Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Glorious Limoncello!

A delicious drink after dinner, before dinner, or for no reason at all. Limoncello is easy to make at home. You'll be surprised what you can accomplish with a few lemons, some vodka(or everclear), water, and a little sugar.

15-20 lemons
2 (750-ml) bottles 80-proof vodka or everclear. Buy cheap...not Grey Goose necessary!
4-6 cups water
2-4 cups sugar

Wash and dry the lemons. Only use the ones without blemished peels or pare off any spots and the stems, ends. Remove the peel from the lemons with a sharp peeler or fine grater, carefully avoiding the bitter white pith. If any white pith remains on the back of a strip of peel, scrape it off. If you get any of the white part in the batch, the limoncello will be bitter.

Put the peels in a glass jar(glass is key. Plastic jars leave a funny taste) and add the vodka and/or Everclear about two inches below the top and seal tightly. Leave the jar to steep in a cool, dark place until the peels lose their color, at least 2 weeks.

Put the water and sugar in a saucepan, stir and slowly boil until it turns clear. Let the syrup cool

Pour the Lemon & Vodka mix through a colander into the cooled sugar water. It will turn yellow. Let sit for 20-30 minutes.
Add to clean, hinged, resealable bottles and place in the freezer.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Mascarpone Cheese and Fig Preserve

This is one of my favorite recipes for a great and very easy dessert.

Mascarpone Cheese - you'll find it in a plastic container about the size of a cream cheese.

Fig Preserve - Harder to find...try a gourmet store or a higher end wine shop with a market.

1. Place all the Mascarpone cheese into a bowl.
2. Mix in 1/2 of the fig preserve (you can adjust, but start with a little and add to taste). Less is usually more.

Mix well and place in fridge for an hour or so.

Serve with bread sliced into bruschetta sized slices. Toast them if you like.

This is great for dessert or breakfast.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Vatican looking for the next Michelangelo

Today's masters came to be through great work commissioned by rich patrons and most importantly the church in Rome. Think of the collection of masterpieces you can enjoy in the Holy See. Michelangelo, DaVinci, Bernini, Raphael, Caravaggio, and many more.

Well, you may see some of our contemporary artists added to the list. The Church will be holding a good, old-fashioned, commission earning contest. The goal is to have artists refresh spiritual art. The winner will be chosen by the Holy See and a team of art critics and artists. The theme of the project will be to give the competing artists a theme like light, suffering, or death, or something more direct like David.

I'm interested to learn that the Church is looking for wealthy patrons to sponsor the artists and the artwork to the tune of $1,000,000.00 or so...maybe more. I can't wait to see who steps up.

At the end of the day we may end up with inspired work done in fresco, sculpture, mosaic, or oil.

The Church is concerned about the loss of "figuration" or the artistic rendering of religious themes or Saints that the world has come to recognize...think of David with sword in hand and head underfoot, Saint Longinus with his spear, Saint Peter with his keys, the Annunciation with Saint Gabriel and Blessed Mary.

I read the plan is to have the Church educate people on modern interpretation of these age old themes. It will be interesting to see just how flexible the Church will be at the end of the day.
I'm a huge fan of the Renaissance masters, but am excited to see what this competition yields.

I'll keep you posted on what I find out in the year to come.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Enoteca Cul-de-Sac a Roma

For a great taste of Italy dine at Cul-de-Sac in Rome. It is near Piazza Navona and has a great menu. They specialize in wine, cheese, and salami, but have a great list of dishes for each course.

This is a great place to enjoy different wines and cheese from throughout Italy and France. I recommend going for dinner, but get there a bit early to get a seat. You can take the wine with you if you have any left over.

In addition to the great wine list you can try grappas, cognacs, and much more. The price is right, the options are plentiful, and the good divine.
Here are some of the dishes on their standard menu. They also offer specials daily.
Sun dried tomatoes in olive oil
Bean soup
Too many cheeses to mention...a great and rich list

Check out their website. It's in Italian, but easy to read.

Their address is:
Enoteca Cul DeSac Piazza Pasquino, 73 00100 - Roma Tel. 06/68801094 - google maps will show you exactly where it is...only a few steps from Piazza Navona.

This would be a great place to start your Rome at Night tour via Unabellavista.

