Sex Change Operations, Zucchine/i, and Lasagne. Or Lasagna?


A friend of mine moved to Spain some years ago. She and I used to speak Italian to each other every so often, but once she was getting ready to head over, she forbade any Italian. “Please,” she said, “learning Spanish is confusing enough. I can’t have the two languages blending together in my head.”

So let’s talk about Englitalian. Or Italish? The mashups occurred to me as we got Sunday dinner together today. First, let me describe the day. It’s gross. We thought we’d escaped the New York winter, and we did for the most part. But today into Tuesday, we’re facing il gran gelo (deep freeze to Anglos). It’s been snowing in a half-ass way, not really piling up but with the wind blowing, it stings your face and makes for general misery. Looking out my studio window, I can barely see beyond the fruit trees outside the house.


It’s starting to stick and look like an outtake from an early R.E.M. album cover photo.

That means we’re housebound, at least today. And dinner—we do the Italian or French thing on Sundays and the midday meal is the star. I thought I’d try to replicate the flavors of a pizza that the terrific pizzeria Ribalta in Manhattan puts together. It’s got the usual mozzarella, but they add what I’d call zucchini cream, and grilled zucchini. It’s sweet and nutty and creamy at the same time. Only this time I thought it would make a terrific lasagne. Or lasagna, if you prefer, but Italian Italian style, with thin layers and béchamel on top with some crispy bits.

Lasagne. Lasagna. Zucchine. Zucchini. That’s where my linguistic confusion comes in. There are a lot of words, mostly food related, that differ in the Italian spoken in Italy, and the supposedly Italian words, or names of dishes, in the U.S. “Lasagna” is one of them. In the Italian-American (and, I guess, the Olive Garden) canon, it’s a layered pasta dish with tons of ricotta, mozzarella, meat sauce. In Italian, “lasagna” means one single, solitary noodle. Hence “lasagne,” or the plural. The feminine plural, to be precise.

“Zucchini” is another odd duck. When this green summer squash crosses the ocean, it gets treated to a sex-change operation from the original plural feminine “zucchine.” To say “squash” in Italian, it’s “zucca”—feminine singular. The -ina or -ina suffix means a little one.

Don’t get me started on the poor panino, masculine singular. One sandwich, and it doesn’t have to have melted cheese and squished in a sandwich press. “Panino” means a little bread, or a roll. In the U.S. and other English-speaking countries, you hear people saying “I’ll have a prosciutto and mozzarell’ panini” and I cringe.

So the dilemma: When in Rome, so to speak? It just sounds weird to say “zucchini lasagna.” The poor dish gets one gender wrong, and one quantity wrong, leaving us with a transgendered vegetable accompanying a singular noodle. Or something like that. But if I did go around saying the proper Italian pronunciation to an English speaker it would come across as possibly confusing and definitely pretentious.

The Non-Recipe Recipe

In any event, here’s how to put it together. However you say it, it’s delicious. We managed to transfer the flavors of Ribalta’s pizza to a gooey, decadent, perfect-for-a-snowy day pasta dish. Disclaimer: I am not a professional recipe writer, and this presupposes you have some cooking chops and can figure it out where I’ve messed up.

Preheat oven to 375F/200C. Take 7 or 8 medium zucchine/i. Slice fairly thin lengthwise. Place on oiled baking sheet. Season with salt and pepper, sprinkle liberally with olive oil. Roast for about 40 minutes, until they’ve given up all their liquid and some may be a little browned.

Take 1/3 of the squash (gotcha!) and place in a blender or food process. Zap with about 250 ml or a cup of heavy cream or Italian cooking cream (panna). Add a good handful of grated parmigiano or grana cheese. Do NOT use pecorino; it’s too sharp for this dish.

Have some ricotta and béchamel lying around. If you’re lucky enough to be near an Italian gourmet shop, you can get prepared béchamel. Otherwise, make it yourself.  You’ll also need no-cook lasagna sheets.


In a baking pan, spread béchamel on the bottom. Add some milk. Layer the first pasta sheets. Spread with ricotta and grated cheese, and a layer of squash.

Layer 2: pasta sheets, your zucchini cream.

Layer 3: Like layer 1.

Layer 4: Pasta sheets, bechamel, grated cheese, and some bread crumbs.

Cover with foil, place in hot oven for 30 minutes. After that, remove the foil and let it brown. Remove from oven, let it rest for 15 minutes. It’ll be easier to cut and portion out., Serve with a green salad.

Gone to the Dog

IMG_3260.jpgI signed up on awhile ago. I was intrigued by the mixture of questions, from genuinely wanting to know something, to clueless, to trolling. So I thought hmm, maybe I’ll use that format here. In the absence of real questions (feel free to ask me some via email), I’ll make up some of my own.

What the hell do you do up in the country?

I had no idea watching the color of the hills change by the hour, sometimes by the minute, could take up so much of my time. And in an unaltered state of consciousness, no less.

Seriously, what do you do?

We serve Retu. It is our job to feed him, praise him, get him to sit, teach him other languages, and did I mention feed him?

Whose dog is he?

IMG_3187Retu belongs to Ca’ Mazzetto, our neighboring agriturismo. Supposedly. But I’m getting the feeling that the dogs along our road don’t belong to anyone. Or, they belong to everyone. I’m trying to figure that one out.

