Layers and Rows

There is a green grocer near my apartment that goes by the name of Bob. Bob and I have a long, if disjointed, history. I first met him twelve years ago, when I was living with my college boyfriend in Mile-End, three streets over from his shop. In that year and a half, most of our groceries were done at Bob’s. Sometimes we’d order a samosa from the display counter on our way out, sharing bites on our walk home until all that was left were the oily remnants of a brown paper bag and grease-slicked fingers. If I did groceries on my own, it meant that I had the whole samosa to myself, which of course was even better.

When that relationship came to end, I moved to the opposite end of the city, only to return to the neighbourhood two years later, renting out a tiny 2 1/2 sandwiched between a used book store and a Greek restaurant on Parc Avenue, one short block away from Bob’s. He greeted my first visit back with a “Hey you – long time no see! How’ve you been?“, and we picked up where we left off, as though no time had passed.

I’d pop into the shop on my way home from work to pick up bananas, or leafy greens, or some cheese with a container of olives, scooped from a briny vat at the back of the store. The cheese and olives were something I usually reserved for Fridays, when I could crack open a bottle of wine and make myself a little plate to eat cross-legged on the couch while I made plans for the night. It was a civilised touch to an apartment that had barely any natural light and where the living room-slash-kitchen could be crossed with one purposeful leap. The building also housed an Arcade Fire-wannabe band that liked to have late-night jam sessions (trombone included), and a sketchy pot-dealer who lived just below the rickety stairs of the fire escape, which happened to lead to my equally rickety bedroom window.

But it was the night the ceiling of the building’s entrance collapsed, sending chunks of gyprock to shatter (quite spectacularly) onto the marble floor below, that I decided it was finally time to move. Again.

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In what now seems like a strange, cyclical pattern, I came back to the neighbourhood after two years away, renting out the apartment I’m currently in – which, mercifully, has sturdy ceilings, well-groomed interiors, and good neighbours. Perhaps more importantly, it shares a three-block radius with Bob’s shop, whose proximity I now see as my reward for being a creature of habit, boomeranging back to the neighbourhood like a stubborn stray dog.

When Bob saw me come into the store after another prolonged absence, he smiled:

Back again?

“Yep, back again, Bob.”

Nice to see you. How’ve you been?”

And we picked up where we left off, as though no time had passed.

Aside from one expansion into the neighbouring building that opened up a second wing to the store, nothing much has changed; in the mornings you can still find Bob manning the cash, or more likely, at the back in the produce section, trimming herbs and stacking produce into Tetris-style layers and rows. There is no other shop I know that does this as expertly as him. Even after all these years, I still find it to be a beautiful feat of engineering.

Bob the green grocer // © julia chews the fatBob the green grocer // © julia chews the fatBob the green grocer // © julia chews the fat

When I pass through, we exchange hellos; he asks me how I’m doing, and I ask the same. Sometimes we trade ideas for recipes. If he notices a bruised fruit in my groceries, he’ll remove it and swap it for a better one. When I show interest in a new product, he’ll sometimes toss it in for free. And if I happen to be missing some change when he rings up the total, he tells me to pay him the next time.

None of these things are reserved specially for me – Bob is like this with all his clients, especially his regulars. He looks out for us, and makes us feel welcome, making him more than a purveyor of produce; he is a purveyor of community, a vital layer to this tight-knit, melting pot of a neighbourhood, where anglophones, francophones, Hasidic families, and hipsters walk through his door on the daily. His connection to his neighbours and patrons is a big part of the reason I keep coming back to his shop, twelve years after that first bite of samosa. When I get pulled back to the neighbourhood year after year, I’m glad to know Bob is there, at the centre of it all, keeping the pulse of the community beating.

While the store is open seven days a week, and I come by to do my shopping all year-round, springtime is when Bob’s begins to blossom in earnest. Come April, the big green outdoor awning gets unfurled, stretching over stacks of produce – both local and imported. This week I’ve been stocking up on the more ephemeral, seasonal stuff from Quebec and Ontario, like his beautiful fava beans – buttery and toothsome – and his first batches of delicate, purple-tinged asparagus, that need nothing more than a quick steam to become sweet and tender. Next week I might stock up on fiddleheads, which have just started to make an appearance in his outside market space, along with green and yellow string beans that you can grab in fistfuls, right out of the box.

Bob the green grocer // © julia chews the fatBob the green grocer // © julia chews the fatBob the green grocer // © julia chews the fat

Bob’s fresh herbs are nice too, though sometimes I buy too much at once, and they start to wilt in the Mason-jar vases that I keep on the counter (don’t do this; clean your herbs, pat them dry and store in the fridge. They will last much, much longer).

The recipe below is something I like to make with the mix of herbs I usually pick up at his shop, even the ones that end up a bit wilty on the countertop. It’s a simple sheet-pan chicken recipe where you blitz herbs, shallot, garlic, and red wine vinegar until you have a grassy paste that you spread over the chicken after it’s been roasted. There are a few chili flakes in there too, which adds a nice pinch, along with the vinegar that cuts the rich chicken schmaltz really nicely.

Next time I see Bob, I’m going to tell him about this recipe. Maybe he’ll trade it for one of his recipes, or at least tell me where he gets his samosas.

Bob’s shop:
Fruiterie Mile-End
5686 Av Du Parc (corner Bernard)
Montreal, Québec H2V 4H1

Herbs // © julia chews the fat

Chicken Smothered in Herbs (Serves 4) – adapted from Alexandra’s Kitchen


  • 1 whole chicken (about 4 lbs), quartered and backbone removed, room temperature (keep the chicken pieces bone-in, skin-on)
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 2 Tbsp red wine vinegar
  • 1/2 cup packed parsley
  • 1/4 cup dill
  • 1/4 cup mint*
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1 shallot, peeled
  • 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes (or to taste)

Note: there’s no need to use these measurements as a steadfast rule. Any nice mixture of herbs will do (e.g. basil in the summertime).  I usually go easy on mint and dill as they tend to overpower, but the idea is to use any fresh herbs you have on hand, adjusting to taste.

Chicken Smothered in Herbs // © julia chews the fatChicken Smothered in Herbs // © julia chews the fat


1) An hour before baking, remove the chicken pieces from the fridge and let it rest on the rimmed sheet pan you will use to roast it on.

2) Preheat oven to 450°F. Pat chicken dry really well with paper towels, then rub with 1 Tbsp of the olive oil. Season liberally with salt and pepper, making sure to season the undersides too. Arrange chicken pieces skin-side up, and roast until golden, about 30 minutes.

3) Meanwhile, make the sauce: in a food processor, pulse the herbs with the garlic, shallot, red pepper flakes, and red wine vinegar until you get a sort of chunky paste. Season with salt.

4) When the chicken is almost finished roasting, and crispy on the outside, remove from oven and onto a plate. Scrape the pan juices and crispy bits into the food processor with the herb mixture. Whizz it up to combine, then return the chicken pieces to the roasting pan, spooning over some herb mixture on each piece. Put the chicken back in the oven for another 2-3 minutes to let the flavours meld. Remove the chicken from the oven and let rest on the pan for about 10 minutes before serving.

Chicken Smothered in Herbs // © julia chews the fat

Finding Buoyancy

We went to visit Nonna at her residence last Tuesday. She’s been there two weeks now, but it was my first time visiting her after her two-month stay at the hospital, where she’d been admitted on New Year’s Day. I’d heard that the first few days at the residence were difficult. She was angry and tired; she couldn’t fathom that she had ended up in what, at least on the surface, seemed like an extension of the hospital – a small room in a beige, paint-chipped ward where other residents wandered into eachother’s rooms, mistaking them for theirs.  As we rode over in the car, I was apprehensive, thinking about how she’d been feeling, her initial resistance and disbelief that she was never going back home. I thought about the empty house she left behind: the bedroom with the handmade doilies from Abruzzo, the dining room with the built-in buffet, filled with floral teacups and matching saucers; the kitchen with its tawny, 70s linoleum floor; the cellar where grandpa used to store demijohns of homemade wine…

My heart cracked.

On the night we visited, the residence was having a “brasserie” night. There was a raffle, dancing, and a DJ that played country music under a string of twinkle lights. Volunteers walked around in waist-aprons, handing out raffle tickets and prizes in the form of heart-shaped lollipops. The four of us sat at a table against the wall – mom, dad and I on plastic fold-out chairs and grandma in her plaid wheelchair. We encouraged her to have a glass of wine. They only had white, which she never drinks, but she had some anyway. After a couple of sips, she leaned in to tell me it was come l’acqua (“like water”). I promised to bring her the real stuff soon – the red Montepulciano she had every lunchtime at home, poured into a short tumbler from a twist-cap bottle. She nodded in collusion.

We shared a bag of Cheetos and watched people sway to a twangy version of Quand le soleil dit bonjour aux montagnes.  At one point I looked over at her, struck by how beautiful she looked, wrapped in a gold and burgundy shawl, and hair curled and set the day before by mom. It was lovely and disheartening in equal parts. Ninety-four years old. How does anyone get to ninety-four? It became clear that an era had ended, and that none of us were quite sure what would replace it. I thought about all the dinners and celebrations we’d had at her house – Christmas, Easter, birthdays, and everything in between, including the party we had after my brother and sister-in-law’s civil ceremony, when we hosted sixty people in a space that could comfortably hold thirty. I thought about the tomato-canning sessions every September that covered the kitchen in splatters of crushed passata, the assembly-line production of gnocchi, cookies, and ravioli; the summer afternoons in the backyard, sharing mounds of grapes and shooing away squirrels that snuck into the garden.

My heart cracked a little more.

It’s a strange type of grieving. The person you love is still there, still mentally with it, but their regular spark is missing, siphoned away by physical fragility, circumstance, and an obligation to adapt. It’s a difficult thing to witness, even if most families will – at some point – go through some variation of it.

As with all difficult transitions though, there’s always moments of reprieve, allowing some of the hard feelings to recede. On this night, it came in the form of some cheap wine, a bag of Cheetos, and an evening in eachother’s company. That combination somehow created a bit of buoyancy in all of us; we’d been given a chance to see a piece of our old selves again. And it was nice.

After an hour or so, when the DJ packed up his things and the bright lights came back on, we brought grandma back to her room and got her settled in. I kissed her goodnight. Ti amo, Nonna. She smiled, È stata una bella serata. It was the first time I’d seen her smile in weeks. Instead of cracking, my heart brimmed with the best kind of love. I felt grateful instead of sad, beholden to all the indelebile experiences I’ve had with her, and will continue to have, for as long as I possibly can.


On loss and recipes

When it became clear that Nonna wasn’t going back home, and that our family dinners wouldn’t be the same as before, I found myself thinking about her recipes more than ever. Part of me worries that if I don’t hold onto them tightly, they might fall between the cracks, and become hazy, far-away memories, in the same way that when you lose someone, the details of their face become less vivid over time.