Monday, September 15, 2008

So much more than a ceiling

The Sistine Chapel is so much more than a ceiling. It is dripping with the handywork of Italy's masters from start to finish. The walls are covered by not only Michelangelo (obviously the ceiling, but also the Altar wall with his Last Judgement), but also with Perugino, Rosselli, Botticelli, Signorelli, and Ghirlandaio.

The chapel was built by Sixtus IV and is named after him. His nephew, Pope Julius II, went on to put on the ceiling with the help of Michelangelo. Pope Paul III asked Michelangelo to paint the Altar wall.

Sixtus IV wasn't getting along with Florence and the Medici too well. By a show of peace and putting it behind them Florence and Lorenzo sent a team of his, or rather, the city's masters to decorate the wall of the chapel. Did they ever!
One wall is decorated with the life of Jesus. The other wall is painted with the life of Moses. They are glorious panels that are worthy of a visit alone. Throw in Michelangelo's work and well...you have the Sistine Chapel.
Michelangelo's ceiling is the book of Genesis painted with prophets and ancestors of Christ. He also decided to add 10 shields in alternating sections with another biblical story line. Oh, for good measure this was his first real commission in fresco never having done one of this magnitude previously. He also painted the stories of David & Goliath, Judith and Holofernes, the Crucifixion of Hanaan, and the Brazen Serpent. His Last Judgement shows Jesus in a whole new light. He painted popes too; starting with Saint Peter and ending with Pope Felix I.
When in Rome you must visit the Sistine Chapel. Don't rush and don't just look up. Be sure to enjoy the walls. You won't be disappointed.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Vera Pizza only in Italy and one place in Chicago!

Pizza, the real deal, can only be found in Italy. The pizza there cannot be compared to anything we have here in the U.S. Like the wine and cheese of the boot, the pizza also has a quality control method to insure that it is made with exactly the right ingredients and process.

Don't get me wrong; I love Chicago and NY style pizza. They're delicious, but quite a bit different than what is found in Italy.

The original pizza can only be found in Napoli. Pizza Margherita is made with dough, tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, and basil. It is named after Margherita of Savoy and has the colors of the Italian flag. She is buried in the Pantheon in Rome.

The true process of pizza making is standardized by the Associazione vera pizza napoletana. They even offer courses to learn the proper way to make it for individuals or businesses.

Here is how the real deal is made and it is delicious.

1. dough from scratch made from wheat flour (type 0, 00 or a mixture)

2. Neapolitan yeast

3. water.

4. kneeded by hand

5. after rising, formed by hand...no rolling pin and only 3mm thick

6. dressed with only red sauce, mozzarella, and basil.

7. baked in brick oven for 90 seconds at 485 degrees.

You will often find olive oil with hot red pepper flakes soaked in it to drizzle over the pizza. It is amazing and a great touch.
If you live in Chicago you can try the real deal, certified pizza at Spacca Napoli. Go often! Don't forget to try the chocolate gelato with spicy red pepper...OMG, it's amazing.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

31 Days of Italians & JT Mancuso

Are you Italian? Do you love the Italian culture? You must visit http://home.earthlink.net/~31italians/ to get the scoop on the many and great contributions of Italians. Each day in October JT Mancuso will post an achievement of note. Check it out...you'll be impressed by what we, from the boot, have contributed stateside.

I would also like to share her entire site. Ms. Mancuso has done a great job of organizing all things Italian with great links to other sites, book reviews, and, of course, great Italian food. Her website is http://www.jtmancuso.com/ you'll be happy you saved it in your favorites.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The only Gothic church in Rome

Rome is a city of magnificent churches. Each one of them has a character all its own. In the center of Rome near the Pantheon and Piazza Navona are a collection of churches that are worthy of a full day enjoying. The churches of note are the Pantheon, Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, Gesu, and Saint Ignazio.

All of the majesty of Rome's churches comes through with these. However, there is only one Gothic church in Rome and it is steps away from the Pantheon. If you are looking at the doors of the Pantheon in Piazza della Rotunda with the fountain at your back walk to the left of the Pantheon about 50 feet. You'll see an ancient Egyptian Obelisk atop an elephant. This is Bernini's work and marks the piazza in front of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva.

