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Not noted for his party organizing skills, my wonderful husband planned a very successful small get-together at a local restaurant for my birthday. For a sure winner he chose Il Desco, rated #1 on Trip Advisor of restaurants in Ascoli. He invited Cinzia M., Grace & Maurizio, Laura & Sergio, Serafino and Mariella to join us for aperitivo at 7:30 PM (but folks did not show until almost 8 because they never eat before then-will we ever “get it”?). He requested they bring no gifts but most arrived with very thoughtful gifts anyway. Il Desco is a lovely restaurant to begin with and they set a beautiful table for the occasion. For what was an unbelievably small cost (15 Euro per person – they had to regret they didn’t charge more) they served us wines and a large selection of tasty spuntino (snacks). This is often done and considered “dinner.” I had written detailed descriptions of all the wonderful spuntino in Notes in my IPhone, but since then had to get a new phone and the list is now gone. I do remember one with roasted pear and pecorino cheese and another of grilled zucchini wrapped around herbed ricotta. Trust me, the spuntino were creative, beautiful and awesome. They even served a dolce, mine with a candle in it. We had a lovely and memorable evening – great job, Larry!
Always on the lookout for a reason to celebrate, Grace (our Aussie/Italian friend), invited us over for dinner to celebrate Australia Day on 26 January. Just as we were about to go out the door at 7:30 to walk to Grace’s (about a 25 minute walk) dear Serafino called to say he’d pick us up. At the table we were joined by, of course, Marizio, Antonella (Grace’s cousin), Cinzia M., Serafino, Mariella, Lucia, Gina and Jo. Jo is someone that both Grace and Cinzia had mentioned many times that they wanted us to meet. She is originally from Pittsburg but moved to Italy when she was just 18 years old. Her English, however, is so good and so unaffected by the distance that she sounds like she moved here last week. She is a retired teacher. Grace and Cinzia were spot-on and we took to her delightful personality immediately and hope to see her often. Grace had asked me to bring Ina’s blue-cheese and walnut crackers that I had made for our New Year’s Eve party, plus we brought a dessert wine. Other than shrimp-on-the-barbi, I couldn’t imagine what an Australian dinner would consist of.
There was a great selection of wines and water on the table. We started with a torta rustica and crackers and something called twisties. Then sausage rolls which we dipped in catsup. The main dish was a tasty meat pie, served with mashed potatoes and peas. Practical as Aussies are, they serve the peas on the potatoes so they don’t roll off the plate or your fork. (Sound familiar Linda Armacost?) Desserts consisted of traditional Australian Anzac biscuits, Auntie Muriel’s sponge cake made by Gina (and to die for), traditional Italian pizzelle and cantucci made by Jo and little jam crostatas – all wonderful. Oh yes, and we did remember to toast Australia. Another successful party for Grace.
Antiques Market Brunch
The 3rd weekend of each month (except in summer) the Mercantino dell ‘Antiquariato is held. Grace decided to have a brunch on that Sunday (16 February) about noon, with the plan that we’d then all go browsing the market together. In addition to us there was Gina, Lucia, Jo, Serafino, Laura and Sergio plus we finally got to meet their gorgeous daughter, Alice. Luca, Grace’s son, joined us later and, unfortunately, Maurizio was not able to join us at the table. I was thinking later how lucky we are that everyone at the table spoke some English.
As you may have figured out by now, Grace is a fabulous cook because she loves it – especially baking. She often uses the recipes from Women’s Weekly, an Australian publication, I think like Cook’s Illustrated in the US. She immediately popped the cork of some Prosecco and put juice and water on the table. Then she added a homemade bread called a sesame twirl with several of her beautiful homemade jams. There were also some yummy egg salad finger sandwiches brought by Gina. Then Grace pulled out of the oven the best rolls I’ve ever had, she called them Scottish Baps, with butter – I would have been happy if she didn’t serve another dish! Scrambled eggs, bacon and pancakes quickly found their way to the table and I was in breakfast heaven. But since it was really a brunch, we got desert too – a delicious cake called Ciambelone that Jo made. I had made Baci from a recipe in Italy Magazine on-line for Valentine’s Day and gave Grace about a dozen I had left over to serve. Everyone seemed to like them and I even had little messages with them, like the real ones. As Italians usually do, no one left the table until someone mentioned that the market would be shutting down if we didn’t stop yaking and start moving in that direction. So reluctantly we pushed away from the table, put on our coats and started walking toward the piazza. When we finished browsing the market we peeled, off one by one, to go home. I need to make some Scottish Baps now!
