Friday, December 18, 2009

Sacred Art of Fire Dancing –From Calabria to New York

Carolyn: Fire and dance have been combined to enhance the sacred for millennia. From Greece to Bulgaria, from Native American to Maori tribes in New Zealand, fire and dance have spun together to capture the imagination and raise the consciousness of the dancers and viewers alike. Over time, this sacred art entered the realm of performance, but the raw power and grace of the human body dancing amid circles and arcs of flame continues its hypnotic effect.

One man who brings the sacred meaning of fire dancing into the world of performance is Antonio Fini. Antonio is a professional dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company and the Whitney Hunter Dance Company, both in NYC. In 2005 he won the Olympic dance game in Milan for his choreography. He has danced for Teatro Massimo di Palermo, Campagnia dei Giovani Carcano and Talenti in Scena. He danced and choreographed for Ethno Show at Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan, and Diego e Isabella at the Siris Festival. One of his passions is fire dancing, which he explores as a member of the Italian performance troupe, I Giulliari di Piazza.

Antonio was born and raised in the little town of Villa Piana Lido, on the Ionian Sea north of Cosenza, in Calabria, Italy. Antonio learned about playing with fire when he was 16 years old from his sister, Grazia, who returned to Calabria from Naples where she was attending University. Grazia is a fire breather.

Antonio: She come back in Calabria and she was playing with the fire And we were in the beach at night and she was also, like, blowing the fire; it was really amazing. I don’t even remember the first time that I tried with the fire. But what I remember, I remember when she was blowing the fire and we were in the beach and many people were there. She didn’t want actually to play, other people were kind of playing with the fire, and this guy was blowing the fire. So at one point he heard that my sister know how to do it, so he was like, oh, let’s see, you know? Really because she was a girl, they were like, oh, what she can do? So when she starts to playing, when she starts blowing the fire everybody went nuts because she was not just blowing the fire but she was blowing the fire with the dragon.

Carolyn: To blow fire with the dragon means breathing fire in such a way that the flames begin very close to the outside of the breather’s mouth, closer than is considered safe by many.

Antonio: Also the way that she was moving, she was like going back and she was blowing out and it was just amazing.

Carolyn: She must have been magnificent.

Antonio: Yeah. Beautiful.

Carolyn: It turned out that Antonio also had a natural affinity for the fire.

Antonio: She teach me a little bit without fire and it was funny because I learned really fast. She was upset about it. She was like, Oh this is too hard, maybe start with this, and after I was doing that and even more. So, I learned really fast how to do, how to play with the bolas.

Carolyn: Bolas is a Spanish word used to describe a certain type of fire dancing equipment: 2 small metal dishes at the end of chains held in each hand, that the dancer swings and twirls in performance. Each dish usually contains Kevlar blended wicking material that is easily ignited.

Antonio: It’s an experience. I didn't have enough time to practice that with my sister, so and actually it’s hard to do it in New York for many reasons. We had the opportunity to do the fire in theater, but blowing the fire from the mouth, that’s another story. So, I had the experience in Calabria it was just me And my sister, she was coaching me how to do it, how to be safe and everything, so it was our experience. I never performed that.

Carolyn: Rather than fire breathing, Antonio developed his skill as a fire dancer. One night in a park in Milano, he and Graceila met another woman who would further challenge Antonio’s abilities.

Antonio: We were just playing, dancing. So she start to show me some new stuff and I get some of that, and after she’s like, can you play in your back? I was like, what do you mean? And she’s like can you do all this movement but having your hands in your back? So and I was like well, I thought about doing that but I never tried.

Carolyn: it sounded dangerous!

Antonio: Well, without the fire I started to try And try and in the end of the night, I was doing it. And so she didn't know how to do it, my sister, either but at the end we came out with something. And so that makes my fire dancer even more particular, I think. I can go in this really hard combination. But at the same time I don’t do that often on stage even because it takes a lot of my attention on doing that and I think it’s just nice if I can dance thru. So, not have too much attention on what is the movement of it.

Carolyn: Antonio’s relationship with the sacredness of fire is at the core of his dancing.

Antonio: Having this relationship with the fire, it’s so strong, because it’s something dangerous. But at the same time you move with it, there is the music and it’s energy around you, you control this fire in a way. But I think it’s really interesting when you perform in the street, it’s a performance but in the same time it’s you learning this art. It’s really magic. Each time that I was playing in the street it was a performance but at the same time it was just like my time in a way. And I think that’s the magic of it. When we have in Calabria, many times we go on the beach at night and we can light fire and we can just stay there And play And dance, you know. I played a lot also in there with the fire, just for us.

Carolyn: it sounds like it’s a very intimate experience.

Antonio: It is.

Carolyn: As a viewer of the fire dancing, that’s the amazing thing. Watching the shapes that are created by the flames because they linger in the air after they’ve passed a certain point and they’ve already started to make a new shape, but the old shape is still lingering in the air and it is just so breathtaking. And especially when the movements are really fast, there’s no way to know which is the present moment flame and which is the flame past, and they meet in the air so often And it is just magical to watch.

Carolyn: Antonio is a principal dancer in the troupe, I GP, with Alessandra Belloni. In the production, Techno Tarantella, Antonio performs a breathtaking fire dance as Dionysius, the god of ecstasy and wine.

Antonio: I think my fire dance grows a lot with Alessandra because of the music. I dance the fire dance in the song that she wrote for her mother, the Requiem. And before sometimes I was thinking which next movement I was going to do or whatever, but going thru. And the music is telling me where to go, And the movement. Because I think is maybe different from other people playing with the fire that I am trying to dance more.

As you say before, it’s really personal in a way, even if you’re still performing for somebody. It’s magic, it’s powerful, it’s alive. And many people are like, are you not scared, the fire’s so close to your face sometimes, because I really like to do this thing with the fire going in front of me in a circle and I’m going backwards in a cambre, so it makes this illusion that I’m going one way And the fire’s going another way. And when I go all around me really fast, sometimes, you know, the fires touch my skin. But it doesn't burn, it just really slightly going and but it’s always fine.

Carolyn: in those moments do you remember how hot it is? Like do you kind of forget?

Antonio: Actually you can hear the sounds of the fire.

Carolyn: You can hear the flames?

Antonio: Yeah. That’s really intense. And it gives you strength. Even if you play slowly with it, if you go fast, it makes you so strong. And sometimes I think everybody should try.

Carolyn: Well, you make it sound really intriguing, I’m sitting here And I’m thinking, wow, this might be fun!

Antonio: It totally is fun!

Carolyn: if I don’t set my hair on fire! It could be fun.

Antonio: I think you should try first of all without fire.

Carolyn: I think so too.

Antonio: Actually I have a story about that. The mother of a singer, she made this gold bathing suit. It was a little bit puffy on the side of the back so I was worried that maybe some of the material was going in fire. It was the first night, after we practice in theater And I was fine, while I was dancing I think one of the bolas with fire touched my butt. And I start to feel a smell of burning And I was like, Oh my God, I’m on fire, but I keep going And I was trying to looking in my back if everything was fine, because when it touched my skin I know I could feel it that it’s fine.

Carolyn: Although Antonio lives in NYC and Grazia lives in Switzerland now, playing with fire still captures their imagination.

Antonio: So we are thinking about having a fan with fire, closing and opening maybe, it starts closing And opening and it has like moving in the back, they become the wings.

Carolyn: does this thing exist?

Antonio: I’m not sure. I saw once a bellydancer with something but she was just moving, she was not using as a bolas. I think there is. I mean I’m sure somebody tried but what I would like to, because from the bellydance they are really small and I want to create something bigger so that it has…

Carolyn: more of an effect.

Antonio: more fire. And you can move it faster.

Carolyn: No matter how much we talk about Antionio’s fire dancing, it has to be seen to be fully appreciated. To watch a video of Antonio’s performance in Techno Taranetella, go to the Essence of Italy links page and click on Essence of Italy at YouTube. To see photographs of his various performances, you can find them throughout the written transcript of this podcast on our Italian Journal page.

This is Carolyn Masone for Thanks for listening!

Voyage of the Black Madonna - Concert Dedicated to Mother Earth

On December 6, 2009, the laments and celebrations of the Voyage of the Black Madonna rang in St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in NYC. The performance was a showcase of some of the music and dance from the full theatrical production. Evocative music, whirling, colorful costumes and interpretative dance told the story of the poet Virgil and his encounters with different faces of the Black Madonna. Written by Alessandra Belloni and Dario Bollini, the story is based on various legends from Southern Italy. In this version, Virgil is awakened to understand the essential nature of Mother Earth through his experiences with seven Black Madonnas.

