Thursday, May 29, 2008

I am married to an international travel photojournalist

Well, you knew that already from her Flickr pages. But go here to read an interesting online article about the opening of a recently discovered pagan tomb from the second century A.D. under St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. The author asked Nancy for permission to use a couple of her photos for the feature.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Pizza - What it is and what it ain't

Speaking of pizza, here’s the deal. I love America, I really do, completely, without reservation, and well beyond the limitations of reason. And we do so much so very well. But when it comes to pizza...well, we just don’t do it right.

Here in America, the focus is on the wrong things. The primary problem is foundational, and it is that the quality of the crust is basically ignored. Even the word crust marginalizes it’s importance. All mass produced pizzas basically see the crust merely as a delivery system for the toppings. The quality of the bread is not even a consideration, evidently, in domestic pizza. In Italy, the crust itself is a thing of beauty, simple, but savory, textured and flavorful. It helps that virtually every pizzeria has some type of classic brick oven, like this:

Secondly, the toppings are all wrong. In fact, the culinary philosophy that underlies our pizza is so compromised, so stunted, that our cultural expectations of what a great pizza should be fall far short of what truly is possible. We don't even know what we are missing, sadly enough, so mediocrity has become our benchmark of quality, represented by Pizza Hut, Papa John's, et al.  First and foremost, only fresh ingredients should be used to top a pizza. I really can’t emphasize that enough. After the unbelievable taste of the pizza bread, the single most startlingly delicious thing about genuine Italian pizza is that ALL of the ingredients are fresh. Tomatoes (Roma or Campari, mostly), spinach, zucchini, bell peppers (raw or roasted), onion, garlic, meat. ALL OF THEM. FRESH. (Well, okay, except for the anchovies...salt-cured, packed in cans).

(In fact, let me take this opportunity to assert here that unless you are going on a 6-month sea voyage or stockpiling for the coming apocalypse, there simply are no acceptable uses for canned mushrooms. Those wet, slimy, nasty little giblets do not belong anywhere, and absolutely never, ever on a pizza.)

And, by the way, in Italy, probably only 50% of the pizza available use some type of tomato sauce as a base. It’s only one of several possibilities and it is not a requirement.

Thirdly, there’s the cheese. Forget about the packaged, pre-shredded cheese-like products from Kraft, Sargento, Yoder, etc. that hang in the cold food section of your grocery. I’m not 100% sure that stuff is even cheese and neither are you. That is what they are putting on your pizza at your typical pizza restaurant. When you make pizza at home, you need to NOT use that crap. I know it’s easy and cheap. That’s because it’s not real. So suck it up and just get the real, actual ingredients that God intended you eat. Look, most of your major grocery chains have specialty cheese sections over there by the deli. What you need to do is buy a ball of fresh mozzarella, for starters. It looks like this:

It’s probably made in Wisconsin, not Italy, but that can’t be helped and it will still be a vast improvement over what you are used to. While you are there, pick up some REAL parmesan cheese, not that stuff in the little green can.

Fourthly, meat toppings on Italian pizza are wonderfully varied. They use a variety of locally produced sausage, pepperoni, pancetta (sorta like bacon), prosciutto, ham, veal, lamb, and assorted seafood. What you won’t find is hamburger. No ground beef. I don’t know why this is the case, but I know I certainly did not miss it.  I really could do a whole post on the wonders of prosciutto, by the way, but I will probably spare you.

Now, just a little bit about construction. In America, we want our pizzas to be covered, edge-to-edge, usually with as many different, processed ingredients as possible on a canned, gooey, red tomato-ish sauce. Possibly we do this to hide the tasteless, doughy bread underneath, but really I think it is because we have this sad, misinformed idea that more is always better. If a little bit is good, then more must be better. This is usually wrong in all areas of life, but especially with food. Without necessarily making a broad sweeping indictment of our contemporary culture, when it comes to food, in America it seems we often try compensate for a lack of quality with an overwhelming quantity. (Ever been to a Cracker Barrel?)

In Italy, you will have fewer ingredients on your pizza. No thick melange of garbled, confused flavors. No heavy spices. Instead, the fresh flavors of two or three high-quality ingredients blend and expand in your mouth. You might have some sprigs of fresh baby arugula sprinkled on top, or a little chopped oregano. It might be lightly drizzled with a sweet olive oil.

And let me just say this. Life is too short for cheap olive oil. Don’t buy the store brand. Get the good kind, the genuine Italian extra virgin olive oil. Get the best you can find.  I promise it makes a difference. The cheap stuff is not good and the good stuff is not cheap...and that is a principle that holds for most things in life.

