Sunday, October 24, 2010

Blessing of the Animals - The Lasting Legacy of St. Francis of Assisi

The man we know as Saint Francis was born Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone in 1182 in Assisi, Umbria. Surrounded by the trappings of privilege, he renounced it all and became an enduring symbol of the value of spirit over the flesh. But he may be best loved for his respect and honor of all creatures at a time when the world around him seemed steeped in cruelty.
Francesco gave one of his most famous sermons to a flock of birds. His biographer, Thomas of Celano, describes the birds listening to Francesco’s words, stretching their necks and wings as he touched and blessed them. According to Thomas, "He began to blame himself for negligence in not having preached to the birds before…from that day on, he solicitously admonished the birds, all animals and reptiles, and even creatures that have no feeling, to praise and love their Creator."
Francesco wrote the Canticle of the Creatures, dedicated to all of the God’s creation. On one occasion he allowed a donkey who needed shelter to displace him and his small band of brothers from the hovel where they were living. He saved the townspeople of Gubbio as well as the wolf who had been attacking them by brokering peace. He sought out the wolf and admonished him to repent for the pain he caused. The wolf would never harm the townspeople again and the people agreed to feed the wolf for the rest of his life.
The feast of St. Francis is October 4. In 1931 in Florence, Italy, a convention of ecologists instituted World Animal Day. This day of appreciation and blessing for all animals is commemorated on the Sunday closest to October 4, in recognition of Francesco’s deep love of animals. This celebration takes place all over the world and is known as The Blessing of the Animals.
I had the good fortune to attend the Blessing at St. John the Divine in NYC this year. The celebration included the full church choir along with dancers, singers and musicians from many countries. Beautiful dancers waved colorful banners in the aisle to music complete with whale songs and the baying of wolves. The performers included, among others, Alessandra Belloni and I Giulari di Piazza, the Omega Dance Company, Forces of Nature Dance Company.
At the end of the service, volunteers dressed in long, white robes walked slowly up the center aisle, holding or accompanying an array of animals. They surrounded the altar for the blessing and then slowly filed out of the church. Many attendees brought their dogs to the service, and periodically the sounds of barking filled the Cathedral. But it seemed to be just as St. Francesco would have wanted it.

I Giulari di Piazza entertains on the side lawn of the Cathedral.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Italian Creativity On the High Seas

A beautiful event took place on board the MSC Poesia cruise ship docked at Pier 88 in NYC on October 2, 2010. Sponsored by the Italy America Chamber of Commerce, Italian Government Tourist Board, as well the regions of Piemonte and Sardinia, Italian Creativity On Board! was a celebration of many of the things we love about Italy.

For starters, it took place on the Poesia, an Italian cruise ship. Even though the ship was docked for our event, it still felt as if we left the city and entered a more gracious world. MSC Cruises is an Italian-owned company and its fleet, including the Poesia, is built with the latest in eco-technology. The hull is painted with non-toxic polymers that increase fuel economy, wastewater is treated and recycled and energy usage is closely monitored. MSC Cruises was the first company to receive the 6 Golden Pearls Award for environmental care given by Bureau Veritas, an international certification body. MSC also received the Green Planet Award for eco-friendly facilities and was one of the first signatories of the Venice Blue Flag agreement to reduce emissions in the Venice lagoon.

Lest you think all of this must add up to Spartan design, believe me, it doesn’t. The Poesia is sumptuous in design and color. You can take a virtual tour here .

Italian Creativity On Board! began with cocktails, speeches and video presentations highlighting the cultural and tourist offerings of the regions of Piemonte and Sardinia. We later moved to the restaurant for a multi-course meal featuring specialties and wines from both regions.

After lunch we made our way to the Art Deco Theater for musical performances by some of the winners of the IBLA Grand Prize in Italy. The IBLA Foundation ( is based in Manhattan and its mission is to advance the careers of talented musicians. The Foundation holds an annual competition in Ragusa Ibla, Sicily every July. Winners perform in some of the world’s premier venues, such as Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall and Carnegie Hall, the Tokyo Opera City Hall, the Tchaikovsky Bolshoi Hall in Moscow and other prestigious places in Canada, Europe, Russia and the USA. The Foundation is under the direction of Baronessa Zerilli Marimo’, of whom NYU Casa Italiana Zerilli Marimo’ is named.

On this particular afternoon, we enjoyed the talents of pianists Chie Sato Roden, Terri Eder, Adalberto Riva, Oliver Betz, composer David Cieri and tenor/whistler Michael Barimo. I had heard Mr. Barimo before at NYU Casa Italiana’s tribute to the Italian swing era singer Alberto Rabagliati. Not only possessing a beautiful tenor voice, Mr. Barimo has been winning awards for whistling since he was a child. This video link gives you some idea of his talent.

After the performances we were treated to a fashion show by Raffaella Curiel. Ms. Curiel has received many awards, including the Grand Cross from The Italian Republic, which is one of the highest civil awards. The city of Rome awarded her the Bronze Wolf as the official ambassador of Italian Fashion to the world. In 1985 she was appointed Ambassador of Fashion to the most prestigious Italian embassies in the world.

Ms. Curiel’s show did not disappoint. It included several collections, including day and evening wear, each marked with distinct music, lighting and the occasional dry ice. Her collections were vividly colorful and remarkable for their small details and embellishments.

Friday, October 15, 2010

ABC, L’Italiano s’Impara Cosi' or How to Learn Italian in One Hour

Photo by Ivan Seligman.