The show includes original music by renowned composer, arranger and musician John T. LaBarbera. La Barbera, Belloni and Bollini spent many years researching the origins and celebrations of Black Madonnas around the world, and the music that drives those celebrations. In Voyage of the Black Madonna, the rhythms originate in Italy, Africa, Brazil and the Gypsy musicians of the Basque Regions of France and Spain. During the show La Barbera expertly played various stringed instruments, including mandolin and battante. His versatility and musicianship gave the impression that there was an entire string section, instead of just him. Susan Eberenz‘s flute, piccolo and recorder added just the right amount of brightness and flow to the pieces. Entertaining us on violin was none other than Sebastian, Eberenz and La Barbera’s son who, at 11 years old, is already a performing veteran. As the show contained highlights from the full production, the narration read by Dolores Deluise was essential to the audience’s understanding of the onstage events.

It was Belloni’s clear, strong mezzosoprano voice and incomparable frame drumming that guided the production. Surrounded by her many frame drums, she played the various Black Madonna characters who enlighten Virgil as to the true nature of Mother Earth. Virgil was played by dancer Mark Mindek, whose flowing movements told the story of seeking, learning and finally, comprehension. Mindek, who is normally the stilt dancer for Belloni and La Barbera’s theatrical company, I Giulliari di Piazza, still gave the impression of towering above us all even though his feet were on the ground this time.

Special mention must be given to the costumes. The deep, rich colors of purple, turquoise, reds, yellows and blues added a sumptuous feel to the dark, heavy wood of the church. It was the combination of these flowing colors, expressive movement and soaring music that made it a unique experience.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Francine Segan Shares the Joys of Italian Desserts

Author, lecturer and food historian Francine Segan spoke at 92Y in NYC on Tuesday, December 15, 2009 on the fun and flavors of Italian desserts. Fresh from her most recent Italian trip researching her upcoming book, Segan entertained us with recipes, anecdotes and several desserts that she made for the occasion.

One of the memorable quotes from the evening was something an Italian chef told her about the philosophy behind Italian desserts: “we are always thinking of ways to keep you at the table”. When you think about it, this explains so much about Italian cuisine in general, whether in a restaurant or at your Nonna’s house. So much attention and love put into each ingredient and stir of the pot, all designed to keep you at the table, keep the conversation going, keep the laughter ringing through the house.

Segan presented the history of Italian sweets from the Renaissance to modern times. She included desserts designed to be enjoyed with luscious liquores such as vin santo. She discussed the history of chocolate in Italy while circulating trays of Italian chocolate gathered on her recent trip. She enlightened us about the baking and uses of Panettone and Panforte. She fed us wonderful desserts that she made from these ingredients and sent us home with Panettone and Pandoro di Verona, compliments of the Bauli company.

True to the spirit of the season. Segan discussed St. Nicholas and Santa Claus and how they are so differently perceived in the US and Italy. In the US, Jolly Old St. Nick and Santa Claus are synonymous, while in Italy they are very different. St. Nicholas is a saint whose feast day is December 6. He is most famous for tossing gold coins into the empty shoes of poor people at night. On the other hand, Santa Claus is Babbo Natale, or Father Christmas, a wonderful but distinctly different character. And then of course there is La Bufana, who brings sweets to children on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6.

Learn about Francine’s upcoming talks at

Click here to hear Francine’s Essence of Italy podcast, Italy & Chocolate – An Affair to Remember.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Pizza Napoletana Now Protected by EU’s Traditional Specialty Guaranteed (TSG) Label

Every pizza lover knows that the texture, aroma and taste of Pizza Napoletana are unparalleled. And every pizza lover has bitten into something claiming to be Pizza Napoletana that clearly wasn’t. Neapolitan Pizza is the world’s standard, but many inferior offerings masquerade as the real thing.

Happily, an historic moment in pizza history was reached in November 9, 2009 when the European Union granted its trademark Traditional Specialty Guaranteed (TSG) label to Pizza Napoletana. Now, serving this traditional Neapolitan pizza requires adherence to strict guidelines regarding ingredients, preparation, cooking and presentation.

Naples, Italy celebrated this protection from inferior pizza clones by handing out free pizzas in the Trieste e Trento Piazza. Sergio Miccu', head of the pizzaiolo (pizza-maker) association presented a 'Superpizza TSG' with the quality seal spelled out in basil and tomato strips. Yes, he was excited.

Some of the TSG requirements include a ban on rolling pins or machinery to stretch the dough (hand stretching only), cooking in a wood-fired oven only, round pizza only 35 cm or less, crust that is easily manipulated and using only traditional ingredients.

Italian Agriculture Minister Luca Zaia issued a statement saying "Europe has awarded the work and the tenacity of Neapolitan producers… for a product that too often and too long has been the subject of bad imitations that have nothing to do with the true Pizza Napoletana."

Monday, November 30, 2009

Cristina Fontanelli Shines in Christmas In Italy Concert

Cristina Fontanelli poses with actor Tony Lo Bianco after the concert.

Cristina Fontanelli brought her sixth annual celebration to NYC’s Merkin Concert Hall on Sunday, November 29, 2009. And what a celebration it was! Fontanelli’s operatic soprano soared through a thoughtful selection of Italian-composed arias, Neapolitan folk songs and Christmas classics.

Her opera selections included Musetta’s Waltz from La Boheme and Un Bel Di from Madame Butterfly (both Puccini masterpieces). She was beautifully accompanied on piano by Maestro David Maiullo. He is the Music Director/Accompanist of the Licia Albanese Puccini Foundation and has performed in Carnegie, Avery Fisher and Alice Tully Halls.

She also presented more popular songs, such as Chitarra Romana, Torn’a Surriento and Time To Say Goodbye (Con Te Partiro’). Joining her onstage was acclaimed composer and guitar and mandolin virtuoso John T. LaBarbera. His fluid style and deep understanding of Italian rhythms brought an essential dimension to these arrangements.

To close the show, she brought out the Montfort Academy Choir for Gesu Bambino. Montfort Academy is a small private school in Katonah NY that is close to Fontanelli’s heart for its emphasis on classical studies and moral development.

Fontanelli had a warm, down-to-earth stage persona that kept the audience on her side throughout. Between each selection, she told the story behind the song; why it was special to her and reciting the English lyrics so the non-Italian speakers could appreciate them more fully. She also shared her dream of someday singing with Andrea Bocelli and asked us all to say a Novena for her that it comes true! It was this warm, open style that drew the audience closer to her and to each other.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Christmas in Italy Concert in NYC November 29!

Enjoy the sixth annual "Christmas in Italy" concert of Italy's best-loved folk songs, Neapolitan songs and Christmas classics, featuring award winning recording artist Cristina Fontanelli, Maestro David Maiullo & internationally acclaimed musician and composer John T. LaBarbera. Sunday, Nov. 29 at 3 pm at Merkin Concert Hall, Kaufman Center, 129 W.67th St, NYC. A Holiday event for the whole family!

To learn more, visit

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Peppe Voltarelli - Calabrian Troubadour

On November 11, 2009, a French restaurant played host to Calabrian musicians in NYC.
Le Poisson Rouge was the venue for the concert debut of Calabrian composer, singer, musician, actor and peace activist Peppe Voltarelli. Alone on stage with just his guitar, he kept the audience riveted. His music mixed sounds from the Old World and the New: Calabria’s earthy, peasant heart with modern melodic lines and lyrics.

The bulk of his material that night featured his CD, Distratto Ma Pero' (Distracted But However), and he will continue to tour Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Los Angeles, Toronto and Montreal. He sang Italiani Superstar, Ciao Come Stai and Turismo in Quantita’. Voltarelli’s lyrics often comment on modern life through the eyes of Calabrian immigrant communities throughout Europe and the Americas. With his raspy voice and raconteur storytelling, we couldn’t get enough.

Cutting short his solo material, he introduced his special guest for the evening: Tony Vilar. Vilar was born in Calabria and moved with his family to Buenos Aires. He became a singing sensation in Latin America in the 1960’s and had the number one hit worldwide (except America) with Cuando Caliente el Sol. In America, this song appeared as Love Me With All of Your Heart, sung by everyone from The Lettermen to Vic Damone.

Vilar took the stage dressed in white; his gentle, emotional tenor voice only made more evocative with the years. Along with his signature song, he created an intimate atmosphere with Caruso, favoring a half-whispered chorus rather than the expected crescendo version done by, for example, Andrea Boccelli. Vilar later took up his guitar and teamed with Voltarelli and Marco Calliari (see below) for livelier tunes. The camaraderie and fun these three performers shared was obvious and appreciated by the audience.

The opening act for the evening was Marco Calliari, a Canadian-born Calabrese who blends melodic lines and rhythms from many cultures with modern interpretations. On Wednesday night he drew from tarantella, flamenco, klezmer and rock to create vibrant songs that virtually jumped from the stage. Many of the tunes we heard are from his CD, Mia Dolce Vita. Calliari shared the stage with two exceptional musicians playing accordion and trumpet who, along with Calliari’s guitar, vividly brought that distinctive Southern Italian sound to life.

