An Italian-American living la dolce vita in the Deep South

An Italian-American living la dolce vita in the Deep South

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Christmas Facebook Poll: The Results

This past Monday I conducted a very informal Facebook poll. Basically, I posted the following photo and asked for help in deciding how to decorate our kitchen credenza for Christmas. The options included: A/ trees and greenery; B/ greenery only; and C/ trees only.

Here's how the voting went down:

A/ 27 votes
B/ 9 votes
C/ 4 votes
A/ or C/ 3 votes

There were also some issues ...

Issue #1: The light switch! Thanks to Mary Louise for bringing that up, and thanks for reminding me how annoying it is. That light switch, which is TWO FEET away from the edge of the doorway, limited us on what kind of artwork we could put on that wall; in other words, nothing HORIZONTAL. Boo light switch. We also have issues with floor registers -- our builder put one where any normal person would put a piece of furniture.

Issue #2: Baby Jesus! People were passionate about whether the infant Jesus should be placed in his manger, or hidden away until Christmas morning. In our family, we've always had baby Jesus in the manger, but for several years we kept the wise men in another room and every day moved them closer to the manger. But holy moly that was work trying to get the timing just right -- some days the Magi took baby steps, while other days they took giant steps. Baby Jesus in the manger or not, in the words of Tevya from Fiddler on the Roof it all boils down to one word: Tradition!

Issue #3: The snow! Several of you mentioned that you didn't like the trees because they were covered in snow and it doesn't snow in the Holy Land. Well, I had to look this up and, believe it or not, it does occasionally snow in Bethlehem. At an elevation of 2300 feet the area is dry but not necessarily hot, which means snowfalls do occur.

Issue #4 The snow! Truthfully, I have had those trees for years but never included them in any of our manger scenes. I have no problem with a snowy manger scene, but if there is snow on the trees then there should be snow on the greenery and on top of the stable. #AmIRightOrAmIRight?

Now before I reveal my decision, I will say I liked the fullness provided by the greenery, and I liked the coziness of the trees, but I didn't like them together (again, Issue #4) (also, I don't like things to be fussy). I waffled for a couple of days, but then this morning I decided on the greenery ... but more of it. I also went with the real stuff. So after I went foraging in my parents' back yard and a secret location in town (if you take me out for coffee I MIGHT reveal my secret stash) I came up with this ...

P.S. Now about that light switch ... just ignore it ;-)

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Because everyone needs a turkey on their head

A few years ago our entire family celebrated Thanksgiving on Hilton Head, and to commemorate the occasion Nonna gave everyone turkey hats. Most of us wore them indoors -- under duress (no hat, no food!) -- but these two wore them everywhere. And they got lots and lots of attention.

We still have those hats. They're in our hat box. You can borrow them if you'd like. 

two turkey walking on the beach

a turkey taking in the view

two turkeys playing cards with Nonno

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

A Thanksgiving Centerpiece in Four Easy Steps

My friend Mary Louise is a master gardener. She hosts workshops, gives talks, and blogs at where her motto is cultivating life one garden at a time. Recently she did a Facebook Live tutorial for an easy Thanksgiving centerpiece. At first I was wary because easy for Mary Louise means totally the opposite for many people (like me). But here's the other thing about Mary Louise: she can also be very inspirational, so after I watched her tutorial I thought, "I can do this!"

And I did.

And so can you.

Here's a list of everything you need to make Mary Louise's Thanksgiving centerpiece: pumpkins, moss, adhesive spray, and succulents. It's so easy you won't need to take notes ... just follow the photo tutorial.

~1~ Assemble your supplies.

~2~ Grab a handful of moss, shape it, spray one side with adhesive spray, and plop it down on top of your pumpkin. No scooping pumpkin innards!

~3~ Remove a succulent from it's container and break up the root ball. Then, make an opening in the moss and insert the succulent. Repeat until your pumpkin top is covered.

~4~ Fill in spaces with additional moss (I used three different types).

That's it ... four easy steps to create a centerpiece which will transform your Thanksgiving table.

(P.S. Mary Louise says that in order to keep the succulents fresh, just mist lightly with water. Then, whenever you're ready to get rid of the pumpkins simply remove the succulents and transplant them into pots or containers.)

