Archive for the ‘Italy’ Category

The Italians have a few sayings about the Month of March.  “Marzo pazzarello: Un giorno brutto, un giorno bello (Crazy March:  One day ugly, one day beautiful,” is a common one.  Another is, “Marzo pazzarello:  esce il sole e prendi l’ombrello (Crazy March: The sun is out and you bring an umbrella).”  Whichever saying you prefer, March is just…well…CRAZY!!!  Italians are generally referring to the weather when they speak of Marzo Pazzarello.  However, lately, it hasn’t just been the weather that has been crazy in my life!  It seems as if the March winds have blown my world into a perpetual cyclone!  Everyday I seem to be spinning in multiple directions, with multiple things to attend to.  These past few weeks, I’ve been completely consumed by my trip to Barcelona,  hosting a birthday luncheon for a good friend,  attending a local festival, recovering from a cold, and starting a new job.    There’s more craziness to come, too, including  attending a going-away party,  teaching English lessons, and preparing for house guests.  I can only hope that both the weather, and my daily life, is a bit calmer in April!

With all of this stuff going on, it’s been really difficult finding the time to create a new blog!  I know that I still owe all of you the stories, photos, and recipes from my trip to Barcelona.  Due to timing constraints, I have to push that post off until later in the week.  It will take me much longer to put everything together for that one.  Instead, however, I’d like to share with you a bit from my visit last week to the nearby town of Salemi.

View of the countryside from the historic center of Salemi

View of the countryside from the historic center of Salemi

Salemi is a lovely town about a 30-minutes east of Marsala.  It has received a lot of global press attention lately.  In an effort to restore the town’s ancient historic center, Salemi’s mayor has offered to sell villas that were mostly destroyed in a 1968 earthquake, for just 1 Euro.   There are, of course, some stipulations and conditions that must be met for restoration, but it’s still a unique investment opportunity.  For more information about this program, click here.

One of the villas destroyed by an earthquake in Salemi

One of the villas destroyed by an earthquake in Salemi

The reason that I decided to visit Salemi had nothing to do with the 1 Euro villas.  Instead, I was there for Le Cene di San Giuseppe (The Feasts of Saint Joseph).  Each year, on March 19th, Italians celebrate St. Joseph’s Day, which is also their Father’s day.  Joseph, the husband of Mary, and earthly father of Jesus, represents the ideal Christian husband and father.  In addition to being the patron saint of families, Joseph is also the patron saint of many other things, including carpenters and tradesmen, and pastry chefs.

Here in Sicily, St. Joseph is revered for saving the  country from famine in the Middle Ages.  According to legend, Sicily had suffered a severe drought, so the people prayed to St. Joseph to send rain for their crops.  They promised to prepare a huge feast in his honor if their prayers were answered.  The rains came, and thus the feasts were prepared and placed underneath alters as an offering to St. Joseph.  This custom is still practiced, and is especially evident in the town of Salemi.

Each year, the people of Salemi create elaborate alters made of bread to honor St. Joseph.  Dough is shaped into many intricate, and symbollic shapes, such as bunches of grapes (symbollizing the eurcharist), ladders and hammers (symbollic of Joseph’s life as a carpenter), fruits and vegetables (symbols of the abundant harvest that saved Sicily from famine), and many more.  The shapes are blessed by the priest and pieced together on branches to form the alters.  Then, gifts such as wine and food, as well as sprouting beans and even goldfish, are laid on or beneath it.

One of the many bread alters

One of the many bread alters


Close-up of some of the symbollic bread shapes

Love as I have loved you.  ~John 15:12~

Love as I have loved you. ~John 15:12~

In addition to the alters, there is the traditional Feast of St. Joseph.  This takes place inside La Chiesa di San Giuseppe, which also has the largest, and most elaborate, of the bread alters.  For the feast, many dishes of food are prepared by townspeople for the feast (think of it as a giant potluck).  There must be a minmum of 19 meatless dishes, but no more than 101, and a plate of spaghetti topped with olive oil, bread crumbs, parsley, cinnamon, and sugar must always be included .  Three children (1 girl and 2 boys) are asked to sit at a dinner table.  These children are symbollic of the Holy Family of Mary, Jesus, and Joseph.  The priest blesses a dish of food and then serves the “Holy Family.”  They take a bite, and then offer the rest of the food to everyone else in attendance.  This takes place one dish at a time, so the feast seems to be neverending.

