Sunday, November 30, 2008

Two Helpings of Thanks

Fourteen heads turned in my direction. I felt a flush of embarrassment. My host and the only other American at the dinner table stared at my plate with astonishment.

She had just outed me with a loud "No way," that caused everyone to stop eating and stare. She was shocked to see my plate filled with corn bread stuffing; the same stuffing that the other guests had asked her for a second helping of only minutes before and to which she politely said, "no, there is no more."

I, being the curious and cynical type, did not take her word for it. Although she believed there was none left, I believed there was still some to be scraped out of the fantastic bird. It's not my fault I was brought up to always check the inside of the turkey at least twice for extra stuffing.

The rest of the dinner guests were Italian and I think it is safe to assume they were not aware of the holiday practice – stealing the stuffing. My brother and I usually fought over it, so my mother has learned to make a bowl of extra stuffing on the side.

But at this dinner, my friend could not know that the stuffing would be such a hit, since the guests were not accustomed to the beauty of Thanksgiving – predictability.

Yes, Thanksgiving is about Pilgrims and Indians putting aside their differences to give thanks for the abundant harvest they reaped after a long difficult winter. But the excitement that surrounds Thanksgiving dinner, is knowing that what graces your plate this year, will grace it the next and the one after that. There is comfort in eating your Mother's stuffing, drizzled with gravy and all the sides she prepares in a special way just for Thanksgiving Day.

Before I snuck into the kitchen to excavate the internals of the cooked beast that fed 18 people, I was thinking of how lucky I was to have been invited to two Thanksgiving dinners for my first time celebrating the holiday away from home.

Each dinner I was one of only two Americans. It made me happy to see people from Italy, Wales and Germany, excitedly partake in the traditional dinner that is shared by every person living in the United States.

For this dinner, I actually helped my friend prepare the intricate menu she had planned weeks prior. Just before the guests arrived, her husband and mother-in-law set up the dinning room table and called us downstairs to get a look at it. It was decorated just like autumn. China plates, candles and a warm fire added to the perfection of the meal. But what made both Thanksgiving dinners memorable was the chance to spend it with friends.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

I Am What I Am

I have often struggled with my identity, being brought up by two Sicilian parents, in America; however this past week, I was reminded twice that I am American, and I am happy for this.

I was blatantly told that I am American, when I took two paper cups to hold my coffee at Mama's Bakery. When the owner confronted me about it, I explained that the coffee was seeping through their cups, so naturally the thing to do is to take two.

I thought that an owner would want to know about a problem with their service, but I was wrong. It turned into a heated argument that ended when he yelled at me in Italian "this is what's wrong with you Americans."

My immediate reaction was to remind him that he is also American.

“You’re American,” I screamed back.

I took that label as an insult and left the coffee on the counter, cursing him under my breath and vowing never to go back.

"He is acting like the Florentine owners, where they think you should consider it a privilege to be dinning in their restaurant, instead of vice versa," said my Tuscan friend.

A couple days before that, my Tuscan friend gave me unsolicited advice about dating. She said I should let someone call me and not respond to a message I received from a Tuscan man, for the risk of being thought of as "a woman dying to go out."

It is natural for me to respond to a message, even if it is a guy who I have a slight interest in. I do not think of how to entice a man into falling in love with me or conjure up some mind game in order to have him chase me. Nor do I think of how he will perceive my behavior.

"Florence has always been filled with foreigners, so for the girls to differentiate themselves, they have to act the opposite of the American girls," said one of my American friends who is married to an Italian.

The Florentine women have to invoke this feeling of being unattainable, like a luxury car or label, in order to attract the Florentine guy, she explained.

I do not think about how much money a proprietor makes or loses on my business and use of tableware or if a guy considers me pushy instead of polite when I respond to his message.

I can only do what comes natural to me. If people are insulted or find it desperate, then I cannot frequent their bar or restaurant nor would we be a match for friendship or love. I can only be my American self.

Friday, November 14, 2008


This month I canceled two people from my life. Many of my friends keep in contact with their past loves or people they have dated, but I cannot. I get so disgusted that I just need to delete them completely from my life. It is all or nothing.

