Mani ai Pizzeria’s doors open at 6:30 p.m. We arrived just as a small line was forming. This is a no-frills pizza joint that serves great pies and entertains, at least we were entertained by the pizzamakers. There was neither tossing nor twirling of unbaked dough, but a calm, systematic approach to churning out 15 made-to-order pizzas at a time.
We shared a mixed salad, a liter of the house red and a Margarita pizza. That was our first order before we were mesmerized by the assembly-line process with a personal touch.
Pieces of dough are pulled from a large mound and formed into the size of tennis balls. These are rolled flat and stacked. Initially, there were two men making the pies. One rolled, creating a flurry of flour, one checked supplies and fed the wood-burning oven. The maestros then methodically cover some with sauce, most with cheese – a lot of cheese – and then the specific topics that included mounds of mushrooms, zucchini blossoms, raw sausage (it cooked in the oven), more cheese and a drizzle of olive oil. The marble slab looked like a carpet of pizzas.
I wondered if the first ones in the oven would be the last out. This wasn’t the case. The guys know their stuff. The pizzas are served unsliced. The crust is thin and easily folds in half. The ingredients are fresh and flavorful. We enjoyed ours so much we ordered a second just so we could keep watching — and eating!
Fredrik Backman author of the acclaimed A Man Called Ove has found a successful formula, which once again emerges in My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry. The title is a successful attention-getter – certainly more so than the earlier book. Like Ove, My Grandmother Asked Me assembles diverse characters who are, initially, only tenuously connected.
The major difference between the two novels, though, lies in the main protagonist. Here it’s seven-year-old-soon-to-be-eight Elsa. Although there are plenty of explanations for her being so precocious, Elsa’s behavior, vocabulary and thought-processes, at times, leans more to incredulity than not. Her grandmother is partly to blame and mostly to be celebrated for the young girl’s sense of curiosity, intellect and strong sense of self. But, and this is no spoiler alert since the book cover reveals as much, the grandmother dies leaving Elsa to navigate a world where being different is difficult.
Elsa is charged with delivering a series of letters written by her grandmother. They’re for tenants in the building where Elsa lives but whom she barely knows. Wanna guess what happens?
Humor and pathos move hand-in-hand throughout the narrative, which also includes fairy tales of secret lands. Again, this is thanks to Elsa’s grandmother.
I found My Grandmother Asked Me to be less engaging that Ove, but nonetheless satisfying by its conclusion. Tying up loose ends isn’t always a bad thing. It certainly fits with Backman’s storytelling technique and his ability to create interesting characters full of foibles and heart.
My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry
Washington Square Press, 2015
It’s obvious that my husband and I are tourists in Rome. We wear expressions of awe and confusion. One thing we don’t do is always carry a guidebook. There’s nothing wrong with them, but I was surprised to count the number of people who approached Trattoria da Teo with books in hand.
Our B&B host told us about Teo’s. We didn’t know we needed reservations. The restaurant, like most in Rome, opens at 7:30. This was something many with Rick Steves and Frommer’s weren’t aware of either, but a fair number was. Perhaps the guidebooks should be more detailed. We sat in the small piazza watching people go to Teo’s door only to be turned away. We waited more than 30 minutes and once inside were told there was one remaining table available for someone without reservations.
Although this is a popular Trastevere eatery, we weren’t wowed. The food wasn’t photogenic, but there were a few bright spots, including the lightly breaded calamari with artichokes. Read the rest of this entry »
I’d been told many times that pesto made from basil grown in the Cinque Terre is especially good. The warm sun and coastal air make the licorice-flavored herb uniquely pungent. Basil is not a mild flavor, so I was intrigued by the idea of a different, perhaps stronger taste. I ate pesto several times over the course of three days to make sure.
Rest assured, it was very good, but I think the local olive oil may also be a contributing factor. Although, each dish I sampled allowed the rich green basilica to shine. The oil did not overpower, which can be the case with some versions.
We stayed in Riomaggiore where in late February it is still the low season. We found only two restaurants open. In nearby Manarola, there were more options, but not an overwhelming number.
My pesto dinners were surprisingly different, albeit only slightly. One, at Pizzeria da Mam’angela, featured potatoes. Osteria Maite’s had pine nuts and was a darker green, but both were mixed with perfect al dente tagliolini, a linguini-like fresh pasta.
