December: Looking back, looking ahead

December began quietly enough, but by the time Christmas rolled around, I’d recorded a new album, shot a part in a movie, and performed in Rome and Tuscany. I know. I can’t quite believe it all, myself.

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At Systems Two with pianist Ehud Asherie & producer Eli Wolf.

Early in the month, my friend and frequent collaborator Ehud Asherie and I went into the studio with a bunch of songs—some familiar standards as well as off-the-beaten-path gems—and spent a lovely day recording vocal/piano duos at Systems Two, my favorite studio. We wanted to capture the intimacy and spontaneity of our performances at Mezzrow, and I think we succeeded. (Incidentally, we’ll be at Mezzrow on January 10 and would love to see you there!)

I don’t know what I’m allowed to tell you about the movie thing, so I’ll keep things vague: the film is a mini-series helmed by director Errol Morris. It was picked up by Netflix, but I have no idea when it’ll air. I got to wear a super-glam vintage dress and sing a swinging, new-to-me song for a nightclub scene, in which I played (surprise!) a jazz singer. During my (long) day on set, I learned that a) movie-making involves a lot more waiting around and a lot less glamour than you might expect, and b) no one should wear a corset for 13 hours. I had grooves in my torso. Ow. Restrictive undergarments notwithstanding, I think this is going to be a fantastic project and I’ll definitely share more info as details emerge, which likely won’t be for several months.

img_8484Recent viewings of Roman Holiday and Three Coins in the Fountain had had me dreaming of Rome, and in a flash of benevolent synchronicity, I received an invitation to give a couple of private performances in the Eternal City over Christmas. Giddy with delight, I hopped aboard an Alitalia flight with E. and spent a very happy week making music and living la dolce vita.

We saw the Colosseo bathed in honeyed late-afternoon sunlight and watched the city turn pink at sunset from the top of the Gianicolo (Janiculum hill). Ramrod-straight cypresses and imposing pines presided quietly over the ancient city, as they have done for millennia, while high-fashion storefronts and elegant hotels sparkled with Christmas lights and decorations. On Christmas Eve, we stood silently in the Pantheon and listened to a few minutes of midnight mass. The neighborhoods of Trastevere and the Jewish quarter provided welcome respite from the post-holiday throngs at the Fontana di Trevi and the Vatican.

img_8132And—you knew this was coming—the food! We ate fettuccine Alfredo at the restaurant where the eponymous chef/owner invented the dish, and pasta all’Amatriciana in a restaurant frequented by Fellini in his day. Pizza a taglio (paid by weight, not slice) awaited us at Pizzarium, where unique flavor combinations (my favorite was buttery mashed potatoes and mozzarella) and impossibly light, crispy crust have garnered well-deserved international recognition.

We sipped caffe marocchino at the bar at Caffe Sant’Eustachio and swooned over the silken gelato at La Romana and Giolitti. Christmas Eve was spent at La Rosetta, for course after course of the most elegant seafood dinner I’ve ever eaten. Our last day in Rome, we joined new Roman friends for high tea at Babington’s, an English tea room that has stood adjacent to the Spanish Steps since the 18th century, then we walked to Campo de’ Fiori for a final dinner at iconic Roscioli.

img_8621I did spend a couple of days in the throes of a stomach-bug-turned-head-cold, but not even illness could lessen the magic of Rome at Christmastime. In fact, our trip was so filled with beauty and joy that getting sick felt somewhat penitential—a small price to pay for an unforgettable holiday.

Now, here we are, in the first days of 2017. As in years past, one word has presented itself as talisman and goal for the year ahead: communication. It seems fitting, as the year ahead will see the release of no fewer than three new CDs (Duchess’ sophomore release is coming next month, and I have two other projects in post-production right now), and a couple of other non-singing projects are fomenting as well. But first things first. It’s time to take down the Christmas tree.

img_8635In December, I…
Blogged about: November. Singer-friend Gabrielle Stravelli.

Read: The Mother’s Recompense, by Edith Wharton. It had been well over a decade since I’d read Wharton, and returning to her forthright, incisive prose was a treat (although this story was incredibly sad). M Train, by Patti Smith, which I read while sick in bed in Rome. Smith’s dreamlike, poetic memoir is filled with reminiscences of her own travels and occasional illnesses abroad. It was, along with cups of chamomile tea and a deeply cozy hotel bed, comforting while I was under the weather.

