Saturday, September 28, 2013

Masters of Their Trade

Masters of Their Trade 

The day gradually saddened as approaching high clouds from Long Island heralded the impending gloom of storm.  To get away from its forcasted downpour we’d headed from Newport, Rhode Island to the Foxwoods Resort-Casino in neighboring Connecticut.  Being the largest resort casino in North America, Foxwoods is one of the premier hotel, gaming, shopping and entertainment destinations in the Northeast.  We’d soon find out.

We’re not gamblers by any stretch of the imagination with little understanding, if any, of the many dice and card games available.  We therefore remain curious spectators with a preference, if we gamble at all, for slot machines.  Thankfully, there is not much thinking involved.  Instead the whir of cogs and gears replaces the betting excitement of the bounce of a croupier’s agate on a spinning wheel or a dealer’s efficient sleight of hand.  These modern marvels, affectionately nicknamed “one-armed bandits” because of the lever you once pulled to start their colorful wheels spinning, which for a fleeting moment served to heighten your expectation of some reward for the effort, have seen their arms amputated and replaced by a series of button pushes.  Even when you win, the classic “ca-ching” sound of the falling coins has been replaced by a similar but artificial digital sound!  In fact, real coins are a thing of the past, replaced by casino credit cards or voucher affairs.  We took our chances, enjoyed our spins but were not successful enough to walk away, as they say, ahead of the game.  We left that distinction to a nearby woman at a penny slot machine who clanged and gonged her way to over $500 in winnings!  While outside a tempest reigned, inside, though dry, Lady Luck had not rained on us.

Gambling, at least for the day ‘gone viral’ in us, we returned to Newport to yet another casino venue.  Here, however, buttons with their resultant spinning wheels and electronic sounds were replaced by different type devices … forks and the ‘cin-cin’ tinkle of stemware.  We’d come to the casino that Richard Canfield, the “Prince of Gamblers”, had built in 1897, today the Newport Canfield House Restaurant.  This most famous of American gamblers was the man who invented the game of solitaire, which says a lot about the man.  His casino was an elegant affair comparable to Monte Carlo in its high play, fashion, tasteful elegance and service.  Only the wealthiest played here, the Vanderbilts and other neighboring glitterati of Newport’s famous Bellevue Avenue.   He was an innovator in the gambling industry, which at the time was illegal in Newport but for knowing who to bribe.  He introduced credit on a large scale to evening attired patrons under the belief that a man in a tuxedo would not care to carry a large amount of currency with him.  Years later, retail stores, manufacturers, entire industries adopted the idea to the extent we know it today … zero down, 60 months to pay!

Along with serving up games of chance, Canfield provided gourmet meals to his guests.  Vestiges of that tradition remain.  Today’s elegant dining room was once the casino’s gambling floor; missing is the rustle of taffeta and plumes of cigar smoke.  Wood paneled throughout, its domed elongated ceiling is remindful of the coffered panels of the Sistine Chapel, absent the artistic genius of Buonarroti’s hand.  All that remained, reminiscent of its history, was a large rotating clickity-click gambling wheel by the dining room’s entrance along with curious little doorbells mounted on panels throughout the room.  One was by our table.  When I enquired what it might be, I learned that when a patron needed his credit limit raised, the table boss would summon the manager with a press of the button.  Today, we have credit cards for that, something though far-sighted as he was, Canfield hadn’t envisioned! 

Our only gamble that evening would be on what to order from the extensive menu.  They were all safe bets.  I enjoyed Pasta Bolognese with tenderloin tips and sweet sausage served atop trumpet shaped pasta, called ‘campenelle’, designed to better hold the sauce.  Close by jowl with the sea as we were, Maria Elena chose a more conventional scrod entrĂ©e.  The pasta proved to be delicious and the scrod would never swim again.  Good though my entree was, it would have been outstanding with fresh pasta, trumpets or not.  For that treat I must hold out until I am once again in Bella Italia. 

