Notes on life and food in Italy from a Canadian in Rome.

Amalfi Coast, un-touristed

Amalfi Coast

So many things don’t live up to expectations that I feel almost thrown when an experience goes ahead and exceeds them. I felt that way about the Amalfi Coast – something so famous, so revered, so notoriously over-touristed couldn’t possibly be that good, could it?

I think I actually would have been suitably disappointed if I had visited at any other time. Wall-to-wall tourists and places where you need to book your dinners months in advance if you even want to think about eating at a good restaurant are so not for me; I had been traumatized by proxy through stories of ridiculous traffic jams, packed boats and buses, and restaurants serving plates of mediocre pasta at staggering prices.

And then the pandemic happened, and the tourists evaporated, and in late June we booked a fairly spontaneous long weekend trip to the Amalfi Coast. It was idyllic. The place is gorgeous – and I mean seriously, drop-dead gorgeous in that way that feels like you’ve wandered into a film or someone’s dream. The first thing we did after arriving (other than wolfing down an insalata caprese at the first bar we wandered past) was walk the four kilometres between the towns of Minori and Amalfi, which is apparently normally ill-advised due to traffic and tourists who’ve never driven in Italy trying to pilot a rental car down one of the country’s most notoriously narrow and curvy stretches of road, but worked out quite nicely for us if you don’t consider the buckets of sweat lost over those few kilometres. The scene around each corner is more beautiful than the one before it, and walking was the only way that would let me stop and take a million pictures every ten steps.

The next morning, we rented a scooter and wove our way down the curvy and hair-raisingly narrow road to Positano, where we explored and took another million pictures and sweated more and then wandered into a random restaurant with a picturesque terrace and ate an excellent lunch (no reservations months in advance, no sticker shock after being presented with the bill). After lunch we explored the coast in the opposite direction, down to Cetara, famous for its anchovies. We adore anchovies; it felt like an appropriate pilgrimage to make. We bought jars of salt-packed anchovy fillets and little bottles of colatura (fermented anchovy liquid; it’s better than it sounds), and then sat sipping beers at one of those authentically grimy small-town fisherman bars while Italian top-forty radio clashed with hymns projected by screechy loudspeaker from the nearby church. We ate intensely sour lemon granita from an extremely sketchy roadside truck on the way back to the hotel. It was perfect.

I realize that the whole weekend was so good because we had the place to ourselves, so to speak – I think I heard maybe two or three couples speaking a language other than Italian, and even the Italian was local, regionally-accented Italian; there were no tourists on the Amalfi Coast, a situation which I’m sure has never happened before and will likely never happen again. And I realize that this is a bittersweet, awkward, thorny thing to enjoy, because a pandemic has created this situation and now a lot of people and businesses are seriously suffering – but spinning a bad situation into something good, I’m glad I got the chance to see such a beautiful part of Italy in a more calm, authentic state.

Amalfi Coast So many things don’t live up to expectations that I feel almost thrown when an experience goes ahead and exceeds them. I felt that way about the Amalfi Coast – something so famous, so revered, so notoriously over-touristed couldn’t possibly be that good, could it? Read more…

7/27/2020

What I cook when I don't want to cook

Rome

The recipe for this pasta is simple: there is no recipe. There is only a handful of non-negotiable ingredients: a clove or two of garlic, a dried peperoncino, olive oil, anchovies (the good ones; this is not the place to skimp on quality), and – obviously – the pasta itself. The garlic gets slightly crushed (not chopped) with the side of a knife, the peperoncino crumbled, and they both go into a pan with a generous pool of olive oil. The oil is heated, gently, just to the point where bubbles form around the edges of the garlic cloves and the seeds from the peperoncino just barely start to dance. Then the heat is cut, the garlic is discarded, and the anchovies – I used six filets if I’m cooking for two – go in and get stirred around until they dissolve.

You can stop here if you want. I often do – this is a perfectly delicious lazy pasta sauce that comes together in no time at all, doesn’t require chopping and simmering and extra dirty dishes, and really doesn’t need any improvement. Big flavour, low effort.