Peppe Voltarelli’s most recent acting success is the leading role in La Vera Leggenda di Tony Villar (The Real Legend of Tony Villar), which was an official selection at the 2007 TriBeCa Film Festival. Voltarelli is also a founding member of the iconic Italian ‘90s band, Il Parto delle Nuvole Pesanti (The Birth of the Heavy Clouds), which blended rock and Calabrian folk. In addition, he contributed his talents to the theatrical work on the life of Domenico Modugno, the multi-Grammy winner who wrote Volare. Also a published author, his collection of poetry and songs in Calabrian dialect is available in English.

Votarelli’s peace activism is evident in his musical compositions for Roccu u Stortu (Rocco the Crooked), an anti-war story of a Calabrian soldier’s WWI desertion. In 2003, he was part of a concert for peace in the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad, which can be seen in the documentary Sotto il Cielo di Baghdad (Under the Baghdad Sky).

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

KITCAFFE’, Italian Literary Salon, Debuts in Montclair, NJ

On Sunday, November 8, 2009, Kairos Italy Theater (KIT) in Manhattan collaborated with Trumpets Jazz Club in Montclair, New Jersey to debut a literary series in Italian and English: KITCAFFE’. In centuries past, beginning in Paris and then all over Europe, Cafés and Salotti Letterari were meeting points for artists and intellectuals to discuss ideas as well as everyday facts. While the Cafés were open to the public and attended mostly by men, the Salotti Letterari were private events, organized by culturally refined women, often aristocrats. The Salotti brought people of different backgrounds together to exchange opinions and knowledge.

Kairos Italy Theater is now recreating its own Salotto-Caffe’ Letterario series, hosted by Laura Caparrotti and Marta Mondelli. Sunday afternoon was a two-hour event, where we were introduced to two wonderful Italian writers, Leonardo Sciascia and Gesualdo Bufalino, both from Sicily. Excerpts from Sciascia’s Il Giorno Della Civetta (The Day of the Owl) and Bufalino’s Le Menzogne Della Notte (The Lies of the Night) were read to us by our hosts, first in English and then in Italian. Copies of the reading material were provided to us so we could better follow the Italian reading. Since Caparrotti and Mondelli are both professional actors with KIT, the readings were beautifully done and communicated the emotion of the pieces, regardless of the language in which they were read.

Leonardo Sciascia, born in Racalmuto, Sicily and died in 1989, is considered one of Italy’s most important modern writers. His writings include The Dark Wine Sea, Salt on the Wound and Todo Modo. He was also a controversial political commentator within Sicily. The Day of the Owl is a short novel denouncing the Mafia’s powerful hold on a Sicilian town. A man is shot running for a bus in the piazza and the investigating officer finds himself up against a wall of silence.

Gesualdo Bufalino was a modern novelist (1920-1996) who found literary fame after his retirement from teaching in 1976. A recipient of the Campiello Prize for his first novel, Diceria dell’untore (The Plague Sower), he also won the Strega Prize in 1988 for Le Menzogne Della Notte (The Lies of the Night). Lies of the Night is a story of four men accused of sedition and sentenced to die in the pre-Risorgimento Bourbon kindom of Southern Italy. Their only chance to survive is to reveal the identity of the mastermind behind their crime. What ensues is a night of stories both revealing and obscuring the identity and existence of the mastermind.

The evening’s readings were followed by a Q&A and accompanied by wonderful Italian pastries, coffee and wine, compliments of Trumpets Jazz Club.

I have wanted to explore contemporary Italian literature, but didn’t know where to begin. KITCAFFE’ provided the perfect opportunity to sample important works from famous writers. Another KITCAFFE’ is scheduled at Trumpets Jazz Club in Montclair, NJ for Monday evening, December 7, 2009.

To learn more, visit and

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

I Giulliari Di Piazza Celebrates of 30 Years Together

Pictured: John T. La Barbera, Alessandra Belloni, Antonio Fini, Joe Denizon.

On Friday, October 30, 2009, Symphony Space in New York City rang with selections from 30 years of shows performed all over the world by I Giulliari Di Piazza. The show was sponsored by the World Music Institute and was nearly sold out. Founded by Alessandra Belloni and John T. La Barbera, I Giulliari performs the ancient musical folklore of Southern Italy. Dedicated to preserving and performing authentic Southern Italian music, dance and theater dating from the 13th century, the troupe also creates contemporary works based on these rich traditions.

Friday night’s performance was a whirl of drumming, color, stilt dancing, guitars, mandolins, flutes and voices. The troupe performed selections from their many shows throughout the years, including Dance of the Ancient Spider, Voyage of the Black Madonna and Techno Tarantella.

Alessandra Belloni proved once again why she is considered by many to be one of the world’s premier percussionists. Her hand was often just a blur as she played her tambourines and frame drums, usually while simultaneously singing, dancing and directing the action on stage.

John La Barbera, the group’s musical director, played several instruments throughout the performance, including guitar and mandolin. A veteran arranger and composer, one of the evening’s highlights was his own MamboTangoTella, played with a decidedly gypsy edge.

One of the evening’s special guests was percussionist and tenor, Nando Citarella. Citarella is a virtuoso of the tammorriata dance and drumming style. Citarella became one of Belloni’s percussion teachers after meeting on the beach in Calabria many years ago. Citarella had been taught by his aunt when he was 6 years old and has been perfecting the technique ever since. His clear, haunting tenor voice mesmerized the audience.

Gordon Gottlieb was the other special guest, a percussionist with a varied career. He has performed with the New York Philharmonic, Stevie Wonder, Miles Davis, and recorded with Michael Jackson, Sting and Steely Dan.

Joe Denizon, a Russian with and Italian soul, played his famous electric violin. Known as the Jimmy Hendrix of the electric violin, Denizon managed to play complex pieces while rolling around on his back during the performance of the Pizzica.

Vincent Scialla drummed the foundation for the complicated rhythms going in all directions, while Steve Gorn and Susan Eberenz added flute, piccolo and recorder to round out the arrangements.

One of the elements that set this night apart was the easy banter among the musicians, usually Belloni, La Barbera and Citarella. Their reminiscing drew the audience into a very personal space, and we forgot for a moment that we were sitting in a theater. It felt more like sitting around a table with our friends telling us their favorite stories about how they met and started out.

Dancing and theater has always been an essential part of the troupe’s identity, and Friday night was no exception. The athleticism and acrobatics of this demanding style were on full display. Antonio Fini dances with the Martha Graham Ensemble and the Whitney Hunter Dance Company. As a featured player with I Giulliari, Fini celebrates his Calabrian origins as Dionysus, the Devil and a Tarantato. Fran Sperling brought the Spider Woman to life with a fierce compassion. Mark Mindek defied gravity dancing on stilts, personifying in turn the Plague of the Dark Ages and the unfettered reveling of present-day Brazilian celebration.

Friday, October 30, 2009

First Young Italian Music Festival NYC a Success!

The Young Italian Group in New York City( held its first Music Festival at the luxurious Hudson Terrace on W. 46th Street Wednesday night, October 28, 2009. The Festival organizers regret the fact that most young Italian-Americans think of Italian music as the soundtrack to The Godfather. The organizers sought to enlighten and entertain by bringing a handful of current Italian pop music artists to New York to strut their stuff. And strut they did.

Max De Angelis ( debuted his first single, La Soluzione in 2004 and it became one of the most played singles in Italy. It remained in the Top 20 of Italy’s Billboard Chart for 2 months and after that, spent 3 months in the Top 30 for most radio airplay. In 2005 he sang Sono Qui Per Questo at San Remo. A former restaurant owner, he has a risotto recipe to die for and a charismatic on-stage persona. Among the songs he sang for us was Nevica, the perfect choice for a chilly New York night.

Perugia-born Eleonora Bianchini ( has a clear passion for Latin music. She simultaneously studied opera and jazz in Italy, receiving a scholarship to the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. As lead vocalist of the Peru Mestizo Project, her voice and songwriting created a relaxed, warm vibe. Truly international, she sang a Brazilian song that she had translated into Spanish and played with a Peruvian beat.

Daniele Battaglia ( can’t help what he does; music is in his blood. His father is none other than Dodi Battaglia, guitarist of the iconic Italian band, Pooh. Daniele gave an energetic performance of dance tunes, including Solamusicaitaliana, which ranked 19th in the 2007 FIMI/AC Nielsen chart. Daniele performed in San Remo in 2008 with Voce del Vento. At Hudson Terrace, his self-deprecating, down to earth banter won the crowd over.

Gaetano Fava ( was born in New York and raised in Palermo, Sicily. Classically trained, he sings across musical genres, including opera. On Wednesday night, he entertained us with cover songs by famous Italian pop artists, like Eros Ramazzotti. In fact, his rendition of Ramazzotti is uncanny. When I closed my eyes during the performance, I could swear it was Ramazzotti himself on the stage.

Daniele Stefani ( admitted to the Giuseppe Verdi Conservatory when he was only 10 years old. While at the Conservatory, he performed worldwide throughout his adolescence. At 18, he signed with Columbia Sony Music and released his debut CD, Armanti Ero. He performed at San Remo in 2003 with his song, Chiaraluna. Among his songs at Hudson Terrace, he performed the beautiful Oltre Ogni Senso. His current CD, Punto di Partenza, is enjoying great popularity and frequent airplay in Italy.