Everyone should be taught Italian like this. Splashy, colorful maps, poetry, music, a crash course on love and unapologetic impersonations of Italians from different regions telling the same story, each in a distinctly different way. The formidable, demanding and unflappable Professor Margharita, as played by Laura Caparrotti, made a rare appearance at The Cell Theater in NYC on October 5, 2010. A,B,C L’Italiano s’Impara Cosi’, is a one-woman show written and starring Caparrotti. She created Professor Margharita about 10 years ago, mainly for students. It was so well received, she has adapted it to a theater experience.

The Professor-Diva first appears on stage and, not pleased with the level of audience enthusiasm, gives us a loud “A-hem”, leaves the stage and makes her entrance again. Her message is clear and we, her lackluster students, applaud wildly this time. Her smile is approving. The chain of command is clear. We are her captives for the duration of the lesson.

The Professor is dressed in some combination of royalty-gypsy-showgirl. A long dark blue velvet coat covered with loops of beige ribbon and a gold lame’ turban adorned with 2 long, beaded tassels on either side of her face that swing with every move of her head. You can’t take your eyes off of her.

She begins with a history lesson of the Italian peninsula’s changing empires over the centuries. Using oversized, colorful maps, she brings home the point that after 150 years, unification is more concept than reality.

This is comically illustrated by taking 6 cities, from north to south, and impersonating a citizen from each one as they face various situations. The cities are Bolzano, Milan, Florence, Rome, Naples, and Palermo. The Professor explains why the inhabitants are so different from each other and then embodies each one, through song and storytelling. This culminates in a skit involving each citizen giving eyewitness testimony to the same crime: a drive-by shooting on an Italian street. While the crime isn’t funny, the testimony each witness gives is so heavily influenced by the town in which they live that it’s hilarious. This segment is based upon The Deposition by Tuscan actor and writer Uberto Kovacevich.

When the show was over I didn’t want it to end. Luckily, Caporrotti is working on a second act to teach us even more distinctly Italian elements.

Laura Caparrotti is the Artistic Director of KIT-Kairos Italy Theater in New York City. She is a playwright, journalist, Italian and Theater teacher, lecturer, curator and panelist for the New York State Council on the Arts. After years of professional theater in Italy, she relocated to New York where she has directed and/or performed in venues like The Kitchen, The Fringe Festival, Abrons Arts Center, Bernie West Theatre, Casa Italiana Zerilli Marimo’, Center for Jewish History and Lincoln Center. Off Broadway, she served as Assistant Director in Souls of Naples featuring John Turturro. She is also the worldwide representative for the Italian icon, Antonio De Curtis, better known as Totò.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Podere Pornanino For Tuscan Olive Oil

There’s time to squeeze in another tale from the 2010 Summer Fancy Food Show at NYC’s Jacob Javitz Center. I had the pleasure of meeting Francesco and Lia Lombardi, their daughter and son-in-law, who told me of their family business and the center of their lives: olive oil production at Podere Pornanino in Radda in Chianti.

During the last week of November, workers in the chilly Tuscan air will be leaning on ladders propped against 4,000 olive trees. Picking each olive by hand and tossing them into baskets, they will carry on the centuries-old brucatura method of olive harvesting. The olive trees at Podere Pornanino are of four varieties: Frantoio, Pendolino, Moraiolo and Leccino, which together create the distinctive flavor of Pornanino Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Francesco, Lia and family personally bottle the oil on site.

Originally from Milan, Francesco Lombardi bought Pornanino in 1989 as a tranquil place for him and his wife to retire. They looked forward to nurturing their small number of fruit trees and prolific vegetable garden in the Chianti hills. Set between Radda, Castellina and Vagliagli, they chose a property bordered by two rivers with views that go on forever. All seemed complete and blissfully uneventful. But one day Francesco discovered that his property included an abandoned olive grove of about 500 trees. Intrigued, he brought the orchard back to life and harvested the olives. After a visit to the public olive press, he enjoyed Pornanino’s first Extra Virgin Olive Oil.

This experience inspired Francesco and Lia to launch a new phase in their lives. They planted another 3,500 olive trees and purchased a renovated stone wheel press. They renovated the barn and placed the press inside. At harvest time, the mill slowly crushes the olives, bringing out their fragrance and sweetness. Pornanino is one of only 14 companies in all of Tuscany that still uses a stone mill. The extra-virgin olive oil is extracted from the resulting paste by applying high pressure rather than heat. This heat-free method allows the oil to retain its prized sensory and nutritional characteristics. This process is slower than more modern methods, but the resulting flavor is worth the wait. The enterprise increased and, six years ago, their daughter Francesca and her husband Matteo joined the family at Pornanino.

They have also created a line of bar soaps made with extra virgin olive oil. This lightly fragranced soap lathers well and is a treat for the skin and nose.

In addition to the olive groves and woodlands on the estate, the family restored other farm structures and created beautiful villa apartments for tourist holidays. Every Tuesday morning, Francesco gives a seminar for guests on olive oil.

To learn more, including how to purchase the products and enjoy the apartments, visit

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Communicating Dignity – The Sicilian Marionette Theater Tradition

Swords clang, maidens weep, knights are valorous, villains are loathsome, good conquers evil, dignity triumphs over humiliation. These elements inhabit the world of the Sicilian Marionette Theater and the timeless stories they tell. But really, it was more than entertainment. It was a way to instruct, communicate and transfer wisdom between the generations.

