This is not how I wanted you to learn of Amatrice. No. Not this way. Not this footage of distraught relatives, of broken families. Of rubble. Of desperation. Of so many lost lives.
I want you to learn of the Amatrice I first discovered as a recent college graduate in 1992, the Amatrice that greeted a young, curious foodie exploring the culinary treasures nestled in the smallest Italian towns.
“Where to next?” my traveling partner had asked, and I had replied, “Amatrice,” with my finger set on the tiny spot half-way down our weathered Italian map.
The earthquake that hit Italy on August 24, 2016 destroyed most of the town I visited almost twenty-five years ago. “Amatrice is not here anymore,” the mayor was quoted as saying in response to the earthquake that registered a 6.2 magnitude. I, like the rest of the world, stopped at the gravity of those words, wondering, how can an entire town be gone, just like that?
My partner did not know of this town, I could tell by the confused look he gave me as my finger froze over a web of lines and names. But he could tell from my smile that I did. Because even back then, in an era before Tripadvisor or Yelp or Google, I did my research of where to eat what, when. I did this recognizance old school- namely scouring through a dog-eared copy of The Lonely Planet and by asking as many locals as I could in broken Italian (courtesy of my 9th grade language teacher, Signora DiLeo) :
“Dove è il posto migliore per mangiare?” Where is the best place to eat?
The failproof source to ask were old men sitting at the piazza, chatting and chain smoking. Every town had them. They’d glow at the opportunity to dazzle a pretty young Americana and would always steer me well.
“Amatrice! Amatrice!”, these chosen men had answered in unison, their face falling a bit when they noticed The Boyfriend staring protectively by the fontana over there. But they had all been young once and surely in love, and of course, still knew how to eat well, so they nodded in approval at him and continued, “Prove la pasta!”
They were right. Spaghetti all’amatriciana is a delight and, as it turns out, quite simple to make.
Guanciale (pork jowl), is one of the local ingredients used in this dish. It is hard to come by here in the States, but pancetta serves as a worthy replacement. Bucatini, also known as perciatelli, is a thicker spaghetti with a hole running through it, and is the pasta traditionally used. The long strand is perfect for absorbing the rich, smoky flavors of sun and meat.
This is what I remember of Amatrice. This splendid meal I had on a bright sunny day, amongst friendly, kind people with the man I most loved and still most love today. It is simple, pure comfort food, what one is craving in sadness and happiness as well.
The first person I met who wore bright, short silk scarves tied tightly around her tan neck was Signora DiLeo. She also pulled off elegant button-down blouses with jeans and loafers flawlessly. It was back in the 80’s, when I was a teenager trying hard to navigate through the many ridiculous messages thrown my way about beauty. Aside from big hair and bigger shoulder pads, that included electric blue mascara, Sassoon jeans (worn two sizes too small), and miniskirts, the shorter the better. When I walked into my 6th period class of Italiano 1, however, and saw Signora DiLeo’s effortless elegance and class, I knew everything Seventeen Magazine was screaming at me to do was wrong.
Signora DiLeo’s room was in the farthest corner of the second floor of my high school’s sprawled out campus, away from the main traffic of noise: girls crying over latest heartbreaks, boys playing basketball well past break time, teachers exchanging pleasantries on their way to the copy room. We heard none of that in her hidden alcove. We were privy only to Signora DiLeo’s singsong voice as she conjugated verbs.
Eventually, we arrived at the verb “eat” and Signora DiLeo’s friendly hazel eyes brightened.
“Questa settimana impareremo sui cibi italiani!” She announced, her words gliding quickly and comfortably in her native tongue.
“To eat: mangiare!” She proclaimed, gesticulating with her slender hand.
We all understood this much Italian and even the boys in the back, the ones that were always joking around and being disruptive, suddenly grew attentive at the subject of food, which really sounds quite beautiful in Italian.
