Sunday, December 24, 2017

Living the Dream—In a Tacco!

I currently live in the middle of an enormous tacco—this tacco is about 50 kilometers from side to side. Stop smacking your lips—no, I am not tucked into a huge tortilla with onions and carnitas as neighbors. Notice the spelling: it is not t-a-c-o. But rather, t-a-c-c-o. In Italian, this is the word for “heel”, like the heel of a shoe...or better, the heel of a gigantic boot, which, of course, is the shape of this ancient country. 
Puglia: The tacco (heel) of the Italian Boot
I currently live in Puglia which comprises the entirety of the tacco plus a bit of extra territory to the north which helps keep the heel firmly anchored onto the boot itself. 

Yeah, you’ve probably never heard of Puglia, much less ever thought of visiting here. Alas, the allure of the Grand Tour of Florence-Rome-Venice is just too strong. But, until you’ve been here, you will have no idea what a splendor you are missing. This is a heel with real soul!


I first became truly aware of Puglia, albeit the northern section, above the tacco, in about 2004 when I stumbled upon a CD called I Maestri della Tarantella by the Cantori del Carpino which featured a handful of already very old singers of an old tradition called the tarantella del Gargano.
The CD that started my obsession with Puglia
The music grabbed me from the first few minutes, compelling me to listen to the disc over and over for days on end. Then, to quench this new thirst, I started seeking out similar recordings from far-southern Italy—some were fantastic, others just so-so. But for over a decade I continued the search for more and more musica del sud, the music of the south. Each time I found a new jewel, I was in heaven, a kind of musical ecstasy! Very, very satisfying, I must say, the kind of satisfaction that makes some folks smoke a cigarette afterward! There is a lot of music to discuss, and I plan to offer in these pages a very thorough exploration of this music in the very near future. In the meantime, let’s discover the land that created this magical music.


After successive trips to Italy in 2007, 2009, 2010, and 2014 failed to get me to the south, at long last, in 2016, during a two-month stay in this fascinating, complicated country, I managed to shoe horn in a few days south of Rome, commencing in Napoli, the northern-most section of the south, then to Matera, the oldest human habitation in Europe, and finally, to Lecce, almost at the very tip of the heel.

As soon as I stepped off the train at Lecce’s small stazione, I realized I was in a very different Italy from the one I had grown to know in the northern cities of Rome, Florence, Bologna, Alba, etcetera. Somehow the sky was a deeper blue, the air was fresher, the spaces less claustrophobic. It was, honestly, a case of love at first sight.

Unlike Florence, where all the buildings are constructed of a dark, ancient, almost oppressive stone, Lecce’s predominating construction material is a very bright, light tan, local limestone called pietra leccese, Lecce stone, that lends a lighter, more open aspect to the city than one feels in Rome, Florence
Lecce's main drag.
or Venice. Soon after my arrival, my Airbnb hosts shoved me head first into the agricultural and comestible reality of Lecce’s surrounding territory, called the Salento, and I began falling deeper under the spell of this extraordinarily enchanting land.
The pull was incredibly strong—soon after returning from that fateful trip, I resolved to leave the United States and make Lecce my new home, my last home. I’m 65, and I don’t want to move again. It was an arduous process of shedding the majority of my material possessions, and took about 16 months to complete, but I am now living in the heart of the Salento, the middle of the tacco, and I am as happy as a mussel...clams are not as common as mussels down here, and the infinite recipes for preparing these small black treasures of the sea reflect this abundance. But more on food later.

My life will never be the same. I am doing my best to live as the locals do, to blend in, to belong. And I am certain that finding that sense of belonging down here is one of the factors that led me to my decision. Somehow, deep inside, I feel I am home. 


The Salento’s location plunges it deep into the Mediterranean at the extreme end of a minor, secondary peninsula appended to the tip of the larger Italian peninsula. This strategic position in the middle of ancient traffic lanes across this vast sea has made the Salento the target of invasions and occupations for more than 3,000 years. So, though most Americans have never heard of the Salento, it has been on the radar of diverse civilizations for thousands of years: Messiapians, Greeks, Romans, Turks, Greeks again, Normans, Spain and several others, have all cast a heavy cultural shadow on the Salento.
Torso of Greek goddess Minerva from the Salento

The result is an area rich in varied and unique traditions not found any where else in Italy, nor in Europe. For example, around Lecce, there are still more than 50,000 speakers of Griko, a Greek-Italian dialect which even now finds its way into popular culture via a handful of active folk music groups who help keep this language alive in their performances.

A walk through Lecce punctuates this cultural plurality: the predominant style of architecture is the much-lauded Lecce Baroque, actually a product of the Spanish control of the Salento during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Lecce's Second Century A.D. Roman Amphiteater
But smack dab in the city’s center you encounter the monumental corpse of an enormous second-century Roman amphitheater resurrected straight out of the ground, surrounded by that opulent Spanish Baroque, truly a jarring juxtaposition. If that impressive, unexpected amphitheater isn’t enough, a few blocks away, hidden in a jungle of baroque palazzi, is another gem, the almost intact ruins of a Roman dramatic theater, complete with seating, stage and green room! 
The Roman Theater in Lecce

Fortunately, this structure is open in the mornings for exploration, and your ticket includes a small museum stocked with fascinating artifacts from Lecce’s Roman past. Sadly, it seems most tourists overlook this stunning, and inexpensive, time machine!

Another overlooked millennia-spanning display is the Faggiano Museum, a serendipitous discovery by an unsuspecting proprietor who simply wanted to repair some drainpipes before converting his old house into a trattoria. When he started digging under the floor, Signore Faggiano began discovering countless artifacts dating back to the Middle Ages, the Roman period, and even the Greek occupation. Eventually he discovered a network of underground tunnels, cisterns and burial chambers offering a glimpse of more than 2000 years of human occupation, a veritable Pandora’s Box hidden under what had previously been nothing more than a typical house in the center of Lecce’s Centro Storico, its historic center. This is another cheap ticket to the past, and well worth the hour, and the four Euros, it takes to explore. One walks away in awe of this humble, simple, and simply spectacular tribute to the history of this surprising city. 

Exploring the historical depths of the Faggiano Museum

In time, we will explore all of the lovely churches in Lecce—there are dozens and dozens—but to start, we’ll look briefly at the centerpiece of the Lecce skyline, the Duomo of Lecce—the
Cattedrale dell'Assunzione della Virgine, Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. Dating back to 1144, the structure was redone a couple of times, most recently in the late seventeenth century when the current explosive baroque façade and interior were constructed. This church is unique in that the main entrance is on the side of the building, flanked by a spectacular display of the Barroco Leccese, while, what would normally be the main portal at the beginning of the nave, is a minor, usually overlooked feature of this glorious example of Spanish-Salento architecture.

The Piazza del Duomo, Lecce, including the Cathedral and the Campanille

But the church is not really the principal attraction of the cathedral complex. What really captures the attention of the hordes of summer tourists is the campanille, or bell tower, and the expansive open space, the Piazza del Duomo, comprising the church, the bell tower, diocesan offices and an old seminary which now houses a museum on its ground floor. Interestingly, there is only a narrow, twenty-feet-wide entrance to this immense piazza, which helps increase the brazen drama when you walk through it to experience a grandiose visual surprise, the sudden, startling vision of this brilliantly conceived public space. Kudos to its genial designers.

Lecce was once, more or less, a walled city, and three of the old city gates still stand, and all are worth a peek. The current structures all date back to the 1500s (or later), and though not as old as, say, Firenze’s massive Porta Romana, they offer an enchanting glimpse of a city’s old methods of self-preservation. Don’t miss these: Porta Rudiae, Porta San Biagio and Porta Napoli.

Lecce's Porta Rudiae
Naturally, exploring the enchanting streets of Lecce consumes one’s fuel supply, but luckily, the city is studded with dozens of wonderful eateries ranging from simple pit stops with sandwiches and pizza, to full-blown multi-star restaurants, the white linen table cloth kind!

My personal preference favors the mom and pop osterias and trattorias which feature the simple, hearty cuisine the Salento is famous for. Expect to find culinary influences from many cultures, a reflection of the area’s storied past: Middle Eastern, Greek, and “standard” Italian, meaning pasta, tomatoes, olives, cheese and more. Prolific truck farms in the region supply Lecce’s tables with a bounty of gorgeous seasonal produce from mountains of healthy greens and tender artichokes to tomatoes, potatoes, and even prickly pear fruit.