What, exactly, is a marionette? It’s a rod puppet operated from above with wires or strings. The person operating the marionette is called the puppeteer or manipulator. Puppets have been part of human entertainment and instruction for millennia. They’ve been unearthed in Egyptian tombs dating back to 2000 B.C. and were a favorite of the ancient Greeks. While Sicily and Southern Italy were part of Magna Grecia (Greater Greece) for centuries, the Greeks brought the art of puppetry to their shores. The works of Archimedes, Aristotle and Plato referred to puppets, and they were used to present the tales of The Iliad and The Odyssey.

In medieval times the heroic deeds of Emperor Charlemagne (Carlo Magno in Italian) and his nephew, Roland, along with the Paladins of France, greatly influenced the Sicilian puppet theater tradition (l'Opera dei Pupi). Two epic poems, The Song of Roland and Orlando Furioso, were designed for oral performance in the canta storia style of sung history. For half a century these stories were told in daily episodes, often taking a year and a half to complete. Rome’s influence on puppetry was so great that Italy is considered the early home of the marionette. The Christian Church used them to present morality plays and in so doing, the tradition flourished even further across the map. Without mandatory education, illiteracy prevented most people from learning history, literature, music and art. But through the stories performed at l’Opera dei Pupi, the peasantry learned of their country’s turbulent history and were inspired by tales of high ideals of chivalry, patriotism, honor, self-reliance and loyalty.

One of the life sized marionettes on display at the Westchester Italian Cultural Center Tuckahoe, NY.

In the 1800’s the Manteo’s, a Sicilian family, put its mark on this tradition by establishing the Papa Manteo Sicilian Marionette Theater in Catania. This theater became a vital part of daily lives of everyday people. In 1918, after emigrating first to Argentina and then to America, they opened a theater in Manhattan's Little Italy and entertained generations of Italians through superb storytelling.

Producer, writer, director and historian Tony De Nonno became so intrigued that he immersed himself in the lives of the Manteo family and their mission to continue the Sicilian marionette tradition. In 1982, De Nonno created the film, It's One Family -Knock On Wood, which chronicles the creativity, burdens and joys of several generations of Manteos in their fierce dedication to their craft. According to De Nonno, “The self image of many Sicilian males were shaped by these stories.”

De Nonno screened his film along with an informative presentation of the Sicilian marionette tradition on September 18, 2010 at the Westchester Italian Cultural Center in Tuckahoe, New York. He entertained the children and adults in the audience with his knowledge and manipulation of a medium sized marionette of Roland. He recounted many of the stories he learned from the Manteo’s, including how important these tales became to some audience members. One night in Little Italy, when a certain episode finished with Roland bound in a dungeon, the Manteo’s were awakened in the middle of the night by frantic knocking on their front door. A woman had become so engrossed in the story she was unable to sleep; she tossed and turned at the thought of Roland tied up in the dungeon. She begged the Manteo’s to untie Roland so that she could get some rest. They thoughtfully obliged.

Another story involved a marionette who so convincingly portrayed a cruel Saracen that a man entered the theater and shot it in the chest. The Manteo’s decided to keep the bullet hole as a memory and rather than close it, covered it with a shield. The marionette continued to perform.

On display at the Westchester Italian Cultural Center in Tuckahoe.

The Manteo’s dedication to their craft ran deep in their blood. The talent, skills and versatility necessary to sustain the Theater was passed from generation to generation. Every performance required dexterity, acting, singing, piano playing and the art of improvisation. Behind every performance were countless hours of hand crafting each marionette in the wood shop, designing and painting the faces and body, designing and hand making each costume. But that's not all; the sets were individually designed and constructed down to the curtains and pulleys. And after each performance repairs were usually required. One of the Manteo sons remarks in De Nonno’s film that they presented the Marionette Theater every night for 12 years. No nights off. Ever. The son reflected, “It's a sacrifice that you make for your family.” It makes me think that the Manteo’s were just as heroic and dignified as the stories they told.

In the 1990’s, the Manteo’s stopped presenting their tales. However, in 2010, twenty-five of their marionettes, including some created 150 years ago in Catania, were acquired by the Italian American Museum on Grand and Mulberry Streets in New York City. This is especially meaningful as this display is close to the site of the original Manteo Marionette Theater.

And what of this rich tradition today? Sicily, as well as other parts of Europe, is turning its attention to preserving this legacy. UNESCO designated the Sicilian Marionette Theater as part of humanity's “oral and intangible heritage”. The organization created a grant to build puppet theaters and puppetry schools in Catania and Palermo.

After DeNonno's presentation, we were invited downstairs to view several life-sized marionettes from the Manteo collection currently on display at the Westchester Cultural Center. This presentation was part of an ongoing celebration of all things Sicilian at the Center. Events include a photographic exhibit, food and wine specialties and the music of the region. To learn more about how you can enjoy these events, visit To learn more about Tony De Nonno, visit

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Ghiott – An Enduring Tuscan Tradition

Today’s tale from NYC’s Summer Fancy Food Show brings us to the Ghiott Company. Florentine confectioners with a rich history, their creations still accompany coffee, vin santo and conversation throughout Italy and beyond. You can find them in the evocative Chianti region of Tuscany, very near the famous Passignano Abbey. Located on a branch of the road known locally as the Strada Senese del Sambuco, it was the Florentines’ preferred way to Siena until at least 1200, after which better routes were found.