Or you can wander over to the fridge and pull out that half red onion that needs to be used up, a generous handful of cherry tomatoes, and a sprig of parsley. The onion gets sliced, the tomatoes halved, and they both get tossed into the pan where they simmer – over low heat, to not burn the anchovies – until the onions have gone all soft and the tomatoes have relaxed into something that’s starting to look a little saucy. Pull the pasta (linguine is a good choice) out of the water a minute or two before it’s done and drop it into the pan where it’ll finish cooking along with the sauce and some of the pasta water, as needed.

Plate, top generously with roughly chopped parsley, devour.

It’s so much more than the sum of its parts, and is so satisfyingly quick to make that you can prep the ingredients, cook the sauce and clean up the kitchen in the time it takes to boil the pasta.

The recipe for this pasta is simple: there is no recipe. There is only a handful of non-negotiable ingredients: a clove or two of garlic, a dried peperoncino, olive oil, anchovies (the good ones; this is not the place to skimp on quality), and – obviously – the pasta itself. The garlic gets slightly crushed (not chopped) with the side of a knife, the peperoncino crumbled, and they both go into a pan with a generous pool of olive oil. The oil is heated, gently, just to the point where bubbles form around the edges of the garlic cloves and the seeds from the peperoncino just barely start to dance. Then the heat is cut, the garlic is discarded, and the anchovies – I used six filets if I’m cooking for two – go in and get stirred around until they dissolve.

You can stop here if you want. I often do – this is a perfectly delicious lazy pasta sauce that comes together in no time at all, doesn’t require chopping and simmering and extra dirty dishes, and really doesn’t need any improvement. Big flavour, low effort.

Or you can wander over to the fridge and pull out that half red onion that needs to be used up, a generous handful of cherry tomatoes, and a sprig of parsley. The onion gets sliced, the tomatoes halved, and they both get tossed into the pan where they simmer – over low heat, to not burn the anchovies – until the onions have gone all soft and the tomatoes have relaxed into something that’s starting to look a little saucy. Pull the pasta (linguine is a good choice) out of the water a minute or two before it’s done and drop it into the pan where it’ll finish cooking along with the sauce and some of the pasta water, as needed.

Plate, top generously with roughly chopped parsley, devour.

It’s so much more than the sum of its parts, and is so satisfyingly quick to make that you can prep the ingredients, cook the sauce and clean up the kitchen in the time it takes to boil the pasta.

7/27/2020

A (small) silver lining

Rome

A tiny positive thing to come out of the lockdown: My favourite bar, Roscioli Caffè, purveyors of Rome’s best cappuccino and pastry, has created a small outdoor seating area in front of the bar. It does feel slightly like I’m sitting sandwiched between several parked motorini and the morning traffic of Via dei Giubbonari, but still – being able to sit, even linger over a breakfast at Roscioli feels luxurious, considering that their pre-coronavirus norm involved wolfing down a cornetto in their narrow indoor space while twenty hungry people hovered millimetres away, eyes boring into the back of my head as they silently urged me to eat faster*.

Today, as I finished the last bite of my usual (cappuccino, pastry loaded with apples and cream), the woman at the table next to me pulled a small sketchbook and a pocket-sized set of watercolours out of her purse and began painting the scene in front of the bar. I’m not sure if she was a local or a tourist (tourists are slowly creeping back into Rome), but it felt good to see someone revelling in Roscoli’s newer, slower, more relaxed reality.

* Although I admit that I actually love the packed, frenzied atmosphere of Roman bars at breakfast time. Usually.  

Rome A tiny positive thing to come out of the lockdown: My favourite bar, Roscioli Caffè, purveyors of Rome’s best cappuccino and pastry, has created a small outdoor seating area in front of the bar. It does feel slightly like I’m sitting sandwiched between several parked motorini and the morning traffic of Via dei Giubbonari, but still – being able to sit, even linger over a breakfast at Roscioli feels luxurious, considering that their pre-coronavirus norm involved wolfing down a cornetto in their narrow indoor space while twenty hungry people hovered millimetres away, eyes boring into the back of my head as they silently urged me to eat faster*.

