Και κάτι ακόμα…


I thought that maybe my last post would be the final one about summer festivals, but I was wrong—hence the headline, which is Greek for “And another thing…” Between that and the video above, you’ve probably figured out that Greece somehow was involved.

Greeks were involved, anyway. I call Kat The Spartan Woman because her mother’s family comes from a part of the Greek city Sparta called Magoula. And the Greek Orthodox Church on Staten Island has an annual festival in September over a couple of weekends. They do a great job, converting the parking lot into a passable imitation of a Greek village square during a festival. It’s an all hands on deck affair, with church members running a huge kitchen that supplies all the favorites like moussaka, gyros, spanakopita and the like. There’s Greek wine and Fix beer on sale, and the dessert area even makes freddos and frappés, different versions of iced coffee that, when we’ve gone to Greece, have become addictions. When they’re good, they’re amazing.


Grilling here is a manly art.

We started going to the festival with my in-laws years ago. The Spartan Woman’s mother Eleni wasn’t a regular churchgoer, but the church is more than a place of worship; it’s also a cultural center. She rightly thought that her daughters and granddaughters shouldn’t forget their Greek side, so every September, we all went to the festival together. It became sort of a Greek recharging station for Eleni and The Spartan Woman, and our kids now think something’s missing if we skip a year.


How do you translate “sagra, Staten Island stylee” into Greek?

Luckily, we got back from the land of the sagra to Shaolin (Staten Island, in Wu-Tang Clan-speak) just in time for the last weekend of the festival. Our kids probably think we’re less-bad parents now. TSW and I made sure we’d be awake enough after a grueling flight back on Iberia, forced to lie flat in a business class cubicle, being plied with all sorts of liquids and forced to eat smoked salmon with a warm potato salad and caviar. Oh, the torture. We took an afternoon nap, knowing that without it, even the Zorba theme played by an electric bouzouki band wouldn’t keep us up. Where’s my freddo?

Even with our souls lagging somewhere over the Atlantic, we had a good time. It was great to reconnect with the charming young women we somehow managed to raise in our chaotic, improvisatory way. And a boyfriend was introduced to the Hellenic side of our family traditions and, I think, he might have another vein of music to sample for his stuff.


Loukoumades: Yo, you got a problem with fried dough?

Truffles, onions and frogs, oh my!



One of the pleasures of an Italian summer is the town sagra. It almost always involves food, and centers on one ingredient. Think Gilroy (California) Garlic Festival with some Italian verve thrown in. The sagra serves a few purposes. It’s fun; the towns get to show off; and they raise money for public projects—not to mention for the the next year’s sagra.

We set a personal record this summer: three. Well, four, if you include our town’s Palio, during which the small medieval core was turned into a decently sized outdoor restaurant. The first one was in Ripa, a walled circular town with a big outdoor space outside the walls. The main ingredient: black truffles. Then we went to a neighboring town, Pianello, home to the parents and business of our friend Angela. Pianello did mushrooms.


Soon, stringozzi (thick, long Umbrian pasta) with black truffles

I’ll admit I cheated in the headline. We went to the frog one in Capanne last year. My bad. That’s the frog one, and we didn’t eat the frog. Instead, we feasted on the other big attraction, umbricelli with a spicy tomato sauce. Umbricelli are these thick, round, chewy handmade noodles of wheat and water—no eggs.

The big daddy, though, had to be the Cannara onion festival this past weekend. These things can get pretty crowded, but this one turns that up to 12. Cars streamed in from all directions and, we were told, from outside Umbria, too. We had a VIP pass that got us a great parking space. And yeah, I’m being vague about that spot on purpose.

The star ingredients may all differ, but there’s one thing in common. They are really well-run. I laugh when people call Italy chaotic or, at best, disorganized. These critics obviously haven’t been to a sagra. Or any big food event here in the Bel Paese. It’s all a question of priorities, you see. You want people to stand obediently in line for mediocre coffee? Then don’t leave home and go to Starbucks. You want the trains to be on time to the second? Go to Switzerland. And stereotypes sometimes are just wrong, as anyone who’s been through the madness of Frankfurt’s airport can testify.

There are two basic models for these: the checkoff form and the restaurant model. With the checkoff one, you find a table, and jot down its number. Get a couple of friends to save the seats. Argue about who’s getting what. Send a couple of people to stand in line, submit the order, and pay. Then go back to the table and wait.