I was casually seeing someone who was good looking, sweet and very available. But each time I saw him, I was thinking of someone else. So I had to end it. And that someone else made it clear to me that we would never be again.

I saw him twice in the past two months because he had contacted me while I was in Sicily and I needed to know if the door was open or closed. Each time we met, the conversation was unbearably superficial. He should have just said “blah, blah, blah” that would have had more meaning. I was holding out hope, but since our last meeting I have become sick of crying and trying to figure out what went wrong.

It is upsetting to me because I rarely meet someone who captivates me, emotionally, mentally and physically. Why is it that one person can change you, yet another who should spark something, does not even make you wonder? Chemistry is complicated, yet the outcome is so simple. He made me smile. But if it happened once it can happen again.

For some reason, autumn seems to be when most break-ups happen; or maybe it is the end of summer. Several of my girlfriends are experiencing heartbreak. I am trying to be patient with them because it was just a year ago that I was in the same situation. Although I am upset now, I feel lucky that I am not suffering as I once did.

My friend and I were discussing our disappointment in the search for men who are true. During our conversation I thought, “where are the real men.”

Thankfully drinks were present.

“At least we have something to talk about, and we are dating,” I said trying to find the silver lining in our situations.

She agreed and we toasted to our future and to our fortune for having prospects.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

An Exotic Brew: American Coffee at Mama's Bakery

“I am going to walk through the streets with my cup of coffee and I don’t care if any Italian judges me,” I said to a fellow expat who was also looking forward to drinking a freshly brewed cup of American coffee at the new bagel and bakery shop, Mama's Bakery.

I had heard that a pastry shop serving real American treats such as muffins, chocolate chip cookies and brownies had recently opened in Oltrarno, but thought it only sold sweets.

My friend Emily has continuously raved to me about the lunch she had eaten at a new bagel shop today. She gave me the red and white blocked card with the address. That is when I realized that the new bakery and the new bagel shop are one in the same.

I took her advice and grabbed a bagel to go for lunch. Once inside the modern and inviting locale, which she describes as a café one would find in San Francisco, I was delightfully surprised to I discover that they also serve American coffee.

I was hesitant to believe the label at first, since many Italian bars call espresso with additional hot water caffè Americano.

“How is it brewed? I mean is it really American or is it just espresso with water,” I asked Cristina who owns the shop with her husband Matt Reinecke.

She is originally from Milan and he grew up in the San Francisco Bay area.

She showed me the coffee maker. It looked American. “But does the coffee taste American,” I wondered as she prepared a new pot. It did.

Italians do not eat or drink on the go. I once dragged two friends for a meal at McDonald’s during my stay in Florence last year. I finished my meal, but still had some Coke left. Naturally, I took my drink with me when we left.

I am not exaggerating when I say that they died of embarrassment and scolded me for bringing food outside the restaurant.

Today, I am no longer ashamed to practice my American habits in Italy. I carried my warm cup through the streets of Oltrarno thinking of the winter days when I fashionably sipped Gingerbread Lattes while rushing through the crowded streets of NYC.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

La Raccolta delle Olive

If God created the world in a week, he must have spent the first day perfecting the hills of Tuscany.

Francesca drove us through the town of Casaglia, in the province of Siena, to help her family with this year's olive harvest.

Cypress trees stood with a firm stance on the edge of the roads, marking the division between earth and pavement, like guards protecting the kingdom of the fertile olive groves and the grapevines which were bare and exposed from the latest vendemmia (grape harvest).

As we passed estates that sat on a patchwork of fields atop gently rolling colline (hills), I could not help but wonder what it must have been like to grow up here. Now I know why Tuscans have an inate knowledge for food and wine. The land breathes appreciation for the finest that nature has to offer. One cannot live here without assimilating the aura.

Picking olives in the heart of the Tuscan countryside, with San Gimignano serving as the vista, is indescribable. The view is breathless.

Although the raccolta (harvest) was draining, I would do it again in a heartbeat. Because each tree was planted on a slope, we had to balance ourselves on the slippery slanted ground. Agility was required to reach in between branches and leaves, when trying to reach that one plump black olive, without breaking a precious branch.

