Saturday, July 4, 2015

Food of the Gods

Marika's in da house
Pretty much no matter where you go in the world, Italian food will be tasty.  Cultures that will fuck up everything else (I'm looking at you, England) will manage to get pasta right.  This is mostly attributable to it basically involving boiling noodles and adding sauce, but the fact remains: if you're afraid to eat anything else, put your trust in pasta.

That said, I didn't cook the month I spent in Venice in 2001.  Mostly I was being lazy (heh, I really didn't cook much the month before I went to Venice...or the month after...or really much during my college years...or in the years since then...) but there was also intimidation factoring in there.  I get along pretty well in Italian, in spite of never learning it, but I can't rely on it.  At this point in the game I can look at a package, make some inferences, and 9 times out of 10 I'll come out ahead, but I didn't have those coping skills fourteen years ago.  I'm making up for it this week.  My final AirBnB host, Lorenzo, showed me my shelf in the refrigerator, and I thought to myself, "Heh, not likely."  And then I went to dinner and spent 25 euro on gnocchi and water, and had to reevaluate.  So I'm experimenting, and it's been nice.
Fresh gnocchi - a new way I'm willing to eat potatoes
Taking cooking classes has kind of become one of my things, and I was desperately scrambling before I left to figure out where I could do one.  Acquolina Cooking School was actually the first one I came across, but I putzed around before I actually contacted them (in retrospect, I'm not sure why).  More than anything else I was interested in learning to make homemade pasta, and when I finally emailed them, they said they'd do the pasta class on Friday, July 3, even though Monday was ordinarily pasta day, so I was ecstatic (in fact, so ecstatic that - in the ensuing emails - I skipped over the part that said cash only and had to run out to an ATM, grumbling at myself all the way).
Ravioli stuffed with fresh cheeses
Fortunately the bancomat wasn't that far and in 10 minutes I was back and meeting Marika, our chef for the day.  Villa Inez, where the cooking school is held on Lido, is her home, and the kitchen was fantastico - hey, you know you're in Italy when you've got  frizzante on tap.  We started by making three kinds of dough - regular, basil, and gnocchi.  She had all sorts of great Kitchen Aid machines and things to make it less time-consuming.  A crew of 8 of us were cooking these things for FOUR HOURS, but in the old days yo mama'd be up at 6 to start making everything.  Once the dough was wrapped up airtight and setting in the fridge, we started making sauces and fillings.
Tortellini with meaty goodness filling
We finished the gnocchi by cutting them into little pieces and rolling them against a fork, and then learned how to roll out the dough.  The tagliatelli reminded me of how the Tsataan made their noodles...rolling up the dough and then cutting strips...but you had to wait until it had dried some or else the dough just stuck to itself.  The ravioli and tortellini could be made right away, though.  The ravioli was pretty straighforward, but the tortellini...oh gosh, that was hard work.  You had to cut the dough in a square, sprinkle it with semolina so it doesn't stick together (you cut them all at the same time), keep them covered so they don't dry out, brush the semolina off, put the filling on top, moisten half the sides, fold it over, seal it up, then fold the two acute angles together and pinch them into a little sitting shape.  It was exhausting.  It was also my absolute favorite dish.  Once upon a time, Evil got me addicted to Trader Joe's tortellini, and I used to think they were pretty good.  Now, I don't know if I can ever go back.

Alright, probably I can.  Remember: I'm lazy.
One finished product: tagliatelli in buttery sage sauce
Finally, at long last the time had come for us to dig in.  The food was superb, in spite of the fact that we noobs did most of the work.  Attribute that to Marika's AMAZING recipes and guidance.  The table was set with what I recognized as Murano glassware, and when I asked Marika she explained that her husband's family is one of the original "secrets-handed-down-from-father-to-son" glassmaking families, dating back to, like, 1400 AD.  We were also served special prosecco that either her sister's in-laws made or her sister-in-law's family made (I don't remember which, because by that point dessert was on the table and it kind of derailed my brain a little bit, and all I could think was, "I wonder if Enkhaa knows a good place for us to hunt wild strawberries this fall so I can make this...")  Part of me kind of wanted to try it, but fortunately alcohol's never been the hard part of my religion to live up to.
The grand finale: panna cotta alla fragolina di bosco
As I mentioned before, Villa Inez in on Lido, and it was SO REFRESHING to be there.  I'd been putting off heading out there; I went to Lido several times when I was here before, and loved spending a morning or an afternoon at the beach, but there were far fewer tourists here back then, and I had visions of beaches in China, where the sand AND the water are absolutely packed.  After all, Burano used to be a sleepy little island - when I went in 2001 I was pretty much the only tourist there, but this time, there were people everywhere with their freaking selfie-sticks.