In the spirit of holding on tightly, I’ve been making her recipes whenever I can, writing them down, documenting not only the recipe, but the memories attached to them. One week, it might be her tomato sauce; another week it might be a minestrone or pasta fagioli. This week, it was her rosemary peas, a fixture at family dinners for as long as I can remember. They would usually be served alongside potato gnocchi, or pasta and polpette, or a pan-fried chop or steak. The thing that makes them stand out to me is how fundamentally basic they are, the well-loved anti-hero to fiddly recipes that require special ingredients. For one, you use canned peas (not the bright, freshly-shelled or frozen ones) and dried rosemary (not the fresh, elegant sprigs you might find growing on the windowsill) (full diclosure: I cheated this time, because I had fresh on hand). The only other ingredient – if you don’t count salt, pepper, and oil – is onion, which you cut into half-moons and sautée until translucent. The result is a beautifully mushy, sweet, aromatic mash that pairs well with with pasta dishes and meats like lamb, pork, or veal.

Mine will probably never taste exactly like hers. But I can sometimes get close, which is reason enough for me to keep trying.

Rosemary Peas // © julia chews the fat

Nonna’s Rosemary Peas

  • 1 can of peas, rinsed and drained
  • 1 small onion, sliced into half-moons
  • 1-2 tsp dried rosemary
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste


Heat the oil in a pan on medium heat. When the oil is hot (but not smoking), add the sliced onion and cook until softened and glistening; add the rosemary and cook for a minute more, stirring every so often. Add the peas and stir to combine. Season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion has become golden and the peas have broken down a bit (about 10 minutes). Serve warm.

Rosemary Peas // © julia chews the fat


separation bookshelf

Francophones have a good word for it. Déchirure. It’s what you’re left with when you tear, rip, or rip something apart, like you would a piece of paper, or clothing, or even a ligament, if you were being clumsy. There’s something about the way the syllables fall out of your mouth, and how the”sh” sound sandwiched in the middle somehow perfectly imitates the sound of ripping. That single word, that mouthful of syllables, harnesses the feeling so well. And it’s the first word I think of when I look at this photo.

A week ago, my partner and I split up. It’s been a very surreal and strange time to say the least, one with profound moments of sadness, but also gilded with moments of deep love, support, and appreciation of the other. He’s someone I’ve spent the better part of eight years with, someone I came home to, and someone I’ve cooked and shared a lot of meals with – at the table, watching a movie on the couch, or at our favourite places to eat out, perched side-by-side at the bar.

As you likely well know, this kind of loss is usually accompanied by a loss of appetite. Or perhaps more accurately, a state of appetite limbo. It comes and goes, just as this subtle lump in my throat surfaces from time to time, seemingly out of thin air. Sometimes I feel voracious, other times I feel queasy. And in the moments in between, food mostly tastes flat.

None of this of course has made me particularly want to think about food, let alone write about it. Its role has been fairly perfunctory, an automatic re-fueling of sorts. There have been a lot of frozen pizzas and lazy carbonaras, one of which I ate directly from the pot one night, stooped over the stove, feeling like the ultimate cliché.

I’ve told myself that all this – the bad eating, the not eating – comes with the territory of untethered feelings while they sort themselves out. As long as I get a few salads in there, and I quit eating under the light of the stove hood, I’m sure I’ll be fine.

Thanks for bearing with me while things find their rhythm again. Be back soon x


It isn’t always easy finding a way to write about a recipe. I have a stock pile of photos fermenting on my computer’s hard drive as we speak – dozens of things that I’ve wanted to share with you, but haven’t quite found the words to wrap around them.

Truthfully, I’m a little out of steam these days. That dreary arc of November to December saps my energy reserves in a way that I might never get used to, no matter how many winters I’ve lived this far above the equator. When mornings and late afternoons are the same shade of midnight, early winter has a way of siphoning your stamina in a steady, slow, undetectable kind of way. Like carbon monoxide poisoning. Except you’re still alive – just with a brain that feels like jelly, and eyes that hover half-mast, like Garfield’s.

On weeknights I find it hard to muster the energy to make dinner after a slushy, sloppy commute from the office, usually reaching for something that doesn’t require much thought or skill or focus: beans sautéed in onion and swiss chard, with toast; quinoa, a fried egg and some arugula; spaghetti carbonara, minus the bacon (that would be an extra step). In other words, meals that can be made practically blindfolded. The ones you want to have around when you’re tired and cranky and hungry, staring slack-jawed into the fridge on a dark, cold Wednesday night.

There’s one in particular that I’ve made on repeat over the last few weeks – an improvised version of something my friend Anne made a little while back when we got together for Friday night dinner. The ease of this meal is its superpower – no intensive chopping, sautéeing, or mucking about. All you do is: marinate some salmon filets in a slurry of soy sauce, brown sugar, and a few other things from your refrigerator door; bake slices of acorn squash with a sprinkle of salt and five spice (which will make the house smell like Christmas), then cook up a pot of brown rice while the fish is in the oven. It’s dead simple, but because you’ve got all those nice spices and saucy-things working their way into the fish, the squash, the rice, there isn’t a dull bite to be had.

Here’s to the winter solstice and to the longer (brighter!) days before us. x

Anne’s Soy Sauce Salmon with Brown Rice and Five-Spice Squash (with a few tweaks)
Serves 4

Soy Sauce Salmon // © julia chews the fat


  • 1 large salmon fillet (about 1.5-2 lbs. Makes good leftovers, if you don’t serve it all.)
  • 1/3 cup tamari (soy) sauce
  • 1/2 Tbsp brown sugar
  • 1 Tbsp rice wine vinegar
  • 1/2 Tbsp sesame oil
  • 1/2 tsp fish sauce (optional)

(Note: I don’t usually measure when making a marinade, so I suggest using this as a guide, but tasting and adjusting as you go)


  • 1 ½ cups brown, short-grain rice
  • salt
  • about 2 Tbsp toasted sesame seeds
  • shichimi togarashi (Japanese 7 spice) (optional)


  • 1 acorn squash
  • five-spice
  • salt
  • olive oil
  • raw pumpkin seeds (optional)
  • black sesame seeds (optional)

Soy Sauce Salmon // © julia chews the fat


Note: since the squash cooks at 400°F and the fish at 350°F, I like to cook the squash first, then reheat it during the last 5 minutes or so that the fish is in the oven. The steps below might seem like a lot, but it really isn’t a hassle. I promise. And after doing it once, you’ll be able to wing it without a recipe, adjusting things to your taste as you go along.

1) Start by marinating the fish – an hour or two before serving, mix together the soy sauce, brown sugar, rice vinegar, sesame oil and fish sauce in a bowl or measuring cup. Slice the salmon fillet into sections (about 3 inches wide) . Lay the salmon sections in a shallow baking dish and pour the marinade over top. Cover and allow to marinate in the fridge for 30 minutes to an hour, depending on how much time you have.

2) Prep the squash – while the fish marinates, cut the squash lengthwise (leaving the skin on). Scoop out the seeds and filaments. Slice each half of the squash into half-moons, about 1 inch thick. Place on a baking sheet and drizzle with the olive oil. Sprinkle the five spice and salt over top, then toss the squash slices with your hands to coat all sides.

3) Cook the rice like pasta (approx. 35 mins)– rince the rice until the water runs clear. Allow to drain. Fill a medium saucepan 3/4 full with cold water, adding about 1/2 tsp salt. Put on high heat, covered. When the water begins to boil, add the rice. Bring back to the boil, give it a stir, then reduce the heat to medium-low and allow to simmer (lid ajar) for about 35 minutes (or until rice is cooked, but retains a bite). Strain the water and return the rice to the pot, allowing it to rest, off the heat, covered.

4) Cook the squash (approx. 25 mins) – while the rice is cooking, remove the fish from the fridge. Preheat the oven to 400°F. When it reaches temp, slide in the baking sheet with your prepared squash. Cook for about 25 minutes until golden brown, turning the slices halfway through, adding a few pumpkin and sesame seeds during the last few minutes of cooking. Remove from oven and reduce the heat to 350°F.

5) Cook the fish (approx. 15 mins) – put the baking dish with the fish and its marinade in the preheated 350°F oven. Cook for about 15 minutes, or until the centre is still slightly undercooked. Remove from the oven, cover it, and slip the squash back in for 5-10 minutes to warm up. (at this point, your rice should already be drained and resting, covered and warm.)

6) Serve – add the toasted sesame seeds and a sprinkle of togarashi (if using) to the rice and stir to combine. Plate the rice with a piece of fish and some squash. Drizzle with warm marinade from the baking dish.

Soy Sauce Salmon // © julia chews the fat

Cross My Heart, Miso

I am the kind of person that will buy a tub of miso, then leave it in the refrigerator door for an interminable length of time, under the naïve assumption that it will (eventually) find its way into a recipe. If you’re like me, you know that this moment rarely, if ever, comes. You also know that it leaves you with bad feelings when you do a deep clean of the fridge and realise it’s been there for a small eternity, opened, but with only one spoonful scooped out from the top. You ask yourself the following questions: Is it still good? How do I know it’s still good? Do I need to throw it out? Then concede to the following affirmations: Online message boards about expiration dates cannot be trusted. I’m going to need to throw this out. I am a horrible human being for throwing this out.

It’s a vicious cycle.

I’m not quite sure what happens in the ark of purchasing the miso, bringing it home, then, months later, scraping it into the bin. It’s confounding. Not to mention a heinous act of food waste. (especially considering that miso paste could probably out-live you and me and I’ve just been overly cautious about its perishability). And so, I’ve decided that from this day forward, I will never throw out another container of miso. Cross my heart and hope to die.

I come to you today with proof of my penance – two recipes made recently with the stash of miso paste in my fridge, both having helped put a considerable dent in my supply, all while broadening my miso repertoire (did you know you can use it in savoury and sweet dishes? And not just in miso soup?). I feel that this is the beginning of a new relationship.

One is a carrot soup with ginger, spiced with coriander and curry. The miso works nicely in the background, adding a bit of depth to a soup that might otherwise be ho-hum. The other is a recipe for banana bread (or cake, depending on your sensibilities), where the saltiness of the miso balances out the sweetness of the banana. I brought a loaf to my friends Marko and Marilou as part of a care package the week after their daughter was born and received a text from them the next day saying they’d polished it off, the last couple of slices served up for breakfast, toasted and slathered in butter.

I hope you’ll do the same x

Miso banana bread // © julia chews the fat

Miso Banana Bread – from Amelia Morris of Bon Appetempt

  • 5 medium overripe bananas
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour*
  • ½cup whole-wheat flour
  • ¼ cup of ground flax seeds
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon baking powder
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1 stick unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 cup sugar
  • ¼ cup white (or yellow) miso
  • ½ whole-milk plain yogurt
  • 2 large eggs

*If you prefer, you can replace the whole-wheat flour and ground flax seeds with all-purpose flour (so 1¾ cups of all-purpose flour total)


1) Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter a loaf pan, dust with a light coating of flour and set aside.