Watched: White Christmas. I mean, obviously. Anthony Bourdain’s Rome-themed travel shows.

Listened to: Well, Christmas music, of course. Also lots of podcasts. I’m really digging Homecoming, Milk Street Radio, and Everyday Emergency.

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August: Looking back, looking ahead

I know that summer doesn’t really end until September 22…but the end of August always feels like the end of honest-to-goodness, hot-shouldered, freckle-nosed, ice-cream-at-every-opportunity summer.  This particular summer has been filled to the brim with singing and travel, friends, food, art, and plenty of time spent just enjoying New York City.  Now, just as with a good book, a good meal, or a good concert, I am feeling both happily satiated and sad to see it end.

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A few photos of my time with the Balestrini family.

Perhaps I’m feeling extra sentimental and philosophical because of an anniversary that just passed: exactly twenty Augusts ago—my god, I can barely type the word “twenty”—I arrived in Italy to begin my foreign exchange.  During the months I spent living la dolce vita, I learned to speak Italian, tumbled headlong into a lifelong love affair with Italian food, and became a part of three wonderful Italian families, with whom I still keep in touch and see as often as possible (which is to say, not nearly often enough): the famiglie Balestrini, Amigoni, and Mascheroni.

In the summer of 1995, I had just escaped the confines of both high school and my small Alaska town.  Everything was a revelation, from traveling alone to discovering gelato, to the calls of “Ciao, bella,” as I walked down the street.  Because social media and Skype didn’t exist (I mean, email wasn’t even really a thing yet), I spoke to my parents just once a week on the phone and wrote actual hand-written letters to my friends in the States.  I was fully immersed in Italian life in a way that I doubt is even possible, now.  And, in the process, Italy gave me a world both infinitely bigger and smaller than I could have ever imagined.

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The Amigoni family, and a few moments with more Italian loved ones.

I suppose, then, that today’s post is really a love letter to la bella Italia and to the people who changed my life forever, for better, twenty years ago: Domenico, Anna, Chiara, Giovanni, Vittorio, Angela, Cristina, Leo, Eugenio, Gabriella, tutti i figli Mascheroni, Lory (e la tua mamma), Ruta e Dario, and the many other kind souls who welcomed me into your hearts and homes, I hope you all know how very much I love you.

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The castle–yes, castle–that belonged to my 3rd host family, the Mascheroni. My mother came to visit and we spent an incredible day there.


Looking ahead, DUCHESS is heading west this month: California, to be precise.  We’ve got gigs lined up in Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Francisco, and we’ll close out our tour with a performance at the Monterey Jazz Festival (!).  On September 29, I’m returning to Mezzrow with the wonderful pianist Ehud Asherie for an intimate evening of vocal/piano duets.

In the meantime, Labor Day weekend is just a couple of days away and the forecast is for sunny skies.  I’m planning to bid summertime a fond farewell with a day trip to Coney Island for a spin on the Wonder Wheel, a stroll on the boardwalk, and perhaps some Russian food in Brighton Beach.

In August, I…
Blogged about: July. Getting older.

Watched: Cymbeline, at Shakespeare in the Park.  I feel so lucky to have experienced the magic of Shakespeare in the Park twice in one summer, without ever having had to queue up for tickets at the crack of dawn!  “Key Largo,” with Bogie and Bacall.  The New York Restoration Project showed this iconic film in a Bed-Stuy garden and it was magical.

Read: Well, “perused” is a better term, but Invitation to Openness: The Jazz & Soul Photography of Les McCann is a book I’m eager to explore more in-depth.  Over the years, McCann photographed many of his colleagues and friends, everyone from Ray Charles to Duke Ellington to Redd Foxx.  This book is the first time his reflections and photographs have been compiled into one volume.  Definitely worth checking out.

Listened to: A lot of Les McCann + Eddie Harris.  This grooves so hard.  “Sock it to me!”  Damn.

 

 

Foodie Tuesday: An impromptu jaunt to Italy…er, Eataly

Last Friday was one of those picture-perfect September days in the city.  The skies were clear, the air was crisp, and the foot traffic on 5th Avenue was a beautiful parade of the “glittering crowds…in canyons of steel” that Vernon Duke surely had in mind when he wrote “Autumn in New York.”

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Hallelujah! An unabashed celebration of carbohydrates.

