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On Pizza (Naples P.II)

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I’m in love. I’m having a relationship with my pizza.
– Liz Gilbert played by Julia Roberts

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The first time I encountered something about Naples that didn’t involve a purse-strap slasher on a scooter was the scene above, in which two tourists decide to eat the whole pizza (and buy bigger jeans) in the 2010 film Eat Pray Love. Pizza and Naples were noted on my radar.

I knew from previous trips that eating pizza in Italy is a set-up for likely disappointment on all future pizza. However, since my last visit to the country, many positive developments had occurred, such as pizzerias around the world importing wood-fire ovens directly from Naples! Surely the gap in the playing field had narrowed.

Now, my first time south of Rome, I wasn’t in a hurry to eat a local pizza because I was so distracted by all the other delicious only-in-Naples options, for starters the fresh seafood and fried snacks. And who knew an eggplant panini could be so good! And Caprese salad within sight of the island, with salty sweet mozzarella as big as my head!

The time finally came to grab a pizza. With sore feet unswayed by the enthusiastic stories of fellow wedding guests trekking for hours across the city and eating THE BEST PIZZA IN NAPLES on sidewalk curbs, we decided to pick up a pie at a place we had seen on the way home. While the red-and-white plastic interior did not look promising, there was a wood-burning oven, pizzaiolos spinning dough, and smiling staff who gamely took my (non-neapolitan dialect) order of “Pizza Margherita grande, … [take-away charade]…, por favor, wait that’s Spanish, per favore.”

While our pizza was tossed, dressed, and fired, I had time to peruse the clippings on the wall. It turned out that the neighbourhood joint was part of the legendary 90-year-old, four-generation Michele family pizza making tradition; the current owner started out in his childhood and “carries on this important legacy by offering religious respect.”  I think this will be good, I said sotto voce.

Buon appetito!” wished the friendly older gentleman waiting for his order behind us as we carefully carried our treasure box back down the street and through the seven doors to our flat. My only regret is that we didn’t sit and scarf the steaming pie down immediately.

At a final festive pizza lunch right on the Golfo, Gio and Maddie did the ordering at their favourite place. After starters, Caprese, and then pizza after pizza was brought out, my initial game plan waned and I lost count of how many slices I’d had. I just wanted to have space for one more incredible bite of any kind of pizza, founded on the crisp crunch of a cloud-like crust bubbled and blackened outside, soft and very slightly yeasty inside, with a bright red smear of sauce still holding the warmth of the sun and the richness of the volcanic Vesuvian soil the tomatoes grew in.  

It was in those last wistful bites that I had the epiphany that we can import all the ovens and pizzaiolos from Napoli, but we would still be missing the other essential ingredients, such as those listed by Michele’s: 

i migliori ingredienti della terra campana: l’olio evo, il pomodoro San Marzano dell’agro nocerino sarnese, l’aglio dell’Ufita, il Pomodorino del Piennolo, il Fior di latte di Agerola e così via.

When even the garlic is sourced and named, and pizza making is a lifelong career, it’s a whole different, professional level game, and one of the best reasons to hop a plane and travel to the other side of the world. (A great view and the smell of the sea also doesn’t hurt.)

With a last longing look at the final bites on my plate that I could not possibly finish, suddenly the words of the old Dean Martin song made perfect sense:

“When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore.

“Naples is Italy in the Extreme”

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“If you like Italy as far south as Rome, go farther south – it gets better…Italy intensifies as you plunge deeper. Naples is Italy in the extreme.” 

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I have never seen anywhere as beautiful as the Gulf of Naples.

After an uneventful two hours rereading Ferrante from Roma Termini, we transferred to an old, dark, underground commuter train in which a sardine would have felt mishandled. On arriving at our suburban station, the interest at looking around and up the surrounding hills was mitigated by the surprise discovery of a sweat gland in the middle of my back, which now was operating in overdrive under the blazing sun. At least the traffic stops for us was my pleasant surprise, as we crossed and recrossed the same streets with our roller bags, taking what seemed to be an eternity to find an address that turned out to be conveniently located five minutes around the corner from the station.

Our host handed us a jailer’s key ring and showed us how to work the locks: the big wooden outer door to the street, the middle inner gate to the courtyard, the metal door at the bottom of the stairs, the metal and glass door at the top of the stairs, the grate across our patio, the outer and inner door to the flat. Then I was done. I wanted to stay in the safe flat with no view, iffy wifi, and not leave.

