Spring cooking

As a tribute to spring, I wanted to share a recipe utilizing the seasonal flavor of asparagus. My husband Michael is an amazing cook—I’m his trusted sous chef—and this afternoon we made tagliatelle pasta with shrimp and asparagus. Please note that these measurements are estimates because Michael never measures things—he’s one of those lucky people who have an innate knowledge of ingredients. An enviable trait, I know. I often tell him he should open his own restaurant…maybe one day! So, this dish is a new favorite and we hope you try it out. Buon appetito!

Tagliatelle con asparagi e gamberetti (Tagliatelle with asparagus and baby shrimp)(copyright Michael A. Di Giovine)

Unlike “regular” pastas eaten throughout Italy, tagliatelle are a traditional egg noodle from Bologna, where Michael studied abroad. The Italian eggs, which have a more orange yolk, allow this pasta to appear yellowish, rather than simply white. He modified this recipe to add a little bit of saffron, which goes quite well with shrimp, and gives the pasta an almost neon-yellow color. Michael usually makes pasta by hand, but you can also use store-bought fresh pasta—tagliolini or tagliatelle work best.

Sauce

20 stalks of asparagus

½ lb baby shrimp

½ zucchini (optional)

1-2 tomatoes

Olive oil

Salt, pepper and hot pepper to taste

As you make the sauce, boil the water and add sea salt. When the water is boiling, add in your fresh pasta—in about a minute or two they should float to the top, ready.

Clean and marinate the shrimp in a mixture that is ¾ water and ¼ lemon juice. You can substitute vinegar for the lemon juice, if you prefer.

Cut the tips of the asparagus off from the stalk in about 2.5” inch spears; they’ll serve as garnish. Cut the rest of the stalks into ½-inch pieces.

Place the tips in a small pot of boiling water for about 5 minutes, or until they are tender. Using a slotted spoon, remove them from the water. While the water continues to boil, place the ½-inch pieces into the boiling water for 2 minutes. After 2 minutes, remove the pot from the heat, keeping the pieces inside for several minutes. They’ll continue to cook in the hot water, but shouldn’t become as soft as the tips.

In a sauce pan, sauté olive oil, diced onion, shrimp and the ½-inch pieces of asparagus from the water (DON’T drain the water; use a slotted spoon). Add chopped tomatoes, salt and pepper (to taste), and sauté until the asparagus is almost tender. Then slowly add in some of the asparagus-flavored water. If you want, add in some long pieces of zucchini (use a peeler to “peel” long, thin pieces of zucchini into the boiling sauce).

At this point the pasta water should be boiling; add in your fresh pasta, drain when they’re cooked, and add them to the sauce pan. Toss gently (you don’t want to break the zucchini if you’re using them), adding a little more olive oil, if necessary.

Serve, arranging the cooked (and cooled) asparagus tips on top of the plate. If the dish isn’t salty enough, add salt. Just don’t add cheese–as a rule, Italians don’t add cheese to fish dishes.

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Dear Spring: Please stay a little longer

Palla di Pomodoro

Summer is almost here but I wish spring would stick around. The sun is out—but it’s not too hot—the lilacs and frangipani are in bloom (and smell divine), and the breeze off the ocean is pretty fantastic. Living in a beach town during the winter is rather strange because the place really empties out and it’s slightly depressing to see the empty boardwalk and beachfront cafes. I did prefer it, though (fewer tourists), but a really nice spring is hard to beat.

This morning, we stopped for an obligatory cappuccino in Nero Caffè, which was excellent, and then picked up Alex’s passport from the Questura. Next month, we’ll get his U.S. passport at the Embassy in Rome. Then, our friend Luana called and we met up by the Palla di Pomodoro, a sculpture by Pesaro artist Arnoldo Pomodoro. Luana’s adorable bambina Bianca was in tow and we had a nice stroll along the boardwalk. We were back by the Palla this evening for drinks with friends. Another beautiful spring evening!

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Just plain oranges

We had a bit of a shock this morning. We made our daily spremuta and the oranges were just…orange. They weren’t speckled with even a hint of red. They looked anemic. A year ago in Chicago, this was the norm for us, but we’ve been spoiled. After 4 months of red and purple pulp, orange is a little drab. In fact, the color is almost yellow. Well, it will be several seasons before we see blood oranges again, but that’s something I love about Italy. As I’ve noted before, foods are seasonal and I think this creates a healthy sense of anticipation and appreciation for next year’s crop.

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Rose Festival

Everyone in Pesaro has a rose today. It’s the feast day of St. Rita of Cascia, a 14th-century Augustinian nun and local parishes with a devotion to St. Rita are selling roses blessed by the priests during Mass. The rose is thought to represent Rita’s ability to intercede on behalf of lost causes and her sanctuary is one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in Umbria. Sant’Agostino church is a few blocks from our apartment so we took an afternoon stroll and bought a couple of roses.

