A word about sauce

It seems that although I have promised to divulge the many aspects of my life here that are not typical, there is one subject that bears repeated discussion:  tomato sauce.  I don’t claim to trump anybody else’s recipe for the perfect sauce, but I have nailed down a few trusted rules that, if followed religiously, will result in a delicious  and authentic plate of pasta with tomato sauce.   The way they do it here, in the south, in Basilicata, in Bernalda, to specify.  It isn’t  Milano, or Bologna, and yet we are proud!

1)  When I am at a restaurant in the United States, and here I am obviously generalizing,  it is my pet peeve that any plate of pasta ordered will have a primary, and devastating,  defect:    the water it is cooked in is not salted!  Any pasta should have a flavor that is good enough to eat with no sauce at all, and to achieve its full flavor—and the pasta itself contains no salt—the water must be liberally salted, preferably with the non-iodized variety.  I proselytize for salted water in restaurants, much to the embarrassment of my dinner companions.   My husband learned long ago that ordering an item off the menu that he believes will be simple for the typical American chef to master, such as cappellini al pomodoro, will invariably result in a dish he can’t eat.  Better for him to order something with all the bells and whistles, where insipid and tasteless pasta isn’t so noticeable.

2)   Second rule:  The sauce is about the flavor of the tomato.  Start with decent tomatoes, and if you can’t find any then maybe you should make something else today!  With or without the peel, it isn’t important which kind of tomato you use—and discussion of types of tomatoes can be interminable—but it should be  flavorful.  This seems obvious, and yet…The same rule applies to the olive oil used; it should be a good one, and that means extra virgin.  We use our own oil that comes from our trees, so we know exactly what is in it, bugs and all.  If you want to be sure of getting the good stuff in the U.S,  buy an Italian import such as Bertolli, and never their specific product “for the American market.”  .  Keep in mind that after the yearly pressing there are always leftovers, and where do you think these inferior products end up?

3)  Throw out all dry spices.  Better yet, throw out spices, period.  Well if you must, a little fresh basil or thyme can add something, but only in very specific cases.  And of course, garlic is often a tasteful addition, but not always.  As is onion.  Don’t even consider using oregano, fresh or otherwise, for anything but roasted meat!  I have never encountered any self-respecting cook here who will use a dried spice in a sauce.

4)   When serving pasta, it is always better to put the drained pasta into the pan with the sauce and give it a swish over the flame.  No one in these parts would ever put a plate of drained pasta in front of someone with a dollop of sauce balanced on top of it!   As to cheese,  we like Grana Padano because it is almost identical to Parmigiano Reggiano, and it costs less at our market.   Or a good Pecorino, depending on  your tastes.   Either way, you are not going to use any cheese with a fish-based sauce, are you?  I don’t think so!

To sum up:  keep it simple!  There is a reason why tourists who come here have an overwhelmingly positive reaction to the food, and this is more than likely due to the quality and simplicity of the ingredients used.    Of course in this case  I am talking about the simplest  tomato sauce, and there are endless more complicated recipes for pasta, but  these rules will help anyone to establish a baseline of respectability in  the pasta kitchen.











painting:  “Side Salad”  oil on canvas,  (top and bottom parts)   2008

Navigating the sidewalk

A typical American residential street is predictable; it is wide and largely uncluttered by anything other than parked cars, and the distance from the pavement to the front door of any house is respectably far, sometimes very far.  There may be a fence with a gate, a park-like lawn, curtained windows, and always an automobile.  It doesn’t facilitate  interaction among residents and passersby.

Here it is different, but of course you knew that already.  The main street is wide, but most others  are tight, with parked cars in abundance, and front doors are often only a couple of feet from the asphalt.  People who live in the center of town inhabit the same spaces that their great-grandparents did, although the rooms have obviously been updated and modernized with tasteful results.  But if you live on street level and have only three feet of sidewalk as a front yard, will you not want to keep at least that piece of street open and breathable?  Of course you will!  But there are many cars in town, actually about one car per resident–which must reside somewhere.   So the women of Bernalda have adopted various strategies to establish their territory.  They will place chairs out in the street, backed up to the curb, and if asked there will be a  reason offered, even if it may seem trifling.  After all, there are always other places to park, over there!

The sidewalk is an interesting place, and holds many things that are at first encounter mysterious.  What possible use does a long string, drooping almost to the ground, possibly have?  Living in a house with no yard and no terrazzo,  hanging out the wash can present a problem.   Propped at a 45-degree angle from the base of the wall, a long forked stick and this string will become a respectable laundry line, capable of holding a basketful of wash.  I wonder if I would have the courage to display my intimate apparel at street level, for the perusal of  anyone.  Would it not be disconcerting as folks pass by conversing, or engrossed in a text message, to  find my underpants suddenly in their face?  But the Italian market offers an extensive range of fabric softeners, so strolling the town amid this  freshly-washed finery can also be a sensual olfactory experience.  Watch your head, and enjoy the profumo. 

