Italy: Angels on Strings
by Kate Heyhoe
Kate's Virtual Journey: A Progressive Feast
10th Stop: Venice, Italy
Disneyland may not know it, but it's not the Happiest Place on Earth. Italy is.
I'm travelling down Venice's Grand Canal, in a vaporetto (one of the large bus-boats that ferries residents about in this city of waterways), reminiscing about old times. In the two decades since I lived here, not much has changed. The full moon and city lights still reflect on the water, dancing and flickering with more natural pageantry than the electric light parade on Disneyland's Main Street. The sight makes me giddy as a schoolgirl. Even the brisk winter chill doesn't bother me—it only heightens my senses, so every sight, scent and feeling bursts with intensity. Winter, especially at Christmas, is the best time to be in Venice.
I didn't actually reside in Venice, but I came here often because I lived about an hour inland, in a tiny village called Longa di Schiavon. The village had ones: one school, one trattoria, one market, and one church. But as is true throughout Italy, it had lots and lots of children. Beautiful, ruddy cheeked, fresh-faced, wide-eyed children.
Around Christmas, the children of Longa would bundle up in clothes so heavy they looked like the Michelin man, and go caroling. The voices of these girls and boys, sharp and crisp, rivaled the Vienna Boys Choir. Padre Francesco led them in these songs, which were a prelude to the Christmas Eve mass.
To this day, no memory is more charming to me than the angel-on-the-string at Midnight Mass. At the climax of the service, the angel, complete with golden wings and hand-glued goose-feathers, would slide down a wire from the top rear corner of the church, over the parishioners' heads, and down to the nativity scene at the base of the altar. Padre Francesco constructed it all himself—from the angel's halo to the manger's straw.
Unlike the magnificent Duomo of the Vatican or the Basilica of San Marco, rural churches here are simple: a spire, a nave, plaster walls, and if they're lucky enough to have a glass craftsman in the area, a stained glass window or two. The angel was the highlight of this little church, and the whole town was proud of Padre Francesco's work. It made their little chapel as grand as the Duomo for one glorious night.
And this is why Italy is the Happiest Place on Earth. For, despite the examples of ornate or opulent art, Italians get the most pleasure from works of pure simplicity. Look, for instance, at the clean lines of modern Italian design, from furniture to fashion. But the place where Italian simplicity shines brightest is, of course, in their food.
The vaporetto arrives at the Piazza San Marco, and my mind zips back to the present. I bundle my shopping bags and head down narrow cobblestone calli to my friend Flavia's house. "Ciao, Bella," she greets me with a warm hug and double kisses. "The best food has arrived with the best guest!" (Anyone who brings food or wine is a "best guest" in Flavia's house.)
Flavia's modesty belies the wonderful meal we are about to savor. In the kitchen, we first open the pre-made goodies I've picked up at markets, bakeries, salumerias and gastronomias throughout Venezia. Prosciutto, olives, and cheeses for antipasto; pencil-thin grissini and fitascetta, an onion and mozzarella ring bread; and a Torte di Mele, a Christmas apple pie that's a specialty of nearby Trentino.
Flavia's cooking typifies great Italian dining. "In Italy, we want to taste everything, but not all at once. Let the flavors speak on their own. A bad cook is one who doesn't listen to her ingredients, who interrupts their dialogue. The foods themselves do all the work; I merely stand back and let them converse."
Adhering to such kitchen philosophy, Flavia serves us a sumptuous Venetian meal: antipasti misto; a clam-rich Zuppa di Vongole, served with the fitascetta; Chicken Stuffed with Prosciutto and Fontina; Butternut Squash Chioggia Style; sautéed broccoli; insalata mista, a simple salad of mixed greens in olive oil and vinegar; and finally, the Torte di Mele.
"The French, you know," explains Flavia, "learned all about cooking from the Italians, but they'll never admit it. During the Renaissance, the Italians blossomed with brilliance in science, music, painting, and all the arts. We created today's modern cooking techniques and taught them to the French. But we were having so much fun enjoying them that we forgot to write them down!" laughs Flavia. "So, the French codified these techniques, and hence they get all the credit."
French gastronomy may have a certain elan, I remind her, but more cookbooks on Italian food are published than any other type, and Italian food is arguably the most universally loved cuisine around the world. With good reason.
After Flavia's "simple meal" we adjourn to the sitting room, complete with Varonese frescoes, for caffe. Flavia explains how she and her family will celebrate Christmas Eve. "First, we gather up as many children as we can find and go caroling. Then we come back and warm up with hot cocoa for the kids—and stiff grappas for the adults!" she says, referring to the potent liqueur made from the residue of the grapes after wine-making.
"But the children are the most important part," she adds. "Even if you don't have kids, you need to find that little piece of child inside you. Otherwise, what would Christmas be?"
"Da vero!" I agree, and with that we raise a toast to Christmas cheer and la dolce vita, here in the happiest place in earth.
Buone Feste Natalizie!
Italian Recipes and Cookbook Profiles:
- Cicchetti Polenta
with Onions and Sausage
- Penne alla Vodka
Stuffed with Prosciutto and Fontina
Chip and Almond Biscotti
Other Global Gourmet Recipe Resources:Buon Natale! Christmas Eve Italian Style
Global Destinations: Italy
New Olive Oil Tasting Recipes
Pasta, Risotto, and You
December Itinerary... Kate's Virtual Journey: A Progressive Feast
About Kate's Virtual World Tour: A Progressive Feast
From September 1999 to January 2000, this progressive banquet begins with Appetizers in Asia, continues with multiple courses across India, the Middle East, and North Africa, and around Christmas, crosses over to Europe for Desserts in Deutschland. Recipes, country backgrounds, local attractions, and special travel tips make each stop vivid and exciting, as if you were right there, experiencing the journey yourself. These world tour specialties and authentic recipes will inspire you to create your own unique and festive holiday tables, fit for kings and queens. No passport needed, just a fork, a stove and a hearty appetite!
Copyright © 1999, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
Copyright © 1999, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page created 1999 and modified November 2006.