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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(“Fast and Frugal”)

Damn, I love frittatas.

In our ever budget conscious and frenetically paced world, there may be no better plate than a simple, rustic frittata. Frittatas are closely related to omelets, but instead of being gently folded on a skillet, they are served open and flat—more like its cousin, the tortilla española. At first, they are partially cooked in a pan over low heat and then finished under the broiler until firm. A wide array of “fillings” and cheeses are used which alter the heft and character of each frittata, ranging from simple herbs to heartier fare such as ham or sausage. Better yet, raid your refrigerator leftovers for frittata morsels.

Frittatas are often served just slightly warm or more often at room temperature; they can be served as an anytime meal — brunch, lunch, light dinner, midnight fare and are a fine match with a salad or even used as a sandwich filling.

SPINACH & MUSHROOM FRITTATA

1 1/2 T extra virgin olive oil

4 C loosely packed fresh spinach leaves, rinsed, dried and cut into thin ribbons
1 C sliced crimini mushrooms or stemmed and sliced shiitake mushrooms

8 large organic, free range eggs
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Slight dollop of heavy whipping cream
Pinch of cayenne pepper
A fresh sparse grating of nutmeg

1/2 C gruyère cheese, freshly shredded
1 C freshly grated parmigianno-reggiano cheese divided in two equal parts

Preheat the broiler.

Sauté the sliced mushrooms and leeks in butter and some olive oil, salt and pepper, then slowly cool them to room temperature—so the mushrooms and leeks do not cook the egg mixture with their ambient heat.

Crack the eggs into a large bowl and beat lightly with a wire whisk. Add the salt, peppers, nutmeg, spinach, leeks, mushrooms, half the parmigiano-reggiano, then beat and combine those ingredients.

In a 9″ ovenproof non-stick omelet pan or skillet, heat the oil over moderate heat, swirling the pat to coat the bottom and sides evenly. When the oil is hot, but not smoking, add the frittata mixture. Reduce the heat to low and cook slowly, stirring the top part of the mixture, but allowing the bottom to set until the egg mixture has begun to form small curds and the frittata is browning on the bottom (4-5 minutes). With a spatula, gently loosen the the frittata from the edges of the pan. Sprinkle with the remaining parmigiano-reggiano and the gruyère.

Transfer the skillet to the broiler, placing it about 6″ from the heating element, and broil until the frittata browns lightly on top. It will puff up and become firm in about 3-4 minutes, but watch carefully as ovens differ. However, take care to not open the oven too often during the process as the resulting drop in temperatures affects the cooking process.

Remove the pan from the broiler, give it a slight fresh grate of parmiggiano-reggiano, and let it cool for at least couple of minutes, allowing it to set. Next, either slide or preferably invert the frittata onto a flat plate.

A chilled, crisp sauvignon blanc makes a toothsome companion.

Yield: 4 servings

Pourboire: For an even more robust version, consider adding sauteed pancetta and/or 1 cup thinly sliced leeks (white and pale green parts only) or grated zucchini to the egg mixture. As always, think fresh seasonal greens, such as red or white chard, turnip, collard or mustard greens.