Milan — and Roman Ruins

Our winter vacation began in Milan on a pre-ski tour to see The Last Supper.  I had always thought of Milan as a Renaissance city, despite its reputation as a world-class business and fashion center, famous for its shopping gallery.  Which indeed it is.


Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, built in 1861

IMG_Galleria 10001



But I love to delve into the past and Milan’s Renaissance history appealed to me.  When Jim invited me to join him on his pre-ski trip specifically to view this painting, I happily accepted.  The Last Supper was commissioned of Leonardo da Vinci by the Duke of Milan Ludovico Sforza, also known as il Moro, around 1495-96.  Leonardo worked on it until 1498.

Ludovico Sforza had caused much turmoil in Italy during the period in which The Last Supper was being painted.  In 1494, he allied himself with the French king Charles VIII, who had a claim to the throne of Naples.  This city had, about fifty years earlier, passed from French to Spanish rule.  Moreover, the Spanish king had established an alliance with the Pope so that Naples would be inherited by his son.  To protect Milan against this Spanish-Papal alliance, Sforza invited Charles III into Italy so that he could make his way to Naples to re-claim it for France.  This opened the way for French aggression in Italy. Ultimately, in 1498, Charles VIII’s successor claimed the throne of Milan.  In 1499 both Sforza and Leonardo fled Milan; in 1500 Sforza was captured by the French, living the rest of his life as a prisoner in France, where he died in 1508.  Leonardo also spent his last years in France, at Amboise, one of the Chateaux of the Loire Valley, under the patronage of Catherine de Medici.  And his greatest painting remains in Milan.

Our visit to The Last Supper was scheduled for late in the afternoon.  That gave us a large part of the day to explore the city and learn something of its history.   Our visit began, normally enough, with a visit to the cathedral.

A visit to Italy is always a trip back in time, however, and Milan was no exception.  Besides, we are always on the lookout for Roman ruins.  Were there any in Milan, a city noted for its Renaissance culture and contemporary design?  Anyone who has studied Latin in high school has heard of Cisalpine Gaul, as the region in which Milan is located was known to Julius Caesar.  The city itself had been conquered in 222 BC and from then on was under Roman administration.  And, yes, there were traces of that time, though not many.

Very impressive nevertheless were the Columns of San Lorenzo.  They are believed to have been part of a pagan temple or a bath house of the second century AD.  Two hundred years later, they were moved to the parvis or the area in front of the Basilica of San Lorenzo


By the fourth century AD, Milan had been Christianized.  In fact, it was from Milan in 313 AD that the Emperor Constantine issued the edict that allowed tolerance for all the various religions of the Roman Empire.  From that point on Christianity could flourish openly.

Emblematic of this history, are the vestiges of this 5th-6th century church which we saw on the way to the Columns.  According to the signpost in front, it was built over “the remains of a lavish Roman residence.”


And also this niche that we found on our way to Maria delle Grazie. 


It was now the end of the day and we were making our way to see The Last Supper.  As we passed from ancient to modern times, we came upon a very interesting public building, the Stock Exchange.


It is a wonderful example of “fascist architecture.”  It is imposing and stark.  Very little of its structure is given to decoration, but what is, exemplifies Roman power and virtue.   This building calls attention to the authority of the State.  In front is an award-winning sculpture from 2000.  Its visual statement says it all.

It was the end of the day and growing dark when we finally arrived at our purpose – viewing The Last Supper.  Ludovico Sforza had purchased the monastery Santa Maria delle Grazie around 1494.  The mural was originally intended as decoration for the family mausoleum.  It was only later that the room containing the mural became the rectory for the monks, the subject of the painting being appropriate for them to contemplate while dining.


The Last Supper was a Passover Seder at which Jesus announced that one of the Apostles would betray him.  Our guide pointed out the various expressions of suspicion and horror on their faces, each man wondering who it would be and trying to assert that he himself would not be the one.  Judas is depicted as holding a purse, representing the thirty pieces of silver and reaching for Jesus’ bread.

Jim had a question:  Why was the bread not unleavened instead of the round loaves depicted since it was a Passover Seder?  We have not been able to find the answer.

