Monday, August 22, 2011

Postcards for Sal

Greenpoint clock

Manhattan Ave., Greenpoint, Brooklyn

In 1999 we moved to Greenpoint, Brooklyn, before it became a "hip" place to live. We had a great apartment two doors down from Russ Pizza. I was just learning to cook, so now and then we relied on pizza as a quick and inexpensive meal. We'd bring it back to our apartment, sit in our hallway for lack of comfortable furniture and play scrabble while we ate.

Sal at his window

One day as I was walking to work looking snappy in my uniform (my first job out of college I was a flight attendant) dragging my luggage behind me, I heard a voice from a window say, "Dove vai?" I looked up and saw the pizza guy in his window. I had noticed him before as he was often at his perch observing the goings-on on Manhattan Avenue. "Vado a Parigi!" I spouted out, "I'm going to Paris," proud that my two years of college Italian could be put to use. "Torno sabato! Ci vediamo." (I'll be back Saturday! See you then.) When I returned from that trip a few days later, I started eating my pizza in-house and soon the man behind Russ Pizza would sit and chat with me. We treated all of our out of town visitors to Sal's pizza, the quintessential thin crust New York pizza, impossible to replicate outside the five boroughs.

The dough

Sal's pizza
Sal would look out for me when my boyfriend (now husband) was out of town and I never again paid for pizza. To show my gratitude, Sal and his crew became the recipients of my kitchen experiments. Ginger cookies, chocolate cookies, and I remember a carrot cake at one point. I'd bring them down and Sal would take a break while we chatted in Italian. Slowly, I learned the story of his past which he shared in bits and pieces.

Sal arrived in New York in the early 1970's from Palermo, Sicily. He came with no family, but soon married a girl from the old country and together they had two children. Sal started working at Russ Pizza, for a Sicilian named Rosario (who went by Russ in English) and after twenty years Sal bought the place. I always ask him why he never changed the name. He said a friend told him not to change it, so he didn't. All these years he has been making pizza with the same imported products from Italy, never scrimping on quality despite the weak US dollar and the increasing prices in Europe.

Russ Pizza store front
Although our time in Brooklyn was brief, we remained friends with Sal. Everytime we'd come to New York or anywhere on the East Coast, Sal's place was our first stop. On one visit in 2007, Sal ran out and got a bottle of wine and sat and drank it with us. Then he took us down the street for Italian pastries before sending us on our way with a bag full of them. He treated us like family. He always asked when we were going to have a bambino. We would sort of shrug our shoulders. We were busy traveling the world. We kept in touch with him, sending postcards from our new homes and travels.

"Ciao Sal, adesso siamo in Tunisia. Ancora non c'e bimbo..." (Hi Sal, we're in Tunisia now, still no baby...)

"Ti salutiamo da Barcellona dove siamo in vacanza. Come va Greenpoint?" (Hello from Barcelona where we are on vacation. How's Greenpoint?)

"Ciao Sal, Andiamo a vivere a Roma. C'e un bimbo in arrivo! Si chiamerĂ  Romano!!) (Hi Sal, we're going to live in Rome. There's a baby on the way! We're going to name him Roman!!)

Earlier this summer when we found out we were moving to New York, I called Sal. It had been four years since we had seen him and I could hear tell by his voice that he had a smile on his face. Saturday, we took the train out to Greenpoint to introduce Roman to the authentic New York Pizza and to the man behind our favorite pizza place. I think they hit it off quite well.

Sal and Roman

No matter how far away we were from home these past 12 years, we thought of Sal. It was comforting to know that he would always be there in Greenpoint, watching over the place in his crisp white apron. And that the crunch of his thin crust pizza with that perfect balance of sauce and cheese would be waiting for us to welcome us back each time.

Sal on Manhattan Ave.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

My 7 Links

Recently, I was invited by my blogger friend Amelia of Z Tasty Life to participate in the "My 7 links" project started by Katie from Tripbase. The purpose of this project is to "unite bloggers (from all sectors) in a joint endeavor to share lessons learned and create a bank of long but not forgotten blog posts that deserve to see the light of day again."

1- Most beautiful post: Up until now my husband has been the photographer for this blog. That will change soon though since with his new job he'll be too busy, so I'm about to step up to the plate! For me, the Parting Shots post is probably one of the most beautiful posts because it captures his view of our two years living in Rome and was a chance to say goodbye to our time there.


Fountain at Piazza Navona


2-Most popular: Tuscan Wild Boar Ragu comes in first place for most popular. It's one of the best recipes on the blog, too. Looking back at this post I feel nostalgic for the aroma of the sauce smell simmering for hours, the taste of it on my fork and the long, lazy afternoon spent in the company of our friends sharing an elaborate meal.

