Friday, March 30, 2012

cultural differences as seen in the making of a frittata

We were making a frittata (a cooked egg and vegetable plate that in the U.S. is frequently baked and eaten for breakfast.  Here, it's a lunch staple, served at room temperature) and we got into our normal frittata disagreement.  Every time I make one, Manuel takes a bite, proclaims it delicious, pauses, and states, "It still doesn't taste like my Grandma's".  After a few months of this, I simply changed my attitude, shrugged, and laughingly said, "Fine, then YOU make the frittata."
He made two that he said were more similar to his grandmother's, and the next time I stood over his shoulder, observing.  They were good, but denser, flatter and heavier then mine, which were more like a omelette.

He started with what seemed to be a half cup of olive oil and a solid spoonful of salt as he sauteed the zucchini and leeks.  I cringed.
As he stirred the eggs, he started grating cheese - parmigiano - and as I went to move the bowl, I noticed he wasn't stopping after grating a large, soft mountain of cheese.  I shuddered, watching the eggs turn white with an almost equal proportion of cheese.
Finally, I peeped up, "You know, in the U.S. a frittata is not a horribly unhealthy thing to eat", hoping he'd get my point.
He responded, shocked, waving the spatula at me, "Unhealthy?  What is unhealthy about this??  There are zucchini from here, leeks probably from La Spezia, eggs from the chickens we can walk to, oil from here, salt, maybe, from around here, and good cheese from Parma.  What is not healthy here?"  He huffed, and continued sauteeing, shaking his head at my ignorance of health.
I laughed.  Now that is the difference in our cultures, boiled down (sauteed down?) to a frittata.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Getting things done!

Ok, it's not exactly a "boardwalk" so to speak, but it is a street!

Via Roma is almost finished, as the street is being replaced by wooden panels in the parts that were still opened from the flood, as it's not allowed to build a solid asphalt street over a canal, which was our big problem here in Monterosso.  Many other communities were damaged, yes, but Monterosso has the unique problem of having it's streets built 10 or so feet over old canals, so there is water underneath - not dirt.  The unique problem required a unique solution, and here it is...

It's amazing to see a street again.

Also, photos have been put up around town of what that exact part of town looked like the days after the flood so visitors can see how far we've come.  Even though I saw it all, it's still staggering to have a photo in front of your eyes of the damage, then look around and see smiles and clean streets. 

On a more personal level, the Cantina is coming along wonderfully.  We've finished reconstructing the old well in the middle of the dining room, and now have walls and a kitchen.  After being submerged in water and mud for several days, I was doubtful I'd see it start to look like our business again, but the "little Cantina that could" is really coming together.  Progress feels so wonderful.
Highlighting our beautiful well in the oldest wine cantina in this part of Monterosso.

The walls at the Cantina had to be removed and rebuilt.  Here they are!

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Wall

The wall that we have taken on as one of the projects to rebuild Monterosso al Mare is getting ready to go!  As I've written before, the wall will be made of handcrafted stones (handcrafted, in fact, by the pottery shop that Manuel's Aunt and Uncle, Diego and Milla, along with their partner, Franz, have in the Old Town) engraved with names and messages, and will be a lasting symbol in Monterosso.  It's a great way to make sure that you always have a seafront view of town, one way or another :)

We have enough stones to start building and have picked out a beautiful seafront location, overlooking, in my opinion, the park of the beach with the most shockingly blue water. 

Thank you to everyone who donated, and for those who want to buy a stone still, the link can be accessed through Buongiorno Monterosso (the Italian version of Rebuild Monterosso, but the "wall" page is in English, don't worry).

The link can be accessed here.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Stubborn as the sea, strong as the mountains, and the food of both