Monday, November 20, 2017

Goodbye Green Bean Casserole

I know, I know. The green bean casserole -- the one made with cream of mushroom soup and generous sprinkling of fried onions -- has been a Thanksgiving staple in households across the United States.

But ... ick. Of all the Thanksgiving dishes, this is my least favorite. Sorry! For years it appeared on our Thanksgiving table, and for years everyone took a small spoonful -- a very tiny spoonful -- and moved on to more delicious dishes.

Then several years ago I thought: why do we keep making something no one really likes? So that year I served Bacon-Wrapped Green Bean Bundles instead. They were a HUGE hit, and the green bean casserole was quietly retired.

So, here is my recipe. You're welcome.

Bia's Bacon-Wrapped Green Beans

3/4 pound fresh, French-style green beans
1 pkg. pre-cooked bacon
3 tbsp. butter, melted
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 tsp. garlic salt
1/8 tsp. soy sauce

1- Blanch green beans (do not overcook because they will continue cooking in the oven).
2- Drain beans. Place 8 beans on each bacon strip. Wrap bacon around the beans and place bundle seam down on a shallow baking dish.
3- In a small bowl, combine butter, brown sugar, garlic salt, and soy sauce. Brush mixture over the green bean bundles.
4- Bake at 400 degrees for 10-15 minutes or until warm.

1- Use the thin, French style green beans (keep the tips on). I get mine at Costco. Thick beans don't work well and don't present as nicely.

2- You can use regular bacon, but you will have to cook the bacon before assembling the green bean bundles (heat the bacon until cooked, but not crisp). I used to do it this way, but using pre-cooked bacon simplified my life.

3- To save time, I assemble the green bean bundles ahead of time (even the day before) then brush them with the sauce and place them in the oven before serving.

4- Green beans should be crisp and NOT mushy.

5- The recipe is easily doubled (or tripled).

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Sunday's lunch ... sometimes I'm not feeling it

Every Sunday we have lunch with my parents, a long-standing tradition of sit down meals which we take turns hosting (Creating Memories with the Sunday Dinner). Of course, I like the Sundays when we all traipse over to Nonna and Nonno's house for lunch because it means I do absolutely nothing all day long. What about dinner, you ask? Well, lunch at my mom's is a big affair, so if anyone is still hungry later I hand them a bowl and a spoon and point them to the row of cereal boxes in the pantry. See? I do nothing. Those Sundays are my absolute favorite.

But every other Sunday it's my turn to host, and even though it requires some effort on my part I really enjoy the opportunity to try new recipes and set a pretty table.

Most of the time.

Sometimes, though, I'm just not feeling it. Take today, for example. Last night I started making out my grocery list and realized that with the older boys coming home Monday (which means I feel compelled to cook all their favorite meals), and with my entire family here for Thanksgiving, I was going to be in the kitchen most of the week.

So I made a decision. Normally I would serve something like this for our Sunday dinner: melon and prosciutto, bruschetta, chicken saltimbocca, roasted potatoes, and an apple crostata served with espresso for dessert.

But today, I did this and called it an indoor picnic . . .

Friday, November 17, 2017

I'm not being paid for this endorsement ...

but since it's for my sister maybe I'll get a freebie.

All kidding aside, Laura's Etsy site (Alleluia Rocks) has some wonderful gift ideas for the upcoming holidays -- place settings, nativities, ornaments, and her best-selling story stones. She also paints wedding favors, inspirational quotes, and teachers' gifts. Check out her site; once you place an order it ships quickly (within a couple of days) and arrives beautifully packaged. Gift wrapping is also available.

My recent purchases include ...

1- These place settings for our Thanksgiving table,

2- and Christmas gifts for my Bunco group. These just arrived today; I won't tell you what they are because some of my Bunco gals may read this and we wouldn't want to ruin the surprise, but I wanted you to see how beautifully they are wrapped (I had requested that my purchases be individually wrapped, and Laura delivered!)

So, check out her site, Alleluia Rocks. And if you mention me, then maybe I'll get that freebie after all ;-)

I have my eye on this one ...

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

chocolate and puddles and spoons

I was walking outside with our youngest son, who was four years old at the time. It had rained the night before and as I stepped over and around the puddles, he was jumping right in.

"How do you make mud?" I asked him as he made a truly spectacular splash.

He stopped to think for a minute. Then he smiled.

