The moka stove-top coffee pot is the standard in almost all Italian households for making coffee. It is instantly recognizable for its octagonal shape, usually aluminium, and black bakelite handle. It was first conceived of in 1933 by Alfonso Bialetti who was inspired by watching his wife do laundry in a machine called a lisciveuse that used the same concept of heating water and forcing it through a tube. In the moka, water is put into the bottom of the coffee pot, then a filter, which fits into this bottom, is filled with finely ground coffee and the empty top is screwed onto the bottom of the pot. As the water heats, it is forced through the coffee filter and, under pressure, it slowly fills the top part of the pot with a strong brew similar to espresso, often also with a crema. The moka comes in different sizes, the two-cup pot probably being the most common. This common kitchen object is an icon of Italian industrial design and is featured in the collections of museums world-wide.
A recent New York Times article as a comic strip was a reminder of a classic Italian dessert – trite, ubiquitous, yet delicious – the tartufo. Tartufo means “truffle” and when you look at this chocolate and ice cream confection you can understand the resemblance. The article describes the tartufo as a maraschino cherry surrounded by a half chocolate, half vanilla ice cream ball, the whole of which is encased in a chocolate shell. There are of course many variations on the ice cream, including fruit flavors. My memory of the tartufo at the Tre Scalini in Piazza Navona is of a pure chocolate bomb. The original is said to be the tartufo di Pizzo, in Calabria. This is generally hazelnut ice-cream surrounding a core of chocolate ganache. The whole thing is then rolled in cocoa powder and frozen. In general if you can find a non-industrial, locally-made version, it’s a great treat and totally worth the caloric splurge!
Several years ago Maurizio De Giovanni wrote a giallo featuring a motley collection of police officers based in a Neapolitan questura – the fictional Pizzofalcone. Thus, a series was born. The cases that are dealt with often reflect real events or societal issues but the best part is following the lives of the principal characters. The protagonist is Ispettore Giuseppe Lojacono, a divorced father of a somewhat rebellious teen-ager. His love interest is Laura Piras, the magistrate often assigned to the cases. The other members of the group are the gun-loving Alessandra Di Nardo, a closeted lesbian with a domineering father; Francesco Romano, buff and with serious anger issues; the older Giorgio Pisanelli who is fixated on a series of suicides that he believes are really victims of a serial killer; Ottavia Calabrese the computer whisperer, mother of a disabled child and trapped in an unhappy marriage; and the boorish Marco Aragona who is brash, tacky and ignorant but a surprisingly effective investigator. Then there is the commissario, Gigi Palma, the calm at the center of the storm, who is trying to keep it all together and who has a soft spot for Ottavia. All these characters’ lives, issues and thoughts are explored and it’s interesting and entertaining to follow along as we get to know them better. Earlier this year RAI aired a six-episode series based on the books and a second season is in the works. The TV series is a lot more superficial than the books but the scenes of Naples are great, the casting is mostly good (serious exception, the Laura Piras character) and, all in all, it’s fun to watch.
When thinking of food that represents spring, fresh new vegetables come to mind immediately. In Rome one of the most frequently seen spring vegetables are fresh fava beans, often eaten raw with pecorino cheese. A favorite springtime dish – almost a symbol of the beginning of spring – is vignarola. It consists of a mix of fave, fresh peas and artichokes that are sautéed in olive oil with spring onions. The name is said to come from the word vigna (grapevine) because the vegetables used were typically grown in the spaces between the grapevines. As in most Italian dishes, there is no one recipe written in stone: the vegetables are generally in equal proportion with the artichokes prepared Italian-style, outer leaves and fuzzy choke discarded until only the tender parts remain so that they can be sliced. The most traditional recipe also uses shredded lettuce. Some people add mentuccia (a wild mint similar to pennyroyal) and some versions contain guanciale or pancetta. It’s a simple, bright-green, fresh and delicious medley that can be a starter, main course or a side dish.