Puglia is famous for its cheeses, rivaling nearby Campania for the title of Best Mozzarella in Italy.
Cheesemaking in the Salento

You will also find several varieties of ricotta, including a very strong fermented one—ricotta forte—made from various combinations of cow and sheep’s milk. But the crown of Puglia’s cheese is the famous burrata. Forget any experience you may have had with burrata in the US, UK, Australia, wherever. The fresh—made within 24 hours of consumption—creamy burrata of Puglia cannot be equaled anywhere, and is a constant option on area appetizer menus—don’t ever pass it up! Burrata is a type of mozzarella filled with cream and ribbons of mozzarella shreds called stracciatelle. Boom! The explosion of flavor when you cut upon a fresh burrata is unforgettable, and should keep you coming back to the Salento for more, and more, and more!
Here is how burrata is made: 

Some of my favorite places in Lecce include these gems: Trattoria da Nonna Tetti, Alle Due Corte, Osteria da Angiulino, and La Vecchia Osteria, all of which are run by multiple generations of local families:  mom and pop, brothers, or sisters, cousins, and every other imaginable relative. The accompanying photos should make you drool.
Ciceri e Tria, chick peas and pasta, here topped with hot chile.

In later posts, we’ll examine these places in detail, but local dishes on which to focus include ciceri e tria, a dish of chick peas and pasta with very clear Arabic origins; sagne ‘ncannulate, a twisty pasta usually served with tomato sauce topped with cheese, either a mild cacioricotta (ricotta salata), or the tangy fermented bite of ricotta forte; fave e cicorie, fava puree with boiled dandelions or other greens; and taieddha, an increasingly rare dish (in restaurants) of potatoes, rice and mussels, baked in the oven and delightfully yummy when done correctly. 
You will almost never find any of these dishes outside the Salento, not even in Italy, so gobble up as much as you can!
Sagne 'ncannulate

I can’t stop writing about the Salento without a nod to the music, for it was the music that got me here in the first place. Future essays will delve more deeply into this hypnotic, and for me, captivating music, but let’s at least scratch the surface right now.

La Pizzica during La Notte della Taranta

The predominant, and most famous style of music from the Salento is the pizzica, a kind of tarantella, a music with ancient origins tied in with mystical rituals and a kind of exorcism. The ritual of old was supposed to help relieve the agony of the bite of local tarantulas, and thus, the origin of the word tarantella. The music can be trance-inducing, and the trance was supposed to send out the evil and pain injected by the spider bite. Of course these practices have mostly fallen by the wayside, but about forty years ago, the music was resuscitated  by the same folk revival wave that produced such groups as Fairport Convention in the UK, Peter, Paul and Mary in the USA, and the Nuova Compagnia del Canto Populare in Italy, one of the main forces in the boot for the resurgence of the Pizzica/Tarantella. 

The music, of a rapid pulse, is usually accompanied by various kinds of guitars, sometimes bagpipes, or other slightly discant double-reed wind instruments, and propelled by a large tambourine called tamborello which beats out the powerful syncopated rhythm, impossible not to dance to. Every summer finds live pizzica performances popping up all across the Salento which culminate in month-long series of migrating mini-festivals operating under the name La Notte della Taranta (The Night of the Spider) which finally explodes like a festering spider bite with a last huge concert  in Melpignano, a small town outside Lecce, attracting well over 100,000 spectators and revelers. I hope to finally experience this group exorcism in August of 2018!

There are many fantastic performers of this music in and around Lecce, but one of my favorites is Enza Pagliara, a singer with deep roots in the music, who often sings in Griko, that old Italo-Greek dialect. I recently saw her perform with the Orchestra Sinfonica di Lecce which featured a composition heavily influenced by the pizzica and other local sources, but combined Enza’s pounding tamborello and strong, expressive voice to great effect—see the video below. It was a particularly magical evening!  Soon I’ll delve deeper into Enza’s work, and that of other excellent musicians from the spell-binding Salento!

Enza Pagliara with the Orchestra Sinfonica di Lecce e del Salento, October 2017:


Stay tuned. In successive entries, we will examine Lecce’s surrounding countryside, punctuated as it is with vineyards, and olive groves, many of which nurture olive trees dating back fifteen centuries. And then we’ll weave along the encompassing sea coast and its pristine, clear blue waters, scrumptious seafood and even a Greek temple or two!  And, of course, the music! Hang on, this is gonna be a fun ride! 

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Catching Up: A Visit To Dario The Butcher's Beefsteak Workshop in Tuscany

The landscape surrounding Panazno-in-Chianti
It’s been way too long since my last post, nearly a year and a half. A lot has transpired since then, but I realized today that there were many topics relating to my November 2010 trip to Italy that needed a bit of documentation. Not sure how many I'll actually cover, but I'll make a noble effort to cover 'em all!

The spread at Dario Cecchini's Solociccia

For part of this trip I was traveling with my friends Cosimo and Rebecca with whom, the year before,  I had visited Dario Cecchini's amazing "restaurant" Solociccia (translated: Meat ONLY) located across the street from his now legendary butcher shop, the Antica Macelleria Cecchini in Panzano-In-Chianti, about halfway between Florence and Siena. (Here is my report from Solociccia in 2009 where I encountered Henry Winkler: click here.) For this 2010 trip we decided to try one of Dario's other ventures into food service, his Officina della Bistecca (translated: Beefsteak Workshop), which was located atop the butcher shop overlooking the astonishing Chianti landscape surrounding the little village of Panzano. Like Solociccia, the menu at the Officina was only MEAT, but this time, the concentration was on different kinds of steak, and only from the fabled Tuscan breed of cow, the Chianina, which was once headed for extinction, but now making a healthy (if ending up on the supper table of well-to-do Italians and tourists is healthy!!!) comeback. 
Dario Cecchini in the doorway
of his butcher shop

The Officina is offered a few nights per week, plus Sunday afternoon which was the time slot we chose. So late on a gray Sunday morning, we grabbed a bus from Florence to Panzano—just a few miles as the crow flies—but an hour, at least, by bus negotiating the winding roads meandering through the Chianti hillsides. Upon arriving, maybe 45 minutes early, we entered the butcher shop which has turned into a rather animated and amusing meeting spot for locals and tourists alike, most of whom are there to eat in one of Dario's meat palaces. The first thing that happens as you enter the shop is someone hands you a glass, then fills it with ruby red Chianti, smiling broadly with a distinctly small town welcome. Yeah, Baby, this is the way to live! 
The free Sunday spread at Dario's Antica Macelleria

Strategically placed around the shop are offerings of Dario's craft, a bit of lardo (cured pork fat) which is eaten on bread, a tub of Dario's "Chianti Tuna" which is pork meat cured in the way Italians do tuna...laced with salt, olive oil and delicious. It would be quite easy to make an entire meal of the goodies offered for free in the shop, not to mention get quite a buzz off the vino gratis, but that would detract from the feast to come. Oh god, had we known what was in store, we would have avoided ALL the freebies (except maybe the wine!) and held out for the Officina. But...that is practically impossible...the temptation to graze, if not gorge, is just too strong!

Anyway, around 1:00pm, we were summoned to ascend a back staircase up to the dining hall which was already full of boisterous Italians (are there any other kind?) seated at two long tables, maybe 40 people in all. Most of them, it turns out, were there as a group from the seaside city of Livorno, out for a day in the hills to drink and eat. 
The dining hall of the Officina della Bistecca in Panzano

There were bottles of red wine scattered around the table, along with bottles of mineral water, all included with the meal. We brought a couple of bottles of better wine, I think one was a Brunello di Montalcino, since the house wines, though fine, don't match the level of food at Dario's places. Soon, a stocky fellow appeared with a board stacked high with steaks which he presented to us before carrying them out to the wood-fired grills on the patio just outside the dining room. 
Steaks on their way to the grill

Not long after, food began arriving—and it would continue arriving for the next two hours! First up was a plate of what Dario calls "Chianti Sushi" which is chopped raw beef, or carne cruda. Needless to say, it was delicious, light, fresh and almost refreshing, especially in comparison to what was to come later. 