The bread alter inside Chiesa di San Giuseppe.  This is only the top half of the alter, as you can tell by where people's heads are in the picture.  I just couldn't get a good shot of the whole thing because of the crowd.

The bread alter inside Chiesa di San Giuseppe. This is only the top half of the alter, as you can tell by where people's heads are in the picture. I just couldn't get a good shot of the whole thing because of the crowd.

The "Holy Family" being served at La Cena di San Giuseppe

The "Holy Family" being served at La Cena di San Giuseppe

Local women serving up spaghetti with olive oil, cinnamon, sugar, parsley, and breadcrumbs.  This was given to the "Holy Family", as well as everyone in attendance.

Local women serving up spaghetti with olive oil, cinnamon, sugar, parsley, and breadcrumbs. This was given to the "Holy Family", as well as everyone in attendance.

There are many traditional pastries that are served in honor of La Festa di San Giuseppe.  Two of the most popular are zeppole (sugar-coated doughnut holes), and sfinci.  Sfinci di San Giuseppe are made from the same dough that is used to make cream puffs (bigne’).  The dough is fried or baked, and then filled with pastry cream, whipped cream, or sweetened ricotta.  Alternately, they can also be eaten unfilled, and simply drizzled with warmed honey.  While I didn’t see either of these pastries in Salemi (just cannoli, pignolatta, and cassatelle), they were available in the pastry shops here in Marsala.  Here is a recipe for Sfinci di San Giuseppe, which comes from Victoria Granoff’s cookbook, Sweet Sicily. The book also contains recipes for the other pastries I mentioned, plus many more.  I have to admit that I have not tried this recipe.  I’m trying to avoid having any sweets in the house for ahwile.  If they’re here, I’ll eat them all!  If you do decide to make this recipe, though, please let me know how it turns out.  In addition, if you have better recipes for either of these treats, please send them along to me.

Sfinci di San Giuseppe

8 Tbsp. unsalted butter or margarine, cut into ½ inch cubes

¾ cup water

1 Tbsp. sugar

Pinch of salt

1 c. unbleached all-purpose flour

4 eggs

Vegetable Oil for frying

1 recipe crema pasticciera (recipe follows), or ½ cup warmed orange blossom honey.

In a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan, bring the butter or margarine, water, sugar, and salt to a boil, stirring with a wooden spoon until all the butter is melted. Remove from the heat and add the flour all at once, stirring with gusto until the dough forms a ball that pulls away from the sides of the pan. It will be sticky. Allow it to cool, stirring every now and then to release steam, for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat 2 inches of oil in a heavy saucepan to 325 degrees on a deep-fry or candy thermometer.

Beat the eggs into the dough one at a time, making sure that each one is well incorporated before adding the next. The dough should be loose, but not runny.

To fry the sfinci, dip a tablespoon first in the hot oil (the oil will prevent the dough from sticking to the spoon), then scoop out a spoonful of dough and drop it into the oil You can fry a few at a time, but don’t crowd the pan. After about 1 ½ minutes, the dough will begin to brown and puff up. Turn it over, and an amazing thing will happen. The sfinci will pop open and puff up to about twice their size. This may happen slowly or all at once – each one is different. Continue to fry, turning the sfinci once or twice, until evening browned. When they are done, drain them on paper towels.

If you are going to fill the sfinci, allow them to cool completely, then split them open and fill them with a ricotta filling (like in cannoli), pastry cream, or whipped cream, using a large spoon or pastry bag. To serve the sfinci with honey, keep the fried sfinci warm on a platter in a 250 degree oven until they are all cooked, then drizzle them with honey and serve immediately.

Makes about 2 dozen.


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This past weekend, Jay and I headed to the town of Acireale for Carnevale.  While Venice is probably the most well-known Italian city for Carnevale celebrations, many other cities all over Italy also host festivities.  Here in Sicily, the cities of Acireale and Sciacca host the largest Carnevale events.

