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?
Today is my husband’s birthday. He’d rather forget how old he is, so let’s keep the fact that he turned 42 between us, ok? Working full-time on American hours from Italy while caring for our nearly 2-year-old son is draining, so I wasn’t quite up to planning a birthday bash. But I couldn’t ignore my honey’s big day. As my son was coloring his arm with his washable markers for the millionth time, it hit me that I should get him to help me. So, I decided the theme would be graffiti. You can’t really see it from the photo above, but you’ll get the picture if you look below. I just had my son scribble on everything with his markers. He scribbled with yellow marker on the card covering my husband’s gift (which were personalized pillow cases that read, “Always Kiss Me Goodnight,” which I found at PersonalizationMall.com), the sign on his cake, and a sign for the door. Although my son used every color available to him, I made sure that orange, yellow, and hubby’s favorite blue dominated. I used table linens I had from an Easter we spent in Ischia and were the perfect shades of blue. And the clown picks on the cake (which I found at the supermarket here in Ischia) came in a packet of all different colors and I chose the orange, yellow, and blue ones available. Back in the States I had wrapped hubby’s gift with blue paper, but I found a gold rope used to tie the wrapping on a chocolate Easter egg.
Since this was just for my husband, who is an adult, I didn’t bother carrying the theme in any other ways. But you could. If this were a children’s party, you could tape brown paper to the walls and tables and have the kids make their own graffiti. You could make more decorations with graffiti on them, such as place cards that look like a wall with the name written in what looks like spray paint, a photo booth with a graffiti backdrop, or images of actual street art scattered about. You could make graffiti with icing for the cake. The options are limitless. By the way, for those who are wondering, I made the cake from scratch. It’s a banana cake filled with cherry jam (made by my sisters-in-law) and topped with Nutella that I melted just slightly to be able to spread it. So far, the reviews for the cake have been good. And we managed to use all six of the bananas we had let turn black. Just overly ripe, I say. Overall, I’d say it was a happy birthday, but you’ll have to ask the 42-year-old in the family.
Discover the 5 beaches I think you should visit in Ischia, the island off the coast of Naples that is the home of my ancestors, my husband, and for the time being me. While the beach in the photo above – the one we go to most often out of convenience – is briefly mentioned in the story I wrote for ItaliansRus and Las Vegas’ La Voce newspaper, it is not among the 5 best. It is, however, among my personal favorites because it brings such joy to Baby Boy. He merrily spent one day last week at San Pietro Beach throwing sand in the air as though it was confetti and investigating and throwing rocks and pebbles into the water to see how big a splash they would make. It is days like that one that make being away from home far more tolerable.
Di Meglio is the author of Fun with the Family New Jersey (Globe Pequot Press Travel, 2012) and the Guide to Newlyweds for About.com.
Now that school is out in Ischia, Italy, kids are at the pinete (pine tree forests) if they’re not at the beach. The towering pine trees are surrounded by all sorts of plants, including wild sage and flowering bushes. There are pathways for those who want to walk and take in the scenery. Of course, some of the paths lead you up mountains that can be difficult to navigate with a stroller or a bum leg. Don’t expect any sort of warning about this. You should know by now that when in Ischia, you are walking at your own risk (writes the girl who has come back from three knee surgeries, a result of an injury she picked up on the island in 2004). No warning signs about the difficulty level of the paths means there are also no signs for the entrance and exit. My friends and I recently got lost in the pineta while searching for a way out.
It turned out to be a fun adventure because Baby Boy was napping in his stroller and their daughter was sitting nicely in hers. We carried the strollers up these stairs made of dirt and grass with wooden frames, and we saw a giant dog (looked more like a horse) try to eat a giant rock. We also caught a couple making out by the children’s swings. They were not at all fazed by our presence, and the guy had no problem rounding second as we were walking by with mouths agape. This is what happens when everyone lives at home with their parents well into their 30s and even 40s. Even the playground seems like an okay place to get some action.