Today, as I finished the last bite of my usual (cappuccino, pastry loaded with apples and cream), the woman at the table next to me pulled a small sketchbook and a pocket-sized set of watercolours out of her purse and began painting the scene in front of the bar. I’m not sure if she was a local or a tourist (tourists are slowly creeping back into Rome), but it felt good to see someone revelling in Roscoli’s newer, slower, more relaxed reality.

* Although I admit that I actually love the packed, frenzied atmosphere of Roman bars at breakfast time. Usually.  

6/27/2020

The same

Anversa degli Abruzzi

Even in the middle of a pandemic, even when it feels like so much in the world has changed so suddenly, it’s comforting to see how much Anversa degli Abruzzi remains exactly the same. The hillsides are the exact same startling green that they were last year at this time. The view from the house’s back terrace is identical, as is the old gnarled fig tree framing that view, despite a supposedly over-aggressive pruning undertaken during the lockdown. Inside the house, it feels like not even a spec of dust has changed since the last time we were there, months earlier. And outside, around the town, everything is reassuringly just as it was before: The groups of old women gossiping on the row of benches under the chestnut trees. The aperitivo in the piazza at Beppuccio’s bar with its generous bowls of salty snacks to accompany an ice-cold beer and a view of the town’s comings-and-goings. The faces (albeit masked). And the pack of hunting dogs somewhere down in the valley that yap and howl incessantly all through the night. It’s all the same, and it’s comforting.

Anversa degli Abruzzi Even in the middle of a pandemic, even when it feels like so much in the world has changed so suddenly, it’s comforting to see how much Anversa degli Abruzzi remains exactly the same. The hillsides are the exact same startling green that they were last year at this time. The view from the house’s back terrace is identical, as is the old gnarled fig tree framing that view, despite a supposedly over-aggressive pruning undertaken during the lockdown. Inside the house, it feels like not even a spec of dust has changed since the last time we were there, months earlier. And outside, around the town, everything is reassuringly just as it was before: The groups of old women gossiping on the row of benches under the chestnut trees. The aperitivo in the piazza at Beppuccio’s bar with its generous bowls of salty snacks to accompany an ice-cold beer and a view of the town’s comings-and-goings. The faces (albeit masked). And the pack of hunting dogs somewhere down in the valley that yap and howl incessantly all through the night. It’s all the same, and it’s comforting.

6/27/2020

Hello again

Hello – or better yet, hello again! In a moment of extreme boredom during one of those seemingly endless weekends in the depths of lockdown in which there was absolutely nowhere to go and nothing particularly interesting to do, I decided to resurrect this site. It was mostly an exercise in playing around in Webflow, but I think I also wanted to give myself a reason to actually write something every once in a while. So, as with previous incarnations of this site, I’ll be writing about the moments and scenes that make up my everyday life in Rome, about food, and (eventually) about travel – but probably in shorter, more bite-sized posts.

Note: I’ve deleted most of the posts from the previous version of Verbalized but have kept a few favourites, mostly dispatches on travel around Italy from memorable trips over the past few years.

Hello – or better yet, hello again! In a moment of extreme boredom during one of those seemingly endless weekends in the depths of lockdown in which there was absolutely nowhere to go and nothing particularly interesting to do, I decided to resurrect this site. It was mostly an exercise in playing around in Webflow, but I think I also wanted to give myself a reason to actually write something every once in a while. So, as with previous incarnations of this site, I’ll be writing about the moments and scenes that make up my everyday life in Rome, about food, and (eventually) about travel – but probably in shorter, more bite-sized posts.

Note: I’ve deleted most of the posts from the previous version of Verbalized but have kept a few favourites, mostly dispatches on travel around Italy from memorable trips over the past few years.

6/13/2020

Homeland

Vancouver Island, Canada

This post was originally published on August 30, 2019 as part of a previous version of Verbalized. I've archived most of those posts but have kept a few favourites, particularly those about travel.