The last musical event of the evening was a screening of the celebrated video, Domani 21/4.09, created by artists in the Italian music industry as a fundraiser for the victims of the L’Aquila earthquake. Fifty-six musicians took part in the video, including Zucchero, Laura Pausini, Ligabue, Gianni Nannini, Antonello Venditti and Luca Carboni. Nationally, Young Italian Groups have raised $40,000 toward building Il Villaggio della Gioventu’ , a positively-focused center for the displaced young people of L’Aquila.

By the way, if you haven’t been to Hudson Terrace yet, go. Seriously, go now. Luxurious, spacious, beautifully lit with plenty of room to talk or dance, Hudson Terrace is a show in itself (

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Opera Lovers Cookbook

This is a transcript of the podcast appearing on our Podcast Page.

Carolyn: Francine Segan is a food historian, writer, lecturer and frequent radio and TV personality. She appears on CBS, The Discovery Channel, The History Channel and of course, The Food Network. In her monthly feature for the Tribune Media Syndicates, she has interviewed chefs we all know; such as Jacques Pepin, Lidia Bastianich, and Mario Batali. Francine Segan has also written a collection of wonderfully themed cookbooks: The Philosopher’s Kitchen, Movie Menus, Shakespeare’s Kitchen and the one we’ll be talking about today, The Opera Lovers CookBook.

The Opera Lovers CookBook is a 2007 Cook Book Award Finalist of the International Association of Culinary Professionals, and a 2007 Book Award Finalist of the James Beard Foundation.

Thanks to the support and collaboration of New York City’s Metropolitan Opera Guild, The Opera Lovers CookBook is even more than a wonderful collection of recipes. The book is illustrated with rare photographs and drawings from the archives of the Metropolitan Opera.

Carolyn: The book is so interesting, not only the recipes which are just great, but there are all these little things, opera notes, little snippets, trivia about operas and how certain dishes became focal points in certain performances. It’s more than just recipes.

Francine: it’s kind of this wonderful project of trying to get people who may not know opera, to have a little taste, in every sense. So there are of course recipes, which were inspired by different operas. And then are also little sidebars, little tidbits of information, like little morsels, little nibbles at a cocktail party, of information about composers or maybe a wonderful aria or song about toasting or drinking. Or something special about a composer and his connections w/ food. Little trivia things like, food that was inspired by opera and all that is weaved into wonderful recipes, wonderful photographs, photographs from the Metropolitan Opera.

Also, because this is so much a cookbook to get you to enjoy music and maybe share it with friends, it also has tips on how to entertain, how to do a little party or buffet or a dessert party. Just to invite people over, put on a little CD of opera music and kind of experience it in a different way.

Carolyn: One of the things that I like about it as well is the title, Opera Lovers Cookbook. You take it from many different angles. For instance, there are recipes that seemed to have actually been featured in certain scenes in certain operas. Then there are dishes that are named after composers or opera singers. Then there are dishes that come from the town of a great composer, or maybe a favorite dish of a composer or a performer. So you really do take the whole spectrum of the connection between food and opera and it’s wonderful.

Francine: Well thank you. Doing a cookbook is a lot like cooking. You take a little bit of this and a little bit of that and you stir a little bit more and you taste it and what does it need? It’s the same thing when you create a cookbook. Especially when you collaborate with such a wonderful organization like the Metropolitan Opera House.

Carolyn: Let’s talk about some of the Italian inspired recipes.

Francine: You can really see my Italian roots because it has 12 chapters and 5 of them are Italian language opera-centric. So there’s a very heavy emphasis. I did a Bel Canto chapter, composers like Donizetti from Sicily. And in his day there was a wonderful dish in Sicily spaghetti with eggplant and a wonderful tomato sauce and they, to honor their wonderful composer-son, named the dish after one of his best operas, Norma. So Pasta alla Norma which everybody knows, is really named after his opera, in his honor. So that’s one of them.

I give Verdi a whole chapter. Verdi’s a wonderful composer of so many important works there’s lots of different dishes that are inspired by him. Including an Aida pyramid dessert. You know the little, wonderful, the balls that the Italians we do for the Christmas time which we fry, the little honey dipped balls, we always serve it in a little pyramid. So I thought, how perfect is that for Aida? So I kind of did a little free association there.

Carolyn: Oh that’s great.

Francine: But then, Puccini’s got a chapter. So for La Boheme in the second act, he has a line where he has people strolling and saying a list of ingredients. It almost jumps out as a recipe to me. It says dates and ferone and candied fruit and all I’m thinking is: Macedonia la frutta seca, which is a kind of dried fruit salad that Italians make in the wintertime. And it’s a very homey dish. It’s all sorts of nuts and candies that are left over, like ferone, little bits of amoretti, dried fruit. They’re all mixed together, put a little splash of some liquor. and just that scene with all the ingredients being called out just kind of made me think of that.

Carolyn: Oh that’s wonderful. I’ve love for you to tell the story about what opera was like in the Baroque period. So different from what opera is like for us now.

Francine: When you’d go to the opera house, back when Rossini was a composer, you would enter and of course you’d be elegantly dressed with the long gloves. You’d mingle w/ friends and you’d take your seat. But unlike the theater today, right away you’d notice some differences if you went back in time.

First of all the lights don’t get dim in the audience the way it does nowadays. and also the theater stage wasn’t set up high, it was kind of the same level that you were. Those 2 changes, the proscenium going up and the house lights going down didn’t happen until Wagner, until like the 1870’s. In Rossini’s day the lights were on. A little bit because you had to read your libretto but a lot because you were chatting, looking at your friends what they’re wearing, getting up and down. Because also in Rossini’s day, there was no intermission. So you’re sitting for this long opera and the composers knew, the audience knew, the performers knew that you’d have to get up and stretch your legs, get a little snack.

It was so known that in fact there are arias that are called Arias di Sorbetto, Sorbet Arias. Meaning in the middle of the opera, Rossini and other composers from that time period would stick in an aria because they knew you were going to get up and get a sorbet. Sorbet was really nice snack that they used to serve in the opera houses. Very elegant. So this Aria di Sorbetto which is always at the mid point, is always secondary characters, they’re not singing anything that’s going to advance the story, not particularly important, you can miss it. But it’s nice background music while you’re getting up and getting your snack.

The other thing that you would have seen if you went to the opera in Rossini’s time was that in the back of the house they would also have card tables set up. And people who were less interested in the opera would go in the back and play cards, they would gamble. And it was OK. Rossini got a cut of the house proceeds of the profits that were made from the gambling that was going on in the back.

So nowadays we sell popcorn and Jordan almonds in the movies, in those days you used to have sorbetto and your little gambling to make a little money.

Carolyn: Such a great story. I love that.

Francine: One of the things that I think also, just to kind of finish on Rossini, who’s of course the composer of L’Italiana in Algiers, La Barbara of Seville, lots of really wonderful works. He was probably the number one foodie composer. He loved food. He obsessed about it. He was a gourmet cook. When he would travel and he would have to put up a show, let’s say in Paris and he would have to stay there for a number of weeks. He would write home letters and I recently just saw one at a sweets shop in Genoa, that still exists today from Rossini’s times. It was a sweets shop that started in the 1700’s. And Rossini wrote a letter home to his friends, 2 separate letters to 2 separate friends, saying, please go to Romanengo and get me, and he’d make a list of all the sweets that he wanted, because here in Paris they don’t have such good food. He was so connected to Italy, he would always make fun of Paris. You know there’s nothing good to eat here, please bring me the salumi from Giuseppe’s Salumiere, please bring me the…You’d think that Paris was the wasteland of food. He just couldn’t tolerate it.

And of course this all spread and people knew, including the Baron Rothschild, from the famous vineyard. He was a wonderful opera lover. And he wanted to give a gift to Rossini. The opera season coincides with the grape harvest. So he took his most wonderful bushel of grapes and he had it personally delivered to Rossini’s dressing room and hotel. Rossini took the grapes, was very grateful, wrote a thank you note to the Baron saying, ‘Dear Baron Rothschild thank you so much for the grapes. But in the future I would like you to just know that for me, I prefer to take my wine not in a pill form. I like it liquid.’ So the Baron got the hint and he sent a case of Baron La Fete Rothschild, a nice case of wine to Rossini.

There’s also one, a funny Rossini story. When I was going thru the documents that the Metropolitan Opera had on all the composers, I was looking at the librettos because Rossini liked to dabble in art and he liked to draw. And on these librettos, when he was in Paris or Milan where his operas were sort of being tested, before they were finalized, in the margins he would draw these little Chianti bottles, these little bottles of wine in the margins and I would see 2, 3, or some pages that had 6,7 bottles of wine.

Carolyn: So these are like the old fashioned Chianti bottles with the raffia, wrapped?

