Sunday, June 26, 2011

La Cenerentola

Last week we went to the Teatro Comunale to see the Rossini opera La Cenerentola, a version of Cinderella.  (Cenere means ashes in Italian.)  Four years ago when we were in Bologna we saw the hilarious Dario Fo production of another Rossini work, L'italiana in Algeri (The Italian Girl in Algiers), complete with flying bicycles.

The Teatro Comunale is a classic European opera house, horseshoe-shaped and with layers of boxes, or palchi, rising to the romantically painted ceiling.  It opened in 1763 and still has 18th century stage machinery preserved under the auditorium and stage.  It also has a cool digital clock built into the ceiling above the proscenium arch.  Our seats were in the first level of boxes.

Production designers have fun with Rossini, so it wasn’t too surprising that this Cenerentola was set in the 1950s kitchen of a palazzo, where Angelica (Cinderella) sang of her dreams while the bread in the oven burned to a crisp.  The sides and back of the stage looked like monolithic gray walls, but had doors, ramps and decorative shapes that opened or slid out and were often met by stairs lowered from the fly above or rolled onstage.  The chorus was dressed in tuxedos (except when they took off their clothes in a drunken stupor).  They also occasionally did some tap dancing in the background.  All the singers and chorus did a great job, as you might expect in an Italian opera.  The show we attended was the last of this production in Bologna, and the applause at the end went on for 10 minutes while the lead singers and conductor took bows.

I couldn’t take pictures during the spettacolo, but I found a YouTube video called Cenerentola Backstage that shows this production in rehearsal, so you can get an idea of what the show was like. You can find it 


Saturday, June 25, 2011

La Cuoca

Our language school includes various social activities outside of class to help us learn Italian culture and have some fun while hearing and speaking Italian in practical settings.  These are all optional, but there was a pretty good turnout for an afternoon stroll across town to La Sorbetteria, a shop noted in guidebooks for its original flavors.  And gelato was followed by a wander through Giardini Margherita, a large urban park with trees, a lake, fountains and great expanses of lawn.

But this time I’m writing about an extracurricular cooking class and dinner arranged for four of us students, Alex, Peter, Cyndy and me, in the home kitchen of a woman named Alessandra.  We didn’t really know what to expect except that the menu sounded good and the cuoca (cook) came with high praise.   What we found was someone molto gentile e simpatica (very kind and companionable) with a small but well-organized kitchen in a modest third-floor apartment.  
We arrived about 6 p.m. and had our aprons on and tiramisù underway in just a few minutes.  Dessert came first because it had to chill for a couple of hours after assembly before we could eat it.  Here Cyndy, Alessandra and Peter layer coffee-soaked Savoiardi biscuits into the mascapone custard. (We call them ladyfingers, but they originated in the 15th-century Duchy of Savoy—which later became the royal house of Italy.)

A more ambitious project was lasagne including freshly-made pasta and ragù Bolognese.
Here’s the ragù simmering on the stove.

To make the pasta, Alessandra started with a little volcano cone of flour and slowly worked eggs into it.  The eggs had the most amazingly bright orange yolks!  With a few adjustments of a bit more flour and a bit of water the dough was ready for rolling.  In addition to normal rolling, she used a technique we’d never seen of stretching the dough along the length of the rolling pin while it wrapped around.  Lots of flour on the dough so it didn’t stick to itself while rolling.  Then she sliced wide strips of the pasta and laid them out to dry a bit while she made the béchamel sauce (in Italian it’s besciamella).  The lasagna was assembled with layers of ragù, pasta, besciamella and grated cheese, then popped into the oven.

Alex rolling lasagne pasta

While the lasagna baked, we completed the menu with polpettini di melazane, which you might think of as eggplant meatballs, made of cooked eggplant, fine breadcrumbs and grated parmigiano reggiano.  Here Peter, Alex and Cyndy cut up melanzane.  After it was cooked and pulped and blended with the other ingredients, the balls were formed, rolled in more breadcrumbs and briefly fried in olive oil.