When hunger finally tempted me to go out, we took a couple of turns to walk closer to the sea … and there it was. A few refreshing degrees cooler, ready for her close up, the awesome Golfo di Napoli, in all her azure technicolor glory, with the smudges of Capri and Ischia in the distance, and Mount Vesuvius lording over it all on the south side. I was dumbstruck.

I closed my mouth and we walked along the sea front until we got to the Castel dell’Ovo (Egg Castle), turning off into the Santa Lucia harbour to eat at La Scialuppa (‘The Rowboat’). As it was too ridiculously early for the strolling, dancing, wedding, fishing, kissing locals to eat at 7 p.m., we scored a waterside table without a reservation, the better to enjoy a pasta with seafood so fresh we could taste the brine of the sea under our feet. The shifting sun painted Vesuvius green-grey and the towns below pink when passing musicians began to offer all the diners folkloric or romantic songs, which layered perfectly into the lapping of the waves, the clinking of the masts and wine glasses, the seagulls’ cries.

We continued our own walking tour into the heart of Napoli, stopping to see the detailed tile floor mosaics of the 19th century Galleria Umberto I shopping arcade. Turning into the narrow, twisty streets, some of them merely a curving set of wide steps down which locals were bringing out their garbage and recycling, we finally cracked and got gelatos at the fifth place we passed. (It has been scientifically proven that one can not walk past more than five gelaterias without stopping.)

Carefully navigating the uneven cobblestones back down to the seaside with my tingly limone gelato, the smell of pizza and calzones wafting around, mixing with the shouts, conversations, and scooters of the locals, I realized that Napoli could engage and reanimate the senses of a zombie.

There were fewer and fewer people along the walkway back. The sky was indigo and Homer’s sea wine-dark as we got closer to the sparkling lights of Posillipo. As we enjoyed the cooling air, I was astonished to recognize the person walking towards us! ‘Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world’! Valeria was a fellow guest of the wedding we were invited to, whose acquaintance I had made in Rome. As it was still very early in the evening by Campania time-keeping, we decided to make the most of it over beverages. Seated at a sidewalk table, marvelling at the Neapolitan custom of bringing complementary snacks (in this case, nuts, salads, bread, open-faced sandwiches, and fried treats) with drinks, and enveloped in conversation, I felt right at home.

 

to be continued …

opening quote from Rick Steves Snapshot: Naples & the Almalfi Coast, Avalon: 2015

When in Rome (mangiamo!)

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“Cut the guanciale likRomee this, in matchsticks.” Paolo held the pig cheek on a kitchen table cutting board, giving me time to write the steps as he efficiently prepared carbonara and vittelo for six.

It was hard to believe that we had only arrived in the Eternal City that afternoon. We had flown down the west coast of Italy, arriving in Rome under that impossibly deep cerulean blue bowl of a sky. After a breathless drive across the city with soundtrack of hardcore and horns, Paolo, Stefania, and their black lab welcomed us to the apartment with a so-called “light lunch” of deceptively simple delicacies of local breads, meats, cheeses, and gorgeous tomatoes, followed by a blueberry digestivo. Then, in case there was any doubt that we were really and truly in Rome, we drove to the Colosseum. There were no lines, so we walked right in, up, down, and around the nearly 1000-year-old landmark, selfie-ing as we went. On the way home, we stopped to pick up a lasagne pan of tiramisu that Stefania’s mamma made in the time it took to mention we couldn’t wait to try tiramisu in Italy.

And that set the pace for the following days. Like exploring the set of a film that we’d seen a hundred times before, we wandered ancient streets with buildings in all the warm shades of sienna, bustling with daily life, scooters, and the smell of something incredible to eat. On our own we checked off must-see Rome: the Spanish Steps higher, the Trevi Fountain more spectacular, the Piazza Navona more impressive in real life than on film. With Stefania and Paolo we discovered more: a lake in the crater of a dormant volcano, a hilltop town that celebrates the harvest by pumping wine through the fountains, a secret keyhole with a perfect view of St Peter’s.

