The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Grazie mille!

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Everything Sounds Better In Italian

In Praise Of La Bella Lingua

I sincerely hope the story I'm about to relate is apocryphal. I can't vouch for its verity because I found it on a site called Faking News.

Seems there was an incident at a popular vegetarian restaurant in Mumbai in which the cook, busy checking social media rather than tending his pots and pans, burned a patron's order of fried rice. Naturally, the customer was quite upset, refusing to eat the ruined food and threatening to sue the restaurant. A quick thinking manager defused the situation. “My presence of mind kicked in,” he said. “So I renamed the dish to Risotto Tonato. A fancy sounding Italian name and within seconds the situation took a u-turn. From screaming at our cook, the customer started praising him for a wonderful dish.” Allegedly, the customer not only bought the story and consumed the faux-Italian offering, he also gave the restaurant a five-star rating.

Okay. Not sure I believe it, but it does lend credence to my longtime assertion that everything sounds better in Italian.

Here in the US, a certain “Italian” chain place once made a big hoopty-doo about a new addition to their menu, something they touted as “Piatto di Pollo.” Ah, piatto di pollo. Piatto di pollo. It just sort of rolls off the tongue, doesn't it. What could be more Italian than an exotic dish called “Piatto di Pollo?” You want to know what it means? It means “chicken dish.” Yeah. Plain ol' “chicken dish.” You've got to admit, it sounds better in Italian. And even if the food turns out to be bad, “il cibo succhia” sounds a lot better than “the food sucks.”

I think few would deny that Italian is one of the most beautiful, lyrical languages on the planet. It is la bella lingua; the language of music and of art, of love and romance. Some people even get all swoony when they hear someone speaking English with an Italian accent. Come to think of it, Rudolph Valentino never spoke a word onscreen and women fell at his feet. Guess the Italian accent was implied in the title cards.

“I love you” sounds nice in English, but ti amo or ti voglio bene are practically guaranteed to melt the heart, while “baciami” literally invites a kiss. Even less inspiring words sound better in Italian. Doesn't spazzatura sound more appealing than “garbage?” And “dirty words” certainly sounds less offensive in Italian: “sporco parole.

Speaking of dirty words, I sometimes have fun cursing at people or situations in Italian. Not long ago, something had me pissed off and I expressed myself with a colorful Italian phrase or two. Somebody nearby asked me what I had said. I told them. They looked kind of shocked and said, “Wow! It sure sounded nice in Italian.”

Reminds me of a story I was told by one of my high school teachers. Mr. Erikson had served in the US Army in Korea. Bunking with a Greek buddy, he picked up a few of those “colorful phrases” himself. And on occasion, he would let one fly. Well, one day he was entering the classroom burdened down with a load of papers. The load shifted and the papers hit the floor and scattered. Justifiably upset, I suppose, Mr. Erikson resorted to his vocabulary of Greek curses. That's when he heard a startled gasp from the back of the room. And as he looked into the wide eyes of student Michael Stavrakos, he made a mental note to himself to be more perspicacious regarding his use of Greek in the future. You just watch; someday I'm going to call somebody “un rompicoglioni and there's gonna be a shocked Italian in the room. (Probably not too shocked; “rompicoglioni” just means “pain in the ass”.)

With around sixty million native speakers, Italian ranks down around nineteenth among the world's spoken languages. But a recent survey reveals that Italian ranks fourth among the world's most studied languages, right after English, Spanish, and French. Such study is hardly a new phenomenon. Writing in 1511, Florentine playwright Giovan Battista Gelli observed, “In our present times, many diverse people of intelligence and refinement, outside Italy no less than within Italy, devote much effort and study to learning and speaking our language for no reason but love.” What's more, in many circles nowadays Italian rivals French as the language of culture and refinement.

Another interesting development comes out of a Pew Research study conducted last year (2016). Researchers asked Italians which factors they considered “important for being truly Italian”. Surprisingly, only about half of the respondents thought sharing national culture and traditions was a key factor. Fewer than half, just forty-two percent, felt that being born in Italy was “very important” to national identity. But a substantial six in ten Italians believed that learning the Italian language was the most crucial factor and the most critical element to “being Italian”.