When we returned to her town Poggibonsi, there was a festival being held in the square in celebration of the first wines and olive oils of the season. Sommeliers served me Vino Novello while her brother filled my head with information about how to distinguish a quality wine.

Sometimes I get angry with Italy for not providing me with all my requests at a snap, but a day like this does not exist on the other side of the Atlantic.

Fall in Fi

Friday, November 7, 2008

Rice Pudding and Grandma's Cake

There is something about your local barista or owner of the coffee shop that you frequent, recognizing and greeting you, that makes you feel like you finally belong in Italy.

Last summer I sat in the bright wood panel dinning room dipping fruit filled pastries into gently steamed cappuccinos at La Loggia degli Albizi, a coffee and bakery shop that also serves lunch located on Borgo degli Albizi. At that time I was hesitant to greet Walter Penna (pronounced Valter), one of the owners, who skillfully made me drinks from cappuccinos to frothy café shakerato.

Positioned on a street that gets a good amount of foot traffic, customers are a mix of locals, American students and others who are passing a definite time in Florence. I was in the last category. So I did not feel comfortable joining in the conversations that took place at the counter among the patrons and owners.

It was not until the end of my stay, that I finally broke the ice. Normally I ordered from the selection of dough-based pastries and would ignore the case displaying gorgeous cookies and cakes. One day I decided to switch it up.

I ordered a slice of torta (cake) with fig mixed between the layers. When I tried to say fig, I mispronounced fico, vulgarly asking for a piece of cake flavored with a part of the female body.

The person with me unnecessarily died of shame and left me at the counter to deal with the mishap. I did. I made him smile. Since then I have felt like Norm entering Cheers, except no one shouts out my name.

I knew they made everything on site, but did not imagine the elaborate operation that I saw when Penna took me into the laboratorio. I followed him through a door into a small hall that was the gateway to the bakery. Machines were mixing; dough was rolling and wafts of sweet scents swirled in the room.

Penna’s mysterious, never seen before by me, mentor was happily preparing the days sweets. An artisan, Franco Iandelli learned the craft of baking from his father who in turn was taught by his father. Three generations and possibly more are behind the sfoglia (puff pastry) filled with ricotta, cornetto con albiccoca (croissant with apricot) and custom favorites such as, Torta della Nonna (grandma’s cake) and Budini di Riso (rice pudding).

Torta della Nonna begins with pasta frollo (shortcrust pastry). The dough that serves as the base is rolled flat, stamped out by a round cookie cutter, and pierced to prevent swelling.

Once baked and cooled, crema (custard) is spread and smoothed over it to resemble schienna d’asino (donkey’s back), or a mound. The filling is covered with another piece of circular dough — making no difference if it is pierced. That is impressed with the bottom of a pastry bag tip, sealing the contents and making a unique design.

The torta is glazed with egg for color; a handful of almonds are placed on top and it is ready to bake.

The cake is placed in an extremely high hot oven, between 210-220 degrees, to only bake the top. When the cake cools it is dusted with powdered sugar.

The Italian version of rice pudding, Budino di Riso is also prepared with pasta frollo. The pasta is pressed into oblong molds to create the shell.

In a separate bowl, prepared rice — cooked in milk with just a pinch of salt — is mixed with egg, sugar, butter and heaps of crema. After those ingredients are evenly stirred, they are piped into the molds and placed into the oven at 190-200 degrees Celsius for 20-30 minutes.

When cooking the rice, it is important to continuously stir the mixture so that it does not stick to the pan. Although no flavoring is used in the milk, lemon zest or liquore could be added if one prefers, Penne said. La crema, which is made with lemon zest, contributes the smooth texture and sweet taste to both desserts. The recipe could also be followed to make, Torta di Riso, by following the steps described in Torta della Nonna.

Originally from Rome, Penne’s family has been serving Florence dolci for 25 years. When their baker retired in 1988, Penne was required to fill the position.

“I had to do this . . . because of life circumstances. Not like Franco who comes from three generations of bakers,” he said.

Although he was formally trained he credits Iandelli for what he knows.

“He has been my teacher,” he said.

Making confections since he was 10, Iandelli shared the vitals of the profession.