What is an agriturismo?

Are you trying to confuse me by changing the subject? Well, ok. An agriturismo is a working farm that takes in paying guests. Ca’ Mazzetto has a few apartments, a pool, about 125 sheep and a bunch of olive trees. They produce cheese, fabrics (wool, of course) and olive oil. I may be missing something, and, hey, Joonas, did I? (Joonas is the son of the proprietor and sits on our town council, too.)

What kind of dog is Retu?

He’s a relatively rare breed that is native to these parts, called a Maremmano. According to Wikipedia, the Maremmano is “a breed of livestock guardian dog indigenous to central Italy, particularly to Abruzzo and the Maremma region of Tuscany and Lazio.” The breed is known to be intelligent, loyal, protective, and friendly. He definitely was smart enough to find a sucker in The Spartan Woman, who actually buys dog food for him and, this evening, fed him tagliatelle with truffles.

How is that breed used?

Again, from Wikipedia: “Maremma used as livestock guardian dogs are introduced to sheep flocks as puppies so they bond to the sheep. Some ranchers place Maremma puppies as young as 3–4 weeks old with young lambs, but beginning this bonding process at 7–8 weeks is more typical.[19] Although it is easiest to bond Maremma to sheep and goats, cattle ranchers have found that the dogs bond with cows and Maremma are increasingly used to protect range cattle.”


Does Retu live up to his breed’s reputation?

He’s a splendid young dog. But if he has bonded to the 125 sheep that live next door, it remains to be seen. One of his owners said that Retu has decided to take early retirement. Whatever sheep guardian attributes he may lack, Retu is definitely good at bonding with humans and bending them to his will.

Be Our Guest

January into early February was a busy time up here on the mountain above the comune of Valfabbrica. We had three friend-guests. Really good, fun-to-be-with guests. The house encourages this sort of thing. We have plenty of room, with a semi-separate apartment on the ground floor. In the cooler months, The Spartan Woman and I live upstairs—we have our own kitchen, dining and living rooms, my office, and bedrooms. And when it’s cooler, our friends get to have their own place, too. That way, we get together when we want, and don’t get in each other’s way. (When it gets warmer, we move kitchen operations downstairs, because the kitchen there opens into the garden. And it’s easier to get to the center of all the summer action, the pool.)


Wendy and Tim, usually teetotalers, get acquainted with the Aperol spritz.

Let me introduce Wendy, Vicky, and Tim. Wendy and Tim are neighborhood friends and former comrades in the battle over a special public school a couple of decades ago. Tim’s a lawyer (feel free to send him sympathy cards), and sisters Wendy and Vicky are semi-retired teachers. They’re retired enough so that they can spend a month after the holidays wandering around Italy, while Tim worked out of his laptop when he needed to. And when Tim had to head back to the U.S., Wendy and Vicky hung back.

We’ve known Wendy and Tim a long time, more than 20 years. Vicky, however, was an unknown quantity. We heard from Wendy that she was reluctant to take the trip. Their original intention was to case the joint, to find a country house of their own. Vicky was understandably wary; it’s a big responsibility and damn near impossible if you don’t have a network to depend on.


Apricot tart, anyone?

Now Wendy and Tim had been here and elsewhere in Italy pretty frequently; Vicky less so. But that reluctant traveler turned out to embrace this area the most. She loved everything she saw. She sat outside on chilly winter days just staring at the view of the valley and town below. She shopped, she fed the neighbors’ working sheepdogs (and by doing so she turned one of them into an indolent nonworking sheepdog). She learned how to bake bread and make a fruit tart.


Vicky, about to throw some garlic and shrimp into the pot.

We’d heard that Vicky wasn’t into cooking until recently, either. At some point, she realized that restaurant and takeout food wasn’t that healthy, so she became a late-blooming semi-obsessional cook. She wanted to take a class while here—where better to learn the Italian way of feeding oneself than in Italy itself. So we arranged with our friend, cooking teacher and innkeeper Letitia Mattiacci, to hold a class for Wendy, Vicky, and The Spartan Woman. (Letizia’s school is called La Madonna del Piatto, and her classes are terrific—I “audited” their class while drinking some good local wine.) Another woman joined the group, an American lawyer from Pennsylvania no less. (We kept bumping into her in Perugia for the rest of our stay here, but that’s another post.) As you can see above, Vicky got into that cooking thing. She made shrimp scampi (bringing a bit of Italian-American via an Egyptian-American to Umbria). And heaven forbid we get store bought bread. She baked her own rolls and the apricot tart in the picture.

img_2956.jpgWendy had a couple of goals. To drink—she’s basically a teetotaler. To see what it’s like to live in Italy. And to learn to drive a stick shift—she was sick of paying extortionate rental rates here for automatics. Well, two out of three ain’t bad; by staying in the place downstairs and going food shopping, she got a taste of everyday life here, as opposed to being a tourist. We did ply her with alcohol in the form of wine as much as we could. Goal number three, though, didn’t pan out. The only stick shift was in our rental Renault Clio. With only 4800 kilometers on it, we didn’t think that Europcar would have liked it if we unleashed a newbie on the poor Clio.

Next time, Wendy, next time. (And they bought lots of stuff, but not a house.)