When it comes to pasta, an unadorned, no frills restaurant in Calitri is my current ‘fav’.  ‘Ristorante Pizzeria Manhattan’, on Via Pittoli, is hard to miss.  Though popular for its pizza, it has an un-kept secret, its pasta!  For about five euros you can enjoy a filling bowl of pasta with your choice of sauces ranging from tangy puttanesca, chili spiced arrabbiata, meaty bolognese, creamy smoky carbonara, the greenest basil pesto, and traditional aglio-olio, always a garlicky indulgence.  There’s just about one for every night of the week!  Just ask Michele for your fav!
I’ve said it before … there is something special about pasta.  Most Italian sauces involve tomatoes, something once thought poisonous and unknown in Italy until introduced from the New World, South America to be exact, in the early to mid-16th century.  Interestingly, outside of South America, the Italians were the first to embrace and cultivate the tomato.  The other side of the equation, of course, has to do with the worm-like noodles themselves.  Though definitely synonymous with Italian cuisine today, here again we have something whose origin lies elsewhere.  It may be romantic to embrace the belief that that adventurous Venetian, Marco Polo, may have been behind it on the occasion of his return from China in the 13th century.  If, however, he did return from China with samples, he was late.  As early as the 5th century, the Talmud (written in Arabic) makes reference to pasta being cooked in boiling water!  As a result, it is the popular belief today that pasta was introduced to Italy during the Arab conquests of Sicily in the 9th century AD.  Like many a great invention, as they say only “by standing on the shoulders of giants” is it possible to combine seemingly disparate elements into something brand new, in this case, a saucy pasta!  Thank the Aztecs, the Arabs in nearby Libya and from there some hungry enterprising Sicilian for pasta with pomodoro (tomato) sauce!

I’m often reminded of these thread-like pasta filaments.  It can begin as early as when I tie my shoes in the morning, roll up the garden hose, negotiate a rat’s nest of wires behind the TV or recently, then I watched pottery being made in Calitri, historically a center for ceramics.  We had an opportunity recently, along with other friends, to visit the studio (referred to as a laboratorio) of artist Vito Zabatta and watch as he continued an ancient pottery technique known in Italian as lucignolo (candlewick).  Posters around town advertised Vito’s craft.  Interested, we talked with our friend Titti, a warmhearted and always giving Pro Loco volunteer.  The Pro Loco of Calitri always very active and attentive to local artisans and craftsmen arranged our visit to his workshop.

Vito has a jolly elfish personality and a cherubic grin.  He’d have to work at not smiling!  With the thinning hair on his forehead upright like slender tall strands of sea-grass and protruding expressive eyes seemingly able to consume everything in view, he struck me as a man of traditional methods but with an inventive enterprising side capable of creating his own surprises.  Wouldn’t it befit an artist to be amazed by his own invention?  He says he is, only to be saddened when he sells a work as if loosing part of his family.  He is a man with bono fides.  He participated in the XXIII International Ceramics Arts Competition of Florence; has exhibited a ceramic nativity scene consisting of thirty pieces in the Castle of Calitri in 2002, again in 2003, as well as at the Interregional Calitri Fair that same year.  In 2004 he exhibited his works in the Dukes' Castle located in Bisaccia.  He participated in the 1st and 3rd edition of the National Ceramic Art Exhibition where he was awarded 2nd place.

Vito was born in Aquilonia in 1947, then as an infant moved to nearby Calitri where he has lived and worked ever since.  It was in Calitri that he attended the “Art Institute S. Scoca", where he majored and graduated with a degree in ceramics, with emphasis on the candlewick technique.  This pottery technique, sometimes also referred to as "colombino" (coiling), dates back to the underbelly of history, Neolithic times (9500-3000 BC) in fact.  From a time long before the discovery of the wheel, it is the oldest way used by man to not only fashion vases, cups, and jugs of various sizes but also busts, portraits and other kinds of terra cotta based sculptures using fired clay.  The ancient Mesopotamian city of Uruk, built by Gilgamesh, is located 150 miles south of Baghdad.  It was here that along with the earliest clay tablets used for writing, pottery dating back to 4000 BC has been recovered that used this method. 