It was dark when we made our way to the metro and back to our hotel and a delicious dinner.  A great ending to a great day.  Tomorrow I would be on to Paris, where I had decided I would spend part of my time looking at still more Roman ruins.




The Roman Wall in London

We have just returned from a winter vacation.  Rather than remain house-bound, we faced the cold and went north.  Jim went skiing in the Dolomites and I went to Paris.  But we landed in Milan on a pre-ski tour to see the Last Supper.  Thoughts of separation and being on my own, made me realize that I would need a focus – and objective, in fact – for my solitary stay in Paris.  This was inspired by the sight of Roman ruins we came upon while walking the streets of Milan and by the memory of an earlier trip to England with my friend Jody.

My search for traces of Italy in my travels had really begun with a trip to Cornwall and a stopover in London with my friend Jody.  The first day in London Jody and I slept.  The next day, we went on a couple London Walks.   We learned that London was established in 43 AD by the Romans, after Claudius’ invasion of Britain.  The wall was built as a defensive structure between 180 and 225 AD.  It was on one of these London Walks that we found the remnants of the Roman wall.


The wall, enclosing the Roman city, marks — more or less — the perimeters of The City London today.  (The City of London is the one square mile of the historic center and business district.  It is an entity unto itself.  The surroundings areas are really the City of Westminster.)

This is what the Roman area of London looks like today.

Roman London seen from across the Thanes
The Gherkin, a modern building in what was Roman London


And then Jody noticed something in a brochure.  The remains of the Roman Baths in London can now be visited by the public.  So, the search began.  The address was 101 Lower Thames Street, Billingsgate.  When we arrived, we found modern office buildings, but no number 101 Lower Thames Street.  No one knew anything about Roman baths.  We were near the Tower of London, so we asked in the tourist information office.  The receptionist didn’t know, but she asked her supervisor.  Oh, yes, was the answer.  She had been there herself.  You have to go through an office building and they will let you into the basement.

I was ready to give up, but not Jody.  She found the spot!  We went in.

Jody was very happy to have discovered the site of the ancient Roman baths.

Oh, yes, we could visit the baths, but only on Sundays.  Maybe we could come back.

Here is the link to the site of the Roman baths.

If you visit London, I hope you can see them, for Jody and I never got to.  We did see other sights, however.

First we visited Midsomer Murder country and some of the places frequented by Detective Chief Inspector Barnaby and Sgt. Ben Jones.

This is Henley-on-Thames where some of the many episodes were shot.

The Argyle pub is a spot where Ben Jones is said to hang out.  Alas, not when we visited.


Our next destination was Cornwall.  Our first stop was Port Isaac, otherwise known as Port Wen where Doc Martin has his practice.  This was turning out to be the British television tour.


IMG_1126- Entering Port Isaac
Entering Port Isaac, aka Port Wenn


IMG_1123-Doc Martin's House
Doc Martin’s surgery
Mrs. Tischler’s


Jody went on to Paris and I met up with Jim on Dartmoor.  On our last day, Jim and I went to London.  It was a Sunday and I thought we would certainly visit the Roman baths.  However, we did something better.  We spent the afternoon in A Friend at Hand pub with Charlie and Georgie Knaggs.


Charlie, Jim, me and Georgie



Georgie is a writer who has also lived in Naples.  We had both studied Italian at different times at Centro Italiano.  And that is how I met her – the school suggested she contact me and, happily for me, she did.  Georgie maintains a blog,  She is a wonderful writer and photographer, so I hope you will visit her blog too.

Maybe next time we’re in London, we’ll visit the Roman baths.  But now searching for Roman ruins wherever possible has become a goal.


Chestnut Cake Ancient Roman Style

It’s very cold today and grey and dreary.  Our festive Christmas Eve dinner has become a memory of lovely past Christmas’, but I remind myself that it’s still the Christmas season.  Traditionally we have observed it through January 6, Epiphany.  Epiphany means manifestation or revelation and I like to ponder what the coming year will have to show for itself.

In the meantime, we are still enjoying get-togethers with friends.  I want to re-capture the holiday ambiance of our Christmas Eve dinner for our friends, so I will duplicate a chestnut cake I made in what I call ancient Roman style.

