Frosty weather set in at the end of November. I know this for a fact because if it had not yet snowed prior to my birthday, as sure as there are stars above, it would snow on November 30th. Always. Until the oft referred to ‘global warming’ began melting icebergs in Antarctica.
On December 21st, I realized that as the days draw nigh earlier, my awakened state is diminished. I long to rest in the green leather wing back recliner poised near the Christmas tree. Through the sheer patterned curtains I observe the blue-black of a night sky scattered with stars. As I wrap my hands around a hot cup of peach herbal tea, my contentment is complete. I am at ease in my domicile on these long winter nights.
I refrain from reading news updates these days; the sensational and the aberrant impinge upon my tranquility. I seek refuge from the restlessness of the world. I envy the luxurious slumber of beasts that snooze throughout the winter. Each morning I coax myself into abandoning the warmth of my bed in order to march once again into the breach that is the working world.
There is nothing that makes the winter solstice more comforting than knowing I will converge with friends over the course of the frosty weekends over brunch, dinner, or drinks. I bask in the witty discourse and laughter of friends and family. Yet I likewise cherish the solitude of my quiet life, my writing life, my inner creative life. Yes, the comfort of winter brings serenity to my spirit each time I observe Fellini and Coco Chanel asleep next to the Christmas tree. We should all be so relaxed and peaceful.
After my mother’s sudden death, the following Christmas I found myself, for the first time, penning a Christmas letter to insert with Christmas cards to family and friends. We are a large family with a wide circle of friends and because so many constantly inquired about my father, who was 92 at the time, I felt a Christmas letter might be a most expeditious way of conveying news of him and our family.
Yet writing a letter of this sort was one of the last things I envisioned myself doing. In the avalanche of Christmas cards my parents annually received, I chortled over badly written letters, those that droned on endlessly about trivia, and those that bragged shamelessly about their so-called brilliant offspring. Mostly I howled over the wretched writing. Far be it from me to set myself up for such critiques, I thought, as a young teen. One can afford to be cavalier when one is still a young student who knows little of how the world really works, let alone what drives people to crank out the annual Christmas letter.
Thus, with a full heart at the prospect of the first Christmas without Mama to brighten the landscape of our sorrow, I managed to concoct a one-page letter full of news of my father and of my daughter. Of myself, I felt I would only bring down the house with tears were I to reveal the extent of my sadness. Therefore, in lieu of news of me, I inserted updates on our cats, Sparkle [now deceased] and Fellini [then a kitten]. At least I could mask my true feelings while doting on those about whom I happily had full care.
The twist was that after I had edited, re-edited, and edited my letter again, I began to fill better. My daughter and I plunged into making Mama’s soft, moist fudge. We experimented with pizzelles, using the pizzelle griddle Mama had bequeathed me. We tried to emulate her classic Christmas cut out sugar cookie recipe, but she had written over it and crossed-out ingredients, tweaking it as she made the cookies year after year. Finally, we turned to Aunt Adelaide’s Pillsbury sugar cookie recipe instead. They were tasty, but missing Mama’s lightness of half-butter, half-shortening.
Within me, Christmas joy was gradually unleashed. I took delight in baking with my daughter, in making pasta e fagiole for my father, and listening to Christmas carols. Now, for the past ten years, I too craft a Christmas letter. Perhaps those reading it smirk and guffaw, but I suspect they press on to the end of the page as I used to do as a young sprig. No matter the reason why, concocting the Christmas letter brings a smile to my face and keeps Christmas in my heart.
The stellar breakfasts and five-course dinners at The Grand Hotel satisfy the most finicky of tastes. The wine lists and cocktail offerings make for leisurely dining and even quietly rocking on the 660-foot porch satisfying. A restaurant that serves up divine grits is my kind of place, and The Grand Hotel’s Salon Manger fulfilled my Southern breakfast longing. We heartily partook of a fresh vegetable omelets, grits, mango juice, tea, and croissants to hold us throughout the day until the magical stroke of six o’clock in the evening.
Each evening at six, The Grand Hotel staff circulate on the mammoth porch and throughout the hotel to remind guests it is time to dress for dinner. Part of the charm of this hotel is that formal dress is required: suits for the gents and dresses or skirts, or pantsuits for the ladies. Even the children dress to the nines for the evening at The Grand Hotel. It seems to me that everyone stands a bit taller and walks with a more confident air because of the formal attire each evening. The five-star dining experience is very much worth the effort of “getting done up”.
