Monday, April 30, 2012

Making the Bridge

Ponte Sant'Angelo in Rome
In Italy today, facciamo il ponte, we’re making the bridge. The first time I heard the expression, during my early days in Rome, a student stopped by my desk as she was leaving class and asked, in English, “Will we make the bridge next week?”

As an English teacher, I’m accustomed to trying to figure out what non-native speakers mean when they get the words wrong. I showed her the next week’s lesson, but she shook her head. Switching to Italian, she said, “Faremo il ponte la prossima settimana?”

I still didn’t get it. We don’t usually construct things in English classes. Finally, she was able to explain that because the following Tuesday was a holiday, would we bridge the time between the weekend and Tuesday by canceling class on Monday.

I assured her that we would not make the bridge. But as it turned out, we did. I arrived at school the following Monday to find the doors locked.

Now, I have this discussion about making the bridge several times during the academic year. It gets dicey in December and April. Thanksgiving at the end of November notwithstanding, I always take a day off for my birthday--December 5. And December 8 is a holiday in Italy; if a bridge is involved with that holiday, it means we miss a lot of class prior to the usual three weeks at Christmas.

Patriotic Fly-Over
In April, we often have Easter, where we take off the Friday before and the Monday after. In addition, April 25 is a national holiday commemorating the liberation of Italy from the Nazis. This year, the 25th fell on Wednesday, and students wanted to make the bridge—two days! That would have been a Ponte Lungo (long bridge), which, ironically, is the name of a Rome metro stop.

And so today we’re making the bridge because tomorrow, May 1, is Labor Day in Italy as it is in many parts of the world.

I just wish the workers who are tearing out a masonry wall in the apartment next door were making the bridge today. Their noise has my head pounding.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The She-Wolf in Georgia

The city where I live celebrates her 2765th birthday on Saturday, April 21.

You probably know the legend. Mars, the god of war and Rhea Silvia, daughter of King Numitor of Alba Longa, produced twins named Romulus and Remus. King Numitor was overthrown by his brother Amulius who then ordered the twins to be drowned in the Tiber River. A she-wolf found and suckled them, and later, a shepherd adopted them.

When they grew up, they reclaimed Alba Longa from their uncle and decided to found a town of their own near the place where they first encountered the she-wolf. Romulus began building a wall for the city on the Palatine Hill, but Remus jeered him because the wall was so low, jumping over it. An angry Romulus killed Remus and continued to build. Thus we have the city of Roma, not Rema. And despite the blurred lines between legend and history, not to mention changes in calendars, the date April 21, 753 BC has been adopted as the date of Rome’s official founding.

The Statue in Italy
Two symbols represent Rome in the international mind’s eye: the Colosseum and the statue. You’ve probably seen the statue, at least in photos, a pair of babies under the she-wolf, mouths open, reaching for her teats.

I first saw a copy of the original in Rome, Georgia, where I lived long before I came to Rome, Italy. A plaque at the base says the statue was a gift to the Georgia Rome from Benito Mussolini, but in her fascinating book, She-Wolf: The Story of a Roman Icon, Cristina Mazzoni tells another story.

Mussolini certainly gave replicas of the statue to potential allies, but, despite what the plaque says, he didn’t give this one. In 1928, a Milan-based rayon plant began construction of another plant in Georgia. Mazzoni says that, along with the machinery, the Milan business sent a replica of the company’s symbol—the she-wolf and twins statue.

The Statue in Georgia
The statue created a stir in Georgia. The Milan business had thought that it would be placed outside the factory, but it instead took a prominent place in front of the City Auditorium. While most people appreciated it as a work of art, others were shocked by the frontal nudity of the babies and the fine detail of the she-wolf’s anatomy. Frequently, the naked babies were diapered and the wolf draped during important events at the auditorium.

Some people even suggested sending the statue back to Italy, but that was too expensive. It had come from Italy as part of the machinery shipment. A return trip would have been as a work of art with ensuing taxes, not to mention the cost of shipping 1500 pounds.

Finally, a compromise led to a plaque proclaiming this statue to be a gift from Mussolini himself, who still was a somewhat admired world leader. The plaque says that he gave the statue as an “omen of prosperity and glory” from the “Eternal Rome to the New Rome.”

One of the twins was stolen in 1933, perhaps as a prank, but a replacement arrived from Italy with little fanfare, signaling that Georgians accepted the statue as part of the cityscape.

When Mussolini allied with Hitler in World War II, the statue entered a maelstrom of controversy again. Some people wanted to dynamite it; others to cast it into the nearby Oostanaula River. One car salesman advocated “melting it down and shooting it back” as bullets. Calmer heads prevailed and the statue was hidden away throughout the war.

In 1952, just over ten years before I first saw it, the statue emerged from hiding. It now stands in front of the Municipal Building, still bearing the plaque crediting Mussolini as the giver.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Spears for Spring

Many years ago, I bought a house with an established asparagus bed. When I moved in, the season had just ended, so I had to wait almost a year to harvest. The following spring, I examined the bed daily, almost hourly, to look for the first green spears poking up through the mulch.

During that first season, I ate asparagus two or three times a day: asparagus with poached eggs, asparagus risotto, asparagus with hollandaise. My favorite way of eating it was, and is, to dip the still slightly crispy spears into melted butter; it’s satisfying to have the butter trickle down my chin as I chew.

