Thursday, July 24, 2014

Naples Pizza Party, Day 3

Metro mosaic featuring Vesuvius

Day 3 – January 19

Sylvie”s husband Erik arrived and the plan was for him to settle in and then we would all go to the Archeological Museum before lunch. I took the time to dash off to three nearby Metro Stations that I had read were decorated by various contemporary artists. I had done the same thing in Lisbon a few years ago. I started with the Dante station, near the hotel, then went to Universitá, then backtracked to Toledo and finally back to where I started – Dante.
Talk about sensory overload. So much art in so many colors and textures. So much beauty. At the first level down the escalator at Dante Station was a wall sculpture of lots of old shoes and clothing trapped behind sections of railroad tracks. I went down one more escalator of shiny stainless steel walls with glass panels overhead painted in bold swirls of red, black and white graphics. The walls of the station platform are decorated with tile mosaics of spacey shapes and forms in eye-popping colors: suns, moons, planets and stars in gold and lapis and silver.

On to “Toledo” station, where the floors on various levels are tiled in mind-bending Escher-like designs in customary, graphic black and white. The walls are covered in panels silk screened in hot pink and lime green squiggles and swirls. Color variations of the designs included Hot yellow, pink and blue or yellow and orange. The stairs at this station are graced with the portrait of a psychedelic, 70’s style woman. In contrast to the colorful wall graphics, a sinuous, rather sexy Carrara marble bench provides seating for passengers waiting for the trains. 


At “Universita” station I admired a photo montage covering the length of the walls on either side of a moving walkway down a long tunnel of faces staring back at you. Multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-age and compelling faces engaging you and sometimes seeming to stare you down.  Round the corner and you walk a corridor of photos of bigger than life people confronting you. Lastly a wall of pure whimsy and bits of poetry to remind you of the looming presence of Vesuvius. Wow.


The Archeological Museum is famous for having all the good stuff from Pompeii and Herculaneum. The mosaic floors, statuary and richly painted wall panels – all looking as fresh as yesterday, were beautifully presented but as Vigdis pointed out, sadly out of their context. All of this would be research/preparation for our planned trip to Herculaneum the next day.

After looking at all that beauty, we were starved for lunch. We decided to try L’Ello, the restaurant next door to and owned by the hotel. It has the same “contempo/arty décor and design sensibility. It offered a buffet lunch ala NYC salad bar but the menu was fresher, home-cooked Italian specialties. Just like a salad bar it was priced by weight – 2.50 Euros per 100 grams  (about $3.00 per ounce) Lots of vegetable choices: spinach, grilled endive, braised radicchio, green beans, zucchini, sautéed eggplant cubes, roasted pepper, etc. For entrée: fish baked with potatoes, roast pork with rosemary, really tasty roast chicken, riso nero that was really superb, intensely flavored eggplant parmegiano (sliced very thin like a French Tian) veal meatballs, sausages, various pastas lots of cakes for desert. My bill was 12 euros or $16 – not bad for a pretty amazing lunch.

We all went back to our rooms for a little rest and then met for a long walk along the harbor to see the sunset. The weather was pretty raw – windy, cold and totally overcast – a real Turner sky with pounding surf at the embankment walls. The Mediterranean is usually so calm; this was unusual and quite gorgeous. After quite a long walk we all taxied back to the hotel to warm up, collect Aurel (Sharon’s dealer arriving from Berlin) and then re-emerge for Sharon’s big birthday dinner.

Erik,Sylvie,Sharon, Stephanie

Back to Ciro & Mergellina for Sharon’s Birthday party dinner. Seven of us: Sharon, Vigdis, Anna, Sylvie, Erik, Aurel and I. For starters we again ordered the octopus salad and Marguerita pizza (Sharon again whipped out ther package of fresh basil) and a platter of prosciutto and milky mozzarella. I had grilled gamberini ( even better than those from Antiche Ristorante) and a couple of grilled Branzino – soft’ sweet flesh with a terrific char on the bottom. We drank a couple of bottles of a very good 2009 Taurasi. Baba au Rhum for dessert. Of course, Sharon’s serving was graced with a birthday candle.

