Weekends in August in Ischia, Italy can get pretty gloomy, at least for some of us. It’s the height of tourist season here, so the natives are busy hosting all the tourists. My husband has been working morning and night literally. When he is home, he sleeps. So, Baby Boy and I are pretty much on our own. The streets and beaches are littered with people, and all our friends are hard at work, too. So, we have been staying in. Still, home has its perks – delicious food (ordered in or made by the in-laws or me), making silly faces for iPhotoBooth pics, and the ability to iron all those white shirts that hubby needs for work. Ok, so the ironing wasn’t so much fun. But it certainly needs to be featured in a collage about an Italian mamma’s typical weekend. When in RomeIschia…
All the parenting and food bloggers are writing about school lunches now that the first day either already happened or is around the corner. I feel compelled to share the experiences of an Italian kid packing a lunch for an American school. For starters, while other kids had those little brown bags that you buy in a package, my parents saved the huge brown bags in which you put your groceries for our lunches. No joke. Yes, I was the 6-year-old kid with salami and provolone on Italian bread instead of those PB&Js everyone else had in first grade. But that was just my antipasto. Then, I’d have a thermos with pasta or lasagne or meatballs. I often had some sort of treat, such as a zeppole. Once in a while, my mom, who is Italian by ancestry but born and raised in the States, would give us an American cookie. And we had snacks – a fruit, pretzels, carrot sticks, a granola bar. This was all happening back in the ’80s, when it was still socially acceptable to drink juice, so we had a juice box, too. (Capri Sun, sometimes – shhh, don’t tell anyone!)
There was so much food that we usually could trade for something else and still have plenty of our own meal. Since I was going to school in the melting pot that is Fort Lee, N.J., I had classmates who were Jewish, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Latin, etc. Often, I traded homemade pizza for seaweed or rice, matzah or challah bread. And no one ever thought I was weird for my salami or spaghetti. They were just grateful my parents made so much. Lunch actually enticed them to sign up for play dates at our house. Food made my brother, sister, and me pretty popular, in fact. When I went off to work and was still living at home, my parents often made those big brown bag lunches still. I can’t pack groceries without getting misty eyed over roasted red peppers and mozzarella sandwiches, linguine and pesto, and the notes my mom would write to me.
In fact, I was so inspired by these lunches that I used to pack them in more traditional brown bags for my adult, Italian guests, and my husband, who visited and took English courses in nearby New York. As I sent them off to school, I would hand them each their brown bag, which I would personalize with their names and little pictures or stickers. They got a kick out of having American lunches, so it was egg salad, PB&J, homemade macaroni and cheese, various soups and stews in a thermos, etc. Their favorite part of the meal was the carrot sticks because Italians aren’t much for eating raw carrots. It was all new to them. One of them still gives me raw carrots in a bouquet when I’m back in the Boot. Of course, I wrote them encouraging notes and stuffed them in between their goodies in the bag. No bento boxes or sandwiches in the shapes of snakes or anything. It was just good homemade food, usually with stuff from our own garden (because what Italian family doesn’t have one), packed with a whole lotta love. There’s really nothing sweeter.
Italian mammas wake up in the morning thinking about what they’re going to feed their families (not to mention themselves), and they go to bed thinking the same thing. Food is on the brain pretty much all the time. Sometimes, recipes just call to you. When I am in Italy, I find myself constantly making American recipes to share with my Italian family and friends. This morning, I was all about making this here blueberry cobbler. There were blueberries in the fridge, and I noticed them before bed. I had visions of muffins or something that combined them with whipped cream at first. But by morning, I realized cobbler was all that would do. We won’t indulge until tonight. But if it tastes half as good as it looks, I won’t be disappointed. Oh, yeah…and the Italians might like it, too. And it was soooooo… easy to make with this Easy Batter Fruit Cobbler recipe from USA Weekend columnist Pam Anderson, which was posted on allrecipes. In fact, you could feasibly make one of these babies every day of the summer. What sweet dreams!
A while back I wrote about Nutella because the chocolate hazelnut spread is becoming popular with Americans and others around the world. It is no longer just for us Italian kids and kids at heart. My son became quite the picky eater while we lived in Italy last year, but one thing he never said no to was Nutella. If it were up to him, we’d eat it at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Many others feel the same, which is what motivated me to cover this pantry staple in Italy. If you want to join in the singing of Nutella’s praises, you can check out “Ode to Nutella” on the ItaliansRus site. I’m fully aware of the fact that now that I’ve mentioned this, you are running to the cupboard to grab your Nutella and smear it on some toast. Happy eatin’! Di Meglio is the author of Fun with the Family New Jersey (Globe Pequot Press Travel, 2012) and the Newlyweds Expert for About.com.
Buffffaaaaayyyy is my husband’s battle cry as we head to Dynasty Buffet in Saddle Brook, N.J. Every. Single. Time. His goal is to eat his weight in sushi and steak and everything else. I think he usually manages. This place offers a multi-faceted buffet that is mostly composed of Chinese food but features a little bit of pasta, sushi, carving stations, and some all-American, kid-friendly fare, such as mini hot dogs and French fries. Baby Boy loves him some mashed potatoes and fried fish at this affordable all-you-can-eat buffet. (It costs about $20 per person for dinner.) My father loves it because it’s BYOB, so he can bring the homemade vino and drink it even though we’re at a restaurant. We have had a few celebrations here, including birthdays and the welcoming of Italian family members on holiday. All have been a huge success. I dream of the crab rangoons often and with verve. You and the kids will delight in the meal but also the dessert, which includes pastries, cookies, and self-serve, soft-serve ice cream in vanilla, chocolate, or swirl and replete with a slew of toppings, including cherries, sprinkles, and nuts. It’s a real treat to head to the buffet. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed – and neither will your stomach.
