There is a lot of information about food here, but I chose not to put this on the Food Blog because I cannot separate the celebrations and people from the foods – they are one. The holiday celebrations began as soon as we returned from Rome and kept on through the New Year and Epiphany. Accompanying photos should be up in a couple days.
Laura & Sergio:
As I have said before, my favorite thing is to be invited to someone’s home. Laura & Sergio (who use to own our apartment) hosted a small dinner party the day after we returned from our Rome trip. The invitation was for 8:00 PM, which is the normal start time for a dinner party in Italy. Their current apartment is only a couple blocks away from ours. Their building has a lovely gated garden in the front and their apartment is two stories and, as with many of the older buildings, this apartment has been totally remodeled. It is warmly decorated in a fun eclectic style to match Laura’s personality. As in most homes the centerpiece of the living area is the dining table. Over their table hangs a lovely Murano glass chandelier in the traditional style but in a mix of fun colors. Sitting at the table under that chandelier, you had to be happy! In addition to us, attendees were angels Cinzia M. and Grace, her partner Maurizio (the singer) and Rita, who works with Laura.
They had selected some lovely wines to serve with the meal and we all brought a bottle, so there was no shortage of good wine. Laura had really put a lot into this dinner and we were the lucky beneficiaries. We started with a delicious guacamole (which I hadn’t had since we left the US) that Grace had made and a plate of traditional black olives with orange slices. Most notable was an organic brown bread with nuts that Laura had made that was as yummy as it was beautiful. For Primi we had two pasta sauces over bucatini. Bucatini is larger spaghetti pasta but with a hollow center to hold sauces well. It is, as Sergio pointed out, very hard to eat as it is too thick to twirl around your fork and too long to eat like penne. Out of consideration for what I was wearing, I gave in right away and cut it up but Sergio forged on determined to find a way. The first sauce, made by Cinzia, was a classic Ascolani sauce of tomatoes and green olives that was wonderful. The next sauce was of something I had always been curious about but never brave enough to order in a restaurant – squid ink – with saffron. Laura had gone to the fish market that morning and purchased fresh squid ink sacks, which were fascinating in an erotic way. I dare not try and describe them here so, hopefully, the photo I took will load onto the blog site and speak for itself. So I now know that squid ink has no flavor (thus the saffron), not even of the sea, so don’t be afraid to try it. However, those of us who did had black tongues and lips for a while – what a kick. Then she served the Secondi that was a traditional Italian fish stew called Brodetto. It contained many types and sizes of fish and seafood in a marvelous seafood broth. Oh, and yes many were whole fish, which makes the broth that much better. Not something Americans are use to seeing, but very common in Italy where they waste nothing. Next came a Contori of fresh salad and then dolce. For Dolce, Rita, who had also been busy helping in the kitchen, had made three kinds of delicious holiday cookies (biscotti) and I had been asked to bring an American cookie. Since peanut butter is very American and hard to find here, I made the traditional Peanut Butter cookies. The biscotti were enjoyed with, as I recall, an entire bottle of smooth port. What a fine meal.
Olive di Magro:
While we were in Rome I had seen Grace post on FB that she had made the Ascolani olives, stuffed with meats. Darn, I had wanted to see that! Fortunately, she still had the tuna-stuffed ones to make for her Christmas Eve Feast di Magro. These are called Olive di Magro (without meat). Grace said she welcomed my help, so one night she picked me up and we went to the home of another teacher, Mariella P. She had a large, newly remodeled kitchen and the three of us worked together to produce over 220 olives in a couple hours. Grace took half and Marietta kept half for her holiday celebrations. It seems making these is usually done with others and the more the merrier! Mind you, the tuna-stuffed olives are much easier to make than the meat-stuffed ones because the filling requires no cooking. Olive all’Ascolana, the meat ones, are stuffed with a mixture of three types of meats and other good stuff. I have put the recipe for the Olive di Magro on our Food Blog as well as a link to a video of how to make the Olive all’Ascolana. Mariella then called for pizza delivery, and they delivered three pizzas. I figured she would wrap up some and freeze it for later, but no. There was one pizza for each of us to eat, and we did.