Francine: Right. That little chubby bottle. So I couldn’t figure it out for the longest time. And then finally it dawned on me. In Italian, those kinds of wine bottles are called fiasco. Meaning like in English, fiasco, a disaster. They’re made from like leftover bottles or cheaper bottles. What he was saying was not, I need a drink, but this section of this opera needs help, it’s a fiasco!

Carolyn: So that was his shorthand?

Francine: That was his little crib note in the sides.

Carolyn: The trouble spots.

Francine: And he’s got some wonderful, wonderful urban legend and true food stories about him. Including, you know, going to a restaurant and asking for a dish and then not liking how it’s prepared so asking if he could go into the kitchen and re-cook things.

And there’s one dish that’s very famous. It’s named after him, it’s called Tornados Rossini, like a tornado, that’s how it’s spelled, that’s how it’s pronounced. And the story behind that name is that he was in France and he went into the kitchen to tell these French cooks that they didn’t know what they were doing, that they needed a nice Italian hand in there and he wanted to show them how to remake his favorite combination of food, which is filet mignon, truffles and foie gras. And so he was redoing it and the chef, of course, of this 4 star restaurant is screaming I can’t stand looking at you in here! I can’t stand looking at this! What are you doing I can’t look at this anymore! And Rossini turned and said, so then, turn your back. Tornez le dos in French. Which sounded sort of thru the way that the story got evolved to tornados instead of Tornez le dos.

Carolyn: OK, so it’s really, what’s the full name of the dish?

Francine: It’s really called Tornados, mispronounced, misspelled you know, like a storm, but it’s really called Tornez le dos. Turn your back.

Carolyn: I love the way these stories evolve.

Francine: A little urban myth, a little fact. It’s a delicious dish anyway. It’s a really heavy dish when you do it as a main course. In Opera Lovers Cookbook I do it as a little appetizer so you get just a little nibble. So one little filet mignon could serve like 6 people.

Carolyn: Puccini. Each dish celebrates his exotic operas. Can we talk a little bit about that?

Francine: Well, Puccini is uber Italian. I mean he was very connected to his Tuscany, very connected to Italy. But yet he set his operas in some pretty far flung locales. I mean, he’s got Madame Butterfly in Japan, he’s got La Fanciulla in America so I did a very eclectic buffet for Puccini. So I do some fun things. Tea eggs for the MB chapter and a ginger martini, sort of a Japanesey flavors. Tea eggs are just eggs that you boil then you crack the shells so it looks all broken up and then you soak it in the fridge for a few days in tea and some spices which flavors the egg but also gives it this pretty marble look. So that’s one example of a kind of far flung kind of recipe. It’s not Italian but it’s inspired by how eclectic his locales are.

Carolyn: The other thing I love about the book is I don’t know of another art discipline, or theatric discipline that’s so connected with eating as opera. I mean there’s just so many operas where you’ve got these fantastic ballroom scenes and banquet scenes and the actions revolving around the food.

Francine:One of my favorite categories are all the wonderful drinking songs in a sense, the toasting songs. Like in Don Giovanni, there’s a wonderful what they call a champagne aria. It’s really called Fin ch'han dal vino, just this very lively, one minute aria where he’s kind of telling his servant, go get every male guest drunk at the party because I want to sleep with all the wives.

Of course Don Giovanni is just this horrible character. But it’s a funny song and it’s one of the classic drinking songs. And of course the most beautiful probably is Brindisi from La Traviata. Libiamo, just that beautiful song that I think is the essence of the Italian spirit of you know, lift you glass, rejoice. The sparkling wine, the bubbliness, the effervescence of life that is in this glass of champagne or prosecco is something to be celebrated. And all the bubbliness of Italy’s wonderful sparkling wines just goes with the rhythm of the music and just is the perfect, perfect backdrop to a wonderful song celebrating what I think is some of the best of Italy. Our wine, toasting, having fun, enjoying life, celebrating life.

Carolyn: When Francine was a little girl, her Grandmother’s cooking rituals brought opera to life.

Francine: My grandmother would really cook to different arias. She’d pull out a certain one and so really felt like it was part of the recipe. Grandma’s got to go get this particular album, puts it on, puts it in a certain place. OK, now it’s the time to stir the risotto because this section’s going to last for whatever, 15, 17 minutes that she needs to make risotto. When she was going to cut onions, she go take out Madam Butterfly for the suicide aria and she says, I’m going to cry, I might as well have a good reason. And you can kind of hear the heart-wrenchingness of it, without hitting you on the head. It was just a wonderful music lesson to show the emotions that are in it, the fun of it, you know, when something is bubbling and boiling she’d put on something else very lively. So I think that cooking to opera can be a lot of fun and a great way to introduce it to yourself or to kids.

Carolyn: You know what’s wonderful about that? It makes opera approachable. This is something that you use while you’re doing your everyday things like cooking, opera is your accompaniment to that. As opposed to opera being some sort of rarified event that’s very formal and very separate from the rest of your life. This is like, no, it’s in my kitchen!

Francine: That’s a great point and why I like sharing with everyone that Rossini knew people needed a break. I do think it’s become something so fu-fu, high brow that we forget that this was supposed to be an entertainment form. This was fun, it’s OK to take it in snippets, you don’t have to sit with your hands folded in your lap. You can have a little bit. You can have more and you can take it when you like and that’s why I love the fact that CDs are now so great. You can have a little bit of it, and I also love that it’s in movie theaters now. So you can go for a very affordable price and experience the movie in a theater setting. If you do choose to want to sit and sort of see and listen to the whole thing from beginning to end, but I think it’s OK to just pick and choose your arias. And the Metropolitan Opera in fact, even made a little CD of just an assortment of different arias. They put the label of Opera Lovers Cookbook on it, and it’s a kind of CD for entertaining.

Carolyn: No kidding!

Francine: It’s sold in their wonderful giftshop, it’s the Opera Lovers Cookbook CD. Some of my favorites, some fun ones, a whole big mix. So when you are entertaining you can have a nibble of that, little piece of that, little bite of that.

To learn more, visit

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Capri - Reflections of the Island of Dreams

This article also appears on our Italian Journal page.

What may be Capri's best gift: the time and desire to dream. Capri is an island that worships the senses. The sweet, slow surrender to the sun, the tropical smell of lotion, the feel of fresh cotton towels and the sharp taste of the sea's salt on your skin. Sun bursts onto the water every morning. I open the hotel's wooden shutters to the brilliant light. Craggy rocks jut out of the water's surface, their reflections splayed onto the ever-rippling blue water. I look down to see roads narrow and winding. Compact-sized buses, stifling and glittering metallic, wend their way around the Island below me. Above me, a grassy hiking trail leads to the Island peak, where a 360 degree view of shimmering water awaits. The hike soothes the brain, calms the mind, taxes the body.

This is the heady, intoxicating mixture that awakens our long dormant senses. It gave us the tale of the seductive Sirens and headstrong warriors, Jason and the Argonauts. Centuries later, the Roman Emperor Tiberius was lured to the Island and made it his summer retreat. Far from the restrictions of Roman governance and society, Capri became his hedonistic playground. Such beauty and sensuality surrounded by the sea unlocked the Emperor's fantasies and ultimately, his good judgment. Perhaps he stayed too long in the company of the Sirens.

Now, so many years later, Capri retains this magic. You understand why Jason had to be tied to a mast to resist the call to leave his ship. I was not, so I could not. I dive headlong into the luscious decadence of sea, sand, and sweat. I surrender to the pleasures, at once earthy and ethereal. Where does this strong, almost magnetic pull come from? Perhaps from wearing as little as possible because of the heat. Perhaps from sensing the chance to live another way, to be a character in another life. Jason didn't know what he was missing. It ultimately killed Tiberius.

In a profound way, we are forced to acknowledge our separation from our usual lives and our connection to Nature. There is more of It than of us; no avoiding it. We are small and profoundly lucky at the same time. Maybe it's this mixture of opposites, these contradictions that blend inside of us and close us off to our usual states of stress and hurry. We surrender. We have no choice; do with us what you will. Capri obliges. It's ready to insinuate itself into our blood and our minds with its hypnotic beauty and heat. In a short time, our interior walls and protective barriers crumble, and we have no desire to rebuild them. At last, permission is granted to feel the breezes blow, the waters soothe, the sun caress. We are changed. It is glorious.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

May Day in Siena - Part 3

This article also appears on our Italian Journal page.

Yes, breakfast was included in this wonderful sleep-over that Gabriele had arranged for us. It was set up in the dining room downstairs. We must have overslept because as we made our way up the hallway to the stairs, we saw that all the other guest rooms were emptied. The doors were open and Max’s hardworking mother was laboring away. Stripping the beds, opening windows, vacuuming, all in her measured, my-arthritis-is-acting-up sort of way. It slowed her down, but it didn’t stop her.