The word ‘Carnevale’ is of Latin origin.  It comes from “carne levare,” which means “cessation of meat.”  Carnevale celebrations always take place during  the weeks prior to the beginning of Lent, which is a time that Roman Catholics are supposed to abstain from eating meat.  In addition, people are supposed to give up something they enjoy as an act of penance to bring them closer to God.  Most often, these are things like sweets and alcohol.  Carnevale is sort of like a last chance to enjoy all things frivolous and hedonistic before devoting 40 days to God in preparation for the Holy Easter holiday. 

Even Jesus comes out to celebrate Carnevale!

Even Jesus comes out to celebrate Carnevale!

Acireale’s Carnevale celebration was a feast for the senses!  Colorful, allegorical floats made their way down the streets in the Baroque city center, music blaring from loud speakers perched on the floats themselves, followed by marching bands, and performers adorned in elaborate costumes.  Masked and costumed festival-goers tossed confetti and sprayed silly string at one another.  The smell of crepes, cotton candy, and fried pastries wafted through the air.  It really was quite an experience! 

The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper float had canons that shot even more confetti into the air.

The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper float had canons that shot even more confetti into the air.


An example of some of the elaborate costumes worn by parade participants.

An example of some of the elaborate costumes worn by parade participants.


The most memorable moment of the festival involved me accidentally spraying silly string into the face of a carabinieri (police officer) because my intended target (a teenager who had just nailed me with the stuff) ducked.  OOPS!  Luckily, the man didn’t see where the silly string came from.  A sweet, little old lady behind me, who was also armed with silly string, I might add, got a good chuckle out of it, though.  Really, it’s impossible to go to Carnevale without coming home covered in confetti and silly string!  It’s been 4 days, and I’m still finding confetti in unsuspecting places!

Me at the end of the night.

Me at the end of the night.

In Italy, special pastries are prepared for just about every holiday, and Carnevale is no different.   The names of these sweets vary from region to region, but the basic concept is the same: Sweetened Fried Dough.  YUM!  In Tuscany, they call them cenci (“little rags”).  They’re called bugie (“little lies”) in Liguria.  Here in Sicily, they are chiacchiere (“little gossips”).  I’ve been told that they get their name from the chatty hisses and pops that are made when the dough is dropped into the fryer.  Regardless of what they are called, they are absolutely delicious!  I purchased some yesterday for Martedi Grasso (Fat Tuesday).  In additional to the traditional recipe, I was very happy to find some that had been drizzled with chocolate.  They must have known that I was coming 🙂

Chocolate Drizzled Chiacchiere

Chocolate Drizzled Chiacchiere

Even though I did not make my own chiacchiere this year, I do have a good recipe for them that was given to me by one of my friends here in Marsala.  Although Carnevale  has officially ended for this year, you can enjoy these crunchy little sweets year-round.



1  1/2 cups “00” or unbleached all-purpose flour

1 Tbsp sugar

1/2 tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp salt

2 Tbsp. lard or butter, chilled

1 egg

3 Tbsp. sweet Marsala wine

Vegetable oil for frying

Powdered sugar for dusting

Sift the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt into a medium mixing bowl.  Cut in the lard or butter until the mixture resembles course cornmeal.  In a small bowl, beat together the egg and wine until blended.  Pour into the flour mixture and mix until the dough comes together into a ball.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly-floured work surface and knead for 5 minutes.  Cover and refriegerate for one hour before rolling out.

Divide the chilled dough into 4 pieces.  Keep the unused portion covered while you work.  Roll a piece of the dough very, very thin, dusting the work surface with a tiny bit of flour if it sticks.   The thinner that you roll out the dough, the flakier and crispier the cookies will be.  Cut the dough into 2 by 4-inch strips using a fluted pastry wheel or a pizza cutting wheel.

In a deep fryer, or large, heavy pan, heat 3 inches of oil to 350 degrees.  Fry a few chiacchiere at a time, turning once, until lightly browned, about 45 seconds per side.  Remove and drain on paper towels.   Dust with powdered sugar and enjoy.