Minerva has work by the hand of Michelangelo, Fra Angelico, and Bernini to name a few. Michelangelo's Risen Christ is at the altar. Christ was originally naked, but has since been covered by a garland for modesty. An unnecessary touch, but done nonetheless. This is one of the few Michelangelo sculptures you will enjoy withouth a huge crowd at your back or without a reservation.
Santa Maria Sopra Minerva translates to Santa Maria over Minerva. Originally this church was a temple to Minerva for the ancient Romans.
What is Gothic? One of Europe's most famous Gothic Church is Notre Dame in Paris and it is a shining and beautiful example. Italy's most impressive Gothic Church is in Milan. It seems to rise from the earth and shoot to Paradise.

Some key features of Gothic architecture are Flying Buttresses - struts from the nave, Pinnacle - pointed caps, Gothic rib - where the point of arches are the same height as the vault's crown.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Win a free stay in Rome from Venere.com

Check out the details on this link...watch a video, answer a few short questions, and you're in the running.

Good luck!

Italian v American cuisine and lifestyle

In Italy dining is an event. The day starts with a very light breakfast of a roll, some cheese, maybe a chocolate roll, some espresso, and fruit. There are no huge skillets to be found.
Lunch is a great break in the day and is usually the larger meal. It takes around 1.5 hours to dine on multiple, realistic sized portions. Wine is enjoyed at lunch and is a social event between friends and family. Many Italians go home for lunch, but in the larger cities many eat out at restaurants.
Dinner is really an epic event. Dining starts around 7 or 8 and lasts 2-3 hours.
It is hard to find candy bars, chips, and other junk food. I'm sad to write that it is becoming more available these days. A snack in italy is gelato, a slice of pizza, a light panini, or fresh fruit.
I rec'd the above email from a friend. I'm not sure where he found it, but the subject line read, "after two years Michelangelo's David returns from the U.S." I'm afraid to admit it, but it is true. Two years here eating McDonalds and other junk food this is what the result would be.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Time to jar the tomatoes

This is one of my favorite times of the year. The tomatoes are growing ripe and ready to be picked. The mornings and nights are chilly. And soon, after 2 days of hard, but fun work, I get to restock my shelves with my Nonna's homemade tomatoes.

The key is fresh tomatoes, some pickling salt, and basil. I can't give out the entire recipe, but can talk about the process. It's a family secret you know?

Each bushel yields around 10-12 jars of tomatoes, give or take.
1. Tomatoes

2. Boil water

3. Pour boiling water over tomatoes

4. Fish them out with a slotted spoon.

5. Peel skin off. Simply flick the tomato with your finger and the skin pops, then peel.

6. cut in half and squeeze out the seeds into a cone colander.

7. flatten each skinned half or quartered tomato.

8. Add pickling salt to the mason jar.

9. Add a layer of tomatoes

10. Add fresh basil

11. Repeat steps 9 & 10.

12. When jar gets half full use a wooden spoon, the non spoon end to push down the tomatoes and release any trapped air.

13. Fill to the top, and place a basil leaf, then add wax sealing lid.

14. To seal, add jars to boiling water until seal pops shut. Place in a cool dry place and check their seal. Any that didn't seal are no good and must be eaten right away. The others are good to go into the cellar.

Now for the tomatoes in the cone colander.

1. Add all the excess stuff.

2. Push down often to extract all the juices.

3. As the juices come through you'll pour it through a cloth that is tied tightly over a clean bucket.

4. When all the tomato juice has been pushed through the cloth you'll add salt and boil in a pot.

5. This makes, in essence, tomato juice that can be added to your tomato fillets when cooking.

This jarring process makes the tomatoes a bit salty so no need to add much when cooking. In fact don't add any more at all. It is a great base for any Italian tomato based sauce or dish.

The key is to reduce it until the tomatoes melt in your mouth, but still hold their shape in the bowl. A skill that will take years to master. My Nonna did it perfectly, but it has taken her a lifetime to master.

Be sure to follow a specific recipe to get great tomatoes. This is only meant to give you an indication of how the process works.
One final note about my Nonna. At her age she had more energy than the entire family put together. She was always the first one up to get started, always the last one standing, and it seemed effortless to her. I miss her dearly and my tomatoes will never be the same without her.

Ciao Nonna :)

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Ahhhh, Siena. Rome's sister city.

The founding of Siena has its roots in the founding of Rome. Rome was founded by Remus and Romulus. Remus was killed by his brother Romulus. When Remus died his two sons fled Rome to safety. When the did they had stolen a statue of the She-wolf suckling the twins. Their names were Senius and Aschius. As they fled north they were protected by a white cloud during the day and a black cloud at night. She takes her name from Senius.