"First you dig a hole, then you put water and chocolate in it," he answered as he hopped over to the next puddle. "Next time let's bring a spoon."

I had forgotten this conversation until yesterday when I came across it in my journal. That cute little boy, who used to lick the foam off the top of my cappuccino, is now thirteen years old. He's playing basketball, finishing up a Future City science project, insisting (like boys everywhere) that he  does NOT need to wear a coat, and likes talking about engines and gears.

He's also taller than I am and yesterday when I needed to open a jar which was tightly sealed, I handed it to him and he popped it right open.

Sometimes it takes my breath away to stop and savor those moments when you realize your little boy is shedding his childhood and approaching life -- hesitantly, messily, but most assuredly -- as a young man. It is very humbling, more than a little scary, and all kinds of marvelous.

But I do miss those days of chocolate and puddles and spoons.

Monday, November 13, 2017

My Kind of Touchdown

This past Saturday I decided to leave the guys with their Penn State victory while I went to Ulta. I had my obligatory $3.50 coupon and an ad for a free flat iron with a purchase of a Hot Tools hair dryer. Then, I opened a credit card and received an extra 20% off AND a free Urban Decay eye liner. THEN, the sales associate gave me five really fantastic free samples. Ulta trip = my touchdown victory!

When there is too much testosterone in the house ...
I head to Ulta.

Free samples (and decent size, too) make my day!

Friday, November 10, 2017

How to Host Thanksgiving Outdoors

Last year we hosted Thanksgiving for family on both sides. It was a large gathering, so to accommodate everyone I had decided to move Thanksgiving to our back yard. We set up a long tables under the trees, we had a drink station on the deck and a buffet table on the grass, the adults had room to mingle and the children space to play, and in the early afternoon we broke bread together under a canopy of leaves resplendent in brilliant oranges, yellows and reds.

It was one of my favorite Thanksgiving days ever. Because we were eating and reciting our Thanksgiving prayer outside, I truly felt as if we were sharing in the harvest while surrounded by Nature's Bounty. It worked out so well that this year we're doing it again.

I learned a lot about taking things outside, what worked and what I could have done differently, and I'll share these. And please feel free to share any suggestions or traditions that you do in your family! This is what's beautiful about the blogging world -- we all learn from one another.

We are at the mercy of Mother Nature

I spend a great deal of time complaining about the interminable summers here in the Deep South where, unless it's a picnic on a beach, I like to eat indoors with the gentle hum of the air conditioner providing background music. But spring and fall are absolutely gorgeous here so having our Thanksgiving meal outside is an option for us. I realize this may not be possible for those living in colder areas of the country, but you get a snowy Christmas and we don't (one day I would like to experience a Christmas Eve snowfall and wake up Christmas morning to a winter wonderland). I guess the bottom line is this: as much as we love to be out in Mother Nature, we are at mercy of the seasons and completely dependent on her whims. And believe it or not, it gets cold down here, too.

A basket of blankets by the back door for chilly nights
(because even in the Deep South it gets cold).

Know your entertaining style

Elegant, casual, or somewhere in between? Lennox china or mismatched stoneware from Pottery Barn? Linen tablecloths or burlap table runners? Theme or no theme? We all host Thanksgiving in different ways,  but if you stay true to your style then it will come across more naturally. If I had to pick my style, I suppose it would be more Tuscan farmhouse than Italian villa; in other words, welcoming and cozy with a tiny whisper of elegance in a rustic setting. Truthfully, though, I tend to think more in terms of mood rather than style. How do I want my guests to feel? How do I want them to interact? What do I want them to experience when they walk in our front door? What can I do to ensure they have a lovely time?

Moving it outdoors

Whatever your style, it's easy to move your Thanksgiving meal outdoors by recreating your inside setting ... outside. Picture your dinner table under the trees, or on your brick patio, or next to the fire pit. Set the table with your Lennox china or your Pottery Barn stoneware. Use the crystal stemware. String lights from the trees, provide background music, and keep a basket of blankets nearby for when the sun goes down. Don't think picnic just because you're eating outdoors; rather, think dining al fresco on the Amalfi Coast.

