Monday, October 07, 2019

PLAYING THROUGH THE WHISTLE: Steel, Football, and an American Town

Playing Through the Whistle: Steel, Football, and an American TownPlaying Through the Whistle: Steel, Football, and an American Town by S.L. Price
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I grew up in western Pennsylvania during a time when the coal mines and steel mills of Jones & Laughlin Corporation provided employment for my dad and most of my friends’ dads too. In fact, other than a stint with Uncle Sam, my dad spent his entire working career with J&L.

We lived in “The Patch”, a community of duplex houses in alternating green and red shingles built by the company for its laborers. We shopped at the company store where my mother worked for a time until meeting my dad and allowing him to take her away from all that. There were patches all around the area supporting the particular mines and mills where their residents worked. It was the natural state of things.

S. L. Price, a writer for Sports Illustrated and other magazines, writes in “PLAYING THROUGH THE WHISTLE: Steel, Football, and an American Town” about one of those J&L patches: Aliquippa, a large steel town of ethnic neighborhoods with more than its share of high school football mastery throughout the decades. Price exhibits his own mastery by blending the elements of those ethnic identities, steel, and football into a rich history of American life.

Over the decades, western PA has provided more than its share of top NFL Players, and Aliquippa has been a rich resource of those players ranging from Mike Ditka to Darelle Revis. Price explains why the rich work ethic of the steel workers manifested itself into successful football programs. In many cases, racial tensions, unemployment, drugs and violence, made this success seem more than improbable, and Price examines the families, coaches, players, and their changing environments that made that success more difficult and unlikely.

Price’s history is an honest look at the people who have lived for their community, and their community, in many ways, lived for football. It is a an American story, and Price tells it well.

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Wednesday, July 03, 2019

Living to Eat in Italia

I’ve often heard it said that many people eat to live, but, ah, the Italians, they live to eat. I’m convinced that is true. 

In 1861, when Italy was unified into a republic, a founding father wondered how they would create Italians from all of the disparate regions and dialects that existed throughout the country. Guiseppe Garibaldi, the great general said, "It will be spaghetti, I swear to you, that will unite Italy." And so it seems that pasta was the great unifying ingredient that made Italy and Italians what they are today. *

This is a long post and it will probably only cover the first ten days of my vacation. Food was a big part of my recent Italian vacation and if you were thinking of going there, I hope this will help you decide in the positive. I'm not going to talk about EVERY meal I had, so don't worry. I could, however, go on for quite awhile writing about all of the delicious meals I enjoyed in Italy. . 

Just to summarize my trip briefly: On my own, I spent five days in Siena in the Tuscany Region and five days in Perugia in the Umbria Region, doing day trips here and there. Then I spent nine days with family hopping from Rome to Florence to Venice, and then back to Rome before our trip home.

When I think of Italy, one of the first things I think about is its food. There are antipasti, pasta, pizza, gelato, and many regional specialties developed from what is fresh and seasonally available. One of the greatest of Italian specialties is salumi. Yes, salumi, not salami.

A salumi shop in San Gimignano.
Salumi is a catchall for cured meats, including those you may have heard about like prosciutto, salami, and peperoni. Ones that may not roll off your tongue so easily are speck, culatello, pancetta, porchetta, capicollo, and guanciale, just to name a few more. One of the most notable salumi is Parma ham. I think I had a dozen different kinds of salumi in Italy. Worth every salt-infused calorie. 

Seasoning the guanciale.
Here is a Salumi Guide site on what specialties come from the various regions of Italy. On one of my tours, the Salumi, Candle, and Cheese tour by LifeItaliantStyle, we sampled the butcher’s wares as we watched him prepare guanciale, or pig jowls. It’s like bacon.

Most countries have their own culinary customs and Italy is no different. It is rare to find eggs as a feature of the standard Italian breakfast. Typically, breakfast will consist of a pastry of some type and coffee or tea. A fuller breakfast might add a selection of breads, cheeses and salumi, accompanied by fresh fruit. Your experience could differ based on where you stay.

