Wednesday, August 17, 2011

If you've read my Istanbul book you know that Claudia Roden, one of my most favorite food writers and cookbook authors, shared the name of one of her favorite restaurants in the city, Borsa in the Istinye Park mall (there are other Borsas in Istanbul, but this is the one she was taken to by her friends Nevin Halici -- who was the first to travel around Turkey collecting regional recipes -- and her brother Feyzi Halici -- a poet and longtime senator who promoted regional cuisine by organizing cooking competitions and gastronomic congresses).

I regularly use several of Roden's cookbooks at home, including Arabesque (Knopf, 2006), Mediterranean Cookery (Knopf, 1992), The Book of Jewish Food (Knopf, 1996), and both of her books on Middle Eastern Food (the original edition was published in 1974 and the new one appeared in 2000). But a few weeks ago, I bought Roden's new cookbook -- The Food of Spain (Ecco)-- and I think it might be her best book yet. It's just fabulous. I've been dipping into it at random and can't stop reading it.

If you have my book on Northern Spain: from the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela (Three Rivers Press, 2003) you know that I have a soft spot in my heart for Spain -- I went there with my high school Spanish class, and it was my first trip outside of the U.S. So with Spain in mind, I went last weekend to see 'Spanish Paradise: Gardens of the Alhambra' at The New York Botanical Garden. What a wonderful garden they've created in the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, and there is a companion exhibit, 'Historical Views: Tourists at the Alhambra,' in the Mertz Library. This is presented in collaboration with The Hispanic Society of America, which addresses every aspect of culture in Spain, Portugal, Latin America, and the Philippines and whose collections are unparalled in scope and quality. In the gardens surrounding the Conservatory there is Poetry Walk, featuring sixteen poetry boards with the poems of Federico Garcia Lorca , and there are tapas and sangria in one of the cafes as well as flamenco in the Ross Performance Hall. The whole thing was so impressive I became a member!

'Spanish Paradise' closes in just 4 days, so if you are living in or visiting the New York metropolitan area make haste and get there quick. And if you love Spain as much as I do, you'll agree that The Food of Spain is a must-have volume.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Continuing with my recommendations for some recent good reads, this post is devoted to just one: Hotel Il Pellicano (Rizzoli, 2011, $60). It landed on my desk on one of the hottest days of the year in New York, and I was mesmerized by the cover image. It seemed incredibly appropriate that I read this during the dog days of summer, so I immediately dove in. With text by Bob Colacello (former film critic of Village Voice and editor of Interview, author, and special correspondent for Vanity Fair) and Bronwyn Cosgrave (fashion historian, journalist, and author), this is mostly a book of photos, fabulous photos, by John Swope (who established himself as a photographer in Hollywood in the 1930s and after the war became a Magnum photographer; he became an investor in Il Pellicano and documented the 1964 ground-breaking of the hotel); Slim Aarons (who began his career as official photographer for the U. S. Military Academy at West Point and later became a photographer of the jet set for Life, Town & Country, and Harper’s Bazaar; he aimed his lens at Il Pellicano guests from 1967 to 1991); and Juergen Teller, a German photographer born in 1964 who is credited with campaigns for Marc Jacobs, Missoni, Helmut Lang, etc., and whose work has been shown at Tate Modern and MoMA – he and his family were invited to Il Pellicano in June 2009, when he also captured the hotel’s Globetrotters’ Party on film.

Readers of my Tuscany and Umbria book know that Dianne Hales -- author of one of my most favorite books, La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language (now a Broadway Books paperback) who maintains a great site you should know about, -- is a great fan of Il Pellicano, the hotel perched on a hill overlooking the coastal Tuscan town of Porto Ercole. And, in the May 2011 issue of Dream of Italy, she relates that the first time she went to the hotel it took her breath away: “I want you to bring me here every year for the rest of my life,” I said to my husband Bob. That was 1990 and we have indeed returned annually. How could we not? No place on earth may be more romantic.”

Though I’ve not been a guest at Il Pellicano, I agree that it is incredibly romantic (but in fairness I must admit that the village of Ravello, on the Amalfi Coast, might give Il Pellicano some stiff competition!). In the same year that Dianne Hales first visited the hotel, I was very fortunate to be invited for drinks there that summer by the then-proprietors of the Cala Galera Marina, who were old family friends of my good friend Charles (readers of my book may recall that Charles contributed an account of his salad days in Porto Ercole on pages 71-75). I no longer remember if we had drinks in the Il Pellicano Bar, at the poolside restaurant, or the all’aperto bar – I mean, I was given a tour of all the public areas of the hotel, but most of the time I was practically pinching myself to make sure I really was in this place that didn’t even seem like a hotel. It felt more like a grand party, one that I wasn’t invited to officially but that I was in the middle of nonetheless. It was intoxicating, stunning, hugely appealing, and downright sexy.