2) Mash 4 of the bananas in a bowl. Set aside

3) Mix all the dry ingredients (except the sugar) in a separate bowl. Set aside.

4) In the bowl of a stand mixer (or, simply, another bowl). Combine the softened butter, miso. Beat until light and fluffy (about 5 mins). Add the sugar and beat until combined. Add the yogurt, then one egg at a time, beating between additions. Beat in mashed bananas. Then mix in the dry ingredients until just combined.

5) Transfer batter to prepared loaf pan. Slice remaining banana lengthwise and place on top of the batter. Bake for about 45 minutes (or until a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean). Let cool on a baking rack for 20-30 minutes before serving.

Miso banana bread // © julia chews the fat


Miso Carrot Soup – adapted from Wholehearted Eats

Serves 4-6

  • 1 yellow onion, chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 8 large carrots, peeled and chopped (about 5 cups)
  • 1 Tbsp curry powder (optional)
  • ½ tsp. dried coriander
  • 2-inch piece of ginger, peeled and minced
  • 6-7 cups stock, vegetable or chicken
  • 3 Tbsp. white miso paste
  • 1 tsp. tamari
  • garnishes: lemon wedges, cilantro, sesame seeds

Carrot Miso Soup // © julia chews the fat


1) Heat a medium pot to low and add the oil and onion. Sweat the onion until soft, translucent and golden. Add the garlic, dried coriander, curry (if using) and the minced ginger. Sauté for a couple of minutes until fragrant, stirring occasionally. Add the chopped carrots and sauté cook for few more minutes.

2) Next add 5 cups of the stock and bring the mixture to a simmer. Once it begins to simmer, cover with lid slightly ajar, and let it cook until the carrots and onions are very tender (about 3o minutes).

3) Take the soup off the heat and puree it in a blender or hand blender, until smooth. Bring the remaining 1-2 cups stock (if you like a thicker or thinner soup) to a boil, take it off the heat, and stir in the miso and tamari until combined. Add this mixture to the soup and stir to combine. To serve, add a squeeze of lemon, some sesame seeds and fresh cilantro.

Carrot Miso Soup // © julia chews the fat

Italy, condensed – Pt.3 – Case Vecchie

When I first started this blog, there were really only three people whose food writing I read consistently – Molly Wizenburg’s (Orangette), Luisa Weiss’ (The Wednesday Chef) and Rachel Roddy’s (Rachel Eats). Whether they were writing about braised artichokes, or ham-bone soup, or a meringue cake gone to hell, their prose seemed effortless and fluid, heartfelt, but never saccharine. In a sea of food-related sites getting louder by the minute, they quickly became a special trifecta to me. I liked that food was at the centre of their writing, but not its singular purpose. I also liked that they never fetishised food, a welcomed shift from the norm, where the entire culinary world – in print, online, in restaurants – seemed to be suffering from a severe bout of excess, obsessed with everything from molecular gastronomy and celebrity chefs, to cronuts and the latest trends in bacon.

Thankfully, Molly, Luisa and Rachel were there to balance things out. By making the story the priority – instead of food trends and culinary styling – they completely changed the way I saw food media. In fact, their writing and approach to food was the reason I started this blog, and the reason I still keep plugging away at it, four and a half years after fumbling through that first post.

I tried to remember all this in April, when I spent an entire lunch break with my finger hovering over the “send” button to sign up for this year’s edition of The Language of Food, a writing workshop led by two members of the trifecta – Rachel and Luisa – at the Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking School in Sicily. The workshop dovetailed so flawlessly with the things I loved most – food writing, cooking, edible gardens, Italy – it felt like it had been plucked from a dream. I had savings set aside and vacation time banked at work. I could go. There was nothing stopping me. But there was still a small voice at the back of my head that rumbled each time I’d entertain the idea of going. Should I really be taking this workshop? Can I justify doing this? What if my writing is terrible? What if Rachel and Luisa think I’m terrible?

Finally, on that lunch break in April, I got a grip and pressed “send”.

I can’t tell you how thankful I am for that moment.


I arrived at the school in late June, after four days in Rome and one week in and around Palermo. Housed on the part of the property referred to as Case Vecchie, the school is run by Fabrizia Lanza, teacher, educator, and all-round force of nature who has become one of region’s most important proponents and protectors of Sicilian traditions, sustainable agriculture, and farm-to-table (or as she would call it, armto-table) living. I knew this woman was a phenom – that the breadth of what she’d taken on at her family’s estate was remarkable – but once meeting her, I also discovered that behind the illustrious persona was an exceedingly affable, delightful, lively woman who could put you in stiches with one wry, off-the-cuff comment. Knowing that she was going to be part of this week-long experience made me feel all the more lucky.

Throughout the first day, members of the workshop trickled in, some arriving from the UK, others from Berlin and the States, one originally from Victoria, BC, via Florence. We were a small group, nine in all, including Rachel and Luisa, a mix of former editors and journalists, published writers, and entrepreneurs. There seemed to be a collective giddiness about being there, all of us drawn to this one place, miles from home. It’s never a given that you’re going to get along with a group of strangers, especially when you teeter more toward introversion than extroversion, but it wasn’t long before I knew I was going to like our motley little crew. Nine women; nine eager souls, ready to soak it all in.


Over the course of the week, we read together, wrote together, and ate together; we chatted, strolled, exchanged stories, and wandered through the narrow paths of the garden, rubbing leaves between our fingers and lifting them to our noses; we visited the local shepherd and cheesemaker – Filippo – and watched him sculpt sheep’s milk into soft mounds of tuma – fresh, unsalted cheese made from the curds after they separate from the whey – before sitting down to a breakfast of homemade bread and jams and pecorino cheese.


Between writing sessions, we explored the grounds, collecting vegetables from the garden and fruit from the small orchard to use in cooking lessons with Fabrizia, where we made ricotta gnocchi, ravioli, cavatelli, caponata, and sweets like sour cherry cake and cassata, a Sicilian dessert made with whipped ricotta, homemade marzipan, sponge cake and candied fruit.


In the early evenings, at aperitivo hour, we’d gather around a table in the courtyard for platefuls of fried zucchini flowers, panelle, and cool glasses of sparkling wine, before convening around the dining table, usually adorned (to our collective delight) with one of Fabrizia’s vibrant wax print tablecloths.


The writing sessions were spaced out throughout each day. Often we’d sit around a big glass table, under the shade in the courtyard, or at the big wooden table in the library and read pieces selected by Rachel and Luisa – M.F.K Fisher, Molly O’Neil, Julian Barnes – before dicussing and then writing, pen to paper (not laptop).

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t jittery at the start. The day I read my first piece aloud, my voice quivered so fiercely I wasn’t sure I’d be able to make it through to the end. The next few times, I felt that my writing was shit. Just total shit. Sometimes I shared, sometimes I didn’t. In a message to my boyfriend back home, I remember referring to it as paint-splatter writing – a mess of words thrown onto the page, without coherance, structure, or good diction. I felt embarrassed and ashamed that I’d come all this way and I wasn’t able to produce anything decent. You’re here with Rachel Roddy and Luisa Weiss! You’re in the middle of the Sicilian countryside! You’re surrounded by incredible, inspiring people! Write, goddammit! Write! But something inside me froze. I was like a deer in the headlights, incapable of letting the pen move across the page without inturrupting every second word.

It was only after a conversation with Rachel, about two days in, that I realised how much I was holding myself back, how being wracked with self-doubt was sabotaging my writing and, ultimately, the experience. I spent the rest of the week trying to quell those doubts, letting whatever came out to come out, without (too much) judgment or second-guessing. What emerged was the piece on street food in Sferracavallo that I slipped in at the end of my post on Palermo (scroll down to the last story here). Was it perfect? No. Was it complete? Not quite. But it was at least something – pieces of a puzzle that could be reworked, rearranged and smoothed out. It was perhaps the only piece that I approached with complete abandon and, lo and behold, it yielded results. I try to remind myself of that when I freeze up in front of a blank page (like, say, when I sat down to write this post).

This workshop taught me, amongst many other things, that writing – good writing – takes massive amounts of perseverance. It isn’t the kind of thing that falls into your lap through divine intervention. You can have ideas, thoughts, limitless sources of inspiration, but they remain disparate pieces until you choose to weave them together with words. And even then, those words will need your time and effort to become something beyond “paint splatter”, something that will make sense, set a tone, convey a story, and resonate with the reader.

To persevere, however, writers – amateur or otherwise – need to learn to cast aside their doubts. I never realised the extent to which my self-doubt was crippling my ability to write, and it was only in doing the workshop that it came into clear focus. I’ve started to apply an attitude of “get over yourself and get on with it” in moments when I catch myself hemming and hawing over a piece of writing. And I can tell you, adopting that attitude has been imperative in getting things onto the page. I definitely have Rachel and Luisa to thank for that.

In the process, I also learnt that when you’re feeling self-conscious about the work that you’ve done, there will always be people who’ll have more faith in your abilities than you do. I’m realising how imporant it is to listen to them, to trust their sincerity. They can sometimes see the good parts of yourself that you might not, at least in the moment, because they’re clouded in doubt. In other words, let them bolster you so that you can eventually bolster yourself.

When I try to write and then falter, I think about the things Rachel and Luisa taught us – about being daring, about being self-aware, about making the time to work on your writing whenever and however you can. I also think about something Fabrizia said at our last round-table, when we were discussing the workshop experience, including our initial apprehensions. She sat with us, listening and sketching watercolour zucchini flowers, before pausing to say, “But why all this fear? I don’t understand. Why?”

She was more or less saying, why let fear stop you? Why give it space? And she had a point. There’s no room for fear when there’s so much else to let in.


Big love to Rachel, Luisa, Fabrizia, and all the women of The Language of Food 2016. You are such wickedly smart, funny, warm human beings. If I could do it all over again, I would. A hundred times. x


Pistou Soup

I realise that writing about soup in the dead-heat of summer might be a controversial choice. Very few of us think about craddling a big, hot bowl of anything when the cicadas are screaching outside and we’re still daydreaming about popsciles and swimming pools and cool, tile floors. But there is one soup that deserves our attention right now and not a moment later – and that, dear friends, is soupe au pistou.

Pistou soup is really a blank canvas for whatever is seasonably available. In the summer months, when market produce is abundant, you can more or less throw in whatever looks most attractive to you – zucchini, beans, chard, fresh peas. This is a handy back-pocket dish for people like me, who often browse the market without a list and end up adopting too many vegetables (because they all looked good and they all needed a home). Like ripe tomato salads and fragrant berry pies, this soup is an honest expression of summer, whose crowning glory (the pistou) is made with what might arguably one of the best endowments of June, July and August – sweet basil.

