Friday, August 31, 2012

The end of August

My Corona ad
It rained.  Thank goodness.  Not a lot, but lightning one night meant a light sprinkle in the early hours of the morning, which meant we all awoke to sun, a bit of a breeze, and bearable temperatures.  Now, these last few days of August lead into the best month here - September.  The water is still warm, the breeze is light, the temperature won't stifle you with heat and humidity, and the end of the season is a few short months away.  Conversation starts to slowly turn toward autumn plans, winter weddings, trips home.  The average hour for dinner again bumps back to 5:30-6 pm, as the Italians head home after their August vacation.

BBQ and beach games

Our hidden little beach bbq
Again, the questions flow as my American accent stops being a source of amusement for Italians, and starts being an inevitable conversation starter for English-speaking tourists. The most important thing is that the visitors in this period of the year reflect the weather and the feeling in the area - people are much calmer and happier.  Gone are grimaces and sweaty shirts as people fight the waves of tourists snapping pictures as they get off the train.  It's like taking a deep breath and smiling.  Another important positive is the re-emergence of our day off a week.  We hiked over the Gigante statue to the hidden little beach on the far side of town and had a quiet beach bbq for the birthday of Manuel's cousin.  No one bothered us, save for a little dog whose owner was snoozing, that smelled our sausages from Brugnato on the grill.

Also, as I've happily discovered, this is the time of year for my beloved uva fragola, a dark grape that is sweet and tastes just like eating a strawberry.  Another added bonus.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Summer Salads

It is hot.  Literally, meltingly, sticky, sweaty, hot.  It is, oddly, too hot to go to the beach.  You have to stay in the water the whole time, and people tanning under the relentless sun grimace, popping their heads up after a few minutes of laying out and trudge to the water, squinting into the distance and sighing.  My neighbor told me today that this is the hottest summer she remembers in her whole life here in Monterosso.  I don't know if that is true, or one of those comments you hear repeated every year when the temperature starts to climb, but regardless, it's unpleasant.  It's hide-in-the-air-conditioning weather.

Since it's too hot to move, it's certainly too hot to eat hot foods.  For me, this is salad season, especially for lunch.  Since a girl can't live on lettuce alone, I've started twisting around old classics that I miss, like a good old fashioned American chicken salad, and the German potato salad of my childhood.  They make both here, but the chicken salad I've eaten is a little too oily for me, and the potato salad a little too simple.

Growing up, there was a wonderful little German deli down the street from our house where my dad and I would stop every Saturday after my painting lessons for reubens and potato salad and those giant, juicy sour pickles that are wrapped so satisfyingly in paper.  The potato salad is tart and sweet, and made with vinegar and sugar instead of heaps of mayo, and is easy to make and to recreate, as the ingredients are familiar here too (ok, mustard seed my mom mailed me, and I didn't have any bacon laying around, but I adapted).  The chicken salad I made is full of summer vegetables and spices, but also mayo-free and light.  Aside from the effort of chopping vegetables, boiling some potatoes and grilling some chicken, both are easy to make and light but filling to eat - another added plus when it's just too hot to move.

"German" potato salad

Potatoes (I used a little over 1/2 a kg of new potatoes, peeled)
Hefty handful of green beans, ends snapped off
1 long stalk celery, with leaves, diced
1/4 red onion, sliced very thin
1/2 bunch of rucola (arugula), chopped
1/4 c apple cider vinegar
1/2 tbsp sugar
1 tsp dill
1/2 tsp mustard seed
1/2 tsp caraway seed
1 tsp dijon mustard
Olive oil, salt, pepper

Toss the potatoes and green beans into a pot of water, bring to a boil.  After a few minutes, take out the green beans and shock quickly in a bowl of iced water to stop the cooking and keep the color.  Keep the potatoes cooking until a knife can easily slide into them, then drain from the water and set aside.  In another large bowl, add the celery, rucola (you can easily omit this if the peppery taste is too much for you), onion, vinegar, sugar, dill, mustard seed, caraway seed and mustard, and mix together.  When throughly mixed, set aside as you chop the cooked green beans and then potatoes into thin slices or chunks.  Add the potatoes and green beans to the mixture, drizzle lightly with the olive oil and season well with salt and pepper.  Mix well, and taste - I prefer more vinegar and dill in mine, and you can adjust the recipe as you prefer.  Cool the salad in the fridge - I like it when it's cool, not cold, and certainly not hot.