La Scogliera in Manarola offered several options for pesto, including lasagne, gnocchi and minestrone. I had the latter. The soup was rustic and hearty . The serving was just right for a late lunch.
At home a large serving of pasta with pesto would suffice as a meal. One night I opted to eat as Italians do and had a primi plati and a secondi plati (grilled swordfish). It was a lot of food. The second evening I had only pasta. Perfecto!
Years ago I gave myself permission to stop reading books that couldn’t hold my interest. Nonetheless, I still struggle with the idea that once I start something I should finish it. As I slogged my way through Amy Bloom’s Away, I wondered when I’d set it down for good. I never did.
Bloom’s slow-paced story is about the determination of a mother’s love and the sacrifices she endures. It’s also a narrative about immigrants and fitting into not just new environments but adjusting to different customs and expectations.
Lillian Leyb is a seamstress living in New York City’s lower east end in 1924. As she becomes romantically entangled with her employer and his son, her past is slowly revealed. She left Russia where her husband and, presumably, her child were killed. Lillian becomes a kept woman until she learns from her cousin, a recent arrival from the homeland, that her daughter is still alive. Thus begins Lillian’s journey across the United States including the expansive Alaskan frontier en route to Siberia to find her daughter.
Lillian experiences both the kindness and cruelty of strangers; she’s befriended and betrayed. Bloom incorporates humor and pathos in Lillian’s trek by explaining what’s in store for those Lillian encounters – from her east end companions to those in a Seattle brothel and later a women’s prison in Alaska. Through it all, Lillian remains determined to find her daughter.
Although Away was no page-turner for me, I’m glad I stuck with it. It just took time.
Random House, 2008
The heroics/horrors of war, tests of familial love and loyalty to one’s country merge in Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale.
In Oregon 1995 an unnamed elderly woman prepares to move from her home at the insistence of her adult son. This sets in motion her recollection of life in France during World War II. At its heart, the novel is about the relationship between sisters Vianne and Isabelle, ten years her junior. Following the death of their mother, their father leaves them with a stranger. Despite their shared grief and sense of abandonment, the two have nothing else in common.
The war years show how, as adults, the sisters remain at odds. Vianne struggles to keep her daughter safe and maintain the family home after her husband goes to fight. Meanwhile, Isabelle wants a role in her helping her country overcome German authority.
The sisters’ personality differences are repeatedly described, yet the strained relationship doesn’t always ring true. Vianne acknowledges that she failed in her responsibility as the older sibling to help Isabelle; she attributes this failure to dealing with her own sorrow at the time. Isabelle has an air of entitlement – at least when it comes to emotions; this sense of privilege doesn’t follow her as she works with the French Resistance.
The novel progresses with the war; occasional interruptions remind the reader of the elderly woman. This becomes a guess-who exercise: who is it and how did she end up in Oregon. Only one of the questions is answered.
St. Martin’s Press, 2015
I have a hard time ignoring a restaurant’s boastful claims and proclamations. Even though I’d never heard of the Castle Café before, this meant I had little choice but to order its “World Famous Pan-Fried Chicken.”
I’m glad I did.
The menu and our server noted that the order takes 30 minutes to prepare. Fortunately, I was in good company, so time passed quickly; it was my order delaying our meal. When it arrived, I wasn’t disappointed. Chicken Fried Chicken is also on the menu; what distinguishes the pan-fried version is that it’s cooked on the bone – part of what contributes to the half-hour prep. The former is a chicken breast pounded thin.
For the famous rendition, it’s possible to order all white, all dark or a combination. I opted for the latter. Four pieces of golden, crispy chicken served with real mash potatoes, cracklin’ gravy, mixed fresh vegetables, and cole slaw made this a hearty meal. Homemade, hot-out-of-the-oven Parker House rolls made this a complete feast.
The juicy chicken and gravy made from the pan remnants evoke images of Sunday dinner. This was an impressive meal.
Other offerings include burgers, grilled and fried entrees and house-smoked meats for pulled pork or brisket sandwiches. A metal tray served as the plate for the brisket topped with tangy barbecue sauce served on a brioche bun with French fries; this was clever plating.
If anyone asks, I’ll agree the fried chicken deserves its accolades – even if it is a small world, afterall.
Castle Rock, Colorado