We had a few non-party days that week to rest-up, make truffle gifts, and SKYPE with friends and family before the busy weekend arrived. We also used that time to plan and send out e-invitations to our New Year’s Eve party. Sunday the 22nd was the annual Christmas Market when the streets are closed off and vendors of all types, professional and homemade, are set up around the city center – what fun! Larry and I did not exchange gifts this year and considered our trip to Rome our joint gift. Besides, these crazy six months in Ascoli have been like Christmas, consumed with purchasing items to set up the house and cold-weather clothing. We had very few things left we needed and wisely held off purchasing them until after Epiphany when everything went on sale.
Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were spent with friends, thank goodness. What I love about the Italians is that they did not wait until the holidays to think about including us. They invited us to spend these special days with them months ago, so we never fretted for a moment over how we’d fill those days when we’d be missing our families so much. Why the song White Christmas meant so much to our troops overseas in WW II hit me hard when I found my thoughts drifting back to loved ones in the US and a lump developing in my throat each time I heard it. Not that we had white Christmases in California, but I’m not talking about a literal moment. And, really, I had no idea that song was on every Christmas album we had downloaded on our IPad. We tried our best to embrace the new experiences and not dwell on what we might be missing in the US. I did pretty well until Christmas Day when several times I just could not help thinking of family and the wonderful Christmas we had in 2012 and emotions got the better of me. Thanks to our thoughtful new friends we got through the tough moments and managed to have a really fun holiday season.
Grace & Maurizio:
Grace, who we met through Cinzia, is an Expat from Australia and an ESL teacher. Because of her friendship and all she has done for us, she is now our fourth Italian angel (with an Aussie accent). Mind you she moved here with her Italian husband more than 30 years ago (no longer together), but her parents were originally from Ascoli and had moved to Australia. I’m not sure of the order of events but at some point Grace’s Mother moved back to Ascoli and lived in the apartment across the hall from Grace until her passing. Now Grace’s handsome son, Luca, lives there. Their home is made even more cozy by four friendly cats.
She graciously invited us to her Christmas Eve Feast di Magro (without meat) with her family. The explanation above was to set the stage for the evening. The dinner invitation was for 9:00 PM, a little later than usual, as Grace wanted the meal to finish just about midnight. Her partner and our friend, Maurizio, was kind enough to pick us up. Because she had so much going on in her apartment, Grace very smartly used the kitchen in her apartment across the hall to prepare the meal. With just eight of us, Grace was able to set her table with her best linens, china, silver and crystal, which was stunning. If you could take your eyes off her dinner table, the Christmas tree and other decorations were very lovely as well. Since Maurizio is an opera singer as well as an ESL teacher, he had his karaoke set-up (with substantial amplifier & speaker) ready to go so all who could carry a tune could enjoy Christmas music and singing. It seemed everyone there had a decent voice except me, so Larry sang and I enjoyed my usual lip-synching. Another friend, Serafino, who has an incredible voice, later joined us. So holiday music and singing was enjoyed by all but the cats and freely shared (and apparently appreciated) with everyone within a pretty expansive radius of their apartment.
