Monday, June 29, 2009

Eat Something...You're Too Thin!

There is an expression that goes: "Some people eat to live while others live to eat." Italians usually fall into the latter category. What differentiates us from others who enjoy a good meal are the things we like to eat. I wrote a post a while back on this phenomenon in my other blog, "Spaldeen Dreams" called: "More Pudding, Mom!" (View), but there is more to be said. Meat and potatoes we find boring, besides, many Italians came from poor families where meat on the table was a luxury, usually reserved for Sunday dinner. To compensate for the inexpensive and meager ingredients they had to work with, Italian cooks raised culinary creativity to new heights.

For example, leftovers were given a new lease on life in soups, omelettes and salads. A favorite school lunch of mine in high school was a pepper and egg hero sandwich. As the oil soaked through the brown bag I carried my lunch to school in, it imparted an extra flavor element that actually enhanced the taste of the sandwich. The smell was so mouthwatering that I often ate my lunch in homeroom class before first period. I would then buy a hot school lunch to keep my stomach quiet at noontime.

Pie is a favorite dessert for many people, but Italians took pie in a whole new direction. When baked with unusual fillings like escarole, spinach or even calamari (squid) pie became a delicious and very nutritious main course. Sicilian Escarole Pie Around Easter, another favorite main course pie was "Pizza Rustica", a pie filled with meat and cheese. Go a little easy on this one because it is molto delicioso, but will have your beleaguered arteries begging for mercy. Pizza Rustica Recipe

When non-Italians think of "Italian" pasta, they think of the traditional macaroni with meat sauce eaten by many pisanos on Sunday afternoons. In fact, Italian pasta dishes are so much more versatile. There are many sauces used such as garlic and oil, cream sauces such as Carbonara GIORGIO’S SPAGHETTI CARBONARA and Alfredo, and of course vegetable sauces like Pesto and Primavera. PASTA PRIMAVERA Italian mothers improvised many dinners for cold winter nights mixing pasta with such diverse ingredients as cici beans, peas, potatoes, lentils, cannellini beans, lima beans, broccoli and broccoli rabe. These wonderful dishes filled the stomach, were very heart-healthy, and cost pennies a serving.

Being a people with a collective sweet tooth, desserts too were sometimes unique. A favorite of mine usually made around the holidays was honey balls or "Struffoli" as they are called. Struffoli (Honey Balls) Recipe These are a lot of work to make, but just wonderful to eat. "Cartellate" Cartellate (Fried Honey Spirals) are crisp pastry spirals that are drizzled with honey. They are sometimes called the "dahlias of Saint Nicholas" because of their color and shape and also their association with the nuns of the hospice for pilgrims of Saint Nicholas of Bari. I could not close without mentioning two of my favorite Italian cookies, Pignoli macaroons and Venetian Layered or tri-colored Cookies Italian Dessert Recipes

As we get older, unfortunately many foods go on the restricted list. This stinks. So many pleasures are denied to seniors; the least they could do is to let us eat!


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

Friday, June 19, 2009

My Kind of Town, Grassano is....

Both sets of my grandparents came from a small town in southern Italy called Grassano, which lies in the region of Basilicata in the province of Matera. In the year 968, the area that is now Grassano was part of the Byzantine Empire. During this period it was under Arabic control until the second half of the Tenth Century, and then, in 1048, became a Norman fortified town. In the fiftheenth century a Jewish community arose. The first documents showing the town name of Grassano were dated 1123. At this time, Grassano was a kind of suburb of the town of Tricarico. The inhabitants, called "Grassanesis", never loved this dependence, so they asked Ladislas the Magnanimous (King of Naples) for their independence. Grassano was declared an independent village on January 19, 1414. The town remains small to this day with a population of 5,792. Grassano's Patron Saint is Sant'Innocenzo, which I always understood to be the rough Italian equivalent of my name, James.

Like so many Italians, my grandparents sailed from the port of Naples between 1908 and 1912 and passed through the gates of Ellis Island in New York harbor. If your ancestors entered America the same way, you should visit Ellis Island; I promise you it will be worth your time. Also, their website contains valuable records and search tools for tracing your family's arrival. Ellis Island - FREE Port of New York Passenger Records Search On our last visit we saw a moving film on what the immigrant experience was like. While walking around, we wandered into a room that displayed posters of some of the great ships that travelled in and out of Ellis Island. One poster stopped me in my was an image of the ship "Brasille", (see photo left) the very same boat that brought my grandparents to America! I felt chills all over, as if Grandpa and Grandma were sending me a little message from beyond. I am so proud of my grandparents for having the courage to leave behind all that was familiar to them, and trying to create a better future for their families.

When immigrants like my grandparents arrived in this country, they weren't exactly welcomed with open arms. They banded together in small Italian-American enclaves in all the boroughs of New York city. The neighborhood parish was the center of their social life, and many magnificent churches were actually built by Italian men who possessed the skills of stone masons and brick layers learned in "the old country". Early Italian immigrants had one goal when they arrived in America: to assimilate. They adopted their new homeland passionately (the way Italians do most things). They strove to "blend in" not wanting their children to endure the treatment they suffered as "foreigners" in a new land. As we look back, we see how well they succeeded. While traces of prejudice toward Italian-Americans still linger, clearly we have made our mark on this country. We can point with pride to the children of immigrants who now occupy the highest places in medicine, government, education, science and the arts, but a price was paid for those gains.