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A different shade of red (tape)

Alex was 3 months old yesterday and we took him for a routine test that the hospital recommends for all infants between 2-3 months of life. The results were fine, but the interesting part is how long it took us to get this appointment. When I left the hospital in February, the staff said to call for an appointment on March 20, and only between the hours of 11 am-1 pm. There is only one day a month when these types of appointments are scheduled. That’s it. So, Michael called and was told that since Alex was born on February 21, he was less than 1 month old and we had to wait another month to schedule an appointment. The reason being that he needed to be between 2-3 months old for this exam. March 20 was just an arbitrary day the office chose to schedule these appointments and it was just our luck that we were one day off. Had they randomly decided that the 21st of each month was the magic day to reserve this particular appointment, we wouldn’t have had a problem.

So, we waited and called again in April. Or, tried to call. Michael called 15-20 times in the allotted two hours and the line was always busy—until 12:55 p.m. when it finally started ringing. After 20-30 rings, no one answered so he hung up. Then, the lines were closed. We’d missed our window. The next day, Michael called again and was told that all the appointments were booked up for the month and he should have called yesterday. Now, we had to wait another month to call for a June appointment—which would be too late for Alex to take the test. Michael argued with the appointment scheduler and even talked to customer service, but to no avail. They kept saying there was nothing they could do because they only scheduled these appointments once a month. They also swore they were working at 12:55 p.m. True bureaucracy at work. Anyway, we saw the pediatrician a couple of weeks later and she was able to recommend a radiologist and we scheduled an appointment without a problem.  The appointment was a breeze; we were in and out of there in 20 minutes and didn’t have to fill out any paperwork. In fact, I didn’t have to fill out any paperwork when Alex was born, but that’s for another post. As with other specialty medical visits in this socialized medical system, all you need is a ricetta (prescription) from your primary doctor, and your visit is at least partially covered by the state. This particular visit was free, because it was mandatory.

This experience made us reflect on the absurdities of bureaucracies, but we also realized that the reason it stuck out to us is precisely because we were foreigners. It’s not that this type of bureaucracy doesn’t happen in America—of course it does. Just in different forms. Since we’re living abroad, everything is new and foreign, and the system is foreign too. We expect certain types of bureaucracy at home, almost to the point of not realizing it, but we didn’t know exactly what kind of bureaucracy to expect in Italy. As outsiders, the red tape is much more apparent to us.

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It’s always sunny in Pesaro

Over the past year, several of my friends have said they thought it was always sunny in Italy—rain and storm clouds didn’t fit in with their image of Italy as an idyllic and picturesque paradise, as suggested in books like Under the Tuscan Sun. My husband likes to tell the story of a group of British tourists who golfed every day in the rain in the Tuscan countryside, and the one day they visited Florence, they didn’t bring umbrellas and were shocked by the rain. Their guide asked why they were surprised when it had rained all week, and they replied, “We didn’t think it rained in Florence.” That’s tourism for you; cloudy days captured on postcards or calendars wouldn’t sit well for prospective visitors.

Well, it’s raining today. It kind of looks like a Portland morning, gray and a bit misty. On our way to run some errands, it started drizzling so we popped into Caffè Barrier off Corso XI Settembre (and no, the street is not named after the infamous 9/11, but for the 1860 liberation of Pesaro by Garibaldi’s troops which unified Italy). This is one of my favorite cafés . . . I’ll do a ratings system of cappuccinos around Pesaro in another post. We savored our coffee and read the local paper before heading back home, shielding Alex’s stroller with two umbrellas. What happened as soon as we stepped inside? It was sunny again.

(photo courtesy of: http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3381/3235327728_2c6c22c11e.jpg?v=0)

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Babies, Bikes and Books

Pesaro is a great city to live in—it’s very family-oriented and has a small town feel, especially in the centro storico, which is where we spend most of our time. Italy still has one of the lowest birthrates in the world, but you’d never know it from walking around Pesaro. I spent the last 3 months of my pregnancy here and it was a nice place to live. There’s definitely a baby boom here—something’s in the acqua, folks. So many women—of all ages—have young babies. You see them at all hours of the day (particularly between 5-7 pm, when Italians are taking their daily passeggiata) and in all weather. They’re pushing strollers in the piazza, along the waterfront, through the narrow cobblestoned streets. Baby Bjorns (aptly called “marsupios”) have not caught on here yet. Lots of the mothers are in great shape and dressed to the nines when they’re out showing off their babies. Prada purses and shoes, anyone? How women walk steadily on 6-inch heels over bumpy cobblestones while pushing a baby carriage is beyond me. The strollers are often luxury vehicles and of the SUV-variety; you need a serious mode of transportation to navigate these streets. I made sure to get a stroller with sturdy wheels when I returned to Chicago last October (yes, it was much cheaper to buy a stroller in America and transport it back to Italy). I’ve also never seen so many baby stores in one area, although they’re quite expensive with the dollar being weak. A boutique baby outfit can easily set you back $100 and there are few discount stores around and no garage sales that we know of!