In 1953 in Florence, Italy, Enzo Salaorni was continuing the proud tradition of his ancestors – Tuscan confectioners. This gave him access to recipes dating back to the Renaissance. Salaorni took one of the cantuccini recipes, changed it a bit, and created Ghiottini. (Cantuccini are what we think of as biscotti, but in Italy, all cookies are biscotti. Cantuccini are the oblong, twice baked creations that are perfect for dunking). This almond-based delicacy became so popular that today it is the Company’s most famous product.

Ghiottini are BVQI certified, which is an international standard ensuring both the quantity and quality of ingredients that are both traceable and typical of the region without artificial coloring or preservatives. In this case, it means whole, skinned, Mediterranean almonds, ‘A’ class egg yokes and Millefiori honey.

Ghiott’s other beloved products include Brutti e Buoni (the ultimate Tuscan cookie, crunchy with a soft, sweet center), Amaretti (soft cookies made with stone- ground rice flour, sweet and bitter almonds, sugar and whipped egg whites), Panforte Morbido (soft, round cake filled with candied fruit and almonds) and Ricciarelli (soft, oval pastry with almond paste that are considered good luck. They also make a chocolate version).

Although the Company has modernized its production technology to keep up with international demand, the Salaorni family retains its focus on manual processing methods and simple, high quality ingredients.

To learn more, visit

Caterina Ogar Dance Company – New Italians in America Interpret Life Into Movement

Movement enters sound on a dimly lit stage and comes out again on the other side. Waves of bodies and fabric turn and tell stories; kink, twist and unravel. Ancient voices, modern dilemmas and timeless themes run through the choreography of the Caterina Ogar Dance Company. To watch it is to be transported. Caterina Rago, along with fellow Artistic Director Antonio Fini, debuted the Dance Company at the Manhattan Movement and Art Center on July 11&12, 2010.

Bright movement on a darkened stage characterizes When the Sun Rises, choreographed by Rago. Lights glowed through parasols of colored paper as we voyeuristically watched 5 priestesses dance sacred morning rituals to their Goddesses. The dance was at once sacred, playful and acrobatic. The Far Eastern influences of the piece intensified the feeling of peeking into a dark temple at sunrise.

Eternal Return, also a Rago piece, was a strong statement of deeply held beliefs interwoven with her very personal life experience. A long strip of fabric metaphorically became an umbilical cord, time itself or a path enabling the fantasy of walking through the clouds. The three dancers, Antonio Pio Fini, Kerville Cosmos Jack and Ashley Rose Harvey took the journey from womb to death to rebirth, and we took it with them. The opening and closing sequences were without music, causing every squeak and slide of skin on the floor or fabric to intensify. Not a sound came from the sold-out audience as we listened to the dancers breathe as one person. When the music arose, it allowed a bit of relief from the tension that had been building. At the very end of the dance, the silence returned, and the cycle was complete.

“The Earth is like a beautiful woman changing her dress; the change is not always smooth while what is old is washed away." This statement by Fini inspired Rago to create the piece Red Earth encompassing mermaids, fish and human beings interacting with the Earth. A frozen moment in the choreography revealed a perfectly balanced Balinese altar; a sacred sculpture of dancers and red fabric that seemed to lift out of itself and become, just for a defining moment, something otherworldly and transcendent.

Violinist Susan Aquila joined the dancers in this piece, adding depth of movement and sound. At one point, Fini lifted her by her legs, turned her upside down and spun in a circle, as she continued to play the violin. Amazingly, her bow never left the strings as her body spun and moved up and down in waves.

Many of the show’s pieces were set to the music of Italian composer and musician Roberto Cacciapaglia. While living in Italy, Rago contacted him when she first heard his haunting melodies. Her dream is to take her dance company to Italy and collaborate with Cacciapaglia.

Members of the company come from all over the world: Australia, Israel, France, St. Vincent and Grenadines, New York, Pennsylvania as well as Italy. The artistic force of the company, however, remains an Italian, if not Calabrian, vision. “We can determine something from the way every person moves" said Rago, "even a simple gesture. Sometimes during rehearsals someone will tell me ‘this gesture is very Italian!’ I’ve always been told that my way of dancing and communicating is very passionate and I think this comes from the fact that I’m Mediterranean, from Calabria. During rehearsals I often say to the dancers ‘Try to be italian!’ In those moments I’m looking for something proud and majestic or at other times more passionate or effortless. I can proudly say being Italian influences my dancing and the way I think and behave.”

Just 25 years old and in New York City by way of San Lucido, Calabria and Rome, Rago is a member of the Martha Graham Dance Company. It was there that she met 27 year old Fini, also from Calabria, and their collaboration on and off the stage further fueled her choreography and desire to create a dance company. The name Ogar is Rago spelled backwards, a suggestion her father made to her when she was a child. “He always believed in me and told me I should use Caterina Ogar as my artistic name. The more I thought about it, the more I liked it, so I always knew I would use this name.” She began choreographing for the stage when she was 15 and trained at the prestigious Accademia Nazionale di Danza in Rome.

“I’m a visual person and I try to give those images life,” says Rago. “As a dancer I need to dance because it’s my life, it’s everything for me. To choreograph means to give life to my imagination. As I love to dance, I must choreograph; I need to. There is nothing that I can do about it.” Although the art of choreography requires being a skilled dancer and teacher, it also demands more. Rago explains that “something extra” this way, “First, you need a crazy mind! Then, motivation and determination.”

