Ice, Baby, Ice

A gelateria in Florence, Italy
A gelateria in Florence, Italy

By Mary Anna Violi | @MaryAnnaVioli

In the heat of the summer, during these dog days of summer, nothing cools the brow and the psyche like a frozen delight. Think snow-capped mountains, think winter snow in general, or think clean, shiny ice. Think ice cream. Think gelato.

NPR’s Audie Cornish conducted a fascinating interview with Francine Segan, a food historian who has tracked the history of frozen treats back to 3,000 B.C. when the Chinese mixed snow with fruit and beer. In the 10th century, Sarbat or sorbet as we know it, came to Sicily via an Arab invasion. The canny Italian scientist, Giammbatista della Porta, in 1561 experimented with ice and salt, and realized that this lowered temperature allowed for a creamy concoction, thereby creating gelato!

I am indebted to Giammbatista della Porta, who also has a very cool Italian name [no pun intended, but there it is]. The Florentines and the Romans both make indescribably delicious gelato. Since I cannot trek to Italy annually for the gelato I adore, I must settle for Whole Foods own gelato, which is none too shabby. Pistachio is my all-time favorite gelato, both inside and outside of Italy, followed by Stracciatella [which includes chocolate shavings] and Fragola [strawberry]. Italian law mandates that gelato must contain no less than 3.5% butterfat, which accounts for the fact that the incomparable Italian gelato triggers my taste buds in ways most U.S. gelato does not.

My proclivity for gelato does not exclude my periodic fondness for American ice cream. I would not dare profane this ice treat because I do indulge in particular flavors such as black raspberry, when I can find it, butter pecan, and vanilla bean. Low fat ice creams interest me not. If I’m going to indulge in frozen concoctions, I’m going for those with the butterfat; otherwise, it is like drinking skim milk, which looks like it has been waved over whole milk, and then been tossed with a bucket of water. Of course, this is purely personal preference: mine. A delicious ice creamery in Valparaiso, Indiana, called Valpo Velvet, makes smooth, deliciously rich ice cream – even black raspberry. When I’m in that charming town, inevitably I stop by Valpo Velvet’s ice cream shop, sit down and savor its rich ice cream.

While my heart belongs to gelato, in the end, it matters not which frozen treat cools a person off. What matters is the variety of choices to whet the appetite. I’m planning on a return to Italy within the next year or so. I cannot wait to luxuriate in its gelato! In the meantime, Whole Foods’ own gelato sates my gelato tooth.

Ciao for now.


Going Home

Back row:  My mother Kitty, her sister-in-law Wilma. Front row:  My Aunts Agnes and Adelaide
Back row: My mama Kitty, her sister-in-law Wilma. Front row: My Aunts Agnes and Adelaide –

By Mary Anna Violi | @Mary Anna Violi

Growing up, all I could think about was how to get out of Indiana.  Filled with Big City dreams of the pulse of a city that never sleeps, that offers superb music and theater, intoxicated me.  Having traveled frequently to Italy,  not trekking each time to my father’s Southern Italian village, I lost my heart to Firenze, Roma, and even Amalfi.  My Italian was good; I felt comfortable among central and northern Italians.  In my hearts of hearts, I knew I would one day live more than just several months at a time in Italy.

That pesky thing called work interfered, yet I was undeterred.  I’d work, save, and buy another plane ticket back to Italy.  This was easier once I’d moved to Houston.  Airline bargains abounded from Houston to Italy during the 1970’s and 80’s, and I took advantage of low-cost flights on Icelandic Air.  Taking the train Luxembourg, through the Alps, and arriving in Milano or Roma made me one happy traveler.  In the back of my mind, I figured I would relocate to Chicago, and eventually live in Italy, somehow, some day.

Lake Michigan Dunes, Indiana -
Lake Michigan Dunes, Indiana –








Life has a funny way of throwing one curves.  Mine weren’t all that bad.  I married, had a child, divorced, and in between these milestones, I moved back to my hometown in The Heartland.  It wasn’t my idea, not by a long shot.  It was my ex-husband’s.  The first two years all I could think about was getting out, much like when I was a young adolescent yearning for environs beyond those of Indiana.  Gradually I reconnected with family beyond my immediate one.  Teaching again in higher education satisfied me.  The most unexpected reward though was in observing how much my parents and daughter loved one another, how much joy they brought to one another’s lives, and how I finally realized that home truly is where the heart is.  Since the beat of my heart was all about my daughter, I realized that we could travel together.  And we have, both here and abroad.  I revel in having an anchor to call home with family and good friends to fill it and share it with us.  It took many years, but I can say with a smile, it’s been good to be Back Home in Indiana.