Naples Pizza Party, Day 2

Day 2 - Saturday, January 18

Sylvie arrived from Paris in the morning and after dropping off her luggage, we headed out for more churches, more art and more pizza. We started out at the Cloister of Santa Chiara to see the lovely majolica covered walls, benches and fountains in the peaceful surroundings of the cloister gardens. Sharon wanted to see a tomb sculpture  - the tour de force “Veiled Christ” at the San Severo Chapel in Via Francesco de Sanctis. The sculpted figure of the reclining, deceased Christ is shrouded with a diaphanous veil – a beautiful example of marble undercutting. Sharon declared it as lovely as the statue of Ilaria del Carretto in the Cathedral in Luca. On the walk back to Via Tribunali – street of pizza – for lunch, we popped into the church of San Gregorio Armeno on that street. I wanted to examine the organ, which I’d been told is constructed of wood and cartapesta (papier-mache.) The center altar is flanked by two wooden organs stalls riotously decorated with papier-mache angels, flowers and baroque flourishes, all gilded with gold leaf. All the signs said “no photos,” but I pleaded with the nun standing guard to allow me a few because I am a “studiosa,” a scholar. She agreed to let me document the lovely artisan work.

detail of an angel on organ

papier-mache decorated organ

Lunch at Decumani – another pizza restaurant Tony and I ate at 8 years ago.  Sylvie and I had the “Buffalino.’ Sliced cherry tomatoes, basil and covered with slices of especially creamy mozzarella di buffalo crowned with a small ball of cheese - a “buffalino” - in the center. A good crust but I wanted more char on the bottom. – what you usually get if you eat a later rather than earlier lunch because the oven is hotter and can give the crust a proper char.  Sharon wanted salad because she had gained two pounds – horrors! She asked for a salad of arugula and tomatoes – no pizza. The very earnest and lovely young waitress asked if Sharon wanted prosciutto. I think she couldn’t imagine a lunch of just greens and tomatoes. At the end of the meal Sharon asked for a coffee.  The waitress apologized – no caffe – and asked if we would like limoncello (an unctuously sweet lemon liquor – a specialty of the region.) At which point even Sharon had to laugh at the ridiculous suggestion.

We headed off down for a long walk on Via Toledo to see the Teatro San Carlo Opera house because I thought I’d been told that it too was decorated with papier-mache. Before our tour of Europe’s oldest opera theatre, we fueled ourselves with coffee and dolci at Caffe Gambrinus, the elegant literary café across the piazza from Teatro San Carlo. We ate Naples’ supposedly best baba au rhum and sfogliatelli, the other pastry specialty of Naples. Delicious.

Teatro San Carlo is a scarlet and gold confection – each upholstered seat a separate arm chair with ample leg room. I was a little disappointed to discover that the impressive decorative work adorning the walls is stucco or plaster, not papier mache. The harpsichord was being tuned – by an American musician, originally from Detroit - while we were admiring the surroundings. He suggested we should come back that night to see “Barber of Seville” and I was tempted but we had dinner plans. He told me he really wanted to go to New Orleans to hear traditional jazz and just soak up the atmosphere of a great city. As I joined the others for the rest of the tour, I heard him playing Ellington’s “Take the A Train” on the harpsichord – an interesting and amusing rendition of a jazz classic.

Vigdis – the other friend from Brooklyn – arrived around 5:00. Sylvie and Sharon decided to have a little rest, so Vigdis and I strolled the “crèche” street and stopped in a local wine bar/enoteca on Via Tribunali. I had a glass of the local Aglianico and she had a Proseco - an aperativo before collecting Sharon and Sylvie and heading off for dinner. Sharon had asked an Italian friend to recommend the best pizza in Naples and was told Ciro e Mergellina, at the waterfront, “has the best pizza in the world.” 

So, off we went, and what a dinner! We started with a very delicious Margherita pizza: luscious cheese and beautifully charred crust – the best so far. The waiter brought a plate of focaccia: slivers of chewy, tangy toasted pizza topped with salt and oregano. This was served with Sylvie’s octopus salad appetizer – definitely the best I’ve ever tasted: lemony, sweet and tender.

