Monday, May 28, 2012

food ungratefulnes

I've been whining about not having certain food products readily accessible for some time now, and I read a friend's blog entry about how lucky she felt to have so much fresh, wonderful produce available here in Italy and realized I've been an ungrateful little Christine.
I can make reasonably convincing ethnic (anything not Italian) dishes with the things that I have on hand, and the things that I can fortunately get from the restaurant from Manuel's dad, Miky, who now likes to surprise me with things like cilantro.  It's been a great learning experience for me in the sense of learning to adapt recipes to fit the foods that I have here, and a great lesson in appreciating what I do have fresh and wonderful.
Seafood is fantastic here, and though I can only eat a fraction of what comes from the sea right in front of me, I still appreciate plates of sauteed mussels from nearby La Spezia, and homemade tian (which I happily can eat, and in large quantities), or anchovy tegame, by Manuel's grandma.
pepperoncini from Flavia's dad

Tian made by Manuel's Gram

Mussels from further down the riviera, sauteeing at the Cantina for someone else's dinner
I can't get a jalapeno, but Manuel's cousin's girlfriend's dad dropped off a huge bag of dried pepperoncini from his little farm on the hillside.  Lemons can be plucked off a tree.  Eggs from the lady down the road.  On festivals, people bring heaps of asado to us for dinner.  Maybe a bagel is something I'll dream about until November, but focaccia certainly helps ease the pain.  When you stop thinking about all the things you don't have, all the things that are different, it's easier to see the incredible bounty of things in front of you.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

birthday parties, ligurian style

For the 30th birthday of a friend of ours here in Monterosso (another American girl) we brought the best of both worlds to a beachfront surprise party held at the Stella Marina.  We all cooked some food - a little Liguria, a little USA (think verdure ripiene and guacamole, or blue cheese walnut salad and focacce), had a classic, delicious two layer american birthday cake, and watched the sunset over the clouds hugging the hills over the other villages.
Liguria meets America.  Focacce, torte salate, guacamole, blue cheese walnut salad, verdure ripiene...

Thanks to Manuel's dad, Miky, I was able to get cilantro AND avocados for guacamole.  Rocio would be proud.

Davide, arriving in style to the birthday party on his boat.

Paddleboarding, I swear I will learn this summer.  Swear.

Clouds over Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore - give this already magical area an etherial look.
The other American girls who live here are more or less all from California, so maybe the beach, the sea, the sunsets are all in their blood - I don't know.  Maybe it's because my time here has been so short.  But I can't help taking at least 5 pictures a day of the same beautiful scene.  Sunsets at beach birthday parties, or wispy clouds floating over neighboring Corniglia, paddleboarders squinting into the sun as they peacefully float out on the still Ligurian sea - it all seems so beautiful and so different every day, even though it's a photo taken from the same vantage point.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Lemon Festivals and Chihuahua bites

This weekend was quite eventful, in many ways.  The Sagra Del Limone fell on Saturday, which kind of "kicked off" the first of the sagra season.
We have lots of festivals (sagra) in Monterosso, and the lemon festival is a good one, though dampened, literally, by a rainy day.  There is a contest for the biggest lemon, best storefront display, lots of food and drinks (lemon based), and streets full of yellow and green banners.  Our display, with ancient boat anchors and fishing traps from Manuel's grandpa, didn't win, but I certainly didn't have any trouble finding lemons to make cocktails with all day.  Manuel's mom explained to me that the reason for this festival was that at this time of the year, the fragrance of the lemons is at their peak.
Lemons have always been very important to Monterosso, and they grow everywhere - and are huge.  Eugenio Montale, the Nobel Prize winning poet who lived in Monterosso for a while and wrote many famous poems here, even penned one titled "The Lemon Trees", inspired by the tons of orchards running through town.
We were quite busy at the Cantina all day long and into the night.  We started to get packed for dinner, and as I was clearing a table of their plates, a tiny teacup chihuahua jumped out of the purse of a Japanese girl and gnawed my finger.  Obviously, I was totally shocked, as I didn't even see the dog, but more so that there was now blood dripping down my arm as the girl sat there, not uttering a word.
What ensued was hectic and maddening, as we had to then take this couple, who I would describe as nicely as I can as "not bright", and then copy their passports and wait for the town doctor to come on his bike to inspect the bite.  This couple did not bring any documentation of their dog into Italy on their vacation - they live in Switzerland, though Japanese, and explained that the dog had it's shots up to date.  They spoke english, but didn't utter a word.
Italian law says that they should have documentation with them for a pet not registered in Italy, especially as the dog continued growling and snapping - if the dog, no matter how small, is this vicious, it shouldn't be on vacation hiding in purses.  After antibiotics and the doctor's advice to me and scolding the couple on their negligence, the man THEN apologized.  Thanks.
With a bandaged hand, I went on with the busy night after the lemon festival.  Having worked in restaurants for my entire adult life, I'm prepared for the random things that happen frequently when working with people, but I have to say - this was one thing I really didn't see coming.  What was funny was that every table saw what happened, and one woman was going through her purse to find me antibacterial cream, another offered her skills in speaking basic Japanese, and I did receive a round of applause after returning to the Cantina after this event.  And I learned to say "a dog bit me" - un cane mi ha morso.

