Where Sundays are Still Sundays


Dinner DisastersAhh, Sunday.

A day of rest. A day of relaxation.

The day of the traditional pranzo della domenica (Sunday lunch) in Italy.

It used to be that I dreaded Sundays in Italy. Nothing is open, beaches are crowded, church bells over-exercise their right to chime and you can feel the marked change of pace in a place, especially smaller cities and towns. The whole country downshifts into a lower gear for a day, and it was an odd feeling for me, coming from a city in Canada where Sundays feel the same as pretty much every other day of the week. I’d find myself at loose ends, an outsider watching families gather in the piazza and pranzare (have lunch) together. I didn’t have family in Siena, and because many things are closed on Sundays, I didn’t have a lot to do.

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When I started working, I drew the lucky straw that had me in the office, without fail, every Sunday morning at 8am. Sunday being Sunday and Italy being Italy, public transportation didn’t run out to the little hamlet where my office was situated, so I’d have to rely on the kindness of my coworkers to get me to work. Bleary-eyed, I’d be up walking through the streets to meet my ride before the rest of the town had begun to stir, getting a glimpse of Siena behind-the-scenes. Slowly, I started to appreciate that little window of time.

Then we’d be in the office, cursing the fact that we had to be there but happy to be getting one of our weekly shifts done on a day less hectic than the other six. Our boss wouldn’t come in until later or not at all, and by the time 2:30 rolled around and it was time to leave, the trains had started running and I could get back home on my own.

As I started making more friends, Sundays weren’t so bad. In fact, some of my happiest, most peaceful memories of Italy are of Sunday lunches that went on for hours, a little table spread out in the piazza, the calcio (soccer) being broadcast on the radio in the background, and friends gathered together enjoying one another’s company. Even this year, on a quick visit to Siena, I had the pleasure of indulging in a beautiful Sunday lunch with a new friend out in the Chianti countryside. If you had seen me then,  eating from a tagliere di salumi (sliced cured meats), enjoying some insalata di farro (spelt salad), and washing it all down with sips of smooth Chianti,  you would have found me the perfect picture of contentment.

I don’t know what it is about Sunday lunch as opposed to Sunday dinner, but somehow, I like it better. Maybe it’s because Sunday lunch affords you more time; If you start at 2pm, you can sit at the table for 3 hours without worrying about anything. If you sit down at 6pm though, by the time 9 rolls around you’re worried about the things you have to prepare for Monday, thinking about how much sleep you’ll get before the alarm goes off and all the dirty dishes that are separating you from your bed.

Call me sentimental, (or maybe I’m just getting old) but I’ve come to love, look forward to, and even crave the feeling of slow Italian Sundays. My experiences in Italy (and recently, in France) have reminded me of what Sundays should feel like: calm, a day of rest, of reconnection with family and friends topped off with some good food for good measure.

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It warms my heart to know that there are still places in the Western world that cling to the idea that Sundays are and should be different from the other days of the week. I experience an often-missed feeling of contentment when I’m in a place where Sundays are still Sundays.

Buona domenica & happy Sunday!

 

5 Italian Food Faux Pas (And How To Avoid Them)


Dinner Disasters

If I haven’t made it abundantly clear in my other posts on food, Italians are pretty particular about what they eat. And when they eat it. And what they eat it with, and what they drink it with, and how it’s prepared, the season, the ingredients, the temperature outside, the alignment of the stars…

You get the picture.

Recently I’ve run into a few people who have commented on the general unwillingness of Italians to compromise on anything food-related, even when it comes to getting business from turisti. I’ve written about this phenomenon before and some of the reasons behind it (click here and here to take a look) but I thought I might quickly run down a list of Italian Food Faux Pas (And How To Avoid Them) to make your mealtimes in Italy run smoothly.

Now, pay close attention. Note that these faux pas are not in any specific order. They’re all probably equally heinous mistakes to make where the average Italian is concerned. I’ll explain the reasoning behind them (where I can) to keep you from being baffled further by the food-loving Italiani and to try to help you keep your tourist status under the radar.

