Wednesday, June 20, 2012

If you can’t stand the caldo, stay out of Italy

Yesterday I went to lunch in Orvieto with my friend Susan Morgan, who writes a wonderful blog about her life in Italy. I told her in advance that I didn’t care about the quality of the food, so long as we found a place that had air-conditioning. 

We stopped at one restaurant that we thought was a sure bet, but the front doors were flung open – a sure sign of no a/c, or at least that the owners were too miserly to turn on the a/c. 

Today's weather map for Italy. Notice the great range
of weather, from hot to hotter to really, really hot.
Still, I went in to check it out. The dining room was not quite sweltering, but nowhere near the level of comfort I was looking for. “We have a garden terrace,” the host said. “Is it cool out there?” I questioned. “It’s a little cool,” he said, weakly, clearly squirming under the screws of my interrogation.

I checked it out. Ha! A sun baked terrace surrounded by four high walls, with a few tables and umbrellas and not enough breeze to flutter a leaf. “We’ll come back on a cool evening,” I told him as we exited.

Our next stop was Taverna del Etrusco, a reliable restaurant that seems to draw more tourists than locals, but does have pretty good food. Best of all, when we approached, the doors were closed – a great sign.

We went in, and while it was kind of cool, it wasn’t really, really cool. So when the waiter motioned us to a table, I asked if it was fresca (cool). “Yes,” he said, “and we can turn the air conditioner on if you’d like.”

I nearly wept with joy when I saw the a/c unit on the wall next to our table. It soon began humming along, and by the time our meal was done, I was nearly chilly in my sleeveless dress. Beautifully, blissfully chilly. It is a rare pleasure during summertime in Italy.

When I first moved to Italy, Paolo, at my urging, had air-conditioning installed in his small apartment. (Oh, I remember those days, back when he would do almost anything to please his new American bride-to-be…) We were definitely in the minority in Italy, as air-conditioning in homes, stores, and public buildings – and even in hospitals, is rare.

When I’d exit the apartment, our neighbor, who sits on his balcony every afternoon, binoculars in hand (he uses them to check out women’s asses as they walk down the street, but that’s a story for another blog) would always wave to me and offer a rhetorical, one word weather report. “Caldo” (hot), “piove” (rain), “freddo” (cold), as if this would somehow enlighten me.

We’ve since moved to a home just outside town, so I see that neighbor less often, and when I do, it’s usually to wave from the car as I pass. But if he were to offer his one-word weather report this week, it would be caldo. Really, really fucking caldo, like so caldo you can hardly talk about it caldo.

I moved to Italy from Southwest Florida, where summertime feels like sauna-time. I should be used to caldo, right? Except that in Florida, as I so often explain to my Italians, everything is air-conditioned. Cars, stores, houses, banks, doctor’s offices, malls. And as much as I know the evils of carbon footprints and freon admissions and all those decidedly un-green things, God do I miss it.

We don’t have air-conditioning in our new home. We moved in during the winter, so we put off having it installed. Then we put it off some more. Now, summer has arrived with a sweaty roar, and we don’t have the several thousand euro lying around that we need to install a/c. Next year, we say.

We do have air conditioning in the car, but with the price of diesel, I can hardly justify driving around the Umbrian countryside aimlessly, just so I can cool off. 

Besides, air conditioning is a battle in our marriage. Italians have an aversion to air conditioning, breezes, fans, and ice. They also fear sweating, but mostly because they’re afraid of sweating and then getting caught in a breeze, which will of course give them a sore throat, a cough, a cold, influenza or the Black Plague. So you will see Italians, male and female, old and young, wearing neck scarves as they work out in sweltering gyms, ride their bikes, or walk across sun-parched piazzas, all to keep from a breeze touching their necks. About the only place they won’t wear scarves is to the swimming pool, and I’m sure, if there were a waterproof scarf available, they’d wear it.

So if Paolo and I get into the hot car, I blast the air conditioning at full tilt, and let its sweet breeze blow back my hair. But as soon as I turn up the fan and turn the air to the full “blue” zone, he inevitably turns down the fan and moves the temperature dial to somewhere between hot and cold, and punches the precious “AC” button off so that we are cooling the car with outside air. He says that he immediately feels a sore throat coming on if too much cold air blasts on him.

Daisy and her new best friend.
I try to be polite and understanding, but it’s hard to yell “What the fuck do you think you're doing?!” while waving my armpits in front of car’s the a/c vents, and do it with a smile on my face. My argument that germs and viruses, and not a cool breeze, are the cause of colds and sore throats and flu and Black Plague falls on deaf ears.

After witnessing how much poor little Naomi is suffering in the heat, Paolo has finally relented a bit. We dug our electric fan out of storage, and positioned it so it was blowing steadily on all three of us – her crib is still in our bedroom – last night. We all slept better last night, and even Paolo allowed that it was due to the fan.

