Friday, February 26, 2010

Miss Italia USA – New York Selection

On February 20th, NYC’s Marquee Club was the scene for the Miss Italia USA– NY Selection Beauty Pageant. Collaborating on the event for the second time was Commissione Giovani New York (CGNY- Young Italians NY) and The Sunday NYC. The five finalists chosen here will continue to Connecticut in April for the Miss Italia USA competition, where the winner will represent the USA at the Miss Italia Nel Mondo (Miss Italy – World) Pageant in Jesolo, near Venice, in June.

The five finalists chosen on February 20th are Johanna Sambucini (Miss Italian/American Digital Project, i-Italy), Margherita Medici (Miss Birra Moretti), Ligeia Moltisanti (Miss Jolly Hotels), Syra Maroutti (Miss Piu’Tono) and Melissa Fiore (Miss Hector Boots).

Our hosts for the evening were Rossella Rago, star of the popular web-series, Cooking with Nonna, and Graziano Casale, President of CGNY. Both Rago and Casale were warm, relaxed and full of fun, even though dressed in formal wear. Rago let her wry personality show through and it was a breath of fresh air (“How can you tell their personalities while they’re wearing bathing suits?”). Casale seemed right at home on stage and is a natural entertainer. He even sang Ti Adoro, a duet with tenor Christoper Macchio, just to add to the fun (more about Christopher below).

Speaking of singing, the musical entertainment for this event was well chosen. The singers took to the stage when the contestants needed time to change into their next scheduled costume. The first singer was Gio Moretti (, and she was outstanding with an impressive range. A popular vocalist in Northern Italy, she was a finalist at San Remo-Giovani Festival and the Castrocaro Terme Festival. Born and raised in Martinengo, not far from Bergamo in the Lombardy region, she was a featured singer for three years on the popular Italian TV program, Incontri. Moretti lived in Boston and then Brazil to expand her musical horizons. Perhaps her most notable collaboration to date is her work with the Brazilian group Batacoto. Their latest CD, Batacoto 3, features Moretti’s voice and oboe and in 2004 was nominated for Brazil’s equivalent of a Grammy Award. Moretti has just completed a solo CD, Animacustica.

Christopher Macchio (, an Italian-American tenor from Long Island was next to perform. Macchio has a commanding stage presence and masterful voice, reflecting the classical vocal training begun when he was only 15 years old. Mario Lanza is one of his operatic role models, and Macchio seeks to emulate some of Lanza’s unique performance style. Macchio has performed for many politicians and dignitaries, including a US Vice President, the Ambassador to the United Nations and former NYC mayor and presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani. Currently working with Grammy-award winning producer Tony Camillo, Macchio expects to release his debut CD in March, 2010.

Rounding out the evening’s musical entertainment was Simona D. (www.myspace/princessim). She performed several R&B tunes for us with an ease and professionalism beyond her years. Born in Wisconsin, she lived in many countries including Italy, France and England and always brought her music with her. She is an accomplished singer/songwriter who has also won multiple awards as a cellist. While in Italy she participated in various musical projects and focused on her passion for gospel, soul and R&B. She has performed with Steve Winwood and Brad Hatfield, among others.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Rare Viewing of St. Anthony’s Bones in Padua, Italy

Anthony of Padua with Child Jesus by Antonio De Pereda.

The bones of St. Anthony, the patron saint of Padua (Padova in Italian), are on display for a very limited period for the first time since 1981. Anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000 pilgrims are expected to gaze upon the encased skeletal remains before they are entombed again on Saturday, February 20, 2010.

The remains are housed in the Basilica of Saint Anthony of Padua, locally known as Il Santo. The Basilica is a large complex with multiple chapels, courtyards and even a museum of sacred art. After the saint’s death in 1233, construction of the Basilica began. Thirty years later, his remains were moved into an area behind the altar of the Chapel of Saint Anthony, and have been there ever since. A recent restoration caused the remains to be moved temporarily to the San Giacomo Chapel, but they will now return permanently to the Cappella dell’Arca.

Although born in Lisbon, Spain, Anthony spent most of his monastic life in Italy. After his ship landed unexpectedly on the shores of Sicily, he made his way to Assisi and there met the monk who would become St. Francis. Not many years later he was elected minister provincial of Emilia Romagna but after 3 years obtained a Papal release from this office in order to devote himself to preaching. He settled into the Santa Maria Monastery in Padua and wrote some of his most powerful sermons. In 1233, he died at the Poor Clare convent in Arcella while returning to Padua.

The Catholic Church canonized Anthony of Padua less than one year after his death, which is so far the fastest process for anyone considered for sainthood. He is the patron saint of lost or stolen items and lost causes. St. Anthony is also credited with miraculous cures and by tradition, those blessed by his healings show their gratitude by bringing offerings to his tomb. These offerings are usually fashioned from metal in the shape or other symbol of the body part that has been healed. Padua’s clergy have been keeping records of these offerings since 1466.

Padua city officials have been preparing for weeks by designing new flows of traffic and parking and providing additional shuttle buses. The Red Cross and various religious organizations are providing volunteers to assist the many visitors. No doubt this flood of the faithful will be an economic boon to Padua and its surrounding towns. This will just be another reason for the cittidani of Padova to love St. Anthony.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Bar Italia - Feeling Good Where You Are

Carolyn: Denis Franceschini is the owner of Bar Italia, a close-knit, thriving restaurant on New York City’s Upper East Side at 72nd and 2d Avenue. Before opening Bar Italia, Denis spent 20 years at Cipriani’s, eventually becoming the Executive Chef. During his career he opened 23 Cipriani restaurants all over the world, including Argentina, Uruguay, Hong Kong and London.

For the last 6 or 7 years at Cipriani, Denis cooked for anywhere from 1000 – 1400 people every day. He handled Ivana Trump’s wedding in Miami, Harvey Weinstein’s wedding in Connecticut, concert series with Marc Antony, Rod Stewart and Stevie Wonder. He also handled the all vegan menus required for Farm Sanctuary banquets held at Cipriani.

As much as Denis loved his career, he’s created something very different at Bar Italia. By design, Bar Italia is a small neighborhood eatery with an emphasis on service and customer comfort.

Denis is from the home of polenta, Borgo Valsugana in Trento, Italy between Venice and the Austrian border. Located at the foot of the Alps, Denis loved to ski and raced for 12 years. He graduated from the Culinary Institute in Lake Garda and began working for Harry’s Bar in Venice. From there he was brought to Cipriani’s in New York.

Now as a restaurant owner for the first time, Denis is learning every day.

Denis: When I used to be at Cipriani we were never chefs exposed to the public. We were very behind the scenes all the time. I learned more out of Bar Italia in 6 months than 19 years at Cipriani. Because I cook 3, 4 days a week and 3 days a week I’m spending in the dining room, so I’m still very involved in what is the preparation of the food and all. Like now, we'll go back into the kitchen to do the main prep with the guys, and then they'll do the expediting on my time. But I’m very, very involved in the kitchen as well.

When you own a place, you want to know about everything, you know. Like I’m spending an hour behind the bar with the bartender because I want to learn to do some cocktails. I consider myself the best busboy of the Upper East Side!

Carolyn: how would you define the menu at Bar Italia?

Denis: I do what I like to eat. One thing that I hate is having the menus. Because I think anyone should be able to eat whatever they please and like whenever they feel like it. And then you need certain dishes to be able to offer them, but I think the creativity, you know?

It’s easy to open a cookbook and follow a recipe to put it together. I mean, anyone can do that, you know? But you gotta put yourself on the spot, you have to put yourself on the line and say, what would I love to do? It’s very rare that a customer, my customer, orders from the menu. Because they leave it up to me and I’m not going to disappoint.

Carolyn: Denis’ priority is creating a place where people want to be. That includes himself, his family, the staff and the customers.

Denis: That’s what I think comes out, the great vibe from my staff. We all get along, we try to do things together. And we come up with new ideas together. Like yesterday was so much fun! Because we tried to put together a varied menu, doing a dish with a cocktail. I have an amazing bartender here, and creating dishes combined with a cocktail are all things to have fun, to enjoy ourselves with what we do. Especially because we spend in here what? 15, 16 hours a day we are here and we need to find a way of making these hours enjoyable, you know?

I want people to feel good when they are here.

Carolyn: Do you think that’s what sets your restaurant apart? I mean NY is full of good Italian restaurants. What would you say is different about Bar Italia?

Denis: The difference is that, if you look at this block, 77 and 78, there are 11 places where you can buy food or drinks. So it’s not about the product. It’s about how you serve the product, which is very different. I mean there are a lot of average places, a lot of average pastas, a lot of average wine, a lot of average everything. Attitude is not an average. Welcoming is not an average. There is something extra, something more, something that people appreciate. So it might be bad for me to say it, as a chef. It’s not about the product. But it is what it is. Time to face the reality of a restaurant.

Anyone can have a good plate of pasta, anywhere. In New York, believe it or not I think is a city where you eat pretty good kind of all over. There are a lot of good places around. But there are not many where you feel good where you are.

I stay 3 months, 4 months without taking a day off and some friends of mine took me out for my birthday. We went for dinner close by and after that, where did I go? I came over here. Why? Because I feel good to be here. For as much as it was 3 or 4 months that I was here every day, I came here because I feel good in here.

And that’s what I’m experiencing myself here. There is no more the Crazy Saturday or the Dead Monday. They are all steady days where my people keep coming back and coming back because they feel good where they are, you know?

Carolyn: Denis’ emphasis on a welcoming atmosphere comes from his own experience during his early years in Manhattan.

Denis: When I moved to NY, 17, 21, 22, 23, those years were so tough for me. Because not a word of English, young, no friends at all so, the loneliness that I went through myself, I really don’t wish it to anybody.

And Bar Italia for me was really about having a chance to give lonely people a chance to feel good where they are. Feel welcome, feel appreciated. Because New York, believe it or not, is full, full of lonely people. Full, too many. And you know what? It goes above and beyond how much money you can make out of it. But just to give people a chance to smile, feel good. That’s what it’s all about for me, you know?

Carolyn: Denis also has a message for the next generation of chefs.

Denis: This is the best job in the world. Dealing with people. Human contact. Come on, there is nothing best of this, you know? Hospitality. I mean, whenever you see these shows, what is it, Hell’s Kitchen? Which message do you give to the young generation? Which message are you sending to a kid who wants to get into a culinary institute, where where you spend $35,000 – $40,000 a year? No, this is the message: guys, you gotta be happy. You gotta feel like being in the kitchen for 14 hours. For as meatballs that you can make or filet mignon!

For me, life has to be a challenge; if it’s not it gets too boring, But I’m having fun at this.

Carolyn: To get an idea of the fun you can have at Bar Italia, watch the video of Leo, the bartender juggling flaming bottles behind the bar. Just go to the Links page at and click on Essence of Italy at YouTube.

You can find Bar Italia on the web at

This is Carolyn Masone for Thanks for listening!

Friday, February 5, 2010

Tosca E Le Altre Due, Tosca and the Two Women Downstairs

I had the pleasure of a rare theatric experience on Wednesday night, February 3 at The Cell theater in NYC. A gem of a production, Tosca E Le Altre Due by Franca Valeri presents themes of socio-economic class differences, social mores, relations between the sexes and the consequences of personal and civic violence, just to name a few. All of this is presented through the lens of biting social satire as we watch two women meet and unfold their lives against the backdrop of Puccini’s Tosca, going on all around them.

Valeri created this work of fiction by creating Emilia and Iride, the wives of the jailer of Castel Sant’Angelo and Sciarrone the torturer, respectively. Most of the action occurs in Palazzo Farnese, where the fiery plot of Tosca is in full blaze. Emilia and Iride’s conversations are punctuated by the screams of Mario Cavaradossi and the crashing and fighting of the Baron and Tosca.

Laura Caparrotti and Marta Mondelli play two women from different worlds who are united by the violence in their lives. Each has different reasons for being there and each ultimately decides differently about her future. If it sounds like a heavy, dark story, it is in a way. But the beauty of Valeri’s writing and Caparrotti and Mondelli’s acting is that as you’re watching the play it seems light and at times quite funny. The deeper story streams from the seeming triviality of their conversations and the interruptions of the Tosca story unfolding all the while.