Italian doesn't even need twenty-six letters to express all that fluid beauty; there are only twenty-one letters in the Italian alphabet. The letters j, k, w, x and y don't exist in Italian, except for in “foreign” words like “jeans.” J and k occasionally pop up in some regional dialects, but they are lacking in “official” Italian. And speaking of official, besides being the obvious official language of Italy, Italian is also an official language in Switzerland, Vatican City, San Marino, the European Union, and the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. It's also a minority language in Slovenia, Croatia, and Brazil. And there are more than a million Italian speakers in the United States.

In case you were mildly curious, the longest “regular” word in Italian is precipitevolissimevolmente. Meaning “very quickly” it clocks in at twenty-six letters. There are a few specialized medical terms that are longer, but that's generally regarded as the longest word anybody might use in conversation. Although I'm not sure I know anybody who ever has. By the way, the longest word in English is a medical mouthful; “Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis” has forty-five letters and refers to a lung disease.

And you know how nothing in English rhymes with “orange?” Italian has one of those unrhymable words, too. It's the Italian word for “liver,” fegato. Unlike other Italian words that end in “-egato,” the accent in fegato is on the first syllable, rendering it pretty much impossible to rhyme.

Of course, a big part of the Italian language is expressed not through words but through gestures. You know the old joke: “How do you silence an Italian? Tie his hands.” But that's a topic for another day.

For today, try to add a little Italian to your life. Walk into the office and announce a cheery “buongiorno!” Say “grazie” instead of “thank you.” Call your significant other “mi amore”. Stop by Chick-fil-A at lunch and order un panino di pollo. So what if people think you're pazzo? According to the survey I mentioned earlier, you'll be well on your way to being a true Italian.

Ciao for now.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Beware Those Tricky Italian Words

A Slip Of The Lip Can Be Quite A Trip

Italian may be the language of love, but it's rife with peculiarities. For all that it is beautiful and lyrical, correct usage and pronunciation really matter. A little careless slip can result in consequences that are embarrassing – or worse.

Take, for example, what happened to Pope Francis. His Holiness once got a little crossed up when delivering his weekly blessing. He was talking about amassing riches and what he wanted to say was, “ this case the providence of God will become visible through this gesture of solidarity.” In Italian, that would have been, “in questo caso la provvidenza di Dio diventa visibile attraverso questo gesto di solidariet√†.” And the Pope said something......sort that. Except instead of saying “caso,” the Pontiff said “cazzo.” Ooops!

I've heard “cazzo” referred to as “the Swiss Army knife” of Italian curses. It's good for just about any occasion. Want to call somebody a “dick?” “Cazzo” is your word. If you want to express your frustration by saying “f**k!,” just say “cazzo!” “WTF?” “Che cazzo!” So it's no wonder the throng of faithful followers gathered to hear the Pope's words of wisdom were a little taken aback by that one.

A fig is a wonderful fruit. Succulent and sweet, it makes a great filling for cookies. The Italian word for fig is “fico.” But you've got to take great care to make sure you use the masculine form of the word – the one ending in “o.” If you should slip up and ask for a “fica” cookie.....well, it would be quite politically incorrect because that feminized form of the word is a rather vulgar reference to a part of the female anatomy that Donald Trump allegedly likes to grab. Think synonym for “kitty.” Same thing goes for “pecorino” versus “pecorina.” The former is a delicious sheep's milk cheese and the latter can be a sex position. (“Pecorina” means “doggie” in Italian. You take it from there.)

Besides having genders, Italian words are loaded with double consonants. And double consonants are not pronounced the way they are in English. You don't just rush over double letters and make them sound like one letter. In some instances the difference is rather benign. Take, for example, “cappello.” Three syllables, okay? Not two. It's not “kuh-PELOH”, it's “kahp-PEHL-loh.” The first double letter ends one syllable and the second begins the next. If you rush the “p” sound, you'll get “capello.” Not too bad; you've only mixed up “hat” with “hair.” It gets a little more embarrasing when ordering a common pasta, “penne.” You must be very careful to separate the “n”s here, giving each its own distinct sound: “PEHN-neh.” Otherwise, if you tell the waiter you want some “penne” and just run the “n”s together, it's going to sound to his ear like you've asked for “pene,” which is the Italian word for “penis.”

Another instance where the old double consonant can trip you up would be with “ano” as opposed to “anno.” In Italian, age is expressed by saying how many years you have. If you are twenty years old, you say you have “venti anni.” Remember: “AHN-nee.” Say it too fast and run the “n”s together and you've just said you have twenty assholes, “ano” being Italian for “anus”.

Watch middle vowel sounds, too. Not to discourage you (“scoraggiare”) but if you change the middle vowel in that word from an “a” to an “e,” you get “scoreggiare,” which means “to fart.” “Scopare” and “scappare” are both legitimate words. But if you say to someone, “Mi dispiace, devo scappare” you're saying “I'm sorry, I have to run.” “Devo scopare,” on the other hand, means, “I have to f**k.” “Scopare” can also mean “sweep” – as in “sweep the floor.” All in the context, I guess. Speaking of which, “finocchio” is Italian for “fennel.” But it's also a slang term for a gay man, so watch your context.

Another example of how switching final vowels can be embarrassing: ask your Italian bartender for a “negroni” and he'll pour you a nice pre-dinner cocktail made up of one part gin, one part vermouth rosso, and one part Campari, all garnished with an orange peel. However, if you ask for a “negrone” you would be requesting a large black man.

Italy is a land of stunning architecture. For instance, some of the buildings you find in Italy have amazing roofs. That would be “tetti stupefacenti” in Italian. End that first word with an “e” instead of an “i,” however, and you're talking about “tette stupefacenti” – amazing tits.

Italians roll their “r”s. Make sure you make that distinct “r” sound when you use the word “carne.” Saying to your host, “Questo carne √® delizioso” would be a nice compliment: “This meat is delicious.” Gloss over that “r”, though, and it's going to sound like “cane.” And telling somebody the dog is delicious would probably not be seen as a compliment.

Sometimes words you think mean the same thing don't. “Conserve” and “preserve” mean similar things in English, right? Not so in Italian, where conservanti” are preservatives and “preservativi are condoms. Going to a store and asking for a jar of “preservativi” might be a little embarrassing. And you would think a “parente” would be a “parent,” right. Not really. A parent is a “genitore.” A “parente” is just a relative.

You can talk about your baby's cradle – “culla del mio bambino” – but be sure you're saying “culla” and not “culo,” because then you'd be discussing your baby's butt, except in much more vulgar terms.

Speaking of cradles, how about a nap? “Un pisolino.If you should inadvertently say you're going to get a little “pisellino” don't be surprised if you get a strange look. “Pisellino” is yet another word for “penis.” A small one at that. Gotta watch those vowels.

Clueless Americans often think adding an “o” to the end of any English word makes it Italian. Sometimes that actually works, but it seldom winds up meaning what you think it does. Saying a man with no hair is “baldo” would actually be something of compliment since that means “bold” or “courageous” in Italian.

You don't want to confuse “baleno” and “balena.” “Baleno” refers to something very fast, like lightning or a flash. “In un baleno” = “in a flash.” “Balena” is a whale and “in un balena” would only make sense if your name were Jonah.

La banca” is the bank, “il banco” is the bench. You can't take pictures with a “camera.” In Italian, “camera” means “room.” You take photos with a “macchina fotografica.” Be careful asking for directions to the “casino.” “Casino” can mean “brothel,” although it more commonly translates to “mess” or “confusion.” Don't ask to be showered in “confetti” at your celebratory event unless you want to be pelted with candied almonds. “Coriandoli” is the shredded paper stuff. And “ziti” is a pasta shape, while “zitto” means “silent” or “quiet.” It's most commonly expressed as “stai zitto,” or “shut up.”

Which is what I think I'll do right now. I believe you get the picture.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Defending Italian Recipes

A Failure To Understand Italian Food

In my reading, I recently came across an article in the US edition of “The Guardian” in which the author, one Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, puts forth her assessment of Italian cooking. Spurred by a backlash from a number of people who took to the 'Net to lambast British food maven Mary Berry's use of white wine instead of red in a “classic” ragu bolognese, Ms. Cosslett avers that while food is important, recipes aren't sacred. She describes the Internet as “a maelstrom of pedants, trolls, mansplainers and sealions.”And nowhere, she says, is this more apparent than among recipe websites.

It is Ms. Cosslett's considered opinion that Italians are “sentimental and possessive about cooking; this is the way their nonna or their mama did it, and it must stay that way.” She then states that “though tasty, the homogeneity of Italian food can be boring,” and she criticizes Italy's “uncompromising attitude” that, she opines, “can suck some of the joy out of cooking.” She continues by gushing about the “culinary variety and adventurousness” of British cuisine, confiding that “by the time I came home [from Italy] I was desperate for some spice.” She then describes her fondest childhood memories of badly cooked pork chops, her grandmother's applesauce, and her other grandmothers' eating “blood” from a roast beef with a spoon, concluding it all by waxing ecstatic over a family recipe for steamed chicken.

British “culinary adventurousness?” Please! Of this oxymoron I can only say, “Standing in defense of Italian cuisine, Your Honor, I rest my case.”

I guess she feels that we Italian cooks are too fussy and too tied to our precious recipes because we get upset when somebody dumps cream in a carbonara. Saying that Italians are “rigid about their recipes” she quotes Jamie Oliver's rant regarding “food facism” in which he bloviates that “maintaining regional food traditions is important, but not at the expense of all creativity and innovation.”

Picture me now as Strother Martin in Cool Hand Luke: “What we've got here is a failure to communicate.” What we've got here is a failure to understand Italian food.

In the first place, anybody who knows anything about Italian food will tell you there is no such thing as “Italian food.” There are twenty Italian regions – twenty-one if you count the Bronx – and what we consider to be “Italian food” is totally defined by regional food traditions. Across the width and breadth of the Italian boot and even in the Italian-American enclaves of the US, Italian cooks employ time-honored traditions and use local, seasonal ingredients to – with apologies to the esteemed Mr. Oliver – create and innovate in a manner not seen in any other cuisine on the planet.

Yes, we stick to our recipes, dammit, not because we are pedantic, but because our methods work faithfully and consistently time after time across borders and generations. If some Brit twit wants to consider that boring, I respectfully suggest she tuck into a nice side of boiled beef, a plate of bangers and mash, or her beloved steamed chicken and leave the rest of us alone.

Trust me, Italian recipes are nothing if not flexible. Many a “traditional” dish will vary in preparation from region to region, sometimes from town to town within a region, and even from street to street and house to house within those towns. It is precisely that variety and flexibility that leads those of us who understand Italian cooking to say that there is no such thing as “Italian food.” All “Italian food” is local, based on what each individual cook has to work with. “Italian” is as much a style of cooking as it is a specific cuisine. If you are using traditional techniques and methods to create delicious food from carefully selected, fresh, high-quality ingredients, you are cooking like an Italian.

That said, however, the roots of most “classic” Italian dishes run deep, tracing their origins to either “cucina povera” or to very specifically sourced regional ingredients. From that aspect, Italian recipes are sacred and Italian cooks are rigid. Using carefully curated Italian ingredients, mamas and nonne and bisnonne have worked for generations to perfect particular flavor profiles. And I'm sorry, creativity and innovation be hanged, you can't screw with that level of perfection. Can you “innovate” by substituting Cheddar cheese for Parmigiano-Reggiano? Sure. But the result won't taste the same and it won't be traditionally Italian. You want to be “creative” and put white wine in a sauce instead of red? Go for it. But don't call it “bolgnese” because it's not. If I write a recipe and you come along and change it by adding or subtracting or substituting ingredients, it's no longer my recipe; it's yours. And that's okay, but don't call it whatever I called it because you're not making it the way I made it. You want to dump cream in carbonara? Va bene! “Innovate” away! But call your creation “spaghetti in cream sauce” or something, because there's no cream in traditional carbonara. Mary Berry wants to make a pasta sauce with white wine? Assolutamente! But call it “pasta alla Berry,” because it's simply not classic “bolognese.

Cooking is hard to codify because it straddles the line between “art” and “craft.” When you're dealing with an instruction manual for assembling, say, something from IKEA, you need to use the materials you're provided and follow the steps exactly as they are written. Get innovative or creative and your project winds up a pile of scrap. Because cooking leans more toward “art,” a lot of people say recipes are merely guidelines. Yes and no. For instance, sometimes you have to substitute ingredients. You can't help it. And within the framework of those “rigid” Italian recipes, that's perfectly fine. Substitution is the basis of most Italian-American dishes. Immigrants who came to America couldn't find many of the ingredients they had back home, so they substituted. When I make bucatini al'Amatriciana, I often use pancetta instead of guanciale because the former is easier to find than the latter. Far from being “uncompromising,” Italian recipes allow for such variances because they are sensitive to the cook's need to work with whatever ingredients are available.

But there's also a reason why Italian cooks are “sentimental and possessive about cooking.” Food is part of the Italian soul. Italians take great and justifiable pride in their food products. Things like Parmigiano-Reggiano, prosciutto di Parma, mozzarella di bufala, and more than two hundred other nationally recognized and legally protected food products are an integral part of Italian life and culture. And Italian cooking methods have been developed through generations of trial and error. Delicate balances of textures and flavors and aromas can only be tweaked and “innovated” just so far before they become something else. Something not “Italian.” My friend Allan Benton produces some of the finest country ham in America. But as fantastic as Allan's ham is for biscuits and Red-eye gravy and seasoning for soups and vegetables, I wouldn't necessarily use it in place of Italian prosciutto di Parma. The flavor profiles are too radically different. The salty bite of country ham is completely different than the delicate sweetness of prosciutto. I'm not saying you can't do it; whatever you put Benton's ham in is going to be delicious. But is it going to be “Italian?” Not in the traditional sense. (That's why Allan also produces a wonderful prosciutto, by the way, prepared much as it is in Italy.)

I don't think that “maintaining regional food traditions” equates to “food facism.” And “creativity and innovation” are fine as long as they don't detract from the cultural soul of the dish. In the very same breath with which Ms. Cosslett talks down being “sentimental and possessive” about cooking the way Italian mothers and grandmothers cooked, she proceeds to rhapsodize, “I hope to pass down her [grandmother's] delicious steamed chicken recipe to my own children one day.” Huh? How does that work? It's okay for her to pass down her grandmother's recipes, but my grandmother's recipes “suck some of the joy out of cooking?” I think not.

I'm sorry to be disagreeable, Ms. Cosslett, but many Italian recipes are somewhat sacred and I will vigorously defend them against all trendy “innovators.” And if that makes me a pedantic mansplainer, I guess I'm guilty as charged. But I'm also guilty of being autentico, classico, e tradizionale. I'm a boring, uncompromising, sentimental, possessive, rigid, joy-sucking Italian cook. And I'm damn proud of it.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Two Inexpensive Kitchen Gadgets You MUST Have

Work Smarter, Not Harder

My home kitchen is ridiculously well-equipped. In fact, I've found I often have more and better stuff in my home kitchen than I did at my restaurants. My wife would tell you my kitchen is over-equipped. And she's probably right. She has this rule: before I can buy anything for the kitchen, I have to get rid of something. But sometimes I can slide around the rule if the item in which I'm interested is really unique and/or practical. I've recently acquired two such items. And I'm so hooked on them I may buy several and give them as gifts.

The first one is the nifty ChicWrap Plastic Wrap Dispenser. My wife has hated using plastic wrap for as long as I can remember. Not that she has anything against the wrap itself. No, plastic wrap is an indispensable cook's tool. But wrestling it out of the cheap cardboard containers it comes in can try the patience of a saint. The cutters on those boxes are seldom adequate to the task. The boxes themselves are usually flimsy. You have to hold your mouth right and twist your wrist just so and even then the wrap comes off the roll twisted and stuck to itself and you wind up spending frustrating minutes trying to straighten the whole mess out. Or you just give up and get some aluminum foil. There is an art and a technique to getting plastic wrap off a roll smoothly and evenly – and there shouldn't be. With a ChicWrap dispenser, there doesn't have to be.

The manufacturer calls it “the world's best plastic wrap dispenser.” Of course they would; but they happen to be right. Made in the USA of sturdy BPA-free plastic, this refillable dispenser dispenses plastic wrap cleanly and evenly every time. No struggle, no waste, and no aggravation. Just pull out as little or as much wrap as you need and run the attached slide cutter over it. Doesn't matter if you need a foot or an inch, the cut is neat and clean and the wrap is wrinkle and cling free. The dispenser is about the same size as a standard box of plastic wrap, measuring 2 3/4" wide x 3 1/8" high x 13 3/4” long, so you can store it just as you would a regular wrap box. It has little rubber feet on the bottom to help keep it from siding around on your counter top and it is both fun and easy to use. Yeah, that's right; I said a box of plastic wrap is fun to use.