Note:  Another great idea is sauteeing the onion with some bacon, using the bacon fat to cook the onion, then adding that to the salad.

Tagine Spiced Chicken Salad

2 large chicken breasts
Tagine spice mixture (I used a mix of paprika, cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, cumin, cardamom, black pepper and salt)
2 zucchini, chopped into thin slices
1 carrot, sliced paper thin
1/2 cucumber, peeled and sliced thin
1/4 red onion, chopped thin
Handful of cherry tomatoes, diced
1 stalk of celery, chopped thin with leaves
1/2 avocado, cubed
Olive oil, Red wine vinegar, salt and pepper

Potato Salad on the left, chicken on the right
Heat a grill pan on the stove (or a grill if you are lucky enough to have one).  Coat the raw chicken on both sides with a good amount of the spice mixture.  Cook the chicken for 3-4 minutes on each side, reseasoning if you lose some of the spice crust on the pan. When the chicken is cooked through, set aside.  Add your chopped vegetables to a large bowl (except for the avocado), and dress with oil, vinegar, salt and pepper.  When the chicken is cooled, chop or shred it into small pieces, and add to the vegetable mixture.  Add the avocado last so it doesn't get mushed to a pulp as you mix the ingredients together.  Serve cool or at room temperature, and enjoy!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

our "mascot"

Many people who have eaten at the Cantina have met "Stipi" (like Tee-Pee but with an "S"), the little black cat with white paws who scoots between tables and sometimes naps in the middle of the outside patio during dinner.  He is very friendly, and even more so because he eats like a king - people often feed him some of the best parts of their meal.  Last night a woman dining alone gave him some scampi, and then he meandered over to another table, wiggling under a table and pawing another diner weakened by his charms, and finished his meal with sauteed anchovies in white wine, and some filet.

He's not "our" cat, really.  He technically belongs to a woman who lives a few blocks away and who shed some light onto his unusual name for me.  One day, her husband asked her to go pick up his paycheck from work in La Spezia.  On her way, she found a little black kitten, skinny and alone, mewing helplessly on the street.  She picked him up and brought him back to Monterosso, but then realized she forgot the paycheck.  Her husband, grumbling, said the cat would now be named "Stipendio", which means paycheck in Italian.  "Stipi", for short.  Like many cats in Monterosso, he runs the place, and comes home when he wants.  After the flood, many town cats disappeared for a little, scared as well by the disaster, and the newspaper in La Spezia did an article on their return a few weeks ago - the photo gallery of Monterosso's most beloved feline friends can be seen here.  But our Stipi never went anywhere.  Popping his little head over sandbags, pawing over mud, he now enjoys his return to normalcy as he continues charming guests in the Cantina, occasionally frustrating the staff, as we attempt to climb over his unmoving, napping body in the middle of our floor, and happily eating scraps and anchovies.  He might very well be our most regular guest.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

There is no such thing as a stupid question...

Granted, few top my favorite of the summer,  "Excuse me, there was a flood here in October, right?"  "Yes..." I responded.

"What noise did it make?"


But, the other night, questions like, "The spaghetti, are they cooked?"  "Yes, we don't serve raw crunchy spaghetti", I responded, knowing this was going down a path that would leave me shaking my head.  "Ah, ok, but do you cook it in water or what?"

"The lasagna al ragu...I can't have gluten, can you make it with no lasagna?"

"How long will it take me to get to Monterosso or the Cinque Terre from here?"