My first evening in Italy I checked into my hotel and went to a nearby restaurant for a bite. I started off with a pecorino cheese appetizer and then had a pizza. The pizza was a little water-logged (I was told by a chef this was because they didn’t press the moisture out of the fresh mozzarella and let it sit for 15 minutes or so). The appetizer, however, was out of this world. Pecorino cheese with figs and slathered in honey. This was my top food find…I think. I’m sorry I didn’t take a picture of it. It was built up like a small Jenga tower..

As I was planning my trip and considering Italian foods I would encounter, the message that came through loud and clear was to look beyond pasta in red sauce and pizza. I also wanted to improve my kitchen skills in advance of a cooking lesson I would be taking. I was directed by a friend to see Mary Giolitti at Giolitti Deli in Annapolis, MD. 

Mary guided me to a book by Ada Boni: Italian Regional Cooking. It was last published in 1994, but I managed to find a used 1982 copy and obtained it at a reasonable price. It contains nearly 300 pages of Italian deliciousness. It covers 14 regions of Italy and the specialties attributed to each region. It helped me find some incredible meals once I finally landed in Bella Italia.
A satisfying meal.
Pasta, beans and diced potatoes in pesto.

My first tour was a small group tour with seven others to Pienza and Montepulciano. Guillermo, our guide, took us to Podere il Casale, an agritourism farm, for a great lunch. 

We started with a charcuterie board that held an array of cheeses and salumi, accompanied with crispy chunks of bread. That was followed by a plate of lentils, an eggplant dish, and greens, and then a bowl of beans, pasta and small bits of potatoes. Everything was fresh, flavorful, and delicious. Of course all of this was accompanied by l'aqua minerale (mineral water) - frizzante or naturale, and great wine. Vacation was starting off well. 

Marjorie (who was on my Siena walking tour) and
me after our dinner at La Taverna
That evening I went to the Siena Opera, arriving early but starving. They sent me to Fonte Guista Trattoria where I had another traditional Tuscan dish: Pici pasta with Cinghiale Ragu (wild boar sauce). 

Pici is a hand-rolled pasta, typically made with just flour and water, although sometimes with egg and olive oil added. With the hearty wild boar sauce, it was to die for. I ate every bit, wiping up the sauce with bread. I was a little late for the opera, so had to sit in the back. At intermission I found out the people I was seated beside were from Arlington, VA. Small world.

One of the recipes from the Boni book, credited to Tuscan origins, is Ribolitta Soup. It was born of a combination of day-old vegetable soup with crusty two-day old bread to produce a hearty meal in a bowl. It is a peasant meal, but served in many fine restaurants now, so I guess it is shrugging off its peasantry. Here Pasta Grannies - Ribolitta , you can see how to make it yourself. I had some in Siena at La Taverna del Capitano and it was delicious and filling.

Another dish that I had from Boni's book, and also at La Taverna, was Coniglio in Porchetta, which is rabbit stuffed with a shredded Parma ham mixture and prepared with fennel. It was delicious, tender, juicy, and flavorful. It was another of my favorite meals. This meal, as with several others, was finished off with limoncello, an Italian lemon liqueur (I've made my own at home before). 

I had the company at La Taverna of Marjorie, a young lady from Florida, who was studying Italian in Venice and had come into Siena for the weekend. We had a great meal and great conversation. A meal with company is much better than one alone.

In fact, I came across this in my reading: 'Italian proverbs testify to the national antipathy to a table for one: "Chi mangia solo crepa solo" (Who eats alone dies alone). "Chi non mangia in compagnia è un ladro o una spia" ("Who doesn't eat with a companion is a thief or a spy"). "Chi mangia solo si strozza a ogni mollica" ("Who eats alone chokes on every bite").' * Although, playful jests, messages to take to heart. I was fortunate to find some very good company for most of my meals after that.

Viviana, me, and Simone
One of my activities was a cooking class at a Tuscan farm outside Quercegrosso, just north of Siena. The chef and I each prepared tagliatelle al ragu and tiramisù. We found it necessary to polish off a bottle of Chianti Classico while we were doing that because, well, cooking is hard work. 

It was rewarding to mix everything together for the pasta without a bowl and not get anything on the floor except a little flour. Eating what we made was even better. It was delicious. 

I had a great time spending the afternoon with Simone and his wife, Viviana, who are expecting twins in October. Uncle Dave will be waiting patiently for the news.

A truffle from our hunt
One of the highlights of my trip (there were so many) was a truffle hunt at Black Truffle Lodge outside of a little village called Pettino. My GPS signal dropped five kilometers from the meeting place, so luckily, I fell back on the map in my head and made it there OK. 

To give you an idea how remote the place is. Mack, a New Zealand emigrant who together with Francesca, his wife, run Black Truffle Lodge, has to drive their kids 3o minutes down the mountain to catch the school bus everyday, and then again go pick them up in the afternoon. It is a treacherous, winding, and steep drive. But I digress.

On a truffle hunt, the guests don't really do any truffle hunting. That is all done by dogs. The dogs are small hound size, maybe twenty five pounds. They smell out the truffles, usually in the vicinity of oak or beech trees, then dig them out and carry them to their handler. The
handler then exchanges a dog treat for the truffle, and the dog is off again. The dogs are quite active and the guest part of the hunt is to trail after them and watch where they find the truffles and try not to slide down some fairly steep points or trip over tree roots. For the most part, our group was successful.

At some signal the hunt part of the excursion was over. A scale was brought out and they measured the haul of truffles. The results of our hunt were relatively modest. We then hopped back into the vehicles and drove further up to the top of the mountain. 

While Marco, one the of the dog handlers, scrubbed up a truffle, Mack opened a couple bottles of prosecco and handed out glasses of the bubbly to everyone. Then Mack prepared an open fire and made scrambled eggs with melted pecorino cheese and sliced truffles. 
Damn, it seemed so decadent, and was it good? 
Mack, surrounded by Maremma Sheepdogs,
prepares our scrambled eggs.

It was a pretty simple thing, but I had a hard time imagining life being any better at that point. Great food and drink, wonderful company, and gorgeous scenery any way you turned. The fields were full of wildflowers. The views from there must have been up to fifty miles distant.

We still had half a day to go. 

We collected all the tableware and glasses, piled back into the vehicles, and headed back down the mountain. 

Pecorino Cheese being aged.
Black Truffle Lodge

We were to learn about salumi and cheese making, and drink some wine. Then we could watch a full meal being prepared, and help if we wanted

Another specialty from the Boni book prepared at this meal was guinea fowl. It's a small bird with delicate and delectable meat. 

Francesca made two long rolls of pasta, cut it into 1/2" slices, then poked her knife through a hole at one end and flicked her wrist. Voilà! The pasta fell in a pile on the table ready for the pot. It was amazing watching that, since it took me long minutes to unroll mine during my cooking lesson. 

Happy smiles because I helped
clear the table after lunch
Francesca making a lot of tagliatelle

Black Truffle Lodge bids us Ciao!

At my Perugia hotel, I met two ladies, Ann and Karen, from Minneapolis, MN and we went out for pizza my next to last night in Perugia. We walked a long way to one, only to find it had been closed, replaced by a parking garage. So we walked another good distance and found a hole-in-the-wall place called La Romantica in a residential part of town. It was fantastic. Other than us, it was all locals. 

It was the best pizza I ate in Italy. The crust was thin and crispy, the sauce sublimely seasoned, and the cheese perfectly melted. You couldn't have told what language we spoke because we were totally  quiet as we chomped on our pizzas +. We'd been famished after all the walking we did and it showed. 

Gnocchi in pesto sauce
with gorgonzola.
+ Just a note: unless you're in a tourist-trap part of town, each person typically orders their own 12-14" pizza. It doesn't come sliced. You won't get small plates to share it.

My last night in Perugia I ate at an outside table at Caffè di Perugia. It was a perfect spring evening, mild and clear, with the low, pleasant buzz of people in conversation and enjoying their Friday evening.

I had a glass of prosecco, then ordered this remarkable gnocchi dish accompanied by grilled vegetables. I had never had gnocchi before that seemed to melt in your mouth. This was amazing.