“There are four basics one must master,” he said. “Crema, lievito (dough made with yeast or sourdough), bigne (the cream puff shell) and sfoglia; if one can make all of those they have learned the art of baking.”

Experimental Electronics

Francesca, her friend and myself attended a concert at EXFILA connessioni metropolitane (EXFILA urban connections) before she and I drove to Poggibonsi to help her family with la raccolta delle olive (olive harvest) Friday night.

I met the both of them and several other friends for a drink in Piazza San Ambriogio earlier in the evening. Even though it was chilly outside, there were people drinking and socializing in the square rather than inside the bar that faces it.

We left the piazza around 12 a.m. and headed to the concert. I did not know where we were going. The only information I had was that there would be electronica music.

We drove out of the city center, past Sachshall and made a left, somewhere. Out of the darkness appeared a large Essalunga supermarket. The buildings on the bordering streets looked abandoned.

We could not find the concert at first. Francesca drove around the perimeter streets a couple of times. She noticed a couple of people straying into an unassuming building. I did not think anything of it, but her parking near there was the signal that it was the spot.

A bar and a spin table were set up in two separate adjoining rooms inside. I was fascinated by the small decorations of orange and purple plastic bones piled in a reverse pyramid over the lights that casted an orange shade over the bar.

Once upstairs we walked through a couple empty rooms to the end of the hall. I pushed aside a black curtain and entered the concert. It was held in an average room draped in black curtains with folding chairs facing a large screen.

The artist, Anna Bolena, sat behind a computer, adjusted the tones, sounds and beats as music and a black and white fuzzy film played in the background.

Scenes of women being gunned down, sexed, used and abused by a conspicuous top-hat-wearing male, were accompanied by distinguishable sequence of sounds and underlying rhythms.
Although the characters of the film wore clothes from the ‘40s and ‘50s, the position of camera shots and their vivid expressions suggested otherwise.

The concert turned out not to be what I had expected, but it was interesting to watch and listen.

Later downstairs around 2 a.m. the dj started spinning. Just as others were catching his vibe, Fra decided it was time to head towards Siena.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Obama's Night

My American friend and I attended election night hosted by the Tuscan American Association at Saschall today. I was surprised to see more Italians walking around the concert hall than Americans. Tables that served up Barack pins and banners as well as wine and McDonald's were set up along the parameter walls and a band played average rock music till about 4 a.m. the next day.

I did not come across any McCain propaganda, but that was expected. Every Italian I have met in Florence has voiced that they want Obama for the next American president. Often times, that vocalization is said with a touch of Tuscan snobbery. It frustrates me to continuously hear people, that have admittedly never been to America, express with arrogance and entitlement who should be the next president of the United States.

It is one thing to have an opinion, but it is another when someone believes they know more about a country than a citizen of that country. I have had the ability to vote in Italy for several years now, but do not. I do not know the ins and outs of the country and thus could not possibly determine who should lead it or what is best for its people. It is not my place to vote yet. I feel Italians should reciprocate that gesture.

I have experienced this superiority when discussing other topics and stereotypes besides American presidential candidates; such as what Americans eat, all Americans are fat, Americans cannot cook, Americans are superficial, Washington D.C. is a state and has a star on the flag, America and Canada share the same government, people in Texas are called rednecks . . .

I spent about 20 minutes speaking to a local that founded a network of Italians that support Barack on Facebook. He was explaining to me why Italians are obsessed with American politics rather than their own. I thought he was well informed and impressive until I heard this. "Any American who votes for McCain is anti-American, because they do not want change," he said.

I quickly stopped him and informed him that all Americans, no matter who they vote for and no matter if they are Democrat or Republican or Independent, love and want the best for their country. After that conversation, I decided not to speak about American politics with random Italians.

I am not convinced which was the better choice, Obama or McCain, but I am convinced that both want America to prosper and maintain its lead in the world. I am proud that a president was chosen by democratic means and that people that affected to impact the government exercised their freedom of choice and voted.

It is amazing that nations all over the globe intently watched the United States tonight. I do not know if Americans realize how much the world considers America. And I do not know if the world realizes how comparatively less Americans consider it.

Tonight Italy celebrated Obama and his promise for future. I hope he is greatness.