"What does in "Ligurian style" mean?"  "We are in the region of Liguria, it means it's cooked in a traditional style."  (as I walk away from table, she whispers to her husband, "This girl doesn't know anything, we're in Monterosso, not 'Liguria' or whatever she said.  I even checked the map when we got off the train!")

Australian woman to me: "The water here is safe to drink, right?"
"Tap water isn't really drank in Italy - in fact, most places won't serve you it, and at home you even drink only bottled or filtered water.  But if you drink tap water at your hotel or something, you probably won't die", I responded.
"Ah, ok", she nodded, seriously.  "You're obviously American, so you understand me - you know how it is in these third world countries.  You can never be too careful!"


Sunday, August 12, 2012

The last day

Some of our staff
The one day a week that we are closed is something very close to sacred for us, and even more so when we are in the middle of August and stay open 7 days a week for the mid-month holiday.  We are open every day until the end of the month, which means our last Wednesday took on an even more significance.  We needed to do something different, with a beach involved, mojitos, a spritz or two, and our friends.

The Cantina (almost the whole staff) packed up our beach bags and headed to the nearby little village of Bonassola, which is outside the Cinque Terre, just after Levanto, and usually much quieter then our busy little villages during the summer.  Manuel's cousin went a week ago, and came back to work Thursday raving about the empty beaches, the great seaside lunch, the cocktails, volleyball courts and boogie boards, so it wasn't a difficult sell.  We got on the train, some with their children, some with little brothers, and a few waiters sporting near-fatal hangovers, and took the 8 minute ride to Bonassola.
What we didn't count on was that, in August, many people were thinking like we were, and our group of 10 was too big to find sunbeds and umbrellas for.  We grabbed our 8 euro sunchairs, and stretched out on the sand.

The walk to Levanto through the old train tunnel
Bonassola is a cute town with a great beach.  The water was perfect, with little waves that provided amusement for everyone, but the beach, full of dark sand and colorful pebbles, absorbed the heat from the beating sun too well, which made walking comically difficult.  Lunch was disappointing, as our too-big group had trouble finding space, and had to eat some sandwiches that cost too much and took too long in the town.  After we'd all had enough sun and enough mojitos (there was a Hawaiian theme party in Sestri Levante the night before, and a few staff members went at 2 am and came back to Monterosso around 7, and now required mojitos to "set themselves straight"), those of us who were well-rested insisted on walking back to Levanto for aperitivo.

The again hungover waiters complained like children, but I marched ahead quickly.  "Americans", muttered Stefano, our food runner/barback, as he tried to keep pace with my East coast walking speed, convinced I was trying to kill him in the 100 degree heat.  "Why do you have to walk so fast?"
"Italians", I responded, "Why do you have to drink so much at Hawaiian parties?".
"Ehhh," he conceded, sighing.

Arrival in Levanto


Fun in the waves
Bonassola is connected to Levanto by a walking path which, unlike many of the other challenging walks that run through the area, is flat, paved, easy, and lined with bike lanes and little swimming spots.  The path is actually the old train tunnel that was paved over, so it in fact alternates through damp, dark train tunnels and strips of asphalt baked in the sun with breathtaking sea views.  Levanto is a short 25-35 minute walk, and as you approach the town from an angle I'd never seen, you can really appreciate how much bigger it is then Monterosso.  We passed a spa I'd never seen before, windsailing rentals, beaches, and then wound our way into town for aperitivo, then catching the 4 minute train back to Monterosso where we all headed home for dinner and to rest up for the next few weeks.  Manuel lamented the fact that we can't come back for a few weeks because of work, but I'm planning on going one morning regardless.  Working long restaurant hours is something I'm accustomed to, but even if it means an hour or two of less sleep, it's just as important to get out of town and do different things every few days, or it all seems to blend into one long day - or one long August.