Everything was ready by about 7:45, so Peter opened the wine, a very nice Negroamaro from Salento in Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot.  

Here’s the lasagne ready to eat, and the tiramisù, after severe depredations. Yum yum! 
(Or in Italian, gnam gnam.)

All this time Alessandra had been describing the recipes, ingredients, history of the dishes, and techniques.  When we all sat down to eat the conversation ranged from the simple but true, caldo! caldo! (yikes that’s hot!) after my first bite of sizzling lasagne to discussions about food, wine, regions of Italy and even Italian politics.  We left about 9 p.m., well stuffed and with a few left-over polpettini to take home.
One good result of all this is that Cyndy was inspired to make tiramisù here in our apartment.  Here’s a picture.
And here’s the ricetta. 

Buona fortuna,

INGREDIENTI (per 4 persone):
1 confezione di savoiardi
3 uova
Caffè (circa 10 tazzine)
60 gr di zucchero
500 gr di mascarpone
Cacao amaro
Per prima cosa preparate il caffè , tanto quanto basta per inzuppare i savoiardi, versatelo in una ciotola (se volete zuccheratelo a piacere) e lasciatelo intiepidire.
Per la crema:
Montate i tuorli (rossi) delle uova insieme allo zucchero fino ad ottenere un bel composto chiaro e cremoso.
Montate con uno sbattitore elettrico i 2 albumi (bianchi) delle uova con un pizzico di sale.
Aggiungeta all’impasto il mascarpone e gli albumi montati, mescolate fino ad ottenere una crema senza grumi.
 Adagiate in un contenitore i savoiardi e iniziate ad bagnarli col caffè ; dovranno essere ben imbevuti ma non completamente zuppi. Ricoprite i savoiardi inzuppati con uno strato di crema al mascarpone. 
Disponete poi  il secondo strato di savoiardi. Ricoprireteli con la restante crema.
Terminata questa operazione spolverizzate con abbondante cacao amaro la superficie del vostro Tiramisù.
Riponete in frigo per qualche ora per far compattare il dolce.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

La Scuola

We’re about to start our second week of Italian language classes at Madrelingua school.  Roberto is in the low intermediate class, while Cinzia is advanced.  We pretty much knew that before we ever got here, but the placement test the school gave us when we registered confirmed it:  Roberto 23/44  correct, Cinzia 41/44.
Every weekday morning we walk about six minutes from our apartment to the school, stopping along the way for a cappuccino and pastry.  We probably pass 8 or 10 bar/cafes where we could get excellent coffee, but Impero and Severio on Via dell’ Independenza are the current favorites.  Here’s the portone for the school (and a dozen other enterprises and apartments in the building).  Class starts at 0930. 

One story up from the street are the modern classrooms and offices of Madrelingua. The school is truly international.  Last week between our two classes there were students from Germany, Sweden, Brazil, the Azores, Spain, China, Japan and the U.S.A.  It’s no wonder that all business and class work is conducted only in Italian.  It’s the only language everyone has in common!

Grammar occupies the first two hours of the day.  Last week we distinguished between passato prossimo and imperfetto; covered imperativo, futuro semplice and futuro anteriore; and struggled a bit with comparatives among other challenges.  That can be hard work, so every day at 1130 the whole school, including all the teachers, troops down the street to a bar/cafe for a hit of caffeine and perhaps a small panino.  We sit in small groups and carry on social conversations in Italian while savoring a pleasant habit of life in Italy.