As you’ll see in the recipe below, French pistou is nearly identical to Italian pesto, the only difference being that the French variation doesn’t contain pine nuts. You can think of them as fraternal twins – both use generous amounts of fresh, leafy basil and parmesan cheese, pounded into a fragrant paste with a little olive oil and salt; both are delicious tossed into pasta, slathered onto fish, or swirled into vegetable soups like this one, which, I think, is one of the best ways to tip your hat to summer.

Go forth and harness the bounty.


Pistou Soup – lightly adapted from David Lebovitz
Makes about 5 quarts of soup

Note: In a perfect world, you’re making this soup with dried beans that have been soaked overnight and cooked. But if you haven’t done this step, just use canned and don’t mention it to the purists.

  • 1 cup (200g) dried canelli beans (or canned)
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 medium onions, peeled and diced (or: 3 leeks, cleaned and sliced)
  • 2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
  • 2 medium carrots carrots, peeled and diced
  • 1 medium zucchini, diced
  • 1/4 pound green beans, tips removed and cut crosswise into quarters
  • 2 leaves swiss chard, chopped (optional*)
  • a few leaves of raddichio, chopped (optional*)
  • a couple of green cabbage leaves, chopped (optional*)
  • 6 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
  • 1 tablespoon sea salt, and freshly ground pepper, to taste
  • 1 cup  fresh, shelled fava beans  (or: fresh or frozen peas)
  • 1 cup dried pasta (any small variety will do, such as orzo, tubetti, or shells)

*optional because I tossed these only because I had them on hand.

For the pistou – makes 1 cup

  • 1 large clove of garlic, peeled
  • pinch of salt
  • 2 cups packed fresh basil leaves
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 1/2 ounces parmesan, grated


If using dried beans:

  • Rinse and sort the beans. Soak the beans overnight covered in cold water.
  • The next day, drain the beans and put them in a large saucepan with the bay leaves and enough water to cover the beans with about 1 1/2 quarts (1.5l) of water. Cook the beans for about an hour, or until tender, adding more water if necessary to keep them immersed. Once cooked, remove the beans from the heat and set aside.

1) In a Dutch oven or large stockpot, heat the olive oil. Add the onions (or leeks) and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and translucent.

2) Add the thyme, diced carrots, zucchini, green beans, cabbage (if using) garlic, and salt. Season with pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are cooked and fragrant (about 10 minutes). Add the cooked beans and their cooking liquid and bay leaves, then the peas and pasta, plus 2 quarts (2l) water. (if using canned beans, you’ll need to add about a 1/2 litre of water to make up for the cooking liquid). Bring the soup to a boil, and simmer a few minutes until the pasta is cooked. (if using the swiss chard and raddichio, you can toss them in a couple of minutes before the pasta is cooked.)

Note: If the soup is too thick, you can thin it with additional water, but make sure to adjust the seasoning too.

3) While the soup is cooking, make the pistou: pound the garlic to a paste in a mortar and pestle (or use a food processor) with a generous pinch of salt. Coarsely chop the basil leaves and pound them into the garlic until the mixture is relatively smooth. Drizzle in the olive oil slowly, while pounding, then pound in the cheese. Taste, and season with more salt if desired.

To serve: Remove the bay leaves. Ladle hot soup into bowls and add a generous spoonful of pistou to the centre. Serve with extra pistou on the side.


Italy, condensed – Pt.2 – Palermo

This is part two of a three-part post on Rome, Palermo and Vallelunga (Case Vecchie), cobbled together from notes in my travel journal. To read Part One, click here.

Italy Part Two // Palermo, Sferracavallo, Mondello // 1 week


Seeing Sicily for the first time felt like virtual reality – the blues were so blue, the greens were so green, the mountains so immense, primeval and jagged they felt Jurassic. As our plane decended, I stayed glued to the window. There it was, Sicily in the flesh – in all it’s rugged, craggy glory. A place that sits on three tectonic plates and is home to Europe’s two largest active volcanos; an island that has been invaded and inhabited by Phoenicians, Greeks, Arabs, Spaniards, and Normans; a triangular nugget snipped from the tip of Italy’s boot, left to evolve and percolate off-continent.

Like a lot of people before me – and a lot of people to follow – I’d fallen head over heels for this beautiful chimera. Sicily had slain me and I hadn’t even left the tarmack.



Sferracavallo, Palermo
Tuesday, June 14th

This afternoon, the airport shuttle bus dropped me off in a suburb outside Palermo, where I was meant to catch a second bus – the one to that little horseshoe-shaped speck on the map north of Palermo, with the promise of the sea – a town with the lyrical name, Sferracavallo. When I booked my trip, I remember thinking that it might be a bit tricky coordinating transit from Palermo centre to this small, sparsely-populated (read: off-the-beaten path) fishing village by the water. My concerns were confirmed once I found myself standing on that dusty meridian outside Palermo, in the middle of a deserted boulevard, far, far away from home.

Palermitan bus schedules – posted on large boards high above each bus stop – aren’t the easiest to decipher; to the uninitiated, they are a complete and utter nightmare. There was no conceivable way of knowing if I was on the right side of the road, or whether I was heading east, north, south or west, or if I’d been blown away by a tornado in Kansas and dumped somewhere along the yellow brick road. (sidenote: while most people travel with data on their phone to help them get around, I don’t. It’s a symptom of having a frugal octogenarian living in my brain. I promise to catch up soon.)

I wandered around for a bit, rolling my bulky suitcase over cracked sidewalks and nubby curbs, in search of a tabacchi where I could buy a bus ticket and possibly get directions – ones that would be more accurate than, say, sticking a wet finger into the wind. A couple passing by told me there was a ticket counter in the piazza, pointing to a large roundabout in the distance, with a tuft of palm trees sticking out of the middle. It was so far and hot, the trees were surrounded by wobbly mirage lines. I looked down at my suitcase, which looked more worse for wear than I did, wondering if I should just shell out for a cab. Just one more ticket. One more bus. Almost there. The ticket vendor directed me to the correct stop, a whole three blocks away from where the shuttle dropped me off, and on the other side of the road.

I waited a long time for that second bus – maybe 45 minutes – but it came, and I got on; I was so tired, I barely noticed the gum I stepped in and the cockroaches crawling around my luggage. A young mother and her two girls got on soon after me. One of them – the youngest of the two – stood facing me and started to stare. Not in a coy or curious way, as sometimes young kids are prone to do, but rather in this unflinching, scowling way, with a toughness I couldn’t quite place. She stared like this for a good couple of minutes. I pretended to ignore her. At some point she nudged her sister, glanced down at my mid-section and said to her quietly, “Ha una borsa la.” (“she’s got a purse there”, referring to my chic, beige, slightly sweat-damp waist wallet). We locked eyes and I inched forward, “Come stai, ragazza? Bene?“, making sure she understood that I understood, whatever her intentions might be, malicious or not. I’ll risk being perceived as a weirdo over having my fanny pack stolen on sweaty bus. The look on her face shifted from tough to stunned as her gaze dropped to the floor. The three of them got off at the next stop.

That’s when I met Roberto, the macellaio – an older man from Isola delle femmine with kind eyes and suspenders who said that my Italian was “proprio buono“. We chatted for a bit and at some point I admitted to him that I wasn’t sure where I was supposed to get off. “Non te preoccupare, te lo dico io“. I was glad to have him there, like a spry version of my grandfather, telling me where I needed to go. A couple of stops before mine, he mentioned that he worked in nearby Mondello, as a butcher, and that if I happened to make the trip out, that I should come and see him. I took down some notes – Mondello, Roberto, macelleria, near la sirena (the mermaid), open on Saturdays. Visiting him seemed like a long-shot, but part of me really liked the idea. I pocketed the notes and stepped off the bus, waving him goodbye from the sidewalk.


With my suitcase safely deposited at my apartment rental, I headed down to the water to sit on the rocks and watch the sun slowly dip down below the horizon. It took me a train, a plane, two buses and a lot of broken Italian to get here. But I’m here – in Sferracavallo – that miniscule seaside town on the edge of the Tyrrhenian Sea, sandwiched between a natural reserve and a craggy mountainside. The shore is populated with what look like pastel dollhouses, frozen in time. It smells of salt and seaweed, summer and infinity.

This is what you take a train, a plane and two buses for – a landscape so beautiful it sucks the air straight out of your lungs. It’s at this point you can pause, take a deep breath and know that it was worth every bloody step.



Sferracavallo, Palermo
Wednesday, June 15th

Sferracavallo only has one supermarket – a dusky little place with two aisles and a lot of vacant shelf space, with a charcuterie counter at the back, rows of sunscreen at the front, and one sullen cashier manning the checkout with her no-bullshit, frosty gaze. The thing is, even in dingy little supermarkets, in tiny nowhere towns, you can still find grocery gold – palm-sized balls of mozzarella for 50 cents; fresh ricotta spooned into parchment paper and sold by weight; long, thin slices of prosciutto cotto; yogurts with interesting flavour combinations (hazelnut/fig is brilliant), not to mention a selection of totally acceptable table wine for under 5 euros a bottle.

At the cash register, a woman noticed the bottle of San Benedetto iced tea that I’d plunked onto the conveyor belt. “È buono questo. Lo comprato anch’io”, pointing to the stash of iced tea bottles in her cart. She tells me that she sometimes makes iced tea at home from scratch – black tea, lemon juice, un po di zucchero – hinting that her decision to get the store-bought stuff usually depends on how much is in the bank account. We start talking a little about the increase in food prices and the economic difficulties in Italy, and more specifically Sicily. My Italian is rusty and stunted in dialect, but we seem to understand eachother. At some point she mentions arrangiarsi, or the ability to “arrange oneself”, to manage, to get by with what you have (in French, se débrouiller). We talk about how cooking at home is such an important part of arrangiarsi, as an expression of self-reliance and self-sufficiency.

As we talk, I think about the exorbitant 18 euros I spent on restaurant ravioli last night, at one of the few places in town whose entrance is plastered in Trip Advisor stickers. My stomach sinks a little just thinking about it. Apprehensive of making the same mistake today for lunch, I turn to the idea of arrangiarsi. Before the woman leaves with her groceries, I ask her if there’s a produce vendor in town. I follow her outside the store, where she points down the street, “dritto e poi a destra“.

There, under the shade of big, colourful awnings, are a series of fruit and vegetable stands. Vendors call out to customers and stride back and forth behind rows of wooden crates stacked with Sicilian produce – broad beans, peaches, vine-ripened tomatoes, eggplant, fresh garlic, onion and basil. It’s my first time encountering fragolini, delicate, wild strawberries that have centres closer to ripe, mashed banana. Then there is the mammoth cucuzza, a mild, Sicilian zucchini, grown several feet long, along with their silky, tender leaves called tenumeri, often used in soups. After selecting a few things, including a big bunch of basil that I haggled down from 1.50€ (astronomical, aka “tourist price”) to 0.50€ (closer to the norm), I ask the vendor for some garlic. He brings me a whole braid, with about ten bulbs on it. I laugh, “Oh no…solo uno per favore“, explaining that I’m only here for a few days. He says they don’t normally sell them a l’unità, but then shrugs and snaps ones off from the braid, tossing it into my bag. When I offer to pay him for it, but he shoos away my offer, “Va bene, signorina“.

