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!
It’s the simplest recipes that sometimes hold the dearest spot in an Italian kid’s heart. Pasta piselli is a classic, simple dish that just about every Nonna serves up to grandkids for lunch or dinner, particularly for picky eaters. It’s hard to get little feet to stop running around long enough to get some food in them. From my memory, the conversation with Nonna goes something like this:
“What do you want to eat?”
“Do you want pasta?”
“Do you want pasta piselli?”
There are two versions of pasta piselli – with sauce and without – but we’ll start with the one my Nonna made. Adding peas to a regular pasta dish does something: it adds a pop of unexpected sweetness and, I image, is a great way to get vegetables into a little one. When you grow up, pasta piselli is a simple pleasure, an easy home cooking twist that infuses an ordinary dish with a little history and love (yes, all that from a few peas!). Don’t believe me? Try it for yourself.
200 gr of pasta (100 grams per person)
1 cup fresh or frozen peas
Four days before Christmas, I found myself in my cold, dark basement counting jars of food. We had just lost power and it was clear it was going to be out for days. While it’s not the way I wanted to start my Christmas holidays, it was time to take stock of how much preserving we’d done throughout the year. I was never happier to count mason jars.
In 2012, I wrote a post all about why I love keeping up the traditional methods of preserving food, including knowing where you food is coming from and making your food go farther for your money and your effort. I wrote:
“This year, we’re trying out some preserving methods we’ve done before (like sausages and tomatoes) and stretching our muscles on the lesser-used methods like potato and meat sausages, green tomatoes, crushed olives and more.”
Thanks to writing for my blog, and a family that enjoys these projects, I got to try and document these preserving methods. We also preserve food by batch cooking meals like lasagna or eggplant parmesan and freezing them for use later. And they came in handy! The blackout caused by a massive ice storm lasted for four days in my neighbourhood. With temperatures at -10 degrees Celsius and below, the house dark and our phone service even lost, we were in urban survival mode.
We took a drive to where there was power and found lineups for gas, stores our of wood, salt and shovels, and restaurants either closed or having hired security at the door to monitor the crowds scrambling to get food. Turns out it was safer at home in the cold. While others were lining up for Big Macs, we took a flashlight to the shelves in the basement, our makeshift “cantina”, to wrangle up our food. Meals meant cracking open our mason jars and getting out a sharp knife. We had olives and sundried tomatoes with taralli and slices of sopprasatta and cheese. We also had preserved eggplant and pestos spread on bread. Sausages from the freezer were wrapped in foil and thrown into the fireplace for a quick cook. We even cooked lasagna (also from the freezer) on the barbecue.
House lights and the hum of furnances finally woke up our neighbourhood on Christmas Eve. Relieved, we quickly got to work getting our Christmas Eve meal of seafood on the table and we counted our blessings to be in a warm house with all of our family.For others, including my parents, it would be almost another 48 hours before power came back on in their house.
I’m proud of my heritage and its appreciation for food. I understand now, more than ever, why it is important. So lessons from this harsh (pioneer) Christmas were learned. I have neighbours and relatives that are stocking up now for the next emergency (we need to get some firewood too!). What about you? Ready to try some preserving this year? Here’s some recipes from the last two years to get you started: