Vaporetto 13 by Robert Girardi

Robert Girardi is one of my favorite “unknown” writers. He wrote Madeleine’s Ghost, which I blogged about previously, and Vaporetto 13 is another novel that combines cynicism, hope, the supernatural, and a gorgeous city as the backdrop. In this case, Venice. You can read about what makes Venice so uniquely gorgeous and special by checking out my food blog friend Luca Marchiori’s love letter to Venezia here. Or you can just read this book.

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When I first read Girardi’s novel, I fell in love with the city, and the dark, mysterious, beautiful, and yet sordid labyrinth of bridges, palazzos and stone that was described. Venice comes across like an aging prostitute who still looks beautiful and radiates charm, but yet has a dark, debauched side that also beckons. When I traveled to Venice a few years after reading this book, it struck me that these shadowy back alleys of The Eternal City juxtaposed with the bright, shiny, touristy Venezia, is the real Venice. It is both a jewel box of sumptuous colored glass and shimmering, watery reflections from the canal, and a dark, dank place of crowded buildings, garbage scows and stray cats.

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God, how I love Venice! It is my spiritual home. It is a city that is reflected back upon itself every minute in the waters of the Grand Canal, so full of of life and history and such extreme beauty that, at times, I found myself overwhelmed. There is, after all, only so much stunning golden light and beautiful canals and rosy architecture, that I can handle. Venice is sensory overload in the best sense of the word, and Girardi brings Venice to life so evocatively.

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Re-reading this book as many times as I have, I also have found myself loving the main character, Jack Squire, a money trader with a dark, cynical view on the world. I hated him when I first read the book, but as I have gotten older, I understand him much more. He seems a man that can’t ever be surprised by anything anymore, who looks on the world like a huge roulette table waiting on the ball to hit black, and yet there is still something shiny and hopeful in him that he tries to tuck away. I hate to admit it, but I still have this sense of idealism inside of me, for all that I feel surrounded by such an ugly world sometimes. I still want the good guy to win, I still want people to live happily ever after, I still want love to conquer all. So, it seems, does Jack. When he meets Caterina, a strange, otherworldly Venetian woman with strong ties to the past and history of La Serenissima,  he is struck by her oddness and yet enticed and enthralled by, that very same quality. She speaks to that part of him that is still young, hopeful and believing in miracles. They embark on a very mysterious love affair, yet he is never able to truly penetrate the mystery of who she is. Until the end, when he realizes who………and what…….she is. His view of the world is forever altered.

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One of the more entertaining characters is Jack’s friend, Rinio Donato, a quintessential Italian man, married, Catholic….and a complete womanizer. He is a hoot, and he drags Jack along to Torcello and other lagoon islands, including the very strange and creepy Sant’Ariano, adventuring, eating, and drinking as they go. The food descriptions alone are worth the read. In one passage, Jack attends a celebratory feast at Rinio’s house, where he is felt up by Rinio’s sister and gorges on a luscious Venetian feast that includes rolled veal chops stuffed with prosciutto and gorgonzola, and a salad of escarole, walnut and pear, which are just the precursors to the main feast, a roasted suckling pig with an apple in its mouth.

“The empty pasta bowls were cleared away and replaced with platters of rollini di vitelli – veal chops wrapped around prosciutto and gorgonzola cheese and baked in a marinade of olive oil, garlic, lemon juice, and white wine. Accompanying this was a salad of escarole, walnuts, and pears, and bottles of sweetish white wine from the Veneto. Italians eat slowly, their meals are long, drawn-out affairs, half food and wine, half air, which is to say animated conversation about nothing and everything.”

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I mean, how could anything stuffed with gorgonzola and prosciutto baked in lemon and olive oil and wine be bad? The store was out of escarole, so I instead opted for a salad of mixed greens with walnuts, pears and a vinaigrette of olive oil, red wine vinegar and a bit of the blue cheese, to accompany the veal. This is the method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS

2 veal chops, bone-in, about 1 inch thick apiece
Gorgonzola cheese, or other sharp blue
4 strips prosciutto, finely diced
1 shallot, finely diced
1/2 cup olive oil
2-3 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 cup good, drinkable wine, red or white
5 cloves garlic, finely minced with a Microplane grater

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Mixed greens – spinach, arugula and chicory is what I had on hand
Walnuts, toasted
2 pears, thinly sliced
Olive oil and lemon juice for the vinaigrette

METHOD

Pre-heat the oven to 375 F. In a small skillet, fry the prosciutto until just brown. Remove, and in the oil left in the pan, saute the diced shallot, with some red wine. Remove from the pan and let cool slightly, while you prepare your veal chops. Cut a small pocket into the veal, opposite side of the bone. Don’t cut all the way through the meat, just enough to be able to stuff the chop.

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Season the veal chops with salt and pepper. Mix the prosciutto and shallot with about half the packet of blue cheese, until nice and creamy but not melty. Stuff each veal chop with the mixture, and fasten with a toothpick to keep the cheese mixture inside the chop.

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In a good saute pan, heat a bit of olive oil and sear each veal chop about 3 minutes per side, but don’t char them. Let them rest a minute while you prepare the baking sauce. Combine the olive oil, the lemon juice, the white wine and the minced garlic in a cup and whisk together.

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Pour over the stuffed veal chops, reserving a bit for the end, cover, and put them in the oven for 15-20 minutes for a medium doneness, while you prepare the salad and vinaigrette, which is super difficult and time-consuming.

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Throw the mixed leaves into a large bowl, mix in the toasted walnuts, throw in the pears, sprinkle over a bit of the blue cheese, and then drizzle over a bit of olive oil, a bit more lemon juice, some sea salt,  and mix together vigorously. Pour over the salad and toss, probably with your hands to get the best amount of coating. That’s it. Very strenuous, as you can tell.

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You don’t want a lot of vinaigrette, just enough to lightly cover the salad, so using your very clean hands to toss is best here. When done mixing the salad, divide it onto two plates, take the veal from the oven and let rest for 10 minutes. Pour over the rest of the sauce you originally covered them with, put the chop onto the plate with the salad, and enjoy with some wine, preferably something light and Venetian, but hell, drink whatever type of wine you want! And you can do what I did, which was pretend I was sitting in a sunny cafe alongside the Grand Canal just off the Rialto Bridge, watching vaporettos and gondolas go by, and yearning for my Venice.

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“Still, as Rinio once said, what is a city, if not the people in it? What is Venice, without the peculiar, inventive race of men and women that built her up from the mud and reeds of the lagoon?”

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Madeleine’s Ghost by Robert Girardi

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read this book. My sister even comments when I tell her I’m reading it again, and she never comments on my books. “What? Madeleine’s Ghost AGAIN? Haven’t you read it like a billion times?” Not quite.

I just love this novel. It hits me in the heart every time, and reminds me that the world we live in is full of infinite mystery and ultimately, love. I relate very well to the main character, having spent 10 years of my life pining for and loving someone whom I have not been able to forget. That love has colored my life forever. It’s possible to love someone always, even if they aren’t with you or even when they are not the best person for you, to realize that their presence in your soul is permanent, and that, in many ways, they’ve helped to make you the person you are today. That’s certainly true for me.20160206_161547_resized

Part of why I love this book is that most of it is set in New Orleans, one of my absolute favorite cities in the world, and particularly appropriate now. The main character, Ned, spends his formative early 20s there at Loyola, and falls in love with Antoinette, a wealthy Creole whose family has the proverbial Garden District mansion. The path to true love never runs smoothly, though, and theirs is no exception. Ned moves away to New York City, where he tries to start over with new friends, a new job, and a new apartment – one that happens to be haunted by a ghost. But there is another spirit waiting to communicate with Ned, and his life is soon taken over with finding out who these apparitions truly are.

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The book is filled with some of my favorite things: forbidden love, the New Orleans French Quarter, ghostly apparitions, and delicious descriptions of food. Oysters eaten raw, sucking the heads of crawdads, a Sunday barbecue of marinated chicken, a pre-seance meal of broccoli and mussel salad, lemongrass soup and Chicken Jakarta, a weekday afternoon sipping Abita beer, and of course, drinking in the French Quarter. One of my favorite scenes is the excellent passage when Antoinette takes Ned to a French Quarter bar and he drinks a made-from-scratch Sazerac cocktail for the first time. And what’s a book set in New Orleans without at least one French Quarter drinking scene?New-Orleans-Bourbon-St-H

“When Henri brought the drinks, I tasted the Sazerac and it ran like fire down my throat. ‘Damn,’ I said, ‘this is one hell of a drink.’ He smiled, pleased, and went away. ‘Henri used to be head bartender here till they figured he got too old,’ Antoinette said. ‘But he’s one of the few can still make a Sazerac from scratch. You know, absinthe, bourbon, sweet vermouth, sugar, bitters. The secret is you take the absinthe, swirl it around the glass,and throw it out, then add the other stuff. That’s the secret. Of course, you can’t get absinthe anymore. Pernod’s a decent substitute.”

In honor of Mardi Gras, coming up on Tuesday, I decided to try my hand at reproducing the Sazerac cocktail as described in this Big Easy-flavored novel. Cocktail experts, mixologists, historians and purists all have a variation of this recipe. Some use rye whiskey, some use cognac, some use a combination of those liquors, some use bourbon. I like the sweeter tang of Kentucky bourbon, so that’s what I used. If you don’t like anise, you probably won’t like this drink as the Pernod flavor does come through. It pains me to admit, but I really didn’t like this cocktail. I’m glad I made it, but I wouldn’t drink it again, at least, not in this iteration. Maybe my palate isn’t sophisticated enough? Maybe I should have used rye whiskey?

This is the method that worked for me. I also, of course, had to cook something New Orleans in mood and flavor to soak up the booze, so take a gander at my shrimp Creole (recipe found here) IMG_20160206_204320_resized

and miniature King cakes, complete with babies and fleurs-de-lys. No beads, though.

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Ingredients

1 highball glass, chilled if possible
Absinthe or Pernod (I used Pernod here.)
Rye whiskey, bourbon or cognac of your choice. I used Maker’s Mark, and yes, I know the purists would sneer. But bourbon is what is mentioned in the book, so in the spirit of following it, I used Maker’s Mark.
4-5 dashes Peychauds Bitters
Teaspoon full of sugar, dissolved in a teensy bit of water.
Lemon peel

Method

Pour a shot of Pernod into your highball glass and swirl it around. Empty it but don’t rinse the glass. You want that hint of perfumed anise.

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Add about two shots of bourbon, your melted sugar, your bitters, and ice into a separate glass. 20160206_161537_resized

Stir gently, and strain into your highball glass. DON’T shake the cocktail, as this will make it cloudy.

20160206_161820_resizedTake a slice of lemon peel and rub it around the rim of the highball glass, then twist it so that the lemon oils are released into the glass.

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Take a whiff and pretend you’re walking down Bourbon Street being offered beads. Then, sip it while you turn your attention to decorating your miniature king cakes, cooking shrimp Creole and contemplating life in The Big Easy.

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But beware. This drink will knock you on your ass but quick.