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The Food Maven Diary

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Letter from Seliano

If you are reading this for the first time, you could have been reading this 10 days ago, when I sent this diary entry out as an email to my so-called newsletter subscribers. So, to be among the first on your block to read me, please sign up for the newsletter by putting your email address in the box above.


I know it has been too long since I last wrote, but you will have to excuse me. I have been extraordinarily busy. I am in Italy now, and since Sept. 6. Before I left, I said I would send out a letter about the restaurants I ate in over the summer. That never happened because I had all kinds of last-minute errands to get ready for this trip of two months.

Then, the day after I arrived I had an all-day class of 25 students from the Culinary Institute of America. Then the next day I had to go to Naples to do some errands. Of course, I also had a great meal while I was there, actually in a suburb, a hideous looking town called Sant' Anastasia. The restaurant is called I Corti, which means midgets, or Little People as is the politically correct term these days in the states. It was founded by two midget brothers, hence the name. Their 80-year-old sister still works in the kitchen, but the chef is a niece, and her 30-something year-old son and daughter (who speaks English) host and manage the dining room, while their father helps out, too. I Corti is famous for its Nocino, a green walnut liqueur that, like all the liqueurs made in Italy, supposedly has digestive qualities. Back in New York, I was given a gift of a bottle of it, beautifully packaged in a satin-lined box. All I can say is that even though I overate – a problem I am having this trip (as if I haven't had it on other trips, or in life in general) – I felt much better a half hour after I drank their elixir. Powerful stuff, in alcohol content, too.

The next day, we went to a little town in the neighboring region of Basilicata to see a procession of the Madonna di Monte Saracena. The Madonna's effigy is carried down the mountain and placed in the town church. Cecilia has good friends who weekend in this little town, Calvello, and they asked us to join them to see the procession and have lunch. While we waited for the procession to pass Ristorante Pietrapanna, we drank glasses of the house drink. It is one of those wonders of Italy that you can be in a very rural place, in a town where you suppose everyone must be a country bumpkin, but they are sophisticated enough to be totally of the moment. The house aperitif was ACE juice, which is a mix of carrot juice, orange juice, and a tiny bit of lemon juice, with a touch of Campari, and topped off with sparkling wine – Prosecco. ACE, which refers to the juice's content of vitamins A, C, and E, is generic. It is made by several companies. Back here at Seliano, I experimented with making my own ACE, as I have never seen it at home. I used 2 parts carrot juice (made in an electric juicer, but you can buy it at your local grocery, freshly made), 1 part orange juice, and, for about 2 cups of this, the juice of 1 lemon. To 2 cups of Ace, add about ¼ cup of Campari. Put an ice cube in each flute-shaped glass. Fill half way with the juice mix. Top with Prosecco.

As I said, I have been busy. The next day, my first Cook at Seliano group arrived – two couples from Austin, Texas; a father and his adult daughter, he from Stamford, Connecticut, she working as a lawyer in London, and a single woman from southern New Jersey, near Philly. They were a great group. I must say that Cecilia and I attract the nicest, most interesting people, all of whom seem to be game for any adventure we plan for them. Perhaps a highlight of this trip was a little jaunt to the nearby town of Agropoli, a seaside town where we often go for a walk in the historic district, and an excellent gelato. This time, however, walking toward the historic center, we bumped into a cousin of Cecilia's who used to be the Italian ambassador to Iraq. He was sitting in front of a café, with his wife and another female cousin, and invited us for an aperitif. He fascinated us with his opinions on Iraq and, in general, conditions in the Middle East, and western European relations with each other, with the U.S, and with the Middle East.

The day after our group left, Baronessa Cecilia, my sidekick Bob Harned, our friend Nicolas Claes, who lives here on Cecilia's farm in Paestum, and I went for a few days in Calabria, then to Palermo. We have all travelled together many times before, so we are used to each others quirks. Like Cecilia and Nicolas argue with each other about driving directions. And I am obsessed with food stores and restaurants and finding dishes I have heard about but never eaten. And if Bob is within a 30-minute drive of a Roman or Greek archaeological site he has yet to visit, we must make a detour for him. Not that we mind. Cecilia and Bob are our cultural consciouses. It is possible, however, that I have seen one too many ancient theaters and amphitheaters in my life.

In Calabria, we stayed at the home of Cecilia's friends in Corigliano, although they were not at home while we there. It is actually a huge farm estate where they raise cows and water buffalo, among other livestock, as well as grow many vegetables for which they have a jarring facility that produces various Calabrese-style products – artichokes and wild artichokes in seasoned oil, artichoke cream, wild asparagus cream, the various tomato and hot pepper-based condiments that the Calabrese spread on bread or use to season pasta, marinated eggplant, etc. (You can find many of these at my favorite Brooklyn Italian store, D. Coluccio in Bensonhurst.)