We quickly fell into a new eating routine: a mid-afternoon stop for gelato, a late-afternoon aperitivo that was usually an Aperol spritz. In the evenings, dinner was the main event. One night our hosts took us to a traditional Osteria where we didn’t have to order anything: dishes quickly and magically appeared from the wood-burning oven. That meal, which consisted of at least ten different types of meat along with cheeses, showcased the variety of local Italian cuisines beyond pizza and pasta. Another night we went to have Puglian barbecue: speciality cuts of meat driven up from the heel of Italy included bombette: delicious pork encasing cheese, herbs, and other ingredients, grilled to order in a custom oven with flames coming out the sides so that grease doesn’t drip down into the coals or wood. Served with baked potatoes and salads, it was all housed in an unremarkable building that from the entrance looked like a butcher shop.

Our last day in Rome, we braved the skip-the-line touts at the Vatican and took our chances in the shady queue. It was worth it to finally arrive in the glorious Sistine Chapel and marvel at the bright colours and intricate detail of Michelangelo’s masterwork. After a final spritz, we found the perfect vantage point over the Tiber to watch the sun set over the largest church in Christendom. As the Romans do, around ten p.m. we enjoyed one last carbonara, the perfect finale to our six evenings in the ancient capital, feeling mille grazie that the road had led us to Rome.

Wonderful Copenhagen

to see all the photos that go with this article in the original post, and/or to read it in French, please click here.

Like kids in a Lego store, we could not wipe the smiles from our faces as we balanced on a boat in a Baltic corner.

“This Scandiland hybrid ferry stores the equivalent energy of 600 cars,” came the announcement in English as the wind pushed scarves and hair into selfies. Incredibly, our DeutscheBahn ICE train, the 7:24 a.m. from Hamburg, was neatly parked below.

Forty-five minutes later, once again seated across the train aisle from an elegant German couple, we rolled off the ferry to a cursory passport check before speeding through the gently rolling, tidy green Danish farmland. Views of the stone grey sea were always just beyond, and the train stopped to take on more blonde passengers at every town along the way.

The buzzer was still sounding when Lars opened the extra-wide wooden door to his flat. “Welcome to Copenhagen!” Our room was the first door on the left, with extra high 19th century ceilings, pale herringbone wood floors, a bed made up with white linens, striped chairs, at least five lamps, a portrait of the Queen of Europe’s oldest monarchy as a young woman, and a view of the city.

“There’s the railway station of course, and you can see the lights of Tivoli just beyond.” After pointing out more sights, Lars gave us a tour of the rest of the six-room apartment, with a surprisingly “small bathroom. All Copenhagen apartments are like that. But you will have the place to yourselves this weekend, as we are going to Jutland for a baptism.”

We set out for the Tourist Information Centre to get maps and ended up buying a Kulturnatten button and downloading the free app in English, before setting out to discover the city of Hans Christian Andersen, his “Little Mermaid” and “Ugly Duckling”, trolls, the hippie free city of Christiania, bike lanes and pedestrian bridges, a paper factory converted into a food truck hall, churches turned into art galleries, and parks full of surprises like castles, greenhouses, and a citadel that seemed toy-like in its perfection.

The swirling white floors of the Alexborg Tower could be accessed by a zippy paternoster elevator, which one of us was too scared to enter and one of us didn’t pay attention to and had to wait for the descent to exit. In contrast, the top of the Round Tower was accessed by a genius sloping cobblestone ramp with peep-in-the-kitchen views of the houses. We put on our gloves to admire the bright buildings and vintage boats of Nyhavn, then stood in line with hundreds of blonde children waiting for the Royal Danish Theatre to open.

Unlike Nuit Blanche in other cities, Kulturnatten was clearly a multi-generational affair. From 5 p.m. to midnight, the city was alive with bustling pedestrian streets and the windows of all the museums, theatres, churches and castles lighting up the dark. The children at the Theatre were engagingly introduced to the ballet, seniors ate sausages in squares, and whole families stood in line to see the everything from the Royal Reception Rooms to the thousand-year-old foundations below Frederiksborg Palace. Shockingly, no amount of frigid bluster from the wind could induce any locals to put on a hat or hood.

Mindful of all the articles I’d read about Copenhagen’s high costs, I had carefully selected a budget porridge place in the converted meat-packing district, which turned out to be huge. With no business number, we stopped to get our bearings outside Mother, decided to try the unlimited buffet, and hit the jackpot. The restaurant was packed with locals brunching on fruit juice, bread, jam, Nutella, eggs, meat, cheese, bright salads and endless supplies of flat-crust pizza.