Each ChicWrap dispenser comes with one 11.5" x 261' (261 sq. ft.) roll of professional grade plastic wrap that is far superior to grocery store wrap and refills are available. At about fifteen bucks a pop, the ChicWrap plastic wrap dispenser is an incredible deal on an incredibly useful kitchen tool. I got mine through King Arthur Flour, but they are available from Amazon and from the ChicWrap website, where you can also find dispensers for parchment paper and aluminum foil, as well as for craft and wrapping paper.

The second item I slipped past my wife is called the Scrap Trap.

We do a lot of prep work in our kitchen. One or the other of us is always peeling, cutting, chopping, or slicing something. Carrots, celery, onions, garlic, potatoes, etc. And there's always a pile of scarps accumulating on or around the cutting board or counter top. Over the years, I've tried numerous methods of dealing with the mess. I used Rachael Ray's idea of a dedicated “garbage bowl” for awhile and I also tried having a small trash can handy into which I could just transfer the scraps. But now I've found a better option.

The Kitchen Art Scrap Trap is a sturdy 2-quart plastic container that fits just under counter level by way of attaching to a drawer or cabinet door. It's got a handy little scraper and brush thingy that fits into a pocket on the front of the bowl for storage, but the bowl itself is the real star. I fell in love with mine on first use. I hung it over a drawer in my prep area and went to work on some vegetables. The problem with the “garbage bowl” and the trash can ideas was the same: you've got to work directly over the bowl or you've got to pick up the scraps by hand and deposit them or you have to hold the bowl with one hand and scrape scraps with the other. Not so with the Scrap Trap. The scrap bin is mounted at working level and you just scrape everything right off the cutting surface directly into the container. Quick, clean, and easy. When the bowl fills up, dump it, wash it (dishwasher safe), and you're good to go for next time. I'm lucky enough to have a place where I can leave mine more or less permanently mounted, but you can just stow it away in a cabinet and hook it up whenever and wherever you need it.

I read a number of “reviews” on this product and, unfortunately, people tended to be negative. Nobody had actually purchased the product, they were just commenting on it based on what they read. Most said things like, “I just use my hand” or “I position my trash can under the counter.” Some said, “I could never hit that small of an opening” while others thought it wouldn't work for small crumbs and still others couldn't even figure out how it attached to anything. All examples of knocking something before you've tried it. I prefer to keep my hands clean and free to do other things, thank you, and, yes, I could drag my whole trash can over from the other side of the room, but why would I? The opening on the bin is about 11 1/2” x 4 1/2”. Who couldn't hit that with a pile of peelings? And I sliced some bread this morning and brushed the crumbs quite effectively into the bin hooked over the front of my flatware drawer.

I ordered my Scrap Trap from Amazon. You can get yours there or direct from Kitchen Art. At a cost of around twelve dollars, I find the convenience to be worth the price.

A popular phrase exhorts us to “work smarter, not harder.” And no place does this hold true more than in the kitchen. I'll admit neither of these gadgets is an absolute necessity, but both do enable you to work smarter, and in my book that makes them worth having. My wife must think so, too. She loves them both and I didn't have to get rid of anything to buy them.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

A Ferris Wheel Near The Tower Of Pisa? No-o-o-o-o-o-o!

Come Up With Another Way To “Make A Difference”

What is it with Ferris wheels all of a sudden? I mean, really. As carnival rides, I like them as well as the next person. But to stick them up in the middle of otherwise beautiful, scenic, iconic, and often historic areas? Not so much.

Examples of “pleasure wheels,” devices on which passengers rode in chairs suspended from big wooden rings turned by big burly men, go back as far as the 17th century. The modern wheel with which we are familiar was constructed by a bridge builder named George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. It is often referred to as the “Chicago Wheel” because Ferris erected it for the 1893 World's Columbian Exhibition held in that city. Since then, the Ferris Wheel has been a staple at fairs and festivals all over the world. And that's fine. I've got no problem with that. The thing was built as an attraction for a fair, and that's where it should stay. They're great fun to ride, okay, but they are ugly as sin. Great spindly monstrosities dominating whatever landscape surrounds them. And people have suddenly started planting them in the middle of the aforesaid beautiful, scenic, iconic, and often historic areas. All for the sake of attracting tourists.

