Turning to Stone – Part 4 of the Roma, Underground Series

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The series continues with our friends Bianca, Dante, Ferrugia, Gennaro, Silvio and Alessandro as they head to Naples. This time their work involves solving counterfeit money and bond crimes associated with the biggest crime organizations in Italy.  Ferrugia goes undercover as a member of the Camorra, while everyone else is trying to solve who is responsible for a high ranking official’s death.  This official’s nephew joins the group and turns out to be a big asset to the team. Secret meetings take place between the different crime families, but someone is leaking the information of these meetings to a band of ruthless Sicilian women on motorcycles.  Once these women appear at these meetings, automatic gunfire and death occur.

Bianca continues to consult her online “friend” Loki for advice and clues.Loki responds with riddles and anagrams to solve.  How Loki has all this information is beyond me, though, and at times I’m left wondering who this person can be.  During the story, though, we are enlightened as to who a possibility might be, but it still doesn’t make much sense to me.

This book was tedious to get through.  I felt like the same scenarios kept getting replayed time and time again without any real resolution.  I’m still just as confused to the identity of Loki and why Loki would have the answer to everything. As at the end of Threading the Needle, I still feel lost and without answers to any of the questions that I have conjured up in my head.  Perhaps that’s the author’s purpose and that’s what keeps you wanting to read the next book in the series. We’ll see if I have the energy 😦

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Here are a few words from the series author, Gabriel Valjan!

A culinary sampling table: Italian style

“Italy is the only workshop in the world that can turn out both Boticellis and Berlusconis.”

Beppe Severgnini, the author of La Bella Figura, said that. Although he is what Italians call a furbo – someone who is crafty, clever, and astute, with an undercurrent of guile – he speaks a truth. He would also tell you that his Italy is not postcards of Tuscan hills, or the E.M. Forester novel and James Ivory’s film A Room with a View. Italy is, to my mind, the comeback kid of Europe, and with it comes backhanded comments, such as Napoleon was French when he won, Italian when he lost. The di Buonaparte family hailed from Tuscany.

I’d advise readers to read John Hooper’s The Italians for a comprehensive portrait of Italy, but let’s evaluate Beppe’s comment. When Goethe visited Italy, the imperial city of Rome was overgrown, in ruination, a literal cow pasture, and yet he romanticized what he had seen; he prefaced his diaries with a German translation of the Latin phrase: “Et in Arcadia ego,” a death-haunted phrase of nostalgia that readers would find again in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. The Imperium Romanum had been brought low, but it would bounce back as a dominant forza in fashion, manufacturing, and technological innovator in engineering and the sciences during the Italian Miracle. History shows that Italy, the small kid in the European playground, had anticipated the totalitarian governments of the 30s as early as 1922 with Fascism; foreign interference through the ‘strategia della tensione’ for decades after World War II; wholesale corruption throughout the 90s; and the ‘post-democracy’ seen now in most western countries, including the United States.

It is easy to become bewitched by the history, as I did when I first visited Italy as a second-year Latin student, visiting the northern shore of Lake Trasimene, knowing exactly what happened there between Hannibal and Gaius Flaminius in 218 BCE, or when I stood at twilight at the Benedictine abbey of Montecassino that overlooked the cemeteries in the valley below, knowing what happened there in 1944. In a later visit, I would stand sickened and transfixed as I heard the news of the assassination of the anti-mafia magistrate Paolo Borsellino.

What then? How does one know Italy?

Food. Even here, though, there are delicious deceptions, for the food that most Americans call Italian is descended from immigrants from southern Italy and those regional foods have been heavily Americanized. Case in point: the New York pizza is a distant cousin of the Neapolitan pizza, and while Chicago-style deep-dish pizza does exist in Italy, it’s usually reserved for take-out only (pizza da asporto). No sane Italian would order cappuccino after 11am or after dinner; consume a venti at Starbucks; or eat fettuccine Alfredo or Caesar salad because these are considered American dishes. From heel to toe and to the top of the boot, Italians are aghast at American portion sizes. And another thing: it is lasagnE (plural), and not lasagnA (singular). Lasagna is a single layer of pasta. It is like saying ‘new’ instead of ‘news.’ Prego.