I also had the pleasure of meeting two young ladies from Arizona, sisters who were studying at Università per Stranieri di Perugia (University for Foreigners). We talked about our experiences in Italy and we practiced our Italian a bit.

My last day in Perugia still held some surprises. On the Salumi, Candle, and Cheese tour I mentioned
It's the candlestick maker.
A poem comes to mind.
above, we watched a candle maker ply his skills.

I made Wildflower cheese.

We learned about cheese-making and made some wildflower cheese.

Then met some of the barnyard animals that just needed to get a scratch behind the ears.

Our barnyard friends

We had a wonderful lunch (yes, another one).

One of the dishes we had was Fiori di zucca fritti, which is the flowers of zucchini, lightly battered and fried, and they are the most delicate, but tasty treats. They are sometimes stuffed with ricotta or a piece of cheese.

As the meal wound down and we drank our wine and sighed with satisfaction, our hosts brought out an exquisite cheese plate for each of us. Wow!

Italy is such a wonderful place to visit. The people are warm, friendly, and helpful. With its beautiful scenery, its culture, its art and architecture, its reverence for its religious history, it is interesting at every turn.

And then there's the food! Buon Appetito!

* La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, The World's Most Enchanting Language, by Dianne Hales

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Che io fatto in mi vacanza estate

I’m not sure if I wrote that correctly, but it should say “What I did on my summer vacation”. I know, technically it's still spring, but I don't care.

What DID I do? I’m glad you asked.

Well, I went to Italy, in case you missed that news. And what a trip I had. Twenty days of pretty near bliss. This is my 3,000 meter overview, with more details to come in follow-on entries.

The green fields of Tuscany with Siena in the background.
I went from home to BWI Airport to Philadelphia (there, had a four-hour flight delay - one of the low points) to Rome. I emailed my travel agent and when I landed in Rome had an email with a rescheduled train ticket and the name of my new driver in Florence. Hooray, Monica of CulturalItaly!

The Campo in Siena
I took the train to Florence and a limo van from there to Siena.

I stayed in Siena, Tuscany, for five days and did day trips to Chiusure, Asciano, Pienza, Montepulchiano, Castellina di Chianti, Azienda, San Gimignano, Montalcino, and Quercegrossa. I visited an agriturismo farm, four wineries, attended a private cooking class, and had a walking tour of Siena. It was a packed five days.

Dacia Stepway Sandero
I rented a car in Siena and drove to Pergugia, Umbria, where, again, I stayed for five days. 

Cars drive on the right side of the road. While there were some excitable and aggressive drivers, I didn't think any more so than in the US. I noted far less of a patrol presence on the roadways than in the US. I did have to accustom myself to clutching and shifting again. It had been awhile. Merge ramps are relatively short, so you have to be ready to launch or hit the brakes.

It was rainy and cloudy around Perugia most of my time there. However, the sites I was visiting were south a ways, so I had pleasant and sunny drives most of the time.

I did day trips to Orvieto, Città di Bagnoreggio, the mountain top village of Pettino (no GPS signal) above Campello sul Clitunno, near Spoleto, for a truffle hunt experience, Assisi, and Bevagna. 

Very busy five days again. I had almost no time for gelato...but I managed.
Cittâ di Bagnoreggio
Mountain top near Pettino

I dropped off my rental car and took the train from Perugia to Rome to meet family there. 

Italian Air Force displays Italian flag colors
We had AirBnB's near the Pantheon, a very good coffee shop, a bunch of gelato places too numerous to count, and a restaurant we kind of adopted: Clemente alla Maddalena

We made our way around  Rome for a couple days, taking in some sites, but unable to see some because of closures for Festa di Republicca

A photo of the parade taken from the Capitoline Museum

That's OK. Rick Steves says vacation or site see as if you're coming back. 

A Florence sunset
After a couple days we headed to Florence by train. We found our AirBnB and discovered a delightful place with a rooftop terrace. 

Again, we had a convenient cafe nearby, an essential ingredient for beginning the tourist's day. We closed out our first evening in Florence witnessing a beautiful sunset from our terrace with a bottle of vino rosso. What could be better? 