I ordered the pasta alla vongole – home made spaghetti, perfectly chewy al dente, with sweetly succulent clams in a simple garlic wine sauce. Often garlic is the dominant flavor but here it was a well-played note.  Sharon and Sylvie decided to share a grilled branzino: lovely moist white flesh atop deeply grilled, crunchy skin. Vigdis seemed a bit confused or overwhelmed (jet lag kicking in?) but ordered spaghetti carbonara. When the waiter brought her dish, it was clearly not what she wanted. The waiter was extremely helpful, suggesting other dishes in his limited English and was visibly relieved and happy when Vigdis decided she actually wanted spaghetti Bolognese. Bolognese! We all applauded and Vigdis was very pleased with her dinner. We all were.

Neapolitan drama of operatic proportions played out at the table behind us. Shortly after being seated, a young, attractive couple, in a lightning flash, had some horrible disagreement. They were behind Sharon and I but in full view of Sylvie and Vigdis, who gave us a blow-by-blow account of the action. Tears streamed down her cheeks as they silently and stonily sat looking away from each other. They were sitting side by side but their bodies stiffly angled out at 45 degrees. We very mature ladies were somewhat relieved such palpable passion was behind us, but we were also a little envious.

Sylvie announced, “Something happened because now they are in full lip lock.” Sharon and
I could no longer refrain from peeking as we whipped around to finally get a good look. They were all but pawing each other as they engaged in full “kiss & make-up.” They shared a pizza, argued a little over the check, but left arm in arm. Ah, romance and love! And to be young and have it all matter so much.

Naples Pizza Party, January 2014

Day 1 - Thursday/Friday, January 16/17

I went to Naples, Italy for a pizza party - a bang-up celebration for Sharon’s 70th birthday. Four days of pizza and maybe a little of splendid Neapolitan seafood is my idea of heaven. No direct flight to Naples so I flew to Paris and then connected to a flight to Naples. On the overnight flight to Paris, my seat companion was a lovely young man - a jazz guitarist - on his to Lyon for a gig. We talked music and theater - I had just seen the Duke Ellington review, “After Midnight,” which I highly recommended: a fabulous jazz orchestra, great singing and splendid tap dancing. I mentioned I had been to Lyon and he asked if I could recommend any restaurants. I was in Lyon maybe 10 years ago but I said oysters at the oyster bar in the market and duck and quenelles pretty much anywhere. In Lyon, go for duck and quenelles.

I dozed a bit waiting for my connection at Charles De Gaulle Airport, and then dozed some more on the flight to Naples. I woke like a shot as we began our descent and there looming outside the window was Vesuvius. I love flying into Naples - there’s the beautiful bay and that majestic volcano - still active but thankfully, quiescent.

We landed, of course the taxi overcharged me and after a wild ride, I arrived at the very lovely Hotel Piazza Bellini, located in the historic center, across from Piazza Bellini. The hotel's décor is contemporary but filled with warm and whimsical artistic touches. I decided to take a little nap before the arrival of Sharon, the birthday girl. She woke me an hour and a half later and then we were off for pizza - I was truly starving - and then a walk through the historic center to see churches and the art therein.

The concierge told us we would find lots of pizza restaurants on Via Tribunali in the nearby historic centre, but she said the best is Gino Sobillo. Everyone has a favorite and we were more than willing to try hers. We ended up at Sobillo - a relative of Gino [kind of like all the Ray's Pizzas in New York.] Supposedly not as good as Gino's but I thought it was fine, although the crust could have had a bit more char. Very good cheese and sweet tomato flavor.

We had amazingly good coffee at the corner of Tribunali and S. Gregorio Armeno. I hadn't had any coffee that day - just won't drink airplane swill - so I really appreciated the great coffee at the corner cafe. Then we walked down via S. Gregorio Armeno - the street of crèche or in Italian, presepio (mangers) Terribly kitch but I love the stuff and Sharon generously tolerated my need to take it all in.


On Via San Biagio we encountered the baroque madness of the church of Gesu Nuevo.  Sharon’s comment: "If it ain't baroque, don't fix it." After getting through so much sensory overload with our sense of good taste still intact we entered the Capella Della Visitazione, which is totally devoted to ex voto. The mostly silver representations of body parts (arms, legs, torso, eyes, hearts, lungs, backs and heads covered the walls from floor to ceiling and the ceiling as we'll. Ex voto, a kind of Catholic voodoo, are left in chapels by supplicants who have had their prayers answered and received their cures.

