Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Icy Granita

Last week, in passing, I mentioned granita as a summer treat. Today, I want to tell you more.

At its best, granita is heavenly; at its worst, sewer sludge. The worst has the consistency of slurpees sold in the 7-Eleven stores in the U.S. The machine stirs an icy mixture round and round. This mixture is decanted into a plastic cup to order. The most common flavors are lemon and mint. They are vile. The lemon tastes like dried lemonade mix with a metallic aftertaste. The mint resembles stale chewing gum. There are sometimes other flavors, but don’t try them. Trust me.

The best is another story altogether. Gelato shops labeled artigianale make their own. A syrupy liquid is poured into stainless steel pans resembling those used in cafeteria hot tables. Freezing coils reside underneath instead of hot water. The syrupy liquid is stirred from time to time as ice crystals form, but these crystals are never allowed to completely solidify. When someone places an order, the waiter stirs the granita to ensure that no lumps contaminate the icy mixture, then the granita is transferred to a dish (or a plastic cup to go) and served with a spoon.

The most common flavors are lemon and coffee. The lemon is made with freshly squeezed lemon juice, sugar, and water. It’s very concentrated, like the best homemade lemonade. On a hot day, the icy lemon granita refreshes like nothing else I know. The coffee is made with concentrated, sweetened espresso. This is served in layers, granita, whipped cream, granita, whipped cream. There is often a cookie on top. Sublime.

Other fruits produce tasty granita, too. These are made with pureed fruit pulp, sugar, and water. The proportions depend on the fruit, of course. In an artigianale shop, it’s probably good. Other fruit flavors you might find include cherry, cantaloupe (melone in Italian), or mixed berry (frutta di bosco).

If you can bear to forgo gelato, I recommend granita.

Note: The website InRomeNow has a profile about me this week at

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Gridi, Grido, Gridiamo per il Gelato

Birds are warbling in the pre-dawn hours. Women are painting their toenails. People are unswathing their throats of the scarves they’ve worn all winter. Well, some people are beginning to unswathe throats, but I digress. I’ll save throat swathing for another day. These are the classic signs that summer is approaching in Italy and the gelato season is upon us. Not that we’ve been deprived of gelato during the nippy winter. It’s always available. But when summer comes...oh, my.

The first signs appear in the late afternoon when the warm air invites people to stroll arm and arm down the street enjoying being outside at last. What better way to celebrate than to stop by the local gelato shop for a cone. But we know that summer prevails when the family piles into the car after Sunday lunch at Mamma’s. The car heads for a park, or a lake if there’s one handy, or some archeological site to enjoy the open air. After they walk to and fro admiring the fresh blooms on plants, or the sailboats, or ancient statues, they look for an outdoor cafĂ©.

And everyone orders gelato. Well, almost everyone. Mamma may choose granita and the youngest child may choose a frozen confection-on-a-stick shaped like a cartoon character. But in general, gelato reigns.

Italian gelato differs from American ice cream in many respects, primarily the intensity of the flavor. Since gelato is sold by weight instead of volume, it isn’t whipped with air, so it’s denser. In addition, gelato is made with less cream, sometimes just milk. In my opinion, cream coats your tongue creating a barrier between taste buds and flavor. So again, the intensity of gelato bursts in your mouth. But the main reason that Italian gelato has such a potent flavor is legal. By law, gelato labeled strawberry must comprise thirty percent strawberries. This law applies to all fruits and nuts, so the flavor is intense. Certainly, the vanilla isn’t thirty percent vanilla, nor is the chocolate thirty percent. But the flavors explode in your mouth nonetheless.

It’s customary to get at least two flavors. After you pay for the size you want to buy, you take your ticket to the counter and select from the array of flavors available. If you have a small size, you generally select two flavors, but with larger sizes you can have as many as four or even five. The choice is yours: cantaloupe and coconut, tangerine and tiramisu. Let your imagination soar. One shop in central Rome has about fifty flavors on display at any given time, and the choice is really difficult. My favorites there include pink grapefruit and champagne.

Once the waiter has filled your cup or cone, he or she will ask, “Panna?” That means “Do you want any whipped cream?” So even on an ice cream, er, I mean gelato, cone, you can have a dollop of whipped cream on top. It’s really hard to resist.

So please excuse me while I go out for my first gelato of the season.