Una torta - Rice "pie" filled with rice, farro and egg

Some of the lunch spread today: Clockwise from left, polpettone, foccacia with tomatoes and rucola, foccacia with onions, gattafin, Center: homemade wine, Far right corner, homemade salami
Gattafin, stuffed with spinach and herbs
Ligurian food, as I've mentioned before, is a bit two-faced.  Yes, it certainly is the cuisine of the unavoidable sea, which looms in the distance of every view, but one needs to remember that when looking out over that long stretch of blue, you are standing, in fact, on a rocky mountain.  The cuisine of Liguria certainly is anchovies, fresh fish, oil and lemons, but it has an important connection to the hard mountainside covered in woods.  The food is just as hearty and filling for a hunter as it is a fisherman.  Someone once told me the torte in Liguria, which are incredibly popular and eaten frequently both out and in homes here, are so popular because a fisherman returning home from a long trip at sea wanted to eat something of the land.  "Not another fish, I beg you", I can see him pleading to his wife. 
I don't know if that's true, but these torte - which are, in essence, pies - with a light, flaky and savory crust, filled with everything from a rice and egg mixture, to chopped potatoes and herbs, to spinach and other vegetables, blanched and chopped fine, are a huge part of Ligurian cuisine. 
A long Sunday lunch that started as a picnic and ended up, due to a big, scary rain cloud, as an indoor picnic of sorts, at a relative of Manuel's hunting house up in the mountains outside of town.  It reminded me again that the mountains play as much of a role as the sea here.  It was not a light meal, full of these torte, foccacia, farinata, polpettone (a pureed vegetable mixture spread thin and baked), gattafin (my love from Levanto), homemade salami and, of course, homemade wine, red and white, uva fragola wine, and grappa di sciacchetrà, another very special alcohol made with the skins of the grapes used to make sciacchetrà, the prized dessert wine of the region.  Ironically, though I saw much evidence of boar hunting in the house, but there is a whole separate room for making these homemade wines and grappa. Calling it a wine house would be more accurate. 
Assorted torte - spinach, potato, rice, farro
I'm always amazed at the differences in lifestyle between growing up here and my upbringing.  Everyone nonchalantly sweeps in, unloads the food, starts filling up bottles of wine and gets to Sunday lunch, where I'm snapping pictures of wine making equipment, which you certainly don't see as a fixture in many houses in the United States.  It's something very special, to live off the land that you are given, and it's that same stubbornness I see in the Ligurian people with their "Let's fix this" resolve after the flood.  These are practical people with a deep connection and respect for the nature around them, and they certainly have their pick.  Many people have the mountains.  Others have the sea.  It's an unusual thing to see a fishing village that so easily absorbs a mountain gastronomy and land based food culture so easily, and one that can embrace the two equally and simultaneously. 
vino with uva fragola
In my hand is a large orange.  On the tree is the world's largest orange.

Every house should have this going on.
There was a beautifully written article today in Primocanale, an Italian news agency, that highlighted what this area and community has been through the past 5 months, and the same strength I see in the people every day.  Coming from a history of fishermen and mountain men isn't something to play around with, after all.  The author noted that what happened to Monterosso and Vernazza would have wiped out other towns, but the "heart of the people, their predisposition to hard work...gave a strength to this area that was bigger then it's fragility".  He writes, "Like a beautiful girl abandoned by her boyfriend, so was the Cinque Terre betrayed on October 25, 2011, by their great love, nature", but the people here, "knowing the beauty of these lands and their capacity [the people], know that they will return like they were before.  Yes, there is something indestructible in the Cinque Terre.  And something magical".

I couldn't have said it better myself.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Normal, Wonderful, Happy Things

A father and little daughter playing in the waves, the beach clean, water clear and blue, smiling in the sun

Yesterday, the sea surrounding Ma Passu, Monterosso's most famous rock

A simple ragu, red wine, and tomatoes jarred by Manuel's Uncle in Tuscany

Soccer and parking, without a hint of the flood
People gathering, not too look at this last part of Via Roma to be finished, but to celebrate the opening of another restaurant that was destroyed in the flood.
Our good friend Lorenzo has been working hard to reopen Ciak for Easter
Spending a Friday night fishing, enjoying the sunset

Friday, March 23, 2012

Get ready, get set...

This article was posted today on about how we are readying ourselves here in the Cinque Terre for the upcoming season, which is pretty much upon us.  Time flies when your digging out of mud and rebuilding a town.  The atricle can be found here, and though we are still doing a lot of work, the bed and breakfast, A Ca Du Gigante is open, and the restaurant is in the final stages of preparations.  Our little underground Cantina, however, needs the most work and is still getting rebuilt, so hopefully we'll be back in the swing of things by May.  Greeting guests at the B&B, I was a little thrown off how few knew what happened here, and how hard we've worked to get back to a semblance of where we were.  I answered questions, showed pictures on Rebuild Monterosso, and explained the state of the trails many times this week, and though people were originally trepedatious about their visit here, they all left smiling.  "You guys are all so lucky to live here", remarked our first guests, smiling.  In spite of all the mud that has turned to dust around them, the sun still shines and the ocean still sparkles.  And the people still smile.  We are lucky.


Monday, March 19, 2012


The view from one of our hotel roof terraces

View from the breakfast terrace

Ribollita, one of my favorite soups ever.  Like most Tuscan foods, the soup has a peasant history, of using hearty root vegetables and old bread - waste not, want not.  It's filling, warming and delicious.

Different stages of sunset over Florence's many bridges.

Ponte Vecchio

Another little weekend trip proved to be the only time a train strike has worked in my favor.  The strike took all the regional rail lines in Tuscany out of commission, meaning that we had to stay an extra night, which was wonderful.  Our hotel, which was an ancient tower in the city that was refurbished in 2000 into a bed and breakfast, had a rooftop terrace overlooking the Arno and a little bar set up on the "honor system" - write down what you had, relax on the terrace, and watch the sunset.  I studied abroad in Florence two years ago, and hadn't been back since, and it was like a little homecoming. I know the city well, and I love the chance to go back to old restaurants and, of course, my favorite gelateria.  If I had to live in an Italian city, this would be it.  It's incredibly small as cities go, and though that makes the mobs of tourists seem even more intense, it gives the city an intimate, romantic feel that is only intensified by moonlight bridges sweeping across the river.  It's a city where you are more challenged to avoid a museum then find one, and though the historic center is overwhelming and sometimes daunting in the amount of culture and history there is to see and experience, there are more then a few small alleyways to lose yourself in, and more then a few restaurants to sit in candlelight, sipping Chianti and eating Fiorentina.  I didn't realize how much I missed beautiful Firenze, and though New York always has it's place in my heart, a little piece of it also belongs to my city on the river.

