My grandfather’s process for making bread, or my favourite breadsticks, taralli, had one crucial step: get up early. When the sky was still dark blue, if not black, the dough would be formed and he could get in breakfast, a check in on the garden and maybe a nap while waiting for it to rise.
When my family and I insisted that we learn how to make taralli from him – and that meant really measuring out the ingredients and writing down the steps that were all in his head – he said “no.” I’d never be able to get up early enough he told me. We would start too late and the whole day would be lost. I made him promise to at least do the recipe on a Saturday, which he agreed to (and kept that promise, he was liable to just pick any day he felt like), and I did my best to surprise him by arriving on time. Even on time, we knocked on the door, our eyelids still heavy, and he was already done his second coffee for the day. Evidently, we were already behind.
As much as I may have surprised him by my dedication to get up early, when he took us down to the basement kitchen to start the process, we got our own surprise. We insisted on measuring the ingredients, not once but twice to be sure. If he said a “handful of fennel seeds” we made him fill his hand full then pour it into a measuring cup. When we asked how much flour, he said proudly that he does measure the flour. He pulled out his measuring cup. He used an empty margarine container to scoop out the flour! My mother and I looked at each other, each with the immediate thought: how many cups in a margarine container? And so the measuring, and re-measuring continued.
I get so many emails from readers saying how thrilled they are to see old recipes here on the blog and those still searching for recipes or trying to translate them from the Italian they remember. Nonno or Nonna might still be able to tell you a recipe or you may have inherited the scribbled, stained notebook from a kitchen. Either way you’ll most likely hear one of these:
un pizzico / a pinch
circa… / around…
nu pugnu / a handful
quanto ne prende / whatever it takes
Today I’m hoping for spring. The newscaster on the radio yesterday said that by this point in this crazy winter, we’ve shovelled more than 100cm of snow. And this weekend the big melt is on. There’s a puddle the size of an Olympic swimming pool at the end of my driveway, we nearly lost the dog in it.
While I don’t trust that winter is over, the water tells me spring is on the way and that means sunshine, more time outdoors and fresh spring vegetables. The best of those is peas, and while I prefer them raw, sweet and small right out of the pod, they are a great addition to meals as well, like in pasta piselli in bianco (pasta with peas in a “white” sauce).
When I was a kid, I could make myself sick on raw peas. Early on a Saturday morning, my mom and grandparents would disappear for a few hours and come back with bushels of peas in their bright green pods. We would sit in the shade of the front porch, metal bowls in our laps, shellling the pods one by one and listening to the peas hit the bowl with a satisfying “ping, ping, ping.” At first I would be excited to help: I was usually eating more raw peas than were making it into the bowl. But an hour into it, the conversation waned, my stomach was full and my fingernails were lined with green. I would squirm in my seat, hoping to be excused. No such luck – this was a family affair, through and through. When we were finally done, we would freeze the peas and have them for the whole year – there was nothing better.
These days, I go to a nearby farm where they do the shelling for you and flash freeze the sweet peas. A few weeks ago, I shared a pasta piselli recipe that was traditional to my family, using tomato sauce. Now, here’s another common recipe also employed by parents and grandparents as a quick dish that kids generally love: pasta piselli in bianco. “In bianco” means “in white”, or in a white sauce, without tomatoes. While you can use frozen peas, fresh peas are always the best. The recipe is quick, easy and fresh: to be served in the bright sunshine of spring.
Pasta Piselli in Bianco
200g mini shell dry pasta (100g per person)
1 cup peas, fresh or frozen
1 medium onion, chopped
50g pancetta (or bacon. Use however much you have around.)
Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, grated
L’amore domina senza regole.
Love rules without rules.
The thing about writing about Italian traditions is that they are so ingrained that sometimes, we don’t even know the original reason as to why they developed or why they’ve continued. Not that we love the traditions any less – usually they mean we get to spend time with family and friends and celebrate. Who needs an excuse for that? But Valentine’s Day, or in Italian Il giorno della festa degli innamorati, certainly must come from an Italian Saint right, San Valentino perhaps?
I started looking up why Valentine’s Day started and there’s a mix of stories about Italian saints in jail, saints marrying couples in secret, Italian spring festivals, the day when birds pair up for mating, and so on. None of them really hold up, since clearly this isn’t even remotely a religious festival anymore. In the end, despite its’ supposed saintly origins, Valentine’s Day is celebrated in Italy just as much the same as it is celebrated here in North America – heart-shaped boxes of candy, gifts and treating the one you love to a really good meal.
One of the more recent traditions in Italy to declare your love does have a clear origin though. People have taken to locking padlocks to bridges, railings and lamp posts. These are called Lucchetti dell’Amore or “Locks of Love.” This tradition started eight years ago after the release of a best-selling book, and subsequent movie, “Ho voglio di te” (I want you). In the story the main couple, trying to symbolize that they will be together forever, tie a chain and a padlock around a lamppost on the north side of Rome’s Ponte Milvio (a bridge) and inscribe their names on it, lock it and throw the key into the Tiber River.
Spread throughout Italy, and now Europe and North America, scads of locks have appeared on bridges in many cities (in fact, the picture above is from a bridge I found in Helsinki, Finland). Though most cities will eventually remove the locks or ban them all together for ruining the aesthetic of the city, people continue to add locks to new and interesting places to declare their love, as permanently as they can. By 2007, that same lamppost from the inspiring movie reportedly collapsed due to the weight of the locks attached to it (see the picture below!).