The house itself was built in the 1700s. It has a fortress-like wall around it with huge metal-covered wooden doors with spikes sticking out of it. The doors open to huge, long, stone-paved courtyard with a well in the center, and a grand staircase leading to the front door. The inside has been completely restored and refurbished to look like it was decorated in the late 19th/early 20th century, including what look like vintage wall papers. The furniture was mostly truly antique, however. Cecilia and I coveted many pieces. The vast, high-ceilinged kitchen, hung with antique copper pots, baskets, and ceramics, still had its antique black-iron, wood-burning stove, merely on display in the center of the room, dividing the cooking area with the eating area, while there was a modern gas stove, too.

Besides who knows how many bedrooms, a baronial sized dining room, and several sitting rooms, there was a library, and a comfortable TV room where we watched the first night of four broadcasts of the Miss Italia competition, the silliest beauty contest I have ever seen. (In case you need to know, the winner was Miss Trentino Alto-Adige.) We were living the rich nobleman's life for several days. Of course, Cecilia IS a noblewoman, but even she was impressed with the house and the whole estate. The family is not noble, however, just smart, rich business people. We were told that the Contessa whose family home it was, lost everything in a card game and needed to sell the estate to pay her gambling debt. Cecilia says this is not unusual in Italy. The current owners, the Rizzo family, actually live in the north of Italy, but they come down – mother, father, adult children and grandchildren – for a weekend every two weeks to take care of the farm business, and for summer vacation and holidays.

I could dwell on our experiences and meals in Calabria for quite a few pages, which is certainly what I will do in my new book, for which this trip was research. But I want to move on to Palermo. We had Cecilia's car, so we drove down to Reggio di Calabria and took the ferry to Messina, Sicily, which takes only 20 minutes.

I was in Palermo for just one day in May. It was a port on the Mediterranean cruise I hosted. Until then, I hadn't been to Palermo in 22 years, when I stayed for about a week and got to know the city a bit. In May, however, my impression of the city was not good. I heard it had improved, but it didn't seem so. This is the problem with visiting places while on a cruise. You don't really get to learn about a place, especially if it is a big city. (Palermo has about 1 million citizens.) You may see a few sites, and eat a good lunch, but then you are due back on the ship by 5 p.m. I came home in the spring saying that I didn't think Palermo had changed much in 22 years. It still looked very dingy and poor. Boy, was I wrong. After four days there, I realized it is a very beautiful and fascinating city, more cosmopolitan than Naples, with many beautifully restored churches and historic sites to see. It may not feel so much like old Europe, the way Naples does, but it has both modern middle class and beautiful (and rich) sections along with seedy old sections where there are bombed out buildings from World War II that have never been restored. There are old sections with Palermitani, but also sections where North African muslims live, as well as blacks from sub-Sahara Africa. The newer sections of the city have wide streets with tropical plantings, modern high-rise apartment houses and complexes, always with terraced apartments, and world-class stores. The old sections have narrow streets paved with ancient volcanic stones.

We ate exceptionally well in Palermo, especially at a dirt-cheap working man's self-service restaurant near the must-see cathedral. It's called Da Mimi, and I found out about it by asking one of the dealers in the nearby flea market, which is behind the cathedral. We ate spaghetti with mussels, a ubiquitous dish of baked pasta rings with meat sauce, peas and cheese, done very well here; great but very simple lasagne, arancini with meat and peas inside (like we have in New York pizzerias), arancini with mozzarella and ham inside (sometimes called arancini al burro), and more. All for 6 euro a person, including wine, beer and water. I talked to the chef and got several recipes. He and the owner could not have been more hospitable, as was everyone in Palermo except the difficult deskman at our hotel.

The other really memorable eating experience was at the Focacceria San Francesco, across the piazza from the church of San Francesco d'Assisi, another must-see site. (Oh, there are so many must-see sites in Palermo. For instance, at the top of your list must be the Capella Palatina, which has the most astounding Byzantine mosaics. Even though it is currently under restoration and you can't see half of it, the half you can see will blow your mind.)

A focacceria in Sicily is a place where you eat sandwiches, particularly the city's famous milza sandwich. That would be spleen to you, boiled in fat in large cauldrons set on an antique stove in the middle of a vast room with ceilings almost as high as the church across the street. It comes not on what you would recognize as focaccia, but a brioche-type roll, with a slab of ricotta (which is firm enough to slice in Italy), and topped with grated caciocavallo cheese, which is not the same cheese by that name as they make in Campania, Calabria, Puglia and Basilicata on the mainland. Focaccerie also make panelle, which are fried pancakes of chick pea flour, and potato croquettes. Believe it or not, the Palermitani eat these, sometime together, on a sandwich made with what we would call hero bread.

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