East Pier Light at twilight, Michigan City, IN -
East Pier Light at twilight, Michigan City, IN –

Ciao for now.

Howard’s End

Coco Chanel with our Howard's End mug -
Coco Chanel with our Howard’s End mug –

By Mary Anna Violi |@Mary Anna Violi

No, this is not the E. M. Forester’s Howard’s End.  This is the demise of an altogether different Howard: Howard’s Bookstore in Bloomington, Indiana.

Located on Fountain Square [“The Square”} in Bloomington, the store stood across from the Courthouse on bustling Kirkwood Avenue.  The bookstore first beckoned me as a freshman college student.  Having never lived away from home, I felt like an island amid a sea of thousands of IU students.  Walking through the grassy front of the Indiana Memorial Union, crossing Indiana Avenue next to Dunn Meadow, I would stroll along Kirkwood, passing the Von Lee Theater, making my way uptown, past the Indiana Theater, and the new Trojan Horse eatery and bar.

Howard’s Bookstore caught my eye immediately, for in the window were two black cats with glass-jeweled colors snoozing on a low bookshelf located near one of the store’s large windows.  During those lonely first weeks on the campus, I longed to cuddle up with my longhaired gray cat, Walter Mitty, on my dorm room bed.  Having grown up with cats and dogs, I sorely missed having Walter Mitty with me.

As I ventured inside Howard’s Bookstore, jingling bells announced my entrance.  The sleepy black cats deigned to open one green eye each, sized me up, surmised I was a cat lover, and then resumed their somnambulist state.  Thus began my rapture over Howard’s Bookstore.  Not only did the shop attract literary aficionados, the owner proved  friendly, helpful, and insightful.  Those Howard’s Bookstore folks could wax poetic non-stop over classic and contemporary authors.  This was the 1970’s:  There was no, no Internet. Instead, there were actual humans, not hardware, to actually converse with clientele.  IU professors placed myriad orders with this bookstore.  Students flocked to read and buy books, pet the sleek black cats, and partake of the ambiance.

Whenever I was on the campus, I would swing by Howard’s Bookstore.  As an IU student, my daughter has loved it too. However, I began to notice fewer bookshelves, and more aisle space from the crowded ones of my college years.  Several years ago I purchased a black mug with the shop’s logo – two black cats atop books against a white front piece.  Cats still graced the interior premises, as did now the owner’s Australian Shepherd, Merlin.

On Saturday morning, April 4, my daughter and I walked to Howard’s Bookstore after brunch at Farm.  As we neared Howard’s, something seemed amiss.  Large For Lease signs profaned the bookstore’s picture windows.  Two weeks ago, the game store proprietors next door informed us, Howard’s Bookstore had succumbed to the fate of many small independent bookstores nationwide.  Electronic books, the Internet, and monster bookstore chains had choked Howard’s Bookstore over a period of years.

The end of an era, the now defunct Howard's Bookstore -
The end of an era, the now defunct Howard’s Bookstore –

It felt like the day the music died.

Ciao for now.


Friend Lost, and Friend Found

Circo dinnerware, Bellagio Hotel, Las Vegas -
Circo Ristorante dinnerware, Bellagio Hotel, Las Vegas –














A fringe benefit of the power of social media is how it permeates the fabric of our world.  Ever since I began this blog in June 2012, I have had a relative in Italy whom I had not seen in years contact me; a former French graduate school colleague who lives in France asked if I were this person [she introduced me to Gitanes, upon which I nearly choked to death], and several other with whom I had lost touch.

However, last weekend, a reader left me a comment inquiring if I was indeed her former undergraduate college roommate, the one who was a bridesmaid in her wedding.  Those who know me well know that I am rarely speechless, but when Jackie contacted me, I was at a loss for words.  Fast and furiously we sent messages back and forth.  We had over 30 years of our lives to share with each other.  We agreed to talk via phone on Thursday evening at a well-appointed hour.

Three-and-a-half hours later that night, we still had not caught up completely.  Next week we will converse again.  We have plans to meet face to face after we scrutinize our work and family schedules.  For the past days, I have been euphoric about our social media and phone reunion, for we had great times together in college.   Although she pursued health sciences, and I English and later music, our personalities and sense of humor meshed.  As the years rolled by, I wondered off and on about Jackie.  I thought of her living in Lexington, Kentucky, in the fabled Blue Grass state.  She now is back home again in Indiana.  Searches for me were in vain.  For years I had carried a 15-letter married surname; I legally reclaimed my name several years ago.  And so it went as we canvassed the landscapes of our lives since the late 1970’s.  Jackie would not have known that about me.

Once we commenced talking, the years melted away.  She was Jackie:  Spirited, funny, compassionate, and brilliant.  Her overriding question was, “How did we ever lose touch with one another?”  I think I have the answer:  Our lives at some point did not diverge; rather they digressed.  She had married and started a family.  I returned to the university to pursue a music degree, travel back and forth to Europe, earn a graduate degree, and relocate for years to Houston.

In retrospect, I was careless about our friendship what with my hop, skip, and jump lifestyle.  I thought about other friendships that have fallen by the wayside over the years.  Some friendships simply ran their course; others were consumed by complicated lives.   However, I have been given a tremendous gift through this blog:  The gift of renewing a cherished friendship with Jackie.

I have learned to mend my errant friendship ways.

Ciao for now.

Let There Be Light

Coco Chanel likes small white lights too -
Coco Chanel likes small white lights too –

In our family we traditionally maintained our live Christmas tree until the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6, my brother’s birthday.  Although we knew other Italian families who took down their tree either the day after Christmas, or on New Year’s Day, or the day after New Year’s, we tended our tree with loving care to prolong its indoor life through January 6.  While this tradition has been eased by the use of artificial Christmas trees, the pang of dismantling the tree remains.

The past several years we have tried to be more liturgically correct:  We do not tamper with the Christmas tree and the surrounding decorations until the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord.  This takes us almost to mid-January.  Usually I try to gradually take down the decorations, removing those that are readily at hand to pluck up and store in a plastic bins.  Yesterday we carefully put away the outdoor lights.  However, I insisted that the outdoor wreaths remain intact; they are festooned with big red bows that brighten the dreary gray landscape of northern Indiana.  This is why I loathe unwinding the lighted garlands that cheer the dark winter nights.  Gradually we will put the indoor garlands to bed for the winter.  By next weekend I will have become reconciled, or nearly reconciled to actually storing the Christmas ornaments and full-like-so real Christmas tree.

Probably the last decoration to be put to slumber for some months will be the banister garland and lights.   The white lights and faux cypress garland lift my spirits, as do the Christmas tree and crèche.  While I know the days are gradually getting longer and the nights a bit shorter, the dreariness of seemingly endless gray skies saddens me.  Like a moth drawn to the flame, so am I drawn to small white lights that lace their way through garlands.

Lately I have been contemplating purchasing pink lights to celebrate Valentine’s Day.  Not because retail shops and Hallmark dictates it is time to turn attention to February 14, but because I have concluded that it is perfectly fine to have tiny lights that greet me throughout the Midwest winter.

Ciao for now.

The Red, White, and Blue, Italian Style

English: Three flags from the Washington Monum...
English: Three flags from the Washington Monument; Washington D.C. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My father became a naturalized citizen on February 8, 1939.  The next day, he married my mother.  Papa was not a tall man; most Southern Italians lack the height of Northern Italians, but on Election Day, Papa stood as tall as the Statue of Liberty.  As a U.S. citizen, he cherished the privilege of casting his vote.  Having come of age in Mussolini’s Italy, voting in national or even local elections was not an option.

Statue of Liberty
Statue of Liberty (Photo credit: be11boy)

Until Papa’s death in 2006, he never missed voting for the candidate of his choice on the first Tuesday in November, and neither did my mother.  Nor did they never miss voting in local and state elections.  For Papa knew full well what it meant to live under a dictatorship, where the common people have no say in the politics of their country or even of their community.  He never understood “the-a lazy-a bums who no-a vote”.  It was our right under the U.S. Constitution; it was good citizenship to vote; it was an honor is how Papa saw it.  Having served in the Italian army from ages eighteen to twenty, and then serving from 1942 to 1945 in the U.S. Army, he had no use for anyone who shirked their military duty.

In failing health by the National Elections of 2004, I asked Papa if he wanted to vote. “You-a better-a believe it, Honey,” was his enthusiastic response.  At age ninety-five, and moving slowly, I managed to help him get to vote early because I surmised it would be less hectic at the county building on a weekday morning.  “I-a wanna vote,” he announced to the sheriff at the door and to the woman who handed him a voting ballot.  “I-a did it-a, Honey,” he told me.  As diminished as Papa was physically, he was as strong in spirit and resolve as ever.  It was the last vote he would ever cast, for he died in April 2006, a month shy of his ninety-sixth birthday.

English: This is a high-resolution image of th...
English: This is a high-resolution image of the United States Declaration of Independence (article (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A true patriot throughout his life, he cried over the “Star-Spangled Banner” and when he and Mama went to Washington, D.C.  Touring the White House, the Capitol Building, seeing the Lincoln Memorial, and viewing the original Declaration of Independence at the Smithsonian also made him weep for all our country had made possible for him.  Papa served on the Alcoholic Beverage Board for  Indiana, was on the Board of Directors at a local bank for years, was an active member of The Exchange Club, a member of the Knights of Columbus, and a loyal volunteer at St. Monica Catholic Church as an usher and a volunteer for the St. Vincent DePaul Society.

As a master shoemaker, a trade he learned at the age of ten when his formal education stopped, he offered his shoe expertise for gratis for The Shriner’s Children’s Hospital.  The then-Governor of Indiana recognized Papa’s tireless efforts when he declared Papa a Sagamore of the Wabash, Indiana’s highest award.

I was always proud of my father’s patriotism and I want him to still know that I too have voted in every election ever since I was eighteen years old.  His voice rings in my ears on this November 6, 2012 Election Day too:  “God-a Bless America!”

Ciao for now.

Stormy Weather

In the 1980’s I lived in Houston, Texas. Having lived through glacial cold and snow throughout Midwest winters, Houston’s sunshine and great blue skies seduced me.  The ravaged palm trees from last year’s hurricane may have looked paltry to the natives, but to me the trees were exotic.

Cover of "The Night of the Iguana"
Cover of The Night of the Iguana

My Houston euphoria continued, until the humidity of late April hit me like the heat out from Tennessee Williams’ play, The Night of the Iguana.  I sensed a summer of humid discontent when, after stepping out of my morning shower, I began to perspire. Houstonians had managed to air-condition much of the city.  However, this became a moot point as I sat in stalled traffic on Houston’s labyrinth of freeways. Exhaust fumes only added to the oppressive heat.

Nothing, though, prepared me for Hurricane Alicia that summer.  In Indiana I hunkered down in safe places during tornadoes, but hurricanes were a different sort of animal.  Friends clamored for me to weather the hurricane in their home.  My cat Bruno was a concern; he despised car rides. “Brunsie” liked new places even less.  Friends counseled me about taping large X’s across my apartment windows.  I dutifully filled up the bathtub with water to flush the toilet in the event of a power outage.  I raided supermarket shelves, filling my cart with cans of tuna, sardines, peanut butter, bread, crackers, anything I could open with can openers. Since my particular brick building was on higher ground, with my car parked under a carport nearby, I stood a good chance of riding out the hurricane barreling towards the Gulf coast.

Hurricane Alicia on August 17, 1983
Hurricane Alicia on August 17, 1983 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Three days later, Holy Hell broke loose.  My first clue was Bruno’s pacing like a non-stop vigilant sentinel throughout the apartment.  He was impervious to comfort, treats, and toys.  Terrifying winds gained momentum. I was sure B-52’s were landing when these winds tore off the carport metal tops.  The sounds were deafening, like a locomotive coming through our domicile.  For hours the hurricane raged.  Bruno’s pads were moist, a further sign of terror for us both.

Cat napping
Cat napping (Photo credit: popitz)  [This cat strongly resembled Bruno]
    At some point, I fell asleep.   The telephone rang.  My first thought was we hadn’t lost power.  Groggily I picked up the receiver.  I realized an eerie calm had settled over my neighborhood.

“Honey!  Do you know that your side of Houston is in the eye of the hurricane?” my frantic mother announced.

“It’s alright, Mama.  This is the first quiet in hours.  I love you.”

“I love you too.  Call me every couple of hours to let me know you are fine.”

“Alright, Mama.”

The aftermath of the hurricane was equally unpleasant.  Flooding, erratic power, downed live power lines prevented leaving home. Houston is below sea level; the houses lack basements.  This means that flooding shakes vermin and snakes from their underground lairs.

Hurricanes terrified me. Eventually, I packed up my cat and moved back to Indiana where we retreat to the basement during tornado warnings – no vermin in sight.

Ciao for now.