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Carlo Aonzo - Bridging the Musical Past Into the Future

Carolyn: Carlo Aonzo is one of the finest classical mandolinists in the world. From his home in Savona, Italy, Carlo continues to perfect his mastery of the Italian classical mandolin. Over the years, he has received numerous awards for his musical ability, including winning the 27th annual Walnut Valley Mandolin Contest in Winfield, Kansas and the Vivaldi Prize at the 6th Annual Vittorio Pitzianti National Mandolin Competition in Venice.

He created and directed the winter Festival Internazionale di Mandolino in Varazze, Italy and in 2006 he founded the International Academy of Italian Mandolin. He directs the Orchestra a Pizzico Ligure and has collaborated with the La Scala Philharmonic in Milan.

His passion for this music extends to the research, preservation and dissemination of its history, and he is a contributor to The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.

Carlo has recorded numerous CDs over the years and was featured in the book and CD, Mandolin 2000. He also recorded an in-studio video concert of solo mandolin repertoire for Mel Bay, called Carlo Aonzo: Classical Mandolin Virtuoso.

Carolyn: I understand that the person who first taught you mandolin was your father, right?

Carlo: That’s right. My father is the ….from the old and fashionable past of Italian string virtuoso and brought all this culture to me in the family.

Carolyn: So you were brought up surrounded by mandolin music?

Carlo: Yes of course. My father used to play every night with friends as soon as he could get his mandolin. Actually he’s still doing that today.

Carolyn: what kind of a mandolin does he play?

Carlo: Well, the only kind of mandolin that we knew, the Italian classical mandolin.

Carolyn: OK, so the bowl back?

Carlo: Right. The true mandolin.

Carolyn: The true mandolin, OK. Now we know what you think. (Laughter) Ok. So when you started I suppose it was the influence of your family and hearing this in your home that first drew you to the mandolin, but then what keeps drawing you, even now?

Carlo: This instrument is part of our genetics. Because almost everybody was playing this instrument especially at the end of the 1800’s and on. When also our queen, the first queen of Italy, Queen Margarita, was herself a mandolin player. So of course this tradition, this history is still inside of us and it is what draws me to keep playing the mandolin discovering its history.

Carolyn: Carlo studied at Padova’s Cesare Pollini Conservatory and was taught by the virtuoso Ugo Orlandi. Orlandi not only taught Carlo the music of the mandolin, but also inspired a continuing fascination with its history.

Carlo: Ugo Orlandi, for sure the best scientist of the mandolin in the world. By myself I did a lot of research, especially on the paintings, studying the use, trying to find all the sources on paintings about the mandolin.

It was very interesting research and I do the presentation often about it. People like it very much because it is an instrument that everybody knows but nobody knows really because they know only as the media show to us. So we have an idea of the Italian mandolin as this instrument for Neapolitan songs and that is only a little part of the identity of the instrument.

For example, the great Niccolo’ Paganini is very well known as a violin player, he was the best virtuoso of the history of the violin. But he started to play on the mandolin. His father taught to him the mandolin before any other instrument.

So for example this is something that I like to tell. It is something that nobody knows. Well, actually I invented a little joke about this. We mandolin players say that he first learned the mandolin and as soon as he realized that the mandolin was too difficult, he passed it to play the violin and became a great virtuoso on the violin.

Actually, our instrument has this characteristic. That is the first approach is pretty easy and it is very useful instrument to have ensemble music. So we have a lot of amateur that like to hear the mandolin and play together with other people in mandolin orchestras.

But to play it as a concert player is really hard. You have to work a lot before you can get a good result.

Carolyn: Carlo recorded Paganini’s work on the CD entitled Paganini: The Complete Works For Mandolin and French Guitar. This CD marks the first time that Paganini’s mandolin music was recorded on period instruments, including the mandolino Genovese, dating back to the second half of the 18th century, which Paganini himself used. The pieces presented on this CD are taken from the only manuscripts for this instrument available today.

Carolyn: what’s different about the mandolino Genovese?

Carlo: The difference is mainly in the tuning. The mandolino Genovese has 6 double strings and the tune is like the guitar but one octave higher. They call it also guitarino because it was like a little guitar, with the same tuning.

Carolyn: For the past 10 years Carlo has presented a mandolin workshop in Manhattan. This highly anticipated workshop takes place over a long weekend and is attended by students throughout the United States and Canada. Together, they work on pieces by classical and contemporary composers, culminating in a public recital.

Carolyn: Sitting in a room with about 25 mandolin players; you close your eyes and you’re transported to another century, completely. It’s a beautiful effect. It has a beautiful resonance not only in the ear but also in the soul. There’s something about the mandolin that connects with almost everyone.

Carlo: That’s true. Because this sound, this invention of the tremolo is something that goes directly to your heart.

Carolyn: Every August Carlo organizes a workshop in Europe called the International Italian Mandolin Academy. This year, 2010, the workshop will be in Savona, Italy from the 22nd – 29th. Students of all levels are invited to this event and the musical offerings will be varied and challenging.

Carlo: The Accademia will be much focused on the Italian classical mandolin but we will have also examples of jazz mandolin by Don Stiernberg from Chicago and some blues mandolin from Richard DelGrosso from Houston and some South American mandolin by Dudu Maia. And we will have also a special course for orchestral directors made by Stefano Squarsina that is a professional conductor, great musician that will show us all the tricks to conduct a mandolin orchestra.

