Italians don’t know of cupcakes. They are simply not among the menu of desserts that Italian mammas whip up in their kitchen. But who doesn’t like a cupcake, right? So, on the 4th of July I introduced my Italian relatives to the wonders of biting into an icing-laden, moist funfetti cupcake. And last weekend – oops – I did it again. Only this time around, I made some with vanilla icing, some with chocolate icing, and all with way more decoration. I used rainbow sprinkles, Oreos for Mickey Mouse ears, and white chocolate shavings (those are not in the photo). Since this was my third attempt at making cupcakes and icing from scratch, I had gotten significantly better at it. No one in the house seemed able to resist ’em, least of all me. (I used the same confetti cupcake recipe as last time, the same chocolate frosting recipe, and this super easy vanilla frosting recipe.)
Cupcakes are every American moms go-to treat. It is what you make for your kids’ birthdays and holidays. And there’s something about cupcakes – tiny individual cakes – that makes you feel special and cozy and loved. Well, I was happy to share this bit of Americana with my Italian family. I owe them; after all, they provide me with authentic Neapolitan pizza, homemade tomato sauce, and all the home-grown fruits and veggies I can eat. Indeed, my favorite cultural exchanges are the kind I can bite into. And boy, I could go for a cultural exchange right now. How ’bout you?
Well, the heat has finally descended upon southern Italy, and it is brutal. Before having a baby, I could handle the hot days without much air conditioning. Yes, I am an American who comes from the land of 24/7 AC. God bless America! But I understand that electricity costs are triple in Italy what they are in the States. So, I reserve AC use here for a couple hours in the evening, so we can fall asleep more easily or in the afternoon if I have to turn on the oven to cook something. The homes in Ischia are built of cement with tile floors and there’s always that precious sea breeze, so with the windows open, you can usually survive, especially if you are sitting at a computer with a fan under it most of the day. Plus, on your days off, you can always go to the beach.
Still, now that I have Baby Boy by my side, the heat is getting to me. We don’t make it to the beach nearly as much as I would like because of my insane work hours, and Baby Boy doesn’t allow for the sedentary lifestyle of yesteryear in Italia. He’s always running and jumping, so I’m always running and jumping after him. At the moment, he is sleeping (with a bit of AC on in his room), and I’m in the kitchen typing away as beads of sweat crawl down the small of my back despite the fan pummeling me with air. By the way, the Italian mammas might run me out of the country for leaving on the AC for my sleeping babe; they believe air conditioning is terrible for your health. It’s something about crooked necks and arthritis and pneumonia. I’m not sure. All I know is that with the heat wave, I am once again longing for a ticket to air conditioned U.S.A. Instead, I’ll have to settle on sneaking the AC for Baby Boy and letting him puddle jump after one of his outdoor showers to keep cool. Take that anti-AC Italy!
When the son of ItaliansRus editor Anthony Parente wanted to know about the kinds of clothes Italian teens were wearing, I decided to turn my answer into a story for the site. After all, when in Italy, I live with three teen girls. So, I know the kinds of clothes they like to wear (and what they ask me to bring them from the States). One thing Italians have been liking lately are clothing items sporting the American flag. As a patriot, I’m happy to drape them all in the red, white, and blue. Check out the story, “Inside an Italian Teen’s Closet,” to find out what else the young people of southern Italy are wearing these days.
Now is the time of year when Italians the world over insist that their tomatoes are redder and bigger than yours. My father will bring relatives in his New Jersey garden, show off his tomatoes, and take down anyone who puts down his pomodori. He is certain to harvest his treasures before every chance of rain to ensure none of them split or rot. And he’s even hidden them from guests, who might want to take a bite out of one of his tomatoes. The eggplant and zucchini he is happy to give away. But the tomatoes are his pride and joy. Italians reading this are thinking, “So what? Doesn’t everyone act like this?”
At the moment, I’m living in Ischia, where this competition is almost an art form. Giving someone tomatoes from your garden is a way of both demonstrating that you should win the contest, but it is also a great honor for the recipient. Since I don’t grow tomatoes myself, I often get to be a judge. This means that people bring me their tomatoes, and I have to make the sacrifice of eating them. Boo-hoo, I know. My husband and I have decided that we could live on only tomatoes and bread (bathed in great olive oil and basil fresh from the garden, of course). This is our way of saying to the tomato growers of Ischia and elsewhere, “Bring on the competition, baby! Yes, we’d love to help you discover if indeed your tomatoes are redder and bigger than everyone else’s.”