As I left my late-morning voice lesson, I realized that nothing on my to-do list was terribly pressing, and so I could take my time getting back to Brooklyn.  I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to duck into Eataly for a quick lunch and look-around, and was reminded of something that Italians seem to know instinctively: stealing an hour for a delicious meal and a bit of unapologetic leisure is deeply restorative and good for the soul.

Mario Batali’s sprawling, airy monument to all of Italy’s culinary delights can be a little overwhelming, it’s true.  Eataly houses walls of cookbooks and sleek, Italian-designed cookware, bottles of extra virgin olive oil in every imaginable shade of green-gold, a butcher, a fishmonger, a cheese shop, no fewer than seven restaurants plus a Nutella bar (!) and a room dedicated solely to gelato and espresso, so it can be hard to know where to start.

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The essence of Italian cooking: high-quality ingredients, prepared simply so that the flavors sing of themselves.

I strolled slowly, smiling at the innumerable shapes and sizes of pasta that lined Eataly’s shelves.  I marveled, too, at the vast array of honeys from all over Italy (chestnut, acacia, linden, wildflower) and pondered having a lunch of gelato (pistacchio, nocciola, and cioccolato, to be exact) before taking a seat at the bar in Le Verdure, Eataly’s vegetarian restaurant.  I ordered the bruschetta del giorno: toasted country bread topped with goat cheese, fresh figs, and a drizzle of aged balsamic vinegar. Wanting something sophisticated but non-alcoholic to drink, I also ordered a blood orange San Pellegrino soda.

I ate slowly, reading a book and people-watching.  At the end of my lunch, I felt that a metaphorical as well as literal hunger had been satisfied.  It’s easy, in our always-frenetic American lives, to pooh-pooh our need (yes, need) for la dolce far niente (the sweetness of doing nothing).  But the truth is, an hour spent savoring a well-prepared meal and enjoying a favorite corner of the city can reinvigorate one’s spirit and even boost productivity.  I left Eataly with a spring in my step and a smile on my face, newly resolved to find more moments of indulgence and relaxation amidst the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

I miss Italy terribly, and can’t wait to go back for an in situ dose of la dolce vita, but in the meantime, it does my heart good to know that Italy-via-Eataly is just a subway ride away.

 

 

Foodie Tuesday: Venetian Sunsets

Thanks to recent heavy rains and a storm surge (which seem to be going around, these days), more than half of Venice is under water.  I thought today would be a good time to revisit and celebrate La Serenissima and her many culinary wonders.

My first visit to Venezia was on a misty November day in 1995, with a group of girlfriends from the Italian high school I was attending at the time.  I fell in love with Venice immediately and eternally, although I am embarrassed to say that my first meal in Venice as a seventeen year old exchange student probably consisted of pizza and Coca-Cola.

A couple of years later, I escaped the tedium of my college life and returned to Venice on winter break.  My American friend and I were tired, cranky, and hopelessly lost in the Dorsoduro.  I had nearly fallen into a canal earlier that day, and both my ego and right hip were badly bruised.  Rain began to fall as we found ourselves surrounded by schoolchildren on their way home.  A girl of about ten was walking close by my side in the narrow calle, and I was surreptitiously taking advantage of the shelter of her umbrella.  As my friend tried to (not so gently) pull me out of the girl’s way, the girl admonished him, “No, no, la tenevo proprio sotto! (No, no–I was keeping her under my umbrella on purpose!)”

The view from our suite on the Grand Canal.

I returned to Venice this February with my husband for the second leg of our European honeymoon, my heart nearly bursting during our ride, via water taxi, to our hotel.  We stayed in a nine-room palazzo on the Grand Canal, and upon learning that E. and I were on our viaggi di nozze, the proprietors upgraded us from our small interior room to a suite–a suite!–overlooking the Grand Canal.  Every day we’d throw open our shutters and gaze in awe at the sun glinting on the water as Venice began her day.

Fish fry at the Rialto Market.

We spent many hours happily perusing the Rialto Market, wishing we had a kitchen so that we could cook some of the bounty we admired: silvery fish, purple-tipped artichokes, and overflowing baskets of lettuces and radicchio.  One sunny morning, we were fortunate to discover an Italian fish fry about to take place in the market’s adjoining piazza.  Fritto misto and white wine at 11:00 am?  Yes, please!

Every day we’d get happily lost for hours in Venezia’s dreamlike, labyrinthine calle.  No matter how many museums we visited, however, or how many times we stopped for cicheti, E. and I always made it a point to return to our hotel before sunset.  We’d sit on the terrace, sip a cocktail, and watch the sun set over the Rialto bridge. Ladies and Gentlemen, may I present to you the Aperol Spritz?