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I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve told someone that I live in Marsala, Italy, and they’ve responded, “You mean, like Chicken Marsala?” Another frequent response is, “Oh…like the cooking wine!” When we told a friend of my husband’s that we were living in Marsala, he exclaimed, “You’re living in the place that my favorite Italian dish is named for! If you live in Marsala, and want to eat Chicken Marsala at a restaurant, do you just order chicken?” So, for those of you who might be wondering the same things (I know you’re out there), let me put your pondering minds at ease.

Marsala wine is named for the city of Marsala. In 1773, an English sailor by the name of John Woodhouse landed at the port of Marsala due to poor weather conditions at sea. Upon exploring the area, he discovered that the local wine produced in the region had a flavor similar to the fortified Spanish and Portuguese wines, and thought that his fellow countrymen back in England would enjoy the flavor if it. Fortified wines, such as Marsala, Port, Medeira, and Sherry, have alcohol added to them before the fermentation process. This process kills the yeast, and leaves residual sugar behind, which results in a sweeter and stronger wine. Since alcohol is also a natural preservative, fortifying wine extends its shelf life, which made the Marsala perfect for Woodhouse to transport on the long sea voyage back to England.

Old Woodhouse Marsala Label

Old Woodhouse Marsala Label

Marsala was such a big hit in England that Woodhouse returned to the city of Marsala in 1796 to begin mass producing and selling this fortified wine. In 1833, Vincenzo Florio bought land near the Woodhouse and Ingham (another English Marsala producer) estates, and began producing his own Marsala. Eventually, Florio purchased the Woodhouse firm, as well as others that had sprung up, including Ingham and Whitaker. Today, Cantine Florio is the oldest Marsala producer in existence, and remains one of the leading producers of the wine. It’s also only about ten minutes away from my house, which makes it very convenient for me J. FYI…Tours of Cantine Florio are available Monday-Friday, but reservations need to be made in advance for tours in English.

Vintage Florio Marsala poster - I have a print of this one hanging in my dining room.

Vintage Florio Marsala poster - I have a print of this one hanging in my dining room.

Many Americans believe that Marsala wine is just a cooking wine. Not so. While it is used in culinary creations, here in Italy, it is often enjoyed as an apperitivo (appertif) before dinner, as well as a digestivo (digestive) after the meal. How a Marsala is savored often depends on its type. Marsala is made primarily from four white grape varietals, either solely or as a blend.  These include Grillo, Catarratto, Insolia, and Damaschino. The red varietals of Nerello Mascalese, Nero D’Avola, and Pignatello may also be added in small amounts to achieve a specific color or flavor.

There are several classifications of Marsala, based on the color, age, and flavor or the wine.

Oro – has a golden color, resulting from omitting of mosto cotto (cooked grape must)

Ambra – has an amber color, resulting from the addition of mosto cotto

Rubino – has a ruby color, resulting from the addition of both white and red grapes, and no mosto cotto

Dolce (Sweet) – has more than 100 grams per liter of reduced sugarsFine – has minimal wood barrel aging, usually one year; typically used for cooking

Secco (Dry) – has no more than 40 grams per liter of reduced sugars

Semi-Secco (Semi-Dry) – has more than 40 grams per liter of reduced sugars, but less than 100 grams.

Superiore (Superior) – with a wood aging of no less than 2 years; traditional dessert wine, especially good with biscotti and hard cheeses

Superiore Riserva (Superior Reserve) – wood-aged for no less than 4 years; elegant dessert and sipping wine; pairs well with biscotti, fine pastries, nuts, and dried fruits.

Vergine (Virgin) – with a wood aging of no less than 5 years; excellent apperetif or with smoked fish and hard, medium-sharp cheeses

Vergine Riserva (Virgin Reserve)– wood-aged for at least 10 years; elegant sipping wine

Unfortunately, the only Marsala wines that are exported to the United States are the dolce and fine varieties. This is mostly because there is no demand for the more refined Marsala, since the majority of Americans think of Marsala solely as a cooking wine. I know that I sure did prior to moving here. Now, however, Marsala is one of my favorite drinks to savor either before or after dinner. I often enjoy it with sesame-seed coated Biscotti Regina (Queen’s Cookies), which I love to dunk into the Marsala, letting them absorb some of the wine, and then eat them. I know that hat may sound like sort of an odd idea to some of you. Dunking cookies in wine? Trust me, though, it’s quite yummy!

