Thursday, December 20, 2012

Watch Your Wallet!

The most common crimes in Italy are theft, burglary, and pocket picking. Pickpockets are such a big problem here that all public transportation carries warning signs. Unlike most public notices, which are routinely announced in Italian and English, the pickpocket warnings are posted in Italian, English, German, French and Spanish. The Asians are left to fend for themselves!

I’ve witnessed many pickpocket incidents and have myself been the victim three times. The first successful event occurred when I visited Rome in March 2002 before I actually moved here. On a crowded tram, someone lifted a small black zippered bag from my purse. I still delight in the look I imagine on the face of the pickpocket when he—or she—found only my asthma inhaler and lipstick while my money stayed safely close to my heart!

The second time, I stood on a crowded bus. I answered my cell phone, and when the call ended, I put the phone in a zippered compartment of my backpack. At the next stop, a man of great politeness edged past me to exit. I later discovered my phone was missing. I’m certain that gentle man took it. As luck would have it, the phone was on its last gasp, so the thief who took it actually did me a favor by compelling me to buy a new one.

The third time, I got off a metro train—not an especially crowded one—and strolled to my destination only to discover that my wallet had been lifted from my backpack. I had had that wallet for about four hours, having purchased it earlier that day. Fortunately, I didn’t lose much money. What I did lose was my American driver’s license and getting that replaced proved to be very difficult.

Do you see a pattern here? Every theft involved a backpack. I learned my lesson. If I use a backpack now, I wear it in front if I’m in a crowd or I use a lock.

I’ve also had a couple of near misses. Once I was walking along in mid-afternoon when I heard, rather than felt, the zipper on my backpack move. I turned to find two young gypsy girls, about 12. When I yelled at them, they looked up at me without fear and blew smoke in my face! The other instance happened on a crowded metro platform. I tried to board a train, but it was too full. As I tried to turn, I discovered a woman’s hand in my purse. My purse hung on a short strap under my arm, clamped close to my body with my elbow. She had still managed to get her hand inside, expecting the crowd to shield her. It’s highly likely that she would have taken something—though probably not my money—had I not striven to turn at that moment.

Crowds are the pickpockets’ best friend. Once I waited for a tram around 8:30 p.m. at a stop near the station. It was raining, and lots of people waited, many with luggage. When the tram finally arrived, the crowd jostled to enter, juggling suitcases and umbrellas.  As I stepped onto the tram, the man in front of me courteously excused himself and stepped off. Ahead of me a woman struggled with the above mentioned accoutrements, an open purse dangling under her arm. She caught my eye, reached into the bag, and discovered her wallet gone. She left the tram and began chasing the thief—something I would never do.

Another time, I was one of the last to board a very crowded bus, the 64 which is notorious for pickpockets. Three people climbed up behind me, trying to push onto the bus. A woman outside began shouting, “Watch out; they’re pickpockets.” She yelled and yelled. They were on the steps and the bus door couldn’t close.  Finally, the three realized that there was no room and stepped off the bus, which closed its doors and departed.

A woman standing nearby then began acting strangely, wriggling past me and into a crouch. I thought, “Aha, here’s the pickpocket,” and grasped my purse with both hands. She then pushed herself upright, holding a wallet aloft, having retrieved it from the floor where the pickpocket had dropped it. A man nearby (British) claimed it. And we all sighed.

The stories of things I’ve witnessed go on and on: a young guy (again British) discovering that his back pocket had been neatly Xed with a knife and his wallet extracted; a crowd of people pulling a woman back onto the train as she tried to exit because they suspected her of pocket picking (I didn’t see the outcome of this one).

One day, on an uncrowded train, two scruffy guys sitting near me suddenly jumped from their seats and lurched for a man sitting across from them (and me). I thought I was witnessing a mugging until one of them pulled out handcuffs and shackled the guy who had deftly picked the pocket of a woman nearby. These undercover cops ride the rails in search of pickpockets, it seems.
In the ten years I’ve been here, I’ve learned to take precautions, and I haven’t had my pocket picked in a long time. My first piece of advice to anyone visiting Rome is to be aware of the likelihood of pickpockets and to take precautions.