My initial impression of the generosity of  folks here  was magnified by observing chairs  strategically placed on the sidewalk, each with a carefully-composed still-life of seasonal fruit, or vegetables, even oil or wine.   How wonderful that folks would offer such things to anyone passing by!   I never had the nerve to allow myself to partake of something from these chairs.  Years later I realized, with a logic strangely lacking in the “tourist” sector of my brain, that these were samples of things which might be bought, with money, from the homeowner who waited inside for a sale.  Generous, yes, but not to a fault!   These chairs can often be seen hanging by hooks up on the wall, the better to display these appetizing offerings at eye level.

Things have changed since the arrival of plastic, and many doorways are festooned with bottles of water.  Another misinterpretation on my part; I thought they were there to keep the water chilled, as most of the year the outside temperatures are pleasant and hardly ever below zero.   But they are there in compliance with an urban myth, of inconclusive science,  which asserts that a bottle of water will keep cats and dogs from urinating in that spot.  And there are plenty of both around town, and at many a street corner you will see plastic plates with leftovers from dinner, donations for those animals who refuse allegiance to one owner.

Some folks are  house-proud, and as their only piece of visible real estate is the sidewalk in front of their house, it receives obsessive care.  I know of one family that washes and dries their three steps at least twice a day.  Friends grumble about the need to toss a bag of something soft and smelly on these stairs occasionally, just to give them a reason for their obsession.   There is another amusing anecdote about a woman who waxed the smooth cement sidewalk in front of her house, leading to numerous visits to the emergency room when the humidity was on the rise.  Living in the country myself, I have given up long ago keeping my front stairs clean, and I am satisfied that removing my shoes will keep the worst of the tractor-blown soil out.  I offer a welcome mat, but rarely will I obsess over the appearance of my entryway.

On summer evenings, as people reassemble after their afternoon repose, groups of women and old men will bring out their chairs to gather in small groups in front of their houses.  Before the recent proliferation of air-conditioners, this practice was indispensable to staying relatively cool.   But even before electricity, women often would be found sitting, face to the door and back to the street, using the afternoon light to work on their sewing projects.  As mothers  have been expected to supply a corredo  (a collection of sheets and linens, even baby clothes) upon  their daughters’ marriage,  there has traditionally been plenty of sewing to be done.

Women working diligently with needle and thread are becoming a rarer sight to see.   I appreciate that folks are delighted with recent advances in technology, and most of us revel in every new gadget and time-saving device.   But I would miss these sidewalk sights if they were to disappear completely.   One should enjoy them now.  The chairs are still there;  petite, rustically assembled from wood and straw, and enigmatic  to a tourists’ eye.

painting:  “Summer Salad”  5 x 5 inches, oil on canvas  2011

The whole-town waltz

Bernalda, or “Vrrnall” as it is known in local dialect, is a town of about twelve thousand residents.  It is not too small, not too large,  a comfortable size for most.  It is strategically-located within easy driving distance of  larger cities;  Matera, Taranto, Bari, Potenza.   In fact it is a constant battle for local businesses to hold onto their customers, with attractive options nearby such as the huge chain supermarkets full of piles of merchandise;  so large that the women working there wear roller skates to get around.  Many an inspiration to start a business here ends in apathy; there are too many better-placed competitors nearby.  There has not been a movie theater in town since about 1986 when the old building, which hosted traveling plays as well as a sporadically-used movie screen, closed its doors.   That was a sad day, but we are used to making our own fun here.

An indispensable part of the day  is the passeggiata, which is a slow human parade that moves back and forth along the main street from about dusk until midnight.  You need to be dressed for it, because you will be inspected and judged accordingly.  Bernalda is more like a town in Puglia–built on a plateau and gridlike–than a Lucanian town, and its main street is unusually straight and its sidewalks wide and accommodating.   When I first came here I was amazed at the number of people who would dress elegantly and set out alone or hand-in-hand or in groups to trudge, slowly, up and down the street for hours.    It is a wonderful testing ground for that new outfit, new hairstyle, official declaration of a newly-formed couple.  The shops are open and tables are set out, lights are on in windows showing the newest arrivals in clothes and shoes.  It is an endless mixer to which everyone is invited.  It is one of those  aspects of Italian life that I have observed with interest but  never participated in.  I have my puritan work ethic after all, and there is always work to be done, and walking slowly will not accomplish anything.