It started with an old cookbook that I had forgotten about, Christmas Feasts from History by Lorna J. Sass.  The first one was pre-Christian, a menu from an ancient Roman Saturnalia, which was celebrated around December 25th.  So, I prepared lentils with chestnuts, pork with apricots, cabbage salad with coriander dressing; but we wanted to end the meal with a cake.  I don’t know if the ancient Romans had cake, but they did have bread.  Not too far apart, bread and cake.

I had also found a recipe online for Chestnut Irish Whiskey Cake and I wanted to try it.  I decided to adapt it, using ingredients what would have been available to ancient Romans.  Actually, almost all the ingredients in the recipe would have been except for sugar, Irish whiskey, and baking powder.  I substituted honey and a pinch of baking soda for the sugar.  The Romans did have grapes and of course made wine.  So, I used brandy, which is fortified wine, instead of Irish whiskey.  Since, the ancients leavened bread with what we now call “starter”, the baking powder will have to remain an anachronism.

So here is my adaption of Chestnut Irish Whiskey Cake.  I am sorry that there were no credits or sources for this recipe on my print-out.  I got it on-line some time ago.  Anyway, I hope you enjoy it.


Chestnut cake surrounded by  ancient Roman delicacies — almonds, prunes oranges, figs, dates


Chestnut Cake Ancient Roman Style

10 tablespoons sweet butter (1 stick plus 2 tablespoons)

2/3 – 3/4 cup honey (depending on how sweet you would like your cake to be)

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking powder

½ – 1 teaspoon of cinnamon

Pinch of baking soda

1 ½ cups flour

1 cup chestnut flour

3 eggs

2/3 cup brandy

1/c cup chopped hazelnuts (or walnuts)

1 medium apple chopped

¾ cup raisins


Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. and butter a spring form or bundt pan.

In a bowl combine the dry ingredients, stirring with a whisk until well-mixed.

In a separate bowl, cream butter and honey until blended.

Add eggs, one at a time, mixing thoroughly after each addition.

Add the nuts, apple and raisins and mix thoroughly until evenly distributed.

Add the dry ingredients a little at a time, alternating with the brandy.  Mix until smooth.

Bake for about 40 minutes or until cake springs back when touched in middle.

You can drizzle more brandy over the cooled cake.  If you do so, you can store the cake for a day or two before serving.  We serve it with whipped cream on the side, but it’s good plain too.


Darkness and Light

Christmas Eve is the traditional time for ghost stories and so I am offering the beginning of one.  It is also an offering to the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year that marks the return of the sun.  I wish everyone a very meaningful holiday.

Darkness and Light

She died on the shortest day of the year.  At four o’clock in the afternoon.  The day and her life closed at precisely the same moment.  Her four-year-old life and the fourth post-meridian hour. 

I had hoped that Isabelle would recover.  I had imagined her dancing in the sunshine on midsummer’s eve, at the festival we held every year at the villa.  Our villa on Via Costantinopoli was the best-kept secret in Naples.  And at out secret festival all Sebastian’s friends danced around the pool.  It was always warm enough to swim on that June evening, the longest light of the year.

It had taken Isabelle half a year to decided that she no longer wanted to dance and perhaps she did well to decide thus.  Perhaps – if she had recovered – she would no longer have been able to dance, and this would have been too much to bear.  For her and for me. 

She had been in quasi-drowsiness through the September harvest fest.  She seemed to wane with the light during the autumn.  The arriving winter eclipsed her.

I didn’t cry.  I had been grieving since that other earlier solstice, the one that so deceptively prolongs the light.  You don’t notice the dying days because they are so bright and lively.

Maria tried to comfort me.  “All that lives dies,” she said.  “Isabelle will go into the earth, like the seed for a lovely tree,” she told me.  “Somewhere she will bloom again.” 

Was Maria suggesting re-incarnation?  There is a glimmer of hope in that.  At least she didn’t say that Isabelle was so pure that God took her for Himself.  This confirms my suspicion that there is nothing Catholic about Sebastian’s household.  They are all pagan.

If Isabelle, like plants and hibernating animals, is only lying dormant – like the wild creature that she was, or perhaps is still – seeking darkness only for a time – I can hope.  Maria says that the light is returning.  Nothing truly dies; it just changes form.

