Cooking Class

Yesterday morning our group took a cooking class. Our instructor was the head chef at the Barone di Villagrande vineyard, shown above, who proved to be a deft, encouraging, and effective instructor. Thanks to him, I now know how to fill a cannoli (you need to start from the middle and make sure you fill the shell completely) and I learned other skills, too.

We began with an immaculate work station, but it didn’t stay that was for long. Our first task was to take a pounded bit of beef, fill it with a mixture of goodies and cheese, roll it up while tucking in the sides so that it was in the same shape as an egg roll, dip it liberally in olive oil, and then dredge it in panko breading. Each of us marked our effort with a toothpick and note so we could eat our own handiwork. You can see my finished, fully cooked product below.

Then it was on to the pasta. We each got a precisely measured amount of flour and an egg in a bowl. You whisk the egg with a fork, make a kind of volcano shape with the flour, then gradually add the beaten egg into the crater of the flour volcano and begin to knead the mixture into dough. I was a little too quick with the pouring of the egg mixture, which collapsed part of the volcano and required some rapid egg damming and general triage. Fortunately, we had some more adept pasta hands in our group who knew what they were doing. (This did not include the Sicilian CEO, whose dough was so dry the chef had to discard it with a sad shake of his head.)

I ended up with a reasonable approximation of pasta dough and learned how to make gnocchi pasta using just a fork, shown at right in the photo above. I then cut the pasta at left into circles and made cannoli-shaped pasta using the handle of a table knife for shaping. The chef stopped by to demonstrate both techniques, and watching him gently but firmly shape the dough into different shapes was like watching Leonardo da Vinci at his easel.

We left our pasta creations with the chef and the kitchen staff, took a break, then came back later to actually taste the fruits of our labor. The beef roll-up and pasta were good, but the pasta sauce—which we had nothing to do with, incidentally—was exquisite, and probably the best ragu sauce I’ve ever had. We topped off our fine lunch with some great wine and a cannoli, which I am glad to report was fully filled.

New Fruit

The Barone di Villagrande vineyard offers excellent accommodations and a first-rate kitchen that prepares exquisite food. In the morning you check boxes on a little menu to indicate what you want for breakfast. If you check the fresh fruit box, you’ll likely be served a plate that looks something like this.

The peaches, apricots, melon, strawberries, and kiwi are all ridiculously fresh and intensely flavorful. If you’re like me, though, you might not have seen the yellow stemmed item in the middle of the plate. It’s a fruit called the medlar that is grown all over Sicily and Italy. if you grab it by the stem and bite into it, you’ll be treated to a delicate taste that is like a cross between an apple and a pear. Unlike those fruits, however, the medlar has large, Chiclet-sized seeds, so you’ll want to nibble around them.

Imagine! A new fruit! And a tasty one at that. If one of our Columbus grocery stores stocked medlar, I’d buy it.

A Fish That Gave Its All

In Taormina we stopped for lunch at Osteria Rosso di Vino, where we had one of those experiences that make travel wonderful. When we sat down the proprietor brought out a huge, freshly caught red snapper. The fish weighed in at 7.5 kilos—about 16 pounds—and he explained it was large enough to feed all nine of us and provide three distinct courses. Who could resist that offer? That’s the fish, after filleting but before removal of the cheek meat, in the photo above.

We started with a gift from the chef: fried sardines with mayonnaise. The mayonnaise wasn’t at all like often-cloying American mayonnaise; if was made only with whipped egg whites and locally grown lemon and was light and delicately flavored. The sardines dipped in the mayonnaise were scrumptious.

Next came snapper tartare over local greens. It was bright and firm and reminded me again that fresh fish is the only way to go. Our titanic snapper was starting to have an impact.

Next came homemade pasta served in the traditional Sicilian style, in a light sauce with capers and potatoes and mint. It was excellent, too. One of the members of our party did not want pasta, so the osteria dipped some of the fish in a light batter and prepared fried fish for him, shown below. It looked and smelled and tasted terrific.

