too, so we gave up and went in. We ate little the next day, but then we got to Gangivecchio on my birthday and The Serious Eating began.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Two Sicilian Guys in Brooklyn

We ate breakfast in Rome, got to the airport at 10, took off at 12, got to Dublin 3 1/2 hours later. Quick turnaround with Customs in Dublin Airport, then flew 7 more hours to JFK. For some reason the last half of that second flight seemed to take months.

It is so good to be here. Autumn is breaking out all over. Desmond is crawling all over the house and we walked Belly to school before stopping for an everything bagel with scallion cream cheese and tomato.

Only 36 hours here. Sorry to all our friends who we won't get to see but next time for sure.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Roma and then Home-a

Rome is just it. It's so damned old, and stately, and elegant, and noisy, and exciting, and filled with the kinds of shops that still exist in Europe, book stores, map stores, card shops, tobacco shops. Gelaterias on every block. Cafes, which means bars, and bars, which means sandwiches and coffee. Piazzas filled with people, not just shoppers like in Taormina, but people of all ages out to enjoy the music and motion of this great city.

A fifty piece military marching band in The Pantheon Piazza, crisp, in perfect pitch, the conductor directing the band with a long sword.

 A four piece band of two guitars, upright bass and accordion in Piazza Navonna, flying through "All of Me" and "Volare" in double-time, instrument cases filling up with euros, dollars, rubles.

Sicily is fabulous but I couldn't live there. I could live in Roma. Every corner leads to another corner, a new piazza with five streets radiating out from the center, a 500 year old statue in the middle, sea gulls perched on Jupiter's nose.

Fried Artichokes a la Giudea in the old ghetto, carbonara near the Pantheon, coffee in Piazza San Eustachio, the best in Rome because the water comes from the last surviving underground acqueduct. You spend your afternoon gaping at gargoyles, your evening staring down gelatos.

Getting into town is a nightmare, yup. A plane, a train, a tram, then dragging rolling suitcases over a mile of cobblestones. They pad the tab at dinner, yup, with a gallic nose and a straight face. They upgrade us for no reason to an apartment in the annex instead of a hotel room in the main building, which is so huge it makes us uncomfortable, but, yup, the giant key won't open the door and the desk is two blocks way, and it's raining.

But look outside this window: the Pantheon. Julius Caesar was murdered right out back. Marcus Agrippa built the pantheon to honor all the Roman gods, in the time of Augustus, and Hadrian rebuilt it in the first century AD. Of course, they borrowed all their Gods from the Greeks, until they got Jesus and 300 years after they murdered him realized a home-grown God was handier than a Greek one.

The Duck is feeling better but we're both still pooped. Some day we're coming back to Rome for a couple weeks, instead of always flying in or out in transit to or from somewhere else. 

By the way, did you ever see the top of an erupting volcano from an airplane?


Sunday, November 03, 2013

No Más! Well, Almost

We get here every trip: that's it. No más. No more museums. No more pizza. No more sweets. No more shopping. No more beautiful views. History Shmistory. No más no más no más.

It usually has to do with feeling sick: Ducknik has a sore throat, I have a slightly wacked stomach. And: we are SO happy you dedicated a church to Jesus when lava covered your village, but, you know.

And thanks so much for the guidebook section about how Jews used to live in this neighborhood, before you, well.

Tired. Tired of Germans in shorts. Tired of Americans talking about business. Tired of smoking Italians. Tired of pushy French. Tired of English matrons. Tired of ourselves.

Tired of nothing ever being open.

Tired of (Lord, I am going to say this) Italian food. No, I mean ONLY Italian food, because there is nothing else.

Tired of this radial truck tire around my middle.

Tired of accordions. REALLY tired of mafia-themed t-shirts.

Not tired of Greek or Roman anything. The picture on top of this page is the Greek Theater in Taormina, that we posted yesterday, but in this one you see it from the top of the mountain in Castelmola, the town above it.

Not tired of the sunny nature of Sicily and Sicilians. The guy who jerry-built take-home containers so I could bring Ducknik some hot minestrone. The woman at the pharmacy who kept smiling despite being screamed at by sniffling tourists. All the people who have listened patiently to my Italian, even on the phone. 

The Italian language. Prettier than Spanish. The Sicilian language, which sounds exactly like what we used to hear on Mulberry Street. Thank you, Lord, for giving Sicilians hands or they would not be able to say a word.

Gorgeous dark-eyed women. Gorgeous wavy-haired men. Cats, about the same as home, only more of them.
Cannoli: on the fence. We had one great one, in Palermo, and several since then that tasted mass-produced.

What a great trip needs is at least one really cool thing -- we had ours in Gangivecchio -- every week or ten days. But you don't know 'til you get there, so these things are hard to plan.

Tomorrow, we fly to Rome and the weather seems to be changing. Rome is one of the world's great cities, right behind Watsonville. But Brooklyn is coming up behind that, and somebody is having a birthday.

BZ left Atlanta for a week in Madrid today. Turns out, you can buy some neat stuff out of lava when you are near Mt. Etna.

Oh, and I lied. The home-made pasta last night, with eggplant, sun-dried tomatoes and pistachios, was great. And the hazelnut granita walking home? On to the Top Ten.

And that gorgeous choir yesterday in the tiny church, where afterwards the people paraded through the street on their way to the cemetery?

Grazzie mille. Ciao Bella.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Taormina 3, Catania 0

Taormina is a lovely jewel, a hill town overlooking the sea, with another hill town even higher that looks down upon it, and a Greek theater from thousands of years ago that they rebuilt in the middle ages but left a hole through which you can see smoking Mt. Etna.

"You don't have to worry about Etna," the shopkeeper says, "because he never stops. Vesuvius, that was bad, he shut up for 2000 years then the whole mountain blew up. Etna, all the time erupting, no worry."

We planned to stay two nights in Taormina, which is known to be a little jewel, and one night in Catania, which is said to be a dump, but when we saw the Pensione Svizzera we added one more night in Taormina and canned Catania. Everywhere you look, there is something else to see that is soft on the eyes and calming to the soul.

But we've been away from home for awhile now. Tonight I had a plate of fried potatoes for dinner and Ducknik ordered some grilled vegetables. We may have hit our pizza and pasta limits for awhile. We've drunk a lot of good strong Italian coffee too, a good doppio espresso macchiato or cappuccino at least three times a day.

Halloween was last night at home but there were no signs of it here. Today is All Saints Day, though, the continuation of Halloween in a Catholic country, so everything is closed and people from the prosperous northern cities of Rome, Florence and Milan are swarming back to see their families in poor southern Puglia, Calabria and Sicily. 

They drove the urn with the ashes of a saint named Don Bosco through the narrow streets of Taormina today. The shops along the street may be first world Italian Designer but the saint's procession is sixteenth century Sicilian folk tale.

There is no bridge between Sicily and mainland Italy. You still have to put your car (the train too) on a ferry from Reggio di Calabria to Messina, Sicily, then drive off and go about your business, do it again in reverse to go back. 

We've got one more day and a morning here, then one or two more cannoli for the road and it's on to Rome. I'll be ready for more pizza and maybe a little carbonara.