In Rome we ate a lot of pizza. Every place was different and unique.  Most of the places were family owned and every pizza we had was far, far better than anything we’ve found available in restaurants here. One of our favorites was Pizza Boom, near the street market on Via Trastavere. But the very best place was recommended to us by our Italian friend, Federico the First, who told us, “You must not eat pizza just anywhere in Rome. You will go to Forno. It is the best.  But you must go before noon.  It is very important.”

So we went to Forno Cerulli, arriving about 11:45 AM for lunch.  It was tiny and packed with local Italians.  It was clearly a place that did a huge business.   There were no tables or chairs, just a long deli style counter on one side and a narrow bar at which one stood to eat on the other side. Several employees were working at full throttle to service the hungry, amiable throng.  Most people were getting their pizza to go, but we crowded in with a few others to eat and watch the action.  

Federico was right.  It was the best.  More on our friend Federico later.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Cavaliers 2008

Today JP heads off to Rosemont, Illinois, the Chicago suburb.  He is a Cavalier, playing and marching with the renown DCI drum & bugle corps all summer for their 2008 season.  Except for those times when the corps is competing or performing in our area, we won't see him again until mid-August.

Every year, hundreds of young men from all over the world audition for very few openings, so
 it is both quite an honor and a testimony to his skill and hard work that he made it again.  This 
is the culmination of a dream that he has had 
since he was in junior high school.  It is his second and last year with the Cavaliers since, at 21, he ages out.  He was an alternate last season but will be marching as a starter this year.  This is a big year, too, for the Cavvies since it is their 60th anniversary.  

He's already been to several preseason weekend camps, but now he's moving in.  The physical and mental training is very intense and the musical instruction is world-class.  And there will be many hours spent crisscrossing the country on busses and and sleeping in school gymnasiums.

We'll miss him but are very proud of all he's doing these days.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Please pray for Stephen Curtis Chapman and his family.

This is such a heartbreaking tragedy.  I can't imagine the grief that they must feel at the death of their daughter, accidently killed yesterday by her big brother.

Bob Brozman - Bottleneck Blues Lesson

Here is a short primer on how to play basic acoustic slide guitar blues. Be sure to check out the video links.  This is an excellent first lesson from one of the masters.


Epiphone Valve Jr. Mini-Stack

It sounds great.  I can't believe how loud a 5-watt tube amp can be.  Even Roxi, our 16-year old mutt, who hasn't heard anything for several years, cast it a baleful glance as I was trying it out.

Today I install the new bridge pickup in my Stratocaster from my long-time friend David Allmon of Tex-Tone Pickups.  I can't wait.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Mail Order Inspiration

From time-to-time I descend into this place were I don't like any of my guitar equipment and I feel like, for life to continue, I need all new stuff. The malaise presents itself as a creeping and unrelenting dissatisfaction with my tone, my playing, and a general lack of creative inspiration. In effect, it is a slump.

It shouldn't be about the gear, I know, but when sound is your palette, it really helps to get some new colors once in a while.  For the last 6 years or so, my primary tonal effects device is a Boss GT-6:

The GT-6 is a very versatile, fully professional, and great sounding tool. There is a lot of serious processing going on under the hood and it really does a good job. In terms of my regular gig, in particular, playing contemporary praise and worship styles in our church, it works very well. Stylistically, in the course of one service, it is not uncommon for me to have to quickly switch sounds from jazz to country to hard rock, from ambient sound effects to rhythm to lead, and all shades in between.

If there is a weakness in the Boss, and in most all-inclusive integrated effects devices, it is simply that, though they do many things well, they seem to lack a certain, idiosyncratic character that I am more and more trying to find in my playing.

So, I need new stuff. I am willing to concede that this is quite likely a sign of mental illness or, at least, moral weakness.  

But the refreshing winds of change are a-blowin', I am happy to say.   Lord willing, one of these babies will arrive on my doorstep today:

This is an Epiphone Valve Jr. Half-Stack. It is a 5-watt all-tube amplifier. I expect it will be awesome.  It is an early Father's Day present.  I am very pleased.

Now, to be precise, I am not replacing my Boss multi-effects with this new amp.  In fact, for the foreseeable future, the GT-6 will remain my "front-end", effectively driving this amp.  I am replacing a very faithful, 20-year old customized Peavey Stereo Chorus solid-state dual-12 amp (no pic available on Google - it's that old!) that I've used for a long, long time.  But my expectation (and hope) is that the Epiphone is going to change my sound quite dramatically.  

