Thursday, February 26, 2009

Maccheroni con otto buchi

What would carnivale in Sicily be without a deliciously decadent lunch?

We were invited to the home of a woman with amazing skills in Catanese cooking. This woman is the mother of my husband's best friend, more like his adopted brother and therefore his adopted mother. I have been hearing for years about the only time hubby got very ill after over-eating. It was at a carnivale lunch very much like the one we went to on Sunday. The culprit was an incredible pasta dish, known as maccheroni con cinque (or in our case otto) buchi (five or, in our case, eight-holed macaroni). I love my pasta tubes big, and these were the biggest I've ever had. This was pasta fresca, prepared with a ragu and mixed with fresh ricotta cheese. Amazing! and amazingly filling! No one in their right mind could have two enormous portions like my husband did many years ago, although I can now (almost) understand how he could have tried to get away with that, this dish prepared by this woman is just that good. 

Anyway, after the pasta, there was an abundance of other dishes to try: fried fava beans, wild greens sauteed with garlic, and artichokes come to mind. All lovely. I won't even go into the desserts as I was too full to indulge and the little one was so silly and sleepy at this point I was afraid he might hurt himself. I only managed to savour a bowl of homemade lemon sorbet, perfectly light and fresh after a heavy meal. 

Although I wasn't able to attend any real carnival celebrations this year due to a bad round of colds-turned-flus that just won't seem to go away, this incredible lunch made me feel like I didn't completely miss out on the festivities. 

And I am also pleased to finally know what maccheroni con cinque buchi is all about, apparently a type of pasta that is particular to this part of Sicily this time of year. Is that true all fellow Sicilian's out there?

Monday, February 23, 2009

Elegant Catania - Teatro Massimo Bellini

An evening out!

Walking towards this magnificent theater, my steps became lighter with anticipation at entering its doors. The exterior of the building is gorgeous, but its interior is pure magic.  19th century glamour and style pervades every inch both in and out. Chandeliers and sconces, frescoed ceilings, red velvet, precarious box seats, acoustic perfection. 

The theater, of course, is named after Catania's favorite son, Vincenzo Bellini, the highly successful 19th century composer, most famous for the opera Norma, in whose honor the signature Catanese pasta dish is also named after--'pasta alla norma' (rigatoni, tomato sauce, fried eggplant and salty ricotta cheese do make an amazing combination).

The dancers of the Bejart Ballet Lausanne, along with the theater's orchestra, were the stars that brought the place to life and filled the air with magic. I had never seen this troupe perform and appreciated the incredible talent and grace of the performers, ballet with an edge. I am no expert on such matters, but this is modern, creative choreography rooted in classical ballet foundations. Correct me if I am wrong anyone out there! I just loved it.

So much so that the performance and atmosphere of the theater transported me to that place inside oneself that can be anywhere in the world. Powerful food for an expat's occasionally disconnected soul, a little reminder that home is a part of me no matter where my physical being happens to be, a sensation that can feel very good when submerged in a culture that has become my own even though it is not. 

Or, to put it more simply, I felt like an adult and dreamed of being a dancer in my next life!

I can't wait to see what sparks will fly during next month's date with Teatro Bellini --  a performance of the opera Maria Stuarda (Mary Stuart). 

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Attention artichoke lovers!

For a few months now I have enjoyed seeing little three-wheeled trucks (known as ape, or bee, in Italian) parked on the side of the road overflowing with artichokes for sale. I have been wanting to snap a shot of such a sight for weeks now, and finally succeeded. Seeing all those artichokes piled up looking so fresh and green makes my mouth water.

Usually I buy artichokes from my local produce shop, not from these trucks. But the other day we bought a 'fascio' (my translation-big bundle) for 6 Euros. I didn't count, but there must have been 30 artichokes in that bundle. 

We got home and had a family artichoke cleaning fest, toddler included. My husband had to re-teach me how to do it, as in the US I have never encountered an artichoke in such a state and I hadn't helped out since our days in Rome. Some might think a lot of work for little return, but I actually find the cleaning phase to be quite meditative: the stem is cut down to a reasonable size, the outer tough leaves are picked off from the flower and discarded entirely, the top third or so of the artichoke is sliced off completley, the outer skin of the stem is peeled off to expose the tender insides, all surfaces are rubbed with lemon to prevent them from turning brown, the cleaned artichoke is soaked in water for about an hour. 