In many Italian-American homes like mine, the Italian language was not spoken. Children were encouraged to speak English. The only time Italian was spoken was when the communication was not for our ears. My father's mother lived with us. She spoke no English, but we conversed in a fractured combination of English and Italian. I regret that Italian was not spoken in our home. Young children have an affinity for language, and it's much easier to learn as a youngster rather than as an adult. I studied Italian for three years in college, but it was taught in that painfully stilted way that focused on grammar rather than just conversation, and I remember virtually none of it today. This suppression of our Italian culture was not done maliciously, but was a sad side effect of the zeal with which Italian-Americans embraced their new homeland.

I am proud to be an Italian-American. As I grow older, I think I feel the tug of the old country more than ever. I want to stand on the soil of the country my grandparents left so many years ago. I want to breathe the air they breathed, to see the faces of the people. We are traveling to Italy for the first time this October, and I am very excited to be making the trip. All of us whose families immigrated from Italy should do what we can to reconnect to our roots, and encourage our children to do so. I recently joined an organization called the "Center for Italian-American Culture, Inc." based in New Jersey. I believe in their goals and their mission to celebrate the Italian-American culture. If you're interested, check out their website at or call them at (973) 571-1995 for membership information. Evviva Italia! (It means Long live Italy...I looked it up.)


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Introducing the Red Diamond

Glad to be back at the old blogspot... I've been away for a while as our contractors work diligently on our new bathroom. You would think having a bathroom remodeled would not be a big deal, after all, we have another bathroom downstairs and it is just the two of us living in the house. Guess again grasshopper. We had so much stuff packed into that bathroom and it is now in boxes all over the house. The work also kicks up a lot of dust as walls, ceilings and tiles come down to make room for the new. I can't complain too much; Joe and Anthony are very neat and talented workers who did a great job. Best of all the stuff we picked out all looks beautiful together, a happy outcome considering what it all cost.

I have to say that we didn't go hog wild in selecting components for our new bathroom. It was a real education for us to see the kind of stuff that's out there in terms of tubs, toilets, tile, vanities and accessories. If money was no object, one could easily spend $30,000 to $50,000 for a room whose function is very basic; when I was in the army, we just dug one with a shovel when the need arose. We shopped around at some nice places, probably a tad above average in terms of price and quality, but nowhere near the extremes one could go to. Here are some of the nifty things available to the discriminating shopper who never looks at price tags.

You just polished off a big bowl of bran flakes and two giant coffees. Like the great Al Bundy, you grab your newspaper and step into your "office". But instead of that old toilet with the seat that's chipped in exactly the wrong places, what do you behold? Why it's the Toto Neorest 550 Duel Flush Toilet. This baby has a heated, temperature-controlled seat, a lid that raises automatically as you approach it, a cyclone flushing system that operates on a sensor or by remote control, a nightlight and air deodorizer. It also has "warm water washing and drying functions"... what these are just boggles the imagination! Just think, you can do your business and then wait until you hit the kitchen before using the remote to activate the cyclone flushing system. Just like James Bond pulling the pin on a grenade and tossing it over his shoulder as he steps into his Aston-Martin. I can put your cold buns on the heated seat of this baby for a mere $5,259 and shipping is free!

Tired of that ugly aqua tub that came with your dream house? Meet the Red Diamond bathtub from Water Games Technologies, a new high in bath tub decadence. The screaming-red tub features multicolor, underwater lighting, a computer-controlled heating system that maintains your desired water temperature, an automatic disinfection system and built-in massager. Of course it comes with two retractable HDTVs, crystal champagne holder, and built-in GSM module that lets you call your bathtub and get things ready for some splashy time from afar. So grab your rubber ducky, write a check for $47,000 and the Red Diamond is all yours.

OK, I can tell from the way the blood has drained from your face that you're not Red Diamond material, how about a nice shower? The folks at Moen abhor the term "shower", instead they refer to it as a "chrome digital vertical spa"...I swear, you can look it up. This system features four programmable temperatures, flow and custom presets, a bright LED screen that displays exact temperature and spray outlet, 7" diameter rainshower showerhead, a four-function handheld showerhead that provides a superior shower experience (gee, I always thought of it as just getting clean), four body sprays and an optional remote control with up to 30 feet of range. The Moen chrome digital vertical spa goes for a mere $2600, and that's just for the controls; it does not include the cost of the shower enclosure!