In a way, the locks don’t surprise me. One Italian “tradition” is to always be open, honest and loud about your love. Love for family, your partner, food, life, you name it. So this Valentine’s Day join me in just being full of Italian love, no matter who (or what!) you declare it to. You may want to put a padlock on your favourite park bench or bridge or you may just want to yell it from the rooftops. Here’s a few key Italian phrases to use this love-filled weekend:
Pizzica e basa non fannu pertusa.
Little pinches and kisses don’t make holes (or do any harm).
Il primo amore non si scorda mia.
You never forget your first love.
Quella destinata per te, nessuno la prendera. (Dialect)
No one will take the one who is destined for you. (Meaning: True love waits)
Chi te vole bene te fa chiagne, chi te vole male te fa ride. (Dialect)
The one who loves you makes you cry, the one who wishes you ill makes you laugh.
Years back, we took a family trip to Italy for over a month. We basked in the sun, visited relatives, ate to our hearts content and struck out on road trips every so often.
Our relatives were amused that we recognized and knew all their foods and favourite meals. After travelling it was great to have some comfort food too. There’s something about being away from home that heightens our taste buds. Their patate fritte, though just like my Nonno’s, tasted fresher and more vibrant. Why? Who knows, but I still remember it well.
Well into our trip, we travelled from my mom’s small hometown to a nearby city to do some shopping. As the afternoon closure of shops approached, we grabbed some quick street food for our ride back. Among the typical southern Italian quick eats, like arancini, were crocchette di patate (potato croquettes). Have I mentioned I love potatoes? But these I have never tried before! I scarfed down two in record time. They were so good and I was so ticked off. I was convinced my mom had withheld this recipe, this glorious form of potato, from our regular Italian meals.
This food memory stayed with me for years and a few times I’ve tried to make great crocchette just like I remember them. My husband’s family makes a lightly pan-fried version of this, stuffing the middle with a chunk of mozzarella. Having something hidden in the middle is always a nice surprise, but I just love the potatoes, so I tried out this recipe until I found a mix that I loved. Crunchy on the outside, creamy and rich on the inside, these crocchette are great as a side dish or a snack.
Crocchette di patate
3 medium potatoes
1/4 cup Parmiggiano Reggiano (grated)
1/4 cup mozzarella (shredded)
1/8 cup chopped parsley
1 tablespoon cool water
salt and pepper to taste
1 1/4 cup breadcrumbs
canola or vegetable oil for frying
In my memories, I often see my mom’s parents (who lived next door) in a low blue light. They always waited until the last minute of daylight to reach for the light switch, letting the long shadows of afternoons find their way into their kitchen. Their basement kitchen, where everything was coloured brown, relied on two small windows near the ceiling to let in the sun. Late afternoon to dusk was when I was called over for dinner and so the coolness of the darkened rooms during summer was an escape. But when company came over at night, the blazing yellow bulbs in the kitchen light fixture coloured everything with warmth.
When I remembered by grandparents making this frittata di spaghetti, my mind didn’t see the bright lights on over their stove like I have now in my attempts to get every dish they used to make for me right. I saw refreshing afternoon darkness and my Nonna giving the frittata its’ sweet time in the frying pan while my grandparents talked or read at the kitchen table. My Nonno used to affectionately call this frittata “spaghetti pie.” The name was ridiculous coming from him, but that was part of the charm of the dish. With its’ silly English name, I always thought he had come up with some new way I would like pasta that was more Canadian than Italian. Not so – this is really just a classic frittata with just a different ingredient inside.
If you search the internet for “spaghetti pie” (and I don’t recommend that you do) you get a lot of baked, gooey, overdone dishes that don’t appeal to me at all. The joy of this dish is in its’ crunchy exterior, the appreciation for the time needed to get it crunchy and the ability to share it easily and eat it by hand if you want. Made with leftover pasta most of the time, it’s another example of making sure nothing goes to waste. Best of all, it’s an easy dish to throw together that tastes good cold as well, so Nonno would pack it up in foil, a slice each, for picnics and fishing trips. How else can you eat pasta lakeside while waiting for your dinner to take the bait?
Frittata di Spaghetti
200g dry pasta / 400g cooked pasta (al dente)
3 large eggs
1 cup mozzerella, shredded
1/4 cup Parmiggiano Reggiano, grated
salt and pepper to taste
I seem to find pieces of Italy no matter where I go. This antique postcard from 1905 called to me at vintage paper show at first because I thought it was an image of some sort of cave for hanging prosciutto (see those sacks hanging from the ceiling?). But the description on the bottom and a little more digging found that it’s a photo of something much more special.
The text below the photo reads: Monte Pellegrino, L’Interno della grotto di S. Rosalia
Santa (Saint) Rosalia was a nun in the 12th century that opted for the life of a hermit, living in a cave on Monte Pellegrino in Palermo, Sicily for years before her death around the age of 30. She lived her whole life praying and devoting herself to God. Admirable as that is, she came to fame centuries later. The story goes that people of Palermo used to have four saints they prayed to, all which failed them miserably during a bout of the plague in the 1600s. Rosalia, who soon became a saint, cured it when she appeared to a citizen of Palermo and requested her bones be found and given a proper Christian burial. Her bones were located high on the mountain in her cave, a formal procession was held and the plague finally lifted. Her grotto (cave) became a place of saintly worship.
Pilgrims now climb Monte Pellegrino to pray and ask for the curing of ailments. The entrance is a Baroque facade, but beyond the doors, you step right into Santa Rosalia’s grotto. Those crazy planks running across the ceiling are a guttering system, capturing the water that drips constantly into the cave and channeling it off and away from pilgrims. Visitors leave gifts of jewellery and precious things, even silver charms that are likenesses of body parts for which they need help.
Pictures of the grotto today are not much different that this postcard from 1905. Whether in a mountainside or here in Canada, the hidden gems of Italy always amaze!