For that week we learned to conjugate the verb “to eat”:
Lui, lei mangia
We learned how to order food in Italian: antipasto, primo, secondi, and of course, dolce. We learned about pasta: agnolotti , bucatini, conchiglie, and pappardelle, to name a few. When we were delirious and dumbfounded by those options, we learned about the sauces: arrabiata, bolognese, burro e salvia, fra diavolo, marinara, ragú, puttanesca.
“And then, of course, there’s pomodoro, tomato sauce,” Signora DiLeo whispered. “The best sauce. Simple.”
She raised her chin and closed her eyes for a second, falling back into a happy memory that I assumed included this sauce.
“Tomato, onion, garlic, olive oil, a pinch of salt, a pinch of sugar, and of course, time,” she told us, her eyes still closed. “È davvero così semplice. Le cose migliori della vita sono le cose più semplici. The best things in life are the most simple things.”
She translated the last part, for good measure. This was a lesson she didn’t want us to miss.
When Friday came around, we got a taste of Signora DiLeo’s cooking as well as her wisdom. The hallway leading to her room was enveloped in a luring scent of onions and garlic simmering in olive oil, making the whole school wish they had signed up for Italianio 1. Signora DiLeo stood in the front of the classroom, her stylish outfit covered up by a spotless white apron with the Italian flag flanked across the front and, just to hone in on the point, the proclamation, Italia!, scrawled underneath it in vibrant red. She was stirring sizzling onions over a portable burner that had magically appeared in the front of her room.
Signora DiLeo explained the steps involved on how to make the easiest of all Italian culinary treasures: salsa di pomodoro, pronouncing each ingredient carefully as she added it: olio d’oliva, cipolla, aglio, pomodoro, una presa di sale , una presa di zucchero.
When she was done, she pulled out bowls that she filled with spaghetti and ladled up pomodoro sauce for us to eat. I’m not sure where or how she made spaghetti, but I do remember the sauce. The sauce was memorable. The sauce was magic. The sauce was elegant, classy, and sophisticated, just like Signora DiLeo.
1 28-ounce can of tomatoes (if you find San Marzano tomatoes, use those!)
½ teaspoon sugar
salt, to taste
In a medium saucepan, heat up olive oil and sauté onions and garlic over medium-low heat, stirring every so often for 10-15 minutes. The onions should get a caramelized look to them.
Add remaining ingredients, raise heat to bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and cook, partially covered, for 45 minutes-1 hour, stirring once in a while, crushing up tomatoes with back of a wooden spoon.
When sauce is done, you can add fresh basil (3-4 leaves, torn) and/or ¼ cup heavy cream.
It is impossible to lose weight in Mexico. I’ve tried all sorts of things: increase salad intake, exercise regularly, ignore tight pants. But the food here is too delicious: it draws you in like a good book you never want to put down. You cannot put down. And so I’ve learned to live with tight jeans and I run the extra mile so that the guilt is less, or the appetite is more, I don’t know anymore.
There’s a simple dish that’s captivated my heart. It is given to all the children in Mexico as a staple side dish. Some folks go for rice, in Mexico, it’s Fideos Secos. They are tiny pasta pieces- think vermicelli chopped into ½ inch pieces. But where one would suffice with butter and salt for these babies, the Mexican’s take it to the umpteenth of flavor: slowly cooking them in a beef and tomato broth that gently is absorbed in each tiny noodle, packing it with a rich meat and tangy tomato punch.
That would make me happy. Just writing about it already does. But this is not enough for a Mexican palate, not even a child’s. It is missing its crown, a crown often worn in Mexico cuisine: thick slices of creamy avocado, followed by a drizzle of cream and strips of the irreplaceable Oaxaca cheese. Now the dish is complete. Rich, comforting, and truly Mexican, I could eat bowlfuls of this for supper. But wait, it is only a side dish. More goodies await. Waistline sighs. Soul smiles.