In the meantime, the stocky dude kept lugging more boards laden with more steaks, chops and who knows what. I was curious to see the cooking process, so I followed him out to the grill to observe his technique. The fire was hot, but not across the entire grill, so he was able to move the meats around to adjust the cooking speed for each one. But it was not just one grill, but two large ones, each divided into four or five grilling areas, and each grill was also height-adjustable to help with the temperature control. Very impressive. And remember, he was using wood, not charcoal. 
Steaks on the Officina grill: to the left, the Costata,
to the right, the Bistecca Panzanese
Diners participating in the Officina della Bistecca

As the meat cooked, the level of conversation rose incrementally in anticipation of the arrival of the guests of honor, the Cecchini Selected Steaks. There were three different steaks served at this monumental meal, though each arrived pre-sliced on generously portioned plates which were passed around the tables—no entire slabs were served. First was a Costata alla Fiorentina which is basically a bone-in rib eye—exquisite, bloody rare and unforgettable.  Next was a special cut Dario calls the Bistecca Panzanese (Panzano Steak) which is a muscle taken from the heart of the cow's thigh—European butchers are far more expert at extracting the tender muscles from their sides of beef, and this was no exception. It was tender, beefy flavored and totally unobtainable from the standard American butcher counter. Lastly the Grill Master brought in the legendary Bistecca Fiorentina, a three to four pound porterhouse, cooked very rare, al sangue.

Dario Cecchini presenting the Costata alla Fiorentina 
Let's just say that this experience is not likely to be replicated in any other restaurant anywhere because there is no other butcher anywhere like Dario. He is world famous. He is totally nuts. He is totally full of passion for his craft. He loves jazz and classical and plays both on an old tube amp in his butcher shop. He loves Dante, and recites it from memory in the shop. 

He loves tradition and has researched the meats of his part of Chianti and their history. He knows his stuff. He's charming and when he speaks, as he does at every meal, he DEMANDS your attention, and you give it willingly. He presents each cut of meat with a bit of poetry, dramatic to say the least, but he totally enhances the dining experience. You know you are in the presence of a Master. 

Ok, there is a bit more than meat at this litte repast. The table is punctuated with vases of raw vegetables—pinzimonio—including celery, fennel and artichokes, to be dipped in olive oil. Platters full of roasted potatoes and bowls of white cannellini beans were also kept to overflowing—the potatoes were frosted with small scoops of Dario's whipped pork fat, his burro del Chianti (Chianti butter), just to up the ante even more. Bread was plentiful. The wine flowed faster as the food parade continued. 

Officina guest singing a Carnaval song from Livorno
As the meats slowed down, the crowd became even more animated. Turns out the Livornese were part of a Carnaval group...their city is famous for its version of this annual festivity...and when they discovered I worked with Brazilian carnaval, they began singing traditional carnaval songs from their town, some of which were imported, to be sure, from Rio. The effect was transcendent. Rare. Wow! 

Room for dessert? Well, sure! A delicious, but simple olive oil cake was passed around the tables along with coffee and glasses of several types of after-dinner liqueurs including one called Elisir di China which has nothing to do with Asia, but is the Italian word for's derived from the bark of a tree grown in Peru! 
Elisir di China being poured at the end of the beef orgy

Three hours after we started, we began to wind down, pay our checks and head back into the butcher shop where bottles of Elisir were purchased, more free wine consumed. Somehow Cosimo, Rebecca and I stumbled back to our bus stop, struggled onto the next one back to Florence and all three of us slept the entire way back.

I cannot urge you strongly enough to make the effort to experience one of Dario's repasts. The price is fair, fifty Euros, about seventy five bucks, but well worth it for this level of quality, the amount of food, and the sheer pleasure of the experience.  It will surely be one of the most memorable meals of your existence. It will be too much to eat in one sitting, but you will obediently eat everything, well past your normal limits. But you will NEVER have another meal like this, directed by a character like Dario. You will thank me later. I promise. 

Here are more photos of the Macelleria and the Officina:

Costata alla Fiorentina—Bone-in Ribeye

The Costate on the grill
Sushi del Chiani/Carne Cruda

Costata alla Fiorentina sliced for serving

The Bistecca Panzanese being sliced

The legendary Bistecca Fiorentina on the grill

The Grill Master with a finished Bistecca Fiorentina

Serving the Fiorentina...

The olive oil cake which closed out the feasting

Master Butcher Dario Cecchini

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Happy Birthday, My Brother Cris

Cris Quinn in his jock wear
Today is my brother Cris’s birthday. One slight hitch:  Cris is dead.

If that statement seems harsh, abrupt, sudden, it is so for a reason.

My brother Cris’s death was harsh, abrupt, sudden. You see, he was murdered. Murdered in cold blood by a cold blooded murderer.

An angry old man shot him dead, in an instant, with a pistol-grip shotgun.

It was a pistol-grip shotgun that he bought “legally” at a pawn shop in Orange, Texas, where pistol-grip shotguns, I imagine, are considered akin to a new pair of roller-skates intended for a child to play with. A pistol-grip shotgun is not a weapon used for hunting. It is an assault weapon, intended to kill human beings. Cops carry pistol-grip shotguns in their squad cars. They carry pistol-grip shotguns in order to kill human beings. A pistol-grip shotgun is designed to kill at close range, and to kill quickly, violently, abruptly, harshly.

And this is how my brother died on June 13, 2002. At the cold blooded hands of a madman, a cold blooded madman.

This selfish madman upturned the lives of thousands of people. Spiraling out from my brother Cris’s five children, to my brother Cris’s seven siblings, to an extended family of dozens of cousins, nephews and nieces, aunts, uncles, in-laws, to a larger circle of hundreds of co-workers, old friends, new friends, clients, to the outer rings of the thousands of people who had never met him, but had, in some way, benefited from my brother Cris’s generosity and love.

You see, my brother Cris was a lawyer. But he was one of the good guys. He earned a lot of money, but he hated what he did. He told me that often. At some point in the late 1990s, he talked about running for public office, but thought the stress of putting his beloved family in the public eye would be untenable.

So, instead, he did many wonderful things with his money, some public, some private, some very, very private, many of his kindnesses known only to him. He was not out for the spotlight, he was a humble, quiet sort.

He helped finance an education building at his church. He donated his time, talent and professional skill via pro bono work to many unions and other organizations. He paid for a nephew’s undergraduate studies—that nephew is now pursuing a medical degree. He loaned me money, some of which I even paid back. He helped with the funding of a regional soccer complex in Beaumont, Texas, where he lived...and died. Encompassing at least 25 or 30 fields, his generosity toward this project extended far beyond the monetary. He helped plant the sod, the trees. He watered those plants, and he cut that grass on a tractor he could barely drive.

At 5 a.m. on the morning he was selfishly and needlessly shot in cold blood with a pistol-grip shotgun, he was watering the grass at this enormous facility. After his self-assigned chore, he fetched his youngest daughter Caitlin and took her to another one of their regular morning breakfasts at the nearby Pig Stand. As it happens, the day after my brother Cris’s funeral, I unknowingly sat in the same booth at that Pig Stand where he ate his last meal with Caitlin. I broke down in tears. I am breaking down in tears as I write these words, thinking about the joy he felt sitting in that booth with his delightful Caitlin. And thinking of the eggs, the hash browns, the whole wheat toast, or maybe a breakfast taco, that would have been his last, and of his final moments, and his last round of laughter with that bright, sunny child he called Caitlin.

And why? Why did this happen? The clueless bishop who delivered the homily at my brother Cris’s funeral said, “In time, the reasons for this tragedy will be revealed.”  Well, your holiness, your misled-edness, I’m still waiting. The cloud with the secret message has yet to descend. If you see it there in Beaumont, will you snap a photo with your iPhone and send it along to his children, his seven siblings, his fellows at work, those firemen and pipe fitters who benefited so much from Cris’s generosity? Please, we are waiting. How long before the reasons for this tragedy will be revealed? Dear Bishop, I think your skullcap is on too tight. There is only one reason this happened.

Selfish greed.