I guess you could argue that Ischia is doing visitors a favor; if there were indicators about where to go, you would miss out on exploration. A trip to the pineta does not have to be so exhausting, however. There are also sitting areas with benches or chairs. As mentioned above, some of the pine tree forests have playgrounds, replete with a slide for the little ones. One near our home has a man-made pond full of croaking frogs, who even let you touch them.
Since the forest is an enchanting place for kids, you will also hear the sounds of childhood – giggles, shouts of joy, and the pitter-patter of little feet. On any given afternoon, you are likely to find a group of children gathered to play a pick-up game of soccer or just chase each other around the trees. Sometimes, the natives hold childrens’ dance and music recitals on a makeshift stage in one of the pinete. Even if you are just sitting by yourself amid the lushness, you will be delighted. One look at these pine tree forests and a visitor understands just how Ischia came to be known as L’Isola Verde or the Green Island.
Right about now, you are either disappointed or relieved because the headline had you thinking this was a whole other kind of blog post. C’mon people, you know who I am. This is about an actual babe, my almost two-year-old boy, of course. I mentioned to you that I love taking photos of the beach. Now that we’re living literally steps from the beach, I am constantly snapping pics.
What I love nearly as much as pictures of the beach are pictures of my son on the beach. But getting a normal toddler to stay still is impossible, let alone Baby Boy, who has outpaced the Energizer Bunny on occasion. At first, I was blue because I had no pictures – or at least no good pictures of Baby Boy on the beach. Then, I had a stroke of genius. Ok, maybe it was just a stroke of common sense.
Instead of trying to pose him or waiting for the moment he stood still (read: fell asleep) to photograph him, I started to just follow Baby Boy’s every move with the camera. The more pictures I snapped, the more likely I’d get something worth framing (or at least worth using to decorate my Desktop or cell phone screen). When my American friends, their nearly two-year-old daughter, my son, and I headed to the beach on Memorial Day, we were armed with a camera – and we all snapped, snapped, snapped as many photos as we could of the kids.
When the two babes toddled over to the spogliatoi (locker rooms), we were swelling with joy. The graphic element of the locker rooms contrasted by their sweet faces, while they were exploring this new terrain, was pure perfection. Once you turn the photos black and white, they look like something out of 1950s’ Italy, which is special for me since that was the era my father was still living in Ischia. It also happens to be the moment in history when Ischia stopped being reliant on an agricultural economy and started focusing on tourism. Regardless of what history the black and white images spark for me, they are worthy of a frame and look good in color to boot (see below). In fact, this second picture would be great blown up as a poster for our home in Ischia. Not surprisingly, you can expect more beach photos on this blog throughout the rest of the year.
With its cobblestone roads, quaint shops, fresh seafood restaurants, and pastel-colored houses – not to mention its crowning jewel, Castello Aragonese (Aragonese Castle) and the bridge that connects it to the island, the town of Ischia Ponte in Ischia, Italy offers peace, quiet, and a bit of that Old World so many people talk about when reminiscing about Italian travel experiences. That is all true, unless you visit Ischia Ponte while Baby Boy is there.
Dozing off in his stroller, he somehow caught a second wind, screamed, and woke up my friends’ daughter about 10 minutes before we were scheduled to have lunch at one of those lovely restaurants I was talking about above. First, he ran on the bridge screaming and crying as though I was kidnapping him. In fact, in the photo above I had just caught him and turned him toward the boats and scenery in the hopes that the tears would stop. There was absolutely no explanation for this sudden fit of rage. I’ve learned that this is perfectly normal behavior when you’re two years old and have parents who each speak a different language and you can’t communicate anything in either one.
Whether it was the language or something else that took over my son’s body in Ischia Ponte, I’ll never know. But once we arrived at lunch, he had completely lost his mind. I mean it seemed to me that his head was literally spinning all the way around and that he would never ever be able to make a peep that wasn’t at the Metallica level of volume. Every tourist in the joint was staring at us – or at least that is how it seemed to me, the American mamma – even though we were in a secluded room all to ourselves. Banish the people with babies is the philosophy around here (at least during the tourist season and when tourists are around because many Italians do adore children, while other people just don’t). And my son proved why it must be so on that very day.