The city is waiting for that event very much because we will have evening concerts and always it’s a very intense week. What is so remarkable is that we have special courses for newbie, for people that never played the mandolin before, and also for kids. So it’s a very complex but easy week. It can be intended as a vacation with the mandolin in Italy also.

Carolyn: Carlo tours extensively throughout Europe and North America and directs a professional, international mandolin orchestra. He also plays with Mandolin Cocktail, a project that features not only classical pieces but South American, North American swing, bluegrass, blues, Italian folk music and new compositions. But no matter what type of music he’s playing, Carlo only plays one type of mandolin.

Carlo: So this is to tell you that I am around a lot during the year.

Carolyn: so when you’re playing these more modern pieces are you playing them on your bowl backed mandolin?

Carlo: I play only my Pandini mandolin. It’s like the Cannone for Paganini.

Carolyn: (Laughter) OK. So I won’t be seeing you with a flat back mandolin anytime soon.

Carlo: There are a lot of really good instruments but the only point is that I play Italian classical mandolin so it is good to bring our culture around and show that we have a big past and a very nice present and also a big future that is waiting for us. That is the instrument that brought the Italian culture all around the world so it’s right to honor it.

Carolyn: To learn more about Carlo, visit

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Calabrian Figs That Make Your Mouth Water

Imagine orchards of fig trees with their wide, green leaves fluttering in the breezes off the Tyrrhenian Sea. Their branches are heavy with ripe, round figs as you reach up to pick one on a late summer day. As you bite into this juicy, delicious fruit, you know you have to take home as many as you can carry. Some you will bake in the oven, maybe stuff with walnuts or almonds or fill with limoncello. You’ll enjoy these figs all year, if you can keep yourself from eating them all at once.

Can this beautiful vision really be true? It’s happening now, in the small village of Amantea, not far from Cosenza in the region of Calabria, Italy. Fichi Marano is a company started in 1930 and currently run by the Marano Brothers (Fratelli Marano). The brothers learned the business from their father, who taught them the techniques and ancient recipes handed down through generations from the time of Magna Grecia (when the Greeks settled Southern Italy).

It is believed that figs were brought to Calabria by travelers from the Middle East and thrived in their new climate. The hills of Cosenza are covered with Dottato figs, a variety that ripens to rich flavor in the Calabrian heat. The figs are picked green from the trees and sun dried during the day on bamboo racks called cannizzi. Every night they’re brought into a closed, dark space and this process continues until the figs reach perfection.

Fichi Marano creates wonderful products, some of which I was lucky enough to sample at the Summer Fancy Food Show in NYC. First, they enticed me with Bocconcini della Nonna. These figs are dried but moist, stuffed with walnuts and flavored with sugar and cinnamon. Then there was the Bocconcini - moist, dried figs stuffed with almonds. Next I tried Paciocchi, which are figs covered with melted chocolate or white chocolate and filled with almonds. They told me that these delicacies will stay fresh for a year without refrigeration. A year? They wouldn’t last 10 minutes in my kitchen before I found a way to eat them all!

They also offer figs flavored with liqueurs like rum, grappa or limoncello, fruits like orange or lemon and even a spicy variety with peperoncino. They also create a variety of chocolate candy and beautiful, small gift baskets filled with their tasty treats. To learn more about this company and order its products, visit

Friday, July 9, 2010

Ambasciata dei Sapori: Sicily’s Flavorful Export

Imagine Sicily with an Embassy of Flavors, populated by tasteful Ambassadors bringing the best of its artisanal food and wine to the rest of Italy and the world. No need to imagine; it’s real. Ambasciata dei Sapori (Embassy of Taste) is a new, private initiative out of Sicily that promotes small and medium- sized food and wine producers through presentations, tasting events and theme dinners. I caught up with these culinary ambassadors at a press conference at the Summer Fancy Food Show in NYC and learned some very interesting things.

For starters, Ambasciata dei Sapori works with only artisanal producers, not industrial sized firms. Currently representing 22 producers, the Ambasciata allows them to join forces, strategize and reach markets that they would never have the capital, time, manpower or experience to reach alone. It does not charge the producers a membership fee, nor does it demand their exclusivity. So far, Ambasciata dei Sapori has taken their message to Milan, Berlin and now Manhattan.

The founders of Ambasciata are fellow Sicilians, Marco Scapagnini and Livio Mandara’. They chose to bring samples of 10 of their producers to the Fancy Food Show. According to Mr. Scapagnini, it would have been logistically impossible to bring samples from all 22 producers. As it was, US Customs kept his phone ringing almost incessesantly.

Some of the Ambasciata producers buy their wheat from a cooperative that manages acreage confiscated from the Mafia just outside the town of Corleone. A few years ago, a local priest petitioned the Italian Parliament to allow these once-criminal assets to serve the common good.

I’ve listed the products on hand at the press conference, but not all were available for sampling:

Pasticceria Bonomo: Chocolate from Modica. This company makes its chocolate as the Aztecs did in the New World: stone ground with raw sugar and flavored with cinnamon and other spices. Its texture is grainy and the chocolate taste is strong. It’s wonderful.

Antica Cioccolateria Acese: Chocolate from Acireale. Creamy, melt in your mouth chocolate filled with Sicilian flavors like hazelnuts, pistachio, almonds, figs, coffee or orange rind. A pleasure to eat.

Iblealat: Luscious cheese from Ragusa, paired with jams and honey.

Delight from Corleone: Pasta and pecorino cheese from that infamous town.