Logistics are important

When you move the meal outdoors, it's important to map things out in advance. Know where to place the table, how guests will handle drinks, and how food will be served. For last year's Thanksgiving meal I made sure to place the table where there would be afternoon shade. I also knew that, due to our large numbers, passing around the sweet potato casserole or a platter of sliced turkey would be cumbersome, so I set up a buffet table nearby. As for drinks ... I placed bottled water and wine on the table, but all other beverages (soda, beer, iced tea) could be found at a "beverage station" on the deck.

Planners, planners everywhere! This from Pinterest.

Dressing the table (in addition to the turkey)

To me, holidays are a time to dress things up, and just because you're dining al fresco doesn't mean you can't use table linens. To keep things simple, whenever I entertain (inside or outside) I do any of the following:

1/ Go bare. I really, really like the look of stoneware on dark, bare wood, so if you have a nice table don't use a tablecloth. Use linen napkins to soften the look and introduce a color scheme.

photo via pinterest

Preparing a tablescape for a talk. No tablecloth needed.

2/ Use drop cloths from Home Depot or Lowe's. Seriously, this is my favorite thing to do. The canvas almost looks like linen, and the neutral color provides an excellent backdrop for centerpieces and trays of food. And the best part? They are indestructible, can be cut to size, and drape nicely.

Using drop cloths from Lowe's for a luncheon

Drop cloths are durable and drape nicely.

3/ Use blankets or throws. This is another of my favorite tips, especially during the fall and winter months. Whether I set a table in front of the fireplace or out on the back deck, I will use flannel blankets as tablecloths. Last week I found some perfect blankets/throws at Hobby Lobby which be used for this year's Thanksgiving table, and the pretty autumnal colors will contrast nicely with neutral stone plates and fall décor; additionally, the throws help create a mood of welcome and hominess. The best part? They were 50% off (I purchased six blankets for less than $30, which will cover two 8-ft long tables.)

Fireside dinner using flannel throws as tablecloths

The Hobby Lobby throws I will use this year

Divide and Conquer

We all know that the Thanksgiving meal takes a lot of preparation and cooking, but the very heart of that first Thanksgiving was about celebrating Nature's Bounty and God's Blessings by bringing something to the table. So allow others to participate by bringing a bottle of wine, a side dish, a pumpkin pie.  Here's one thing that works for our large family gatherings: we host and provide drinks, appetizers, and a side dish or two, my siblings bring side dishes and desserts, and my mother cooks the turkey (this is KEY! for me because it saves my kitchen from a huge mess -- think turkey carcass and dripping juices -- and it frees precious countertop space for all the side dishes).

My sister's fancy shmancy homemade pumpkin pie

Something for everyone

Finally, when hosting it is nice to be able to offer something to all age groups, and being outside made this easier. So Joe set up corn hole, the boys made sure basketballs and footballs were pumped full of air, and I set out a basket of blankets in case anyone got chilly. Last year, I realized how having all that extra space allowed us to offer more things to do -- after eating the adults lingered at the table but could still see (and cheer!) the kids playing corn hole; the teens played basketball but came running when we pulled out the dessert; people wandered to the buffet table, drink station, and back again.

What about the football games? Our family is 90% male, so yes, there is football -- both in the backyard and on television. Last year the guys periodically wandered inside to check the score or watch a touchdown, but then they always wandered back again outside. We were at, or nearby, the table all afternoon. Then, later that night some friends dropped by and we had S'mores around the fire pit.

1. Too far  2. Closer, but still too far  3. Perfect!

Treasured Traditions

Finally, our family has celebrated Thanksgiving in many ways -- inside, outside, at grandparent's homes, at the beach, and even in Italy. But no matter where we are, we always read our family's Thanksgiving prayer. It's a special prayer, written by Lino Villacha, and my mother became pen pals with Lino through her best friend who was a missionary in Brazil. Lino's poem, Obrigado Senhor, is a prayer thanking God for everything he had -- and when you read his words in light of the fact he suffered from leprosy and lived in poverty, it puts things in perspective.

In his poem, Lino thanks God for healthy limbs when so many are crippled; for a voice that sings when so many are mute; for hands that work when so many have to beg; and for a home to return to when so many don't know where they are going. And as we read the poem reminding us to celebrate what we have instead of focusing on what we don't, it's always the last two lines which capture the essence of Thanksgiving: It is wonderful, Lord, to have so little to ask and so much to be thankful for.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Monday, November 6, 2017

One Good Deed a Day: Seek out the Lonely

Once upon a time I purchased three books at a used book sale held at our local library. The books, beautifully bound in chocolate brown leather, were by Rudyard Kipling -- The Phantom Rickshaw, In Black and White, and Soldiers Three. I knew they would look lovely on the bookshelves in our study.