The colors black and white are present everywhere in Siena...namely the Duomo that carries the two colors throughout its facade. The flag of Siena is also black and white. The city's crest is called Balzana. You will also see the statue of Rome's She-wolf throughout Siena.

Siena was a city that survived and flourished without access to water for trade. Instead her money came to the city from the road that went from Rome to Paris named Via Francigena. Most travelers stopped in Siena for the night so like today much of the city's money comes from travelers.

Siena was also a banking city. It was the official bank of the Vatican and today you will still see signs for the Bank of Siena...the oldest bank in Italy. There are silver mines around Siena in the countryside.

Like most towns in Tuscany Siena was most often at war with Florence. Unfortunately, Florence won and controlled Siena. Today you can still see the Medici Walls and Medici Crest around the city of Siena. The famous poet Dante fought against Siena with Florence.

Siena is a fantastic place to visit and call home while visiting Tuscany. I prefer to stay in Siena and take day trips to Florence and other hilltowns. The food is wonderful, the people are amazing, and it is, per capita, one of Italy's wealthiest cities.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Cellini almost died by the head of Medusa

Cellini was a goldsmith and bronze sculptor from Florence. He was creating the famed Perseus and Medusa now in the Loggia of Florence. During the casting process he nearly died.

As he poured the molten metal into the cast of his Medusa and Perseus his studio caught fire. He and his assistants fought so hard to prevent it from burning down he caught a terrible fever. He lay in bed for three days fearful of death due to his fever.

One of his assistants came to him saying, "Poor Benvenuto (Cellini), all is lost." This news enraged Cellini. He let out a yell he claimed could be heard throughout Italy. He jumped from bed with his terrible fever to assess the damage to his statue.

The metal had cooled and didn't set properly. It has a rough look and almost looked as if it couldn't be saved. Cellini began to reheat the metal. He bought oak from a carpenter down the street and reheated the cast to a liquid. The damage done during the first pour reduced the amount of salvageable metal. As it turned to a liquid he knew he wouldn't have enough for the entire pour. He had his servants bring all the pewter in his entire house adding it to the molten liquid.

He worked so hard for so long that he forgot about his fever, his asssistants worked as hard doing the work of three men per person.

Cellini poured and saved his masterpiece.

He wrote about the entire process in his autobiography. It is one of the better reads about life and work in Renaissance Italy from the hand of a master.
The image of Cellini is from the walkway near the Uffizi in Florence.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The cells at San Marco in Florence

Fra Angelico was a Dominican at San Marco in Florence. The artwork he painted on the walls is a must see while visiting Bella Firenze. A short walk from Michelangelo's David you'll enjoy a view into the life of a Dominican Friar, understand how they lived their lives, and enjoy some of the world's most beautiful frescoes.

The work isn't created in a consistant narrative, but rather, a view into the belief system of the friars. Each room or cell has a fresco that the friar would study while in his bed chamber. The fresco delivers a message on the value system of the Dominicans. Each fresco contains a scene from the life or passion of Christ. Many of these frescoes place Saint Dominic in the scene.

Saint Dominic was the founder of the order and placed three critical components to the life and values to each friar. 1 - live in poverty, 2 - education, 3 - be good to everyone.

The Dominicans didn't beg. They chose to spend their time in study. Those that were less intellectual spent time in the trades. Fra Angelico dedicated his life to art. He only painted religious scenes, would weep as he painted a crucifixion scene, and lived his life in poverty dedicated to the order.

San Marco has cells meant for only the brothers to see. They did paint scenes in the common areas where guests would be able to see the artwork. One of my favorite, non-cell, paintings is of the Annunciation at the top of the stairs as you enter the cells. This is a public image, but it is unlikely non-brothers would see it since it was placed in the hallway of the sleeping quarters.

The Altarpiece is one of the common area paintings and contains the Virgin Mary, Jesus, Saint Dominic, Saint Francis, Saint Cosmas and Saint Damian. Cosmas and Damian were the family Saints of the Medici and since the Medici family funded the rebuilding of San Marco their patron Saints were included in the Altarpiece.

Be sure to spend at least 2-3 hours here to fully enjoy the artwork, get a feel of the life of the Dominicans, and enjoy a brief step back into life in Renaissance Florence.