I picked him up and brought him outside, once again heading toward the bridge, in the hopes that he would either calm down or take that much-needed nap, so I could return to the treats at the table, which included muscles and bruschetta and olives and sardines. When Baby Boy’s making like a lunatic and screaming in public, I like to tell people that he’s training his lungs and someday he will be a serious singer or swimmer. But really he’s just being a pia (it’s pronounced p-ee-ah and it’s my cousin’s word for pain in the a–, which he jokingly uses to talk about his teenage daughter when she’s picking out which outfit to wear anywhere). On this occasion, Baby Boy was being a pia and I was trying to get him to sleep, so I was swaying him on my hip and singing lullabies, such as “God Bless America” and “Proud to be an American.” You can see where my head is at. Still, this usually works like a charm. Not today.
So, I returned to the restaurant to see what course my friends were up to. There was a beautiful swordfish, grilled and fried calamari, and my bruschetta and muscles still on the table. I tried to feed Baby Boy the bruschetta. Tomatoes and bread always cheer me up, especially around here. He spit it in my face. I decided to eat it myself post spit and all. All you other parents out there, don’t you dare say, “Ewwww,” because I know you’ve done the same or you would if the tomatoes and bread were as good as they are in Ischia. I gulped down a few of those delicious muscles and a couple of fried calamari as I picked up baby and split again. Again, we headed toward the bridge. I was certain the other people in town watching me with my son were commenting on how the American mom can’t do anything right. They might have a point. Their kids weren’t carrying on and on and on like Baby Boy. And in that moment, like all mothers the world over, I felt guilt and shame rise inside me like a flame in a fire.
Then, when I was holding Baby Boy’s flailing body against my chest, and he was still crying and screaming as though the world was about to literally come to an end, I thought, “Well, at least we’re in a Catholic country. There must be someone around who could perform an exorcism on the spot.” Just as this flashed into my head, Baby Boy let me put him back in the stroller and within minutes he fell asleep. Finally. It was, of course, the very moment that we were leaving Ischia Ponte for my friends had finished the meal. Of course.
When we recently took a tour of the island of Ischia in Italy, we stopped at Sant’ Angelo, which is an old fishing village. Although it is one of the most expensive places to hang out on the island, it is absolutely gorgeous and a must-see if you are ever in the area. Despite the fact that when we were there last, the wind was strong enough to knock over our kids, my son and my friends’ daughter were delighted to wake up and finally get out of the car. My son even did his happy feet dance – he moves his feet like the penguins in the movie Happy Feet – in his stroller and tore off his blanket.
Besides the charming boats and the natural beauty of Sant’ Angelo, you can take in the scene. There are shops with sophisticated gear – bejeweled beach cover ups, Greek-style sandals, and chic beach totes – coffee bars, pastry shops, and gelaterie (ice cream shops). You might even spot a European V.I.P. because they often stay on this exclusive, out-of-the-way part of the island. The natives, who live in Sant’ Angelo, might let you join a pick-up game of soccer like the one that caught Baby Boy’s eye. If he was a little older, he would have jumped right in.
When it is hot outside, you can pull up a towel on the patch of sand or take a dip in the ocean. I once rented a motor boat with friends, and we stopped near Sant’ Angelo for people watching and a snack of fresh pears, which we had brought with us. Before our juicy fruit treat (thanks to thermal soil, a result of Ischia’s previous life as a volcano, the island’s fruit is the sweetest you’ll ever taste), we had gone overboard to cool off in the water. The atmosphere oozes Mediterranean beauty and puts you in a completely different state of mind. I suspect that even if you’re working in Sant’ Angelo, you feel as though you are on vacation. That is why I have no problem returning there again and again.