In writing the Roma Series, I incorporated food to lure readers into trying some of the regional foods and to encourage them to indulge their senses. My hope is that I’ve corrected some gustatory misunderstandings. Roma, Underground offers the sights and sounds of Roma, as well as meals in restaurants and some street food. Chef Michael Schlow was the inspiration for Chef in Wasp’s Nest. Pasta e fagioli, pasta and beans, often heard in America as pasta fazool, makes an appearance in the first chapter. Chef Schlow had made the dish from scratch for me (and others) at the Boston Wine Expo in 2011. In the same chapter, I poked fun at Americanized Italian words, but please know that I had meant no offense. While Dante literally minted thousands of words in Italian like Shakespeare did in English, Baby Boomers in Italy may well be the first generation that actually thinks in Italian and not in their local dialect. Until the late 19th century, everybody spoke their local dialect, including educated people. Alessandro Manzoni, author of The Betrothed, had to learn to speak proper Italian in Florence before he wrote his novel. His native languages were French and Lombard. Spoken Italian was not standardized until the mid-twentieth century. Written Italian has been stable for centuries.

Wasp introduces some Calabrese cuisine. In Threading the Needle, the third installment, readers will savor both northern dishes and homemade Campanian dishes since Gennaro, the resident curmudgeon, is from Naples, which he visits with his friends in the fourth book, Turning To Stone. Threading explores the ‘strategy of tension’ and Turning meditates on the sociology of organized crime and financial terrorism.

Italy celebrates regional differences, but its northern and southern divide mirrors the prejudices of our North and South. It’s a decent analogy as real as Italy’s north-to-south highway, the Autostrada 1. The north considers itself industrial and progressive, seeing its southern neighbors as retrograde, indolent, and corrupt. Southern Italians complain that their northern brethren are elitist, wield too much power, and are corrupt. While these are broad generalizations, the antagonism is real. The common theme to both regions, however, is foreign footprints. Lombardy has had both the French and Germans on their roofs. Italy and, particularly Sicily, has been the doorstep for just about every world power since antiquity: Carthaginians, Greeks, Muslims, Normans, Spanish and so on. All these “guests” have influenced the local cuisine. If the Thirty Years War altered Germany and the course of Europe, I encourage readers to research The Italian Wars (1494-1594), which, like The Hundred Years War between England and France and our war in Vietnam, forever altered the Italian psyche, especially The Sack of Rome in 1527.

I invite readers of the Roma Series to consult the cookbooks in my home: Luca Manfè’s My Italian Kitchen (he is from Friuli, northeastern Italy); Rosetta Constantino’s (with Janet Fletcher) My Calabria; Polpo, a Venetian cookbook; Marc Vetri’s (with David Joachim) Rustic Italian Food (Bergamese influence); and for wine-lovers, Joseph Bastianich and David Lynch’s Vino Italiano. Italy has a rich wine-with-food-pairing tradition (they use the compound word enogastronomia) and for creating grape varietals (incrocio, in Italian), which is a booming industry because the country’s peculiar geography, climate, minerals or water change significantly every 30 or 40 miles. The northernmost limit of grapevines is creeping more and more north every season. Brace yourself for British Cabernet and Danish Pinot….

Homemade Bruschetta

Part I

I never measure anything. I go by ‘taste.’

Cut up Roma tomatoes; deseed them if you dislike the seeds.

  1. In a nonreactive bowl, place in cut-up tomatoes, seasoned with kosher salt, some pepper and oregano, and add slices of garlic. Beppe reminds me that rubbing bread with garlic is “actionable.”
  2. Pour in balsamic vinegar and whisk in olive oil.
  3. Cover with foil and let sit overnight either on the counter or in refrigerator (it does affect taste).

Part II

  1. Slice baguette slices at an angle.
  2. Grill or broiler bread until light shade of brown, about 1-2 minutes.
  3. Top with marinated tomatoes and grill/broil for another minute. Go by ‘feel’ for degree of crunchiness.
  4. Top with fresh basil, or if you like, grate a small amount of Parmesan cheese.

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