I never know what time it is when I’m in Ischia. I have six clocks on my kitchen wall here and none of them work. Not one of them. I don’t own an alarm clock in Ischia because I keep American hours for work, which means starting the day at 2 in the afternoon, and I’d never sleep that late. Never. So, if I don’t have my computer booted or my cell phone on and in front of my face, I have no idea what hour of the day it is. I know it’s time to start work once lunch is over. My in-laws with whom I live are in charge of lunch, so when we’re all done, I run to the computer, start the day, and know what time it is until about midnight when I shut down. I never know the time on holidays or weekends.
While my friends were staying with us in May, they kept asking, “What time is it?” None of us ever seemed to know. In addition, everyone in Ischia – maybe the whole of Italy, I’m not sure – keeps weird hours. We eat lunch between 1 and 2 p.m. Then, everyone (except me because I’m working and an American who knows nothing of the siesta) sleeps from 3 to 5 p.m. Yes, they sleep, sometimes to the point of snoring. It’s like night time all over again. Shutters and doors are drawn and barely a soul – except for a tourist or two – walks the streets. You are expected to refrain from calling people, out of respect, in the middle of the afternoon. Then, at 5 p.m., people with traditional full-time jobs return to work, where they stay until about 8 p.m. And no one starts eating dinner until 9 or even 10 p.m. That’s crazy time if you ask me.
So, when my friends saw the above ad in one of the storefront windows, they snapped a photo just for me. They realized that this goes beyond the hours the Ischitani keep, too. Ischia time really is crazy time. “Ischia dove si mangia, si beve, e si fischia,” which means “Ischia, where you eat, drink, and whistle” is a popular saying on the island. It’s what makes this place perfect for a luxurious vacation and not so hot for a normal life.
Most of the time when you’re on the island, especially if you know the natives, you’re doped up on heavy, delicious southern Italian fare, including tomatoes and bread, fresh peaches, and every pasta you could imagine, all cooked like mamma made it (because she usually did). This food high clouds your judgment. In the summer, the heat smothers you and you wanna lightly swing in a hammock as the sea breeze caresses your skin. In the winter, you are cold to your bones and you want to curl up in front of a fire and under an enormous blanket filled with feathers or rather the entire goose because you’re that frozen. There are really only two seasons here – summer and winter – and both are extreme.
All this breeds laziness. It’s the kind of place that makes you want to give up all ambition and bum on the beach or make heat with a sultry islander (there are a few of those here as well and I should know because I married one and that’s how I ended up on crazy time). The next thing you know, you’re eating, you’re drinking, and you’re whistling. That mortgage you have? Don’t worry about it. That high-power career you were developing? Forget about it. Family and friends back home? Who remembers them? Move in with the islander, lounge in the sand, invest in a hammock. This is all sounding very appealing to you. You’re about to jump in head first. After that last bite of homemade gnocchi, you gotta say yes to giving it all up to live on a small island…that never appears on a map…where everyone will know your name and your business…where dreams go to swim in the ocean. Then, you wake up and realize that Ischia time is indeed crazy time. And you just want to quit the gnocchi cold turkey and go home. Still, you might put a hammock in your living room.
While island life in Ischia does not usually make sense to me, it does make lovely scents that are carried through the air like a gift from God. In fact, a walk in Ischia can make you fall in love with the place if for no other reason than the delicious smells that both relax and excite you at the same time. It’s no wonder that Baby Boy has a hard time falling asleep when we push him down the streets of Ischia in his stroller. He’s intoxicated by the scents traveling up his nose just like the rest of us.
Rounding the corner at Dolce Sosta, the coffee bar that takes credit for inventing the Bacio ice cream cone – a scoop of hazelnut gelato covered in a thick layer of firm chocolate – you take in the aroma of the baked rum and cream of pastries that are works of art. Their sweetness is quickly tempered by the ocean breeze that suddenly and unexpectedly dances on your cheeks as you head toward the shore. That combination of salt water, sand, and coconut sunblock immediately brings you to long summer days no matter the season. The salt of the sea hangs in the air just about everywhere you go on Ischia.