Homemade Biscotti Regina

Homemade Biscotti Regina

So, now for the answer that I know you’ve all be waiting on pins and needles for.  If you want to order Chicken Marsala at a restaurant in Marsala, do you just order chicken?

The answer my friends, is NO! Shocking, but true 😉 Pollo alla Marsalese (Chicken in the style of Marsala) does exist here, however Vitello alla Marsalese (Veal in the style of Marsala) is seen more often on restaurant menus. However, neither of them is quite as common as you might think. Menus here are predominately filled with pasta dishes and seafood. Meat items do make an appearance, but not always in the form of Chicken or Veal Marsala. When they do appear, the dishes are also considerately simpler and lighter than many of the versions that I’ve tasted in the U.S., in which the sauce is thick, and more gravy-like, or even has some cream added. 

Below you will find my recipe for Pollo alla Marsalaese. The prosciutto isn’t really a traditional ingredient, but it was included in the dish at a restaurant that we visited when we first arrived here, and my husband, Jay, really liked it. So, now I sometimes include it for him. Feel free to leave it out, though. The herbs are also a personal addition.  I just like the fresh burst of flavor that they impart in the sauce.  Again, leave them out, if you wish.  As for the Marsala itself, I have had this dish prepared with both the sweet and dry variety of Marsala.  In my opinion, both are delicious, but I prefer using the sweet Marsala.  It really is a personal preference, though.  Try it with the sweet one time, and then with the dry another, and see which one you prefer.  You may also use this same recipe to make Vitello alla Marsalese.  Just swap the chicken for the same amount of veal scallopine.

My Pollo alla Marsalese

My Pollo alla Marsalese

Pollo alla Marsalese

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, pounded or sliced into thin scallopine

1/2 cup all-purpose flour



1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

8 oz. button mushrooms, thickly sliced

1 shallot, finely diced

3 slices prosciutto, cut into thin strips (optional)

2 tsp. fresh rosemary, finely chopped (optional)

2 tsp. fresh thyme leaves (optional)

1 cup sweet Marsala wine

2 Tbsp. unsalted butter

Season the chicken scallopine with salt and pepper.  Put the flour in a shallow dish, and season with about 1 tsp salt, and a little pepper.   In a 12-inch saute pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat until almost smoking.  Dredge the scallopine in the seasoned flour, tap off the excess, and add to the pan.  Do not dredge all of the chicken prior to cooking.  Dredge them as you need them.  Otherwise, the flour could get gummy, and the chicken will not brown well.  You should be able to fit about 3-4 pieces in the pan.  Do not put too many, or the chicken will simply steam, and not brown.  Saute the scallopine, turning once, until golden brown on both sides, about 2 mintues per side.  Transfer to a plate and keep warm.

Add the mushrooms to the same pan that you cooked the chicken in.  Do not stir them or do anything to them for about 2-3 minutes.  You want them to get a nice caramelizaiton.  Once they have caramelized on one side, stir them, and add 1 Tbsp. unsalted butter, the shallots, prosciutto, and 1 tsp. of each of the herbs (if using).  Season with salt and pepper, and saute about another minute more, or until the shallots have softened.  Add the Marsala, and scrape any caramelized bits on the bottom of the pan.  Bring to a boil, and reduce the mixture by about one third.  (This is a very important step!  If you do not reduce the sauce, you will taste the alcohol.  I suggest that you taste the sauce immediately after you add the Marsala, just to know what it tastes like.  Continue tasting it as it reduces so you can taste how much it changes.).

Swirl in the remaining 1 Tbsp. of butter, and replace the scallopine in the pan.  Bring just to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer 4-5 minutes.  Stir in the remaining fresh herbs, and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper, if needed.  Transfer the chicken to a serving platter, pour the mushrooms and sauce over the meat, garnish with fresh parsley, if desired, and serve.