Storyteller Strega

Villa Spanelli, Naples, Italy

Maria was the only one who could calm Isabella when she was in the throes of an emotional collapse.  No matter how I tried to hold her close, rock her, pat her back, she would wriggle out of my grasp and I would follow her around the villa, grabbing her to prevent any destruction of precious statuary.

In response to Isabella’s sobs, Maria always appeared – in whatever room my vain efforts at comfort happened to be taking place.


Maria was always calm and that serenity had a soothing effect on Isabella.  Maria seemed to be possessed of some ancient wisdom – long-kept secrets and stories that have been floating around the villa and the city since the beginning of time.

“Come,” Maria would say in Italian, which Isabella could speak fluently, but which I was only just beginning to comprehend, “you see how your crying makes your mamma sad.  Let’s go all three of us to my rooms.  I will make us a cup of tea and tell you a story.”

And Isabella would cease mid-tantrum!  I was always relieved by Maria’s quiet manifestation.  Her room were far from the family’s apartment.  How did she know?  I was always jealous of Maria.  What did she know about my child that I didn’t?

Maria had her own small kitchen where she brewed a strange kind of tea – made of roots and herbs.  It was bitter and sweet at the same time.  To this she added honey and a slice of orange.  She on the calming effects of this brew.

Isabella would sit on the floor while Maria was making her potion.  Usually out of nowhere would emerge Maso, Maria’s black tomcat.  

“He is a good cat,” Maria would say.  “See, he has a kind face.”

He was all black, with green eyes which I loved.  I would be sitting on the small couch by the fireplace.  Maso would jump on my lap.

When the tea was served, Maso would move to the side and Isabella would climb onto my lap in his place.  And Maria would begin a story.  I was grateful for her tales for I had no books to read to Isabella.  In those days books in English were hard to come by in Italy.  Maria knew all the old myths and superstitions.  Reciting these, she transmitted to Isabella the wisdom of the ancients.  I was happy for Maria to give Isabella what I couldn’t.

“What story shall we tell today?” began a period of tender serenity.


Racconti di Sebastiano e la mia gioventu perduta

Naples from Hotel Paradiso
Vista dalla villa

Il luogo del passato

Ogni tanto un’immagine dei tempi passati mi pare, nonostante che io non l’avessi mai richiamata.  Mi capita sempre in qualche parte di Greenwich Village, e di solito verso sera, quando la luce del pieno pommeriggo comincia a sbiadire.  Un’immagine del mio primo amore sembra sfiorarmi il viso e poi se ne va, mi faccendo rabbrividire, ma di spavento o di felicitá, non lo so. 

La settimana scorsa mi é capitato  nella stazione metropolitana di West Fourth Street.  Stavo sul treno E .  Non avevo nessun’intenzione di scendere lá, ma per forza passavo per questa maledetta stazione prima di arrivare alla stazione Spring Street.  Qui avrei incontrato la mia amica Janna per cena in un ristorante molto alla moda, come le piace. 

Ero lontano da pericolo adesso.  Vivevo fuori dalla cittá, in una casa che dava sul mare.  Tutto que é aperto, non chiuso com’era la villa dove vivevo con Sebastiano.  Questa villa era stata circondata da mura, e c’era una piscina profonda in mezzo.  La casa del mio amore.

Non sarei mai scesa a West Fouth Street, ma al momento giusto quando il treno si é fermato in stazione, ricordavo che non avevo soldi con me.  Sapevo che c’era una banca vinco alla stazione.  Anni fa, questa banca fu O. Henry’s Steak House.  Qui, d’abitudine, mi aspettava Sebastiano, il mio amore.  Ho ricordi felici dei pasti che abbiamo mangiato in questo luogo, o al meno che ho mangiato io – manzo sanglante e una bella quantitá di vino rosso.  Lui non mangiava mai niente. 

Salivo la scala per ragiunggere la banca e Lui era lá per strada.  Vedevo Sebastiano di fronte alla porta, com’era la sua consuetudine molto tempo prima.  Ma forse non era una fantasama.  Quando mi sono avvicinata, un ratto mi passava di corsa e mi guadarva con tenerezza.



Il rimpianto

Allora, sono un pò sorpresa di trovarmi una donna anziana, sola e senza figli.  Quando ripenso alla mia vita, mi chiedo che cosa avrei dovuto fare diversamente.

Prima di tutto, non avrei dovuto sposare Sebastiano. Quel diavolo vive ancora e benché mi voglia sempre bene, credo che sia meglio evitarlo.  Non molti giorni fa l’ho visto nella stazione metropolitana di West Fourth Street.  Passava vicino a me e mi gettava uno sguardo triste e bramoso.  Ho fatto finta di non vederlo.

All’inizio del nostro matrimonio, mi sembrava che la vita con Sebastiano sarebbe stata esotica e piena di aventura.  Volevo scappare dalla mia famiglia stretta e borghese.  Volevo trovare amiche oltre quelle che avevo e che non mi piacevanno.  L’ho fatta finita con Janna .  Lei sfruttava di tutti e viveva sulle spalle degli altri.  Ed anche con Arabella.  Quella pretendeva di essere premerosa, ma in fatti provava a intromettersi negli affari delle sue amiche  Sebastiano mi offriva independenza.

Ma c’é bisogno di rifletterci.  Se non avessi sposato Sebastiano, non avrei avuto Isabella.  Sopratutto rammarico come sia stata breve la sua vita.  Se potessi fare qualche passo indetro, l’avrei badata meglio – molto meglio.  Non l’avrei mai portata in quella piscina maledetta di fronte alla nostra villa.  Darei tutto quello che ho realizzato dopo – bellezza, soldi, fama – se potessi tornar al fatidico giorno e se non mi fossi addormentata nel sole, anche per un attimo, anche se fossi stanca da morire.

Alle fine, ero benedetta solo con Isabella.  Le altre cose che la vita mi ha regalato mi valgono meno di niente.  Non guarirò mai di averla persa.

West Virginia Italian

August was a busy month.  It is usually a month to stay home, go to the beach and tend the garden, but this year we traveled.  No, we did not go to Italy – we got as far as England where there are Roman ruins, but before that we went to Morgantown, West Virginia.  It is a place of some architectural gems.


Early 20th Century building whos façade has become modernized with neon.


I am from Morgantown and lived there the first nineteen years of my life.  There was an Italian community there, although except for the older Italians who had emigrated from various parts of Italy in the early 20th century (My father came from the Cilento region.), it seems to me that we were assimilated; we considered ourselves West Virginians.


The old Metropolitan Theater, formerly a movie house, now a performance space


First of all, I would like to dispel any misconceptions of West Virginia.  It is not a southern state.  In fact – and I asked my old friends and the volunteer in the Morgantown History Museum who agree – we think that people who consider West Virginia to be a part of the south don’t know their American history.  West Virginia seceded from Virginia in 1863 because it chose to remain a part of the Union, and considers itself a northern state.  Nor is the culture particularly southern.  West Virginia never really had a plantation economy; its industries were forestry and coal mining.  These attracted protestants from Ireland in the 18th century, and later people from Wales, Eastern Europe, and Italy.  This seemed to be the ethnic make-up of Morgantown when I lived there – all were proud of their heritage, but still West Virginian.


Detail of early 20th century building on High Street


Morgantown is home of West Virginia University and once was a rather wealthy town. It boasted several glass factories — Jacqueline Kennedy chose glassware for the White House from one.  There was Morgan Shirt Factory which produced Ralph Lauren, Ellen Tracy and Van Heusen apparel.  There was also Sterling Faucet, which, as the name indicates, made faucets.  I was saddened to learn that these industries are gone now, just memories documented in the History of Morgantown Museum.

Old stone building, formerly a bank, lather a clothing store, now housing souvenir shops and a radio station


I love this building.


It stands on the corner of High Street and Pleasant Street and, when I was little, housed a pharmacy called Moore and Parriot.  The pharmacy was owned and run by two Italian-American women, Mary Angotti and Anne DiNardo.  They were friends of my mother.  Mary Angotti was the pharmacist.  This was in the 1940’s and ‘50’s.  There have always been enterprising Italian-American women!