I ask myself–actually many Bernaldesi ask themselves–on a regular basis, “With two sidewalks of equal width on both sides of the street, why do folks walk on one side only?”  This may have many answers, none of which  fully explains the phenomenon, and none are conclusive.    What is stranger still is that every few years, unfathomably, one sidewalk will be abandoned in favor of the other.  Suddenly, everyone will be slowly proceeding in identical fashion on the shunned side of the main street, and the favored side will be empty of people, bits of paper littering the  pavement.  Crickets.  Like the mysterious flipping of the magnetic poles, one day it happens with no warning.

What I have always admired, observing longingly from my American independence and love of empty spaces, is the constant socializing  that people here do so elegantly.  It is an entire town partaking in a slow dance, a waltz which brings them out and among each other, an evening  “grounding.”  It isn’t so important whether the dance is proceeding up one side or down the other, as long as everyone hears the music.


painting:  “Il Basento”  oil on canvas, 22 x 19 inches, 2011

Critters, chapter one.

I never really noticed geckos until I came here and built a stone house in the country.  Their initial resentment at my interference in their habitat—if they were even here back then—has given way to a population explosion, and they are everywhere.  I gave up long ago trying to keep them on the outside of the house, and we have become accustomed to  their comings and goings across the living room ceiling.  They are very discreet during the daytime, and even at night they prefer to inhabit the window screens on the outside and the exterior walls where the lights are.  They consume enough insects to result in a quantity of gecko excrement (I like to think of them as fewmets) which is truly amazing.  These small turdy packages litter every windowsill and the floors of balconies in alarming numbers.  It requires a close inspection to determine that they are indeed gecko poop and not rat (another skill which is useful to know, as geckos, like birds, produce a small package which is neatly divided into white and dark sections); seeing the white dot brings a sigh of relief.  I suppose I should note that birds such as chickens do not merit the terms “small and neat,”  but more on that later.

I love geckos.  They lay their eggs in dark spaces and sometimes we find them, but most of the time we see the hatchlings struggling to hide,  clinging to the bottoms of flower pots, and we do our best not to crush them.  They are delicate.  We have adults which are  the size of healthy garden toads, and we refer to them as crocodiles.  If you pick one up it will scream at you, and even bite you.  It may not break the skin, but it will have your full attention until it lets go.  One must be careful not to pull the tail, as it will drop off and squirm disconcertingly for an hour or so while its owner runs away to grow a new one.  My dogs love to chase them, and at the end of summer many of them have a tail stump with a tiny nub of new fleshy growth as a result of a well-placed paw.

Unfortunately the folks around here do not love geckos, nor do they appreciate them in any way.  Many is the time that I have rushed to their defense because someone was determined to “defend himself” with broom or shovel.   Town people tell the story of a woman who jumped to her death from a balcony to avoid contact with one of them.  Another story, which never fails elicit disgust, is about a man who came home to his lunch and discovered a new kind of meat in the sauce, the result of an unlucky gecko that lost its grip on the ceiling above the stove.  I have been helping strong workmen move large wooden panels and had to scramble not to fall, as they suddenly dropped everything and sprinted away at the sudden appearance of the dreaded reptile, flattened and terrified on the backside of a board.

In local dialect the  gecko is called  ” a lucertl sprascjtat”    which translates roughly to “disgustingly disintegrated lizard.”    I don’t believe that any amount of animosity on the part of the inhabitants of my little town will ever lead to the eventual reduction of the gecko population.  And every time I am bitten by a mosquito, I thank my little scaly friends for making sure it was just one bite and not ten.


painting:  “Synchronicity”  pencil on paper, 12 x 12 inches, 2006

My double life

I never intended to stay here, but my less-traveled road led me 
to divide my time between two countries on different sides of 
the Atlantic.   It is a path that many with ambition plan to 
follow, eventually coming to a new home where they will live
out a life filled with beautiful scenery, art and excellent 
cuisine, leaving behind  others with more mundane aspirations.  
Italy has often been the imaginary view from a corner office,  
a measure of personal success.  It has also been relentlessly 
stereotyped in books and film, and I would like to offer another,
and possibly truer, perspective.

I have lived in Italy for over thirty years, coming here on 
a whim and staying year after year,  marrying and raising a 
family, creating a world here near a small southern town which
has never failed to interest me.   But if you are thinking of
the many stereotypical accounts by ex-patriots who have made 
a new life here and enthuse romantically about all things Italian,
I assure you the real story--my story--is different.  Of course
it is rich with olive trees, blue sea and stone towns, but there 
has been so much more that is wondrously strange, terrifying, 
indecipherable, and marvelously funny.   
My life here hasn't been what you might imagine at all.

painting:  "Il Vinello"  oil on canvas, 11 x 30 inches, 2010