Further down the street we stepped into Sant’ Angelo a Nilo, a church that promised a Donetello sculpture, It turned out to be second rate work by his students but directly opposite in the chapel of Statuaria Sacra was a spectacular sculpture - a tomb monument - of a skeleton climbing from a grave. Expressive and delicate, it was another example of Neapolitan fascination with death and mortality. Among all the kitchy mangers on the street of presepio, are statues of sports figures, politicians and other notables, all engulfed in flames. We saw lots of glass enclosed street shrines with flaming figurines and much of the iron work fences are decorated with brass skulls, worn away with constant rubbing. Maybe it's about living at the foot of a volcano.

We had dinner at Antica Trattoria on via Tribunali,near S. Gregorio Armeno. My husband Tony and I had a lovely dinner there eight years ago. Sharon, who is a perennial “weight-watcher” decided after a pizza lunch, she wanted a dinner of salad or vegetables. From the antipasto buffet: braised artichokes, spinach, and sautéed peppers - all perfectly cooked. I also had the artichokes and big fat grilled shrimps that were sweetly succulent.


Saturday, July 19, 2014

Greetings from West Gilgo Beach

I'm still winding down from 10 days at the beach in a friend's house. West Gilgo is a community of homes sited between the ocean and the Great South Bay inlet on Jones Island. Head to Jones Beach, turn left and West Gilgo is just past Tobay Beach. There is no easy access to the beach for the public because the parking is in the gated community. So, on a sunny Saturday afternoon in mid July - a perfect beach day - there were maybe 50 people on the beach. (There is a public parking lot down the road at the next town, Gilgo, and definitely more crowds.

My daily routine included lots of long walks along the surf, in the morning and evenings with Franny, my sweet terrier mix, otherwise known as "Stevie's Mutt." I swam laps in the bay and then headed to the beach for body surfing and sunbathing. And naps.

I read lots of cook books - pouring over Italian and Sicilian recipes and commentary for a research project. I brought books from my collection and then was delighted to discover my friend's books. I also really enjoy the improvised, somewhat haphazard cooking one tends to do while on vacation. My "Italian frame of mind" led me to lots of pasta dishes: delicious, easy and fast, because who wants to slave away at a hot stove after a hard day at the beach?

I sautéed some Italian sausage removed from the casings. Then I sautéed escarole (I didn't have any broccoli raab) with some minced garlic. Added some cherry tomatoes, salt & pepper. Splashed it with a little white wine and let it simmer for a few minutes - for the flavors to mingle. Added cooked pasta and plenty of parmesan.

Another night:

I sautéed some chopped onion and garlic. Added chopped fresh tomatoes and broken up grilled sausage (because I had some.) Then added the cooked pasta and some diced fresh mozzarella. Let the mozzarella soften and add lots of parmesan. Fresh basil is nice, if you have it. Sort of Pasta Caprese.
Served it with some grilled zucchini drizzled with olive oil. 

I discovered in The Thomas Jefferson cookbook that he introduced macaroni to the new United States in 1790.  

On my last day I made a lovely tortilla - a recipe from a Spanish cookbook in my friend's collection. A great way to use up eggs, potatoes and half an onion. Franny agreed it was delicious. Home again, Brooklyn.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A Tale of Two Feasts - Part 2

          After celebrating the Festa dei Gigli, at the end of June, I flew to Salemi, Sicily, a medieval hill town of steep and narrow cobble-stoned streets, located an hour’s drive south of Palermo’s airport.  I had come to see old friends and revisit St. Joseph’s feast, celebrated throughout Sicily but most quintessentially in Salemi. 

Salemi Street
Salemi with Castle in Background

The giglio feast is about sacrifice and homecoming and St Joseph's feast is about sustenance and survival. It honors Sicily’s patron who, according to legend, ended a severe drought that devastated the island during the Middle Ages. Sicilians prayed to St. Joseph and after the rain finally came and the drought and hunger ended, Sicilian villages prepared banquets to thank their saint, who is also patron of the home, family, carpenters and pastry chefs – truly a multi-tasking saint. Sicilian immigrants brought the feast traditions to New Orleans, when they settled there in the 1870’s. St Joseph altars are still created and banquets are served in many churches, community centers and private homes throughout New Orleans.