About noon or a little after we return to our lessons until 1330, when normal instruction ends and the traditional Italian lunch period starts.  Both of our classes have been reading articles (at different levels of difficulty) about social conditions (workplace equality, stay-at-home adult kids) and lifestyle topics (food, film).  On Friday we also had a little test that involved both writing a letter to a friend and reading comprehension.  I did great on the comprehension.  I haven’t gotten my graded letter back yet, but I’m afraid it might have been mine that got the instructor laughing uncontrollably.
The school also organizes activities outside of class to help us feel comfortable in public and to have some fun.  One day after class ended about 10 of us went for lunch at a nearby osteria, a simple neighborhood  restaurant.  Bread, salad, a plate of pasta, dessert and wine.  It took the better part of two hours, but we didn’t need dinner and it was very reasonable.  Another evening about 6 p.m. we went with one of the staff to a bar near the Piazza Maggiore for drinks and what the bars call aperitivi.  This actually amounts to a buffet of vegetables, salads, cold meats, pastas, and various savory bites—which are free when you buy a drink.  Another evening when we didn’t need more for dinner—though we did find space for some gelato.  The school also organized a cooking class and dinner, but that will be the subject of another entry coming soon.
This week will probably be our last at the school.  We should be in pretty good shape to improve on our own after that and to function comfortably in Italian society.  And the cool thing is that to eat like a king you only have to be able to speak to the padrone of a ristorante as well as a 5-year-old does—and I think I’m getting close.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

La Ferramenta

At Strada Maggiore, 7, in Bologna is a wondrous place, Ferramenta Castaldini.  A ferramenta is a hardware store, and this one must be in the top five of the best I’ve ever visited.  (Doesn’t everyone keep a list of great hardware stores?)   Out for a stroll one day, Cyndy was attracted by the vast array of baking tins and other tools of the cucina in one of the show windows.  We went back together and she had to drag me out gibbering and pointing at all the beautiful goods.

Today we returned and actually bought something, in part so I’d have an excuse to take a few pictures without too much embarrassment.  We bought a screwdriver along with a special key to open the brass plate that houses the campanelli (doorbells) and residents directory at the portone (big front door) so I can put our names there.  Here’s the little packet the clerk made up to hold our tool, and the tool itself.

And here are some photos of the store inside.  (If you click on a picture it should open in a larger format in a new window.  You can search out some of the things on offer.)

First are shelves of baking tins, pots and other cose per la cucina (things for the kitchen):

Next is a look back along the service counter and the bank of bins behind it with beautiful fittings of all kinds, many remnants of another age.

And now an array of ceiling medallions for light fixtures, and if you look carefully, some replacement candle holders for your chandelier and a few supports for your heavy draperies:

In the foreground at right below are tools to cut pasta dough in various ways.  Below and behind are knobs, pulls, latches, stops, pins and angles in brass, bronze and glass.  At the far left edge of the photo is the cookie cutter rack.  Hundreds of shapes.

Door hardware is next.  Bologna has lots of very big doors with beautiful handles, keyhole decorations, knockers, hinges and bosses.  Some of the rolls of chain can be seen here as well.  There must be 40 kinds at least.

Decorative finials and drapery rod caps:

And finally, repair and replacement pulls, handles and filigree for your antique furniture:

These pictures are just a small sample of what's packed into this small store, yet the sales clerks in the ferramenta seemed to know where everything was and what it was for.  The fellow ahead of me bought a beautiful board for rolling out pasta and shaping it on, about 3-feet square.  A woman was matching some old brass doorknobs.  There were tools for every trade, plumbing and electrical parts, pots for garden plants, and walls of bins and drawers full of untold treasures.

Cyndy may have to buy some of that chain to restrain me.


Friday, June 10, 2011

The Paper Trail

We've been in Italy a little over a week and in that time have acquired the pile of receipts shown in this picture.  The Guardia di Finanza, the taxing authority, requires that pretty much every transaction generate a receipt of some kind.  Some things apparently act as their own receipts, like bus tickets and cards you buy at the tabaccheria to add minutes to your cell phone.  But if you buy a cup of gelato, not only is the merchant required to hand you a paper receipt, you are required to show it in the unlikely event that an inspector makes your acquaintance while you're eating your cioccolato or frutti di bosco.