The weather continued raining through the night and the next day, which was rocked, literally, at 4 am by another earthquake.  This one was centered by Bologna, but was felt here - I woke up, in fact, and asked Manuel if this was an earthquake.  He told me it was the train.  Having been my third quake in 4 months, I knew otherwise, but the severity of this one in Bologna left several people dead and caused a great amount of damage - it was a 5.9.

Rain brings little snail friends out to wiggle around.  I never observed one before.  It's true - they are really, really slow.
From festivals to tiny evil dogs, to earthquakes and lots of lemons, I have to say - this was a weekend that I'm incredibly glad has come to an end.

Friday, May 18, 2012

not WHY i live in Monterosso...

Vernazza in the distance
But the summer beach certainly doesn't make matters worse.  It's still technically spring, but these few weeks of empty sand and still, clear water are treasured before the towels and umbrellas start scattering themselves on any available patch of sand.  I didn't move here for the beach, but it certainly doesn't make matters worse that I have such an amazing view a few steps (147 stairs) from my front door.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012


It's been a hectic 3 days.
The Cantina opened, but with a whole new kitchen and staff, it seems like more of an opening of a totally new restaurant then a re-opening.  Manuel and I know how we need to work, but it's not easy translating that in Italian to every other employee, kitchen and floor staff.  We were totally busy right off the bat, and the staff was slammed, having never been really trained in an actually dinner situation at the Cantina.

Finally, last night, the service went flawlessly, the servers "in prova" (or on trial) that didn't work out were sent home, and we seem to have a staff that has gotten itself together.  Last night, the tables were smiling, laughing, and full of compliments.  I explained to the staff that THIS is the Cantina - we never had a single complaint last year, so it was hard to get the opening night jitters out of the way for everyone, but I'm glad we seem to have found our rhythm.  People hugged us as they left, took pictures, yelled happy compliments to the kitchen - it's such a great feeling.

Then, this morning, this review popped up on TripAdvisor.  I know, it's just a review, but it really, truly made my day.

"While in Monterosso, this cantina is an absolute must. A treasure in every way. The food is delectable with a taste that satisfies any craving palate; the service is impeccable with great attention. Ask Christine about her story of the cantina, as well as what brought her to Monterroso. The ambience is wonderful, music is inviting, food is second to none, and, most of all, as a customer you are given great service and a taste of why this island is a treasure in the Cinque Terre. We made a second visit on our second night in Monterosso just for drinks at closing hour, and they were still very inviting and catering despite it being past closing time. I recommend this gem to everyone who visits Monterosso as you will come away with lasting memories of the food, the people, and the story about this cantina and their recent persevering history."

Thursday, May 10, 2012

L'ultmia e come la prima

Apparently, it's said in Italian that "the last is like the first".  I prefer "better late the never" as that proverb doesn't confuse me.
In any case, we open the Cantina tonight at 5 for a little party then for dinner at 7:30.  I am nervous, excited, exhausted, relieved and wide awake all at the same time - it's an odd feeling.
In all the years I've worked in a restaurant, I never actually contemplated how much work it is actually organizing the opening of one.  The amount of things to think about are never ending.  From pricing wine bottles, to deciding the beer list, to arguing about the cost of passion fruit and gluten free pasta - to painting wooden tables, cleaning sidewalks, trimming fig trees, drilling candle holders into stone really is a mountain of work and activity, on everyone's part.  And one mountain I am more then a little glad to have finally climbed over.
As everyone has been musing about things being back to "normal" in Monterosso al Mare after the flood, I kept my mouth shut.  For me, things were far from normal, as we spent hours every day musing every detail about our flooded little underground wine cellar, brand new and only 3 years old.  After deciding to totally change it as we rebuilt, the decisions grew.  It seemed like we'd never find a staff, deicide on a bathroom door or a price for a artiginale beer tasting, but we did.
I love the warm tones of the new Cantina, as opposed to the very modern, colored lights and bright blue walls of the old one.  It feels like a comfortable room, informal, but classy.
And, as you will see from the pictures, it certainly makes you thirsty.  The amount of wine and grappa and spirits we lugged into the Cantina definitely help it live up to it's reputation as the oldest wine cellar in this part of Monterosso.  I'm waiting to post pictures because we are still getting our loose ends in order inside, and I want everyone to see it perfect - not with boxes on the floor.
I'm incredibly proud of Manuel and everyone who helped us rebuild, and I am so, so ready to start a normal life again here in Monterosso - and almost my second year living in Italy.
Cheers to the Cantina :)

Sunday, May 6, 2012

More Rick Steves

Read carefully about the Cantina.  I'm thrilled the beer list - now 21 Italian craft beers and 36 beers in total- that we've been laboring over all winter (and it's tough work tasting all those beers, believe me) is mentioned as a highlight of La Cantina Di Miky twice!