We tooled around Florence for a couple days, seeing its sites and succumbing to the beauty of its art, architecture, and gardens. 

We then grabbed a train to Venice. 

Canal Living
Venice! It really is as beautiful as advertised. We arrived in the evening, and fears about navigating the water taxi system quickly dissipated. They have set it up as fool proof as possible. That doesn't mean you won't have to ask a question or two to make sure you're heading in the right direction on the right number boat, but, still, fairly easy to use. 

"Building Bridges" by Lorenzo Quinn

In the two days we were in Venice, we managed to see a good deal of the highlights, do some ambling around, and easily convince ourselves that, yes, Venice, we would be back.

A view on Palatine Hill
Then we were headed back to Rome for the final leg of our journey. Same rooms as before, so we felt comfortable in our surroundings as if we were seasoned Romans. 

We climbed around Palatine Hill. We navigated the Metro system (yay, us) to get us to Vatican City and back. We ate at our favorite places. And then we were heading to the airport for our trip home.

The Dome of St. Peter's Basilica

I felt a little guilty last week after returning home. I enjoyed this vacation so much, I felt like I had gotten away with something. I guess I did. I came home with wonderful memories, new friends, and a greater appreciation for a culture that I've always admired. I brought home over 130 Euros, so I guess I better plan on returning real soon.

Sunday, May 05, 2019

Forever and a Day by Anthony Horowitz

Forever and a DayForever and a Day by Anthony Horowitz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Forever and a Day is a nice entry into the Bond legend, serving as a prequel and showing Bond receiving his 007 designation. It's a typical James Bond story, with hidden laboratories, double crosses, sinister henchmen, and a femme fatale. The only thing missing is Q and his creative devices to aid Bond in an ingenuous escape. I had a few nits to pick, but none worth going into. So enjoy the story, appreciate a thriller that's not 500 pages long, and put your favorite movie Bond into the role. I did all three.

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Monday, April 15, 2019

One Small Sacrifice by Hilary Davidson

One Small SacrificeOne Small Sacrifice by Hilary Davidson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One Small Sacrifice by Hilary Davidson *

Alex Traynor had been a war photojournalist and worked in the world’s most dangerous environments. After being shot during one of his battlefield forays, he came home with a damaged leg, a case of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a drug addiction, and a fiancé, Dr. Emily Teare, Emily operated on his wound in the field and gave him his single purpose he has to go on living.

It wasn’t always so cut and dried, though. A year earlier, at a low point in his life, a close friend, Cori Stanton, had fallen off the roof of Alex’s building and the circumstances were never clear. Alex blamed himself for not preventing it. Cori’s father and Sheryn Sterling, the investigating detective on the case, believed Alex had a more direct role in Cori’s death.

Now, a year later, Emily has disappeared, leaving behind a type-written note and many questions. Detective Sterling believes that once again Alex is the prime suspect in a woman’s disappearance, and she’s determined not to let him slip through her hands this time.

In One Small Sacrifice, Hilary Davidson has combined the best aspects of a police procedural with a suspense novel. As the reader we follow both Alex and Detective Sterling as they try to solve the puzzle of what’s happened to Emily and who is responsible. We see things that each of them sees that the other doesn’t, but never everything, and that helps ramp up the narrative tension.

Davidson’s plot is tightly written, but nuanced, the story seeded with enough alternatives to keep the reader guessing throughout. Characters are complex and interesting, with each of the main characters being given a suitable backstory that drives their actions. Davidson writes with a confidence and assuredness that will convince you that every line was written with extreme care. One Small Sacrifice is a novel written by a writer at the top of her game.

* I received a complimentary copy of this novel to provide a review.

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Saturday, March 02, 2019

Italian. Bella Lingua!

Learning the Lingo

American tourists traveling to Europe today hardly need trouble themselves about a language barrier, at least in the major cities or on organized tours outside of the cities. Many Europeans, especially in the major cities, speak English as a matter of course. In airports, major rail stations, and city retail shops, you’re sure to have little problem making yourself understood and finding answers to most common questions. Whether you have need of knowing the unique hand gestures of Italia (or wherever you're going) probably depends on whether you’re renting a car or not (just kidding).

