Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Long And Winding Road

To recap, and with much hindsight, I was hopelessly ill-prepared on my first endeavor to find my grandmother’s hometown in Comune di Orero (above) in 2010. On the second effort in 2013, Jory and I made progress in terms of logistics, but unfortunately, we visited the wrong town with the same name in a different part of Liguria.

This time, there would be no missteps, thanks to assistance from brothers Robert and Richard, as well as cousin Michelle. Success would be where preparation meets opportunity: we had Google maps, street views, aerial photos and carefully plotted directions, not to mention Andrea, our cab driver, who knew where he was going.

Yes, it’s been a long and winding road, figuratively speaking -- and, as it turns out, literally speaking as well.

As Gina will surely attest, the meandering route from downtown Genoa to the Comune di Orero was circuitous enough to induce car sickness. Plus, the higher we went into the foothills of Liguria, the narrower the road became.

So we switched places on the way back: her in the front seat and me in the back.
Once we arrived in Cicagna, I knew we were close. My Gramma talked about this small hub of about 2,500 inhabitants all the time when I was a youngster. 

It's where they would shop for groceries and is the largest town near her home in Comune di Orero in the wooded headlands of the Appenines. They would simply take a trail down to Cicagna.

After a half dozen kilometers, we arrived at the city hall in Isolona (above, left).

Inquiring within, we met Massi Ratto, the town administrator. His wife is a Sanguinetti, so that would make us shirttail relatives. He informed us that we were in luck: his mother-in-law, Anna Sanguineti, was home that day. We proceeded to her house where, once Andrea explained who we were, she greeted us warmly.

Anna emotionally implored us to return when her sister, Iva, and brother, Andreino, would be available two days hence. We had planned to take the boat to Cinque Terre that day, but she made us an offer we simply couldn’t refuse -- a chance to connect with our cousins. We agreed to come back to Isolona on Wednesday, July 15.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Exploring Eataly

A quick review of lists of the “top 10 reasons to go to Italy” reveals a rather conspicuous constant: the cuisine. Of course, Genoa (above) features hundreds of delightful ristorantes, trattorias, pizzerias and cafes, and literally dozens within walking distance of the Hotel Columbo in Old Town near the Porta Soprana and Porto Antico.

Let’s be frank: food is the primary reason to visit Italy. But don’t expect meals like those at five-star Italian restaurants in America. They're nice, but many are "merigan." We have a tendency here to overdo everything, probably the key reason for the difference. The best Italian dishes are simple, and honed over generations.

Naturally, I consider myself something of an expert in Italian food. My siblings and I practically lived in our Gramma’s house.

When we would visit, the scent of her cooking would suck our nostrils through the front door like airborne cartoon characters floating into her kitchen. 

My buddies would fall all over themselves for an invite for lunch.

At Christmas, my Gramma would bake cookies that, simply put, were out of this world. They were your basic pie crust leftovers molded into diamond shapes and sprinkled with sugar.

We would beg, borrow or steal these cookies. They were duly portioned out by Gramma (left, seated). After that, you were on your own. Because of her accent, she called them “cooks” (pronounced “kooks”), so -- naturally -- we did as well.

Yes, Emilia Brichetto Cargni was a master chef, perfecting dishes like spaghetti and meatballs, ravioli, ping (a delicious stuffing composed of breadcrumbs, eggs, spinach, Parmesan cheese, green onions, and salt and pepper), polenta and more. She baked a mean pumpkin pie, as well as picture-perfect lemon and chocolate meringue pies.

Italians may have borrowed noodles from China and tomatoes from South America, but boy, they know how to put it all together. A common refrain: “Has anything ever tasted this good? Ever?” Probably not. Credit Italians, who make it all look easy, even though it’s not; they balance the right ingredients in exactly the right proportions.

Breakfast, or collazioni, is at least a good excuse to get out of bed for many. On the rooftop terrace at the Hotel Columbo, we enjoyed eggs, prosciutto, fruit, quiche and pastries of all varieties, along with orange and pineapple juice and all the cappuccinos we could drink. Breakfast was factored into the cost of the hotel room.

Rarely ate lunch, but when we did it was usually a slice of pizza. For dinner, we tried eateries near our hotel and the old port. Our favorites: La Mama’s, Trattoria Alle 2 Torri, Trattoria del Galfino and Trattoria Ugo. Even the Italian “Chinese” food was great, as we found out one Sunday evening, when everything else was closed.

Being a port city, seafood (pesci) of all kinds was the predominant protein in Genoa, and it’s virtually impossible to avoid “pesto Genovese” made of basil, garlic, Parmesan, olive oil and pine nuts. After apertivos, its off to “primi” (first course) and “secondi” (second course), followed by “dolci” (dessert).

So when it’s time to eat, Italians like to say: “tutti a tavola” (everyone to the table). For a command like that to go unheeded would be reprehensible. Around Gramma’s house, all she would have to say was simply this: “querstu’ guy a chi, mangia chi!” We knew what she meant. And she never had to say it twice, either.