Tuscan Wild Boar Ragu

3- Most controversial: Circle of Life. I was a bit conflicted about writing this post. I wasn't sure I wanted to make public certain details of my life, like the death of my mother. But she was my first and most significant food influence and on the 20th anniversary of her death it seemed important that I mark that in some way. This post confirmed for me that my blog is an extension of myself, a creative outlet and not just a place to post recipes.

Italian bread wreath

4- Most helpful post: Ricotta Mousse with Fragoline di Bosco is the simplest, most delicious recipe to whip up in seconds and impress friends on any occasion. It's not rocket science, it's just tasty.


5- Post whose success surprised me: The Nonna Elena series, including Gnocchi on Thursdays, Nonna Elena's Crostata di Marmellata, Gnocchi alla Romana, and Pasta, Made in Italy. My years in Rome would not have been the same had I not sought out Italian friends from all walks of life. Looking back on these posts, I remember Elena's smile and loving willingness to teach me, asking only friendship in exchange. She and I have been emailing since I left Rome and she writes to me with such wonder that she, an "old Italian nonna" made a young American friend with such a different life path.





6- Post I didn't feel got the attention it deserved: Local Flavor and Coda alla Vaccinara. When people found out I lived in Rome, I got a lot of envious comments. To be honest, it wasn't always easy living there, but I made the best of it by really connecting with the people in my neighborhood. These two posts described my shopping trips, the flavor of life on the street in a regular old neighborhood in Rome. The kind of thing you don't see or experience when you're on vacation there.


Loiodice butchers

7-Post I am most proud of: Pasta, Made in Italy. Since the birth of my son Roman almost two years ago I have taken on fewer big culinary projects. Before we left Italy I realized I would feel like a complete failure if I hadn't tackled fresh, hand rolled pasta. One phone call to Nonna Elena changed that and within a few days of practicing her technique, I had a new skill under my apron.



Now I will nominate the following five bloggers to continue this project. I encourage you to check out their blogs, they are some of my favorite reads:

Monday, August 8, 2011

Salt of the Earth, Maras Salt Mines, Peru

Mara Salt Mines, Peru

Some of the most basic things in life have the most complex and interesting histories. Take salt for example. In cooking, salting is one of the oldest methods of preserving foods and the simplest means to enhancing flavor. It is essential for virtually all forms of life. It was used as offerings in the funerals of Ancient Egyptians, and the
salarium was a form of payment to soldiers of the Roman army, allowing them to buy salt, which many scholars agree gives us the word salary.

Salt is mentioned in religious texts from virtually every recorded religion. Most languages also have idiomatic expressions including the word salt. "Salt of the earth" dates back to the Bible, and the phrase "taken with a grain of salt" was used as early as 77 AD. "Salty dog" in slang can refer to an experienced sailor.

Mara Salt Mines, Peru

Several years ago, on a trip through the Sacred Valley in Peru, we stopped at the Maras Salt Mines, believed to be in use since Inca times. We descended upon these salt pools in a small bus, our driver navigating the bumpy dirt roads down a steep downward climb to the mine. The views were magnificent as we approached these terraced pools. When we arrived we saw that all of these pools were fed by just a thin stream coming from the mountain. Several salt farmers were busy harvesting and transporting the salt. Throughout history salt has often been a form of controversy, and at the Mara Salt Mines, we learned that these poor farmers were not immune. They work under the heat of the sun in difficult circumstances for a mere pittance, while their famous Incan salt makes it onto the tables of the finest restaurants in Peru.

Salt farmers, Maras Salt Mines

Maras Salt Mines, Peru

Maras Salt Mines, Peru
Until I was about 11 years old, I regarded salt as what came in the blue cardboard canister with the girl and the umbrella on the label and the pour-spout that made a funny noise when I opened it. My family was never big on salting our food at the table. Then we traveled to Spain one summer and my grandmother took us to see a salt mine in the Mediterranean. As I squinted through the sun at the mountains of salt being raked up by heavy machinery, for the first time I made the connection to the source of this ubiquitous mineral. An elementary discovery on my part, but important.

Funny how times and trends change. In the 80's as a kid, salt was really just salt. Over the years it has become a coveted, specialty kitchen item. Pink salt from the Himalayas, French fleur de del, grey and black rock salt, sold in elegant jars with fancy labels and rustic boxes with cork lids. I remember buying my first fleur de sel years ago in France and cradling it in my hands like an expensive gift, then scooping it out carefully to add to my dishes as if it were flakes of gold.

Mara Salt Mines

Sometimes seeing things from a new perspective makes them all the more clear. Salt can sustain life or be very dangerous in excess. Laws regulating salt started civil disobedience in India. Salt can ruin a meal at an expensive restaurant. It can turn watermelon even sweeter or make your tastebuds sing when sprinkled on top of chocolate chip cookies. Human beings contain about 8 ounces of salt. I like to think mine is fleur de sel.

Maras Salt Mines, Peru
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