Next year, before the caldo arrives – it comes earlier each year and stays later – thanks, global warming – we’re investing in air conditioning in the house. And until then, Susan and I have decided to hang a framed photo of ourselves over that table at Taverna del Etrusco, so that we might seem like VIPs and always be guaranteed the same spot when we return, which we’ve vowed to do weekly. At least until the caldo breaks…

Friday, June 8, 2012

He had me at bruschetta

When I spent the summer in Orvieto, trying to decide if I should or could make Italy my permanent home, I naturally had the chance to eat lots of great food. What struck me more than anything was the pureness and simplicity of real Umbrian cooking—three, four or five ingredients, all of which you can taste and identify, served without muss or fuss, in ample portions and, at the right trattoria, for a reasonable price. Most everything on your plate is grown or raised within 20 kilometers of where you’re eating.

People flock to Mezza Luna in Orvieto for the carabonara, that wonderfully hearty pasta made of thick noodles, olive oil, pancetta, cheese and raw egg. You can find carabonara in many restaurants in Italy, but in and around Orvieto, everyone agrees that Mezza Luna does it best. It’s a not to be missed experience for anyone spending a few days in Orvieto. If you can get a table, that is.

Fortunately an intrepid member of our party made a reservation several days in advance, and we secured our lunch table for four. I left the ordering to Mario—so long as there were no organ meats or rabbits involved, I was game for pretty much anything. We all had carabonara coming as our primo piatto. But something stole my heart long before the pasta hit the boiling water. Something so simple, yet so divine, as so intrinsically a part of Umbrian cuisine and culture.

It was the bruschetta simplice: toasted bread, olive oil, garlic and salt. I was convinced there was some alchemist’s magic in that plate.

Little did I know that, weeks later, a simple piece of toast would work its magic on me.

The night before our big date.
Yes, yes I did let that man make me a piece of bruschetta.
The run-up to my first date with Paolo was a raucous dinner on some madman’s terrace. Electric guitars were played. Bottles were thrown and smashed, mostly by the host. I remember The Doors and Jimi Hendrix blaring from crackling speakers.

In the midst of this melee, I managed to zero in on Paolo and stick close by. As we started to eat, I reached for a piece of bread and saw the whole garlic cloves nearby, but wasn’t sure what to do next.

“Piace bruschetta?” Do you like bruschetta? Paolo asked me.  

“Si!” I answered, I’m sure a little too eagerly.

Still, there I sat with a piece of unadorned bread in my hand.

“Faccio io?” I’ll do it? he asked.

I nodded again, like one of those bobble head puppies on the dashboard of a taxicab.

And he worked that same magic that I’d tasted at MezzaLuna…he scrubbed both sides of the toasted bread with the garlic, drowned it in oil, sprinkled it with salt (and a dose of bedroom eyes) and handed it to me. God damn! How could that taste so good?!

It was probably a good thing that Paolo and I saved our kissing for the next night, to give us both time to recover from garlic breath. (Like that would have stopped me? Yeah, right.)

Paolo harvesting olives
Now, every November when we harvest our olives, our first meal with the new oil is always bruschetta simplice. I doubt Paolo even remembers me sitting doe-eyed while he made me a silly piece of bread. But every time I bite into a piece of bruschetta, I remember that evening. And as much as I love my bruschetta simplice, it’s never tasted as good as that first slice Paolo made for me.

Even if you don’t have a tall handsome Italian to prepare your bruschetta, it’s a pretty foolproof dish.

The simplest form of this classic Italian antipasto is a heaven-made marriage of just a few flavors, and one of the most perfect things I’ve ever tasted. Americanized versions of bruschetta add cheese, tomato sauce (horrors!) and other toppings. But trust me; the beauty of Italian food is in its simplicity and few ingredients. And this classic bruschetta is the perfect example.

For bruschetta simplice, you will need:
- Rustic white bread
- Whole garlic cloves, peeled
- Good quality extra virgin olive oil
Picking olives is hard work!
Sara and Nonno Gino take a break.
- Salt

- Start with thick (1/2 inch) slices of artisanal white bread – not the kind you buy in the bread aisle at the grocery, but a rustic, handmade loaf. White bread really is the best; anything too flavorful will mask the flavors of the oil.
- If you can, grill the bread over an open flame. In November, we use our fireplace to toast bread for bruschetta. If you don’t have a fireplace or grill, use the broiler function in the oven, but keep an eye on your slices!
- Once the bread is grilled, take a garlic clove and “scrub” it into both sides of the toasted bread. You’ll see that the clove really does wear down, like it’s being grated into the bread.
- Set the toasted bread on a plate and pour the olive oil over it. Don’t drizzle the bread with oil – drown it! It should be completely saturated.
Our olives, heading into the mill.
- Sprinkle some salt across the top, and dig into this fabulous explosion of flavors.