UPDATE: An American friend who has lived in Rome for many years shares the fears of Roman traffic that I wrote about on April 27. She reports having had dinner with an ambulance driver recently. My friend asked the driver what the most common ambulance call is. The driver, a woman, reported that, hands down, it’s pedestrians struck in crosswalks. That makes me think that Romans have it right, after all. Maybe it’s safer to cross mid-street than at the crosswalk.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Crime Continues at the Trevi Fountain

The Trevi Fountain continues to be a crime scene. When I developed the idea for “Feeding Frenzy” (Fish Tales, Wildside Press, March 2011), my inspiration came from a real crime. In my story, it’s fish in the fountain. But before that, in 2007, a man named Graziano Checchino had thrown red dye into the fountain, a fact that I allude to in the story. He reportedly had right wing leanings, and called his act of defiance “futuristic,” referring to the art movement founded in 1909 and championed by Mussolini as the “official art of fascism.” Checchino’s motives are unclear. He may have been protesting the Rome Film Festival (or its cost) or perhaps capitalism in general. There was no damage to the fountain that time, but last year someone repeated the red dye stunt, and some of the marble was termporarily stained.

But crime at the Trevi is not limited to things being put into the fountain. Things are put into the fountain daily in the form of coins tossed by tourists. The custom, popularized by the 1950s film Three Coins in the Fountain, comes from the superstition that if you throw a coin in the fountain you are guaranteed to return to Rome. I’ve certainly pitched in my share. The crime comes from taking the coins out.

About €2000-€3000 worth of coins are flung into the fountain every day. Officially, these coins are collected for a charity. But some enterprising Romans have been harvesting this bounty for themselves. Recently, a television crew set out to document the police standing by while the money was being raked out. A scuffle ensued, and the television reporter ended up tossed into the fountain himself. The police intervened only when the thieves attacked the camera operator.

The main perpetrator of this illegal collection is a man named Roberto Cercelletta, who calls himself D’Artagnan. Italian courts have ruled that the coins have been abandoned by their owners and can therefore not be stolen. D’Artagnan apparently sees collecting these coins on par with picking up empty bottles on the roadside. Last week the police tried to arrest him while he was in the fountain with a broom sweeping up coins because, while it may not be a crime to take the coins, it is a crime to enter Roman fountains.

D’Artagnan resisted, ripping off his shirt and climbing high up onto the fountain. There he slashed his stomach to dramatize his “persecution.” He was last seen being tucked into an ambulance. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

May Day

May 1st is a holiday in Italy. The festivities in Rome end with an enormous concert not far from where I live. A couple of subway stops are closed to help corral the crowd, and the music goes on late into the night. This was an especially strange year because May 1st also saw the beatification of Pope John Paul II. Days in advance, subway notices about travel in the city began appearing in Polish, and traffic and public transport use increased. A million people showed up in St. Peter’s Square for a ceremony that lasted, and was televised, for hours.

The fava bean season officially kicked off May 1st, too. Known here as le fave, the beans have been in the market for a couple of weeks, and I’ve eaten them. So have lots of other people as witnessed by the hulls littering the sidewalk outside my local market. But on May 1st Romans traditionally eat raw fave with pecorino Romano, a sheep’s milk cheese with the consistency of parmesan. I don’t much like the combination, but it’s a Roman favorite. On the days preceeding May 1, the fave are stacked in crates in all the markets with big chunks of the cheese nearby.

A favorite way of cooking fave is with onion, olive oil, and hog jowl, which sounds ever so much more refined in Italian, guanciale (a word that also means pillow). There isn’t really a recipe for this simple dish. Put all the ingredients in a pot, add water just to cover, and simmer for about 30 minutes.

Fava beans must be peeled twice. First remove the outer shell. Then squeeze the bean from a hull that surrounds each separate bean. This can be done with raw beans, but I think it’s easier to blanch them for a couple of minutes in boiling water. Plunge them into ice water to help loosen the hull.
My favorite recipe comes from Sicily. At this time of year the artichoke season is ending and the fave and pea season is beginning. This is a noble dish to celebrate mid-spring.

Spring Vegetable Stew
1 cup shelled fresh peas
1 cup shelled fava beans, cleaned of their outer hull
4 artichokes, cleaned of all their hard, outer leaves and the choke, thinly sliced
1/2 cup chopped bacon or boiled ham
1 onion, finely chopped
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil plus a little more for serving
1/2 cup white wine
2 tablespoons chopped Italian flat-leaf parsley
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
Salt and pepper to taste

Put the onion is a large pan with 1/4 cup water. Cook over low heat until the water evaporates. Add the bacon or ham. Cook until you are satisfied with the consistency—especially of the bacon. I usually want it to be nearing the crispy state. Wipe out excess bacon grease with a paper towel.

Add the peas, fava beans, and the artichokes. Pour over the wine (my Italian recipe says to “bathe” the vegetables with the wine) and cook until partially evaporated. Add the olive oil and parsley. Simmer for about 20 minutes, covered. Stir from time to time. The vegetables should give off enough liquid to keep the stew moist, but add a little water if it seems dry.

At the end of cooking, add salt and pepper to taste. Just before serving, add the basil and pour on a little olive oil, what the Italians call a “thread of oil” which means pouring on a fine dribble of oil. This dish is good served as a main course or over pasta.