When Tara Mataraza Desmond (http://crumbsonmykeyboard.com) asked me to join in on her blogger potluck to promote her fabulous book, “Almost Meatless”, I jumped at the chance. Not only is Tara kind, eloquent, and naturally glamorous, she is also a great cook, something clearly shown in “Almost Meatless”, co-written with Joy Manning. All the recipes are accessible, fast, and delicious. I was fortunate enough to prepare the Tomato Pancetta Linguine, because, as far as almost meatless lifestyles go, mine would not be whole without a little bit of pasta, a little bit of pancetta, and a story to go along with it.
Growing up as a Jew in a predominantly Catholic South American country had its moments of confusion.Sure, there was a church on every street corner and every sentence with folks seemed to end with the Vatican stamp of “si Dios quiere” (if God wants), but, even amongst my some of my closest friend’s families (and they were an eclectic, international bunch) there seemed to be some misconception, or at least, uneasiness, with my dietary restrictions as a Jew.
I admit, my family did not make things easy.There was no Hebrew School, no Shabbat, no daily Jewish ritual that would perhaps open the conversation to what we do or do not do as Jews.Instead, our home was enwrapped by a proud and boisterous Israeli father, filled with tales of Zionism and youth and enthusiastic stories of his father, Isaac Abbady, who became the official Hebrew/English/Arabic translator for the British Government ruling over Palestine at the time.His youth growing up in this tiny, tumultuous land was historic and retold as a constant action tale that made my daily visits to the local park pale in comparison. Hence the entire significance of Israel was elevated to an ethereal level, one that didn’t necessarily define itself through religion, but rather, through a fierce sense of nationalism.My father’s love of Israel was connected to the adventure of creating this new land, and once that adventure tired, he moved on, away from his whole family to the strange new promising land of New York City, where he quickly met his American bride and headed further south to Venezuela, settling into the comfortable Latin American lifestyle of the 60’s.This is where he chose to raise his three girls.
And so, even though Israel was far from us geographically, it molded into our Venezuelan lifestyle and breathed through our pores day in and day out.Particularly in the food.We lived a Venezuelan culinary Zionism of sorts, where meals merged happily with Israeli salad and hummus alongside the fabulous pork products available in Venezuela: the sweet Pineapple Glazed ham prepared Christmastime, the succulent pernil asado (roasted pork loin) that was slow-roasted for New Year’s Eve slathered with port, mushrooms, rosemary garlic, and prunes (and a few other ingredients I swore to secrecy).And of course, there was my staple addiction: the chicharrones picantes (spicy fried pig skins) that was my favorite lunchtime snack.
So it would be safe to say we grew up nationalistic Jews, but most certainly not religious Jews, if that label is even possible.Maybe it was a repressed rebellion of my father, who time and time again would tell us the story of how, as a rambunctious adolescent, he managed to bring to his parent’s Jerusalem home a slab of bacon, much to the chagrin of his kosher father.My father must have been in his mid-forties when he first told my sisters and I this tale and his eyes still glimmered with mischief recounting that story.
So, when it came to eating at my non-Jewish friend’s houses, things could get kind of weird.Friends were cool with it, it was the parents that would wig out, trying to be sensitive, inclusive, careful, all the while completely clueless. What do these Jewish people eat? My friends and I would always laugh, for, anyone that knew me knew I ate pretty much anything and everything.I recall one time sitting down to dinner at a good friend’s house.Her mother was a fantastic cook and had placed a dish of piping pasta in front of us.
The family held hands to say grace (uncomfortable moment #1 for Mother as she suddenly realized I-don’t-do that) but she bit her upper lip and proceeded along.Once that was done with she opened her mouth in a relieved smile and pronounced “Okay, let’s eat! “ while scooping out steaming spoonfuls of a crimson linguine sparkling with pieces of salty pancetta.
My mouth was salivating. I was starving and this was one of my all time favorite dishes.But, as I was about to stuff a forkful into my mouth, I sensed an eerie silence and looked up to find my friend’s mother looking at me in utter horror.Before I could proceed, her eyes locked on me and she screeched:
“OH MY GOD! I’m so sorry.You people don’t eat that!!!”