Had you walked in another direction, you would have picked up the woodsy scent of pine that washes over the pine tree forests, known as pinete, where children are almost always frolicking and older folks are reading a book or pressing pause on their life for just a moment. Or you might have smelled the sweet lemons that are the polka-dots of the landscape here. Their taste is like no other you’ve eaten. When you cut into an Ischia lemon and the juice squirts in your face, you smell happiness mixed with delight. And you’ll be tempted to bite into it like an apple. That’s not a mistake. People eat some of these lemons with a bit of sugar on top as though they are grapefruits. They’re that good.
When there’s a chill in the air, you will catch the aroma of burning wood coming from the natives’ homes. It’s sweet as honey and makes you feel warm, snuggly, and slightly old-fashioned. Some of the Ischitani will grill bread on that wood they are using to keep warm. The browned pane smell is as comforting as Nonna’s embrace on a winter’s night. The crunch of the bread is a song that will stick in your head as long as the deliciousness – especially if mixed with local tomatoes, garlic, basil, and olive oil – lasts on your taste buds.
Of course, amid all this goodness lie the smells of modernity. The natives scooting along on their motorini, which unleash bursts of smoke and gas, produce charred air that lingers and mixes with the cigarette smoke coming out of the mouths of many of the natives lining the street outside their store fronts and homes. These puffs of gray clouds land on your being in stark contrast to the rest of the island’s perfume. Sometimes, it’s overpowering and depressing but in a second you’ll catch another sea breeze and you’ll forget all about this particular island smog.
Walking past the San Pietro Beach and toward the tennis courts, you will smell the few patches of grass you’ll find on property around here. As a landscaper’s daughter, this is the smell that often chokes me up. Those green blades put out the natural musk of papa’ and home and everything wonderful and special about my family’s existence. If the owners of those tiny lawns happen to be cutting the grass, the scent is even stronger, as is the pull of my American home.
Anyone who has visited me in Italy knows that you should not go shopping for anything on the island of Ischia, off the coast of Naples, without a native. You need to go with someone who “has a guy” for whatever it is you need to ensure you get the proper treatment (read: best price). This is a fact in most of southern Italy as I understand it. And I recently described the phenomenon, which I like to call the “culture of scratching your back,” in an Our Paesani column for ItaliansRus. Check it out and decide if you’d like to live where everyone who knows your name gives you a discount.
I’ve spent many a 4th of July in Italy, but this was by far the best one ever. I turned my Italian relatives into patriots for the day, had them drape the American flag in every corner of their kitchen, fed them American food (which you will see below), and forced them all to proudly wear – yes, I insisted they wear them proudly – Old Navy tees with the American flag on them (and yes, all 13 of them and one friend obliged). Rather than just describe what we ate (since that’s all real Italians will care about anyway), I decided to share the photos with you.
Confession: I did make one Italian dessert, strawberry tiramisu (in the photo above), but I dressed it in red, white, and blue. If you like the sound of the tiramisu (you’ll like the taste even better), then click here for the recipe by Giada De Laurentiis. Although my cousins in the States can’t get enough of her version with Cointreau, I replace the one-third of a cup of liquor with one-third of a cup of orange juice (so you’re doubling the amount of orange juice) and leave the rest of the Cointreau out, so the kiddies can enjoy it, too.
For the main course, I made chicken wings. I know tradition calls for hamburgers and hot dogs. But the hot dogs aren’t beef in Italy; they are wurstel, which is pork and the burgers just aren’t American enough. They have this weird after taste. Chicken, on the other hand, is delicious here. Recently, you’ve been able to special order wings (Italians don’t usually eat ’em). My Italian relatives beg for this dish. This is another old recipe I picked up from Giada De Laurentiis. It’s like American-Chinese food adapted for Italian people because it includes balsamic vinegar and soy sauce. Since my mom sent me brown sugar (which is not available in Italy as you know if you read my blog entry about chocolate chip cookies), this was the best version of the dish I’ve ever made for them.
The corn on the cob wasn’t the winner I was hoping it would be. Unfortunately, nothing beats fresh New Jersey corn. Although my in-laws were able to find a place from which we could order it, the kernels were huge and no matter how long they boiled, they remained pretty tough. Still, taking my mom’s advice to put sugar and butter in the water and add more butter afterward, made the flavor good.