For something different, I sometimes use this basic recipe and turn this into a pasta dish by using a bit more Marsala for simmering the mushroom mixture. After it has reduced, I then remove it from the heat, swirl in a couple of tablespoons of Mascarpone cheese, and toss the mixture with some Rigatoni pasta, and add the chicken scaloppini, cut into strips. I’ve also used shredded leftover roast chicken instead of the scaloppini. Garnish with chopped, fresh Italian parsley, a little grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, and serve. Buonissima!

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Marsala Mia

Marsala is located on the west coast of the Italian island of Sicily, in the province of Trapani.  Originally called Lilybaeum, it is a city with a rich history dating back to 396 BC.  This city has been the principal stronghold of the Carthaginians, ruled by the Romans, and conquered by the Arabs.  The Arabs gave it its current name, derived from Marsa Allah (‘Port of Allah’ or ‘Port of God’).  In 1860, Giuseppe Garibaldi led his thousand-man army through Marsala’s gates in his quest to overthrow the Bourbon rule of Sicily, and unify Italy.  Today, it is my home.

Casa Nostra - Our House

Casa Nostra - Our House

The incredibly clear and beautiful Mediterranean Sea

The incredibly clear and beautiful Mediterranean Sea

My neighbor's vineyard

My neighbor's vineyard

When I first arrived in Marsala two years ago, I was instantly taken by the crystal-clear, azure blue Mediterranean Sea that surrounds it, the vineyards that abound within it, and the wine that is named for it.  However, it was the people who truly captured my heart.  Though I didn’t speak the language, they did everything they could to communicate with me and help me get acquainted with daily life.  They took me under their wing, and sort of adopted me into their families.  For this, I am forever grateful!

Today, I speak the language fairly well, and love to visit with my newly-gained family.  Although, I have to admit that I still struggle a bit to understand them at times because of their thick, Sicilian dialect, which is almost a completely separate language in itself.  It doesn’t matter, though.  My new Marsalese friends and I share a common language, which is the language of the heart.  You see, we all have an intense love for the food, wine, and culture of this place, and love to impart that love to others.  This love is what drives me to write this blog, and share a little bit of Marsala Mia (My Marsala) with you.

Life here is simple.  At times, I feel as if I’ve stepped back in time 50 years.  While there are still modern conveniences like cell phones, computers, and satellite television, many people still prefer a more old-fashioned way of life.  You still see little old ladies walking down the street, pulling little carts behind them while shopping for their daily groceries.  There are several supermarkets in town, but plenty of people still shop for their essential food items at individual fruit and vegetable stands, butcher shops, fish shops, pasta shops, pastry shops, and bakeries.    

I buy most of my meats from Maurizio, butcher extraordinaire

I buy most of my meats from Maurizio, butcher extraordinaire

It’s all about freshness here.  There are roadside stands selling the season’s best produce on almost every corner.  Fisherman set up tables on the side of the road, or simply open the trunks of their cars, to sell that morning’s catch of sea urchins, sardines, or other fresh fish.  I buy my eggs from a man who raises his own chickens.  My first week here, my husband and I were waiting at a stop light, when an old man on a bicycle crossed in front of us.  Hanging from the handlebars were five dead chickens.  How’s that for fresh?! 

My fishmonger, Nino, has some of the freshest fish in town.  Here, he's holding open the mouth of il pescatrice (the monkfish) that I purchased.

My fishmonger, Nino, has some of the freshest fish in town. Here, he's holding open the mouth of il pescatrice (the monkfish) that I purchased.

Ermerlindo and his wife sell some of the BEST eggs that I have ever tasted.  The eggs come from chickens that they raise themselves.

Ermerlindo and his wife sell some of the BEST eggs that I have ever tasted. The eggs come from chickens that they raise themselves.

So, I hope that you’ll join me on my quest to discover more about the people, food, and culture of this place, as well as on my culinary adventures in other parts of Italy and Europe.  If there’s anything that you’d like to know more of about the food, travel, or life in Sicily, Italy, or Europe, please let me know, and I’ll try to include it in future blogs.  In addition, if you’d like to visit Marsala, please let me know.  I’d be more than happy to show you around the city and surrounding areas.

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