Friday, March 16, 2012


I haven't been since a few weeks before the flood on October 25th.  It is, like here, a construction zone with some incredible people and a breathtaking view...and so much better then I imagined.  Yes, there is a sometimes staggering amount of work to do, but in all honesty, I thought it would be so much worse.
I was thrilled.

Wild asparagus


the angel of the mud

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Signs of spring

Bruno's shoes were off.  Now, the fact that the man who owns one of the beaches in town was shoe-less while putting up cabanas and gearing up for the opening of the beach bar, might not mean much to many people.  However, as I learned today, the fact that he was shoeless, pants rolled up haphazardly, and squinting into the sun, means that summer is here.  When the shoes go back on, the season is over.  Another one of the signs of the season that I never knew.
A few other ones are more predictable, yet happily welcomed.  The appearance of fresh peas in their bring green pods, tendrils curling gently around them, means spring in the U.S. too, but fresh peas are hard to find and their season is short.  More and more people are laying in the sun, relaxing on the beach, and looking at the intensely blue, clear water, I could hardly blame them.
It's a T-shirt kind of day here in Monterosso, and sitting roasting in the sun in mid-March is something much appreciated, after such a long and difficult winter.  Spring is a rushed season that spills quickly into summer, both encompassed in something simply referred to as the "Season" - when the town fills up and comes alive.

fresh peas and zucchini flowers

unloading beach chairs

Shoes or no shoes, spring is here.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


Many times I find myself wondering how on earth a girl with a death allergy to shellfish, who can't swim and who feels more comfortable in a grey city then in the open air (I keep thinking "police response time") wound up in a place that is so completely opposite what I had ever expected, yet at the same time, exactly what I wanted.

I've been adapting, little by little, to life in a tiny beach village, but I've been thinking of the city more and more.  I missed the movement, the activity, the options - I even started to miss the subway.  The Italian Beer Fest this weekend in Milan brought me the opportunity to spend a few days in Milan, a 3 hour direct train from Monterosso, and the second-largest city in Italy, as well as being the un-official capital of the northern part of the country.  Milan is an incredibly important city not just in Italy, but in Europe, and is known foremost for fashion, industry, economy, and, as I've learned, fog.  Lots of fog.
I can vouch for it's transportation importance (as well as fog, due to my long history of delayed flights from here) as the only times I've been in Milan were to go somewhere else.  I've flown from Linate and Malpensa airports, taken trains from Milano Centrale as far as Vienna, but never actually saw what the city was like.  After the business portion of the weekend concluded at the beer fest, the sightseeing began.

Perched on the roof like a little bird
La Scala
The Duomo is breathtaking, and for 6 euro, you can climb to the top and perch yourself in the spindly, carved facade looming over the busting piazza below.  It is, without a doubt, one of the most incredible buildings I've ever seen.  The inside is just as spectacular, though I was a little shocked we were allowed in on a Sunday morning when mass was being held.  We were both a little uncomfortable, especially when tourists started taking photos of some of the most important parts of the mass - like during the Eucharist.  I'm Catholic (though admittedly, not the most model Catholic), and I know not everyone in every part of the world is, but the idea of entering into another's house of worship and snapping photos, giggling, and taking video of their mass and the people worshipping left me feeling incredibly angry the guards did nothing to stop them.  That's a lesson for tourists everywhere.  Respect the culture around you.
La Scala is a sight, but more a sound, and on a Saturday night we stood next to the front door and heard a long operatic note of Aida.  The Galleria, a long, ornate, covered shopping center, puts any mall I've ever seen to shame.  But all of it is in the midst of what seems like 2 billion people, mainly tourists, running into each other with shopping bags or trying to wobble their way on cobblestone in stiletto heels.  Fresh faced models, skin scrubbed clean, dressed in leggings and sneakers, fold up their endless legs for a cup of tea, and overdressed, over made-up tourists try and pretend they are the ones everyone is watching.  
The Duomo, even more beautiful at night
As excited as I was for the city, I was even more excited to return home and breath in the sea air.  The joy of public transportation ran out after a 35 minute wait for our tram to take us from the hotel to the beer fest.  The crowds got old after the 5,435 person ran into my shoulder.  The mess that is a city can be entrancing but only when it's one you are used to, like New York, but when you are a tourist too, stuck in the middle of the most tourist filled part, the city girl starts to desperately long for her little beach town.  It's nice to get away for a little bit, stretch my legs and explore, but its funny that after all this emphasis on how convenient the city is, I start to think that simply walking down the stairs to the shop on Via Fegina to buy my groceries is actually much easier.  All that convenience of the city, at the end of the day, is actually quite inconvenient.  Though I do sometimes miss the fast pace of a city and the stimulation it provides you, it's always going to be just a train ride away, be it Genoa or Milan.

The Galleria

The Duomo