My friend and I looked at each other in dismay, my pal blushing from embarrassment.
“Pasta, mom?She eats pasta.” A curt defense came my way.
“Oh but honey, it’s got bacon in it. Baaaacooooon”, she squealed as if she had cursed the air around us.
And with that, we burst out in a fit of laughter that only startled The Mother more.
“It’s not bacon ma’am.It’s pancetta,” I said. “Paaaanceeeeta”, I repeated, letting my 16-year-oldness get the better of me with this moment.My friend and I grinned and in unison eagerly dug in.“Oh yeah pancetta’s good with me, pancetta is good”, was all that came through eager slurps.
el cuento blogger de la pancetta
Creciendo como Judía en un país sudamericano predominantemente Católico tenía sus momentos de confusión. Había una iglesia en cada esquína y cada oración pareció terminarse con el sello Vaticano “sí Dios quiere”, y hasta entre las familias de mis amigos íntimos existía confusion, o al menos inquietud, con mis restricciones alimenticias como Judía.
Confieso que mi familia no facilito el tema. Nunca atendimos una escuela religiosa, apenas visitabamos la sinagoga, no celebrabamos el viernes Shabbat; ningún ritual judío diario que abriría la conversación a lo que hacemos o no hacemos como Judíos.
Más bien, nuestra casa revolvía con la energía de un padre israelíta lleno de orgullo por su país y siempre hechando cuentos de la creación del estado de Israel y la participación fundamental que tuvo su padre, Isaac Abbady, quien trabajo como el traductor oficial para el Gobierno británico en Palestina en aquel entonces. De estas aventuaras de juventud mi padre siguó mas aventuras en Nueva York donde encontró a su novia americana y juntos viajaron a Venezuela, donde se adaptaron al estilo de vida latinoamericano cómodo de los años 60. Y fue allí donde criaron sus tres hijas.
Y aunque Israel fuera lejano de nosotros geográficamente, siempre vivía muy cerca de nosotros, particularmente en la comida. Vivímos un Sionismo culinario venezolano de clases, donde las comidas criollas se combinaron felizmente con la ensalada israelíta y el hummus junto a los productos de cerdo fabulosos disponibles en Venezuela: el jamón ahumado con piña dulce y clavos, la receta famosa (y secreta) del pernil asado que se cocinaba lentamente durante Nochebuena. Y por supuesto, había mi adicción básica: los chicharrones picantes que devoraba durante mis meriendas.
Así que podría decir que crecimos muy nacionalistas pero no necesariamente religiosos. Tal vez esto era una rebelión reprimida de mi padre, que nos contaba siempre la historia de como, siendo un adolescente bullicioso, logró traer a su casa en Jerusalén un trozo de tocino, mucho al disgusto de su padre kosher. Mi padre tenía mas de cuarenta años la primera vez que nos conto esto y sus ojos todavía brillaban tenuemente con la travesura de aquella historia.
Así que, a veces, comer en casas de amigos que no eran judíos podian complicar un poco las cosas. No por mis amigos, sino por sus padres, gente tratando de ser sensibles, globales, cuidadosos, todo el rato completamente despistados. ¿Qué come esta gente judía? Mis amigos y yo siempre nos reiríamos, ya que los que me conocían sabían que comía de todo.
Recuerdo una vez que fuí a comer donde una amiga. Su madre era una cocinera fantástica y había colocado un plato de pasta con pancetta delante de nosotros. Mi boca salivaba. Tenía hambre y este era uno de mis platos favoritos. Pero, cuando estuve a punto de comer, presentí un silencio misterioso y alcé la vista para encontrar la madre de mi amiga que me miraba en horror completo. Antes de que yo pudiera proceder, ella chilló:
¡”AH DIOS MIO! Lo siento tanto. ¡¡Ustedes no comen esto!!!”
Mi amiga y yo nos miramos confundidas.
¿”Pasta, mamá? Ella come pasta.” Una defensa concisa vino mi camino por parte de mi amiga.