Our shopping methods are different here, with many more small purchases from specialty markets, so on a single shopping excursion we may end up with scontrini fiscale (receipts) from two or three fruit and vegetable sellers, another from the panificio (bread shop) and yet another from a wine shop.  The bancomat (ATM) also gives a receipt, but it seems to be known as a ricevuto fiscale.  

Can I recycle this pile now?


Thursday, June 9, 2011

Hearing Things

There are a lot of good things to hear in Bologna.  One sound we enjoy every day is the clangorous pealing of bells from the Basilica di San Martino Maggiore, which is just over the garden wall behind our apartment.  Depending on the day of the week, the festival being celebrated or perhaps only at the whim of the bell ringer, the four big campane send their message out over the city.  Sometimes they ring in order from high to low, sometimes in changes and often in apparently random patterns.  One thing is certain: we don’t sleep through the ringing.  There are other churches within easy hearing as well, and sometimes I think the ringers call out or challenge each other.  And it turns out there’s a Bolognese system of bell ringing.  You can read more here, including further links to videos.
We also benefit from the schools of music in Bologna.  Last Sunday we happened to see a notice for an early evening concert in the oratorio of St. Cecilia, with its 16th century frescos.   The price was right—an offering of your choice.  The presentation was by four music students, a young woman pianist and three cellists, part of the Festival of San Giacomo that runs into October.  I can’t praise the young woman pianist enough.  She began with two challenging pieces by Bach and finished the evening with a beautifully lyrical, wonderfully executed Chopin ballade.  
Many notes.  {:-O)
In between, she accompanied each cellist in turn in works by Dvorak, Tchaikovsky and others.  The deeper sonorities of the celli sounded great in the acoustically live stone oratorio.  So sorry I wasn't able to photograph the artists.

This past martedì (Tuesday) we came across a flyer for a concert given by five young artists at the School of Italian Opera, associated with the opera house here.  The presentation was right around the corner from our apartment in a building fronted by one of the oldest porticos in Bologna, dating from the 12th or 13th century.  You would never know that a room like this lay behind that façade.  The singers all had powerful voices, well suited to an opera house, and elicited bravos from the audience.  I actually got chills at the end of "Recondita armonia" from Tosca, and the duet from La Boheme "Oh soave fanciulla" brought tears to many eyes.  All together twelve operas were represented, and we went home well pleased.  And the concert was free.

Last night as we were washing up after dinner, we heard a choir singing.  As with the bells, San Martino next door was the source.  Apparently the hall where the choir practices opens toward our garden, and for over two hours (until nearly 11 p.m.) we were  serenaded with music by (I’m guessing) Monteverdi or another late Renaissance/early Baroque composer.  It was wonderful to throw open the windows and let the multi-part harmonies flow in.  It was a really good choir, singing a capella, and a fine way to end the day.    The next sounds we heard were the birds calling out the dawn.