I'm also customizing my Strat a bit, too, going to a custom, hand-wound pickup made by a friend of mine.  That is an exciting prospect, too, and deserves its own post later in the week after I've installed it.

Monday, May 19, 2008

One Month Ago

One month ago today we arrived in Rome, jetting in from Frankfurt. I blogged about that here.  On Sunday, the 20th, the following day, I made the following journal entry:

Slept late. Went to the market in southern Rome near Stazio Trastavere about 2:00. Cruised around, bought some stuff. On the way home, we ate pizza at a local sidewalk pizzaria called Pizza Boom, and it was wonderful.

Came back. took nap until about 6:00. Tried to go to Chiesa di Santa Maria in Trastavere (sp?) and did make it to that area, but were unable to find the actual church. We did find some wonderful shops and and restaurants nestled in the alley ways. We had a gelato, Strawberry and Kaffe And after walking and shopping a bit, decided to eat a marvelous little place called Pizzaria Pan ‘Uto. I had a antipasto, pasta with a ham, mini-lamb kebobs, chocolate cake, and espresso. NCP had a bruscetta w/roast artichoke tapenade and a wonderful pizza that consisted of salmon, mozzarella, light olive oil, and topped with some kind of fresh herb post cooking, then a fruit cheese cake, and an espresso. It was all wonderful. I enjoyed being able to see the cooks make the food, the pizza crust was incredible...made on site, of course.

Then we went to a record store, FM Non-Stop Music and bought a couple
of albums, G'lam House, Vol. 4, a collection of Italian remixes by various artists, compiled by Andrea Gelli. A lot of it is kind of downtempo and chill, but very nice. Great version of the Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” Some of it is kind of jazzy, kind of latin, all very groove-centered. Also bought “Illusioni Parallele” by Tiromancino, an up-and-coming band from Rome, recommended by the DJ/proprietor in the store, who was very cool about playing sample tracks and making thoughtful suggestions. He says Tiromancino’s music is electro-pop, but kind of alternative, not real mainstream. Can’t wait to hear more of both.

We rode the very last tram and then the very last bus home, getting in about 12:15 AM local time.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Art, History, and Architecture in Rome

One of the principal reasons we like to travel is to experience and learn about other cultures, in particular through art and history. Nothing opens one’s mind and expands one sense of and appreciation for other people more than actually going and seeing where and how they live.

Art and history are so intertwined in Italy that it is difficult, and probably pointless, for me to disassociate the two. It is seemingly impossible to consider either one without invoking the other.

The architecture of Italy is fascinating because it reflects both art and history, form and function, in very visceral, immediate way. When one enters the Pantheon, for example, one is compelled to consider simultaneously it’s obvious massive structure, profoundly classic design, and the astonishing constructional detail that goes into each square foot. And then comes the appreciation for the fact that it was completed in 125 A.D. under the authority of the emperor Hadrian. Considering that, still today, it holds the record for the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome, and remembering that the building utensils of the time were mostly primitive hand tools made by other primitive hand tools, one is quickly overtaken by a sense of awe. The intricacy and intelligence of the design, and the surpassing beauty of the richly colored carved marble components is incredible. Incredible because of it’s age, because it has survived and continues to thrive some two thousand years later.

Throughout Rome, one sees ongoing restoration and preservation. Italy truly understands and values it's historical significance, to be sure. Just as we observed in Vienna a few years ago, there is an army of workers whose perpetual function is to protect, restore, and preserve the historical and artistic treasures. Something is being worked on all the time.  

More than once I marvelled at the careful and precise methods employed by construction engineers and contractors to simultaneously provide for the installation of modern necessities such as indoor plumbing, ventilation, cooking facilities, and reasonable access while at the same time retaining as much as possible the original look and feel of an ancient building.

One of the things that impressed me so much in all of these ancient structures, was the quality of the maintenance. Looking closely at one of the Pantheon's massive pillars, for example, one sees careful patching and repair work in places. But this is repair work that is most often several centuries old, performed by unknown contract artisans, long dead, using classic technique.

The same type of maintenance, repair and restoration was evident in the statuary rooms of the Vatican museums as well. The Vatican museums were fabulous, by the way. That is a "must see" if you go to Rome, and I will probably have a separate post on that at some point.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Yeah, well he's no Einstein...

Lest you think that it is going to be all-Rome-all-the-time around here, there is this article that supports a number of theories that I hold:

1)  Just because you are genius by Man's standards doesn't mean you aren't still a gibbering ignoramus by God's standard.  Duh.

2)  Understanding the truth of the Gospel is not about being smart.  Village idiots and little children can figure it out, for crying out loud.  Which, of course, is what drives so many academics crazy and why so many don't get it.  They don't understand how something so profound, so powerful, and so completely and compellingly true can not be dependent on their ability to understand it.  Understanding follows obedience, not the other way around.

3)  No one will ever understand the Bible unless they are willing to allow themselves to be changed by what they learn.

4)  None of this means that the Bible should not or may not be subjected to man's scrutinous gaze, or that it resists serious study by people wanting to apply their intelligence to understand the word of God.  Rather, "Thou shalt bring it on and giveth unto me your best shot, sayeth the Lord."

Way to go, genius...

Monday, May 12, 2008


Many of the roads in old Rome are paved with black cobblestones, called sampietrini and they are, for the most part, a specific kind of porphyry, an igneous rock.  They come in different sizes and Rome is famous for them. These large ones are on the footpath in front of the Arco di Constantino, adjacent to the Colosseum.  Most of the stones used on the heavily traversed urban roads in central Rome are actually smaller.  

Here is a short, interesting article about the sampietrini.  It turns out they were invented and adapted as a paving material in the mid-1500's, under the authority of Pope Sixtus V, who looks very grumpy in this picture. (Frankly, most of the papal portraits we saw are pretty must be grim work.)

As it turns out, the current municipal government of Rome is beginning to replace it's cobblestones with that newfangled asphalt, which is making lots of other folks unhappy, too.  

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Thoughts on Rome

We've been back from our wonderful vacation in Italy a week now.  The paucity of posts is due primarily to the fact that within two days of our return I had to prepare for and then work a tradeshow this past week, representing my company,  This required substantial time and concentration above and beyond my normal work catch-up.  It was time-consuming, hard work and largely unblogworthy, although I may come back to it at some point.

However, the break has given me the opportunity to distill some of my impressions and observations about our trip.  I am no longer interested in blogging it chronologically, but I do intend to approach it topically, discussing the aspects that I found most enjoyable and interesting.

First, for an outstanding collection of excellent photos, check out Nancy's Flickr page.  Her camera is much better than mine, her artistic eye is impeccable, and her pictures are all great.  I will likely borrow some of her pictures as needed.  She continues to edit and add to her pages there.  Feel free to comment on the photos or ask her a question. Flickr is her Blogger.


There is so much to see, so much to love about Rome.  One of Anthony Bourdain's aphorisms is "Be a traveler, not a tourist," and that is what we always try to do.  We certainly participated in a number of tourist activities and saw many of the most notable sites, but we planned our trip on our own, eschewing the many pre-packaged tours that are available.  Instead, we read as much as we could, talked to people we know who had been there, and plumbed the depths of the internet for information, making our own decisions on where we wanted to go and what we wanted to do.  One of our goals was to immerse ourselves, as much as possible in one short week, into the culture and life of the people of Rome, and I feel like we achieved that.  We figured out how to ride the buses, how to read the street signs, how to buy a train ticket and, generally, how to move around like the Italians do, and that really increases the quality of the adventure.  

We were blessed with beautiful weather.  Some days were overcast, but the temperature was in the 60's and 70's during the day, and just perfect for walking the streets of Rome.  And walk is
what we did.  We easily did at least 5-7 miles a day, and it is a town that requires footwork in order to see it properly.  The streets are narrow and serpentine, the sidewalks undulate, expanding and sometimes contracting down to nothing.  It is a maze and it is amazing,  Often I would consult our little street map and find that we had wandered off our intended path.  Many of the streets are what we would call alleys here in America, and some are literally only about 20 yards long.  And yet each one has a name and is a destination in its own right.  Each has a history much older than our country.

I really enjoyed observing the people.  A lot of my pictures depict street scenes of people walking around against the beautiful background of stucco and marble buildings.  Rome attracts people from all of the world, obviously, but one of the things that we observed is that no one enjoys this city more than the Romans themselves.  Day or night, there are hordes of people walking, talking, eating, roaming, working, playing, smoking, shopping, and generally imparting an uptempo, vibrant energy to the streets.

In the piazza at the base of the Spanish Steps

Some of the sights really defy adequate description, too.  It is remarkable to find these gigantic, ancient structures, architectural masterpieces, really, of ages long since gone in the middle of this busy city.  Check out this breathtaking view, taken at sunset, the first day we were there, near the Colosseum: