Thursday, July 29, 2010

Ghiott – An Enduring Tuscan Tradition

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

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

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

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

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

To learn more, visit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Carlo Aonzo - Bridging the Musical Past Into the Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carolyn: what kind of a mandolin does he play?

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

Carolyn: OK, so the bowl back?

Carlo: Right. The true mandolin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carolyn: what’s different about the mandolino Genovese?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carolyn: To learn more about Carlo, visit

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Calabrian Figs That Make Your Mouth Water

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 9, 2010

Ambasciata dei Sapori: Sicily’s Flavorful Export

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 3, 2010

TuttoCalabria: Can You Take the Heat?

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

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

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

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

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

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

To order some TuttoCalabria for yourself, go to

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Parampa’mpoli: The Liquore You Set On Fire

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

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

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

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

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

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