Caesar salad is an Italian American dish. Most real Italians don’t know of it. When I made this for my relatives for the first time last year, they screamed with pleasure. So, I knew it had to be on the 4th of July menu. I was happy to serve it in the punch bowl my husband and I received when we wed in Ischia nearly five years ago. It made a beautiful presentation (as did all the wedding gifts we got to put on display). I used a Ceasar dressing recipe from Once Upon a Chef, but I eliminated the anchovies. Most recipes call for raw eggs, but this one doesn’t, which is appealing to me because I’m afraid we could all end up in the hospital for salmonella poisoning.
Decorations are always on hand for 4th of July because I’m always here in Italy for the holiday. I had tons of stuff from years past, and my mom sent some more in a package. We decked ourselves and the dining area in red, white, and blue.
My nieces don’t all like strawberries, so chocolate-covered confetti cupcakes were my back-up dessert. Of course, the flag had to be featured on top of each one. I’ve only made cupcakes from scratch one other time, and my two-year-old niece and 18-month-old son had to help me the first time. So, these, which I did solo, were infinitely better. (For starters, the icing ended up on top of the cupcakes instead of into the mouths of babes.) I used Baking Bites’ recipe for the cupcakes (minus the almond extract because I couldn’t find any in Ischia), and About.com’s Guide to Southern Food’s icing recipe, which is so simple that I’ll probably never buy pre-packaged icing again.
A 4th of July party – or any summer get together – is incomplete without watermelon. Rather than just cut it into wedges, I had my husband slice half a watermelon and then use a star cookie cutter to make shapes. Whatever melon was left after he cut out the stars was cut into chunks and eaten as well. Of course, those flags made yet another appearance. Wouldn’t be 4th of July without the red, white, and blue!
After Baby Boy had his umpteenth tantrum of the day – and it wasn’t even noon yet – I sent my husband to take him for a walk. You see, today was my husband’s day off and I was planning to use the time to finally catch up on work. From my mother-in-law’s kitchen, I could hear Baby Boy shrieking with displeasure. His shrieks soon turned to hollering. I watched from the window as he kicked and screamed at his father as though he was the Boogie Man himself. I went outside and decided we should all go for a walk together. It worked and after a little while Baby Boy fell fast asleep.
In that moment, my husband’s shoulders relaxed, he turned to me, and said, “Let’s go to Zi Nannina for lunch.” After I said, “Oh yes please,” he had to find out if one of the most romantic and praised restaurants on the island would be open in the next 10 minutes at noon. Otherwise, we’d go home. Who wants to risk waiting around for Baby Boy to wake up and lose his mind at the restaurant? We were fortunate that it was open and since my husband knows the staff there well, we were welcomed with open arms – even after Baby Boy woke up and started running around on the patch of grass, one of the few lawns on the island. Regardless, I decided that these impromptu dates when the stars align (read: hubby has off, I’m working late afternoons, and Baby Boy is initially sleeping) are something we should make part of our routine more often. I was all the more convinced after eating the divine seafood (see photos below). By the way, we sat on the porch with the view above at our disposal throughout the meal. Sigh.
There are no boardwalks at the beaches on the island of Ischia, which is off the coast of Naples in Italy. But many restaurants and pubs, with owners who hope to quench the hunger and thirst of beach goers, line the sand. Many of them look like the stands and shacks that are typical of an American boardwalk. While I indulge in frankfurters, fries, fried oreos, or homemade ice cream back home at the Jersey Shore, I will find almost none of that on these here shores. In Ischia, even the beach stands feature home cooking – the kind your mamma would be making for you. The other day, when my husband, teenage niece, nearly 2-year-old son, and I pulled up to the Bagno Corrado stand at San Pietro Beach, we had bruschetta – toasted Italian bread with tomato salad on top of it – for antipasto and the surprising pasta dish in the photo above. The sauce featured fresh tomatoes, chunks of swordfish, and the flower of the zucchini plant. Of course, since it is a fish dish, there was plenty of fresh parsley to boot. It was sweet and savory. And the swordfish melted in your mouth. It is hardly the kind of thing I’d order down the shore, but it was perfect for a beach day in Italy. Still, my niece dug into a Nutellotta, which is a cookie bowl dressed in Nutella and filled with three scoops of vanilla gelato that are covered in more Nutella and whipped cream with a few more cookies sticking out of it. She loved every bite. Who can blame her?