Pesaro is also a city of bicycles. It rivals Amsterdam in that regard. In fact, I’m more aware of bicyclists—and more wary of getting hit by them—than cars on the road. Motorini are a different story; I don’t see too many in Pesaro, certainly not the amount I saw in Florence when I studied abroad. It certainly cuts down on the exhaust. Only a few cars with residential permits can drive into the actual center of Pesaro, but bicyclists rule the city. In the winter, I saw elderly women dressed in elegant fur coats, their little dogs riding in the front basket. Businessmen, shopkeepers, school kids and teenagers . . . everyone is on a bike. Babies and young children share a seat with their parents, and I’ve seen a few tandem bicycles around. We mainly use our bicycle to block the parking space in front of our apartment, but I plan to break out the wheels soon. The weather is just too nice to pass up a lovely ride along the water.

Finally, Pesaro is a city of books. Bookstores are everywhere—three stores are within a one-minute walk from my favorite café in Piazza del Popolo. I work in publishing and I love to read and write, so seeing all this literary activity gets my heart pumping, particularly since they say Italians don’t read often . . . only 3 books a year, according to a recent survey (http://www.vogue.it/people-are-talking-about/l-ossessione-del-giorno/2010/05/summer-read). The Biblioteca San Giovanni is also a fantastic library. Housed in an old church, it melds ancient and modern and is a good place to grab a coffee while book browsing. Off to get a cappuccino!

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La stagione è arrivata

The season of spring has arrived. Here are some of the spoils from shopping at the ortofrutta (fruit & vegetable stands) this afternoon. One of the best things about living in Italy is the freshness and quality of the local food. When we lived in Pietrelcina last year, Michael’s family gave us fresh produce and eggs right off their farms. In Pesaro, we do all right by the ortofrutta. Nearly every day, vendors come up from the south to sell their harvest to central and northern cities. Last month, lemon growers from the island of Procida (off the Amalfi Coast) were invited by the Pesaro archdiocese to sell their fruit and we bought a few kilos. Today, we bought asparagus, cucumbers, green beans, eggplant, peas and tomatoes, among other items. We also bought basil, something you can find in most stores during any season in the U.S., but only at specific times in Italy. Today was the first time we’d seen basil in the markets since last summer. We also bought oranges because we love spremuta–fresh squeezed orange juice–but unfortunately the blood orange season has passed. In January through March—the season’s height—we had fresh squeezed blood orange juice every morning. We chose from three types of blood oranges from Sicily: the Moro, Sanguinello and Tarocco. We found that the Moros were consistently darker (read: purple) and more bitter than the Sanguinello and Tarocco oranges, which tended to be more speckled with shades of orange and red. All three are delicious and it’s something I’ll miss when we return home!

Something I really appreciate about living in Italy is shopping at the ortofrutta every day. Italy does have more supermarkets than in the past, but if you want to eat extremely fresh food, it’s better to shop at the local markets. Plus, it’s a good way to practice Italian with the vendors while savoring the delightful sights, sounds and scents of Italy.

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We bought stamps in the post office…

This might seem like a no brainer, but it’s actually more difficult in Italy than you might expect. The post office generally prefers that one purchases stamps in the tabacchi because the post office usually handles the payment of bills and wire transfers. In fact, some people (like us) even have bank accounts at the post office. Last summer, we frequently traveled between the north and south and it was more convenient because post offices can be found everywhere. We did discover that we couldn’t get an Italian credit card. It’s required to have a job based in Italy for at least a year before you can even apply for one. It’s not like in America where they give credit cards to babies. And look where that got us.

Anyway, until recently, Italians had to pay their bills at the post office; they couldn’t mail in a check or pay online. Now, clients of the post office are able to pay bills online, but it’s not a common practice because Italian business culture still doesn’t rely as heavily on computers (ask any businessman whether he emails or still faxes documents!) Also, if you paid a bill in the post office, you had to get in a separate line if you wanted to buy a stamp. Seems pretty complicated, right? Well, this morning we discovered that things had just changed. We saw a sign saying we could pay a bill AND buy a stamp in the same line. Score! We were in and out of there in 5 minutes–a new record.

