Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Celebrating the Saints

Today is a holiday in Rome to commemorate the city’s two patron saints, Peter and Paul. Every city and town in Italy has a patron saint. Rome is the only one with two. And every city and town has a holiday on its patron saint’s day, but Rome has only one holiday because June 29 the saint’s day for both.

All the shops and offices are closed. Municipal services like garbage collection and public transport are following a holiday schedule. When I went out for my early morning walk, I encountered not only other walkers, bicyclists and dogs on leashes, but also people packing up cars. It’s a good day to go to the beach because other towns don’t have the holiday, so the beaches aren’t crowded. Bars serving steaming cups of cappuccino opened their doors early, and tantalizing pastry shops are offering their wares until 1 p.m.

There are major religious services at St. Peter’s basilica and at St. Paul’s Outside the Walls today, but most of Rome’s other 1,000 churches will have services as well. Tradition has it that the two saints met for the last time on a spot near St. Paul’s shortly before both were killed by the ancient Romans for their Christian activities. The spot, which is actually identified by a street address, will see it’s own ceremony, as it does every year. The celebrations end with fireworks at midnight.

It’s not only cities and towns that have patron saints. Each church has a patron saint as well. And while these saints’ days do not warrant a holiday, they do have celebrations. With its 1,000 plus churches, Rome has a patron saint celebration almost daily, complete with fireworks.

On the secular side, it’s a day for sleeping late and enjoying a good meal. Because the weather is fine, Romans will be out enjoying a stroll in the afternoon, eating a gelato, seeing friends, and at the end of the evening, seeking a good place to watch those fireworks.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Bringing Home the Bacon

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare.

I’d like to paraphrase that to say that pancetta by any other name would taste as delectable. That other name is “bacon.” My sixteen-volume Encyclopedia of Italian Cuisine describes pancetta as a “cut of meat, principally pork, but it can be beef or veal.” Usually it’s pork. The curing process, according to the encyclopedia, depends on the cuisine of the region where the curing is done.

Here in Rome, pancetta is sold in various guises. The round roll of pancetta, recognized most often in the U.S., is available at the salumeria (delicatessen) counters. It costs about nine dollars for a pound. You can also find slabs of pancetta ready to be sliced to order. Or you can just ask for a chunk. In my neighborhood supermarket, the delicatessen counter carries two varieties, one roll and one slab. You can have it cut to order or you can pick up pre-cut packages.

In the meat counter, you can find thick slices of pancetta packaged like steak or pork chops. These are intended for eating as a main course, or for cutting into squares for kebabs.

But the bulk of the bacon sold here comes in plastic tubs sold in the cold cut case. This pancetta is cut into small cubes, and it is either smoked or not. The cubed pancetta is the basis for two Italian pasta favorites: spaghetti alla carbonara (smoked) and bucatini all’amatriciana (sweet).

My advice to any American cook who wants to make these dishes: buy thick-sliced bacon and cut it into cubes. It’s easy, it’s inexpensive, and it’s good.

Carbarnara is well-known in America, but Amatriciana, not so well. It’s easy to make, and while bucatini is the traditional pasta, you can serve the sauce on other types.

Bucatini all’Amatriciana

1 pound bucatini (or spaghetti)
4-5 slices of thick-sliced bacon (not smoked)
1 can crushed tomatoes
1/4 to 1/3 teaspoon red pepper flakes (more is desired)
1/4 cup grated pecorino romano (you can use parmesan, but it’s too delicate for the red pepper)
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Cut the bacon into 1/4-inch squares.
2. Place the bacon in a large frying pan and cook stirring to render out the fat and to brown lightly. Drain excess oil.
3. Add the tomatoes, red pepper, and salt and pepper to taste.
4. Cook for about 15 minutes.
5. Meanwhile, fill a large kettle with water and bring it to the boil. Cook the bucatini to the al dente stage. [NOTE: Al dente is reached when the pasta is completely cooked through. Test by biting into a piece. When there is no white, uncooked part in the center, the pasta is cooked. It should be chewy.]
6. Drain the pasta and place it in the frying pan with the sauce. Toss and cook for about two minutes.
7. Serve with the pecorino, and additional red pepper flakes, if desired.

Serves 4-6

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A Writer's Horror Story

I’ve felt so smug for the past six months. When my not-so-old laptop blew it mother board at the beginning of NaMo last year, I lost a great deal of my work in progress. I went through the painful process of buying a new desktop and worried through all the problems fraught with setting it up.

Getting all the programs installed in English instead of Italian took a lot of time. I can use the Italian, but it’s easier in English, and I want easy. I’m a touch typist so configuring Italian keyboard, which has symbols in different places, became the next order of business. What you see on my keyboard now is NOT what you get. Oh, sometimes I have to remind myself where a certain key is because, if I think about it, my brain shuts down. If I trust my fingers, they will find it.

I worried most about all the data I had lost. So I contracted with SOS Online Backup. It has been comforting to see that little backup icon churning away every morning. During the few weeks that I was offline, I agonized over the possibility that I might have a breakdown and lose data. I put stuff on a thumb drive every day, and the moment I got connected I logged in to SOS Backup and ran a full recovery.