The play is performed in Italian with English subtitles. Not just Italian, but Roman and Milanese dialect. Due to the logistics of the space, the subtitles were projected onto the flat, white wall in the upper right hand side of the action. Therefore, in order to read them, I had to take my eyes off of the actresses to keep up with the story. Unfortunately, this meant that I missed some of the subtlety of the acting conveyed in facial expressions and body movement.

Franca Valeri is one of Italy’s favorite actresses and satirists. Now at 90 years old, she will debut a new play in Rome in October, 2010. Over her long career, she created a gallery of female characters with which she has “mocked the vices and snobberies of bourgeois life and de facto become a humorist for intellectuals that is liked by the masses.” This show is a great way to be introduced to, or continue to appreciate, Valeri’s work.

Tosca E Le Altre Due runs from February 3-21, 2010.
When: February 3-21, 2010
Where: The Cell, 338 W 23rd Street, Manhattan
Presented by Kairos Italy Theater and The Cell

To learn more, click here.

Carnevale Festa at Trumpets Jazz Club!

On Sunday, January 31, 2010, Trumpets Jazz Club in Montclair NJ played host to a wonderful Carnevale celebration. Complete with festive decorations, music, tarantella dance lessons, featured singers and a little Carnevale history, this event was the perfect antidote to a cold January day. The party was hosted by the Center for Italian and Italian American Culture ( in Cedar Grove.

The owners of Trumpets, Enrico Granafei and Kristine Massari, not only hosted the event and provided a wonderful menu, but they also joined in the musical entertainment. Enrico, Kristine, John La Barbera and I played mandolin and guitar to numerous tarantellas and other Italian folk songs.

Enrico Granafei is a classical, jazz and Italian folk guitarist, singer, songwriter, arranger and composer who tours the world. Born and raised in Calabria, Italy, his voice, storytelling and guitar style is infused with his Italian folk roots. His clear tenor voice soared as he sang and played Funiculi, Funicula, Dove sta Zaza`? and O' Surdato 'Nnammorato.

John La Barbera is a New York City-born composer, arranger, multi-instrumentalist and mandolin virtuoso. His career is a celebration of Italian music, from classical to the revival and preservation of Southern Italian folk music, and beyond. The music we played as a group at the event was from John’s book, Southern Italian Mandolin and Fiddle Tunes.

Kristine Massari is a jazz vocalist, mandolinist, violinist and pianist. She has toured throughout Italy and also in Hungary and Finland. At the event, Kristine played mandolin with the group and sang La Spagnola. She entertained as well as informed, by explaining the origins of the Italian Carnevale celebration.

Jennifer Bowen played castanets, tambourine and danced a tarantella with Kristine. Jennifer also guided an impromptu tarantella dance lesson for the more intrepid guests! The Executive Director of the CIIAC, Rosanna Imbriano, welcomed everyone to the festivities and joined in the dancing and singing fun.

We were sorry to see the afternoon end, but we all went out into the blistering cold feeling warmer inside.

To learn more about ciiac activities, call 973 571 1995.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Inventions of Leonardo da Vinci Exhibit in Tuckahoe NY

The Westchester Italian Cultural Center in Tuckahoe NY presents the Inventions of Leonardo da Vinci from January 20 – April 16, 2010. This extraordinary exhibit features 16 conceptual models of mechanical devices created and designed by the Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci.

The models were built in the 1950’s by technicians from the IBM corporation using da Vinci's instructions contained in thousands of pages of his notebooks. By blending art and science, da Vinci drew incredibly precise diagrams of his inventions in addition to writing keen observations of the subject matter. Because of this, his inventions could be reconstructed almost 500 years later.

In addition to the models, laptops are available in the exhibit rooms from which you can virtually leaf through 3-D versions of da Vinci’s notebooks. The software allows you to enlarge and examine any of his illustrations and cross-reference them to his various inventions. Believe me, the software is so engaging I would have monopolized a laptop for hours if I could have.

The exhibit includes flying machines, parachutes, helicopters, a printing press, odometer, paddle wheel ship, spring driven car, military tank and a double hull ship. Walking among the models, I had to remind myself that they were invented centuries ago.

Leonardo da Vinci reminds us all that unlimited imagining is possible. He shows us that, as human beings, we are more than we realize. In a time when things seem to be contracting around us, this is the right time to remember how expansive we can be.

To learn more visit