The last course was poached snapper covered in a fabulous broth. It was one of the best fish dishes I’ve ever had. The broth and vegetables were so good I asked for seconds, and I used my spoon to finish every drop. And the proprietor was right: the one fish did it all, and in face produced leftovers for the osteria staff.

I’ll always remember that awesome fish lunch.

In Taormina

Yesterday we visited Taormina, a cliffside town that is a short drive from our vineyard lodgings. Originally founded by Greek settlers in the B.C. period, the town is a melange of Greek, Byzantine, Moorish, Norman, and Italian influences, with bright colors and patterns everywhere you look. The town square shown above, with its fabulous tile inlaid floor, is a good example. You get a sense of Taormina’s cliffside status from the steep hills immediately behind the church.

The town square also affords a sweeping view of the cliffside and the Mediterranean Sea far below. Those are prickly pear cactus plants in the foreground, and you can see a few boats on the bright blue water.

The buildings in town are colorfully painted, and many feature second story railings with plantings and traditional figures. The streets in the town are narrow—being built into the hillside means space is at a premium—and you get a close-up view of the buildings as you stroll along.

From the town square you pass through an arched gate in the wall that leads to an older part of town where the streets are even narrower. The archway features a beautiful traditional Madonna and child mosaic, shown below, that is set into the wall for all to enjoy and that attests to the Byzantine influences in the town.

Part of the fun of visiting Taormina is taking a peek at the tiny alleyways that branch off from the main street. You’ll see lots of stairs leading up and down and planters, too. The stairs also can serve as seats for the footsore visitor looking for shade. Stopping in the beautiful local churches also is a good way to beat the heat.

There was an amazing variety of plants along the passageways, with the kinds of deep color you expect to find in tropical settings. That should come as no surprise in a seaside town on an island off the coast of southern Italy.

Taormina is a popular tourist destination, and it is not hard to see why: it is a charming and interesting place with some very dramatic views.

Mt. Etna, Day And Night

Over the past two days we’ve been knocking around Sicily on the slopes of Mt. Etna, an active volcano. During our visit we’ve seen just how “active” it truly is. I’ve never seen a live volcano up close before, but Mt. Etna definitely lives up to the billing. The volcano has produced a steady stream of steam and smoke during the day, as shown in the photo above. At night that activity is even more spectacular, as shown in the photo below, with red hot lava spilling down the side of the volcano like melted ice cream running down a sugar cone.

It’s an awesome nighttime display, made even more impressive by the fact that tomorrow we’ll be hiking Mt. Etna. I’m not sure my sneakers are fireproof, though.

The Tiber, Castel Sant’Angelo, And St. Peter’s Square

Our last jaunt on our Sightseeing Saturday was a walk over to Castel Sant’Angelo and Vatican City. The Sicilian CEO and I took the path along the Tiber to avoid the crosswalks and check out Rome’s famous river. Our plan succeeded in that we didn’t have to cross many streets, but the Tiber isn’t much to see—or smell. The area around the river seemed to be trashier than the rest of Rome and the river odor was pungent. You could take an upper path or a lower path right along the river. We wisely opted for the upper path to minimize the assault on our olfactory senses.

The river opens up and the scenery improves as you approach Castel Sant’Angelo, the iconic circular castle of the Popes. The castle is a reminder that the Popes were once active (and occasionally martial) figures in Italian politics, as the head of the Papal States. You can still see the castle moat, although it has been drained.

There is a nice pedestrian bridge over the Tiber to the entrance of the castle. The bridge is lined with religious statues—I’m guessing the figure above is the angel Gabriel with his trademark horn—and also street vendors selling handbags, souvenirs, and religious medals. As we passed by the castle itself a really good two-guitar group was playing Pink Floyd’s Shine On You Crazy Diamond (and Dire Strait’s Sultans of Swing on our walk back).