I blog on alternate Thursdays at Novel Adventurers. I hope you’ll stop by and join the conversation. Next week, I’m writing about an unusual Italian festival.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

A Street by Any Other Name

By Patricia Winton

Piazza della Repubblica, Rome
Visitors to various Italian cities soon learn that street and piazza names are often linked to important dates in Italian history. One of the most popular piazza names Piazza della Repubblica comes from June 2, 1946, when Italy declared itself a republic following World War II. Piazza Esedra in Rome was rechristened Piazza della Repubblica in 1960 in honor of the Rome Olympics. Other streets and piazzas named for dates that recur throughout Italy include:

Via II Giugno, like Piazza della Repubblica, also recognizes the anniversary of the referendum vote that ousted the monarchy and established Italy as a republic. It’s also marks the first time women in Italy voted. The day is a public holiday.

Via XX Settembre, Gneova, Photo by Renahx
Via XX Settembre commemorates the date in 1870 when Rome was finally captured to unify Italy as one nation and eliminate the government domination by the Pope. The first Via XX Settembre is in Rome marking the point where the wall was breached (Read about this event in my Novel Adventurers post.). Many streets previously named for popes were rechristened Via XX Settembre. The original street in Rome, for example, had been named Via Pia (for Pope Pius).

Via VII Ottobre 1492 marks the day Christopher Columbus made landfall in the Caribbean, believing he had reached the East Indies. Often celebrated as the day Columbus discovered America. While Columbus (Cristoforo Colombo) began his explorations in Spain, he is honored as a son of Italy. His home town of Genova is one of several towns with this street name.

Via XXV Aprile celebrates the day in 1945 when the Nazis surrendered their last stronghold in northern Italy and Benito Mussolini’s government dissolved in Rome. The day is celebrated as Liberation Day in Italy, a public holiday.

Via XXIV Maggio marks the day in 1914 when Italy entered World War I. While it’s not celebrated as a holiday, several Italian cities bear this street name, including Pisa, Salerno, and Porto Viro, near Venice.

Via IV Novembre is represented in more Italian cities, observing the day in 1918 when Italy and Austria-Hungary ended hostilities, ending the Italian campaign in World War I. Rome, Como, and Bologna, among others, have streets named for this anniversary.

Italian street names commemorate great warriors, from ancient Rome to unification to the World Wars. They honor saints and cities and scientists. They revere heroes from other countries, like Rome’s Viale Washington George. In Rome, there’s even a Piazzale degli Eroi, Little Piazza of the Heroes. But I find the street names dedicated to dates to be the most curious.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Remembering Rosemary

By Patricia Winton 

 There's rosemary, that's for remembrance.... 
    Ophelia in Othello                                

I first encountered rosemary in a little red, white, and blue metal container. It didn’t—and doesn’t still—sit on my mother’s spice rack. When I opened my own kitchen, I began widening my culinary horizons, and rosemary became an early experiment. I hate to admit it, but I produced the worst meatballs ever to be consumed by humankind, and my enthusiasm for rosemary cooled considerably…until I first came to Italy and encountered it fresh.

I visited my friends John and Enzo in the village of Riparbella, not far from the Etruscan town of Volterra. Enzo prepared roast chicken by sticking slivers of garlic into the flesh, placing more garlic, half a lemon, and a large sprig of rosemary in the body cavity, and coating the skin with olive oil. He placed it in a large baking dish surrounded by quartered potatoes. These were coated with more olive oil and anointed with additional garlic and rosemary. My reaction to this dish was akin to Julia Child’s introduction to sole meuniére, her first meal in France. I’ve been a fan of fresh rosemary since. Variations of this dish still dominate the Italian dining table for Sunday lunch.

Rosemary, common throughout the Mediterranean, has long been an integral part of the culinary scene on the Italian peninsula. Archaeological evidence suggests that the Etruscans used rosemary to flavor their fish and meat as early as 700-300 BC. The Italian word rosemarino comes from the Latin ros marinus, meaning “dew of the sea.” The Romans spread the plant to England during their occupation, although it needs protection from the cold in that climate, and Italians took it with them to the Americas when they emigrated there.