As Bob Colacello writes in ‘A Visitor’s Note,’ when he finally visited Il Pellicano, after hearing about it from friends, he wanted to stay for two weeks, or two months. “At Il Pellicano, the world beyond disappears. It’s a place to rejuvenate, to have a real vacation, not to network, or to see and be seen…it’s Italy the way you dreamed it would be.” He also accurately points out that both Il Pellicano and Porto Ercole are such an anomaly. “Mass travel has created mass development and mass disappointment,” and places that were once unspoiled – Marbella, Mykonos, Puerta Vallarta, etc. – have utterly changed. Porto Ercole is better known today than it was in1990, but still, I meet very few people who’ve been there. As I wrote in my book, “Porto Ercole is a pretty, pleasant coastal village with a refreshing lack of sites to see, though it’s noteworthy for the fact that Michelangelo Merisi – Caravaggio – died here in 1610. And when the Argentario area came under the control of Spain in the late 1500s, Philip II had the Forte Stella (“star fort”) built, seeking the advice on the fort’s design from Cosimo de’Medici, who recommended Bernardo Buontalenti and Giovanni Camerini. The Argentario was described as “scarcely undiscovered, but neither is it a byword among Mediterranean resorts” by Doone Beal in Gourmet (July 1988), and I think this is still accurate.” Bronwyn Cosgrave, in her essay, ‘A Tuscan Home Away From Home’ shares the opinions of several people very familiar with both the hotel and its locale. One, Frida Giannini – creative director of Gucci -- says, “There is no shopping in Porto Ercole and no showing off at Il Pellicano.” Another, Daisy (Countess Desidera) Corsini – of a very distinguished and princely Florentine family dating back to the 13th century; you may be familiar with her family’s Palazzo Corsini at via del Parione 11, one of the most prestigious examples of the Baroque style in Florence -- says that Il Pellicano, just like Porto Ercole, “has never been a jet-set place like Sardinia or St. Tropez. It is about family. Some people come here and say, “Where is Prada? Where is Gucci?” We tell them: “Go back to Rome.”

Il Pellicano (the hotel) was conceived by Michael (British) and Patricia (American) Graham, who, in 1962, “accomplished ‘what a lot of people talk about, after their third martini, but seldom do – they chucked all their so-called “security” and changed their lives” as San Francisco Chronicle Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Herb Caen noted. Bronwyn Cosgrave reveals that after the Grahams were refused a loan from the Italian government that they’d counted on, the financial backing for the hotel came from a consortium of close friends. Michael reportedly gathered about twenty friends together and told them if they’d contribute, they and their families could come to the hotel gratis. But Michael Harris, an advertising executive who’s been staying at the hotel with his wife since 1967, said Graham “forgot one thing. Some of these people had very large families. They ate him out of house and home! So Il Pellicano never made any money.” The hotel was acquired by Roberto Sció in 1979, and his daughter, Marie-Louise Sció, an architect, oversaw a two-year restoration of the hotel in 2006. She was aiming for a very homey look, but “it all had to look Pellicano.” Bronwyn Cosgrave observes that “by using Pellicano as an adjective, Sció alludes to something its guests understand – that is, Il Pellicano is as much an attitude as it is a hotel, combining the old-school polish of Roberto Sció with the freewheeling spirit of founders Michael and Patricia Graham.”

Il Pellicano (the book) is a beautiful, must-have family album of la dolce vita. I love the thick cloth binding, and how the endpapers feature a red wave design on a bright white background. I think I love the black-and-white photo section by John Swope a tad bit better than the color images, but only just a tad. Missing, to my mind, is pictures of the restaurant with some accompanying recipes (after all, it has earned two Michelin stars) and of guest rooms – I, for one, would surely glean some ideas from the rooms’ style and décor. But, I suppose that since the hotel is closed from mid-October to mid-April, the focus of the photographs is outdoors, and its publication now is not accidental as it’s a true song of summer: I can practically smell the suntan lotion while I turn the pages. A nod to the level of service at the hotel is found in the book’s acknowledgements by Roberto and Marie-Louise, who express their thanks to the hotel staff “with special mention for those boys and girls years ago who worked so hard jumping up 94 stairs and down 94 stairs just to bring water to the guests on the beach” (before they got the license to build the elevator).