Each dinner table holds formal place settings for each patron. For dinner one evening I chose the Chilled Jumbo Shrimp with Farro Verde and Sweet Chili Sauce as an appetizer; the Wild Mushroom and Onion South with Artichoke Tapenade for the soup selection; the Tuscan Bread Salad with Frisee, Sweet Peppers, Red Onion, Mozzarella and Basil Dressing. For an entrée I selected the Braised Veal Osso Bucco Milanese with Crispy Grits Cakes and Lemon Parsley Gremolata. Usually I am a vegan/vegetarian, but I cast it aside when dining at The Grand Hotel. My carnivorous nature ran free and wild over the tender veal osso bucco. Just because dessert is the crème of the dinner crème in the Salon Manger, I relished every bite of the Warm White Chocolate Bread Pudding with Crystallized Ginger Sauce. Naturally, we repaired to the main Salon for a nightcap sherry and to listen to the dulcet tones of the harpist as we contemplated how to go forth into that good night.
With the heat soaring to 100 degrees again in the Heartland, salad has been figuring prominently on our table. This afternoon represented our new typical: We dined on salad at an Italian bakery and restaurant. We felt like wilted Romaine lettuce from the heat walking from the car to the entrance door. Usually we dine on a Panini in the deli café after purchasing Italian meats, cheese, and pastries. Today we opted for its restaurant decorated with faux grape arbors, but lovely scenery overlooking voluptuous potted plants on the patio.
Salad is not the food about which I dream. Aside from an artfully crafted Caprese Salad with tomatoes that actually taste like tomatoes, not those tasteless hothouse ones, fresh mozzarella this side of paradise topped with fresh basil, salads do not figure prominently on my horizon. Truth be known, I indulge periodically in a refreshing Cobb Salad too. Fruit, on the other hand, quenches my thirst, and is colorful and delicious when newly plucked. Upon fruit, I may wax poetic; on salad, not even a limerick emerges.
Kelley, my multi-talented sister-in-law, makes world-class salads that are rhapsodies in themselves. Even though she willingly shares her recipes with me, I seem to lack the salad knack she possesses. Even my daughter makes salads an event, like her aunt. My talent, I like to point out, lies elsewhere in the culinary landscape.
Even though I may be left in the salad stems, I plan to continue to partake of salads my family members make, relishing with gusto each bite.
Captivating aspects of travel include partaking of the local cuisine. Prior to our journey to the land of Las Vegas, I enlisted the help of a Bellagio Concierge. Reservations were then made well in advance at Bellagio’s Picasso, Circo, and Todd English’s Olives. While the meals were all memorable, two out of the three proved to be our favorites.
Dinner at Picasso was not only superb, but a true gustatory experience. Seated overlooking The Fountains, we savored delectable creations of Chef Julian Serrano such as Sauteed Ruby Red Shrimp [shrimp stacked and surrounded with zucchini, artichoke, tomato confit and piquillo pepper vinaigrette]; Roasted Tornado Loin of Colorado Lamb [with pisto, mint aioli, and tempura zucchini flower]; Sauteed Medallions of Fallow Deer [with spring truffles, white asparagus, and Zinfandel sauce; and scallops with mashed potatoes in a divine sauce. Dessert too was pure poetry: Butterscotch Cream Cheese and Lime Tart [topped with toffee read pudding and rum ice cream]. The café au lait topped off a memorable dining experience. Pleasing to the eye too was the eclectic floral arrangements on the dark wood sideboards enhanced the beauty of the surroundings.
In addition to the cuisine, the non-edible coup de grace of Picasso is the authentic Pablo Picasso artwork that covers the walls. Large canvases watch diners feast on the French and Spanish-influenced cuisine of Picasso. The china is fraught with Picasso drawings; each piece is different and makes for an artistic experience overall. The Picasso ceramics displayed on a wall add to the aesthetic dining and art experience of the unique restaurant that bears the master’s name.
Another tremendous epicurean experience was at Circo, a Sirio Maccioni restaurant. My parents cooked Southern Italian food, specifically Calabrese style, yet the regional Italian cooking of Tuscany is one I love. My veneration of Tuscan cuisine was more than sated at Circo. The imported fresh mozzarella from Italy’s Campagna province with yellow and red tomatoes topped with chopped fresh basil, made for an ambrosial Insalata Caprese. Spring truffles were in season, and the homemade Pappardelle with braised chicken was graced with liberal amounts of the delicate truffles. The Fried Polenta Parmigiano and the piquant Insalata Misata [marinated Campari tomatoes, organic field greens, pecorino cheese, and balsamic vinaigrette] also enchanted our taste buds.
The Circo servers, Chris and Patrick, made much of Anjelia’s 21st birthday: Since we were running short on time prior to a show, they asked that we return post-show for her special dessert. We sprinted back into the restaurant after ten p.m., and our new friends served her up Panacotta [vanilla panna cotta with seasonal fruits of strawberries and blueberries] on a lovely Circo plate with “Happy Birthday” written in chocolate across it. Tiramisu Tradizionale and a cup of caffe latte rounded out our desserts as we watched the enchanting Lago di Bellagio Fountains from our same table.
Circo’s charming décor brings a smile to one’s face: It is designed as a high-end European circus motif with a breath-taking big top on the ceiling. Along with the fine wine and food, Circo, like Picasso, proved to be a Bellagio haunt to which we will return.