So I walked straight across the island to the beach.  I had time before we started cooking.  I didn't have to go that far to tell that there was a difference.  Almost all the people I passed were living there - having a breakfast espresso and brioche, moving slowly and enjoying life, not taking shitloads of photos.  Out at the beach, there were a handful of people.  Admittedly, it was 9:30 in the bright and early, and I'm sure it was busier the later it got, but I don't do the beach in the afternoon, so this was good enough for me.

I went back the next day.  I was a little pissed at first - apparently I was too early for the first #2 vaporetto, and had to take linea 1 instead (which stops at every freaking point along the way.  I could have SWAM there faster than that!)  But it was a cool morning, and I had a chocolate brioche before hitting the beach, where I laid out my towel before walking into the water.  It was chilly, but I've been taking partly cold showers at Lorenzo's (mostly because it's so hot here that it actually feels good), so I adjusted quickly enough.  I relaxed, floating in the water, rocking to the rhythm of the waves, and when I decided I'd had enough, laid in the shade under a boardwalk (which, as far as I could tell was built for no other purpose than to throw shade) and read.  If that's not a great way to start a morning, I don't know what is.

A Night at the Opera

Is this the real life, or is it just fantasy???  11 out of 10 specialists in stuff agree that dwelling on the past is useless, and I try to listen to specialists, particularly when I've gone to the effort to make up statistics for them...thus I haven't made a huge deal out of the fact that I was originally a band geek.

As in, like, a GIGANTIC nerd.  

Yes, I went to band camp (I also played the flute, but I was in middle school, so no American Pie references, please).  

When I started college, I had every intention of growing up to be a concert flautist, and one of the classes you had to take was a listening lab, in which the classwork involved going to concerts.  The shows the conservatory put on were all free, if you got your ticket at least 24 hours ahead of time, and so suddenly all my dreams of being classy and going to the opera were coming TRUEEEEEEE!!!  Well, I eventually gave up on the whole musician thing (mostly because I couldn't actually get INTO the conservatory), but I still love going to the opera, even though sometimes the lovers need to just fucking DIE ALREADY so I can go home.

The last time I went to the opera in Italy that was definitely the case.  It was a rendition of Verdi's Aida staged in Verona's Colosseum.  Normally I would think that watching an opera in the most intact Roman colosseum in Italy was totally gucci, but it started sprinkling about the same time they let us in to get seated.  And when you play a delicate musical instrument that costs several thousand dollars, the show does NOT go on when rain is involved, thus is was two in the morning before it was over.  However, opera is the artistic equivalent of football for Italians, I went then, and I went again last night, since Teatro la Fenice gives me even more artsy street cred.
Teatro La Fenice (Fenice meaning "Phoenix," which is ironic since it's burned at least a couple of times) is the kind of dope yolo swag opera theater they show you in movies and tv and stuff when people go to the theater.  It's posh.  It's got velvet seats and honest-to-goodness boxes.  I spent almost as much money on the bloody ticket as I did on the cooking class I did yesterday morning (more to come on that another day).  I was hoping for a Verdi opera, because nobody knows how to use a drinking song in an opera quite like Verdi, but I settled for Vivaldi's Juditha Triumphans, because I know how it ends (no spoilers yet...keep reading).
The theater was absolutely stunning, so I was expecting great things from the staging.  However, I had my first misgivings when I noticed that the orchestra pit was actually an orchestra platform.  The band, in all their glory, with all their reading lights, were kind of a distraction, and the divas...oh yes, all the characters were played by women.  Apparently Vivaldi wrote it for the girls' orphanage at which he was music master, but it took the supertitles for me to figure that the badass I originally thought was the title character was actually the antagonist...actually moved around the orchestra, as well as having the stage behind them.  Instead of having an actual set, they used stripes of light through smoke and artfully arranged wooden cubes, when they were called for.  It was very interpretive and minimalist, and was a stark contrast to the theater.  I didn't particularly care for it.
Don't ask what the secret ingredient is...
Okay, spoilers coming - watch out, opera fans.  Judith is a biblical story, but even if you've read your Bible cover to cover, chances are you haven't heard of her.  Protestant bibles group her with a number of other books known as the Apocrypha (also known as Sir Not-Appearing-In-This-Bible), since most scholars agree at this point that it's not actually historically based.  It IS, however, a pretty badass story.  Judith is a young Jewish widow during a time the Jews are at war (you can assume it's Babylon, but let's face it - most of the Old Testament is carnage...that is, once you're past who begat who and all the rules about who you are not allowed to sleep with).