And now, with as much delicacy as I can muster, which, let's face it is not much, let's talk toilet paper. Tired of that cheap Wal Mart paper with the hunks of wood in it? Well the people at Revona bath products make a toilet paper that is truly worthy of your tender butt. These toilet paper rolls come in four colors, are said to be soft and silky, and more importantly, cost enough to make you feel special. It’s $13 to $20 for a three-pack, which arrives in a tube of similar color. Or, you can also order a regular pack of six, wrapped in plastic, which goes for $13 to $15. I'll bet you can't wait to polish off that Taco Bell burrito special just so you can tear open a roll.

When space aliens discover the remains of our planet, they might wonder what caused the civilization to fail. They only have to go back to the time of the Romans for the answer. Various reasons are suggested for the downfall of Rome. I think it was when they started upgrading perfectly functional bathrooms by installing lavish and expensive add-ons like marble tile and flowing fountains. For our civilization there is a parallel; the Red Diamond bath tub is clearly the beginning of the end for life as we know it.


Children's Craniofacial Association

Monday, June 1, 2009

"And Make It Snappy!"

Why are we always in such a hurry? I know that Type-A New Yorkers are especially susceptible to the need to do things fast. We talk fast, eat fast, and drive as if our very lives depend on getting to the next red light faster than anyone else. After a while, we can't function any other way, not only that, but we lose patience with others who don't move as fast as we think they should. I do a lot of shopping in New Jersey, and sometimes I feel like screaming when the cashiers take what seems like forever to complete your transaction. New Yorkers, when they return from vacation to anywhere else in the world all say the same thing: "God those people are slow. I'd go crazy living there!"

Every day on the radio I hear a commercial for speed-reading. "You can read ten books in the time it takes someone else to read one!" Reading is supposed to be a pleasurable activity; when did it become a race? One of the most enjoyable experiences in life is to sit quietly with a good book and let the author capture your imagination. I remember as a kid discovering the joy of reading and how it could enlighten, entertain, excite and even anger you. Reading was your ticket to places and times you would never know in any other way. The objective of reading a good book should not be to get to the end as quickly as possible, but to be affected in some way by the experience. Don't be deprived of this by the need for speed.

I drive into Manhattan five times a week. The main route to the Verrazano Bridge, our way off Staten Island, is via Hylan Boulevard. This is a good secondary road with the traffic lights timed to allow commuters to make their way to the bridge without stopping if they travel at around 40 miles an hour. Nice easy ride, right? Wrong. Every day, without fail, there are morons trying to pass you on the right, tailgating, making high-speed and risky lane changes to get the next light which is still red because these jerks exceed the speed at which the lights are timed to change. As I get onto the bridge, I see the same jerks next to me because, unless they are prepared to run red lights, which some do by the way, they can't get there any faster for all their zig-zagging. My solution...warn them once, if they get caught a second time, lobotomize them.

One of the funnier comics around is a guy named Brian Reagan. He does a dead-on impression of a New Yorker on an elevator waiting for the doors to close. The guy stands there fidgeting and jabbing the "Door Close" button muttering: "C'mon, c'mon, c'mon, CLOSE dammit! This is not a made-up joke, but rather an astute observation of Type A behavior. These nuts will also sometimes pass their hand back and forth across the elevator threshold, or bounce up and down in the car trying to "fool" the elevator into thinking more people just got on, and that it's now OK to slide the doors closed.

Domino's Pizza has a policy that states: "If your pizza does not arrive within 30 minutes, it's free." Is this plasma the guy's delivering? Should we put a siren and flashing lights on the delivery car so some fat f**k won't have to wait more than a half-hour for his pizza? Maybe the police need a new summons type: "Failure to yield the right of way to a Domino's pizza truck". Memo to Domino's: Stop endangering lives by trying to honor this stupid policy. Take your time, make a better pizza and, what the hell, take up to an hour to deliver it. I'm sure Vito can snack on some Ho-Ho's while he waits.

Remember going to the bank and speaking to a teller who knew you and your family? You exchanged small talk about the weather and your weekend plans while she cashed your check or accepted your deposit. The wait wasn't that long because the bank had plenty of tellers. Then came the dreaded ATM. I'll admit that ATMs are convenient after hours and on weekends when banks don't have hours, but that's all they have going for them. It started slowly...the banks rationalized the elimination of personal service by claiming that not having to pay tellers would save customers money. Then they started charging ATM fees or demanding minimum balances to avoid them, so where's the savings? Now people don't even get out of their cars, they lurch up to the outdoor ATM, snatch their money and speed away. No more pleasant smiles at the teller window, and thousands of jobs eliminated when we need them most.

I know New York will never be Mayberry, but sometimes I think we've gone too far in our quest for more and more speed. The pace of life seems too hectic, what with e-mail, cell phones, fast food, fast-forwarding through the commercials on a TV show you DVR''s insane. We need to slow it down a bit and restore some of the civility that went South when we forgot about small courtesies and how to enjoy little things like having a word with your neighbor or the mail carrier. Someday I hope to have a house with a porch, to me, the very symbol of slow and easy. A porch is sitting in the rocker enjoying a glass of lemonade on a hot day, maybe reading a book while listening to the ballgame on the radio. If I could, I'd just dive into one of those classic Norman Rockwell paintings of Americana and live there.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association