At the top of this hill town of 12,000 people, at one end of Piazza Alicia, sits an imposing 12th century Norman castle. At the opposite end are the ruins of the “Mother Church” destroyed by an earthquake in 1615 and now used as an open-air theater. Gaetano Scomegna, community liaison, walked with me through the areas ruined by the 1969 earthquake and pointed out what had been the thriving Jewish ghetto when Salemi was an Arab outpost. “These were the houses the mayor wanted to sell for one euro as a way to get people to rebuild the ancient town center,” he said.  It was the idea of Vittorio Sgarbi, a former cultural minister and former mayor of Salemi. Many houses have been renovated and those houses had sweeping views of the valley below and the rugged hills beyond.

Altar Festooned with Laurel and Breads

(Unbaked) Roses & Grapes
Fava Beans
Nadie Vultaggio

          Women organize and make this feast. They prepare the foods and create the signature folk art of this feast - bread, crafted in myriad designs, shapes and forms, that decorate the altar and banquet table. Six years ago, when I spent a month working with several Salemi women, learning to make the simpler ritual breads, I asked master bread-makers Anna Catalanotta and Nadie Vultaggio who had taught them to make the incredible designs. Anna answered, "You learn from your mother or by doing it with other women." Nadie nodded in agreement. Now I was back at family dinner at Nadie's house, reminiscing  as we looked at photos from this year’s celebration.

Anna Catalanotta

Three Tiered Altar with Jesus, Mary & St. Joseph Breads
A wonderful cook, Nadie served breaded pork cutlets, potatoes mashed with cheese and then baked, salad from Nadie’s garden and home-baked bread. I told her as delicious as the meal was, I was sorry it wasn't pasta with sardines (pasta con le sarde) a dish she and Ann had taught me to make. She reminded me that meal had taken all of a Saturday morning to prepare. But what a lovely family lunch that had been.

 Looking at photos of the town-sponsored altar, I remembered how I was first stunned by the artful creation made by Anna, Nadie and the other women.The St. Joseph banquets of the Middle Ages were simple affairs; tables set up in the town squares, laden with food provided by the landed gentry to feed the peasantry. Today’s celebration has evolved into an elaborate mise en scene. In Salemi tall arches (errected by men) festooned with laurel leaves, citrus fruits and decorative breads in the shapes of spring fruits, vegetables, birds and animals framed the altar (three-tiered to represent the Trinity) overflowing with flowers, prepared foods, wine and pastries - representations of fertility and abundance.

Orange & Breads on Laurel Covered Altar Frame
 On each tier were three large breads, each decorated with iconography (made of bread) of the members of the Holy Family. St Joseph's bread was decorated with carpentry tools, Jesus' bread with the cross, crown of thorns and other symbols of the Passion and on Mary's bread were seamstress' tools and roses. Interspersed were bowls of breadcrumbs to represent the sawdust of St. Joseph the carpenter.

St. Joseph's Bread

Jesus' Bread

            Three children portraying Jesus, Mary and Joseph, were served a multi-course meal, each course announced with a drum roll. No meat is served because St. Joseph's feast falls mid-Lent, a time of fasting and meatless meals for observant Christians. After the three children were served, dishes were passed to the clamoring townspeople - a reenactment of hunger. The children's meal ended as all good Italian meals do, with cafe. In this case, I beleive the children were served mostly milk touched with coffee. Finally, everyone was served a traditional meal of spaghetti, olive oil and cinnamon, sprinkled with toasted breadcrumbs. Although some breads are saved as souvenirs, most are eaten and new breads and new altars are recreated each year. Like the gigli this feast’s folk art is also ephemeral.

            Although I spent a month, six years ago, watching and helping the women make the hundreds of breads needed to decorate the altar, I never became adept at it. But then, they spend their lives learning to make these breads. Mostly I cut circles that they fashioned into roses and I rolled little balls of dough that became clusters of grapes. When I downplayed my contribution to the final effort, Anna pulled me to the altar and pointing out every rose and grape cluster, said, "Stefania, those are all yours."
Anna's Hands
Anna & Nadie's husbands applying the Laurel to the Altar Frame

Now there is a Bread Museum with an altar, banquet table and vitrines displaying examples of the breads and descriptions of their significance to the feast. There is also a display altar at the new Hotel Villa Mokarta, located just outside town on the road to the Villa Mokarta archeological dig – site of a Bronze Age village dating to 1250 B.C. The hotel has spacious rooms, wifi, a pool and a superb restaurant where I ate the best meal of my trip: spaghetti with sautéed zucchini and shrimp, a salad of local tomatoes, grilled swordfish seasoned with thyme, ripe melon drizzled with balsamic vinegar and a glass of a very good Nero d’Avola (€25 or around $33.)