The cold blooded murderer who shot my brother Cris with a pistol-grip shotgun was selfish and greedy. He wanted money to which he was not entitled.  He was 79 years old. He was a thrice convicted felon, convictions dating back to the late 1930s. The NRA, which greedily defends the rights of gun-owning numbskulls so that their weapon-manufacturing clients can continue to profit greedily from truly needless gun and ammunition sales, has lobbied for weak gun regulation. And as a result, the cold blooded, greedy old man was able to slip through the system and was allowed to purchase a pistol-grip shotgun with which, on June 13, 2002, he senselessly—in yet another form of armed robbery, stole my brother Cris’s life. He stole my brother Cris from me, from his children, and from thousands of others whose lives were touched by this patient and wonderful man.

Bishop, I am still angry with you about those naive, silly words. I so wanted to stand and confront you that sad, terrible Saturday, but I held back. The reason for my anger will be revealed one day.


My brother Cris with sisters Barbara, Susan (the baby) and me.
Today, February 9, 2011, my brothers and sisters are exchanging stories about our brother Cris via email. I have not contributed any stories yet. So I've decided, instead, to write this blog entry. And I am doing it at 30,000 feet in an airplane above Colorado where my brother Cris loved to ski with his five young children. 

But I do have my own stories about my brother Cris, many stories. Enough, I suppose, to fill a slim book.

I remember the day when my brother Cris was brought home from the hospital by my beaming parents, a newborn in swaddling, emerging from the sky blue 1954 Ford Country Squire station wagon. I was nearly three-years-old and excited to see this strange package. But I seem to also remember some feelings of jealousy, the sort we read about in books, see in films, or perhaps, experience in our own lives, when a younger sibling makes his first appearance into the family. This is one of my first memories of my existence, maybe the very first.
My brother Cris with pigeon, Oklahoma City

I remember when this picture of my brother Cris was taken, a pigeon atop his head. He was three years old at the most, say, 1958, and we lived in a grand three-story home in central Oklahoma City. My older brothers used to taunt, capture, and sometimes shoot their BB guns at these pigeons from their third-story “suite”.

I remember, in the backyard of our small rented house in Shawnee, Oklahoma, the hole my brother Cris and I dug with shovels and soup spoons. It was, perhaps a couple feet wide and, maybe three feet deep, but to kids of five and eight, it seemed like a cavern. And it was much narrower at the bottom than the of this age armed with pilfered soup spoons from their mother’s kitchen are neither great engineers nor excavators. So, my very little brother Cris managed to get his foot stuck at the bottom of this hole, his head barely reaching the level of the soil around him. He started crying. And he continued to scream for help because I was unable to get him out of this mess. I imagine it was my saintly mother, Frances, who managed to pull him free. I also imagine we were scolded, but were probably also given a glass of milk and an admonition to dunk into it. “Bury the hole and don’t do it again.”  Needless to say, that admonition must have dissolved into the milk, because, you know my brother Cris and I dug another hole somewhere else, behind another house, maybe in another town. Mother, you should have whipped our little asses.

I remember my brother Cris and I puking our guts out in the front yard of our parents’ home in Houston. It must have been 1975 or ’76. I think I was about to move back to Austin, and my brother Cris and I decided to drop a few bucks with some of his friends at the Dollar Margarita Night at a nearby bar called the Courtyard. The drinks were the size of a Hollywood swimming pool, and I am sure we each had three or four. Or five. Or six. In the restroom, one of his friends, Matt Pace, heard me spouting some sort of gibberish and emerged from the John insisting I was speaking Russian. Maybe I was. No, surely I was. Linguistic ability is always linked to excessive drinking, don’t you know?  When we somehow got back to that house on Winter Oaks Drive, the house where we both came of age, whatever that means, we were falling down drunk, hugging the pine trees my father had planted in 1967 when we moved into the house. I vaguely remember St. Frances emerging from the house, observing her sloppy drunk middle sons rolling on the lawn, uttering a “tisk, tisk”,  and then going back inside to finish her popcorn. “I hope those boys learn a lesson from this,” I’m sure she thought as she shut the door behind her. I’m pretty sure neither Cris nor I learned anything from that. Nothing.

I remember another time in the early 1980s when my brother Cris came to visit me in Austin. He had been having some trouble with a girlfriend—he was not yet married to the wife who never loved him—and decided to come to me for some brotherly consolation, something along those lines. We had a great meal at Austin’s Fonda San Miguel, consuming great food, and, hey, big surprise, too many beers. During that meal he confessed the following to me: I had been his idol when we were kids. He wanted to be just like me, he wanted to do everything I did. This was a total revelation. I never imagined myself as anyone's idol. But thanks, Bro, and now I can say, my Brother Cris, I wish I could be one-one thousandth of the loving, generous man you were. Even one-millionth would do. Brother Cris, I really mean this. I really mean this.

I still need my brother Cris. I often open my little black phone book to dig out his number,—his number which is still scribbled therein—because I feel the need to talk to him about something. Maybe to borrow some money, maybe to lean on his big, brotherly shoulder. And then I realize I can’t call him. I can’t talk to him, I can’t travel with him again to Italy and fart with him through the night in our hotel room, or gross him out with the smell of my prosciutto-inspired bowel movement hatched just feet away in the hotel room’s tiny bath, I can’t ever hug those pine trees with him again.

I miss my brother Cris. He is gone. He left abruptly, suddenly. They said justice was served because the selfish, greedy old man, the cold blooded murderer, was sentenced to life in prison, and given a $10,000 fine, the maximum “punishment” for the crime he committed. They said the system worked. That jackass bishop probably believes that line also.

Justice? That would involve bringing my brother Cris back. Back to those who loved him, returning him to enrich, and be enriched, by those whom he loved. And that, my friends, just isn’t going to happen. It just isn’t going to happen.

I love my brother Cris. I miss my brother Cris.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Another View of the Real Bologna

Again I'm gonna steal from my old junk, this time a profile I did of Biba Caggiano, the great Italian cookbook author, for The East Bay Monthly back in June 2001. I was delighted to interview her in her restaurant, the food was great, but the tastiest treat was the comment she made to me, and I am sure she meant it: "This has been a great pleasure today. Unlike most so-called food writers, you actually know something about food!" I melted when she said that, and was on a cloud for days afterward.

Here ya go:


The Real Bologna

Biba Caggiano
    In the not-too-distant past, when Chef Boyardee and Kraft Grated Parmesan set the standard for Italian food in this country, a young woman, recently arrived from Bologna in northern Italy, traveled, after a short stint in New York, to the then-hinterlands of Sacramento, California to start a new life. If you think it’s hard to find a decent Italian meal today, imagine the withdrawal Biba Caggiano felt when she found herself drowning in a raging cesspool of Spaghetti-Os.

    But the relentless Biba pulled together her memories of the amazing cuisine she grew up with, and has since then assembled an empire worthy of any Caesar—but we’re not talking salads here. With the sixth in her series of authoritative cookbooks behind her (Biba’s Taste of Italy, William Morrow, 2001), Biba Caggiano’s domain also includes thousands of hands-on cooking classes, countless episodes of television instruction including two years on the Learning Channel, and the showcase for her crusade: Sacramento’s Biba, one of the finest Northern Italian restaurants outside of Italy.
Biba's Taste of Italy, 2001

    “We’re talking 1969,” recalls Biba, “if I wanted to eat the foods I grew up with, I had to learn to duplicate what my mother used to do. What led me to the food I am known for today was my palate and my eye. When I looked into that pot, I could tell if it was almost right or not, too liquid, too light, too whatever. But it was my tastebuds that really guided me. For the first 23 years of my life I learned how the food should taste.”

    And Biba was lucky enough to grow up in Bologna, the center of the region known as Emilia-Romagna, respected by most Italians as the ne plus ultra of a country already considered by the world as a food paradise. Imagine the flavors that trained her palate (and which constitute the focus of her new book as well): Emilia-Romagna is the home of Parmigiano-Reggiano, the most majestic of all cheeses; prosciutto di Parma, the most heavenly preparation of a pig’s hind leg imaginable; balsamic vinegar, the much abused curative and syrupy magic condiment; paper thin handmade pastas, filled and unfilled, regarded as Italy’s finest; ragù bolognese, which, when done properly, transcends any notion most of us have of what a pasta sauce can be; and of course mortadella, the true bologna, a melt-in-your-mouth treat that will permanantly erase all thoughts of Oscar Meyer you might be harboring.

    “When you are young growing up, if you are lucky enough to live in a place like Bologna, you really don’t understand how lucky you are until you find yourself out of your homeland. That’s when your find out how different the world can be. When I first arrived in this country we were living in Queens with my husband’s parents, we were so broke. I went out one day to buy some bread and saw women on the street with rollers in their hair and slippers on their feet and there I was with my heels, my stockings, my good outfit, as we do in Italy when we go out. I looked at these women and thought, ‘Wow!’ And that’s when it hit me. I was really in a different place, I became really homesick for everything I left behind,” Biba remembers.

    And the food memories?

    “The first thing I wanted was the aroma of that broth on Sunday mornings when we kids would sleep in and my mother would get up early to put on the pot with all those bones and mixed meats; that is what used to wake us up,” says Caggiano. “The aroma was fabulous, and she would make these tiny tortellini which my brother and sister and I would help seal, or she would roll out a very thin delicate pasta, tagliolini, to go into the broth.

    “We were raised in that kitchen, that nice large kitchen which was the center of our home, it’s where we did our homework. I stirred the sauces, I tasted, I would do things to help my mother. All these things came back to me, and as I thought about them, I gained a new appreciation of how wonderful it was to have had all those things. Lots of phone calls from Sacramento to my mother in Italy helped me remember all the correct ingredients, but, like I said, my palate and my memory guided me.”

     In no time, her reputation as a cook spread through the capital city and she began giving cooking lessons in her home, eventually growing into the facilities of William Glen, a major source for things culinary in Sacramento. She started out with what she knew, the recipes from her hometown of Bologna, but eventually expanded her course to include other parts of her region as well.

    But to Biba, one dish shines as the most exemplary of Bologna, and it is the dish that launched her career as a messenger of Bologna’s riches: lasagne alla bolognese.
Lasagne alla Bolognese

    “I remember the first time I served lasagne to friends at one of our dinner parties. I saw people eating and they would stop and look at each other and I thought, ‘Gee! What did I do?’ So I asked, ‘Is anything wrong?’ They said, ‘No! This is wonderful! Why is it so delicate?’ Because you know, this was the time when the only lasagne they new were those thick packaged noodles, that’s what was in the stores. They had never had the real thing from Bologna. I was so pleased that the lasagne delighted them so.”

    She adds, “It’s the classic, it’s so good. It’s not the type of food you eat every day, it is so rich, but when you eat it slowly, savoring every bite, and it goes down slowly, you know you are eating something special.

    “It is one of those rare dishes that is perfect, but you have to do it right. You have to have the pasta that is transparent, you have to have the bechamel that is creamy, you have to have the meat sauce that is simmered slowly so you have just the meat essence.”

    Dear reader, please notice there is no heavy ricotta, mozzarella, or sausage.

    She will not stand for anyone trying to mess with such a perfect formula. “Years ago I had a friend in catering who wanted to serve my lasagne recipe. But he said it was not complicated enough for his clients. He said, ‘It’s kind of simple, can I jazz it up? Can I put some mushrooms in the meat sauce?’ I said, ‘WHAT?! You do not understand a damn thing! DON'T TOUCH THE DISH! It has stood the test of time over centuries. No,  you may not alter the recipe.’ ”

    Her devotion to her roots is evident in her Sacramento restaurant where I was lucky enough to have had lunch recently. I was transported back to Italy in a way no other Bay Area eatery has been able to do for me. The food was achiote- and kiwi-free, but instead, redolent of the purity of the simple, spare, and elegant ingredients found in each dish. Italian food ain’t necessarily some spicy meatball.

    The spring-inspired menu I sampled offered a light pasta punctuated with prosciutto, asparagus tips, and fresh peas, all bound and contrasted with a slightly sharp, yet smooth parmigiano cream sauce. A lamb loin was simply grilled and framed with asparagus—no chef-ego-boosting lemongrass-crème frîeche sauce to weigh it down. And the torta di noci was the perfect, not-too-sweet walnut cake. Readers take note: this is a place you don’t want to miss, and is no farther than many of the trendoid joints up in Napa, of which Biba, not surprisingly, has a view (which I wholeheartedly share):

    “These cooks are one of my pet peeves. There are several in Napa that are always being touted in magazines as serving wonderful Italian, let’s call what they do California-Italian, then I can understand that. But the thing is, if you do a dish, and you call it, let’s say, spaghetti carbonara, okay, then do that dish. We all know what goes into that dish: the eggs, the parmigiano, some put in a touch of cream, some don’t, pepper, and of course pancetta. I ordered that dish in one of these places, supposedly so great, and it came with how many other ingredients on top I don’t know. There were peas, tiny carrots. Okay, it was spring, the guy wants to put something seasonal on the menu, I have no problem with that. But don’t call it with that name, spaghetti carbonara, because it’s really a misrepresentation if you call a dish with a certain name that is classically made a certain way. If you have eaten it in Italy, that’s what you think it is; but people here change recipes all the time, they think they can improvise on them, but these recipes have been around for generations.”
Biba's Northern Italian Cooking

    These are the standards, then, that you can expect when you pick up one of Biba’s books. You will get the real deal, nothing more, nothing less. Her first book, Northern Italian Cooking, was an offshoot of her early classes in Sacramento. Around 1981, after five years of teaching, she had amassed enough material for a book and wanted to do one about the cuisine of Bologna. “The publisher said, ‘Uhh, Bo-? Bo-bo what?’ I said, ‘Bologna.’ They said, ‘Where’s that?’ I explained it to them and they said people will never be able to pronounce it, they will never know where it is, they will never be able to pronounce it. ‘Do a book on Northern Italian cooking,’ they said. This was a time when people thought Northern Italian meant just cream sauces and Southern meant red sauces. That book is still out there and has been selling well forever.” It has helped define the cooking of Northern Italy for more than 400,000 book buyers. Quite a feat for a cookbook.

    Twenty years later she has finally published the book she could only dream about in the beginning. Biba’s Taste of Italy paints a delectable portrait of the most edible region of Italy. The book compiles recipes gathered from small trattorie, restaurants, at the market, from friends, family, all over years of travel back home, though it took her two and a half years to do the specific research for this volume, discovering along the way the essence of her native cuisine. “I know my region pretty well, she says, “but it was only when the book came together that I realized the dominance of Bologna as the center of the region—luckily, that’s where my gustatory gift came to life. It was nice doing this work, it was a good thing.

     “I talked to anybody who seemed to know about food,” Biba explains, “I remember we were at the market one day selecting beautiful fresh fennel and there was a beautiful, elderly woman dressed so well picking up the fennel and I asked her, ‘How are you going to cook it when you get home?’ And she said, ‘I don’t know. I’ll figure it out when I get home.’ And that is really the essence of Italian cooking. Go to the market, get what is fresh and in season, take it home and then figure out how to cook it.”

    Biba, who admits to having a weakness for potato chips and honey-roasted peanuts, sums up her career in a philosophical manner: “I am a mother. [Her own daughters have not strayed far—Carla, a new mother herself, lives blocks from Biba and her husband Vincent, and Paola, an avid cook herself, is a lawyer in Oakland.] I think I have always been a mother, even when I was young. I like to nurture people, I like to take care of people. And as I began to work with food, I found great joy.
    My daughters would come home from school with some friends in tow and they would go into the kitchen where I would always have something ready for them. I was taking over what my mother had done without knowing it. That time around the table with family and friends is still one of the best things you find in Italy. It’s a wonderful cultural thing; so this is what I do now, it’s what I’ve been doing all my life.”

    Biba Caggiano has educated thousands, if not millions, in the way of the one-true lasagne. Through her books, her television exposure and her admittedly Big Night-like travails leading her restaurant patrons to an authentic Italian trough, she has labored long and hard to maintain the memory of the food and techniques she learned at her mother’s side, that her mother learned from her mother and her mother from her mother. That’s the way it used to be. Might still be in some places. But if not, at least we can adopt Biba as our foster mom to show us around the kitchens of Bologna so we might start our own traditions in the shadow of Sacramento.