Grace loves Ina Garten’s Tuna Tapenade with toasts, so she asked me to make it. This was not billed as the Italian “feast of the seven fishes” that you may have read about. However, if you include my Tuna Tapenade, I think we actually did have seven seafood dishes. As soon as we arrived the cork popped on a bottle of Grace’s favorite Veuve Clicquot champagne. We all brought wines as well, so no one was without their grape of choice. Entrees (appetizers) were Fresh Raw Oysters (a tradition only enjoyed by some), Smoked Salmon, Fried Tuna Olives, Prawns in Pink Sauce (brought by Grace’s Aunt, Antonella), Insalata Russa that consists of cooked peas, potatoes & carrots in a mayonnaise-based sauce and breads. The first course was Zite all’Ascolana (tomato/olive sauce like at Laura’s but with a different pasta) and a lovely Risotto Venere with Salmon. Our main course was Spiedini di Pesce (seafood kebobs) with a Fennel Salad with oranges. Just before midnight, when I thought I was going to explode, Valentina (Antonella’s daughter) brought out her beautiful Tiramisu – yes please. I’m so glad I forced myself to eat it, as it was not-to-be-missed good. At the stroke of midnight we all toasted the arrival of Christmas Day. Some continued with champagne while others enjoyed dessert wines. After some more singing, Serafino drove us home about 1:30. After all, we had another feast in ten hours!
Shortly after meeting our angel Cinzia M. she invited us to spend a traditional Italian Christmas Day with her family. Cinzia picked us up about 12:45 on Christmas Day and we were glad to finally meet her very talented son, Davide, who has been in Bologna at the university. He has written, drawn and produced several Anime-type comic books that Cinzia had proudly shown us. I think we mentioned in another Blog that Cinzia’s Mama lives in the apartment across the hall from hers so on a big day like Christmas both apartments are utilized. We went inside Cinzia’s apartment first to put our things down and her mother’s living room furniture was residing there. Then we took our bottle of wine and what suddenly felt like a very small container of my holiday fruit salad next door to her Mother’s. We truly were the only non-family members there but were greeted like family by her Mama, Maria Lucia, whom we had met only once before. The entire living area was set with tables and the family members just kept arriving until there were 21 of them total. The ages ranged from the newest member at six-months to seventy-nine years old. It was a beautiful thing.
Cinzia’s Mama and two aunts prepared the Natale feast and Cinzia said they refuse to LET anyone help them. They very thoughtfully sat us down between Cinzia and another English speaker, Umberto, her cousin from Milan – but with Larry nearest the patriarchs of the family where he fit right in. It seems many of them were involved in Italian football in their younger days as players and coaches, as Cinzia’s Father had been. On the table was a selection of local wines and other beverages along with a beautiful assortment of antipasti. There was homemade Natale bread, a spread of roasted vegetables and vinegar, the traditional black olives with oranges and Ciauscolo (the fresh sausages). Every holiday has it’s traditional pasta and Natale’s is Tortellini in Brodo, which we were served next. From then on the plates just kept coming and I was noting them in my IPhone as fast as I could. I think Cinzia saw the look on our faces and graciously told us we could take as little as we wanted or none at all, but I had to try everything. There was Beef with Peas, Galatine of Turkey, Artichokes, Mushrooms, Chicory and Wild Herbs (hand-picked by one of the men), Insalata Russa, Frecanto (cooked mixed vegetables of the season), and Ascolani Fritte (which is the fried Olive all’Ascolani and fried cubes of Crema-like a very fine polenta).
As they were clearing those dishes away, I literally had to stand behind my chair and do some jumping jacks to somehow make room for more. Some chuckled with an understanding nod and others graciously pretended like I was quite normal. Once reseated Dolce in all it’s sweet forms was passed around. First, little bowls of my fruit salad were served. Visions of feeding masses of people from one fish flashed in my head – how did they do that? Then there was homemade Panetone, Chocolate Torrone, Croccanti (pieces of very thin almond brittle served on a bay leaf so your fingers don’t get sticky), Frustingo (a pudding), and Meringa Egg Cream. With dolce the ever-present Vino Cotto was served. I thought the person serving said it was aged 4 or 5 years, but I was corrected. It was 45 years! Then it was explained that within families barrels of Vino Cotto are, essentially, willed to the children. When his father passed, a barrel of his Vino Cotto was given to each child. They add some of the old wine to the new barrels and on and on for generations.