Doric Temple at Segesta
Within a half hour’s drive are lovely beaches, a Greek theater and temples to rival any in Greece. To the south is Selinunte, where five temples in varying degrees of ruin sit on a high plain overlooking the crystalline sea. In spring one walks through fields of fragrant wildflowers to reach them and in summer you can cool off at the golden beaches below. North of Salemi, Segesta’s massive Doric temple is sited on a hill in the midst of rolling green countryside. Hike up or take the tram to the top of nearby Monte Barbaro to reach the Greek theater, now a venue for plays, concerts and other events. Its back-drop opens onto a sweeping vista of the vineyards and rolling hills of the western Sicilian countryside. 

Sicily and Campania, the region of Naples and Nola, are still quite agrarian and as my Salemi friend Gaetano reminded me, “The feasts aren’t celebrated like this in the big cities. Here they are remnants of a time when it was easier and necessary for people to work together.” Standing on the stage of that 2000-year-old theatre, I reflected on my path from the raucous festivities of the giglio feast honoring sacrifice and a very good deed done for a widow to a grand Sicilian feast where I  was allowed to play a small roll. 

Monday, January 21, 2013

A Tale of Two Feasts - Part 1

This past June I had the opportunity to revisit two of the sites of my Fulbright research done in Italy in 2006. With a travel grant from the Brooklyn Heights Montessori School, where I work as an administrator, I was able to see the Gigli Festa in Nola and spend time with friends in Salemi, Sicily. It was also interesting to see the changes I had read about and what had remained the same. Part 1 is my report on my travels to Nola, where I ate fabulous Southern Italian cuisine of Campania and again marveled at the paper mache folk art.  

"Emotion" Giglio
 Late afternoon, in the still brilliant sunshine and intense Southern Italian heat, a small group of Americans were cooling off poolside, eating home-made fig cookies which we dipped in tumblers of local wine. We had come to Nola, Italy, for the Festa of the Gigli, celebrated for more than 1500 years, likely making it Italy’s oldest saint’s feast.  Almost every southern Italian town and village honors its special saint with a festival and in Nola the feast day of its patron, San Paolino, is celebrated with raucous music, exquisite folk art and amazing demonstrations of physical strength.

Everyone in Nola, including my new Italian-Americans friends, Ersilia Iorio Graziano and Anthony Casalino, loves to tell the story of what San Paolino did for the town. “Very simply, he won freedom for his people,” Anthony told me. The legend goes that in 409 AD, Nola was sacked by the Goths and many of its men were carried off to North Africa as slaves. Bishop Paolino ransacked his church, selling anything of value to ransom the enslaved Nolani men. When a widow implored him to get back her only son, Paolino offered himself in exchange.  After three years  in captivity, Paolino won freedom for himself and the village men. The grateful women of Nola, each waving bouquets of lilies (gigli,) met their returning boat.

Ersilia, a petite, attractive woman in her mid-60’s, was born in Nola but moved with her family to the Bronx when she was a child. “My family has been involved with the feast going way back – my father, my grandfather, my uncles,” she said. “I used to come for the feast when I was a teenager and then as an adult. I brought my son Marc when he was six years old and this year I had to show the feast to my fourteen-year-old grandson, Daniel, and again to Marc.”

Boat in Piazza Duomo
I told Ersilia and Anthony that I discovered the Giglio Festa seven years ago when I heard a CD of the festival songs for the celebration in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where the great-grandchildren of Nola immigrants continue the feast traditions. I remember staring at the picture of a seven-story tower, decorated with paper-mache images of angels, saints and flowers. The base was a platform holding a twelve-piece brass band and singer performing Neapolitan songs. This four-ton   structure was carried on the shoulders of 120 men. It was preposterous and fantastic and I wanted to know more about it, so I went to Nola in 2006 as a Fulbright Scholar, to study the giglio, and to Sicily to study the St. Joseph feast, also celebrated in Italian-American communities in the U.S.