In a long exposure shot on a rainy night where Stoget and Kobmagergade meet, I sought warmth and was quickly distracted by the wares of Illum, established in 1891. Full of flickering candles, soft throws, wooden toys, and gorgeous housewares in natural materials and colours, the department store has all the ingredients for a hyggelit home, which is the Danish foundational philosophy of coziness and focussing on the essential. I bought two felted coasters by HAY and an illustrated magnet by Ib Antoni before I tore myself away. A few blocks away, Irma City, part of the second-oldest grocery store chain in the world, was no less charming. The minimalist interior was full of perfectly packaged, labelled, and displayed food, including pantry staples in glass jam jars.

Our weekend ended where it started: in the warm air outside the Hamburg Hauptbahnhof. Coincidentally, we had been seated across from the elegant German couple again on the train ride back. We saw them one last time as we waited for taxis. We all laughed and waved, the smiles still on our faces. No wonder Denmark is always ranked as one of the happiest countries in the world.

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photo by Bustitaway Photography

Prague Postcard

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“When she was eighty, she moved back to Prague.”

My friend was describing her Jewish grandmother, who, after surviving the Holocaust in a Central European concentration camp, joined the family in South America.

I tried to imagine that lady crossing the Atlantic again, at advanced age. What tempted her to travel 10,000 kilometres from the tropical flowers, fresh fruit and warm ocean breezes of her new home to Cold War Czechoslovakia?

Yet I thought I knew. The centre of the city on the Vltava is beyond time, from King Wenceslas to the hundred spires of the ancient capital of the Holy Roman Empire, to the poisoned ghosts of alchemists who tried to spin dreams into gold.

In spring, the Czech lands put on their loveliest dress, a bridal fantasy of petals, pastels and scent. Baby boar are born in the bright green forests, and farmers’ markets fill with the gifts of the countryside.

Of course in summer, Prague is a Kafkaesque nightmare rat maze; the old alleys crowded with backpackers, lads on weekends, wooden puppet hawkers, and classical music concert touts.

In fall, the trees astonish with the reds and oranges of Mucha’s Slav Epic, forests foragers locate mushrooms under a thick leaf carpet, grapes turn into new wine.

Winter is the best time of all to visit Prague. In winter, the clocks stop with a frosty sigh, the cobblestones absorb the chill, and the grey sky behind the Castle offers the uncrowded view seen for a millenium.

I visited Prague with friends the first weekend after I moved to Moravia. It was not the first or last, but it was the best time. Tucked up in an attic flat, we ate Afghan food and drank pints of Pilsner. We bundled up and crossed the Charles Bridge – empty on an early February morning, the statues of the twelve apostles immense and imposing, the snap of the ice in the river breathing the history and promise of Praha.

Fast forward back across the Atlantic, I listened to my friend tell the story of her grandmother. “She died the next year.”

I know why she went back. I thought I saw her walking over the Charles Bridge on a February day like mine, coat buttoned, scarf tied against the wind, crossing the Vltava.

My first TIFF

IMG_1344.JPG For a few years now I’ve been wanting to go to the Toronto International Film Festival but could never quite manage to fit it in. This year, TIFF’s 40th, happily coincided with a trip to Toronto for another reason – and now I understand that TIFF is the event you should clear your schedule for.

I had spent some time going through the program and choosing the films I really wanted to see. I bypassed films with major Hollywood stars and glitzy primeres, figuring I’d never get in. But the first day tickets went on sale to the public, all the films on my list were off-sale, which is TIFF for sold out. Realizing that you can’t really go wrong with the incredible programming, I was happy to get a ticket to a late night screening of a French-language film.

Robin, the incredibly helpful desk clerk at my hostel, recommended heading out to early to enjoy the festival atmosphere, so I set off into the rain to grab a streetcar down Spadina Avenue to King Street.

I quickly realized that one of the special things about TIFF is the sheer number of films being screened in Toronto’s Entertainment Disctrict, an area of a few blocks that is filed with classic stage theatres and TIFF’s beautiful Lightbox theatres. With the streets closed to traffic, and the lines of film goers waiting to get into nearly a dozen venues, there’s an incredible energy and excitement in the air. Walking down the street to the main box office, I passed red carpets, official media cameras, and a sizable crowd of people huddled under umbrellas in for the chance to see Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain leave the gala for “The Martian.”