Biba’s Domain

Northern Italian Cooking, HP Books, 1981—A quick survey of the classic foods found north of Rome. Lots of photos and illustrations make this an ideal book for beginners.

Modern Italian Cooking, Fireside, 1992. This is a reprint of her second book. Just what it says—she takes a slightly modern approach to tradition and lightens things up a bit and includes a slew of pasta dishes ready in 20 minutes or less.

Trattoria Cooking, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992. A fantastic survey of simple recipes found in some of Italy’s most charming eating establishments. I love this book.

From Biba’s Italian Kitchen, William Morrow, 1995. This was published to accompany her program on the Learning Channel and concentrates, naturally, on recipes from the north. Another good starting point.

Italy Al Dente
, William Morrow, 1998. This is a close-up look at first course items: pasta, risotto, gnocchi, polenta and soups collected primarily in the north, but includes some great stuff from Naples and Sicily.

Biba’s Taste of Italy, William Morrow, 2001. A fantastic, detailed survey of Emilia-Romagna, with special emphasis on Bologna and surrounding areas. If you can’t make it to Italy in person, this book will take you there.  


Biba's, Sacramento
Biba, 2801 Capitol Avenue, Sacramento, (916)455-2422. Open Monday-Friday for lunch and Monday-Saturday for dinner. Friday and Saturday nights can be jammin’, so call ahead. Biba is there most of the time, unless she is working on a book in Italy. This is one of the few restaurants in this country that does Italian the Italian way. And of course, the menu changes with the season, and the many rotating specials come out of her ongoing book research. On the Web at:

Mike Quinn, associate editor of The Monthly, has traveled to Italy 12 times since 1992 to research food, eat, drink and be merry. His attempt to buy a restaurant in Montalcino near Siena was thwarted by a stack of liens against the place, taller than the tower of Pisa.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The SambaMaster's Rio de Janeiro

I'm gonna cheat again. I want to add some additional thoughts on Rio and Italy soon. I have to bring my Italian sojourn up to the end, from Montalcino to Alba, via the amazing butcher shop of Dario Cecchini in Panzano north of Siena, the crazy, Dante-spouting butcher. But that will be a few more days.

In the meantime, I am posting a piece I wrote in 1986 for the Austin American-Statesman, back when they had a reasonable travel section. This was a "service piece" in part because it has, at the end, specific recommendations for restaurants, bars and clubs. Some of these are now out of date, but I may leave them in. Or not. Always check before traveling or venturing out. The Internet is your friend.

So, here is my still timely take on one of the greatest cities in the known universe. Rio de Janeiro.


My soul is singing,
I see Rio de Janeiro,
I am dying of homesickness.
Rio, your sea, your beaches
All in all, Rio, you were made for me.
[With] Christ the Redeemer,
Arms open over Guanabara Bay,
This samba was written just for you,
Rio, because I like you!

—Antonio Carlos Jobim, Samba from the Plane

Rio de Janeiro
    Unfortunately, the international traveler no longer flies into Rio as described in this Jobim classic.  Instead of gliding into the tiny downtown airport nestled snugly between Sugarloaf Mountain and the ever-present Christ the Redeemer on top of Corcovado, today’s 747s and DC-10s land at an old air force base about 15 miles out of town. 

    Perhaps the romantic drama is gone, but the excitement can never be dissipated—a viscous vitality peculiar to this city of eleven million still permeates the air.  Undulating samba blaring from the cab on the ride into town, towering palms lining the road, motorists ignoring traffic lights and lane markings, the ever-present Christ on Corcovado, a noise level above normally tolerable limits, these signs could indicate one place, and one one place only—Rio de Janeiro, one of the most beautiful and fascinating cities in the world!
Brazilian flag, Cinelândia, Rio de Janeiro

    Rio, situated on Brazil’s east coast, with the Atlantic on one side, and the more tranquil Guanabara Bay on the other, is scattered among numerous verdant hills, better described as stubby, overgrown obelisks.  It is the compartmentalization of the city by these rather imposing, at times sheer rock peaks, combined with the contrasting openness created by the sea and the resulting beaches which gives Rio its unique physical character.

    And its unique cultural character?  That is not quite so well defined or explained.  But the carioca, as anything from Rio is called, is clearly a world apart from fellow Brazilians:  the speech is different, the food is different, the pace is different, the music is different and the party, the party, like the Christ on Corcovado, is, in some form or another, ever-present.  If the Paulista in São Paulo dedicates the day to work and business, then the carioca dedicates the day to living life to the fullest and sucking every drop of enjoyment from the daily grind whether it be work or play.
Carioca spirit in action

    A few observations of regularly recurring events reveal much about the city and it inhabitants:  the daily procession to the beach between 8 and 10 a.m.; the voracious consumption of quick snacks on the run, especially tiny cups of very strong and sweet coffee, the ubiquitous cafezinho; driving habits which appear to be anarchical and self-centered and in total disregard of anyone’s personal safety; a helpful and courteous smile for the tourist (Rio has yet to be truly discovered as the tourist mecca it could be); a healthy disregard for the clock resulting in one to two hour delays for any marked encounter (remember that when setting social meetings); and a profusion of ceremony and social grace never imagined in the the U.S.A.

    All this and more is typical of the carioca.  One could safely summarize the resulting whole as r-e-l-a-x-e-d

    It all works, but in a way that can sometimes be mystifying and frustrating to the ever-efficient and organized North American tourist.  Rio forces you into a very different approach to the rest of the world, somehow illogically logical.  You soon get used to the mayhem in the streets where red lights are mere suggestions, and pedestrians targets.  Walking to the beach, you find yourself stopping for a steaming hot cafezinho and a fried something or other in 95 degree weather.  Lyrical and strongly rhythmic music pervades the night, much like the constant ocean breeze as you show up for an 8:30 p.m. dinner at 10.  Before you go into the restaurant, look up and you’ll see the ever-present Christ atop Corcovado, now illuminated.

    Welcome to Rio, now you’ve arrived!


The Arcos da Lapa, the old aquaduct, Rio de Janeiro

    The history of Rio and its people is a long and complicated one.  The site, thought to be the mouth of a large river, was discovered on January 1, 1501, thus the name, River of January.  First settled by the French, Rio was won by the Portuguese in 1567 and grew in importance as gold and other riches passed through its port on the way to the crown in Lisbon. 

    By 1763 the seat of government was transferred to Rio, and as the city grew, spreading among the hills, Europe began to boil and the Portuguese Empire transferred its center to Rio de Janeiro, an event that would cast a behavioral influence well beyond the pure historical and political aspects of the move.

    Eventually the Portuguese throne returned to Lisbon leaving remnants which were soon transformed into the independent Empire of Brazil.  The fact that Brazil was ruled by a royal family with its ceremony, formalities and ensuing bureaucracy can still be felt in day-to-day life throughout the country. 

    As a result of the abolition of slavery, in 1889 the Empire fell.  By that time several million blacks had entered the country, greatly influencing the cultural makeup of the nation in such basic areas as food, language, music and religion.  Africanisms are much more obvious in Brazilian culture than ours owing to the attitude of the Catholic Church which was more tolerant than the repressive puritanism of our South’s Anglo forefathers.  By the turn of the century, cosmopolitan Rio was a fantastic racial and cultural mix, brimming with a Paris-like exuberance which spawned the samba, Carmen Miranda, the bikini, and eventually bossa nova.

    In the early 1960’s, the capital of Brazil was moved once again, this time from Rio to the newly constructed city of Brasília.  With the government out of the way, Rio could get on with its job as the cultural heart of the world’s fifth largest nation.  
     Early in 1986, the Brazilian government instituted a tough series of economic reforms to fight the 300 percent inflation of previous years.  A new monetary unit, the cruzado, and frozen prices for everything, have so far produced the desired results:  inflation is down and buying power is up.  More importantly, the morale of the people has skyrocketed from rock bottom to a new high, returning the general atmosphere to its former optimism.  [The money is now the real, and the economy is booming and most folks are much better off. China, USA, look out!]
Cold Brazilian "chopp", tap beer

     The carioca’s pace and zest for life creates an ability to appreciate the mundane as well as the spectacular.  The merits of a particular street snack and a cold Antarctica beer are argued as hotly as those of a tender cut of expertly grilled beef and cold Antarctica.  For, in addition to great coffee, Brazil is a beer lover’s paradise boasting some very fine German-style lager delivered up in icy twenty-ounce bottles, just perfect for a hot day in Rio.