Visitors to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park may recall that many years ago, when the approach to the park via SR 66 and US 441 became so cluttered with hundreds of screamingly garish billboards that marred and obstructed the breathtaking views the tourists actually came to see, city administrators in Sevierville, Tennessee erected a small sign near the city limits apologizing for the unappealing billboard clutter.

So perhaps somebody should apologize for “The London Eye,” that horrid blemish on the historic face of Britain's capital. Looming over the city from its prominent position on the South Bank of the Thames, the “Eye”-sore now dominates London's iconic national timepiece, Big Ben, and the Houses of Parliament. Economically, it's a wonderful attraction, catering to millions of tourists who ride up, go around, and come back down. Whoopee! Aesthetically, it's like a party hat on the Mona Lisa.

Many Parisians are none too fond of what's been done to the ancient and beloved Louvre. I.M. Pei's glass behemoth has been called “an annex to Disneyland,” a “gigantic gadget,” and a “despotic act.” And those are the milder critiques. Imagine what will happen when somebody decides to stick a Ferris Wheel behind the Eiffel Tower. Oooops! That's right. Somebody did. The “Big Wheel” ruins the scenery on the Champs-Elysees near la place de la Concorde, but so far only seasonally. The giant mobile rig has been a fixture at Christmas since 2000. But the city is getting sick of it, accusing its owner, fairground king Marcel Campion, of illegally occupying a site of historic interest and ordering him to take it down. Defending his gaudy blight, Campion says the Big Wheel “contributes to the city's fame.” Yeah, kind of like the St. Valentine's Day Massacre contributed to Chicago.

And now Pisa wants one. And they want to stick it right in the center of the city, a five minute walk from the world-famous Leaning Tower that has defined the image of Pisa since the 12th century. The city's idiota cultural commissioner, Andrea Ferrante, has actually signed off on this lunacy, saying he hopes this will show people “there's more than just the tower – the whole city is beautiful.” I agree. It's beautiful just the way it is. The last thing it needs is an ugly carnival ride marring that beauty. I have friends who toured Pisa recently. They sent me a great picture of themselves standing in front of the iconic tower. And now some deficiente wants to put a Ferris Wheel in that picture? No-o-o-o! Say it ain't SO!

The proposed wheel will be nearly as tall as the campanile itself. Boosters enthuse that visitors will be able to “see the Tower from a unique angle.” They'll also be able to catch a glimpse of the Mediterranean coast as they loop around. Doesn’t that sound exciting? The current plan is to build the “attraction” in what is now a parking lot and leave it up for a three-month “trial” to “assess its popularity.” If enough stupid tourists pour enough euros into it, they'll make the thing permanent, no matter how many locals slit their wrists. Critics, including the cultural advocacy group, Italia Nostra, fear an ugly modern wheel wouldn't complement the city's medieval architecture. No! Ya think? But a so-called “heritage council” member named Salvatore Sanzo persists, “We can't keep getting by with the Leaning Tower alone. A giant wheel could make the difference.” The sheer stupidity of that statement leaves me speechless. By that logic, Florence will want a wheel, too. It can stand right behind the statue of David. Maybe Rome can erect a wheel inside the Colosseum. And Venice can get two: one on either end of the Grand Canal.

And why should the wheel mania stop there? Don't you think a Ferris Wheel would look great atop the Acropolis? Surely a wheel would bring more visitors to the Taj Mahal. Picture a Ferris Wheel spinning among the Egyptian pyramids or standing alongside the statue of Christ the Redeemer above Rio de Janeiro. There's lots of room on the National Mall in Washington, DC. A big wheel would look great between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, don't you think? Or maybe mount one sideways on top of the Washington Monument! Wouldn't that be an “attraction?”

And why limit ourselves to Ferris Wheels? Roller coasters are great fun, too. We could knock down that creaky old Golden Gate Bridge and a build an exciting new roller coaster across San Francisco Bay!

I know times are tough. And I know Italy's national and local governments spend billions every year preserving the country's rich heritage. But there's got to be a better way. I'd hate to think we've become so creatively bankrupt that erecting eyesores willy-nilly has become our only solution. Let's leave the carnival rides at the carnival where they belong and come up with another way to “make a difference.”