Pevin: Wine, Vino Cerasuolo di Vittoria, D.O.C.G. This label stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita and is a strict quality assurance standard indicating that the product was produced within a specified geographical region using defined methods. Production of Vino Cerasuolo di Vittoria began about 4 centuries ago from the Nero d’Avola (also known as Calabrese) and Frappato grapes.

Marchetta: Wine, Malvasia delle Lipari, D.O.C. This label stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata and is also a quality assurance label indicating that the product was produced within a specified geographical region using defined methods. Malvasia delle Lipari is an ancient wine produced on the Aeolian Island of Lipari.

Marisco: Fruit jams and jellies. I sampled the Confettura di Mela, made with apples and quince. When paired with the Iblealat cheese I could have eaten it all day. Marisco is also a lovely agriturismo outside of Palermo.

L’Oro di Laura: Artichokes, olives and mushrooms hand-picked and cut by local women. The vegetables are cultivated and harvested from Parco delle Madonie, Madonie Natural Reservation Park, an environmentally protected area.

Cinque Colli: Extra virgin olive oil Monti Iblei DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta or Protected Designation of Origin). The olives for this oil are harvested by hand from the area around Catania, Ragusa and Siracusa.

Azienda Agricola Muscara’: Extra virgin olive oil produced in the hills of Piazza Armerina from the Muscara’ family farm.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

TuttoCalabria: Can You Take the Heat?

This is another tale from the Summer Fancy Food Show in NYC, June 2010. While strolling through Italian Pavilion I found myself in the Calabrian section. One reason I was drawn there is that I am part Calabrian. The fact that there were life-sized images of the stunning Bronzi di Riace at the entrance of the section also didn’t hurt. For heaven’s sake, I’m only human.

The famous Bronzi di Riace graced the entrance to the Calabrian section.

So I spent some time with Paolo Giovanni Celli at the TuttoCalabria booth, sampling food and learning about the company. It is based in Marcellinara, not far from Catanzaro. Founded by Antonio Celli in 1970, TuttoCalabria was one of the very first Calabrian food companies to produce and commercialize its region’s food products. Antonio Celli was a farmer who understood that the tantalizing tastes of the food he grew were made possible by the unique climate and soil of his region of Calabria. He knew that outsiders would never enjoy these flavors without visiting Marcellinara. So Antonio and his wife, Adele, began selling their products in little glass jars and today, TuttoCalabria can be found in Europe, America, Japan and Australia.

The tagline of the TuttoCalabria Company is Piccanti Per Passione or Spices For Passion (yeah, they get right to the point). After sampling some of their creations I can say that yes, the spices get the blood circulating. One wonderful concoction is Nduja, a spread made from salami, pancetta, vegetables and peperoncino. It was served as an antipasto on thinly sliced toast, but can also be mixed with pasta and extra virgin olive oil. It’s tasty, spicy and a treat for the mouth.

I couldn’t resist the Hot Pepper Sauce (Mousse di Peperoncino). It’s basically hot and sweet peppers in a jar whipped to a smooth consistency. Depending upon your spice tolerance, it’s a wonderful addition to many things, from sandwiches to pizza to sauces to marinades to dressings. If you’re like me, you might add it alone to some crusty Italian bread and enjoy the fireworks.

TuttoCalabria loves to stuff its hot peppers, too. They use fresh Quartirolo cheese or Parmigiano Reggiano and anchovies and tuna. Many products have wonderful names like “Esplosiva” and “Diavola”, but not everything they make is spicy. But all of their products, whether artichokes, mushrooms, olives or tomatoes, bring the sun, soil, air and water of Calabria to your palate.

To order some TuttoCalabria for yourself, go to

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Parampa’mpoli: The Liquore You Set On Fire

This is the first of several tales from the Summer Fancy Food Show at the Jacob Javits Center in New York City in June, 2010. As you might expect, I spent all of my time in the Italian Pavilion. As I was walking down an aisle, I saw a woman stirring a small amount of dark liquid in a pot that was heating on a portable 2-burner stove. Then she lit the liquid on fire with a lighter and poured it into small white and purple cups, and served. I had to stop and see what she was doing.

She was Maddalena Giordano, from the family that owns the Rifugio Crucolo Company. She was demonstrating one of their unique products: Parampa’mpoli. It was invented in the 1950's by Giordano Purin sitting in front of a fireplace and combining coffee, grappa, sugar, honey and other flavors. When the flame was added, Rifugio Crucolo’s signature drink was born. I tried it (of course!) and loved it. Although the drink was literally flaming, it cooled quickly in the cup and I was able to enjoy it almost immediately. It’s both relaxing and energizing, and I took a bottle home.

Here’s how you make it: shake the bottle well and pour the desired amount in a small pot. Heat on a high flame and as soon as the first boiling bubbles appear, set fire to it with a match or lighter and pour it into cups as the flame burns. (Make sure that the cups can withstand the heat.) Sit back and enjoy.

The Rifugio Crucolo Company has an interesting history. Located in Val Campelle, it’s just outside of Valsugana, between Venice and Trento. At the start of the 19th century, the Purin family managed a small inn called Crucolo, which in time became known as Rifugio Crucolo (Mountaintop Refuge). Its guests were shepherds and farmers who passed by while bringing their flocks and herds from Valsugana to the high pastures. At Crucolo they enjoyed a good meal, wine, conversation and rest. During World War I, Crucolo was turned into a military outpost, burned down and rebuilt.