Some years later, when I belonged to a community garden in Washington, DC, I planted asparagus and waited the then recommended two years to harvest. I didn’t have as many plants as before, but I enjoyed this asparagus just as much.

A few years later, when I left the garden, I transplanted the asparagus to space behind the building where I lived. I wonder now if anybody finds the asparagus, recognizes it, and enjoys the treat. I fear that the gardener just mows it down when he begins the springtime cleanup.

My thoughts always turn to asparagus when spring arrives. It began appearing in Italian markets about three weeks ago. Those first bundles of green spears seemed lonely, having been shipped in from Spain or North Africa. The prices were high, and no vegetable seller wanted to invest in too much of the high-priced commodity; they had only a bundle or two on display.

Last week, the local asparagus popped up in profusion—rows of neat bundles stood at every market veggie stall in preparation for Easter. They lured me to open my wallet. I brought home a bundle, and using the process Julia Child outlined in The Way To Cook, I snapped off about an inch from the bottom of each spear. I stood the spears in tall containers with about two inches of water in the bottom and covered them loosely with plastic bags.

I’ve been feasting on all my favorites, but I also tried out a new recipe for Pappardelle agli Asparagi e Gamberi—Pappardelle with Asparagus and Shrimp. Pappardelle are extra wide noodles (about 1/2 inch) but you can substitute other pasta.

1 pound asparagus
2 tablespoons chopped flat leaf parsley
1 pound pappardelle (or other pasta)
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 pound cleaned and shelled shrimp
1 small onion, chopped
2/3 cup heavy cream
1/3 cup white wine
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Clean and cook the asparagus until just tender. It should be somewhat underdone because it will cook more in the sauce.

2. Remove the tips and set aside. Cut the remaining asparagus into rounds.

3. Meanwhile, melt the butter and add the chopped onion. Cook until soft, but do not brown.

4. Add the shrimp and cook until it is no longer transparent. Add the white wine and cook to evaporate.

5. Add the asparagus rounds, reserving the tips for garnish.

6. Stir in the cream, cooking and stirring for another minute or two. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

7. In the meantime, cook the pasta. Drain, reserving a part of the pasta water.

8. Add the pasta to the sauce and stir to mix, adding some of the reserved pasta water if it seems too thick.

9. Divide the pasta among four plates, garnishing with the asparagus tips.

10. Enjoy!!

Monday, April 2, 2012

Breaking the Fast for Easter

Breakfast in Italy is usually a sparse affair. A cup of milk and coffee with a few cookies. A cup of cappuccino and a pastry. For children, milk and cookies or pastry. Instead of the cookies or pastry, maybe a slice of bread with marmalade.

But Easter breakfast, the first meal after the forty-day austerity of Lent, is a grand occasion. With much to-ing and fro-ing, people gather in the ingredients for the feast in the days beforehand. Eggs, not a traditional breakfast food in Italy, top everybody's list. As a symbol of rebirth, hard-boiled eggs are a part of the Easter feast.

In the meantime, the parish priest visits during Lent to bless the house. It’s quite a regimented operation in my neighborhood. The building doorkeeper canvases the residents to learn who wants their apartments blessed and reports to the church. Then a date is announced, and someone is expected to be home to receive the priest. If he comes during the week before Easter, the family will have boiled eggs—one for each family member—available for blessing.

The priest came to my building a couple of weeks ago, so the faithful will carry a basket of hard-boiled eggs to church a day or two before to be blessed for the Easter breakfast. On a television show recently, I saw a chef talking about Easter breakfast. His basket held some eggs marked with a black cross while others were plain. He explained that cross identified the blessed eggs so that if people wanted more than one egg, they could make sure to reserve a blessed one for each family member. Traditionally, children color eggs on the Saturday before Easter, but not, I think, the blessed ones.

A second requirement for Easter breakfast is salami, specifically one called corallina from Umbria. This sausage is made with ground pork shoulder and ham and studded with cubes of pork fat. It flavored with salt, pepper, and garlic steeped in wine. Stuffed into natural casings, the corallina is smoked with juniper berries and then aged for three to five months.

The corallina is accompanied by pizza della Pasqua (Easter pizza) which is a yeast bread made with cheese—usually goat cheese—and eggs. The dough is sprinkled with grindings of black pepper. I especially love pizza della Pasqua and always look forward to finding it in shops before Easter. Though not an Italian tradition, it's wonderful toasted and slathered with butter; I may be the only person in Italy who eats it that way.

Depending on the number of people, there may be other cold cuts and cheese. There can also be fritatta, and even a lamb dish cooked with artichokes, but some people think that’s too heavy for the morning, especially since lamb will probably be on the lunch menu. Easter breakfast is often accompanied by red wine.

Next comes the Colomba, a sweet bread baked in the shape of a dove, the symbol of peace. The dough for this bread often incorporates candied fruits, especially orange and lemon peel. It’s covered with a crunchy, sugary topping studded with whole almonds. Some people may also serve fresh ricotta—especially made with goat’s milk—with honey.

When everybody is sated, cups of espresso are poured and the big chocolate egg comes out. After it’s been smashed and the surprise discovered (see my post from last year), adults and children alike nibble on the chocolate. And perhaps Mamma melts some of the chocolate egg with boiling water to make a beverage for the kiddies.

Buona Pasqua a tutti! Happy Easter everyone!