Ok, so now I was certain I was slipping into a food comma, but at least I’ll die happy. Meanwhile, one of Cinzia’s uncles was mixing up the cure – a digestivo he called “Punch.” I’m not sure what the recipe is but it looked like he was pretty much putting in a bit of everything in the liquor cabinet. Maybe Italian Purple Passion?? No, what I can recall of Purple Passion, it had a totally different purpose. Each of the adults was served a shot glass of “Punch,” may I say here it is appropriately named, and it worked – we lived to feast another day!
Then someone started passing out Bingo cards – called Tombolissima in Italian – and they play for money to keep it interesting. From the youngest able to read numbers to the oldest patriarch, everyone played. Cinzia’s son, Davide, was the caller as he could call the numbers in both Italian and English. I hadn’t played Bingo in ages, but everyone had a great time. And I think the youngest player went home a relatively wealthy man.
Cinzia explained that when the family gets together at Christmas it is three days of eating and playing games together. So this was day two. We must have not embarrassed Cinzia too much as she invited us back the next day to enjoy St. Stephens Day with them. The pasta for that day is Timballo (lasagna to us) and, although that is Larry’s favorite pasta, even he knew there was no way we could survive another feast so soon. So we had to graciously decline, although I’m sure we missed another wonderful experience. We shall continue our training but at a realistic pace.
We had two days to recover from the Natale feast before our next dinner invitation. This one to the home of our other Italian Angel, Cinzia V., who is also our Agency Immobilare/Giometra (real-estate agent in US). I have to tell you that her wings keep getting bigger as all through the busy holidays she was helping us get our marriage license translated (another story) and literally taking us to the Anagrafa (City Administration) and then the Hospital Administrative Offices to obtain our health cards and, any day now, our residency cards. Her generosity continues to amaze us. You may recall us mentioning early on that she called in Swedish friend, Claudia, who works at Pfizer to help her explain some of the more complicated contractual issues to us in English. As luck would have it, when we needed a certified translation Claudia’s mother, Karin, is a certified translator.
So Cinzia invited Claudia, Karin and us to her home for pizza with her family. Not just any pizza but their homemade-cooked-in-their-wood-fired-oven pizza. Claudia and Karin picked us up about 7:30 PM as Cinzia lives in a neighboring town in a more modern area. We did not leave the ground floor but understand that the family actually lives on the first floor (2nd US) and there is another kitchen up there. This ground floor is used for entertaining and large dinners, which apparently happens often. From the patio, we entered a very large dining/kitchen area that was beautiful with a Christmas tree and all the holiday decorations. The next room was like a large family den area but now with tables set up for pizza making where her daughter, son-in-law, granddaughters and husband were busily rolling out pizza dough and stoking the contemporary wood-fired oven sitting against the outer wall. Even though they live in a contemporary home her husband, Marcello (also a Geometra), is a traditional man and he made the fresh sausages, prosciutto and salamis that we ate. As you would suspect, they also use the wood oven to cook meats, casseroles and vegetables. I imagine a roast chicken cooked in there must be divine.
The meal went like this: Wines, soda and waters. Antipasto – White pizza with fresh sausages (one with liver & one with herbs). Then the pizzas, with perfectly cooked thin, crispy crusts, began to arrive one after another – Prosciutto & Salumi; Sausage; Picante Sausage; Artichoke, Ham & Mushroom; Italian Flag (fresh tomatoes/basil/parmesan); Shrimp, Arugula & Pink Sauce; Mushroom & Ham; just Mushrooms; and just Artichokes. These folks are pros and I don’t think there was a pizza I didn’t like. This was so much better than in a restaurant because we were able to try every pizza and have seconds of our favorites. As the rate of pizza consumption slowed, the pizza makers finally were able to come and join us at the table and enjoy their creations, albeit a little cold. Dolce – Cinzia made a delicious tart filled with pastry cream and beautifully arranged glazed fruits of pineapple, banana, kiwi and orange; and the peanut butter cookies that we brought. What a great time and a beautiful family. Next time I want to help make and bake the pizzas!