I’m not Italian but my Puerto Rican and French Canadian families also celebrate holidays and family events in ways dictated by traditions and customs passed down through generations. I’m really drawn to the community spirit, the drama and the special foods of the saints’ feasts.  My interest began with the giglio song, “O Giglio e Paradiso” and eventually encompassed a fascination with the folk art of both feasts.

Hotel Bel Sito
Inviting Hotel Pool

This is the tenth year Anthony has come to Nola to participate in the giglio celebration. He explained, “My family has been involved in the giglio for hundreds of years, in Italy and then in Brooklyn after they emigrated to the U.S. in the 1890’s.  So it’s easy to understand my love for this feast; it’s part of my DNA.” Anthony’s massive shoulders and muscular arms fairly scream “lifter” and he does lift the giglio in both Nola and Brooklyn.

A half hour drive from Naples, Nola lies on the other side of Vesuvius to the northeast, in the plain between the volcano and the Apennine Mountains. I arrived June 20, four days before the day San Paolino is honored with a procession of eight 85-foot wooden towers plus a large boat (symbol of the boat that brought Paolino and Nola’s men home), carried on the shoulders of teams of men. I arrived lunch time at the Hotel Bel Sito, a lushly landscaped oasis, located on the outskirts of Nola on strip mall-like Via San Paolino Belsito. The pool was incredibly inviting in the torrid heat but I was anxious to get into town to see the gigli. First I dined at the hotel – a no-brainer and a delicious one at that: pasta con frutti di mare (fat pasta rings in a light tomato sauce with tiny clams and plump mussels), grilled tuna bathed in olive oil and a mixed salad with shaved fennel.  The prix fixe menu (lunch or dinner) was 20 (about $25.)

Now I was ready to see the boat and the eight giglio towers, scattered throughout town in various piazzas where they had been erected. These spires, taller than most of Nola’s buildings, are giant representations of the bouquets of lilies first offered in gratitude to San Paolino. Walking through Nola, I met an old friend, Antonio Napolitano, director of La Contea Nolana, a volunteer cultural society concerned with all things giglio.  

Paper Mache piece at Bottega Tudisco
         He took me to see the three bottegas (workshops) that produce the paper-mache facades for all the giglio towers. I struggled to keep up with his pace and stride, as he explained the evolution of the gigli and boat from the simple bouquets left at the cathedral after Paolino’s death to today’s ornate constructions. He told me that first the bouquets were mounted on poles; eventually a base was created to support the poles and then the top was crowned with a statue of S. Paolino. Nola’s citizens proceeded through the town carrying candles, torches and the now-mounted gigli. I asked Antonio why eight gigli. He told me, “A crazy competition began during the Middle Ages and carried on into the Renaissance when eight trade and artisan guilds vied to create taller and more magnificent gigli. So now, eight gigli for the eight trades and guilds.”

          Eventually the height was set at eighty-five feet and when the brass bands and festive music were added in the seventeenth century, the gigli began to dance as they were carried through the streets. The emotion-filled singing, a vocal style combining bel canto operatic tradition and street vendor cries, and the booming music resounding from different directions through the narrow streets, adds a cacophonous note to the spectacle. Antonio thinks music contributes a feminine element. He told me, “When the giglio dances, it moves like a woman and we all dance with it.”

At the Bottega d’arte Tudisco, family-run for nearly three hundred years, Antonio introduced me to its director, Gaetano Tudisco, who happily showed me the plaster molds in which paper and glue are layered to make the paper-mache elements - angels, saints, baroque arabesques, etc. – used to create the magnificent facades. The workshop was strewn with pieces of unpainted paper-mache and Gaetano said of course, I could take some; rejects to him but prized souvenirs for me.

Giglio di Pane
I mentioned to Gaetano I had also studied a feast that used bread as a decorative element and he excitedly told Antonio, “Take her to see my giglio for panettiere (the baker’s guild).” Charming and delightful, this giglio was surrounded by a paper-mache village, starring the bread maker pulling loaves from his oven.