Bob Colacello recalls ordering a club sandwich and fresh limonata lunch down on that cement beach (which, though it doesn’t sound like it is actually very chic and is reached by those many stairs or by taking the outdoor elevator) and revelling “in the rays of the Tuscan sun. That’s an Il Pellicano day: living in your bathing suit, reading a fat royal biography or slim avant-garde novella, breaking for dips in the warm, clean, emerald sea or in the very civilised saltwater pool.”

Hotel Il Pellicano is a member of Relais & Chateaux and its Michelin-starred restaurant is under the direction of Chef Antonio Guida. Room rates range from 420-880 euros and suites from 765-1900 euros.

Porto Ercole is in the region of La Maremma, and a good resource for the whole area is (click on the British flag for the English version). Other nearby places to visit that I recommend are Orbetello, Porto Santo Stefano, Grosseto, Pitigliano, and Isola Giglio, where I had to buy two pairs of plastic blue sandals because I lost a single sandal (from my left foot) in the deep and clear water of the Tyrrhenian Sea. I still wear them today anytime I’ll be on a rocky beach.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

I've been reading a number of books that I didn't know about when the manuscript for my Tuscany and Umbria book was due, and they've each been great, so I'll devote the next few posts to these very worthwhile tomes. I enthusiastically recommend them for companion reading while traveling, armchair reading if you're daydreaming about going to Italy (or have recently come back), or, in the case of a few, culinary reading if you're inspired to get in the cucina and start cooking! Here are the first two below:

How Italian Food Conquered the World by John F. Mariani (foreword by Lidia Bastianich, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011). Mariani is the food and travel correspondent for Esquire, wine columnist for Bloomberg News, and the author of several books, including The Dictionary of Italian Food and Drink and, with his wife Galina, The Italian-American Cookbook. (He's not the John Mariani who founded Banfi Vintners in 1919.) He's also been referred to as "the most influential food-wine critic in the popular press," so it will not come as a surprise to know that he tells the story of how, indeed, Italian food has conquered the world with great spirit and wit. As Mariani writes in his Introduction, we can go to a restaurant anywhere in the world today and chances are very good that we'll find Italian dishes listed on the menu. Mariani has witnessed, over the last four decades, how the status of Italian food has gone from a "low-class, coarse ethnic food to the most recognizable, stylish, and influential cuisine in the world." And how this happened "has as much to do with changing ideas of ethnicity and a surging interest in wholesome ingredients as it does with taste and fashion." He shares the stories of a great number of people, restaurants, and products, such as Mamma Leone's, Elaine's, Patsy's, Sirio Maccioni, Mario Batali, Pizzeria Uno, Ernest and Julio Gallo, Robert Mondavi, Alfredo's Ristorante, Mary Ann Esposito, Marcella Hazan, London's River Cafe, Sophia Loren, Rice-a-Roni, and Chef Boyardee -- did you know the name derives from Italian immigrant Hector Boiardi? He worked as a chef in Cleveland and then opened his own restaurant, called the Italian Immigrant, and began canning his own sauces and then spaghetti. He provided the U. S. military with canned spaghetti with tomato sauce during World War II, and after the war he made new labels for the cans featuring his photo. He also changed the name to a phonetic spelling so Americans could pronounce it easier -- Chef Boy-AR-Dee (but most Americans still mispronounced it as Chef Boy-Ar-DEE, as they do today).

"Italian food," says Bastianich in her Foreword, "is simply gratifying, effortlessly delicious, and nutritionally sound...It is safe to say that Americans have a love affair with Italy and its food and that they aspire to live the Italian style and eat the Italian way." This is absolutely true, but it wasn't very long ago that Italian food was considered inferior, especially to French cuisine. Mariani notes that Italian food just about everywhere outside of Italy was "regarded as little more than macaroni with red sauce, chicken parmigiana, pizza, and "dago red" wines. I highly recommend his enjoyable chronicle of a now nearly universally loved cuisine. (One small quibble: this book would have benefited from the services of a good copyeditor as there are a number of annoying typos.)

The Reluctant Tuscan: How I Discovered My Inner Italian by Phil Doran (Gotham Books, 2006). This is one of those Tuscan memoirs that I was prepared to dislike simply because I didn't like the title. And, as I note in my book, do we really need another Tuscan memoir? Like others I didn't think I'd like, this one, too, proved me wrong, so yes, I've added it to my (sagging) shelves and I'm recommending it to you.