Ever the instigator of fun, Grace asked if Larry and I might be interested in going to a buffet dinner with traditional dancing last Saturday night and, of course, said yes. She picked us up a little after 8 PM and we were joined by Mariella and Lucia. We drove out of town a short while to an area called Piagge where Villa Sgariglia, a lovely villa converted to a restaurant/B&B that is a popular location for weddings and other events, is located.
We arrived a little after 8:30 and no one was there except another couple also wondering if they might be at the wrong place (Villa Sgariglia has a second location that is a hotel). The very large room was also empty as was the buffet table, but the round tables of ten were set beautifully and waiting for us. We went in and made ourselves comfortable at the table next to the dance floor so we could see everything. By Italian time it was still early, so people slowly started arriving, Grace knowing many of them, until they totaled about 50 people. They came in all ages, the youngest being two months old, several children of various ages and adults up to about 80 years old. It eventually became clear that the attendees were a group of people, with roots or connections to Puglia in the south, that dance the traditional dances of Puglia. They ranged from beginners to, what was described to me as, a “level two master.”
They started putting the buffet out about 9:30, and brought water and wine to each table. The price was so cheap (20 Euros each, all-inclusive) I was not sure what we were going to be served but I assumed it could not be a multiple-course meal. The buffet table was set, right to left, with multiple cheeses, salumi and other cured meats, pretty cold appetizers, yummy warm appetizers, a corn salad and then a selection of about eight traditional deep fried items: olives, crema, onion rings, califower and other vegetables. When we were told the buffet was open, Larry and I instinctively headed for the right end of the table, grabbed a plate and began. When we looked up there was almost no one behind us and people were helping themselves along the entire buffet table. Then we noticed that there were stacks of plates in several locations on the table. This is the Italian way – if you see something you want, take the most direct route and get it – que lines are horizontal, not perpendicular. No problem, as they refilled the trays several times. We figured that was ample food for the price and loaded up our plates. Meanwhile, they continued to replace the empty bottles of wine and water on the tables. Of course, after the Italians had time for seconds, they started bringing out plates of a traditional pasta. We both had to pass. Later, after the dancing, they served cake, caffe and even your choice of digestivo (liquor).
After the pasta course some of the ladies changed clothes, others just added the traditional red scarf, and all put on their dancing shoes. Several men broke out tambourines and the music started. The music sounded very familiar to the music we heard in Egypt – and it dawned on me, why wouldn’t it? As is often the case, there were many more women dancing than men. Best I could tell there are several actual dances, but each “couple” chose which dance they wanted to dance, since all the music is very similar. So in what is classic Italian, they were all dancing different dances. It was fascinating to watch the skill and stamina of these dancers. At one point they formed a circle and, next thing I knew, the man at our table had me on the dance floor and I was now part of the circle. They danced left and then a caller told them to switch to dance to the right. The step was easy to pick up as it was very similar to the step used by the Greeks. That is until the circle breaks up, periodically, and you are supposed to dance with the person next to you. Then I just had to wing it and try and imitate my partner – it was fun. Then castanets began to appear and they did a few dances with them. They were kind enough to show me how to hold them without insisting I get back on the dance floor. They must have danced for an hour or more. Some of the children were still up and dancing, which always amazes me. People started to gather their things to leave sometime after midnight, as did we. It was a great evening of good food and an introduction to yet another facet of Italian life. Thanks, Grace!