The updated guide can be read here.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Springtime sunsets, Levanto style

Levanto, with it's long stretch of beach, is the town just next to Monterosso.  Though not part of the Cinque Terre, it's a beautiful little town with a great surf-culture feel and some wonderful food.  And people.  Levanto was one of the most active villages in helping us out after the flood.

Fishermen on the pier.

Aperitivo at one of my favorite bars.  Gambrinus, in the center of town, has an AMAZING beer selection, and an owner who knows his stuff.  Also, you can't beat a bowl of raw, local, fresh peas as a snack with some belgian beers.  I never had raw peas before - they're sweet, crunchy, and a wonderful touch.

Beautiful sunsets aren't hard to find on the Riviera, wherever you are gazing from.

Friday, May 4, 2012

You can take the girl outta Jersey...

billboards on the highway...just like Bergen Co.
I am a staunch supporter of the great state of New Jersey.  It's not blind pride.  Having been born and raised there, I know my viewpoint might be a little bit biased, but it's quite a wonderful place to have grown up.  When people here ask me where I'm from, more often then not, New York is given as an accepted answer, but recently, I've been happily telling people in my non-accent that I am from Jersey.  Through and through.

look familiar?

Part of me feels like it's my social responsibility to let people know that not everyone from NJ speaks with "wawtah" and "cawfee" filled sentences, or has gum-snapping, crunchy hair and fake tans.  The other part just enjoys making people guess where I'm from.  Canada and Northern California are common guesses, though I can't say I have anything close to a Canadian accent, or that I even knew Northern California had a distinctive one.  But that's another story.
In the hectic pace to get the Cantina opened by next Thursday, a date totally picked at random, Manuel and I went to La Spezia to buy the last of the things we need - example, battery chargers, shot glasses, planners, paint, and all the other things I never anticipated buying when I got involved in running a restaurant.  It's amazing how all of a sudden the simple aspect of serving food becomes coupled with being an accountant, interior decorator, real estate agent, food pricer, math major and translator all in one. And then a bartender and waitress when it's all done.
Part of our La Spezia journey was completed at the giant electronics store at Le Terrazze, the centro commerciale that was just completed slightly outside the city center.  People have been buzzing about it for months, and I wanted to go for some time now, as everyone has told me, in conspiring and excited whispers that it's the most "American" mall they've seen in Italy.  Many amazing things come from Italy, but malls are not one of them.  What people here call a mall is 5 stores and a giant supermarket.  I'm exaggerating, but not by much.  New Jersey, I'll firmly attest, is full of farms, forests, gardens, mountains and strips of seashore.  But, I can't lie - we have a fair share of malls.  And in Bergen County, shopping is a past time.  Italian malls don't really exist to me.  My Jersey raised mall intuition shivers when I hear the word associated with these long strips of stores.
However, Le Terrazze is a proper American mall.  Two stories, awkward benches, a food court full of American restaurants - including a McDonalds, which makes me shiver for another horrified reason - Le Terrazze actually made me forget a few times I was in Italy.
I'm not kidding.
Especially after sitting down to eat at a restaurant fashioned in the style of the "wild west", with a hamburger for Manuel and chicken fajitas (actually, not that bad) for me, with a paper menu placemat advertising their new "brownie" dessert, I flashed back to being 15 years old and biding my time loitering at the Garden State Plaza.
Italians, obviously, are suited to malls.  They are excellent at shopping, dining, and loitering.  I asked Manuel if there was even a word for loitering in Italian, or is it just normal standing behavior.  He glared at me. Ha.
Here's the funny thing - when making this mural over the mall food court,
the designers pieced together elements of the various villages in the region,
as well as in La Spezia.  The striped house on the left with the green shutters
is actually the apartment complex across from the Church of San Giovanni Battista
in the Old Town of Monterosso.  Pieces of my various homes are everywhere :) 
Of course, this made me feel, oddly, a little at home, being in this strange mall, but made me really start to ask more serious questions about the commercial impact on the tiny shops scattered in the center of La Spezia that close during midday, in the normal Italian tradition, as the mall stays open.  Then the food part of me started to examine the teenagers after school guzzling coke and chomping on french fries while sitting at bright plastic mall tables.
Yes, it is easy and wonderful to have so many shops together, and open all day, as well as to know where I can go when I simply crave a not-horrible chicken fajita, but at the same time, it made me feel guilty to feel a little happy to see a proper American mall.

Cultural comments aside, good or bad - it's funny what can make you feel at home sometimes.

Dinner with Mr. Steves

A little YouTube video of us at dinner with Rick Steves at Ristorante Miky, with Manuel's sister (Sara) and mom (Simonetta) explaining the desserts.  It was delicious and these desserts explain why daily yoga is a necessity in my life.
Video can be seen here.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012


Monterosso people are tough, as we have seen this year, and so are their lobsters.  As you can see, this huge blue-spotted beast and his friend, plucked from the sea framing the town, are dramatically different from the standard "Maine variety" lobsters and the spiny lobsters found elsewhere in the sea.  Monterosso lobsters are harder to find, and though I can't attest to the flavor variations, as I'm allergic to lobsters, it's apparent that this guy does not mess around.