Through the years it has become a favorite spot to enjoy traditional meals and atmosphere. It’s known for its cellars, which in addition to Parampa’mpoli, hold wines, grappas, cheese, salami and cured meats. The Rifugio Crucolo Company ensures the quality of its food by controlling every aspect of its production, from raising to butchering to processing. The results are authentic products, locally produced in Valsugana and whose every ingredient can be traced to its origin.

To order some Parampa’mpoli for yourself, get a few Crucolo recipes and learn more about the company, visit

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Salina Film Festival: An Aeolian Treasure


The Aeolian Island of Salina, close to Sicily, is the setting for an intriguing event: SalinaDocFest, Immagini, Suoni e Realta’ del Mediterraneo (Images, Dreams and Realty of the Mediterranean). Now in its fourth year, SalinaDocFest presents the best in narrative documentary filmmaking on the beautiful island of Salina.

The Festival’s theme in 2010 is Il Mio Paese: L’identita’ (My Country: The Identity), the concept of identity in all its forms: male and female, private and public, individual and political. The Festival will begin with an international contest of narrative documentaries whose subjects are connected to the countries and people of the Mediterranean Sea and contemporary social issues.

The entire island joins in the Festival, with different small towns hosting various events. Click here for an interactive map of Salina, complete with photos of the towns and locations of hotels and B&Bs.

Click here for a description of the accommodations, contact information and websites. More information can be found at SalinaIsolaVerde.

SalinaDocFest runs from September 12-19, 2010. To learn more about the Festival, go to

Giovanna Taviani

The Art Director and creative force behind the Festival is Giovanna Taviani, a talented documentary filmmaker in her own right. In 2004, her film I Nostri 30 Anni: Generazioni A Confronto, debuted at the Torino Film Festival. In 2006 her second documentary, Ritorni, appeared at the Rome Film Festival and won the Special Jury Prize at the Potenza Film Festival.

A student of cinema and literature, she has written various works on the subject published by the University of Calabria and G.B. Palumbo Editore. Since 1997 she has been the editor of Allegoria magazine and a contributor to Cinecritica and Eidos.

Though born in Rome, Giovanna describes herself as a “Sicilian by heart”. The island of Salina has long been one of her favorite destinations. Like so many places, Salina’s economy is tied with tourism, which surges during the summer months and drops off drastically in the fall. “This is a shame, because September and continuing into the fall are so beautiful on the island. It’s our harvest season and shouldn’t be missed.” This sentiment was echoed by her long time friend, Alberto Oliviero, who is the President of SalinaIsolaVerde, a tourism association focusing on the cultural and natural beauty of the island. Oliviero encouraged Giovanna to create a cultural event that would bring tourists to the island on the off-season. And so SalinaDocFest was born.

I had the pleasure of meeting Giovanna Taviani recently while she was in the US. She is intelligent and warm with a distinct point of view. For those who may not know, Giovanna Taviani is the daughter and niece of the enormously successful Italian directors and screenwriters, Paolo & Vittorio Taviani, known among their devoted fans as I Fratelli Taviani (The Taviani Brothers). Their narrative films tell stories wrapped in fable-like elements where the laws of Nature don’t always apply.

Giovanna, in contrast, is building her career with documentaries, specifically, narrative documentaries. This type of film blends both genres; real people, not actors, tell a true story while archival footage, reminiscence and perhaps clips of past films are added to bring depth to the story. When I asked her why she chose this type of filmmaking she explained, “The more personal reason is that I needed to create my own distinct style, and not just copy that of the Taviani Brothers. I had to find my own space within the world of filmmaking. But at the same time, I am my father’s daughter and I love to tell stories. So by blending the realistic style of documentaries with story-telling elements of narrative films, I present stories with my personal point of view, my own voice.

The other reason is I believe that as human beings, we really need return to reality. We are saturated with false stories and what we call Reality TV is not reality at all. It is a world of controlled images and events pretending to be reality. Real stories are not being told. With documentaries, we can get inside what is really happening.” Like the American film The Truman Show, Giovanna says we are living in a constructed environment and we don’t even know it. She believes in the power of the narrative documentary to break through our collective fantasy into reality.

Giovanna’s point of view is strong and clear and she doesn’t shrink from controversial topics. Her current focus is Italy’s immigration policies, which she finds regrettable and wrong-headed. She can’t help but marvel at the irony of the issue: the Italians who immigrated to America were looked down upon and had to struggle for every aspect of a decent life. And now Italy’s strict policies treat those from other countries with the same suspicion and marginalization. “When we harshly repel immigrants in the Mediterranean Sea, we forget both our past as emigrants and our present as a country of emigrants, where the young are forced to leave their land looking for a job and to escape from their dreadful and uneasy situation…Sicilians, as well as other Italians, were created from the blending together of ethnic groups from different countries. We cannot forget this.”

Cinematic Inspiration Comes Full Circle

Just as the Taviani Brothers influenced Giovanna’s love of film, Giovanna’s techniques and ideas have now inspired them. Because of her passion for the narrative documentary, the Taviani Brothers are making plans to film their first narrative documentary. Their chosen subject is an Italian prison where the inmates perform productions of Shakespeare. The Taviani Brothers give Giovanna full credit for their newfound fascination with the genre, but stopped short at allowing her to be involved in their filmmaking process. “I told them that I would love to help them with this project, but they said, ‘No, we’ll do it ourselves.’ So I have to wait and see what they will create.”