Market freebies like this one are more or less common around Italy;  I imagine they help vendors build a regular client base. It’s a simple, somewhat Pavlovian technique, but it works; I visited his stand every day after that, and every day something was tossed in at no cost.


Across the street from the produce stands is the Swordfish Man, who, I am told, arrives every morning with a new haul. It’s a fairly basic operation – a stainless steel counter, a cutting board, a cleaver, some fresh water and ice. You tell him how much you need – in grams, or for how many people – and he slices off slabs, eyeballing the requested amount. He sells a few other items, including bright scarlet gamberi rossi (Sicilian red shrimp) and some small fish with iridescent skin, but it’s the swordfish you really come for. As he prepares my order, I ask two women beside me how they usually prepare theirs. One of them says, “Solo olio, sale, e un po’ di pepe. Nient’altro”.  She lowers her glasses and raises an cautionary finger when she says it. In other words, do not mess with the fish. Keep it simple. Capisce?


I return to the apartment with my spoils, feeling gratified and happy to be back in the kitchen, making my own meals. Over the next few days, I make my way through the different bits and bobs I picked up at the market. The peaches, added in slices to a picnic sandwich of prosciutto cotto, basil and mozzarella, are so fragrant and ripe they melt in your mouth; the tomatoes, sliced thin and seasoned with salt and Sicilian oregano are so flavourful they pinch the insides of my cheeks; the ricotta, smooth, cool and cloud-like, collapse gently on spoonfuls of warm minestra.

And the swordfish, well, the swordfish made me weep. Like, actually weep. I sat at the table, fork in hand, my eyes welling up with hot, fat tears, stunned at how something so simple, so seemingly innocuous, could trigger such a deep-seated feeling of unadulterated joy. It’s the kind of food that reaches into your chest, squeezes your heart and in some magical, unspoken way, changes you.



Palermo, City Centre – day trip
Thursday, June 16th

It’s hotter than stink today. 45 degrees in the shade. When I opened the window early this morning, expecting a fresh gust of cool air, a blast of scorching air greeted me instead. It was only 8am. Had Mount Etna blown? Or was this the beginning of the apocalypse? Groggy and confused, I failed to find a reasonable explanation beyond those two.

A short time after, my host, Giusy (pronounced “Juicy”, short for Giuseppina) said, “C’è proprio un’fuoco oggi“. I thought she meant, quite literally, that there had been a fire. That makes sense, I thought. I asked where the fire was. “Ah, no – è solo un espressione, quando fa molto caldo.” So there’s no fire. It’s just an expression. In other words, we’re going to be on fire today. This also happens to be the one day I chose to visit the city centre, on foot, without reprieve of the sea or the occasional cold shower. Brilliant.


I catch the first of two buses to Palermo centre. It’s packed to the gills; we’re a mound of sweaty, lethargic commuters, trying our best not to come into physical contact with one another, but failing miserably. About ten minutes in, a ticket agent steps on, requesting to see proof of validation from all passengers, one by one. He quickly gets into an impassioned argument with an old man standing next to me. Did he touch someone inappropriately? Did he steal something? No, the problem is he doesn’t have a ticket. A minute later, the ticket agent’s wrath is directed at a second passenger – a woman – who he also discovers is ticket-less. With a voice tht fills the whole bus, he tells them they’re thieves; he threatens to take their pictures and report them to the authorities. It’s a mess of words, of shouting, of veins protruding from necks. At the next stop, he orders them off the bus. They oblige, begrudgingly, telling him he’s a monster for forcing them off the bus in this heat. Once they’re off the bus, he catches my gaze; his face is now suddenly calm, the blood flowing back down from his temples and neck. He shugs, and with both hands cupped together in prayer pose, asks rhetorically – “Ma che posso fare? E il mio lavoro“. I’m not quite sure why I become the confessional, but I nod sympathetically before turning my head to the window, heart pounding, hoping in vain to catch a cool breeze.


In Palermo I’m meeting a friend of a friend, a Palermitana named Fabrizia, who occasionally takes friends on food tours of the city. Of specific interest to her is Palermo’s street food, which you can often find in and around the city’s outdoor markets. In a string of online messages in the days preceding my visit, she asked me if I had any aversions or allergies, to which I answered an excited “Nope! [smiley-face emoticon]. I’ll try anything”. I knew that this would leave me open to a Pandora’s box of eclectic delights, many of which I’d never had before and most of which incorporated scraps, leftovers, rifuti from the butchering process. In other words, the bits that would normally be thrown away. I was curious about the different kinds of Palermitan street food, and I felt lucky to have Fabrizia – someone so well-versed on the subject – leading the way.

Our first stop is the Capo market – a narrow, winding alley flanked by vendors on each side. As we enter, Fabrizia points out the local specialty “babbalucci” – tiny, translucent snails in stripy, cream-coloured shells. Stacked high in sturdy crates, they look like piles of ornamental seashells (that is, until you spot the few that are wriggling around). Fabrizia says that to cook them, they’re normally tossed into a fry pan with olive oil, slivers of garlic and chopped parsley. The vendor doesn’t have any ready to eat, so we continue to meander down the alley, slowly squeezing between old ladies and pushy scooter drivers – not unlike the mound of babbalucci trying to squirm around eachother.


Soon after, we come to a cart on wheels with a heavily concealed wicker basket placed on top, draped in layers of cloth. “This is frittola“, Fabrizia tells me. “You know frittola?“. “The stuff leftover from the calves’ slaughter, right? Cooked in lard?”. “Exactly“, she says. The dishtowels are to retain the heat of the frittola, but I’ve heard that it’s also part of the tradition of shrouding the whole thing in mystery; Fabrizia confirms this, “Yeah…you never really know what you’re going to get. It’s a surprise every time.


We order a serving. The vendor smiles, bearing gaps in the places where his molars should be, the corners of his eyes crinkling. I can tell he’s eager to see me try it. He rolls up a strip of waxy charcuterie paper into a cone shape, then plunges his hand deep into the mystery basket. He mixes it together a little, then pulls out a handful of gnarly bits – toasty in colour, heady with fat. We add a squeeze of lemon, some salt and dig in. Some pieces are squishy, some are crispy. They all have the same deep-fried flavour, thanks to the lard; the taste is close to roasted chicken skin, but its texture is closer to tripe. Or maybe aorta?After a few bites, I’ve reached my limit. Fat saturation comes quickly with this kind of street food, which – unless you’re a construction worker – is best in small doses.



photo by Giulia Oddo

A little further along, we stop at two little shops – one that sells minestra with tenerumi, deep-fried potato croquettes with chopped mint (crocchè), thin chickpea-flour fritters (panelle), fish croquettes, and a salad with the fresh anchovies, marinated in oil and vinegar; the other, a piatto misto with sweet and sour caponata, fava beans, string beans, potatoes and chopped tomatoes – all of it scooped up with chunks of bread. For good measure, we also ordered the sfincione, a deep-dish Sicilian pizza, this one garnished with oregano and anchovies.




piatto misto

photo by Fabrizia Agnello

There’s one more thing just outside the Capo market that Fabrizia wants me to try. “Have you heard of musso?“, she asks. I had, but only because I did a bit of online research before coming to meet her. “It’s either pork snout or cow muzzle, right?” She nods her head and tells me there’s a man nearby that has a stand entirely dedicated to cow parts – utter, cartilage, bull penis, and, of course, musso. His products are laid out plainly on thick blocks of ice, ready to be carved and doled out to customers. Fabrizia orders some musso for us. “Un pezzo carnoso, per favore.” She specifies wanting the meatier piece without cartilage. The vendor is a man of few words; the only thing that slips out of his mouth is a sullen critique of what we’ve ordered. “Vi state perdendo la parte più saporita“, he cautions in a gravelly voice. Apparently we’ve chosen the less flavourful part. He prepares it for us, almost begrudgingly, laying thick slices of musso on a piece of parchment paper.

The flavour reminds me a little of roast beef, if roast beef were boiled and icy cold. It’s a nice counterpart to all the grease-laden (albeit tasty) bits of street food we’ve picked at throughout the market. The meat is chewy, cool, neutral tasting, and dare I say, a little like a palate cleanser.


A little futher along our walk comes Mercato di Ballarò, equally well-stocked with fresh produce piled high, different types of fresh and preserved fish, various incarnations of sheep and cow-milk cheeses (the baked ricotta was perhaps my favourite), as well souk-like stands with their myriad displays of nuts and spices. The offer of street food continues, with fried rings of calimari, stuffed whole squid, and bite-sized sardine saltimbocca, rolled up and fastened with toothpicks. In several spots, there are vats of boiled corn on the cob, potatoes and artichokes (carciofi), ready to eat. Everything before us – from the prepared food, to the squat Saturn peaches and fresh, fuzzy-skinned almonds – is astonishingly inexpensive. At least by North American standards.

I still can’t believe that whole basket of plums was one Euro.



It’s at Ballarò that I end up having my first taste of babbalucci.  After asking for a sample, the vendor plucks one from the pile and hands it to me, its shell slicked in oil. These are not French escargot. There are no dainty two-pronged forks to extract them with; no crispy breadcrumbs adorning the top. These are babbalucci, my friend. No-nonsense food that you lift to your lips and suck out the shell in one go. They’re chewy, as you might expect, but not in an unplesant way – a little like cooked calamari. They’re also very delicious. The mixture of warm olive oil, sautéed garlic and parsley remind me of my Nonna’s pasta aglio e olio. Even minutes after we’d left the stand, I kept turning to Fabrizia, “Those were good. I mean, really good”. It’s extra special it is when something completely unexpected lights up your tastebuds like that. It’s exciting. I never thought that sautéed snails would be capstone of my Sicilian street food experience, but there it was – one of the world’s simplest, most modest foods – securing a place along some of my best food memories. Who knew.


By the time we reach the third spot – Mercato Vucciria – the market day was winding down. Many of the vendors had closed up shop and the customers had returned home. “They’re going to re-open again tonight, for the night market.“, Fabrizia points out. Oh, right. The night market. In the little that I’d read about it, the Palermitan night market sounded mythical – late-night browsing, beers, more street food, like those spleen sandwiches (milza) cooked in lard and sprinkled with wispy bits of shredded cheese, or spit-roasted delicacies like stigghiola (lamb or calf intestines), dressed with a quick squeeze of lemon. I’m regretful not to be staying in the city centre that night, but am also looking forward to escaping the heat by heading back to Sferracavallo, that little safe haven of cool salty breezes, where the daily commotion is limited to church bells, seagulls, and the occasional motorino.