Max waited for us at the dining room table, complete with our place settings, a pot of espresso and a large plate with mounds of biscotti and fresh pastries. It seems Max’s Mom made these this morning, before she started cleaning the guest rooms. We had a few hours to kill before we were to meet Gabriele, so we settled in for a leisurely breakfast with Max.

Max seemed to be in his 30’s, attractive, lithe, with dark hair and those deep Italian eyes. The three of us talked about a wide range of subjects: Italy, America, working parents, children, cooking, Siena, girlfriends (he didn’t have one) and on and on. After about an hour, Max’s Mom emerged from the kitchen with a big smile and another plate of just baked pastries (we had pretty much decimated the first plate). That’s when we realized she had made these fluffy goodies and hadn’t just picked them up at the bakery. We feigned protest, but probably weren’t too convincing. After all, she’d already made them. We couldn’t let them go to waste. She walked slowly back to her chores upstairs and we continued to eat and pass the time with Max. We couldn’t help noticing that young, healthy Max was doing nothing while his mother did everything.

At one point, I went upstairs to use the bathroom. I was too paranoid to lock the door, so I just closed it and hoped for the best. As I was making my way downstairs again, Max’s Mom was walking a few steps ahead of me. Remember the slow, painful movements of this woman? There she was, singing a little tune and bounding (yes, bounding) down the stairs like she was 20. I was happy she was happy but still, what was going on?

I rejoined Lana and Max at the table where we hung out until we had to leave. There was quite a scene saying goodbye. Not so much Max, but his Mom didn’t want to see us go. She hugged us both so tightly we were getting confused. It wasn’t until we were walking over to the café to meet Gabriele that we put the morning’s events together. It seemed to us that Max’s Mom was probably like every other Italian mother we’d ever known or heard about: she wanted a wife for her son. She had morphed from cripple to singing athlete once she decided that at least one of us must have been interested in her handsome, available Max. Why else would we have spent so much time with him at breakfast? To Max’s Mom, he was the catch of a lifetime! What young woman wouldn’t want to hook up with Max and cook all his meals, do his laundry, clean up after him and then give Mom a hand cleaning the guest bedrooms, the bathroom, dusting, vacuuming, straightening? Ah, to two single American women it all seemed like such a mad whirl of delights! Really, we couldn’t walk to the café fast enough.

May Day in Siena - Part 2

This article also appears on our Italian Journal page.

After much shopping, eating, drinking and walking, it was well into the night and time to return to Acqua Calde. We got ourselves a cab at the taxi stand and started down the road. The driver spoke only Italian and seemed to be in a really sour mood. We, in all of our excitement of the day, had neglected to get the address of where we were staying or even the name of the establishment (did it have one? We had no idea). But we were confident that we would recognize the side street we needed when we saw it, and tried in vain to convince the driver of this. I say in vain because he became irate, complete with gestures, yelling and red face (as much as we could tell in the dark). We even showed him our money, in case he thought we weren’t going to pay him. We honestly couldn’t understand his anger, but we literally didn’t speak each other’s language. After much fretting and histrionics on all of our parts, he abruptly pulled over and refused to take us further.

To give you the sense of this moment, it was near midnight, pitch dark, a single lane road with tall grass on either side, no street lights, very little traffic, no houses, no businesses, nothing. We paid the driver (we were nothing if not honest) and started to walk the rest of the way to that side street we saw in our heads. All the way there, we tried to make sense of what had just happened.

We walked quite a while, but we finally got there. It was such a relief when we turned that corner and saw the little house. We walked through the front gate and tried to open the door, but it was locked. Oh no; we were never given a key! Just as we were sizing up the garden as a place to crash until morning, the door opened. Suddenly, we were staring at Max’s parents sitting on the couch in their living room, watching TV. Obviously not expecting visitors, Max’s mother had her hair up in curlers. Oh Lord, we used the wrong door! We backed up, apologizing profusely, out into the night.

We then found the correct door, dragged our tired selves up the steep, wide stairs, and went to our room.

I needed a bath. Leaving Lana relaxing on the bed (beside the non-working stereo, there was no other furniture), I took our bathroom key and headed out the door. The bathroom was down the hall, shared by all guests on our floor. Since it was very late at night, all the other guests were asleep, all the doors on either side of the long hallway locked up tight. So the bathroom was mine for the foreseeable future.

It was spacious with a large, sunken bathtub. The floors and walls were done in deep green marble tiles. It looks amazing but in my opinion, water and marble are a very dangerous mix. Instinctively, you try to create traction by putting a towel down on the floor as you stand by the sink or get out of the tub. But one quick move turns the towel into a runaway flying carpet. You grab hold of the nearest stable object to stop your momentum. Maybe it’s the sink. Or the slippery edge of the tub. Or the towel rack. Anything to keep from hurtling into to that luscious Italian marble you were cooing over just moments before. Now you’re wondering what you’ll scream as you skid across the floor. “May Day” perhaps?

Somehow, I made it out of the tub and got dressed without killing myself. I felt relaxed, refreshed and oh so ready for a good night’s sleep. All that stood between me and sleep was the locked bathroom door. So I gathered all my things and slipped my medieval-looking skeleton key into to the lock and turned. The lock made the noise, but nothing else happened. The knob didn’t turn. The door didn’t open. No problem, I’ll try again. So I did. Many, many times. Turn, clank, nothing. This went on and on. I wondered if I’d have to spend the night in the bathroom. My options weren’t pretty. I could try to sleep on the bruise-inducing marble floor or in the bruise-inducing bathtub. Then there’s the humiliation factor when the lucky stranger opens the door in the morning and finds me staring up at them.

At this point you’re probably wondering, what’s Lana doing? Well, keep in mind that the bathroom is all tile and porcelain, and the hallway is all wood, no rug. So the sound of the key incessantly turning in the lock is resounding all the way down the hall to our room. Lana is sitting on the bed, head in hand, crying from laughter. It’s not like she could help me. We had only one bathroom key between us. I was on my own. She was flirting with a hernia.

Eventually, the lock gave in and I won. Turn, clank, open. Remember how relaxed I felt after the bath? Forget it now. I was some combination of overtired, stressed, relieved and dumbfounded. I made it to bed and fell asleep just in time for breakfast.

May Day in Siena - Part 1

This article also appears on our Italian Journal page.

Let’s pick up this story at Il Querceto, a villa in Castellina in Chianti, during the last week of April, 1998. Laura, the owner, was an energetic woman who seemed to do the work of 3 people. She had already informed my friend Lana and me that due to the upcoming May Day holiday weekend, we would have to find other accommodations for the upcoming Friday night. This meant we’d have to pack up everything & vacate the villa Friday afternoon. However, we were welcome to return to the villa on Saturday & stay for another week (which we did; who says “no” to that?). No problem, we thought. Lana & I prided ourselves on traveling without compass or reservations. How hard could it be to find a place for one night? We had just landed in this cozy spot for another 7 days. Surely the gods are with us. Sometime over the next few days, I mentioned this situation to our Italian friend, Gabriele. He said he would find a place for us. Fine, we thought. Let’s go shopping!

As we flitted around Tuscany, we heard bits & pieces about this May Day thing. It seemed every Italian would take 3 or 4 days away, as this year it fell on a Friday. Hotels had been booked for months. We saw TV predictions of bumper-to-bumper traffic from everywhere in Italy on the way to everywhere else in Italy. Keep in mind that neither one of us had ever heard of May Day before, except as something you screamed if you were having a military emergency.

We didn’t hear back from Gabriele for several days. Lana & I discussed our options. We seemed to have only one: worst case scenario, we find some public place and/or a bench and stay up all night, returning to Querceto the next day. We’d take only a backpack each for easy transport, as Laura allowed us to keep our other luggage in one of her storage areas for the night. Thursday afternoon flowed into Thursday evening when our phone finally rang. It was Gabriele, telling us that he had found us “the last room in Siena.” Located through the ever-powerful Italian social network, one room of a rental property in Acqua Calde, just outside of Siena, remained unrented for Friday night. Gabriele would drive us there. This could work.

We piled into Gabriele’s car Friday afternoon and set off for Acqua Calde. Many winding roads later, we made a right turn onto a side street and pulled over. Walking through the gate to the front door, it suited Lana & I just fine. Quiet, surrounded by a green field and trees, we were welcomed by a large, enthusiastic Labrador. The front door opened and Gabriele did all the talking (in Italian, of course). We were introduced t0 Max, a late 20-ish, handsome and (we would later learn) single man who lived on the property with his parents. We met his mother who was very sweet but seemed to be just on the edge of physical pain. Every move she made was slow and deliberate, as if specifically calculated to avoid discomfort. Her smile was wide and warm, but we could see the pain in her eyes.

Meanwhile, Gabriele was wheeling and dealing. For all of us to hear, he confirmed the price of the room and how it would be paid (in cash). Max brought us all upstairs to see the room. The hallway was wide and our double room was at the far end. I was so happy to see a stereo set up at the foot of the bed. “Great! We’ll have music!” I said. Gabriele, smarter than I about Italian accommodations, turned to Max and said “Funziona?” (“Does it work?”) Max sheepishly replied, “No.”