The castle is very close to St. Peter’s, and once you cross the street you find yourself part of the stream of humanity coursing toward Michelangelo’s dome. The main street to St. Peter’s is dramatically lined with pillars. St. Peter’s Square itself is huge and spectacular and stands as Bernini’s architectural masterwork. The square was crowded, with a long line of tourists waiting to get into St. Peter’s basilica as they were being harangued by an angry street preacher. We didn’t have tickets so we didn’t go in, but the CEO calculated we had exceeded 20,000 steps on our Sightseeing Saturday. That meant we had burned enough calories for a carbo-heavy Roman dinner fit for a centurion. it was time to head back to the hotel.

At Barone Di Villagrande

Our first stop in Sicily is the Barone di Villagrande vineyard, on the slope of Mt. Etna. The old volcano is still active, and occasionally rains pumice on the vineyard—which helps enrich the soil. You can see an active lava flow near the top of the volcano.

We started with a tour of the vineyard and an explanation of the challenges of grape growing and how modern vineyards blend old and new techniques to grow successful crops. Roses, for example, have long been planted at the ends of the rows of vines. They are pretty, but also serve a purpose: they are a kind of early warning system for mold and tell the sommelier it is time to take steps to address it.

We ended our tour in the barrel room, where the wines are aging in handmade chestnut barrels. The room is mostly underground and was built in 1850. The big barrels aren’t used anymore but sure look cool. They are more than 250 years old and we’re rolled down a hill to reach their current location.

The View From Our Balcony

This morning we flew from Rome to Sicily, where we ended up at the Barone de Villagrande vineyard. You could not find a more abrupt change in setting. From the hustle and bustle of scooter-infested Rome, we came to a bucolic, absolutely quiet place on the footprint of Mt. Etna. As we enjoyed the greenery and the silence, the shadows lengthened on the vineyard terraces and gave the area a richer, more sculpted look.

Sicily is a very pretty place.

The Spanish Steps, The Trevi Fountain, And The Pantheon

After a refreshing birra, we ventured into serious Roman Tourist Territory. Our first stop was the Spanish Steps, shown in the photo above. Even though the Piazza di Spagna offers plenty of open space, the area was overrun with people. Still, the steps themselves are beautiful. We found that we enjoyed them most by simply looking at them from below, without climbing.

Weirdly, people were filling water bottles with water from the fountain right in front of the Spanish Steps, as the guy is doing in the photo above. That’s putting a lot of faith in the Roman municipal water system, and I wondered how many of the people who quaffed the fountain water ended up desperately regretting it a few hours later. I don’t think you could pay me enough Euros to drink fountain water, no matter how thirsty I might be.

It was a pretty day, and there were many people out and about. Even though it is still May, the temperatures were hot, and probably touched 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Because much of Rome is unshaded, walking from point to point can be steamy and sweaty work. The fact that the crowds were out, as indicated in the photo above, added a bit to the heat as we followed a well-traveled path from the Spanish Steps to the Trevi Fountain.

The Trevi Fountain is magnificent. It also is probably the most “selfied” photo opportunity in Rome. There are multiple levels around the fountain, and each one featured people jostling for position as they tried to take the perfect selfie. The photo below, of people gathered at the top tier of the fountain, gives you an idea of the selfie scrum that was underway. You couldn’t really move in any direction without checking to make sure you weren’t photobombing somebody’s selfie.

From the Trevi Fountain we followed the throngs over to the Pantheon, which is another magnificent structure shown in the photo below. The admission lines were long, so we didn’t go inside to check out the famous oculus, but instead just enjoyed the graceful lines of one of the world’s most famous buildings from an outside vantage point.

Many of the visitors to the Pantheon were camped out on the steps leading to an obelisk in the middle of the piazza in front of the Pantheon, hoping for a cool breeze to beat the heat. As for us, it was time to find some shade and a place to settle for a late lunch. We stumbled across a nice little sidewalk restaurant on a side street and enjoyed a light lunch al fresco. I polished off a wooden board of prosciutto and absolutely fresh mozzarella, washed down with another birra and guzzled water, and concluded that a bit more walking was in order.