    And yes, there are plenty of those in this Cidade Maravilhosa (Marvelous City).  The daytime high averages around 80, climbing past the 100 degree mark in the summer (remember our seasons are reversed) and plummeting into the upper 60’s in July!  Nights can be cool from May to October, so a light jacket or sweater is recommended. 
Rio juice bar

    Other drinks to beat the heat in Rio are not to be overlooked.  An amazing variety of fresh tropical fruit juices can be found literally on every street corner:  try the refreshingly different maracujá (passion fruit), the peculiarly delicious cajú (cashew—the nuts we know are seeds from this fruit) or the strange, but tasty abacate (basically an avocado milkshake!). 

    Brazil has its own national soft drink, guaraná, originally an Amazonian Indian refreshment.  It is highly carbonated and satisfying without the overpowering sweetness of our sodas. 

    And if the beer didn’t offer enough of a kick, sample one of the several concoctions based on cachaça, basically a Brazilian rum.  The simplest and most potent is the caipirinha, nothing more than crushed lime, cachaça, sugar and ice.  It packs a punch, but one simply does not go to Rio without trying one.  The batida, usually served “up,” is cachaça blended with any available fruit juice.  Standouts are the batida de côco (coconut milk) and the batida de maracujá (passion fruit).


     One of the great bargains of Rio is the food which can be had in great quantity and great variety for very little money.  Rio, remember, is a very sensual city, so the attention to food is legendary.  Every restaurant features an army of helpful, white jacketed waiters, laden with tray upon tray of gastronomic and olfactory delights.  It seems as though, no matter what kind of place you eat in, the tantalizing aroma of sauteing garlic wafts through the air every five minutes or so.  Luckily, “mouth watering” is translatable into Portuguese! Dar aqua na boca!!!!!!!!

    The average tourist, for some reason, does not think of pizza while in Rio which is a mistake.  Many pizzerias still utilize wood burning ovens and the pizza is excellent and very different; much lighter than we are used to eating, often dotted with sliced tomatoes instead of a heavy sauce.  The calabresa sausage pizza and the pizza portuguesa (sliced onions and tomatoes, crumbled boiled eggs and ham) are not to be missed. 
Churrascaria Majórica

    Another culinary highpoint in Rio is the churrascaria, or Brazilian barbecue.  With all due respect to the great BBQ chefs of Texas, the Brazilians really know how to cook meat (their beef is world famous also) and serve it in portions that would choke the average Texan.  Meat is grilled quickly over white-hot coals without losing its tenderness or one drop of flavorful juice.  And no dry brisket or chewy fajitas are to be found.  Brazilians prefer filet mignon, tenderloin and other substantial cuts of beef about which the average American can only dream.

    But the crowning glory of the carioca kitchen is the feijoada.  The best insight into the lifestyle of Rio is to experience this traditional Saturday lunchtime feast.  The way to do it is to spend the morning at the beach, returning about 1 p.m. to locate a busy restaurant serving feijoada (hotel employees can recommend a good one since there is no bad feijoada in Rio).  Be prepared for a leisurely three hour meal which will transform anyone into a Carioca with a capital CEEE.
Feijoada Completa

    Feijoada is a dish built around black beans (feijão) and rice originated by slaves to take advantage of whatever scraps of meat they were allowed.  Today it is a hearty mix of beans stewed with dried beef, ribs, sausage, bacon and other cured and smoked meats.  Accompanied by rice, tender collard greens heavy with garlic, manioc flour toasted in butter, and mountains of orange slices (included to help digestion), the meal should under no circumstances be rushed, but slowly absorbed along with the passing carnaval of life and ice cold Antarctica (estupidamente gelada, stupidly cold!) or the more traditional caipirinha.  Anyway, speeding through a feijoada can be potentially dangerous, leading to a blimp-like feeling for several days following.

    Though the temptation exists to spend an entire vacation eating one’s way through Rio, the city is rich with other attractions ranging from its natural features and colonial churches to quaint, historic streets and stark contemporary edifices, in sum, much more than a two-week stretch can safely contain.

    To understand the lay of the land, the first half-day should be dedicated to visiting the ever-present Christ atop Corcovado.  From this vantage point, the entire city of Rio can be seen and, with the aid of a map,  understood, at least in geographic terms; your mileage will vary on understanding anything else!!!!  Sugarloaf (Pão de Açúcar), the many beaches including Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon—Rio’s crown jewels, the crisscross of streets through plush vegetation, the gigantic lake almost pushing Ipanema into the sea, the somehow optimistic favelas—Rio’s ubiquitous slums, it can all be taken in from Corcovado.  No better orientation could ever be devised. 

    The trip to the summit should be made not by auto, but by the charming cogwheel train (the trenzinho) which cuts through thick jungle on its way to the top.  Once there it will be impossible to believe Rio could be a city of eleven million, it’s simply too beautiful.  Before or after the climb, investigate the Largo do Boticário, just up the street from the station.  It is a small square surrounded by charmingly restored colonial homes, a world unto itself only one block off the busy street.  If you are lucky, the woman responsible for the restorations will come out and give you a little tour in English. 
Largo do Boticário

    The complementary peak on the other side of the city, Sugarloaf (Pão de Açúcar), should be done in the afternoon, say, taking off in the cable car from the Urca station at the bottom at about 2 p.m.  The trick is to be at the top of Sugarloaf as Rio, just across the yacht basin, turns on its lights for the evening.  A lovelier, more enchanting sight would be hard to imagine.

    Rio’s downtown (Centro) is dotted with colonial churches, traversed by charming narrow streets lined with 18th century architecture and studded with history.  This is where the city started; wandering a bit in this area, it is easy to imagine the city as it once was.  Investigating its mysteries for a few hours would be time well spent.
Ipanema, Spring 2010, Rio de Janeiro

    Beaches are the reason many people travel to Rio, and with great reason.  Rio is practically surrounded by some of the best beaches in the world, they seem to be endless and the show available at the beach is like no other anywhere.  The growth of the city in the the last thirty or forty years has followed the beach, forcing the reigning trendy stretch further and further out. 

    First there is Copacabana, the widest and still most crowded section.  It remains Rio’s quintessential beach.  Around the point from Copacabana are Ipanema and Leblon which appear to be one beach, but are very definitely two, each with its own particular character.  Ipanema continues to set the trends in beach fashion while Leblon tends to serve as a “neighborhood” beach, attracting few outsiders which is just fine with the area’s celebrity population.  Several miles down the road is the current “in” place to build a home, the Barra da Tijuca.  This beach is over nine miles long, starting out residential like the others, it becomes progressively more and more deserted. 
Ipanema Beach

    Going to the beach is a carioca specialty.  It is done about 9 or 10 a.m., but not at all if there is more than one cloud in the sky!  Another secret to a happy vacation in Rio is to leave everything in the hotel when going to the beach.  Don’t take anything to the beach you wouldn’t want to give away to a perfect stranger.  (In fact, generally speaking it is a good idea to always leave valuables and excess money in the hotel safe.  Be sensible.)  A morning at the beach can be an incredibly effective universal cure, both spiritually and physically healing, and relaxing beyond one’s greatest expectations.

    Still, the best thing to do in Rio is hang out in sidewalk cafes and watch the world go by—cheap, unbeatable entertainment.  But some people still want to sightsee.  
Rio sidewalk cafe, Bar Picote, Flamengo

    The Jardim Botânico (Botanical Garden) was founded in 1808 by the Emperor of Portugal, at that time, himself a carioca.  Its collection of flora from all over the world is unbeatable.  The Imperial Palms alone make the visit worthwhile. 

    The Carmen Miranda Museum offers a fascinating view of this legend of the stage and screen.  Oddly enough, she spent most of her career in Los Angeles.  The entry fee is twelve cents.