This morning, disaster struck. My smug heart fell when I opened the file for today's blog in preparation for posting it and found the snippet for a future post in its place. I’m not sure how it happened, but I had overwritten this week’s blog post. Aghhh!

Not to worry. I have SOS Online Backup. But I couldn’t find any saved files. I fiddled with the account. I contacted online support. Still no files. Finally, the techie called me. It seems that my account had been set up to backup my C drive, something that I thought strange at the time, so only program files have been backed up for the past six months. No documents!! So the lovely blog that I had planned to post today has been lost. I’ll rewrite it another day.

This day will be devoted to trying to get things backed up properly. No writing for me today. If you have any lost document horror stories, I hope you will share them in the comments section.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Festa della Repubblica

June 2 is a holiday here celebrating Italy’s vote to oust the monarchy. It also marks the first time women voted in this country. This year Italy celebrates the 150th anniversary of its unification as one nation, so it’s been an unusually patriotic year.

The holiday has the usual patriotic trappings with the laying of a wreath on the tomb of the unknown and other formal events. The highlight, as always, is a military parade. Many unexpected groups are considered military here, ranging from firefighters to meteorologists to the Red Cross. They all have a spot in the parade.

The festivities begin with the unfurling of an enormous flag (50 x 30 meters, about 164 x 98 feet) on the Colosseum. Fifty firefighters are required to manage this operation, including twenty who are spaced along the bottom of the furled banner and rappel their way down the wall, keeping the flag flat and even. This red, white, and green draped Colosseum serves as the backdrop for the parade which wends its way down the Via dei Fori Imperiali past a reviewing stand above the forums.

This year, people wearing replicas of many historic uniforms marched, including nurses wearing World War I flowing skirts and headdresses. The Bersaglieri, one of my favorite groups, always wear their historic headgear in parades and at other formal occasions. An elite group of sharpshooters, they are most famous historically for storming Porta Pia and ultimately ending papal rule and unifying Italy. They wear helmets with grouse feathers hanging from the side and they always jog instead of march. Even the brass band jogs and plays with the feathers bouncing in tune.

My other favorite is the Carabinieri mounted police band. Their formal uniforms are covered with elaborate braids and embroidery. A wide red stripe runs down the pant leg. They wear Napoleon-style hats topped with a red and white plume. All the musicians ride white horses. Like other mounted regiments, they come at the end of the parade so no one has to walk through the horse droppings.

The finale is a flyover by the Frecce Tricolori (tricolor arrows), a nine-plane aerobatics team. They do their pre-parade maneuvers in my neighborhood, so I get to watch them turn and twist around as they await the signal to proceed to the parade route. I trot back and forth from balcony to television. When the TV commentator announces that the frecce are coming, I hear one last roar overhead then seconds later see them fly over the Colosseum emitting their characteristic red, white, and green vapor trail.

Not the Fourth of July, but a nice holiday nonetheless.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

How To Become a Legal Alien

One of the bureaucratic headaches for every foreigner living in Italy is the acquisition of the Permesso di Soggiorno, Permission to Stay. Every non-citizen who enters Italy as a visitor must register with the police. If you come as a tourist and stay at a hotel, your passport is examined when you register and the information is shared with the police. Technically, when this takes place, you have a permesso valid for ninety days.

When I first came to Rome, the registration process was a nightmare. To begin with, every foreigner had to go to the same office. There were no appointments and there was no place to sit. You took a number and waited, with all your paperwork, for the first available clerk. The paperwork required photocopies of your passport, an application form, photos, and a tax stamp available at the tobacco shops. If the weather was cold or rainy, you just had to put up with it by standing around outside.

In those days, when all the paperwork was in order, you received a date for returning to pick up the permesso. That involved the same wait without an appointment. The same standing around outside. The permesso of that era was a primitive document with one of the photos stapled to it. The whole process could take so long that the expiration date loomed by the time you received the official document.

The process has become less difficult in recent years. Rome is divided into twenty administrative districts, each called a municipio. All bureaucratic paperwork—car registration, identity cards, etc.—is done at the municipio level. Now the permesso is processed at this level, too. The quest begins at the post office where you pick up a “kit” with a long application form, instructions, and a mailing envelope. You complete the form, photocopy your passport and documents showing that you have housing and financial support and take it back to the post office along with a hefty fee and photos.

After a couple of months, you receive a letter ordering you to appear at the local police station at an appointed time. You have an appointment! The police clerk checks over all your documents then fingerprints you. The fingerprinting includes not just the tips but also the full fingers, and finally the complete palms. A fortune teller could have a field day with those palm prints. The clerk also fingerprints you electronically (just the tips). When everything is in order, the clerk tells you that when the permesso is ready, your name will be posted on a notice board outside the police station. The first time I did this, it took seven months.

The new Permesso di Soggiorno is a smart card which has all your data, including the electronic fingerprint, embedded. Your electronic fingerprint must match the one embedded for the permesso to be released. Once you have it, it’s valid for two years. Mine expires in October. My passport expires in February. To renew the permesso, I must have at least two years remaining on the passport, so I must renew it before October. However, since I’m traveling to the U.S. in August, I’m waiting until I return to Italy to renew my passport. I fully expect the permesso to have expired before I get a new one.

And so it goes.