Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Orange Gelato, Dishtowels and Memories

I never used to like the combination of orange sherbet and vanilla ice cream, but it was always my mother’s favorite. As a kid, I’d curl my lip at her weird ice cream parlor choice, and dig into a cone of predictable old chocolate chip. And my mother was just as predictable. Whenever we’d go get ice cream, it was always a scoop of orange sherbet and a scoop of vanilla for her.
I think I spy some agrumi in there...

It wasn’t until my first extended trip to Italy in 2005 that I finally figured out what I was missing. On an unseasonably hot May day in Rome, I and a few other students stopped at a gelateria at Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere, that colorful hub of an equally colorful Roman neighborhood. The weather seemed too hot and sticky for chocolate of hazelnut or caramel ice cream, so I opted for orange and, what the hell…fior di latte. Fior di latte is not exactly vanilla—it literally translates to “milk flower”—but it is flavored with vanilla bean and has the same creamy sweetness of a rich vanilla ice cream. What we would call orange gelato is called “agrumi” here; as it’s a mixture of several different types of citrus, though mostly oranges.

I don’t know what compelled me to order that flavor combination. Maybe because I was missing my mom back home, and I knew how thrilled she’d be with Italy, with Rome, and with gelato, especially her two favorite tastes together.

Looks like I found some agrumi in this shot.
And it turns out, she was on to something. The tartness of the agrumi—it has less sugar than most fruit-flavored gelatos—coupled with the creaminess of the fior di latte was an extremely satisfying combination, a ying and yang that balanced perfectly with one another. Maybe for me, it was something about being on the first day of an Italian adventure that would eventually turn into the adventure of my life; maybe it was that picturesque piazza, or the sense of freedom I felt at being, for a couple of months at least, far removed from my daily stresses and instead pursuing a long-shelved dream of studying archaeology. But that orange and vanilla gelato that day in Rome was really just shockingly good.

It also turns out the while fior di latte is a stand-by flavor in most gelaterias, agrumi is not. It’s hard to find, so much so that outside of very large gelaterias in equally large cities, a tub of the tart orange goodness shows up only every so often. Strawberry and lemon? You can always find those. But agrumi is a rarity. In the years since that first cup, I’ve had a hankering for orange gelato to go with my fior di latte (or coconut, an equally delightful combination), and I’ve walked disappointed out of many a gelateria—with some alternate flavors in hand, or…cup, of course.

My dad eating decidedly un-agrumi gelato in Orvieto, 2011.
Now, when I actually find agrumi gelato at a gelateria, it’s such a rare treat and pleasant surprise that of course I have to order it to go with my fior di latte. No one in any gelato-eating party I’ve ever been a part of has ever ordered the combination. I’ve even gotten a few strange looks for ordering it, much like that lip-curl I used to give my mom when we went to Baskin Robbins. I offer a taste, but even Paolo’s not interested in trying it. Orange and vanilla? Weird, right?

In my mom's three trips to Italy with my dad, we never found orange gelato on the daily menu. Bad timing, I suppose. My parents always visited in the fall, when bars and even gelaterias reduce their inventories and cut back on the fruit flavors so associated with hot summer days. So she never got her orange and vanilla ice cream in Italy, but I’m sure she wasn’t too disappointed. And I’m sure I was disappointed enough for her, like I was with so many things that I tried to make up for in her and my dad’s life.

Blackberries in my mom's old colander
So whenever I eat my peculiar combination of gelato, I think of my mom, the same way I think of her when I wear a dishtowel over my shoulder when I’m working in the kitchen. She always used to do that and for whatever reason, it used to drive my crazy, especially when she’d start looking all over the kitchen for her dishtowel, only to realize it was on her shoulder. It turns out, your shoulder is a pretty handy place to keep a dishtowel. I think of her whenever I bake, as I gave all her muffin and cake pans and rolling pins and cookie cutters to my sister, thinking I’d never use them in Italy. I’ve bought new of all of them, but I now miss that old wooden rolling pin, which had been her mother’s, and those battered cake pans and bent metal cookie cutters. I fortunately have her equally beat-up metal colander. It’s funny how something as simple as draining pasta can bring back such sweet memories.

Last evening, we went to our local bar, ostensibly to get Naomi a gelato. I’m dieting now in earnest and wasn’t planning to get anything. But…they had agrumi, so I had to order a scoop of it, along with a scoop of fior di latte. Naomi decided she didn’t want gelato after all and instead grabbed a lollipop formed in the shape of a whistle, and started tooting about the bar. Paolo got his usual chocolate and crema, and wasn’t the least bit interested in my tangy-creamy duo. 
My last photo with my mom, May 2013, taken right before
we headed to the airport to return to Italy. She died in June.