The day before we leave, the temperature hits forty degrees Celsius and the humidity is clammy and close, inescapable. My suitcase gapes open on the living room floor; the fan whirrs continuously and stirs the air into hot, useless, frantic gusts. I sweat as I fold a jacket and sweater into the suitcase.

Outside, the asphalt has gone soft and gummy from the heat. The cicadas in the trees along the river are screeching relentlessly, and the air smells faintly like garbage. I love Rome, but I have also never been quite so glad to escape Rome.

* * *

Arriving in Vancouver is a shock to the senses. The air is cool and the sky grey and low in that kind of typical West Coast summer way that actually feels nothing at all like summer. Everything is precise and orderly and clean and very Canadian, the opposite of Rome. The day after arriving, we wander the city in a jet-lagged haze under a soaking rain that creeps beneath our umbrellas. I drink a series of coffees, toting the paper to-go cups around with me in a way that I would never do in Italy. We eat burgers and fries for lunch, because it seems like a fitting introduction to North America, and Japanese food for dinner, because our goal is to eat only things that we can’t easily eat (or eat well) in Italy.

The next day we take the ferry over to the island, where I grew up. We rent a car – there is a mix-up, and we end up with the largest vehicle imaginable, a hulking boat of a SUV that gives me anxiety every time I think about parking it – and set out to explore, filling our days with the kind of hikes and outdoor activities that never really interested me while I was living here. We drive to Tofino, spend a few days walking forest trails and poking our fingers into tide pools along the area’s seemingly endless beaches. We eat a lot of fish. I exclaim endlessly over the way the air smells: sharply clean and briny, a mix of salt water, seaweed and damp rainforest underbrush that awakens all sorts of memories inside me.

We drive back down to Victoria, and I show Valerio the city I called home for twenty-six years: Favourite neighbourhood to stroll, favourite drive along the coast, favourite coffee shop with its tattooed hipster baristas and steady stream of cooler-than-you hipster customers (cooler-than-you hipsters are a prominent feature of Victoria). The weather cooperates, mostly. It doesn’t rain much, but I spend nearly the entire trip wearing the same two moderately-warm outfits and ignoring the suitcase full of summery skirts and dresses I packed (when you pack a suitcase in a heat wave, the possibility that you will not want light fabrics and bare legs in mid-August doesn’t fully penetrate your brain).

Two weeks seem to fly by. We have hiked, strolled, canoed, biked, and explored. We have eaten everything and anything that is not Italian (within a week and a half, we have been hit by an intense craving for anything and everything Italian). I have taught Valerio the rules of the road, Canada-style (mostly: the workings of a four-way-stop; lanes actually need to be respected; no, you can’t force slow-moving vehicles out of your way). Most importantly – I have appreciated the West Coast in a way I never did while living there.

* * *

Is there a word to describe a place that feels both foreign and deeply familiar? That’s what Canada is to me now, after seven years away. Part of it feels so effortless, like slipping into an old favourite t-shirt. After all, I was born and raised there. There are twenty-six years of that place inside me, making me who I am. But other parts feel strange and awkward – the precision, the enormous supermarkets with their freezing cold air and jaw-dropping variety of foods, the enormous empty spaces, the need to be excessively upbeat and chatty in all interactions, all situations. I kept forgetting English words, their Italian equivalents sliding into my mind instead.

Several times, when people asked us where we were from, I would say Italy, then hastily stop, backpedal, correct myself. We are not from Italy. One of us is genuinely Italian, the other is Canadian. Thoroughly Italianized after all these years – much more Rome than Victoria inside by now – but still Canadian. Canada may not be my home anymore, it may not be the culture I’ve settled into, but it’ll always be my homeland.

Vancouver Island, Canada The day before we leave, the temperature hits forty degrees Celsius and the humidity is clammy and close, inescapable. My suitcase gapes open on the living room floor; the fan whirrs continuously and stirs the air into hot, useless, frantic gusts. I sweat as I fold a jacket and sweater into the suitcase. Read more…

6/13/2020