Sunday, August 5, 2012


One of our most interesting and eccentric regular guests at the Cantina is the man who owns the hotel next door (as well as half of town).  He speaks wonderful English, and knows literally every single thing in the world - it's like having a walking dictionary and encyclopedia who is eager to share facts about Frank Sinatra's Ligurian heritage, the origins of the Monterossini word for apricot, and what the Japanese stock market is doing.  It's always amusing, but one of my favorite parts about his visits this time of year is the produce he brings me from his garden, or orto, here in town.  A few weeks ago, it was huge wooden crates of bumpy little apricots, sweet and easy to pry open and pop in your mouth.  Occasionally it's asado from festivals around the region (and yes, he knows every single one).  This week, it's tomatoes.  Soft and still warm from the sun, fresh tomatoes are one food that I can smell and immediately be transported to a moment as a child, standing in my grandparents backyard at their little garden picking tomatoes with my Grandpa.  The huge bowl of tomatoes from Monterosso provided lunch, dinner and snacks for several days - simply drizzled with olive oil and a little bit of salt, or in the tomato salad my Grandma used to make with the tomatoes from our garden at home.  When I was younger, this tomato salad was a dish of magic.  Gram's special tomato salad.  Even now, though it's a salad with 5 ingredients, I can't ever get the ratio of oil to vinegar right, or the amount of oregano, or find red onions sweet enough - it never tastes exactly like my Gram's.  But even so, the smell of these fresh tomatoes, right off the vine, chopped with lots of oil, vinegar, salt, oregano and slivers of red onion, is enough to bring me back to a time in my life that leaves me with a nostalgic smile - and, thanks to these tomatoes, a full stomach.

Friday, August 3, 2012


August is, without a doubt, the most dreaded month of the year.  Busy nights in the spring and early summer that end in tired complaining are followed by knowing voices reminding us, "You think this was a hard night?  Wait 'til August...".  Doctors appointments need to be made in July because, as you know, "In August there is no time for that".  Thinking about going shopping in La Spezia for the end of summer designer sales?  If you didn't already go, it's too late.  In August, there is no time.  Take an early night, go home and get to bed before 2 am get the idea.

August started off at the Cantina as if a switch had been flipped.  Normally, about 60 percent of our guests are foreign, which does not automatically mean American, as I've explained.  The Americans in these past few weeks have actually been less and less, as the price of a plane flight to Italy skyrockets, and other countries - Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Turkey, Czech Republic - have started coming in bigger numbers.  Save for an embarrassing group of incredibly drunk American kids last night who tried to steal a bike, argued about the price of a German beer, and then almost threw up on the bar, our guests were almost entirely Italian.  When other foreign tourists lament that the Cinque Terre is a post full of tourists, it's easy to forget that the rest of the world doesn't operate on the same vacation-work schedule.  Of course you are with other foreigners in April.  Yes, certainly the beach is full of English and French speaking voices in June.  Italians are saving their vacation for August, and the constant sun and 33 degree C weather that makes moving painful.

August is the month of vacation here, when Italians take time off and businesses shut down to come to the shore an relax, many for a full month.  We have friends and long time guests that have been taking their August holiday in Monterosso for their whole lives, and I forgot until last night that this means re-explaining the flood, as many of them haven't been to Monterosso for a year.  The nice thing about these guests and friends returning is that now I can speak enough Italian to have a conversation, albeit not a perfect one, and everyone is happily surprised by how much I've learned (though I'm still in the opposite camp).  The other side of the coin in August is that the average dinner time moves later by about an hour and a half, as Italians do not eat dinner at 6 pm, and the tables definitely take their time enjoying their meal.

Most places also stay open 7 days a week during this busy month, which makes for a grueling schedule.  We're trying to wiggle out of that a bit, and instead stay open in September, which was just as busy, if not busier, last year.  August brings crowds, but also fun events, like the annual luau party in Sestri Levante, a Brazilian party here on the streets of Monterosso, and a cocktail contest that is run like a pub crawl throughout town.  A day or two off this month wouldn't be all that bad, especially when it's 100 degrees F in the shade, and it's too crowded and hot to even go to the beach and sit on a sun bed.  The other bright side?  I've learned how to say useful things like, "I'm literally melting".  Oh August, I forgot how different you can be.