We met Serafino at Grace’s home and liked him immediately. He was a former ESL student of hers and speaks really good English. Incredibly multi-talented, he teaches computer science, draws, and has a beautiful singing voice. He is a perfectionist, patient and soft-spoken with a dry wit and mischievous smile – just the qualities we were looking for in an Italian teacher. He accepted out proposal and is now devoting his many talents, especially his patience, to the task.
Once again we were lucky enough to be invited to someone’s home for a holiday celebration – what luck. Serafino was kind enough to pick us up just before 8:00, not letting us take a cab. He lives in his family home in the hills just outside Ascoli’s center, designed by his father and built some 30 years ago. Three wonderful features of the home are the very large fireplace in the living room, the ceiling in the dining room preserved from the old farmhouse previously there, and a big kitchen with a wood-burning oven. Upon arrival his Mother, Teresa, his two sisters and their families and friends greeted us warmly. Serafino also has a karaoke set-up and Maurizio was there to help him entertain us with holiday music. Grace and a friend of hers visiting from Dublin, Jackie (who has a beautiful singing voice), were there as well as friends Cinzia M. and beautiful Lucia (a lawyer with the comune).
Teresa’s good friend, Maria, was at the stove cooking meatballs (polpette) while the antipasti caldo were sitting at the mouth of the wood oven staying warm. It was explained to me that it is typical when making Olive all’Ascolana to make a lot of the meat stuffing and prepare meatballs from the surplus. The large dining room was set to feed 29 people, so yet another feast was at hand. We had brought a bottle of wine and I had made Ina’s Ham & Cheese in Puff Pastry as an antipasto. On the table were the various beverages, and some cold antipasti were already on the individual plates when we sat down: bread sticks wrapped in prosciutto, cheese, salumi, crackers with two types of spreads, and a wedge of cheese bread. On the table were the traditional fresh sausages and breads. Then the warm antipasti like what I brought and many other versions of savory delights were served. The Primi was Penne Arrabiata with (a traditional spicy tomato sauce) and the Secondi was the delicious Polpette that Maria was cooking earlier. (They never combine them like we do in the US.)
The non-cooks then retired to the living room where Serafino fired up the music, dining room chairs were re-arranged theater-style, and the entertainment began. Serafino and Maurizio sang the traditional holiday songs and Jackie added her sweet voice. She even sang some Irish songs for us.
Meanwhile, the cooks cleared the table and set out the Dolce: Panetone (toasted, which is the way I like it), several types of Torrone, Croccanti (the almond brittle on bay leaves); Jam Tarts; and so many others that I can’t remember. Sparkling and sweet wines accompanied the dolce and now I’m definitely on a high – sugar or alcohol – who cares?
The music changed to pop and soul and we began to dance, so no jumping jacks were required tonight. At some point the elders retired for the evening. Solos, duets and trios (to include Larry) accompanied enthusiastic dancing for the rest of the evening. Full and exhausted, Grace and Maurizio dropped us off at home. Another fun evening with great people – these folks know how to have a good time.
New Year’s Eve:
We had originally come up with the idea of a New Year’s Eve party thinking the preparation would keep us busy between Christmas and New Year’s Day. That ended up being a non-problemo as we were soon extended invitations to the previous two parties. You can’t have too much fun, can you?
Still not used to living so close to our neighbors, we figured that if we were ever going to host a loud party into the wee hours of the morning, New Year’s Eve would be the least offensive to our new neighbors. We had invited about 20 people but several of them traditionally spend their New Year with family, so our attendance was about 14. We requested that guests arrive at 9:00 PM and bring wine, champagne or an antipasto, which they did with Italian gusto. Serafino and Maurizio graciously fulfilled our request that one of them bring their karaoke set-up and then sang their hearts out (an American expression that I just realized makes no sense). Location, food and guests make a party good – music and dancing make it a great party! We considered it a successful party because there was not a single person at the party who did not sing or dance or both and they didn’t go home until after 2:00 AM. This may well become an annual event. (See Food Blog for more on the party.)