When I returned to the U.S. after that first experience here, I grew rosemary myself. It can survive outdoors in the Washington area, and rosemary graced my community garden for ten years. When I left the garden, I transplanted it (with the owner’s permission) to an area behind the building where I lived. It was an enormous plant by this time, and I had to rent a car to transport it. It thrived that summer, and when winter came, I gathered sprigs to hang in my kitchen, but I always clipped a fresh bit for cooking. Imagine my horror the following spring when I went out to gather rosemary to find the gardener had hacked it down. More than ten years later, I still get an empty feeling when I think about it.

Here in Rome, I have rosemary in a pot on my fifth-floor terrace. I still haven’t gotten the knack for growing it in a container. Surprisingly, it doesn’t seem to like the summer sun, which is intense. But come autumn and winter, it will thrive again just in time for all those winter stews, roast chickens, and legs of lamb that I’ll enjoy.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Pasta and Tuna

By Patricia Winton

I love tuna...and pasta. Together or separately. I eat them because I like them.

In Italy, yellow fin tuna is favored over the paler variety. It has a stronger flavor. I love to open a can packed in olive oil to make a summer salad. The tuna, drained, crumbled in a bowl with halved or quartered cherry tomatoes, black olives, and a bit of basil. And there’s tuna with cannellini beans, another summer salad with chopped red onion, drained beans, and tuna. Both are staples on my table all summer long. In winter, I cook with it.

Pasta. What can I say? Here on the boot it is noble fare, eaten stuffed or sauced, baked or boiled. It can be as simple as tangled strands of spaghetti with oil and breadcrumbs or as elaborate as linguini with shrimp and artichokes bathed in cream. The sizes and shapes are infinite. You could eat pasta every day for a year without repeating a recipe.

But put them together—pasta and tuna—and you reach perfection.  Here are two recipes fit for a dinner party, one with canned tuna and one with fresh. Both are elegant, the first for those with a thin purse, the other for those with a fat one.

Pasta with Tuna, Tomato, and Cream

1 pound dried pasta (if the package holds 14 ounces, that’s okay)
1 5-ounce can of tuna, drained  (Italians use a darker tuna than Americans)
8 ounces canned tomato sauce
1 cup heavy cream or half and half
1 medium onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
¼ cup flat-leaf Italian parsley, chopped

1.    Put the oil in a frying pan and add the onion, garlic, half the parsley, and cayenne pepper. Sautè until the onions are soft.
2.    Add the tuna and stir a moment to mix.
3.    Add the tomato sauce and check for salt. Add more if needed.
4.    Let the sauce cook over a low flame until it has reduced to a thick paste.
5.    In the meantime, cook the pasta in boiling salted water until chewy and not too soft.
6.    Add the cream to the tomato-tuna sauce and stir to incorporate it. Taste and season with salt and pepper as desired.
7.    Drain the pasta, and add it to the sauce. Stir.
8.    Serve with a sprinkle of chopped parsley.

Serves 4.

Pasta with Fresh Tuna

12 ounces cavatelli, fusilli al ferro, or other short fresh pasta
½ pound tuna steak
½ pound cherry tomatoes
½ onion
1 ½ cups dry white wine
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons pesto (see note below)
Salt and pepper to taste

Note: you may be able to find fresh pesto in a specialty shop; otherwise put this recipe on hold until spring.

1.    Wash and dry the tuna; cut it into small, even cubes
2.    Wash and stem the cherry tomatoes, and cut them into quarters.
3.    Peel and finely chop the onion
4.    Put the oil in a frying pan and add the onion; cook until soft and translucent.
5.    Add the tuna and let it brown on all sides.
6.    Bathe the tuna with the wine and allow it to cook over medium heat until evaporated.
7.    Add the cherry tomatoes, salt and pepper, and cook, stirring from time to time with a wooden spoon, for about ten minutes.
8.    Meanwhile cook the pasta, taking care not to let it get too soft.
9.    Drain, reserving a little of the starch-laden cooking water.
10.          Add the pasta to the sauce and stir.
11.          Blend in the pesto and enough of the cooking water to make the dish creamy.
12.          Let the dish set for a couple of minutes for the flavors to mingle and serve.

Serves 4