I’ve been in Ischia, the island off the coast of Naples, Italy that is home to my ancestors, for a month now, and all I’ve been eating is fish. From mussels and clams to cod and tuna, my belly can’t seem to get enough. Most recently, my brother-in-law has been going fishing with his family. Every time he does, he comes home with buckets full of fish for us to eat. The photo above features his first bucket. My mother-in-law fried and roasted these bad boys. After fishing last week, my brother-in-law marinated the fish, grilled it, and we all ate it outside. I have to admit, however, that the “spine” in these fish are getting on my nerves. You feel like you’re choking and then you have to fish out the tiny bones before swallowing. I guess that’s why mussels, clams, and shrimp remain my favorites. In the spirit of this food-inspired blog, check out my recent Newlyweds commentary on cooking for date night and my ItaliansRus article on Italians and their wine.
Italians like to eat. But few of the ones I know in Ischia, a small island off the coast of Naples that is home to my husband and my ancestors, are adventurous when it comes to food. I’ve had them try Chinese food; most of them hated it. I’ve had them try Mexican; most of them complain it’s just too spicy. I’ve had them try sushi; most of them find it disgusting (I’m actually not a big fan myself, so I can’t gripe much about that one). My in-laws and my husband, however, are willing to try my American fare — and a few of the desserts they rather like. In the past, apple pie and chocolate chip muffins have been big winners with them.
This year, I decided to bring a Duncan Heinz lemon cupcake mix (from a box, which is sacrilege among southern Italians, who cook and bake everything from scratch). Well, my niece and I made the cupcakes and handed them over. After one bite, we earned a standing ovation for the cupcake’s moistness and the flavorful lemony zing. Friends, who visited the house, tasted the cupcakes and said they tasted better than some other Italian treats on hand. All the while, these gourmet Italians, who believe in only homemade goodness, had no idea what they were eating came out of a box, and I just had my niece add eggs, oil, and water and mix. Who knew entertaining could be so easy? Gotta love it!
There is an art to setting the table. Different cultures have different ways of doing it. The Japanese, for instance, might have you sit on cushions on the floor. Americans put forks and spoons on the left and knives on the right, and our drinking glasses are way bigger than others. Everyone wants to make a statement with his table when hosting a dinner party at home. But Italians simply do it better.
Entertaining is as natural to southern Italians as breathing. Their lives revolve around food and family, and their homes, much like their hearts, are always open. Recently, my cousin Fausto set a table for his parents, our Australian cousin Vanessa, and me, at his family’s home in Ischia, Italy, the island where I’m staying for the next month or so. (For photos, visit “Fausto’s Tablescape” photo album.) Here are some tips I picked up by observing Fausto’s tablescape –
1. Make the most of nature. Fausto used pink flowers from his parent’s garden to spruce up the table, which was set outdoors on a patio. He used these flowers to surround two candles on either end of the oblong table. He also wrapped coral tea roses, also from the garden, in large green leaves and left one at the seat of each of the women in attendance.
2. Keep things simple for a casual night with family. Rather than pull out expensive, fancy china and silverware, Fausto used his mom’s everyday dishes and glasses and paper napkins.
3. Food is as much apart of the tablescape as anything else. Fausto and his parents were sure to beautifully plate our various courses. For instance he put a chunk of grilled bread smothered in calamari with red sauce on the center of one plate and sprinkled chopped fresh parsley on top. The food (as you’ll see in the photo album) looked like another piece of art on the table. It also happened to be delicious, a bonus.
4. Your guests are the most important part of the dinner party. Fausto and family were entertaining, too. They always are gracious, and keep the conversation moving. Of course, they like to have fun. Fausto put additional flowers in our hair — and his own — so we could take funny pictures to send to our relatives around the world (in the United States, France, and Australia).
My family is like its own United Nations. We have relatives in the United States, Italy, Canada, Australia, France, and Argentina. I have friends who barely know their cousins who live a few towns over, meanwhile I can say that I know a lot of the relatives in these other countries — and I know many of them pretty well. We’ve visited each other’s countries, met up in Italy (the ancestral home base), and stay connected with letters, phone, e-mail, Facebook, and Skype. It’s pretty special if you ask me.
In the last week, some of our cousins from France made a stop in the States on their way to a Quebec vacation. Since I work from home during the week, they were kind enough to travel from Long Island to New Jersey to see me. They brought my grandmother — and a GPS — to boot. They made their way here despite the inevitable traffic and without getting lost. I was able to have lunch and catch up with them despite the work week. For this, I’m grateful.
Having relatives from all over the world is a lesson in culture. I’m always having to keep track of how to kiss the relative in question. The Americans want one kiss on the cheek, and men never kiss each other; they give each other handshakes. The Italians demand two kisses, one on each cheek, and the men kiss each other, too. The French expect three kisses, alternating cheeks as you go. Men kiss each other in France, too. I’m always fumbling and giving the Italians three kisses or pulling away after one. I guess they just all think I’m a kissing fool.
