Italy, and the spring and first love all together should suffice to make the gloomiest person happy.
~Bertrand Russell

Ancient Rome had an illustrious tradition of kinky emperors, some of whom just narcissistically railed out of control. Whimsy and revelry gone morbid.

Armed with a paranoid temperament, Caligula (37-41 AD) was widely reputed for his tyrranical cruelty, orgiastic extravagances and sexual perversities. Nero (54-68 AD), an early persecutor of Christians, was known for having captured worshippers burned in his garden at night for a source of light. Alleged to have calmly fiddled while Rome burned—a My Pet Goat moment—he also had his mother Agrippa summarily executed and stepbrother poisoned. Commodus (180-192 AD) who ruled with his father, Marcus Aurelius, held perverse sway over hundreds of concubines and terrorized Rome’s rich and famous with a murderous reign of death and torture. In the midst of his cruelties, Commodus would sing and dance, frolicking as the town buffoon on Rome’s streets. The notorious Caracalla (209-217 AD) ruthlessly murdered his brother and persecuted some 20,000 of his allies. Elagabalus (218-222 AD) married multiple times, even taking one of the sacred vestal virgins as one wife. He was rumored to have had homosexual liaisons with his courtiers and had his body hairs plucked to appear more feminine…even engaging in public crossdressing.

Enter on stage Silvio Berlusconi, the current prime minister. Facing trials on a number of scandals, his private life has become curiously linked with the phrase bunga bunga. The term is now so well embedded in the Italian language that “bunga bunga city” refers to Sig. Berlusconi’s world.

Hordes of linguists and journalists have puzzled over the origins of these words which emerged last year, when a teen Moroccan belly dancer said she had attended bunga bunga parties with other women at Sig. Berlusconi’s villa in Milano.

I openly confess to not knowing what bunga bunga means. But, Arab news sources have reported that that Berlusconi learned these harem rituals frοm hіѕ friend, Col. Muammar Gaddafi. Some have suggested that the phrase comes from one of the prime minister’s favorite infantile African-connoted jokes. Other references to bunga include a masquerading hoax about the Abyssinian emperor inspecting the H.M.S. Dreadnought at the turn of the century which involved the author Virginia Woolf donning a full beard. Earlier this year in Spartacus fashion, Sabina Began, German actress and Berlusconi’s friend, even revealed to Sky Italia that she herself was bunga bunga: “Bunga Bunga is simply my nickname.”

I still do not know the definition, but have felt an urge to proclaim “I am Bunga Bunga!” It has a certain cinematic ring.

So, enough bunga bunga prattle. On to more serious fare, risotto—a marvel of the food world. There is a radiance to risotto. An elegant, yet soulful, sheen which almost causes you to bow at the waist.

RISOTTO con FUNGHI e VINO BIANCO

1/4 C extra virgin olive oil
2-3 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
2 ozs proscuitto di parma or san daniele, diced finely
3/4 lb porcini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

1 1/2 C arborio rice
8 C chicken stock

1 C sauvignon blanc
4 T unsalted butter
1 C parmigiano reggiano, freshly grated
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a medium sauce pan, heat stock on low until hot, almost simmering.

In a large sauté pan, heat the olive oil over medium high heat until almost smoking. Add the shallots and proscuitto and cook until the shallots are softened but not browned, about 8 minutes. Add the mushrooms and sauté until lightly browned while stirring. Add the rice and stir until coated and opaque, about another 2-3 minutes.

Then, begin the process. Add a ladleful of hot stock, and cook, until liquid is absorbed. Continue adding stock a ladleful at a time, waiting until the liquid is absorbed each time before adding more. The rice will become tender and creamy but still al dente after about 18 minutes.

Add the wine and cook until the alcohol has evaporated, about 2-3 minutes. Remove from the heat, add the butter and parmigiano reggiano and stir well for about a half minute or so. Season with salt and pepper, divide among shallow serving bowls and serve.

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The struggle itself…is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
~Albert Camus

Yesterday, the Tour field opened up (perhaps hemorrhaged), with many of the men being separated from the boys on a steep finishing climb in Switzerland. Today is a no-rest-for-the-weary day which does not always translate into better performances tomorrow as riders can fall out of psychic and physical sync.

The next stage (numéro 16) mercilessly traverses 160km up and down the majestic Alps of Switzerland, Italy and France. After a precious few flat miles, riders will crawl up the Col du Grand-Saint-Bernard (HC), the pinnacle of this year’s Alpine summits (8,114 feet). The final 5km is tortuous and never ending, with an average 6.2% grade, and some pitches as steep as 10%. Pains my quads to even tap, tap about it. After cresting the peak, the riders will descend into Italy at breakneck speed heading toward the Col du Petit-Saint-Bernard (Cat 1—a smidgen less steep) for another punishing ascent. Really? Again?

A symmetrical, buxom, double breasted race profile—the myth of Sisyphus times two, except unlike the tale, there is a finish to the stage.

The brief run through Northern Italy in tomorrow’s stage warrants a risotto recipe…a dirty, rustic one to be savored with the lights on.

RISOTTO SPORCO

8 C chicken broth

1/4 lb pancetta, chopped
1 T extra virgin olive oil

1 T extra virgin olive oil
3 T unsalted butter
1 C porcini mushrooms, coarsely chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 t dried thyme

1/3 lb chicken gizzards, chopped
1/2 lb chicken livers, patted dry and chopped
1 T extra virgin olive oil
2 T unsalted butter
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

3/4 C yellow onion, peeled and finely diced
1/2 C poblano chili pepper, stemmed, seeded and finely diced
2 T extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 C Arborio rice
3/4 C red wine
1/2 C parmigiano reggiano, freshly grated
1 T Italian parsley leaves, chopped

In a medium saucepan, bring the broth to a simmer. Cover and keep warm over low heat.

In a large heavy skillet, heat the olive oil over medium high heat. Add the pancetta and sauté until rendered, about 4-5 minutes. Pour out some, but not all, of the pancetta fat. Set aside and drain on paper towels.

Heat some more olive oil and butter in the same large heavy skillet over medium heat. Add the mushrooms, season lightly with salt and thyme, and sauté until just browned and the juices begin to exude, around 2 to 4 minutes. Remove and set aside on paper towels.

Meanwhile, melt more butter and olive oil in the same large skillet over medium high heat. Season livers and gizzards with salt and pepper. Add gizzards then livers a little later to skillet and sauté until not quite cooked and still pink in the center, about 2 minutes. Remove and set aside on paper towels.

In a large heavy sauce pan or dutch oven, heat olive oil over medium high heat, add the onion and poblanos, and sauté until tender, scraping up the browned bits on the bottom of the pan, about 8 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Add the rice and stir to coat. Add the wine and simmer until the wine has almost completely evaporated, about 1 minute. Ladle in 1 cup of the already simmering stock and cook, stirring constantly, until the rice has absorbed most of the stock, about 1-2 minutes. Add another ladleful of stock, and stir regularly until all of the stock is absorbed. Let each ladleful of stock be almost absorbed before adding next, allowing the rice to be covered with a thin coating of stock. Continue adding ladlefuls of stock, stirring frequently until the rice is almost tender but firm to the bite, about 20 minutes. The risotto should be smooth and creamy.

Remove from the heat and stir in the mushrooms, pancetta, livers, gizzards and most of the parmigiano reggiano. Transfer the risotto to shallow serving bowls. Garnish with the remaining parmigiano reggiano and parsley and serve immediately.