Anyone who knows me (or reads this site) realizes that my family and I don’t have an ounce of Irish in us. A few of my relatives married Irish people, but that’s about it. Still, we’re Italian, so we’re into celebrations – any excuse to eat and drink. In that spirit, I hosted a St. Patty’s Day dinner for my son and his two cousins last night. We reveled in the fact that St. Patrick is an Italian. (It’s a fact you can read about in this story I wrote for ItaliansRus.com.) Our Italian St. Patrick’s Day feast involved homemade pizza with a slice of bell pepper to look like a shamrock, green and white tortellini, and green apple juice. I would have turned the wine green, but I think my father would have disowned me.
Nonno – otherwise known as my father – loves to give his grandchildren a loaf of Italian bread each. He gets a kick out of how the two boys chew on it like it’s the greatest thing since, well, sliced bread. I know. I know. This is anti-everything healthy. But it’s so very Italian of us to hand our kids Italian bread as a snack. And ain’t nobody stoppin’ Nonno, although I’d love to see one of the moms in the Kale Chip Gestapo try. Now that would be a match for the ages!
Once these little guys are talking in complete sentences, their complaints about belly aches post bread will be very Italian, too. This week’s installment of Our Paesani on ItaliansRus will have you laughing out loud with its assessment of indigestion among Italians. It’s a cultural phenomenon, akin to Topo Gigio, that rarely gets the attention it deserves. So, grab your belly and hang on ’cause it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Find out how my husband and I are recovering from Disney’s Deluxe Dining plan, in which we indulged last week, in my latest Newlyweds post for About.com. Don’t worry, Baby Boy is going to have to recover, too. He won’t be seeing anymore of the delicious Mickey Mouse ice cream bars, which he is devouring in the photo above, either. Back to whole wheat bread, fruits, and veggies for us all. Maybe, we’ll have a little something sweet for Valentine’s Day, though. You can’t give it all up 1-2-3, right?
Sometimes, dinner in Italy seems like an afterthought. I mentioned yesterday how lunch is the star of Italian meals. As a result, sometimes people are so full that they barely even think about what to eat for dinner. Unlike those of us in the United States who eat dinner around 6 or 7 in the evening, Italians won’t even consider sitting down for a bite before 8 or 9 at night. Those young folks, who go out to restaurants for dinner, might not even make it there until 10 o’clock. I, an American, never did get used to this schedule. I still find myself starving at 7, unable to wait that other hour, for the nightly meal. Back when I was dating my husband and we’d go out to eat in Ischia, I would be falling asleep over my mussels in white wine sauce.
Now, the photo above features bruschetta, which is toasted Italian bread with olive oil (and sometimes cut garlic has been swiped across the toast for flavor) and is topped with toppings, most commonly tomatoes with basil, salt, and olive oil. This is basically the same thing as tomatoes and bread (just swap toasted bread for fresh), which I’ve mentioned my people, who work the land, eat for breakfast often. Well, Italians also eat this for dinner. The reason is that it’s light and refreshing. And the bread makes it filling. They might pair it with some fresh mozzarella or prosciutto di Parma. Or they will have a panini – a pressed sandwich – and a light salad for their meal. Still, there’s always bread.
If you haven’t noticed, Italians are carb-a-holics. Bread is always on the table. If you didn’t have pasta as your primo at lunch, you’ll probably have a dish of some sort of pasta for dinner. It’s usually something simple to make and a little lighter than what you would eat at lunch. You’ll skip the secondo, unless you’re going out to eat or it’s a holiday of some sort. Another favorite at dinner is pizza. In Ischia, right outside of Naples, which is pizza’s birthplace, you can get individual pies that have been cooked in a wood-burning stove that taste nothing like you’ve ever had before. Each bite of that thin, crunchy, perfectly charred crust is pure Paradiso. Pizza is the one meal that Italians believe calls for beer or Coca-Cola instead of wine, by the way. So, whip out the Peroni or Nastro Azzurro (depending on your preference) and chow down. Buon appetito!
Lunch in southern Italy is nothing short of a revelation. Unlike those of us in America, most Italians in the south get three hours off for lunch and it is an event everyday. School closes in time for the kids to go home and eat with their families. Stores close, even the supermarket. They won’t be open again until 5 or 6 in the evening. Everyone has to spend quality time with their family, take a rest (people even nap from 3 to 5), and mangia, mangia. As an American, I’m still shocked to see the locks on all the stores starting at 1 in the afternoon.
While I’m used to scarfing down a sandwich while sitting at my computer working during the lunch hour (how very American of me), the meal in Italy often consists of a “primo” and a “secondo,” which refers to a first and second plate. The primo is either soup, risotto, or more likely pasta of some sort. The second is either a fish or meat with a couple of side dishes (often a mixed, green salad and another vegetable). Many Italians finish off their meal with a piece of fruit that they chase with an espresso.
For special occasions, such as holidays, you’ll have antipasto (appetizers) before the primo and a dessert after the secondo. Recently, my husband, Baby Boy, and I went out to eat at Ischia Porto’s Baia del Clipper restaurant. There, we had antipasto of smoked swordfish and salmon, shrimp in a light lemon sauce, octopus salad (my favorite), and seaweed zeppoles. Then, we had linguine with mussels and clams. Our secondo was the baked fish in acqua pazza that you see above. Yes, it does translate to crazy water. And, yes, even the names of food are cool in the Boot.
Of course, we intended to stop there. But we passed by Bar de Maio, and its fior di latte gelato was calling our name. So, we picked up some fior di latte, vanilla, and Kinder cereal ice cream for the whole family – all 13 in-laws back home – and called it a day. Well, not until after we finished off that kilo of ice cream with the help of our loved ones, of course.