The waiting is the hardest part.

Cannara did the restaurant model. We had to wait behind a little barrier, for something like 45 minutes. We passed the time teasing each other and drinking an illicit (non festival) beer. Our party was called, and we felt like celebrities as we were escorted to our half of a picnic table. A festival dude took our order and with astonishing speed, the town’s kids brought our dishes out, in the proper Italian meal order: antipasti, primi, secondi, dolci.

This scenario was played out throughout the town. Like I said, this is the mother of all sagras, and they had four or five big restaurants spread throughout the town. One of them featured a menu by a Michelin-starred chef, no less.

I’m not gonna play restaurant critic. Did that for 10 years and it was enough. But oh boy those gnocchetti with an onion-cheese cream sauce. And the schiacciata with onions. The onions in agrodolce (sweet and sour) weren’t bad, either. I somehow ended up with a free half-bottle of wine, too, courtesy of the guy who took our order. All he asked for was for us to give the kid-runner a decent tip.


Gnocchetti (small gnocchi) from heaven

A Romanian, an Italian, and an American walk into a bar…


Between these three guys you can count maybe six passports.

I’ve been bad about blogging lately, but I have a good excuse. We’ve had a parade of houseguests. They’re weren’t high maintenance or anything like that; in fact it was a lot of fun to hang out with them. Because of that, I took a break from writing.

First off (the American) was Doug. He’s a comrade from way back. In another life, he was the art director of a weekly publication we both worked at. (It’s now owned by a company that must not be named, so you’ll have to figure it out.) Doug exercised almost dictatorial powers over story length and the appearance of the text. We editors tried to cheat by putting in squeeze commands in the ancient Atex system that we used (cw-x, where x MUST NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCE BE >3). Eagle eye Doug, of course, noticed if we went over 3.

Despite being bossed around by that then- long-haired art director, of all people, I managed to become friends with Doug. We soon became part of a group of people who had what became legendary lunches on Friday at Florent, a pioneering restaurant in New York’s meatpacking district. A bunch of us from those days are still friends—newsroom friends have been through something akin to bootcamp and group therapy and stay friends. And Doug’s been jonesing to come visit us up here on the hill. So he came to visit, and spent a lot of time hiking the hills, helping out with dinner, and sighing a lot because it can get ridiculously scenic ’round these parts.


Doug, Kristina, and Martina puzzle out what to have for dinner.

I’m not sure the next pair qualify as guests—well, one did, a friend of the other sort-of guest, who was none other than Martina Maria Scozzare Paonita, daughter no. 1. Martina came for poolside therapy, good food and wine, and to hang around the parental units, who’ve been bad mommy and daddy and left their children for a few months. Martina’s an official Eye-talian, thus satisfying the middle criterion in the headline. We all went off one night to the taverna in town, part of a week-long celebration of itself that our comune holds as summer ends. For the uninitiated, a taverna in this context is usually an outdoor, town-hosted restaurant. You get an order form, find a table, fill out the form and take it to the cashiers. You pay, and sometime later, runners bring your order. In Valfabbrica, where we live, the runners are kids dressed in medieval garb, to go with the general theme of the week.

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This year’s poster for Valfabbrica’s Palio celebration. Literally, “all the medieval that you have inside,” but I prefer to translate it as “get your inner medieval on.”

Romanians? Well, we had a few. And once again, like the women of July who came to stay, there’s a dog connection: Matei. Matei may not realize it, but he’s slowly making his way around the globe: from Bucharest to New York to Milwaukee, where he currently lives with the great Shana and the too-adorable Natalie. (The last one is only 2 years old, and I’d post a picture but I don’t post pix of other people’s kids without permission.) What’s next? Seattle? Vancouver? Sydney? Mumbai?

With Matei came other Romanians, his cousin Irina and her husband Stefan and kid Noa. Irina and co. live in Milano, but came to Italy from Montréal and originally hail from Romania and Israel. All of this means that at the dinner table, we had plenty of languages to choose from, which can be fun or nerve-wracking, depending on your disposition. It usually worked out like this: English as the main language, with breakout groups in Italian and Romanian, and the occasional French phrase.

They’re all gone now, and it seems really quiet and lonely. Everyone’s back to their routine, and we’re already thinking of next summer.


Decisions, decisions, at Da Sauro on Isola Maggiore