The deal was made and as it was the middle of the day, Gabriele offered to drive us to Siena on his way back to Poggibonsi. That sounded great to us. After agreeing to meet the next day near a café by the rental property to bring us back to Castellina, he dropped us off and we were let loose in Siena.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Musings on Italian shoes, Siena and a linquistic cautionary tale...

This article also appears on our Italian Journal page.

There was the time my friend Lena and I went to Siena. We walked all over that beautiful city, tracing the circular patterns of its narrow stone streets for hours. We marveled over how we were doing this in Italian shoes purchased only the day before...and neither one of us wearing socks. My shoes were medium heeled, black suede, square toe, adorned with silver and black metal shapes across the upper. Hers were low heeled, black suede loafers that were crafted so stylishly they made you forget that penny loafers ever existed. After hours of walking on stone surfaces, our feet still felt like they were encased in clouds. No blisters, bleeding or painful stepping. This, we decided, is why Italian women are always wearing beautiful shoes no matter what they're doing. Because they can. Because they are always comfortable. They have no reason to reach for shlubby sneakers ever. (Just to clarify, this was the mid 1990's, well before the stylish sneakers we now enjoy were available. But even now, the Italian ones look and feel better). This theory was reinforced later in the trip when we drove past an elderly, rather stout Italian woman walking up a hill in a pair of black pumps with narry a trace of discomfort on her serene face. This woman was walking up a hill in heels, and she was happy about it. Surely Italian shoemaking secrets can help bring about world peace.

But back to Siena. At this point, we had finished a wonderful dinner in one of the restaurants in il campo, the main piazza. We were trying to find our way back to the parking garage to get our car. I say "trying" because it wasn't easy. As I mentioned earlier, the streets of Siena are built in a kind of circular fashion. This leads to all kinds of interesting paths, whether you're trying to make sense out of a street sign or the directions a kind soul has just given you in rapid fire Italian, complete with at least 3 options to get to your destination. To give you an idea of what we were up against with the street signs, at one point we raised our weary eyes to a big sign screaming "Parking Garage" (Yes! in English!). We thought we were saved; all we had to do was follow the arrow. Make that 2 arrows. Each pointing in an opposite direction. Oh, the joys of circles.

By this time, the streets were dark and the stores were closed. Most of them had metal grates pulled across the windows so we couldn't see what they were selling. We kept walking and asking and reading and yawning and sitting. It was during one of these sit-downs that we read the sign over the store next to us that read "Morbidi". (Please keep in mind that this was only our first or second trip to Italy, so we knew very little Italian between us. I was still making the rookie mistake of thinking that if an Italian word sounded like an English word, it must mean the same thing). Morbidi? Morbid? What kind of a store is that? What on earth are they selling? Caskets? Cemetary supplies? Ewwww.

The following day we got ourselves an Italian-English dictionary because we had to figure out what that store was selling. We found morbido, the singular version of morbidi. It means "tender, soft". The store was probably selling lingerie, jewelry or any number of adorable things. Not caskets. We looked at each other in horror and then burst out laughing. We spent many happy hours since then singing "Love Me Morbidi" to the tune of "Love Me Tender". So it wasn't a total loss.

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How Did All This Italy Stuff Get Started, Anyway?

This article also appears on our Italian Journal page.

My first trip to Italy was in 1995, for 2 glorious weeks in October. It was a trip of several firsts for me: first vacation with a girlfriend, first villa rental, first overseas car rental and of course, my maiden voyage to the land of half of my ancestors (the land of the other half, Sweden, would have to wait).

It was perfect timing for Lena (not her real name) and I. Each of us had finished with a marriage and freed ourselves from romantic entanglements for the time being. Each of us had migrated to California from our East Coast origins. Although we had moved for our own personal reasons and at separate times (we had only met a year or two beforehand), we found ourselves sharing some very similar life experiences and open-ended, who-knows-what's-going-to-happen-to-us-from-here future uncertainties. So, it was the perfect time for a vacation.

Fast forward to a gloomy, gray and damp-cold winter day. If you were a fly on the living room ceiling, you'd look down and see the San Francisco Chronicle Travel Classified Section spread out on the floor. Next to that, a world atlas (because we weren't sure where a lot of the places we were reading about actually were). Interspersed among the papers, you'd see glasses of red wine constantly moving from hand to mouth to floor to hand to mouth as two women study the information laid out before them with all the intensity of the Normandy invasion. From your vantage point on the ceiling, you'd hear "Fiji! Let's go to Fiji!" "Yeah! Where is Fiji?" "I don't know; I'm checking the atlas! I don't know where to start; doesn't this atlas have an index?" and on and on.

We almost decided on Fiji, until I saw an unassuming little ad that said something like "Rent a Villa in Tuscany". It sounded right to me. It sounded right to her. Although she'd already been to Italy and had some idea of what we'd be in for, I had no idea whatsoever. Looking back, we were happy at that moment with our decision, but there was no fanfare, no instantly recognizeable bolt of universal confirmation. Instead, it just sort of snuck up on us. It just seemed like a good idea at the time. I didn't have a clue as to how it would alter my life.

So much has changed since then. After several trips to Italy and some astonishing life experiences, Lena and I lost contact a few years ago. As for me, Italy has continued to beckon and I have answered as often as I could. I've traveled throughout the country, taken classes in language and dance, planned many a foreigner's wedding in Italy (Italians don't need to hire a wedding planner; they've got mothers and grandmothers and aunts and cousins), attended conferences, concerts, birthday parties, lost my way down dark narrow streets and found myself in places I never knew existed.

Click here to view selections from Carolyn's Photograhic Collection "Italy Through The Eyes Of Love"

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Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Chants of Southern Italy Come to the Mehanata Club, NYC

This article also appears on our Italian Journal page.

On June 11, 2009, The Mehanata Club on Ludlow Street reverberated with the rituals, chants and work songs of ancient Southern Italy. I Giulliari di Piazza, a music and dance troupe dedicated to the preservation and rejuvenation of the healing drumming tradition to cure the mythical bite of the tarantula, worked its magic on the enthusiastic crowd. Alessandra Belloni’s clear, bell-toned singing voice soared as she whirled, danced and played various frame drums, at often astonishing speeds.
John T. LaBarbera, co-founder of I Giulliari and Belloni’s musical collaborator for some thirty years, brought his profound understanding of the passionate rhythms to the fore. On both guitar and mandolin, LaBarbera’s articulation expanded the ancient melodies and made them accessible to contemporary listeners.

Joe Deninzon, known as the Jimi Hendrix of the electric violin, played at a sometimes dizzying pace while whirling on his back on the dance floor.

Along with Belloni, Vinnie Scialla played percussion and his driving, relentless beats laid the perfect rhythmic backdrop for the ensemble.

Antonio Fini, the fire dancer in Belloni’s show, Techno Tarantella, danced many of the pieces with Belloni, with audience members or alone. A member of the Martha Graham Dance Company, Fini performed with an almost fearless quality of blending choreography from ancient times to the Renaissance to Modern.

Audience participation was the watchword for the show, and many of us couldn’t resist the siren call of the spider dance. Despite the venue’s small size and the rising temperature on the dance floor, the audience improvised its own dance steps and joined in the exhilaration. At the end of a raucous Tarantella Pizzica and Belloni’s announcement that the show was over, the audience chanted, “One More Song!” until she gave in.

To learn more about Alessandra Belloni, listen to our Podcasts with her or read the podcast transcripts on our Italian Journal page.

To learn more about John T. LaBarbera, listen to all 3 of our Podcasts with him or read the podcast transcripts on our Italian Journal page.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Alessandra Belloni Part 2: Techno Tarantella

This is a transcript of the podcast appearing on our Podcast Page.

Carolyn: Techno Tarantella is a show that blends myth, reality, fevered dance and music, fire, gods and goddesses. In recent years it’s been performed at various New York City venues, including the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. This show is being developed and nurtured by Alessandra Belloni, a world-renowned percussionist, singer, dancer, composer and arranger. The Techno Tarantella was born from another of her shows, called the Dance of the Ancient Spider.

Alessandra: It’s been a long journey. I began to visualize a show about the myth of the spider bite, of the tarantula, in 1995 and I was commissioned by Lincoln Center Community Arts Project to do a show at Alice Tully Hall. I said, OK, this would be the time to do it because I saw it in a grand style. So I wrote the show called The Dance of the Ancient Spider and it premiered at Alice Tully Hall.

So I wrote that story back then, and how the bacchante, the women at that time became possessed by the Dionysus god to release all of the poison out of the body and it had to do with the depression of young women connected to the myth of Aracne.

In that show, we used only folk music and acoustic music, and I kind of told the story of a woman who became a tarantata and how she was healed by the dance and the rhythm. So we did that show for about 4 years on and off, and it was the title of that CD, Taranata, Dance of the Ancient Spider. But then I started to listen to this really interesting electronic music fused with folk music. The way I used to do this was very folk music, beautifully done, but very much of an elite audience that would never grab young people, on a bigger level.