Roberto e Cinzia

Monday, June 6, 2011

Permesso di Soggiorno, Part One

When we started our research about living in Italy, among our first stops was the Web site for the Italian consulate, because we were pretty sure we would need some kind of visa from the Italian government.  Of the many types of visas listed (university study, fashion model, adoption, religious, work, etc.) only “Elective Residence” fit our circumstances.  We had to have airline reservations coinciding with the start of the visa period, document our exact residences during our stay, prove our financial means so we wouldn’t be a burden to the state and demonstrate health care coverage.  This took a fair amount of planning and work as well as a couple of hours of standing-in-line time at the consulate in San Francisco.  And it cost $120 each in cash.
Our research also turned up a requirement that within 8 business days of arriving in Italy one must “present oneself to the local Questura [police headquarters] and obtain a Permesso di Soggiorno.”  It turns out that though the national government issues a visa allowing entry to the country, it is the local police who actually permit you to remain, and the  permesso is literally a permit to stay.  However, it also turns out that it’s not simply a matter of showing up and getting a thumbs-up.
Others have been this way, of course, and not surprisingly a few have written of their experiences.  We found horror stories of hours and hours spent waiting at the Questura only to be sent away for lack of some document or other.  But by luck and persistent Googling, Cyndy found a fairly recent write-up that eased our way somewhat, though this little adventure isn’t finished yet.
In an attempt to make things work better all around, the post office is now the first stop on the path to a permesso.  There we were given kits that included forms to fill out (black ink only, block capital letters, one letter per box, stay within the lines) and instructions (in Italian, of course) on what additional documentation is required.  It turns out that we had to resubmit all the stuff we’d already sent in for our visas except that this time it had to be on A4 paper, and the passport photocopy must include every page, even if blank.  Fortunately we have computers, thumb drives and a very accommodating copy service around the corner (which is now about €9 [$13] better off thanks to us).  Each application also had to have a special tax stamp (purchased at a local tobacco shop for €14.62 each).
Back to the post office (coming soon: an article on the post office), where a patient woman went through all our paperwork, filled in a few missing details, applied rubber stamps, took €58.83 apiece, and sealed each of our packets with tape.  They are now en route via registered mail to a processing facility, I think in Rome.  We in turn were given receipts and appointments for 18 days hence for the next phase at the Bologna Questura.  In theory the police will also visit our apartment to make sure we really live here.
Part Two coming in a few weeks.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Il Giorno della Repubblica

On June 2 Italians celebrate  Il Giorno della Repubblica (the Day of the Republic), which is  something like 4th of July in the United States.  Following the fall of fascism at the end of WWII, Italians voted on whether the new government should be a reinstatement of the monarchy or a constitutional republic, with “republic” winning.  This year Italy is also celebrating the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy in 1861, so the celebrations are doubly meaningful. 
In Bologna the event was celebrated in Piazza Maggiore, the big square in the center of the city right in front of the Basilica of San Petronio.  First there was a ceremony at the wall of the caduti (fallen) from WWII, near the Neptune Fountain, with local survivors carrying their military unit banners in a short procession.  
Here is one of the vecchi (old ones), a veteran of the Bersaglieri (sharpshooters), the Italian Army’s high mobility infantry corps, distinguished by flowing black feathers on their combat dress helmets.  This fellow was riding the bicycle he used during the war and had a recording of Verdi’s Và pensiero playing.  It was the unofficial anthem of the Italian unification in the 1860s.

Then, at exactly 11 o’clock a fine army band began the parade of military squads and civil authorities into the piazza.  Italy has a few more of these than the US does, including the Carabinieri, which is a national police force but part of the military, and the Guardia di Finanza, which is the taxing authority, but which also has military strike forces for action against organized crime, drugs and smuggling.
We had a great view as they all marched past us. 

When all the military units had assembled, the veterans marched in again bearing their banners, and then came banners of all the communities in the local region, headed by Bologna.  All this was accompanied by a fine series of “Attention” and “Present Arms” by the military squads and an urgent cadence from the band that was impossible to ignore.

When everyone was present and official speeches had been made,  the Italian national anthem was played and sung, ending with a rousing Si!
During all of this a curious, and I would say typically Italian, atmosphere pervaded.  There were lots of kids there, and everyone made special efforts to let them see, and no one paid much attention to children not quite under control.  The crowd, which had edged right up to the honorary blue carpets was easily persuaded to move back by gentle urging from a single army captain walking up and down, but it would edge forward again if he didn’t pay attention.  But he was the most temperate man you could imagine, pausing to talk to many and to give affectionate pats to each child he came to. You might say there was an abundance of authority present but sensible enforcement.

Finally all the troops and dignitaries withdrew leaving only the band, which, much to our delight started playing a Sousa march and followed that with several more crowd-pleasers, including a great WWII-era swing number.  Here are a couple of pictures of the band.  The leader would start each piece by raising his hand and snapping his fingers only two or three times to set both the tempo and rhythm.  In the end they too marched off, to great applause.

Later we saw on TV that there was a much bigger parade with more ceremony in Rome, but we went away happy to have participated here in Bologna.