Paper Mache bakers
           The celebration began just before noon. Sound equipment was put in place and the singers and the twelve-piece bands mounted the platforms of each giglio. The men put their shoulders under poles inserted in the platforms and at the command of their leader, raised the massive towers off the grounds for the all-important “aizata” or first lift. Per tradition, baba au rhum and coffee provided by the giglio’s sponsor were served to people gathered at each giglio. The first lift is a dramatic moment. Ersilia told me “Daniel was absolutely amazed. I can tell you my Nola cousins wept.”

One by one each of the eight gigli and the boat were carried into Piazza Duomo - so full of people that the boat seemed to navigate a sea of heads and waving arms as it made its way to sit in front of the Municipal Building. The eight gigli were lined up, facing each other, four each flanking two sides of the Piazza. After they received a blessing from the Bishop, the paranza went off to eat and then rest before the start that evening of the gigli’s all-night dance. Ersilia told me that when she was a girl, “the paranza’s always ate sandwiches filled with beef braciola and drank red wine sipped through fennel stalks, like straws. For strength. It was always served in people’s homes but now the paranza go to restaurants.” (Of course, I got Ersilia’s braciola recipe.)

Tattoo Arms
Men are the protagonists of this feast and pass on the traditions, father to son. They build the towers and prove their strength and stamina by carrying the huge gigli. Working in concert, supporting each other’s efforts, the strain evident on their faces, the lifters endure pain and fatigue in their body-punishing labor. Wives, mothers and girlfriends support their awesome performance, by following with towels to mop their sweat and water to quench their thirst. As I photographed a giglio carried by a team of lifters called “Fantastic Team,” a beautiful young woman, wearing a dress better described as lingerie, handed me a big pink button boldly inscribed: “Fantastic Team Girl” and declared, “Sono fantastico, si?”  I thought about my conversation the day before, at a café with Dr. Katia Bellanchino, an anthropology professor at the University of Rome. Katia, who earned her doctorate studying the Giglio, had confided, “I really love these guys. I love the beautiful tattoos of San Paolino and the giglio blazoned on their powerful arms and legs.” With all its religious aspects, the feast atmosphere is also charged with lots of testosterone and sexuality. Think Mastroianni and Loren.
San Paolino Tattoo

Antonio, fiftyish, and not especially muscular, lifts when given the chance. He said, “I can’t describe the emotion I feel when I lift the giglio. It’s a way to elevate our souls.” Nicola Vecchione proudly showed me the calloused bump on his shoulder, his badge of honor as a cullatore (lifter) and explained that term to me. "Cullatore means to rock a baby and we both lift and rock the giglio.) Anthony Casalino lifts to pay homage to his immigrant grandparents. “The heavy weight of the giglio and the soreness to my shoulder pales in comparison to their hardships. It’s my small token of gratitude.”

The beautiful wooden giants, rising above the roof-tops, proceeded along the narrow, winding streets teeming with Nolani and visitors following the gigli.  From their balconies, people showered the towers with confetti, flower petals. By early morning the gigli and boat were back at Piazza Duomo where they remained on view for two days, until the “abbatimento,” the knock down and destruction of the gigli and boat. There’s no place to store the towers so, sadly, they are destroyed and built anew each year.

Knock Down
Although the giglio festivities are pretty all-consuming, there are other attractions in the Nola/Naples area. The Circumvesuviano railroad circles Mt Vesuvius to connect Naples, Nola, Pompeii, Ercolano (the ancient Herculaneum) and access to a hiking trail up the ever-present volcano.

            There are a few less expensive B & B's in Nola center but the Hotel Bel Sito’s pool, wifi and air-conditioning make it an attractive choice (doubles are around 100, including breakfast.) Nola offers many restaurants specializing in seafood and classic Neapolitan pizza.  O’Cellario, a pizzeria/trattoria near Piazza Calabrese serves Marguerita pizza, classic or, my favorite: crudo style with slices of sweet San Marzano tomatoes, mozzarella di bufalo and fresh basil on a crust brushed with fruity olive oil (€5.) The succulent, huge grilled prawns at La Cicerenella on Via Tansillo were a knockout for 12. Dining in its garden, under the canopy created by banana palms, olive and citrus trees, I knew if I could, I would return every year to experience the giddy, sublime joy of following the crazy dance of the gigli.