     If it can be arranged, a soccer (fútbol) game at the gigantic Maracaná Stadium, where crowds of 100,000 are common, should not be missed, especially on Sunday.  Dozens of drum-based samba bands and spontaneous fireworks punctuate the game in a rhythmic and driving way that Dallas cheerleaders will never achieve.  The game is more than exciting; exciting is the trip out of the stadium!

    And every traveler is interested in bargains and shopping.  Brazil has plenty and the current exchange situation puts the visitor with American dollars at a real advantage.  The aforementioned economic reforms included a freeze of the official exchange rate at13.77 cruzados to the dollar.  For one reason or another, there is a “parallel” rate which offers an advantage of about 35-45%, or Cz$18-21 to the dollar, depending on current conditions. [This is not the case in 2010...the dollar has crashed and the real is hot...prices, in ten years, have doubled for gringos bearing the almighty (!) dollar!)

    Hotels will usually exchange close to the “parallel” rate as will many businesses, but the best rate is usually found in travel agencies.  Newspapers quote the current rate in the financial section and, as long as you can get within one or two cruzados, don’t fret and waste time running around the city looking for a better exchange.  Brazil is already a bargain.  But the best arrangement is to use credit cards only in emergencies and take advantage of the “paralelo.” [Brazil ain't no bargain any longer, still can't beat if for it's beauty, complexity, music and people.]

    Aside from several pounds gained from eating, what does one take back from Brazil?  Leather goods, anything from shoes to bags, are very affordable, as are precious and semi-precious stones.  Brazil’s rich musical resources offer an endless variety of recordings and fine, very stylish clothing can be a very good buy.  For those interested in visual arts, the Galeria Jean-Jacques (Rua Ramon Franco, 49, two blocks from the Sugar Loaf lift) offers unique, high quality Brazilian naive paintings and prints at reasonable prices ($20 for prints,  paintings range from $50 to over $1000). [I think they are now out of business.]
Afro-Brazilian Folk Art, Pei de Boi Gallery, Rio de Janeiro

    Combined, Rio’s treasures create an irresistible magnet the attraction of which very few can overcome.  Although the city can present what seems to be an insurmountable series of frustrations and a division between rich and poor capable of pulling at the toughest heartstrings, visitors to Rio fall in love with its romantic charm and addicting daily rhythm.  The contrasting, multiple layers of its culture never cease to amaze foreigners.  An example:  Brazil is the world’s largest Catholic country, yet a very large percentage of the population lends some form of credence to the religious beliefs brought from Africa by the slaves.

    Rio is its own city; world-class in its sophistication and manner, yet timeless and singular in the character it has developed over the last 400 years.  A classic great escape, Rio, you were made, not just for Antonio Carlos Jobim, but surely for tourists as well!

    The first-time visitor to the Cidade Maravilhosa with a desire to experience the “real Brazil” in Rio is faced with a very difficult task.  Places offering Brazilian food or Brazilian music or both can be quite evasive.  Afterall, the upper class Brazilian who regularly frequents the better restaurants and clubs wants continental cuisine and American music.  So why wouldn’t the American tourist, obviously wealthy with dollars, want the same?

    But the charms of Brazilian cuisine and music can be uncovered with a little patience.
Casa Rui Barbosa, Botafogo, Rio de Janeiro

    The mid-town neighborhood of Botafogo is jammed with little restaurants and bars, many of which dedicate themselves to preserving the Brazilian-ness of Rio.   For a good introduction to home-style cooking try the daily special offered by the charming Botiquim (Rua Visconde de Caravelas, 184 in Botafogo).  A restored 19th century home, the specials, served on rustic, heavy clay plates, feature such treats as carne de sol, sun dried beef served with black-eyed peas and greens, and cozido, a hearty stew chocked with every imaginable vegetable as well as meat and sausage.
Acarajé, Yoruba, Rio de Janeiro

    Also in Botafogo is the very handsome Chale Brasileiro (Rua da Matriz, 54) where one can sample a variety of very well-prepared Brazilian dishes.  The Chale specializes in the unique food of Bahia, Brazil’s original capital, which emphasizes seafood and the African ingredients found in the region.  Try muqueca, a pungent stew featuring fish, shrimp, lobster or other seafood in a sauce of coconut milk, tomatoes, cilantro, peppers and palm oil; its rich flavor will never be forgotten.  Carurú is shrimp, okra and tomatoes: gumbo with a Bahian flair.  [This place is gone, but search out a place called Yoruba, also in is great!]

    For churrasco (barbecue), there are two methods:  a la carte or more-than-you-can-eat.  Very high quality meat can be had from the menu at the Churrascaria Leblon (Rua Adalberto Ferreira, 32 in Leblon) while the adventurous might want to try the rodizio (translate as “never ending parade of every grilled meat imaginable) at Máriu’s (Avenida Atlântica, 290 in Copacabana) or the Porcão (Rua Barao da Torre, 218 in Ipanema).  Brisket will never taste the same.

    On the exotic side, experiment with the Amazonian food at Arataca (Rua Figueiredo Magalhaes, 28 in Copacabana).  Pato No Tucupí (duck simmered in a unique broth) is the regional specialty, but also try the great variety of fresh water fish from the Amazon.  Arataca also serves a variety of very exotic fruit juices from the region and uses them as a base for the famous batida, a drink fired by cachaça, Brazilian rum.
Cafe Lamas

    A better feel for the Rio Thing can be had at Café Lamas (Rua Márques de Abarantes, 18 in Flamengo) or Amarelinho (on the Cinelandia plaza, Centro).  Lamas is a hangout for bohemians and journalists and features the best filets in town; the Filet á Oswaldo Aranha is covered with crisp bits of garlic and thinly sliced fried potatoes.  The Amarelinho (Little Yellow Joint) is a sidewalk cafe where the passing parade of life is utterly fascinating and the food is very good.  Snack on the Frango a Passarinho, chicken cut into bite-sized pieces and fried crisp with, that’s right, bits of garlic.
Amarelinho, Cinelândia, Rio de Janeiro

    For a mix of food and (usually) Brazilian music try a late dinner at one of Botafogo’s new bars:  Barbas (Rua Alvaro Ramos, 408),  Beco da Pimenta (Rua Real Grandeza, 176) or Bambino D’Oro (Rua Real Grandeza, 238).

    Brazilian music can best be located by combing through the “Show” pages of the daily papers, Jornal do Brasil and O Globo.  But a few places that usually have quality acts are Canecão, and the Circo Voador whose Sunday night program with the Orquestra Tabajára should not be missed. (Sadly, the wonderful Tabajára no longer does the Sunday thing, but the Circo continues!)

    It is worth planning a day’s activities around the remarkable programming of the two “Six-Thirty Projects.”  Referred to as the “Seis e Meia,” these are government or corporate sponsored shows downtown, Monday through Friday, at the Teatro Carlos Gomes and the Sala Sidney Miller which feature the best of Brazilian music at 6:30 p.m. for the very reasonable price of a buck. (These are few and far between these days, but still exist at times.)
Forró in Catete, Rio de Janeiro

    Several working-class nightspots have recently become fashionable and are worth investigating for their down to earth ambience and dance-provoking music.  The Gafiera Elite (Rua Frei Caneca, 4) and the Gafiera Estudantina (Praça Tiradentes, 79) are downtown dance clubs dating back at least fifty years.  They are both legendary and national treasures.  Forró Forrado (Rua do Catete, 235) offers regional music from Brazil’s Northeast which will sound very familiar to Cajuns traveling in Brazil.  These three places tend to operate weekends only, though Forró Forrado gets started on Thursday nights. (FF is gone, but there is forró in Catete on Sunday nights at a local dance studio...check the newspapers.)
Samba at Beco do Rato, Lapa, Rio de Janeiro

    For samba, the only sure thing is the Clube do Samba (Estrada da Barra, 65 in Barra da Tijuca).  It is a long cab ride and the headliner will not take the stage until 1:30 or 2 a.m., but it is well worth the trouble for a real taste of Rio’s most famous musical form.  If possible, stick it out to the end at 4:30 a.m.; the rhythms and excitement will be an unforgettable remembrance of Rio to take back home and savor for years to come.  (Clube do Samba is a thing of the distant past. However, there is samba galore in the revitalized Lapa neighborhood...check the papers, or ask around, or just wander after will hear the music pouring out of every other window for many blocks around...)