However, you may want to know a little of the lingo for the country you’re visiting. When you visit on your own outside the major tourist areas you’re not as likely to find most people speaking English. Also, native people generally appreciate when you try to communicate in their language. For whatever reason you choose to learn a language, there are numerous methods for pursuing your language education. Let’s ignore the hand gestures for the time being.

My trip to Italy is going to take me to Rome, Florence, and Venice, but also outside those major cities to the smaller cities of the Tuscany and Umbria provinces.

I decided I wanted to learn enough Italian to speak a bit and also to understand what people around me were saying. This, I think, is the most difficult part of learning a new language, absorbing what you're hearing and making sense of it.

Years ago, I bought a package called “Just Listen and Learn Italian.” I now have more incentive to delve into it.

It came with three 60-minute CDs and a book with dialogues, vocabulary, and illustrations. What I like best about it are the recorded dialogues. When you hear the segments about rail arrivals and departures, you hear the background noises of a rail station, exactly the types of noises you’ll have to filter the real announcements through when you’re traveling. I’ve started using the package lately and I really enjoy the way it is structured. Early on the book shows present-tense verb conjugations, talks about cultural issues, shows signs that you’re likely to see as you travel, and gives a brief overview of Italian geography. It has the written dialogues to follow that are on the CDs. It’s helping me a great deal. Alas, this package is no longer available for retail sale, but there are quite a few alternative packages for sale on Amazon and you can find one that you believe suits you best.

There are various language-learning Apps available to assist learning a language for your tablet  and/or smartphone and the ones I looked at present lessons on vocabulary, grammar, sentence structure, and listening skills. I’ve been using two: Duolingo and Babbel. I intentionally stayed away from the more expensive ones: Rosetta Stone and Pimsleur.

Duolingo is a free app, with plenty of frustrating ads, and plenty of opportunities to buy your way out of them. I choose not to.  Duolingo seems a little scattershot to me and doesn’t provide as much guidance around grammar issues, nor does it introduce new words in a structured manner as I’d like. One nice feature it does have is a random vocabulary match quiz that includes words from past lessons, so they stay fresh in your mind. The App provides groups you can join if you’d like to converse in writing with fellow students.

Babbel charges a nominal fee of $45 for six months (if I remember correctly), with 50% off for initial signup. I like the way Babbel is structured and presents new information. It follows a precise method for presenting new material and important grammar areas are emphasized with a popup. It also has a nice review function so you can go over the words and terms you’ve learned without repeating the full lessons. The structured lessons can seem a bit repetitive, but because the lesson subjects are more targeted, I didn’t mind that.

Learning to speak with proper pronunciation is important to advance in both apps. Babbel provides a greater opportunity to listen to the spoken language and interpret what you’re hearing. I think with a diligent effort, either of the Apps would be helpful in teaching you the language fundamentals.

My latest tool to learn Italian is a course at my local community college. Although the counselor told me that “Italian Grammar 1” meant that it was more a reading and writing course, my teacher tries to ensure each class session includes a routine of listening and speaking the language. She is native Italian, born in Brindisi, Puglia at the heel of the boot, and although sometimes she doesn’t hear correctly what we’re asking her in English, her perspective is helpful. The immediate feedback in a live class makes the learning process more efficient. Although the book we're using is "Italian in 10 Minutes a Day", I can tell you it takes significantly more time than that to master the lessons. Our teacher helps students understand the principles and then the shortcuts one can take. For instance, when we answer a question in English, we don’t always formally repeat the full question in our answer. That’s true in Italian too, and her tips on how to do that are appreciated. 

I've found plenty of additional tools to help me learn Italian in my local Barnes and Noble. It takes a little help from all of them to feel confident that a lesson is adequately covered. Your experience may vary. 


I’m really looking forward to trying out my new language skills on my trip to Italy. I’m sure I’ll have many opportunities to embarrass myself as I try, for instance, to ask for a beer and find I’m given butter. Nothing ventured, nothing gained!

Bella lingua! Bella Italia!
David, but not The David