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Pilgrimage to the Shroud of Turin

On Saturday morning, we awoke to cloudy skies and rain. Luckily, we were leaving in a few hours for Turin. We grabbed a quick breakfast of cappuccinos and cornetti near the hotel at Caffè del Doge, a typically overpriced café. We actually made out better than expected–the list price for cappuccinos at the table (Italy charges more for sitting down for coffee vs. drinking it at the bar) was 7 euros, something we discovered after we’d ordered. That’s outrageous! In Pesaro, coffee “a tavola” is 2.50 tops. Anyway, we were freaking out about the price, but the cappuccinos turned out to only be 4 euros a piece, which isn’t that bad for Venice. Besides, the cafe was beautifully Venetian with baroque-style chairs with red velvet seat cushions, and our breakfast was served on silver trays, complete with glass pitchers of water and candies (torroncini, cioccolatini and espresso-flavored cookies) made especially for the café. So, we definitely paid for the atmosphere and non-traditional extras!

Michael bought tickets for the traghetto back to Mestre (we couldn’t handle the crowded streets in the rain) and then we were off to Turin, making it in by 5 pm. However, we didn’t make it to the apartment until close to 6 pm because we got a bit lost. Having lived in the small town of Pesaro for 6 months (and being in the centro storico where no cars are allowed), I was unprepared for the traffic and hazardous driving by the locals! All lanes seemed to merge simultaneously with one another and no one stops–or brakes–for anyone; that’s not to say that the system doesn’t work. This is how Italians drive and, in my opinion, they’re more in tune with each other on the road than Americans are. Americans are sticklers for the rules and road rage is common–if you pass someone on the highway and accidentally cut them off, watch out. In Italy, this type of driving is par for the course, which makes the driving experience much more flexible.

Anyway, we passed the central market, witnessing a fight between two men old enough to know better (I can’t even remember the last time I’ve seen an actual fist fight), and finally found the apartment on via Plana, near Piazza Vittorio Emmanuele. Another excellent, centrally located accommodation (thanks to Lorenzo Scardacchi!) with a great view of the hills. This was my first time in Turin and it’s surrounded by the gorgeous Alps and the French influence was obvious in the wide boulevards and leafy parks. The only problem was the pioppo (poplar) trees, which shed cotton-like snowflakes. I’ve never had allergies before, but this year has been one for the books. So, we freshened up and decided to take a walking tour to the Duomo. The next morning, we were visiting the Shroud of Turin (the Sindone), and we wanted to find the fastest route possible. Our tickets were for 7 am which turned out to be a blessing–as the first visit of the day, the lines were much, much shorter. The Shroud hasn’t been open to the public for 10 years so Turin expects 2 million visitors in a period of six weeks. We left the apartment by 6:30 am and were in line right at 7 am, meeting our Barcelonian architect friend, Josep-Maria, who’s on a fellowship at the Università Politecnico di Turino for 6 months. Alex slept the entire time, right up until we were about to view the Shroud! Go figure. However, it was better than him crying while we waited in line for an hour because there was nowhere to sit and feed him. I didn’t get to view the Shroud as close as the other pilgrims did, but saw it from a distance of 20 feet. It was truly fascinating, and the Piemontese baroque-style of the Duomo, designed by the famous architect Guarino Guarini, was stunning. Josep-Maria said Guarini’s design has been used by subsequent architects to facilitate the viewing of relics at other pilgrimage sites.

We were finished by 8:45 am and decided we needed some breakfast. We walked to a piazza near the Palazzo di Città and I had a delicious cappuccino and honey-flavored croissant, which tasted very flaky and French-like, probably because Turin is so close to France. As I expected, the coffee was much better than in Venice. We sat outside, overlooking a bustling market, and Rob and Staci bought some fresh cheeses from the Alpine area outside of Turin (a Fontina and brie goat cheese), fresh bread and fresh meats (sausages flavored with truffles, rabbit and boar). The meat was so fresh it literally melted in your mouth.

Later that afternoon, we checked out the Salone del Libro (Turin Book Fair). It’s difficult to buy books online in Italy (there’s no Amazon) and these book fairs are a good way for Italians to browse a huge quantity of books that no one bookstore can hold. The book fair was located in the old Fiat factory which had been converted into a mall/expo center. The factory was designed to accommodate an assembly line of cars that starts at the bottom and spirals up to the top, where the cars were then tested on a race track on the roof. The helipad for Fiat’s owners and the view of the Alps certainly adds to the glamor.

That evening, we had an aperitivo in Piazza Vittorio Emmanuele. This is a ritual that has not caught on in the States, but I wish it would. We paid 7 euros for a before-dinner drink and an all-you-can eat buffet of snacks. Piling our plate high with cheeses, mini omelets, olives and arancini balls, we enjoyed the view of the Madre di Dio church over the Po River on one side and the iconic Mole Antonelliana on the other. A perfect way to end the day, and to end our trip. The next morning Rob and Staci left for a week in Paris and Michael gave a lecture at the Università Politecnico di Turino. Then, back to Pesaro, and back to reality. At least, as real as an expat life in Italy can be!

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