One of the highlights of our weekend was going to lunch with cousins Fran, William, Little William, and Phillip for sushi at Robongi in Hoboken. Antonio and I never eat sushi, but Little William loves this place, so we couldn’t say no. We’re glad we went. Antonio devoured the sushi and sashimi and everything else that arrived at the table. I stuck with the chicken teriyaki and dumplings, which are my favorite and were divine. The best part was hanging out with the kids, however. William and Phillip were cuter than ever (To see pictures of their adorableness, you can visit the “Sushi Fun” photo album.)
We can’t thank Fran, William, Little William, and Phillip enough for offering us lunch and introducing us to a new restaurant that I’m sure we’ll visit again.
My husband and I always seem to be entertaining people, especially when we are at our home in the United States. Whenever friends come from Italy, we cook, clean, and visit New York way more than usual. It’s worth it because we usually have a whole lot of fun ourselves. Although we sometimes get on each other’s nerves in the kitchen. We both have our own way of doing things, and we usually end up cooking two different menus. Recently, we had our friends Francesco Serpentone, Domenico, and Titti, along with a few other Italian guests, join us for dinner — and my father did the cooking while I was working and Antonio was with everyone at the Statue of Liberty. I just took care of setting a lovely table, the salad, antipasto, and dessert. Papa did the rest. We made a pretty great team. You can join us at the table by visiting the “Dinner with the Big Snake” photo album.
Our friends Titti and Domenico returned to Italy a little less than a week ago, and we’re already missing them. But we have lots of photos to remind us of all the fun we had. One of the highlights of the trip was breaking bread with them at our house, my aunt’s house, and my cousin’s house. (For pictures of us at my cousin’s house, see the “NY Tourists Break Bread” photo album”.) Even though they were trying to watch their weight and eat healthy, we managed to sneak in a cheesecake and some cookies. Yum!
My husband Antonio and I have been celebrating our first wedding anniversary for months. On the anniversary of our actual Italian wedding, which took place on Oct. 2, 2008, my husband surprised me with a night in an Italian castle. Then, he came here to the United States and on the anniversary of our vow renewal, which took place on Nov. 29, 2008, we ate the buffet brunch at Villa Amalfi, where we held our American reception and ate the second coming of our vow renewal cake. (See photos of the brunch and cake in the “Vow Renewal Anniversary 2009” photo album.) Finally, just last week, we took a trip to Disney World, my anniversary gift to Antonio and celebrated at many fine Disney restaurants (more scoop on that in upcoming blogs). We don’t even need the holidays to come this year; We’ve done enough celebrating for a lifetime. For tips on how to throw your own vow renewal ceremony, visit About.com’s Newlyweds site.
Last week, my husband Antonio and I prepared a Thanksgiving meal for the ages. It was the first time ever that we hosted a holiday — and it was the Super Bowl of American holidays. Still, I think we pulled it off successfully. It helped that two of our guests were Italians, and Thanksgiving isn’t their holiday. If you don’t know what Thanksgiving is supposed to be, you can’t really gripe about it, right?
Seriously, we had a blast, and I wrote all about the prep in the About.com Newlyweds blog. You can also join us at our Thanksgiving table by visiting the “Our First Thanksgiving” photo album. I hope your holiday was as wonderful as ours.
On Saturday, my first day back in the United States, I immediately headed to Bobby’s Burger Palace or BBP, Bobby Flay’s new chain of burger joints, for an all-American beef burger with cheese, fries, and a milkshake. (I went to the one in the Bergen Town Center in Paramus, formerly known as the Bergen Mall or the dirt mall, which has recently received a major face lift.) Welcome home, welcome home, welcome home! Anyone who’s eaten a hamburger in Italy knows what I’m talking about. Pasta and sausage and chicken and rabbit — that’s what Italy should stick to.
The beef there is simply missing something. For starters, their cows are skinny little things. Sometimes, you can even see their rib cages. Then, when you eat beef — especially burgers — there’s this awful after taste. For a minute after I take a bite of an Italian burger, I’m always convinced that I’ve just eaten a hoof. They don’t know the joys of French fries and a shake either. Their fries are good but rarely paired with burgers and their gelato is delicious (in fact, I’m a recovering gelato addict), but it’s soft and therefore doesn’t hold up well when you try to make a frothy American milkshake.
But Bobby’s burgers are mouth watering bits of heaven, especially for someone who had not eaten a hamburger in five months. I ordered the classic with American cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion and a pickle on the side. For my side, I chose the sweet potato fries, another item I had not eaten in months, and a strawberry shake. My mom ordered beer battered onion rings. (Okay, so I mostly ate those, too, but in my defense I was hungry and my stomach has grown significantly since I left for Italy in May.) In any event, the food tasted as good as it looked. And I literally did a little dance in my barstool as I feasted on it.
Anyone who thinks Bobby Flay is too highfalutin to run a burger joint should think again. “Chefs have funny dreams,” says Flay, according to Newsday. “They may have a couple of four-star restaurants, but they fantasize about opening up a hotdog stand. A lot of them think that it’s too late, that they’re beyond that, but for me, it’s the opposite: Now that I’ve gotten to this point, I can do the thing I crave the most – which is a cheeseburger, fries and a shake.” Mr. Flay, you certainly quenched my craving for that very same menu. Kudos and thanks!