             Like you, about now I’d be thinking, if not asking outright, “but how could making pottery the way our early ancestors did possible induce images of pasta?”  Old as it is, you’d expect this form of pottery to have undergone some modernization and it has.  Nowadays, instead of taking pieces of clay and rolling them with his hands on a flat surface in order to create the long ‘pasta spaghetti noodles’, snake-like in their appearance, he uses a machine.  It’s really just a press where with the pull of a lever (now I know where those slot machine arms have gone) a uniform rod of clay is slowly extruded through a molding head, much like pressing frosting through a decorative nozzle when making a cake.  The clay Vito uses in his press is taken from Montelupo Fiorentino, close to Florence. Though doubtful, I‘d like to stretch credulity just enough to believe that this is where Michelangelo Buonarroti acquired the clay he used to model his creations before laying into his white Carrara marble.  As for the title "Candlewicking", it may be a misnomer for the clay noodles he uses are much larger than you’d imagine a candle’s wick to be.  As the clay strands extrude from the press, but for their color, they could easily be mistaken for the larger bucatini or candela style pastas.  I was after all in Italy with pasta on the mind!!      

Vito begins his creations with a clay base, usually circular, on which to build upon.  The technique then involves patiently coiling the ‘snakes of clay’ around the base, overlapping layer upon layer while modulating the form to the desired shape.  As he worked his strands of clay, Vito, this custodian of an ancient art form, took pains to explain the long history of his art.  Zabatta offers visitors a real journey into the art of ceramics.  He serves up this story with passion, his hands all the while moving in gesture and technique as he explains what he’s doing step-by-step.  His art forms, combining the past with a present perspective slowly begin to take on their particular curved, cylindrical, countersunk, or tapered shapes on a small paten he is able to rotate like a carousel to fit his needs as he continues to attach additional clay cords atop the previous layer.  Any gaps or discontinuities between overlapping applications would mean a leak in the finished item so he must continually take time to gently press them securely together between his thumb and index finger while being sure to smooth the inside surface of the vessel.  Today's practitioners smooth only the inside of the item leaving the characteristic thumbprint, a remnant of the pressure exerted, visible on the outer surface.  

A day after his demonstration we visited his mostra (showroom), located in the Calitri Borgo below us on Via Alfonso Del Re.  It was there that he showcases a large number of his completed works, which surprisingly embraced figurative art, including statuary and reliefs, as well as classical forms of pottery.  We got to talk further while we were there.  History recounts how at an early stage in his career, Michelangelo secretively performed dissections on cadavers by candlelight in the burial room of a Florentine monastery to better understand the muscle structure of the human body.  This was outright criminal behavior, unacceptable and punishable with ex-communication if discovered.  He accepted the risk and today we see his secretly attained knowledge alive in the David and Pieta.  As an art student, in order to better portray bone structure, Vito once had an assignment to sketch a cow’s head.  Problem was, he had to obtain a head on his own then somehow remove the skin and tissue to reveal the skull sufficient to use as a model.  When I asked him what grade he’d received on this assignment, he couldn’t recall, but did relate how he went about it.  He’d spoken to a butcher who agreed to give him a cow’s head but Vito would have to be there when the cow was slaughtered.  This he agreed to and once home with his trophy he began to reveal the skull.  He began by boiling the head in a great pot heated by firewood outside.  Days of continuous boiling and stripping later, his skull was ready to bleach in the sun.  What resulted was a white horned cow’s head I fanaticized as something like those we see in movies beside a poisonous watering hole.  His model now prepared, he was off to school.  Talk about bringing something to school for show and tell!  Compare this to a school assignment of today!
Master Artist Vito Zabatta dabbles in a world full of history and tradition, but for a few like him, largely forgotten.  Like the American cowboy, he represents a vanishing breed, outstripped by machine-based methods of mass production.  He is Calitri’s sole custodian of an ancient craft likely to disappear over time with him.  Time placed Canfield and Zabatta almost a century and half a world apart.  Canfield lived on the edge of the law, took risks to make history between his thumb and index finger holding cards.  Vito worked with history, never gambled and pressed God’s earth between thumb and index finger to make his mark on the world.  These men couldn’t have been farther apart yet each in his own special way was an artist, for art is a trace of man's passage through time.  Each harboring a quiet fame, knowing you are the best at what you do.

Written on Invasion Beach, Salerno by
That Rogue Tourist, Paolo

For related photos (as well as those from other adventures), click here on Eyes Over Italy. Then look for and click on a photo album entitled “Masters”.