Doran was, as you may know (I admit I didn't recognize his name), a successful Hollywood screenwriter and producer whose wife, Nancy, a sculptor, saw their life together heading in a dead-end direction so she went to Italy and bought a crumbling farmhouse for them to fix up. She didn't consult Doran first, so right off the bat you can imagine how at least some of this story goes. But you can't imagine how truly hilarious their straniere in Paradiso story is, and how lovely, and beautiful, and memorable.

In the telling of the story, Doran also enlightens readers to numerous Italian traditions, customs, and vocabulary, which I particularly love. So for the word cantina he explains that this is the "heart and soul of every Tuscan home," and if we think it's the equivalent to the American den, the English drawing room, or the French parlor we're wrong. "Every Tuscan home, no matter how humble, is guaranteed two things by law: a forno for baking bread and a cantina where the family can make wine. No one is guaranteed a bathroom, but every citizen must have their pane e vino."

Initially, Doran really has no intention of actually living in Tuscany, let alone fix up a house and deal with all the local bureaucracy and the village personalities. But eventually, he warms to Tuscany, writing that "there is a fabric of life here, a texture that enfolds you in a way that as a young man I might have found smothering." He also comes to understand how much a sense of place can shape a person, and he believes there is no greater difference between Italy and America than the relationship to our natural surroundings. Though Tuscany is much older than America, it is actually more unspoiled, Doran writes, and "Tuscany is the reality, where our suburbia is the re-creation of that reality." So our neighborhood parks are really just re-creations of meadows, our malls are re-creations of villages, and swimming pools are re-creations of ponds. All of which has the effect of making our experiences one step removed from the immediate impact of life. "Our lives in the 'burbs are clean, efficient, well organized, and essentially soulless. And I would have never understood that if I hadn't come to live in Italy."

There is one tale I won't spoil here but will only say that it involves one of the workmen, Umberto, and 'The Sopranos,' and when I read it I was practically gasping for breath I was laughing so hard (and when I read it aloud to friends they were laughing, too).

Yes, you really do need to read one more Tuscan memoir.

Monday, August 8, 2011

This past Friday I went to The Frick Collection -- on my short list of favorite museums in New York -- to see 'In a New Light: Bellini's St. Francis in the Desert' (pictured at right, and sometimes also referred to as 'The Ecstasy of St. Francis'). It had been a while since I'd seen the painting, and I welcomed this opportunity to see it specially set apart and "in a new light."

The reason for the renewed attention is a recent technical investigation, by both the Frick and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, that "addressed some longstanding questions about the picture's meaning," to quote from the exhibition's text. The museum staff has done a terrific job with several multimedia presentations and a short film about the unprecedented technical examination (that included infrared reflectography, X-radiography, surface examination, and paint analysis) and about the significance of this truly amazing painting.

In the film, Colin Bailey, Associate Director and Peter Jay Sharp Chief Curator at the Frick, informs us that Henry Clay Frick acquired the painting in 1915, and that it is "one of the greatest Renaissance paintings in any museum in America." I was especially interested to learn that the village in the background is "probably the very first naturalistic townscape or cityscape ever painted in Western art." (The village is likely not, by the way, meant to be an accurate portrayal of Assisi.)

One of the amazing things to me about this painting is what you see when you really look at it. I had no idea there was so much flora and fauna in the picture, and this Sunday 14th the Frick is offering a drawing class, 'Bellini and Botany," that focuses on the plants seen in the picture (for anyone over the age of 10).

This special exhibition closes on the 28th of August, and is well worth an extra effort to see!

Also on view is a tiny but exquisite dossier exhibit called 'Turkish Taste at the Court of Marie-Antoinette.' Next to the gift shop, in a narrow room painted light blue, are a pair of console tables that Frick acquired in 1914 and wall panels that illustrate the taste for turquerie in France. As I noted in my Istanbul book, the word 'Franks' was an Ottoman word that initially referred to the French, but later was the word used to refer to all Europeans. The Ottoman Empire sought to emulate France in its last century, but the admiration went in the other direction as well: "for hundreds of years," according to the Frick's exhibition text, "the taste for turquerie was evident in French fashion, literature, theater and opera, painting, architecture, and interior decoration."

Three interiors a la turque were created for Louis XVI's younger brother, the comte d'Artois, and Marie-Antoinette had boudoirs turcs made for her apartments at Versailles. Included in this exhibit is a pair of firedogs (used as a decorative facade for the metal support that holds burning wood in a fireplace) made of gilded bronze and featuring seated dromedaries -- these were from Marie-Antoinette's boudoir turc at Fontainebleau. The pair of small console tables are made of gilded and painted beech and walnut with marble tabletops, and there is a row of crossed crescents at the top of the tables (a traditional symbol of Turkey) and the support figures represent African boys wearing turbans -- probably African slaves or eunuchs who oversaw the harem in Topkapi Palace in Istanbul.