“Ah pero cariño, esto tiene tocineta. Tociiiinetaaaaaa”, ella chilló como si había blasfemado el aire alrededor de nosotros.
Y con esto, estallamos en un ataque de risa que sólo asustó a la Madre más.
“Esto no es tocineta, señora. Esto es pancetta,” le informé impacientemente. “Paaaanceeeeta”, repetí, dejando mis 16 años sentirse claramente. Mi amiga y yo sonreímos con una impaciencia hambrienta empezamos a comer susurrando entre tragadas, “Ah sí la pancetta me cae muy bien, muy, muy bien.”
Four uncertain eyes gazed at me inquisitively, trying desperately to find a comfortable balance between trust and that gnawing guttural reaction begging disbelief.
“Don’t do it,” a voice pleaded in my two children’s tiny yet potently precise psyches.
“Her smile is not quite right and the rapid eye blinking screams deception.”
Although only 9 and 6 years old, these kids are well-versed in the art of body language. Casting aside requests to watch popular children shows, they demand a daily fix of the CBS Evening News.
Every night, at 6:30 sharp, they greedily absorb the nightly offerings of their favored news anchor, Katie Couric, who appears to be their vehicle for, not only current events but also the nuances of communication.
“See how she had to ask him that question twice, mom?” my oldest, and very insightful child asks while watching Katie Couric in an interview.
“That means the person is hiding something”, she concurs proudly (and, as fate would have it, correctly).
My first-grader picks up additional details of interest: “Katie changed her hairstyle, mom. She looked better before.” I let it slide (and Katie would too) as those who know Jonathan, know he hates for anything to change, especially hair.
Instead, I focus on the fact that he continues being an avid listener; sprawled on the floor playing with his Bakugan toys, he never misses a newsworthy beat.
I never imagined Katie Couric would play such a prominent role in my family life.
Given the slew of anti-Katie blogs, it is obvious she is not as loved by others.
But in this household she is revered and I have come to look forward to watching her, not so much for her news coverage, but for the questions and discussions that arise among my children as a result.
Katie has easily been incorporated into my family curriculum, molding herself as an empowering female role model for both my children, no matter what the critics or the ratings say.
It leads me all back to the eyes staring at me cautiously.
They scrutinize my body language for clues just like they do while watching Katie interview someone on the evening news. “Is mom being genuine or does she have a secret agenda”, they think to themselves as I offer up pasta for dinner with a ‘special tomato sauce.’
“What happened to our old sauce?” my mini-reporter questions, screening me for the slightest jerk in my response.
“Yes, where is the tomaaaaato sauce?’ Don’t-Change-It demands.
I knew I needed to turn the tables around from interviewee to interviewer in order to stand a chance with these two, so I hoped for some Couric karma to come my way. I remain calm, even under the line of fire (for that is what Katie would do). I smile (she always does), carefully divide my gaze between Camera 1 and Camera 2, and say in my most cheerful tone (there’s no way I can ever be as perky as Katie, but by golly I try):
“This IS tomato sauce!
Just a new tomato sauce!
You’ll really loooove it!”
I attempt to make unwavering eye contact in the hopes of not revealing the secret ingredient, which is chicken liver.
As adventurous and open-minded eaters as these two are, I have a hunch the idea of chicken liver would be a hard sell.
They both paused and looked at each other for an unspoken huddle.
With a quick nod it was over and they agreed to try the sauce. As they dug into the spaghetti there was complete silence followed by ecstatic oohs and ahhs.
“Mom, this is soooo good”, one finally managed to squeak after half the bowl was empty. “What’s your secret ingredient?”
My forced smiled had now softened with the verdict of the meal, but my Katie Couric poise remained as I reminded them of a crucial lesson in reporting:”Sorry guys, but I can never reveal my sources.”They both appeared slightly fazed by this response, and yet it’s journalistic integrity seemed to speak to them nevertheless.
That, or the aroma of the meal distracted them.
Either way, they quickly resumed to their slurping success as my karmic cameras faded to black.