Fabrizia accompanies me back the the square where I’m to take the first bus home. On the way, we bump into one of her friends who says she’s been waiting for an hour for the bus. Apparently, some of the city’s bus drivers have refused to go to work because of the heat. This bodes well. It’s early afternoon and the air has gotten thicker and even more oppressive; the sun beats down hard, making my exposed forearms feel like they’re sizzling. There are strong gusts of wind, but they’re thick, not refreshing, hitting you like a wall. The sound of ambulance sirens can be heard throughout the day. There’s a man across the street lying listless on a bench, being fanned by his friend as paramedics arrive. At different points in the day, I’ve been told – by Giusy, vendors, Fabrizia – that even for Palermo, this kind of heat isn’t normal.

Mercifully, the first bus comes shortly after I arrive at the stop. As I wait for the second bus outside Palermo centre – the one I would eventually wait nearly two hours for – I see in the distance that a piece of Monte Pellegrino is burning. Later that evening, on the news, I’d find out that the whole island was covered in wildfires that day.

Sicily was, quite literally on fire. Giusy’s expression was now reality.



Sferracavallo, Palermo
Friday, June 17th

After yesterday’s heatwave and the resulting brushfires, I was grateful to wake up in Sferracavallo this morning to cooler air. The sun was bright, but not oppressive; worlds away from yesterday’s inferno. I’ve decided to stay in Sferracavallo today, instead of returning to Palermo centre for more sightseeing. You can chalk it up to a mild case of post- traumatic stress from being stranded by buses in the blaring heat. My head still feels cooked and I’d much rather stay here, where the water is closeby and I can wander around at the slowest of paces.

I suspect I’ll have no regrets.



Giusy is home for lunch today. She proposes we make a pranzo di rifuti – a meal pulled together from whatever’s hanging out in the fridge. I tell her I’m fully onboard. We each get to work in a different corner of the kitchen. I start by slicing onion and zucchini for a frittata, while she combines a mixture of ground meat, pine nuts, currants and mint in a bowl to make meatballs (polpette), while a small pot of leftover tomato sauce simmers over one of the gas burners. I mix some eggs with a fork and excavate a bowl of cooked green beans from the fridge – remenants from last night’s dinner – cutting them into smaller pieces before adding them to the eggs, along with a small handful of parmesan. Instead of frying the onion in olive oil as I usually do, before adding the rest of the fritatta mixture, Giusy suggests adding them to a fry pan with the diced zucchini, but without oil, then adding just enough water to cover them. With the heat, they bubble and soften; once all the water has evaporated, we add the olive oil and then the rest of the mixture – eggs, beans, parmesan which have all been beaten into a slurry.


We unwrap some muffuletta (bread stuffed with prosciutto cotto and cheese, covered in sesame seeds) bought from the bakery that morning, cutting it into little squares before taking it outside to the rooftop terrasse with the rest of our bounty.


We eat quietly and contentedly, in the shady corner of the terrasse, looking out at the water. It feels like a dream.




Since arriving in Sferracavallo, I’ve quickly fallen into a daily gelato habit. On some days, it’s a twice-daily habit, for which – to be clear – I make no apologies or excuses. I don’t see this as something transgressive. Excessive, perhaps. But then again, isn’t excess the cornerstone of all good vacations?

It’s worth pointing out (possibly to justify my new-found habit) that Sferracavallo is known to have one of the best gelaterie in this part of Sicily. According to Fabrizia, some people make the thirty-minute drive all the way from Palermo with the sole purpose of having gelato at Gelateria La Delizia. They drive to Sferracavallo, eat gelato, go home. That’s  a pretty solid endorsement for ice cream if I’ve ever heard one.

Each of the gelati and sorbetti at La Delizia are made in small batches with the freshest ingredients and no addditives. I know that sounds like a TV advert, but it’s true. What they make is artisanal, in the truest sense of the word. And it’s delicious. In the short week that I’m here, I partner up as many different flavours as I can, especially the ones that are hard to come by at home – pistachio and zuppa inglese; almond and cinnamon; mulberry and lemon; prickly pear and setteveli (based on a seven-layer Sicilian cake). On one occasion, I order the brioche, a well-known specialty in Sicily. It’s basically a soft, sweet bun, halved, then stuffed with an obscene amount of gelato. I ask for one with panna and stracciatella. As the the girl behind the counter stuffs the brioche, she tells me that people sometimes eat these for breakfast. I think about all the kale smoothies North Americans have choked down in the early hours of the morning before work. I wonder if a Sicilian brioche very so often wouldn’t be such a bad thing.


A visit to La Delizia is best followed by a long, leisurely (babbalucci-paced) walk through the streets of Sferracavallo. The town’s palette – mellow and creamy, interspersed with bursts of colours – are a little like gelato and sorbetto, mixed side-by-side, the whole thing flecked with terracotta and tile, stucco and wood, and pots of two-toned succulents.




Mondello – day trip
Saturday, June 18th

Vendors call out “Aqua, Birra, Coca, Tè!”, trucking beverage coolers across the beach like deeply-tanned mules. Their chant is a melodic jingle; it bounces off the sand and enters your brain like an earworm, despite your best efforts to ignore it.

I’ve found a spot on a sunchair, under a parasol, at the far end of the beach. I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to pay for the luxury of sitting elevated, off the sand, but in the absence of any signs telling me so, or some inspector-type person wagging their finger at me, I’ve decided to roll with it and see how the day unfolds.

The woman beside me is layed out on a sunchair, on her cell phone, plucking stray hairs along her bikini line with her fingernails. Beside her is a boy – maybe nine or ten years old – drenched in sea water, snuggling next to his mom. Everyone is Coppertone bronzed, as only Europeans manage to do with such exquisite consistency. Even the children look like they’ve been baking for weeks – true coast kids, like the ones out of Emanuele Crialese’s Respiro. They might as well have flippers for feet.

In the parasol area there are also batches of women in their 50s and 60s grouped together on sunchairs, hunched over and smoking, chatting, slathering themselves at regular intervals with bronzing oil. Teenagers monopolise the spaces closest to the water, the boys play boomboxes and splash the girls; there are neon-coloured Speedos and glow-in-the-dark rosaries.

Mondello, my friend, is where you come to see and be seen.


In my short time here, reclining on this chair I haven’t paid for, I’ve observed that if you’re a woman – and no matter what kind of body you have – the two-piece is what you wear. Woman of all ages, shapes and sizes with tapestries of stretch marks, cellulite, soft midriffs, vericose veins, all of it completely normal and on display. It isn’t often that I’ve seen women with pillowy limbs sauntering around with such blasé confidence in a two-piece. I come from a culture that tells us – constantly – to cover up our physical imperfections and work on our quote-unquote beach bodies. It goes without saying that Italian woman are sold the same superficial, body-shaming messages as women in North America (watch any Italian variety show), but the women at Mondello beach seem to let the notion of a “beach body” roll off their perfectly-oiled backs. And it’s fantastic.


The beach food at Mondello is like the beach food you’ve had anywhere else – somewhere on the spectrum of deep-fried and nutrient-free, salty and delicious. I come back from the boardwalk vendors to my little nest on the sand, with a fizzy bitter lemon drink and arancino con ragù, a deep-fried, rice ball stuffed with meat sauce, peas and mozzarella. It’s nothing fancy – the equivalent of a hot-dog and a Coke – but it’s magnificent in its own way; the kind of stuff your parents would buy on a family vacation – the bad-for-you junk that was verbotten at home, but totally acceptable on say, a roadtrip. The stuff my mom would refer to as a treat.

Today, I’m referring to this as lunch.


After a considerable stretch of time in my shady nook, under the parasol, and a few dips in the water,  I leave the beach to walk along the boardwalk towards the centre of town.


It’s at this point that I remember Roberto, the grey-haired butcher I’d met on the bus from Palermo, the one who told me he worked in Mondello, “Avvicina de la sirena”.

And lo and behold, there she was, in the middle of town – the mermaid.


Behind her, I spot the tinest macelleria, squeezed between two restaurant patios. I walk in, sheepishly ask if a “Roberto” works here. A few seconds later, he emerges from the beaded curtain at the back, with his butcher-stained apron. “Giulia! Come stai?!” He’s clearly surprised to see me. I’m just as surprised that I even found him. He gives me the tour, showing me the meat selection behind the glass vitrine, all of it carefully arranged onto aluminum display trays. We chat for a bit; then, before I leave, I ask him if there’s a place in Mondello that sells good cannoli. He tells me he doesn’t really eat the stuff, but that the place across the piazza called Antico Chiosco has some. He steps out of the shop and points me in its direction, “La, a destra della sirena” (I like that la sirena is Roberto’s compass). We say goodbye and I make my way toward a building with a long green awning facing the piazza.

I order a cannolo and macchiato, served by two very serious, no-nonsense men in bow-ties with salt and pepper hair. Professional barristi. Stone-cold barristi. I carry my spoils carefully to the bus stop bench, to wait for the AMAT bus back to Sferracavallo. The cannolo’s shell – toasty, crisp and light – is the perfect vessel for the smooth ricotta filling. Unlike some of the cannoli I’ve had before, this one is subtly sweet and remarkably light, despite its obvious richness.

As you can imagine, few pleasures in life compare to eating a fresh cannolo at a bus stop in Mondello. I’ve got ricotta filling all over my fingers and powdered sugar practically up to my nose, but it might be the single happiest moment of my day. Bless you, Sicily.



Sferracavallo, Palermo
Sunday, June 19th

I’d seen them the day before – a handful of husky men, huddled around a barbecue along the boardwalk, knocking back bottles of Moretti. A group of comrades shouting, chuckling, exchanging insults in Sicilian dialect, of which I barely understand a word. Smoke, a deep, fiery dragon smoke billows from the grill, quickly swept away by the seaside wind. I keep my curiosity at a safe distance, watching from the other side of the street as an incognito bystander – the straniera (“foreigner”) hidden safely behind her sunglasses. They haven’t noticed me yet, but if I linger any longer, they might consider me an interloper, a loitering mouth-breather.

What are you waiting for? Go for it.

I step off the sidewalk and make a beeline for the barbecue and its makeshift vendor’s station – a wooden table outfitted with a hefty granite slab for prepping and serving, with pieces of green and blue tarp (the kind you use for camping) draped behind it like a wall, to cut the wind. As I get closer, I can finally see what it is – glossy, pink intestine. I have no clue what animal it comes from, though that question seems irrelevant now.


I get close to the counter, locking eyes with the barbecue man: “Questo è solo per locali? O posso provare?”, asking if I can have some. My request is met with equal parts confusion and reservation. I suspect he’s thinks I’m a bit of a naive kook, wondering why I’m not eating at the boojie seafood restaurants looking over the sea, like the rest of the turisti. The word “straniera”, that has been in big, bold imaginary letters on my forehead since arriving in Italy, are now glowing neon bright. I press further. “Posso?”, I ask, pointing to the coils of skewered meat, spitting and sizzling over the grill. The vendor shrugs, “Se vuole”, before adding, “Due Euros.