And, yes, Italian men worked in the coal mines. I don’t remember much coal mining in and around Morgantown when we were growing up – and I asked my friends who agreed and said that more mining was done in the southern part of the state. Nevertheless, there was some.   Frank Liberatore, a friend of my father, was killed sometime in the 1940’s in a mine collapse.  His widow Maria supplemented her Workmen’s Compensation by taking care of children – me included.

She taught me how to make pizza when I went to visit her one day.

“Come in,” she said.  “I made pizza.”   Her pizza was different from what we knew of in pizza parlors.

“But there’s no tomato sauce or cheese.”  I was confused.

“Oh, this is the pizza.”  She offered me a disc about six inches in diameter, with browned onion and salt.  “You put whatever you want on it.”

It was delicious!  When I make pizza, I always think of her.  Indeed, I used this recipe when we got back to New York – to make pepperoni rolls.

Pepperoni rolls are a West Virginia-Italian invention.  I had had them when I was growing up, usually from Aunt Jenny’s bakery on Walnut Street, and sometimes from Pike’s on Pleasant Street.  I was a little surprised when I moved to New York that no one here had ever heard of them; then I forgot about them.

Then I found Morgantown Magazine in our hotel room.  “The Pepperoni Roll, from A to Z,” an article written by Mary Wade Burnside explains that this dainty was developed in West Virginia as a lunch that coal miners could take with them down in the pits.  Ms. Burnside also tells us that there is a book written about the pepperoni roll – The West Virginia Pepperoni Roll by Candace Nelson.  And since the book mentions that they could be made from pizza dough, I decided to make some for my family.

I tried to make them as I remembered them with thin slices of meat rolled up in plain bread.  However, the article indicates that the making of pepperoni rolls has become an art with variations and permutations according to one’s preference. You can access Morgantown Magazine and more information about pepperoni rolls at  In the meantime, here is my recipe:

Pepperoni Rolls  

6 oz. thin sliced pepperoni                                                         ½ cup water

1 pack dried yeast                                                                         1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon salt                                                                               1 additional cup water

2 Tablespoons olive oil                                                                 2 cups + flour

Extra flour for kneading dough


The beginnings of pepperoni rolls


Put ½ cup warm water into a large mixing bowl.  The water should be about 100ᵒ F.  If it is too hot, it will kill the yeast.

Sprinkle the yeast and sugar on the water.  Cover bowl and let stand for about a half hour, or until yeast begins to bubble.

Add the olive oil and salt to the yeast mixture.  Then begin to add the flour, about 1 cup at a time until you have a smooth dough that forms a ball and does not stick to the surface of the bowl.

Flour your counter or table top and remove the dough from the bowl and begin to knead.  You will have to knead for about 15 minutes, adding flour as necessary.  When little blisters begin to form in the dough, it is ready.

Lightly grease the bottom of the bowl with a little olive oil and put the ball of dough in.  Turn once to make sure both sides of the dough are oiled.  Cover and let stand for about an hour.

When the dough has doubled in bulk, punch it down and let it sit for about 10 minutes.

Flour your work surface and roll the dough into a rectangle.  (You can do this in batches.)  Cut rolled dough into squares of about 6 inches. (or larger if you prefer)

Spread the pepperoni slices on each square and roll like a jelly roll.  Tuck in the ends.  Place the rolls on a greased baking sheet and let them sit for 15-30 minutes – until they have risen but are not too big and airy.

Bake at 350ᵒ F. for about 30 minutes.  They are done when nicely browned and sound hollow when you tap them.

This should make about a dozen larger rolls, or two dozen smaller ones.


Pepperoni rolls ready to eat


Not only did I re-discover pepperoni rolls while staying at the Hotel Morgan, we also were served a new version of the classical Manhattan – the Black Manhattan.

What does this have to do with being Italian?  Well, it’s made like a traditional Manhattan, but instead of sweet vermouth, this drink calls for an amaro di Averna, the bitter liqueur from Sicily.


You can use either rye or bourbon (We used Bulleit rye), amaro di Averna and a dash or two of bitters.


Jim mixing Black Manhattans



Black Manhattans ready for a toast




Cheers!  Squisito!