Le Regole (The Rules)

1. Niente cappuccino after 10:30am. None. Whatsoever. Never. Don’t bother to order one. Especially if it’s hot out. Why? All the Italians I’ve met practically classify milk (the cappuccino topper) as a meal on its own, almost as filling as eating a solid food. Milk is a breakfast thing and needs to be consumed before 10:30 so as not to badly interact with other foods in your stomach, which brings me to the next point…

2. No latte (milk) with a meal. Milk is not a drink that accompanies anything other than cookies or coffee. Breakfast is the best time to drink it, then don’t think about it again until the next morning. It doesn’t go with pasta or steak or pizza or risotto or a panino – that’s what wine was invented for. (Obviously.) Milk just does not get consumed at lunchtime or aperitivo time or dinner time. All this relates nicely to the next rule…

3. No latte (milk) or formaggio (cheese) with any species of pesce (fish) or pasta containing fish. One summer in Siena, my  60-something-year-old landlady Tina moved faster than I’ve ever seen her move just to swat the cheese container out of my hand before I had the chance to ruin my penne con tonno (penne with tuna in tomato sauce) with a sprinkle of Parmigiano grattugiato (grated Parmesan). “Sarah!” she all but barked. “Non si mangia il pesce con il formaggio. Non si mangia!” she admonished. (Sarah! You don’t eat fish with cheese. You don’t eat it!) I learned my lesson and have never done it since.

4. Dinner isn’t served before 7pm. (And even if you manage to stave off your hunger until that late hour, it’s only the tourists who eat at 7). Get used to eating later, especially in the summertime. In Siena, we sat down to dinner anywhere between 8:00 – 9:30pm. Now, note that I didn’t say that’s when we started eating, because we probably had an aperitivo beforehand, sometime around 7:00 – 8:00 pm. (My housemate Alex once remarked that he could set his watch by my leaving the apartment for aperitivo. I left around 7. Every evening.) Seriously though, restaurants don’t serve cena (dinner) before 7pm. One of the best restaurants in Siena takes reservations for 2 dinner seatings: at 7pm to eat with the tourists, they told me, or 9pm to eat with the locals! Bump up your other mealtimes accordingly.

5. Walking and eating is vietato (forbidden). So is walking and drinking. Unless it’s a gelato, or a drink drink, which are perfectly acceptable to enjoy during a passeggiata. A piece of pizza, however, is not. You’ll get strange looks if you walk down the street and eat pizza. Believe me, I’ve done it, but only once. (I’m a quick learner). You can stand and eat pizza, sure. But just don’t move, and for heaven’s sake don’t scarf it down. Italians think it’s unhealthy to eat quickly or anywhere that’s not a table or bar counter. My coworker once told me that the reason for her (practically non-existant) belly was that she ate sandwiches quickly while at work. Fa ingrassare, sai. (It makes you fat, you know!)

So there they are, laid out for all to read and hopefully internalize before a trip to Italy. Why are these little, trivial things so important? Well, remember the phrase “When in Rome, do as the Romans”? It’s like this: wherever I go, I try to fit in as much as I can, out of respect and interest of the host culture. People respond better to me that way, and I don’t come across like the ugly tourist, demanding that everything be the same as I left it at home. If all I want is for everything to be like it is at home, then why travel?