These are interesting, but I was really wowed by two door panels that are from the cabinet turc of the comte d'Artois, "the most sophisticated Turkish room at the court of Marie-Antoinette." Attributed to brothers Jean-Simeon Rousseau de la Rottiere (1747-1820) and Jules-Hugues Rousseau (1743-1806), these are in a wonderful and warm palette of deep yellow, light blue, red, etc. and were in the south wing of the Chateau de Versailles. The room was the private retreat and library of the future Charles X, and its decor featured costly mirrors and fabrics, all now sadly lost, that evoked a very sumptuous Ottoman Empire.

The Rousseau brothers were named designers and sculptors to the comte d'Artois in 1774 and in 1780 they were official painters and decorators to Marie-Antoinette. According to the Frick's research, they "had specialized in the design and execution of Turkish wall panels since 1776, stating the following year that they 'were particularly au fait of this genre etranger."

'Turkish Taste' is supported by Koc Holding (there's a squiggly line under the c in Koc), Turkey's largest industrial and services group and a major supporter of art, culture, the environment, and health; the Koc family retains a majority stake in the company. The exhibit closes September 11th, and is yet another (great) reason to visit The Frick.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

When I was a student living in Paris, in 1979, I spent a fair amount of time walking along the banks of the Seine. I loved doing this, at first because it reminded me of a framed print my parents had of a Seine scene complete with les bouquinistes and some clochards (tramps) hanging out underneath one of the bridges. Later, I loved doing it because I was fascinated by all the house boats on the river, and on occasion I had some conversations with some really interesting people. But my absolute favorite Seine pastime was to sit somewhere -- anywhere -- along the banks in warm weather, which only arrived in the late spring. Do not believe that song 'April in Paris' (composed by Vernon Duke -- did you know his real name was Vladimir Dukelsky? -- and lyricist E. Y. "Yip" Harburg) as it is positively false. Anyone who's spent a winter in Paris knows that it's very cold (I actually went to the dentist at the American Hospital in Neuilly in the middle of February because my teeth hurt, and the dentist told me I was simply too cold!), and I completely embraced a line from 'In a London Square' by Arthur Hugh Clough (1819-1861) that read, "Spring never would, we thought, be here." The warm side of spring definitely does not arrive in Paris in April, which is most of the time rainy or gray or blustery or all three. (I'm glad I spent three weeks of the month in the south of France -- it was raining when I left, and raining when I came back.)

My parents came to visit me on May 2nd, and it snowed. But only a week later the warm and beautiful weather did finally arrive, and when I walked to the Seine from the rue de Grenelle (where I lived with a French family of five), Parisians were literally packed along the banks, peeling off sweaters and long-sleeved shirts, picnicking, playing was a veritable fete, and I loved it! Someone painted the words 'Vive le Soleil, Toujours Sourire' (long live the sun, always smiling) on a stone wall, and I took a picture of it (this appears in my book on page 558).

All of this is why the creation of Paris Plages, ten years ago, is such a welcome and brilliant idea. If you'll be in Paris before the 21st of the month you are in for a real treat (the dates this year are 21 July to 21 August). I went early on in its run (I believe it may have been the second summer), and it was just so much fun my head nearly popped off. Every year this celebration of summer just gets better and better -- this year there is ten times more sand; racket sports can now be played on the "beach;" the Paris Plages furniture that dates back to 2002 has been replaced with chaises longues and blue-and-white-striped beach mats; there are ten giant deckchairs (each one is roomy enough for two adults) spread along the beach; and sculptors will recreate the castle of Sleeping Beauty out of sand (courtesy of an initiative by Disneyland Paris).

According to the official website, this year there are three Paris Plages sites: the Georges Pompidou Expressway, the La Villette Basin, and the square in front of the Hotel de Ville (the Hotel is also host to an exhibit, 'Paris on the Seine - From the Old Quays to Paris Plages' that's free until 17 September from 10 to 7 everyday but Sunday and holidays). Be sure to watch the video clip on the site entitled 'Une journee a Paris Plages' -- it's fun, and the music is terrific! (I wish I had the soundtrack.)

A mon avis (in my opinion), Paris Plages is as wonderful and innovative as two major urban projects here in New York, the Brooklyn Bridge Park and the High Line. If you are a visitor to New York, I urge you to add both of these to your itinerary, and if you live within the New York metropolitan area, I urge you to continue supporting these great urban spaces.

Paris Plages is just incredibly additive and appealing. On y va! (Let's go!)