As I reach for some change in my pocket, an older, mustachioed man – whose name I never asked – comes up behind me and waves off the vendors request for money. “Lo pago io per Lei“. He’s paying, apparently. He pours me some beer into a plastic cup and orders us a plate. At first I insist on paying my part, but he shakes his head, “No, no, no…è il mio piacere, signorina“. Eventually, I acquiesce. “Grazie, signore.” We clink our plastic cups together, along with those of his nearby friends. “Salute.

While we sip our beer, I tell him about my street food experience in Palermo – about the frittola, the musso, the babbalucci. He can’t believe I ate the frittola, telling me I must have a cast-iron stomach. We’re within earshot of the BBQ man, whose ears seem to perk up at this. It is the first indication that I’m legit – that I know this is organ meat and that I’m not some dewy-eyed romantic looking for an Eat, Pray, Love experience. I just want some barbecue, BBQ man. And with that, the tension between us starts to melt. I ask him what animal it’s from “Maiale? Agnello?“. “No, è vitello” (veal). He explains that it comes from a nearby farm owned by his mother, which he and his son (pictured above) prepare for passerbys, whenever it’s available. He doesn’t dress them in anything before placing them onto the barbecue; they cook over the coals, unembellished. “Puro. Naturale.“, he says, explaining that he can do it this way because they’re so fresh. The fat around them keeps them nice and insulated, preventing them from sticking to the grill.

We keep chatting as he plucks one of the skewers off the grill and slides the seared pieces onto a chopping block, cutting it up into smaller chunks before piling them onto a plate lined with parchment paper. My dining companion, Mr. Mustachio, dresses our plate with salt and a squeeze of lemon juice. (I’ve heard that the latter is used in a lot of Sicilian street food, both for flavour and for microbe-killing properties.) We dig in. The pieces are chewy, but crispy and caramelised in that way that can only be achieved with a hot barbecue grill. The flavour is rich and smoky – a bit like a well-seared steak, with flavours of blood pudding and liver hanging out faintly in the background. “È buono“, I tell my companion. He seems happy that I like it. “Ti piace? Ah, bene!

BBQ man smiles for the first time since I arrived, and it feels like a small triumph.


When there’s nothing left on the plate but a little pool of lemon juice and grease, I scrub my hands with a napkin and tell them I have to get going. They tell me to come back in a couple of days for another round; I tell them it’s my last day in Sferracavallo. “Oh, no, vero?” “Sì, sì. Devo partire domani mattina.” BBQ man asks me what time I’m leaving. I ask him why. He says, “Potrei accompagnarti“, telling me that he could drive me to the airport in Palermo, since he has to go into town tomorrow. I can’t believe what I’m hearing, considering that a mere thirty minutes ago I thought I was persona non grata. Our brief relationship seems to have done a 180. I also can’t believe how scary a prospect that is (solo female traveller getting into a car with a stranger? Can you hear the alarm bells ringing?), and so I of course decline, but thank him for the offer, and the expertly-cooked street meat. My dining companion, for his part, gives me a farewell pat on the shoulder and a handshake. “Arriverci, signorina. Buon viaggio.” I wave to his friends, who are now perched on chairs on the opposite side of the street, in the shade. They wave back, “Ciao, ciao!“, before returning to their beers.

And with that chance encounter, at a nomadic barbecue on the boardwalk that forced me be bolder than usual, I leave Sferracavallo with a full belly and an even fuller heart, feeling less like a straniera than I probably ever have.

Sogni d’oro, Sferracavallo. Grazie per tutto.


Summer Dinners – Arctic Char

This is going to be a lazy post; a quick and dirty one. See this as a public service announcement – a bit stern and to-the-point, but useful. I really do think your life – at least your culinary one – will be better for it.

The impetus for this post came in the form of a Bon Appétit recipe that I came across when looking for something to make with fish. “Mackerel with Cauliflower ‘Couscous’ and Tahini” was one of the first to pop up in my browser, and after glancing at the photo – filled with ruby-coloured pomegranate seeds, fresh herbs, and crispy, silvery mackerel – I knew I’d hit the money. The only issue was sourcing the ingredients – two of my regular fish mongers didn’t have mackerel that week, and the pomegranates at my green grocer were looking a little peaked (to be fair, they’re not exactly in season).

I took Bon Appétit‘s advice and substituted the mackerel for arctic char, a cold water fish that keeps its shape when cooked and whose skin crisps up nicely in the pan. As for a pomegranate seed replacement – I went digging in my crisper and found two beets – one striped, one not – and figured that, at least colour-wise, they might make an acceptable surrogate. I also had a few radishes leftover from the previous week’s market spoils, so I tossed a few in for good measure.

The result was better than I’d expected – the fish was tender, the cauliflower nicely roasted and browned in bits, the raw vegetables were crisp and pretty, and the tahini dressing united the whole thing, lending a silky, nutty hum to it all.

It’s a vibrant, crunchy, creamy dish that won’t make you feel like you’re bursting at the seams after you’ve downed the last forkful. Perfect for the heat. Perfect for summer.

Please dig in.

Arctic Char with Pulsed Cauliflower, Quick-Pickled Beets and Tahini Dressing

Arctic Char with Pulsed Cauliflower, Quick-Pickled Beets and Tahini
Adapted from Bon Appétit
Serves 2, with leftovers


Tahini Sauce

  • 1 garlic clove finely grated
  • ¼ cup tahini
  • 2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • salt

(you will have leftover sauce, which is good – use it on salads and vegetables throughout the week)

Cauliflower and seeds

  • 3 Tbsp olive oil, divided
  • 1 small head cauliflower, cored, cut into large florets
  • 1 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
  • salt
  • 2 Tbsp raw pumpkin seeds
  • 2 tsp sesame seeds
  • 1 teaspoon nigella seeds (in Montreal, I buy mine here)

Quick-pickled beets

  • 2 small beets
  • juice of 1/2 lemon (or splash of white wine vinegar)
  • salt

Fish and Assembly

  • 1 filet of arctic char (or 1-2 whole mackerel, cleaned)
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • salt
  • 1 lemon, thinly sliced, seeds removed
  • ½ cup fresh cilantro leaves
  • 1-2 radishes, thinly sliced


1) Make tahini sauce and the pickled beets: stir garlic, tahini, lemon juice, oil, and ¼ cup water in a small bowl; season with salt. Peel and dice the beets; put in a small mixing bowl and dress with the lemon juice (or vinegar) and season lightly with salt.

2) Cauliflower and seeds: heat 2 Tbsp. oil in a large heavy skillet over medium-high. Working in batches if needed, cook cauliflower, tossing occasionally, until florets are browned in spots but still crunchy, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl and let cool. Reserve skillet.

3) Working in 2 batches, pulse cauliflower in a food processor until the size of rice grains. Transfer back to bowl, toss with lemon juice, and season with salt.

4) Cook pumpkin seeds and remaining 1 Tbsp. oil in reserved skillet over medium heat, stirring, until seeds are golden brown, about 1 minute. Season with salt. Toss in a small bowl with sesame and nigella seeds.

5) Mackerel and assembly: heat the 1 Tbsp of olive oil a pan on medium-high heat. Once the oil is hot, but not smoking, place the fish in the pan, skin-side down; cook  2-4 minutes on each side, depending on the thickness. Remove from pan and let rest for a couple of minutes.

6) Spoon cauliflower onto plates. Remove fillets from fish and place, skin side up, on top. Top with seed mixture, pickled beets, cilantro, radish slices and a sprinkle of salt. Dress with tahini and serve.

Italy, condensed – Pt.1 – Roma

How do you distill the most important bits of a three-week trip, without lazily listing the highlights and making your audience feel like they’re forced to watch an endless stream of blurry slide-projector photos? I’ve been back home for nearly three weeks and have quickly slipped back into the daily routine, making the memories feel like they’ve piled up into one, big messy tangle, as opposed to a clean, chronological narrative. There are blips of recollections that contain everything from the scent of citrus fruit and diesel, to the sound of swallows and broken plates.

Where do you even start?

Without quite knowing how to come at this, I decided to rely on my travel journal – that flimsy, grey blotter that I dutifully towed alongside me every day, to jot down notes on park benches, in noisy tratorrie, and on bumpy buses. For better or worse, the journal seemed like a good way to introduce these places to you. There’s a lot more information, images and ideas from the trip still percolating in my brain, but it’ll take a bit more time to coax them into the proper channels (recipes! oh god, all the recipes!). So in the meantime, I’ve selected a few journal entries (tweaked for the sake of coherence), along with some photos to help flesh things out. There will  be a post on Rome, then Palermo (and surrounding areas), then one on the writing workshop with Rachel Roddy and Luisa Weiss at Case Vecchie (Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking School) in Sicily.

I hope that these glimpses and echoes of stories will nip your wanderlust square on the bum and encourage you to explore more – be it geographical, cultural, gustatory, or in any way you see fit.

Baci, Julia x


Italy Part 1 // Rome // 4.5 days

Testaccio, Rome
Friday, June 10th, 9:45pm
Tratorria Da Bucatino

Yelling. So much yelling. The Romans are having dinner and it’s as though each thought, each string of words is as important – if not more so – as the last. Their hands and shoulders move in gestural waves – broad movements in competition with their own voices for airspace. The spectacle is punctuated by peals of laughter, a roll of the eyes, or a fist coming down hard on the table to further prove a point. It’s like a playful exercise of sensory one upmanship, where the men – with presumably a fair amount of vino and/or grappa circulating through their veins – are definitely winning.

Da Bucatino is the kind of place that instantly draws you in, largely thanks to its one-part Godfather, one-part Twin Peaks mystique. There are several dining rooms, each connected by small doorways which the waiter guides me through until we reach a table in the centre of the room. It has a “riservato” sign on it, which he hastily removes and shoves into his pocket. He catches my eye and winks, Non l’ho visto, l’hai visto ? (“I didn’t see it, did you?”). I shake my head, “no”, wishing I had the words to compliment his impromptu magic trick.

After a quick glance at the menu (which is in both English and Italian, with a wine list bearing only two dubious-looking, albeit succint, descriptors: “red” or “white”), I can’t tell if this place is a total racket or one of Testaccio’s best kept secrets. After a little while, it becomes clear that it’s somewhere comfortably in the middle – not ultra-gimmicky, not sublime, but a lovely in-between. The neighbourhood tratorria, the kind of place you come to with your family or your friends on a Thursday night, to eat platefuls of gnocchi, veal coda, and stewed fagioli, all while getting nicely looped on a carafe of wine called “red”.