In Search Of (Electronic) Globalization

In a world that is tied together by trade, roads, economics, air travel, the internet, and countless international organizations, isn’t it weird that something as basic as electric service—the magical substance that powers pretty much every device used in the modern world—differs so dramatically from one country to another? Once your computer is on line you can communicate seamlessly with people anywhere in the world, but there’s nothing seamless about getting your laptop powered up in a foreign land. You’ll face weird plug-in configurations and need a converter or adapter or some other gizmo, and then you’ll want to cross your fingers that some strange power surge doesn’t fry your motherboard.

It makes absolutely no sense. And isn’t it infuriating that the fact that you can buy a converter that turns the two dots into the two slots means that global uniformity can in fact be achieved from a technology standpoint? So why isn’t standardized electricity high on the one- worlder punch list?

We know that, at some point, the electrical supply riddle is solved, because futuristic sci-fi shows never show the characters wandering around, fretting and cursing about plugging in their devices. So, what’s the hold up? Is national pride in a country’s distinctive socket configuration preventing sensible electrical homogeneity? C’mon, countries of the world! Let’s set aside our silly differences and settle on standardization. I’d happily go for the weird two-hole set-up, or even the slanted slots set-up, so long as it means I never have to buy a converter or adapter again.

On The Black Sand Beaches Of Ladispoli

Last night we drove from Rome to Ladispoli, a seaside town on the western coast of Italy, on the Tyrrhenian Sea that separates Italy from Sardinia and Corsica, There we had an excellent seafood dinner with lots of clams, oysters, octopus, and shrimp, an Aperol spritz to kick off the festivities, and some terrific wines with our meal.

Our restaurant was right on the Ladispoli beach, which has very dark, almost black sand. It was an overcast evening, and the beach attendants had already neatly folded and stashed the lounge chairs and closed the umbrellas when we arrived. The waters were calm, and the sky and the sea looked like an unbroken curtain of silver behind the black sands and the orange chairs.


Rome is a city of scooters. Part of what makes driving in the Eternal City so daunting is the constant stream of scooters darting in and out, ignoring any and every traffic law. And it doesn’t help that you’re afraid you’re mowing down Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn tooling around town in Roman Holiday.

Our hotel is on a side street near the Piazza Popolo that is a kind of scooter parking zone. Pee Wee Herman, who famously knocked over a row of parked motorcycles on Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, would have a field day here.

How Do You Pack A Hat?

Let’s say, hypothetically, that you (1) actually own a straw hat, and (2) want to take the hat on a trip. How do you pack a hat without it getting crushed and mauled in the interior of your suitcase as your luggage is hurled to and fro by the guys working in the baggage control department at the airport? Hats, unlike ballcaps, can’t be safely folded and tucked into the nooks and crannies of your suitcase without the structural integrity of the hat being forever and irreparably destroyed.

Our grandparents may have had hat boxes that they used to protect their hats from travel-related damage, but when was the last time you saw a hatbox? The best advice from the internet seems to be that you either (1) decide not to take your hat at all and opt for a ballcap or other form of headwear that can be flattened instead, or (2) turn the hat upside down and try to pack around the hat and stuff it carefully, so that it is immobilized during the journey and can preserve its shapely hat contours. I’m heartily skeptical that the second approach works, given the shifting and tossing that occurs with baggage. I’m confident that if I tried to pack a hat using this method, I would arrive with a totally destroyed hat.

No, I think there is no good way to pack a hat. That means that, if you are going to take a hat on a trip, you’ve got to wear it on the plane and in the airport. In short, taking a hat on a trip requires a clear, unwavering commitment and an overt, physical declaration of hat fealty. Taking a hat on a trip requires a kind of dedication that just doesn’t exist with ballcaps.