When I got home I was looking through The Phantom Rickshaw when a piece of paper fell out. There is something magical about finding notes or letters in old books; I once purchased an old copy of The Pilgrim's Progress and the inside cover was inscribed to Lucille Tyson by the Bible Memory Association for memorizing scripture. I love things like that. But this time, the paper that fell out of the book was a German marriage certificate between a German woman and an American man. I don't remember the exact year, but it was a few years after WWII.

I held that marriage certificate in my hands and intuitively knew I had to return it to the family. It didn't matter I had found it in a used book from a used book sale, or that the book may have been donated multiple times, or that the couple might be deceased. I just had a feeling that I needed to give it back.

It was easier than I thought. I looked in the phone book and found ONE person with the same last name as on the marriage certificate. I called the number, and when a woman answered I explained why I was calling.

To my horror, the woman started crying. Yes, she was the woman listed on the marriage certificate but her husband had passed away a few months earlier. Yes, the books I had purchased at the used book sale were her husband's which she had recently donated and, no, she didn't realize the marriage certificate was folded inside. Then she asked, hesitantly and through tears, if I could bring it to her because she didn't have a car.

And so I did.

Afterwards, I began to visit her regularly. She was incredibly lonely; she and her husband never had any children and her family lived far away. She didn't drive, so other than two friends who picked her up occasionally to go shopping, she mostly stayed home. Whenever I visited we looked at her old photo albums, I listened to the heart-wrenching details of her husband's death from cancer, I drove her to the cemetery so she could visit her husband's grave, and twice she came to have dinner with my family.

Eventually she moved away and we lost contact, but even after all these years it seems so extraordinary (and humbling) to realize how a note, a sign, or an unexplained feeling can be God's way of nudging us to GO, SEEK, or FIND; that something as simple as a used book and a marriage certificate can send us in a direction we don't understand, but somehow -- amazingly and miraculously -- it all works out.

Gardens are not made by singing,
'Oh, how beautiful,'
and sitting in the shade.

~Rudyard Kipling

Friday, November 3, 2017

The Nonno who always said No! No!

I wrote this fun story for my father on his 70th birthday. Last week he turned 75, so I thought I'd pull it out of the archives ...

Once upon a time there was a Nonna and Nonno who had opposite ideas. For example, when Nonna said they should go this way ...

Nonno thought they should go that way.

Nonna liked to walk fast,

but Nonno didn't. At all.

Nonna liked to visit art galleries and museums,

but Nonno would rather go fishing.

Perhaps the biggest opposite thing about them was this: Nonna liked to say Yes! Yes! to trying new things,

but Nonno always said No! No!

One day Nonna had an idea. A perfectly wonderful, exciting new idea. "Let's take ballroom dancing!" she announced.

Nonno was horrified. The Tango? The Jive? The Waltz? Nonno thought ballroom dancing was a perfectly awful, no good, very bad idea. And just to be sure he said,

Well Nonna wasn't going to listen to Mr. No-No. She thought about Nonno's personality and realized three things:

1- Nonno used to be in the Army. He was used to be told what to do -- when to march, sleep, stand in lines, stop, and run.

2- Nonno like John Wayne. He liked cowboys, stampedes, and barns.

3- And the third thing Nonna realized was that Nonno wasn't very graceful or hip; in fact, he was stodgy and ... adorably square.

So one day Nonna told Nonno (remember, he's used to following orders) that she signed them up for SQUARE DANCE LESSONS!

"Square dancing is perfect!" she said. "They tell you exactly what to do; you get to walk in a square; and even John Wayne knew how to square dance!"

(She wasn't exactly sure about the John Wayne fact, but she was pretty sure.)

Nonno thought about it. And an amazing thing happened. For the first time, Nonno who always said No! No! decided to say ...

To be sure, he didn't say Yes! Yes! But one Yes! is better than No! No!

And that is the story of Nonno who changed his No! No! to a Yes! and became Nonna's cowboy. They've been dancing through life ever since.