I order the pici alla gricia, hand-rolled pasta the size and shape of thick shoelaces, slicked in a savoury sauce of pan-fried pancetta, fresh baby artichokes and a dusting of sharp pecorino. The pici get twirled happily into clusters on my fork, until there isn’t a single slippery noodle left in the bowl. It’s the kind of simply-prepared, unfussy pasta dish that hits all the right buttons, especially for the weary traveller who’s had nothing to eat all day, save an in-flight, cellophane-wrapped slice of banana bread, an oily square of potato pizza and an apricot.

To avoid the dearth of vegetables that’s beginning to slink into my tourist diet, I also order a 6 Euro plate of stewed chicory with the pici, which the waiter is quick to clarify will only come after the pasta, “Dopo il primo piatto, okaaye?”, as per Italian dining customs. I try to act with blasé assurance, Sì, sì…perfetto, but secretly wish he’d bring it all to the table at one time so that I won’t be stuck eating a mound of chicory meant for 2-4 people, all on its own (and all on my own). When it comes – a large, conical pile of tangled greens, swimming in garlicky stewing juices – the undertaking seems larger than expected. I dig in, like an obedient child, forkful after forkful, until the mound slowly diminishes, using the bread from the bread basket to mop up as much of the leftover juices as I can. It’s really tasty; just far too much for one person.

Right around the time I start to feel like John Candy in the steak scene from The Great Outdoors, a new batch of patrons rolls in through the front doors. It’s 10:45pm. The waiter asks if I want a dolce; I clutch my chest, “No, grazie, non posso” and ask for the cheque instead.

After heading out – or perhaps more accurately, rolling out of Da Bucatino, I make my way down the block to Piazza Testaccio a block for a gulp of fresh air. The piazza is nearly empty, except for a family of four with two gangly kids out for a late-night stroll. I notice they have cones of gelato in their hands. My midriff – the one that, just moments ago, felt like it was bursting at the seams, the one that said, “No, grazie, non posso” when offered dessert by Mr. Magic-Trick waiter – is suddenly keen for a frozen slurry of milk, cream and sugar. Not too far away is a gelateria, glowing in a halo of neon lights.

As I make my way over, I start to wonder how many times I’ll be able to use the excuse “when in Rome” before I fall flat on the floor.

Piazza Testaccio


Testaccio, Rome
Saturday, June 11th
Caffè Barberini, Nuovo Mercato di Testaccio, former Mattatoio al Testaccio

Breakfast starts with a cornetto and macchiato at Barberini, on Via Marmorata. In Italy, a lot of cornetti (the Italian interpretation of a croissant) are made with vegetable shortening, but Barberini is apparently one of the only places in the city that makes theirs with real butter. No mucking around.

This hot tip came from Natalie, when I mentioned I was heading out for breakfast near the apartment in Testaccio. She also said they made good coffee – which they do. Like most Italian coffee bars, the baristi are exclusively men, decked out in white button-up shirts (some also wear grey vests and bow-ties), expertly navigating the line between flirtation and professionalism with their female clients. Regulars breeze in at different intervals, greeting the barista with a quick salve! as they lean up against the bar. Seconds later, the barista slides their espresso toward them. They don’t even need to order; he knows them that well. They chit chat for a couple of minutes, the client knocks back the final sip of their espresso (there are about three total) and they wish eachother a buongiorno! goodbye.

I’ve been to Italy before; I’ve seen this dozens of times. But it’s a ritual that never fails to impress me with its simplicity – the two minutes spent chatting with your local barista while you sip your coffee, before heading off to work or running errands. To the Italians, there’s nothing precious about this routine – to them it’s just that – routine. And that, I suppose, is what makes it all that more alluring to the outsider.

Testaccio, Rome

Around lunchtime, Rachel takes me round the Testaccio market (Nuovo Mercato di Testaccio). Nuovo, because it opened in 2012, migrating from its original location in Piazza Testaccio, where it stood since the 1920s. The new building has the same squeaky-clean brightness that causes a lot of modern architecture stick out in older, urban settings, making it feel strangely anachronistic. Rachel tells me that the new market was initally met with a good dose of skepticism, mainly because of the squeaky-cleanness of the new structure and the additional walking distance from the more central square where it used to reside. I can empathise with Romans who are resistant to change when it comes to their markets; when I think of my own outdoor market back home – Marché Jean-Talon – I realise how apprehensive I am when changes are made to the stalls and producers (where the heck did my Madame Laitue go? Why have they replaced the produce stalls with bougie artisanal products?). I feel like the rug has been pulled from under me on those days. Some Romans probably do too. Because when something so important to your daily life gets shifted around like that, it can throw you for a loop (especially for all us octogenarians at heart).

As we move along the pathways of the market that connect each stall, Rachel points out her favourite produce man (one of the few remaining farmers at the market that sells the produce he actually grows himself), her fish monger (he might be the most vocal vendor there), and her bakery, Da Artenio, which makes these lovely little pizzette – small, oval-shaped pizzas no bigger than the size of an out-stretched hand, with simple toppings like tomato sauce, or sliced potato, or red onion. In provision of lunch later in the day, I order a half loaf of bread and a bag of ciambelline al vino e finnochio, circular biscuits made with wine and fennel seeds and a coating of sparkly sugar crystals. They’re meant for dessert, but I like to dunk these in wine or beer (like the Moretti that’s quietly chilling in the fridge back at the apartment).

After visiting the market, we stop for a quick espresso at a nearby tabbacchi. Rachel tells me it’s one of the last remaining tabacchi that also has an espresso bar. I wish I had a better photo to show you – one with a view from the inside, through the beaded curtains that dress the front door. Like the woman who runs it, this spot is an utter gem – time-worn, modest and lovely.

Testaccio, Rome

Adjacent to the Testaccio market is a series of buildings that used to house the neighbourhood’s slaughterhouse. After it shut down in the 1970s, the spaces have been restored and reappropriated by different institutes and collectives dedicated to art, culture, and education, the largest ones being the Macro Testaccio, University of Roma Tre, and Città dell’Altra Economia, the latter featuring a small bio-agricultural market on Sundays that sells fresh produce, cheese and small-batch food products. (It pained me to leave the market without one of those jaw-dropping wheels of cheese in hand, but I had to remind myself – four days. You’re only here for FOUR days.)


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From Città dell’Altra Economia, you can see Monte Testaccio (or Monte dei Cocci), a hill made almost entirely of fragments of discarded earthenware (amphorae) used by the ancient Romans to transport olive oil. It’s quite a fantastic sight – a carefully engineered, ancient garbage dump of sorts. If you look closely (squint, maybe), you can make out the pieces of broken pottery covering the hill:


When we leave the old slaughterhouse district, it’s mid-afternoon and I realise I haven’t had any lunch. Rachel and I part ways and I head back to the apartment with my market spoils to cobble together something that will sustain me for the rest of the afternoon. In a couple of hours, I’ll be heading out again, this time for a long walk along the Tiber to Latteria Trastevere, to meet Natalie for pre-dinner drinks and salumi (i.e. aperitivo hour).

I can think of worse ways to spend a day.

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Vatican City, Rome
Sunday, June 12th

I have to buy Nonna a rosary at Vatican City today. That was my mission when I left the apartment this morning.

I head out, smeared in sunscreen SPF 110; my skin is still a shade between “snow-capped” and “Canadian-ivory”, which doesn’t exactly help me blend in with the locals. I take it a step further by fashioning my trusty cotton scarf into a makeshift headscarf, to protect my scalp from the hot sun, which by 10 am is already beating down something fierce. (Anytime I try to channel Ava Gardner in Night of the Iguana, I end up looking more like Edie Beale in Grey Gardens. It’s inevitable.). Since I don’t have enough hair to achieve a regal-looking Nefertiti situation, I end up looking vaguely infirm. That, or bat-shit crazy, if you consider the oversized sunglasses that swallow half my face and the canvas bag I’ve decided to cart along – you know, the one that has the outline of a naked woman lounging solo on a shag rug, smoking a bong. Oh and did I mention I went bra-free too?

Way to make an impression there, tourista.


Canvas bag

It’s safe to say that sartorial choices such as these will not make you go unnoticed in Vatican City. One positive offshoot is that it tends to ward off the souvenir hustlers, possibly because they don’t quite know what to make of you. If you’re travelling alone, and don’t mind staying alone, I highly recommend it.

(Sidenote: before my Catholic-raised mother has a heart-attack reading this, I should mention that when I was actually in Saint-Peter’s Square (I didn’t go inside the Basilica or the museums), I had the good sense to turn the canvas bag inside out and toss on a long-sleeved shirt.)


Among the vendor stalls outside Peter’s Square, all of them strewn with various forms of religious paraphernalia, I was able to find a couple of things that Nonna might like, namely a plastified card emblazoned with a smiling Pope Francis and a silvery medallion, and a rosary – a simple one made of white beads, with its own nifty pewter case.

I like to imagine grandma keeping these tokens by her bedside, making her feel safe.

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1:25 pm

About a twenty-minute walk from Vatican City is Bonci Pizzarium – a pizza-by-the-slice counter discreetly located on a sidestreet across Cipro metro. Knowledge of their proximity wasn’t a fluke, or dumb luck; I’d planned these two excusions back-to-back after hearing from a handful of reliable sources (including two Roman-dwelling food pros I’d met – Katie Parla and Natalie Aldern Kennedy) that Pizzarium has some of the best pizza-by-the-slice (al taglio) in town.

I enter and take a ticket; with every rotation of the crowd, I get closer to the vitrine. Once it’s my turn, I’m face-to-face with large sheets of pizza splayed out with every topping imaginable. There is no menu; what you see is what you get. It’s buy-by-eye – roasted red pepper with pine nuts, tomato and anchovy, mortadella and marinated eggplant, zucchini, ricotta and almonds…

I finally settle on four kinds before they call out my number: potato and rosemary; headcheese (coppa), shaved celery and orange zest; chicory, ricotta, and nutmeg; and mushroom with caciocavallo. I collect my bounty and head to a standing banquette outside. The first few bites trigger contented grunts; the slice with the coppa garnered a couple of under-the-breath swear words. An American tourist standing next to me nudges his wife, “OMIGOD OMIGOD, have you tried this one?! This one might be the best”, only to repeat the same statement with each subsequent piece (they all win “best”).

His enthusiasm is warranted. It’s the kind of food that sparks deep-belly felicity; the kind of food that makes you happy to be alive.

Viva Bonci Pizzarium.

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Rome // Conclusion

Four and a half days in this city hardly seems enough. I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. Some things I’ll miss and hope to re-visit again: the public fountains that double as drinking fountains, the banter between neighbours that echoes off the walls of interior courtyards, the screeching swallows, the clinkity-clank of noisy tratorrie, the smell of pizza bianca wafting from stone ovens, the homicidal scooter-drivers, the way the ancient bits of the city meld with the modern, laundry hanging from windows, 1 euro macchiati, aperitivi in the piazza, and, of course, having some of the most beautiful, fresh (and wildly inexpensive) food products right at my fingertips, every single day.

Ah, Roma – spero che ci rivediamo subito.

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