The Frazzled Chef Gets a Helper


Frazzled Chef

Not long ago, I acquired an apprentice to help me around the kitchen: my cousin. He’s about three feet tall, a whopping four years old, and just about the cutest little kid you’ve ever seen. Our first joint endeavor in the cucina (kitchen)? The quintessential Italian dish and worldwide favourite:

Pizza

Now, growing up with an Italian Nonna and a Mamma who loves Italian food, I started to learn the craft of pizza-making at an early age. Over the years, I made pizza with my Mom and Nonna for family dinners, with friends when we had sleepovers at my place and as a late night snack for my housemates and I during our university days. I couldn’t believe it when people would tell me that they didn’t know how to make pizza. Wasn’t it a skill we all learned as children??!!? It was something so simple for me, so natural. (That is, as natural as any cooking activity can be for me…)

Anyways, pizza-making was a skill that my aunt wanted to instill in little Christopher. (I don’t know that he’s ever even made a peanut butter sandwich, but really, why bother starting small?) So, she gave me a call and we set up an evening when the Frazzled Chef would introduce her eager little blue-eyed apprentice to the art of pizza making.

I bet you’re all busting to know how it went, right? Did I spill cheese on the floor? Did I drop the dough? Did the apprentice and the chef end up in a sauce-flinging contest? Did one of us end up in Time-Out?

I can assure you, readers, that the whole ordeal went in the usual Frazzled Chef style. The dough didn’t rise properly, the onions made me turn into a blubbery, red-eyed disaster, and we made a pretty good mess of the kitchen while my aunt grimly surveyed the scene. My apprentice, I’m happy to report, attacked his tasks with furious gusto (which, naturally, he learned from yours truly).

Pizza Dough

Spreading the dough.

Spreading the sauce

Spreading the sauce

Adding the cheese.

Adding the cheese.

We greased the pan with a bit of butter (“I get to use my fing-ers?”), spread the dough, used a spoon to cover it in sauce (“Can’t I use my fingers for this toooo?) and made funky designs with all of our pizza toppings. Somehow, to the music of a little voice saying ever so loudly, “I’ll do it! I’ll do it! I’ll do it!”, and eagerly asking “Can I try? Can I try?” Chris and I managed to concoct two perfectly passable pizzas complete with cheese, olives, pepperoni, mushrooms and yes, some onions.

The oven was hot, the pizzas were ready and Chris, proud of his accomplishments as a little pizzaiolo (pizza maker), was busy admiring our work.

“Stand back now, Christopher. I’m going to put these pizzas in the oven, ok?” I said slowly, motioning for him to move away from where I was about to open the oven door. Quarters were a bit tight in the kitchen, and obviously I didn’t want him to get hurt. (One of my childhood pizza-making experiences with Nonna resulted in me burning my wrists on a hot oven rack. Nonna’s solution? Give me a drink of water and slather some butter on the wounds. Needless to say, she’s no longer practicing medicine).

“Ok!” He chirped, bobbing up and down with excitement and watching me with big eyes.

I opened the oven and was bending down to put the first pizza in, when I felt my posterior brush against something behind me, and that something begin to head towards the floor. It landed with a crash and I quickly shoved the pizza in the oven, closed the door, and stood up praying to the kitchen gods that it hadn’t been anything valuable.

Before I could even turn around to see what I had done, Christopher was shouting it from the rooftops.

“YOUR BIG BUM KNOCKED MY DRAWINGS OFF THE FRIDGE!” His tone was accusatory as he pointed at the pile of papers now strewn all over the floor in front of the oven.

And as if one transgression wasn’t enough, he was sure to add, “AND MY MAGNETS TOO!”

The kitchen gods came through, and nothing ended up being ripped or broken. I helped Chris put his artwork back on the fridge in the same chaotic disarray it had been hanging before and he seemed to forgive me, although he was sure to warn me to “be careful of your bum!”, when, 25 minutes later I once again bent down to retrieve the pizzas from the oven.

The Finished Product

The Finished Product

“So, Chris, do you think you and I could make pizzas again some night? You could help me out?” I asked.

“Yeeeeeahhhh! It was coo-oool!” Chris responded between mouthfuls.

Another Frazzled Chef success!

UPDATE – The next time my little helper was around, I asked him if he was going to come into the kitchen and help me with the pizza for dinner? He responded so angelically in his little voice, “But why, Sarah? Don’t you know how to do it yourself?”

Kids!