The artichoke is now ready to be seasoned and cooked. Although I have no recipe to share (my husband is the expert in all things Italian and doesn't use recipes), I can give you a general idea of how these artichokes were savored. Roman style, our prefered way, means stuffing each choke with garlic and seasoning with mint, followed by steaming in a big pot with a little water, oil, and white wine. Simple and simply delicious. 

I should also add that Italian artichokes, and Sicilian ones in particular, are tastier than any I have ever tried in the US. A different type than what is grown back home, no doubt, but I am not knowledgable about articoke varieties and can only say artichokes here are smaller, more flavorful and delicate than those found in the US. 

And the best part-eating! I love picking off the leaves and eating the meaty bits, working my way down to the tender leaves that can be eaten whole, and finally the delicate heart cleaned of the fuzz, and the surprise long stems that don't look pretty but can be almost as sweet as the hearts. 

So go buy yourself a fascio and have an artichoke fest!

Monday, February 2, 2009

Giardini Naxos, antiquity plus nature

Giardini Naxos was one of the few archaeological sites within easy driving distance from the Catania area that we hadn't yet made an effort to visit, that is until last week. It was on our mental list of things to do when looking for an outing, and finally, a Saturday morning ALONE appeared before us (toddler is now attending a local preschool..and I have to say as a parent I am LOVING the Italian system of 'school on Saturdays'). We jumped the chance to scoot on the road and get out of our 1 km radius comfort zone.

It felt great to take the highway towards Taormina. And less than 45 minutes later, we found ourselves in modern Giardini Naxos, a not so pretty resort town (although I did see a cute little playground just across from the sea) that hugs the rather stunning Naxos Bay, all in the shadow of Taormina's breathtaking outline. More than archaeology, this place is famous for the bay's crystal clear water, the stunning view of Mt. Etna behind it, and its proximity to Taormina. 

The archaeological site, named after the Greek island Naxos its settlers were believed to originate from, is located next to the town's small port. While the natural surroundings are beautiful, the town itself is a little concrete jungle with very few signs of history to be seen. However, once you step through the entrance gate of the archaeological zone, all that suffocating construction can pretty readily be forgotten, helped by the unobstructed views of Taormina always visible in the distance (as seen in the photo).

Imagine rustic stone country house converted into a museum. Meandering path through fields overgrown with weeds and wildflowers. Scraggly citrus trees (giardini means citrus grove in Sicilian). The occassional sign-posted ancient basalt stone remains. And, except for numerous personnel in the museum (all reading newspapers by the way), and one friendly (and I imagine lonely, or bored, or both) guard on the site, we had the place entirely to ourselves. 

After a visit to the little museum (the well-preserved painted terracotta architectural elements were my favorite), we followed the marked path through the site, at least a 10 minute walk. For most of that, the feeling of being in a secluded natural paradise dominated, rather than the feeling of being in the first Greek settlement in Sicily. This is an extremely important site, but judging from the abundance of weeds, there are apparently no resources going into maintaining the uncovered remains in a visible or understandable state. The majority of the remains themselves are not that impressive, and the overgrown condition of the site certainly didn't lend to their appreciation. Not that the nature-loving/romantic side of me really minded, as it was suggestive and beautiful all the same, but working in the field of cultural heritage preservation, my professional self felt sad to see such an important ancient site for this region relatively neglected. I can only hope that dry summer months make the site look more like it is pictured on the web link above. 

It was only at the very end of our walk that the site's most impressive structures could be seen and appreciated, weeds and all: a 5oo meter stretch of the ancient city's wall, and two very well preserved ancient pottery kilns sheltered by an impressive covering. The lengthy wall truly gave a sense of the place's size, while ancient kilns are rarer to see making it an exciting discovery for us. Reading in the guidebook post-visit (oops) I realized we missed seeing well-preserved polygonal walls and the so-called Sea Gate, which apparently no longer has views of the sea, which are unfortunately blocked by a row of seaside houses conveniently just outside the 'archaeological zone'.

On leaving the site, the shock of the 1960s Sicilian new may have been more disturbing than on the way in. But I managed to focus on the parts I liked (the views, the water) and bottle up the sensations of the experience--peaceful, invigorating, interesting--tightly enough so they stayed with me all the way home and well throughout the day. A success I'd say!