Back at the Lightbox, I picked up my ticket. The lady next to me wanted to do an exchange and wondered about Les Cowboys. “I’m going to see that!” I jumped in.

“What’s it about?”
“It’s in French.”
“I’ll take it.”

We were directed to stand in a line. This wait was actually one of the unexpected pleasures of TIFF, with people passing the time chatting about films on their list of have or to be seen.

I was behind two older gentlemen who had already been to four films since the festival had opened the previous day, including the Hebrew feature directed by Natalie Portman, a Spanish caper, and a Kiwi documentary about preserving early 20th century films in Afghanistan. They were full of tips on how to buy tickets to your favourite films (check at 7 a.m. the day of, and last but not least, RUSH!)

Finally it was time for our film. The stadium seats of the Lightbox ensure an unobstructed view for everyone. The film was introduced by the director of programming for the festival, and by the director himself. Having already won several Cesars (the Oscars of France), and known internationally for films such as Rust and Bone, Saint Laurent, and La Famille Belier, Thomas Bidegain told us he was very excited to present his film to a real audience (as opposed to the journals of Cannes).

The first line of the film is “Where’s Kelly?” (Ou est Kelly?) and we see how Kelly’s decision to live a new life has profound effects on her parents and brother. It had the audience gasping, crying, shocked, and laughing. In other words, all the feelings. The Q&A after the film highlighted the director’s goals, and I’m confident that he accomplished them through his storytelling.

As I headed back out into the rainy night, I saw Mr. Bidegain just ahead of me, and without a second thought, ran ahead and fangirled him. No doubt he was in a great mood after the screening and cheerfully agreed to a photo, wrapping me in a giant hug. It was an unbelievable moment. That’s the magic of TIFF.

“You Walked Right Past Picasso!”

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I recently had the unexpected pleasure of accompanying a few teenagers to the art gallery. It was a last minute replacement for their original plan, and I feared boring them to bits. “We love art” did not convince me, but we were out of options and set off.

They found Canada’s great Alex Colville “creepy,” as well as the contemporary light tattooed sculptures of Shary Boyle, inspired by Hans Christian Anderson, although it didn’t stop them from going back for more. We spent several minutes with “Leaves of Grass” by Geoffrey Farmer, marvelling at the thousands of cut-outs from Life magazine glued and arranged on sticks for the entire length of a room.

I desperately countered “Hey, there’s wifi!” with the urge to “Stay unplugged!” But the selfies were to snapchat with Mom, at home thousands of miles away.

We spent several minutes in the dark silent loop of “Mariner 9″s future Mars. “Humans ruin everything,” the teens observed.

Their attention was immediately captured by Marcel Duchamp: a fountain, a bicycle wheel. “I love Dadaism: the art of the everyday.” I was a little taken aback.

“Didn’t you study art in school?” they asked. My entire art education telescoped into glueing painted macaroni to a piece of construction paper, a painted ceramic penguin in Grade 8.

“Hey, you walked right past Picasso!” one noticed. And then they were swirling and snapping, revelling in the sight of their first real life canvases of Van Gogh, Cezanne, Klimt.

We stood where the bold red stripe of the “Voice of Fire” is visible one head turn before the bright jewel tones of a 16th century Venus. We walked through a scene-painted cottage and listened to a sound installation from Salisbury Cathedral in a reconstructed chapel. We looked at the tiny painted panels of Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven and discussed the shiny strokes of oil mixed in the forests. We admired Emily Carr for defying the norms of her day and capturing totems in colours that plunged us into Pacific coastal villages so vivid we could feel the ocean mist on our faces.

The teenagers were amazed by the variety of languages they heard. “But how is your English so good?” I asked. “Because, like, we watch American series,” they revealed.

We talked about other museums we had visitied, our pets, Wes Anderson, Wall-E, Alice in Wonderland, writing stories, our favourite pieces of art from the day. (Tie between Dadaism and the Group of Seven.)

We stocked up on souvenirs in the gift shop: art books that will quickly tip a suitcase into the overweight zone.

I always love visiting the gallery; it was incredible to share my favourite spots with companions who were both knowledgable and excited to be there. “Thank-you for taking us,” said the teenagers. “We love art.”