He didn’t know what he was missing, I told him. 

But I knew what—and who—I was missing. 

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Truck for Sale, Cheap: A Monument to Suffering and Neglect

You can't replicate this kind of character.
Paolo needs a new truck. This much is certain. He’s put it off and put it off, as neither of us is wild about the idea of a new monthly payment. But he works as a stonemason and general contractor. So that means for hauling rocks or hauling roof beams or hauling construction debris, he needs a reliable truck.

Let’s focus for a moment on the word reliable. See, Paolo has a truck. It’s a 2007 Mahindra, an Indian brand that is popular in Italy. And I’m sure when it was new, the truck was a gem. But then something happened to it. Paolo bought it. With much love and respect to my husband, he has destroyed that poor truck. He’s driven it across rocky creek-beds and through the narrow streets of stone-built villages. He’s loaded it with more cargo than it can handle. And he has bounced it like a rubber ball through most of Umbria.

This one's broken, but the other one still works.
Oh wait, no it doesn't.
Now that we have to sell the old truck in order to buy a new one, I know there’s someone out there who wants to give this vehicle a new lease on life. So to pique your interest, I’d like to highlight just some of the road-tested experience in the short, difficult life of this noble vehicle:
  • Once while out truffle hunting, Paolo nearly rolled the truck over into a ditch. Only a strategically placed boulder kept it from tumbling 180 degrees. He and his friend Matteo climbed out of the nearly-sideways truck and made a track with rocks in order to level the truck and drive out. You could pay big bucks for a vintage look like this, but these scratches and dents are included at no extra charge.
  • The battery dies and has to be replaced, often. Once when it was dead, Paolo tried to run the truck downhill in order to pop the clutch and get it going. But the engine still didn’t turn over, and he ran the truck into an olive tree instead. The bumper still features the original dent from the olive trunk. What character! 

  • This was caused by an olive tree. Or was it a ditch?
  • Another time, he was backing up through our yard and didn’t see a huge hole in the ground where a tree had been. The truck hit the hole, and slid against and olive tree, crushing the roof and jamming shut the driver’s side door. He tried to say that one was Matteo’s fault for not warning him about the hole. The door opens now, but the roof is still dented.
  • On a rainy day while Paolo was out truffle hunting, the truck starting sliding through a muddy field, and slide within a few meters of a cliff. Paolo had to call a friend with a tractor to come pull him out of the field. This was a few years ago, but I think the mud splatter is still on the truck.

By now you’re probably saying to yourself, “Sounds good, but what about standard features?” Fear not, Dear Future Truck Owner, this baby’s loaded:
It's kind of like looking at the world
with a Cubism mirror...
  • Both the side mirrors are cracked. They’re also broken from their mountings—this is from driving through those narrow streets and scraping the mirrors against stone walls—and held on, badly, with silicone caulk. Not only does their flexibility allow you to more easily pass through narrow village streets, their flapping in the wind as you drive will be sure to attract the envy and attention of other drivers.

  • The automatic driver and passenger side windows no longer function with those pesky buttons. In the wintertime, the windows are cleverly held in place with a putty knife. In summer, they are open all the time, to let in those cool breezes and occasional rain storms to wash the upholstery. And, we’ve taken the liberty of removing the door panel from the driver’s side, so you don’t have to.
    Would you believe it still has that
    new car smell? Probably not.
  • Who likes driving at night, anyway? No worries. The truck’s headlights, taillights and brake lights don’t function. So you can park it at the end of a long day and be secure in knowing that you can’t take it out again until daylight. Just be sure to get home before it gets dark.
    Really, those door panels only
    have aesthetic function anyway.
    No need to worry about messing
    up the upholstery...
  • Since the windows stay securely closed during winter and open all summer long, there’s no need for heat or a/c, neither of which function. However, if you want a powerful blast of hot dirt in your face, turn the heating/cooling system on full blast—it functions as a great exfoliate.
  • Don’t spend another dime at the dentist on a painful, expensive tooth extraction. With the finest Indian suspension system, the tooth-rattling ride this chariot provides will save you a mouthful of dental fees. Note: Riding in vehicle not recommended for women in any stage of pregnancy, or for individuals with back, neck, or joint pain, or at risk of heart attack, stroke, or accidentally biting off their tongue when hitting a bump in the road.

I know what you’re thinking. A peach of a truck like this has surely already been plucked. But fear not, Dear Future Truck Owner, she’s still available, and waiting just for you. That said, we're going truck shopping this very weekend, so time is of the essence. So go ahead. Don’t be shy. Make us an offer. Please. Please.
The truck even claimed a victim...Paolo
recently backed it into our car.