Anyway, she gets fed up with her countrymen who are participating in one of the world's great pastimes - whining about how things are without having the faith to actually do something about it - so she puts on her big girl pants and ingratiates herself to the enemy general, Holofernes.  Then she gets him schnockered and chops of his head with his own sword.
Thanks to 11 Points for the great illustration of the importance of art historians
Well.  The staging may have been okay, and it may have taken a really long time to get to the freaking point (I know - it would have been a very short opera if they didn't sing every line three times, but it was hot in the theater!) but in the end, Juditha Triumphans failed to disappoint.  When she cut off his head a whole rain of red...stuff? beads maybe???...fell from above the stage and hit the floor at the same time.  SPLASH!  Best part of the staging, game over!  Judith waved the sword around a little more and there was more singing - and the singing was phenomenal, and the orchestra was absolutely sublime.  I realize I'm being a real jackass, because I'm not really talking about the central point of going to the opera, aka, the performances, but I'm not a music critic and it would be stranger if you went to an opera in Italy and it wasn't outstanding.  These people take their opera seriously.  

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Row, Row, Row Your Boat

This is a gondola.
Silly Venetians.  Boats go in water, not in a palazzo!
Part of the picture people have of a romantic trip to Venice involves a gondola ride.  If you are part of the many couples in this city who have been making me want to vomit by sucking face all over the freaking place, you may want a gondolier (boat rower) who can sing to set the mood, or perhaps have an accordian player along for the ride.  If you are one of my fellow single ladies, you might prefer a smoking hot one with some sexy guns from "rowing his boat" all day (namsayin'?).  But here's the thing about a gondola ride: it costs 80 euro for the first 40 minutes, and 40 euro for each 20 minutes after that.  If you want to do this in the evening (ie, the time of day when you are NOT covered in grotesque amounts of sweat), well, it goes up to 100/50 after 7 pm.
If you are smart but you care enough about the bragging rights of saying you've ridden a gondola, you can do what I did in my poor, broke college days and take the traghetto across the Grand Canal.  That only costs 4 euro (now...like everything else, it was much cheaper in 2001), and doesn't involve all five hundred bazillion tourists taking photos of you and your love bunny playing tonsil hockey because it makes a good photo.  It also only lasts a couple of minutes - the traghetto is basically a quick way to ferry across the Grand Canal, and is cheaper than the vaporetto (water bus).
Now.  If you are no longer a poor broke college student, and would end up being by yourself in the damn boat (and thus, probably reading, which means really a waste of money and possibly making yourself motion-sick), and furthermore, have run out of penis festivals and temples of erotica to visit, thus shifting your raison d'voyage to having some kick-ass learning experiences, then Row Venice might be for you.  For the 80 euro you would have spent for 40 minutes riding, you can get 90 minutes of instruction on how to row yourself.
I think I came across them on TripAdvisor, and immediately I signed up to take a course.  It sounded like a lot of hot, sweaty fun (pretty much every kind of fun there is to have in Venice is hot and sweaty, come summer).  I've paddled a canoe a time or two, and although I don't have the greatest track record of staying afloat (ask Babysis and she'll tell you), their website talked about the boats that they use: batellini coda di gambero.  It's a slightly different design from the better known gondola,  a design that is flat-bottomed and thus, a LOT harder to flip...or to fall in from.

I met Nan, my teacher, near the marina, where she helped me in and showed me the basics.  They seemed pretty...well, basic.  Then I got to start trying, and oh my freaking sweet Hell, it was a lot harder than they make it look.  It was easier on the body than paddling a canoe - I guess the oar lock helps your body do the work, and the motion is a lot like walking, or it's supposed to be...I never quite got it right, and my oar kept popping out.  Which brings me to how it's harder than canoeing.  I don't know why I couldn't figure it out.  Possibly because - contrary to how graceful I ALWAYS seem, haha - I am not a very coordinated person, and your body does a lot of different things when you voga properly.  There's the weight shifting back and forth, while not going up and down, but your knees are bent softly, twisting your wrists, pushing the oar FROM THE TOP, pulling it back, keep it flat!  So many different things going on at the same time, and while it's something you just have to do and practice, I'm a visual learner, and you can't see all that, so I followed Nan's commands not to look at the oar, and I didn't fall out or drop my oar, which given my track record is success.

The sweat absolutely rolled down my face.  It was hot, but it wasn't as hard work as I was expecting it to be, and it was as much fun as I was expecting.  I'm not sure if I'd do it again, but I'm really glad I tried it.