Carolyn: So has the change to techno music changed your audience?

Alessandra: I used more of the techno music and modern dance, now it grabs more of a younger audience.

Carolyn: So how did this change begin?

Alessandra: I would say starting in the year 2002, 2003 I was in Brazil, I was performing in a club. A friend of mine owns this fantastic place called Grazie a Dio in Sao Paulo. And he has a very good DJ working there and very good sound people. So, as we finished the performance, we ate and then we came back to the club to dance and I heard this really cool music. It sounded very familiar and I said, “Wait a second, I heard this before!” and it was my music they had recorded in the concert but the DJ put a techno feel to it.

Carolyn: So it’s your music done in a techno style?

Alessandra: Yes. And then I went , “Wow, what is that?” and he said “It’s you!” “Really? That sounds really good!” So we started talking about this project in Brazil, you know, like, we’ve got to do this techno thing and that was back, the end of 2002, beginning of 2003.

I went back, then I did a show 2005 for Carnival in Brazil and this guy has a group that is well known for electronic music, improvised on stage with acoustic music on top. He asked me to be a guest in his show, and I said “I have this dream of one day doing a show called Techno Tarantella” and he goes “I don’t know what it is, but let’s try it.” So we did. I started singing and they started improvising and they put all the technology in it and it was beautiful I thought “Wow, this can really work”. The whole audience was dancing, my voice, my drum and everything was looping then I stopped playing and singing and I started dancing and I said “I can really do that. I can have a machine reproduce what I do, and dance.”

Carolyn: Since then, Alessandra’s show, Techno Tarantella, has developed and showcased the talents of certain artists she met along the way.

Alessandra: Originally the group was founded by me and John LaBarbera, the guitarist.

I owe a lot to Joe Deninzon, who is a violinist from Russia. He has fantastic training of classical, jazz and rock. His band is a jam band and he’s known around the country as Jimi Hendrix of the violin. So when I first got this idea of the Techno Tarantella I thought to ask him and he was totally into it. He the one who put the most time into developing those sounds because he’s specialized on all the effects. So he created all of those amazing sounds. I think that’s why the show works, because it’s not my usual ensemble that has guitars, violins, flutes, mandolins, and all that. I don’t think it needs all that. I think Joe, with all of the effects is great and a lot of percussion. Percussion’s very important.

Carolyn: Well, what I remember about Joe is that during the Pizzica, he was dancing and he was on his back playing this incredibly fast, complicated rhythm, rolling around on the floor.

Alessandra : I think it’s spectacular. Joe Deninzon, yeah, he’s the man.

So the other person that is important in this is the actor that plays the narrator, Ivan Thomas. He’s a baritone, and he’s part Italian, part African American and he’s an opera singer who has toured all over the world. And his main role was in Porgy and Bess. When we met 20 years ago he was doing a lot of opera but because he feels so close to Italy because of his grandmother was Italian from Siena, he loved working with us, always. And then he got cast to be in River Dance, and he was the only live singer that they had, everyone was on playback in River Dance. The singers, not the band. The band was amazing. So he gave me a lot of input about how to evolve a show that has the potential of River Dance.

Carolyn: Another artist who brings Techno Tarantella to life is Antonio Fini. Dionysius, the Greek god of ecstasy and wine, plays a large part in the myth and in the Techno Tarantella. Antonio plays Dionysius and his breathtaking dance of fire is one of the show’s highlights.

Alessandra : Antonio I met here in NY. He was studying at the Martha Graham school, the ensemble, and he’s from Calabria and he’s a really gifted dancer from the South of Italy and the region I love the most, Calabria. His main training is modern dance. And when I started to audition dancers for the show, when he came, I just saw what he did and I said “This is it! It’s him!” But I didn’t know what else he could do. Then he told me “I dance with fire and I do this, and I do that” and I know we share a very similar spiritual quest in our life. He’s very young but he’s got an incredible mind.

So I kind of took a leap of faith because he wasn’t a choreographer but a young dancer with a lot of gifts. But because we both believe in many things and we know these dances in Italy were done for the solstice and were done in the woods as gatherings. Sometimes people were accused of witchcraft, and they were not witches but were someone in the power of the fires, the elements, of the sun god. We both agreed that these scenes had to be part of the show.

Carolyn: So Techno Tarantella not only signals a change in the musical style of the story of the ancient spider, but also a change in the breath of the show.

Alessandra : It was no longer just the story of the tarantella, as I had done before, and the woman, the tarantata. It had to embrace all the elements that are a part of our magic ritual ceremonies. So that’s why the show has all those elements.

Carolyn: Let’s go through the different elements of the show.

Alessandra : It starts with the myth of Aracne and how this young princess was such a skilled weaver and how Athena, the goddess of war and wisdom is very jealous of the young princess and all the nymphs admire her. I chose to be Athena who challenges her, because the relationship being older and younger woman, the crone and the maiden. And Athena accepts the challenge to the weaving contest and Aracne wins. Athena gets very angry, destroys the linen and Aracne, out of humiliation, hangs herself, and Athena transforms her into a spider. That’s the prologue part.

And in the show, very important to have Athena have a mask to represent the gods. A lot of the things I do go back to the ancient Greek, Roman theater and some of it is Renaissance. So using the narrator as the one character out of the story and describes the story. That’s typical way of actor and chorus. And then I chose to use masks again following that kind of style and my dream was always to have an aerial dancer that could be the spider. So of course I’m really glad I met Fran Sperling as the aerial dancer. So when I transform Aracne the aerial dancer comes out and she used the net, which was amazing. So she hangs herself from the net and it’s very powerful because I directed her a little bit but not much. I just said, please work with spider moves and feeling of hanging and killing herself. Which she did.

The show goes on how the girls are affected by the suicide mania because they are not free. So I use that piece during those scenes; the transformation to the spider. And it’s a sad song of a young girl that dies of love.

In the first part of the show we show also the Middle Ages, death coming, the plague, the stilt dancer. I think he’s amazing. I couldn’t believe what he was doing. But that’s the first half. The ending of Act I is a dance that comes from the Renaissance called Bailo di Sfezania, where people dress like devils and dance to exorcise the fear of death and contra malochhio, against the evil eye.

In the Renaissance it was a very popular thing and people dressed like that in the streets to do this dance. The awkward movements using the fingers in the position of the horns. And to do that dance I studied prints from the Renaissance, then I gave it to Antonio and another dancer, and then became a modern dance choreography.

Carolyn: So the roots of that Renaissance dancing is in this Tarantella?

Alessandra: It’s all based in authentic tradition. What I always do is look at the books, the prints, and study them and then direct and come up with the choreography.

Then the beginning of Act 2 is rebirth; the hope of light coming after darkness. That’s why we began first with the sun chant which is so much part of our tradition. It’s a very powerful healing chant and then the fire. And that song for the fire was the song I wrote for my mother and that helped me heal my pain but also, when we do it I really feel her and I feel the meaning of it, the rebirth. That she’s not really dead, and that fire brings her back to life.

Then we talk about how the people suffer from the tarantismo and the woman tries to win the love of the young man and then the group dances that develops. And I used those songs from Puglia that are used for the cure that are really strong. And Antonio did a great staging of the madness scene when they are all going crazy together. And the spider is there, still biting in the subconscious mind. And at the end we did the techno Pizzica which I think works really well because it gets you going. It’s much more powerful I think than the acoustic one that I’ve done for 27 years.

I like things that are much more wild. And Tarantella is much more wild. That’s why I think it has a great potential. It has the flavor of some Cirque du Soliel. I have a vision. If I had, even a quarter million dollars, I could have a lot of dancers flying at some point, so when they are bitten, they go up and they’re flying.

And I conceived the show also with a real group of Arabs coming, when the Moors meet the Christians. In the show you saw, because of our low budget, we have to do everything ourselves. All I know is I was always changing masks and costumes. Who am I next?

Carolyn: Although Techno Tarantella is steeped in myth, many of the rituals it depicts are still with us.

Alessandra: The spirit of Dionysius never died. He is still celebrated in Brazil more than anywhere. But it’s also celebrated in New Orleans, Caribbean in Carnival. That’s why I wanted to leave the audience with a blessing of love because once you celebrate Dionysus, you are much more in ecstasy.

So I see it as a spectacle that has a lot of possibilities. A message of healing through music and dance and drumming and with a multi-cultural cast, and with a message of peace. Because I think the world is going crazy. What I would like to convey is that young people can have fun and have a Techno Tarantella ecstasy without taking ecstasy. We are all one when it comes to rhythm and dance. The Islam, the Christian, Brazilians, Africans, we all worship Dionysus or Allah or you name it, it’s the same God.

Carolyn: To watch video clips fo the Techo Tarantella performance, go to the Essence of Italy links page and click on Essence of Italy at YouTube.

To learn more, visit

This is Carolyn Masone at Thanks for listening!