Like so many Italian inventions, the Aperol Spritz (or just “spritz,” if you’re Venetian) is simple, elegant, and unlikely to ever go out of style. Aperol is a lower-alcohol cousin of Campari, tasting of bitter and sweet oranges mingled with rhubarb and various herbs.  Some might argue that the Aperol Spritz is a decidedly summertime cocktail, but oranges are a winter fruit, after all, and Prosecco is never out of season.

My heart is never far away from La Serenissima.  As these autumn days grow shorter and we lean ever more sharply into what portends to be a harsh winter, I will continue our honeymoon tradition of an Aperol Spritz before dinner.  And I will dream of Venice and her sunsets.

Aperol Spritz
3 parts Prosecco
2 parts Aperol
1 splash club soda
Pour over ice, garnish with a slice of orange, and let yourself be transported to Venice at dusk.

Foodie Tuesday: Veni, Vidi, VINO

As many of you know, I had the immense good fortune to spend nearly a year living in northern Italy when I was 17.  I fell completely, irrevocably in love with la bella Italia, learning to speak Italian, forging lifelong friendships, and eating and drinking with (occasionally too much) abandon.

One of my Italian host sisters, Cristina, is a sommelier.  Her dual citizenship means she’s living the dream of splitting her time between the U.S. and Italy with her husband and young son.  Cristina was kind enough to offer some tips and insight into exploring the varied and wonderful world of vino Italiano.  

What makes Italy’s wine and winemaking philosophy unique?

 As [is true of] most of the Old World wine philosophy, Italian wine is made to be enjoyed with food.  The whole experience of wine is never meant to be by itself; there is always food with wine, and this food has to be specific to the region and type of wine.

To give you an example, last year I went to a Wine festival in Valtellina, north of Lake Como.  For something like $15 we had access to 20+ wineries, each serving at least 4 different types of local wines in these Roman-era cellars, which you could only reach by walking down several flights of stairs.  Everywhere there was free food served to accompany the wine: salami, prosciutto, cheese, bread, etc.

Many Italians keep “house wine” on hand, often traveling to wineries to bottle their own sfuso.  When it comes to everyday wine drinking, what are your favorite red and white varietals, and why?

My answer depends on the season.  This summer all we had in the house was Vinho Verde from Portugal. It’s a wonderful light, crisp, and slightly sparkling white wine. It goes great with almost anything you eat, especially BBQ and spicier summer foods.  Now that the seasons are changing I am finding myself drawn to light-bodied Pinot Noirs from various regions. As the weather gets colder I will try to get some good Tuscan wines on sale, as well as Argentinian and Spanish wines.  All under $12 of course.

Brooklyn Wine Exchange; Photo from the Village Voice

Unfortunately, nothing compares to vino della casa (house wine) that you can get sfuso directly from the local vineyards, so I just resort to buying great wines at affordable prices.  Fortunately, there are a lot hidden treasures in the best wine shops.
*A word from Hilary: If you happen to live in Brooklyn, you will find no better resource for wines both exotic and familiar than Brooklyn Wine Exchange on Court Street. They even have a “$12 & Under” table of affordable, delicious wines from around the globe.

Are there any Italian grape varietals that are perhaps not well known but deserve wider appreciation?

I would say there are a lot of varietals that are not well known outside of Italy and definitely deserve attention.  Some of these are not necessarily grape varietals, as much as location-based varietals.  To name a few: Tocai Friulano from Friuli, Lugana from Lake Garda region, once again Franciacorta wines,  Sauvignon from Italy (known as Sauvignon Blanc in other regions), Muller Thurgau, Pinot Bianco (much better and much more interesting than Pinot Grigio in my opinion), Lagrein and so many more….

Autumn is here; what are your favorite varietals for fall’s heartier braises, stews, and pastas?

Fall is a great season for wine drinking (not that the other three are bad) because it is warm enough to still enjoy whites and rosés, while it is already cold enough to open up those mouth-filling reds.  Of course, I can never go without a nice Prosecco for all those holiday gatherings with lots of appetizers.  I also enjoy Pinot Noirs in the fall because they can be light but comforting at the same time, while pairing very well with all the roasted turkey and poultry of the season.  I also like to change things up a bit sometime with a nice rosé.  I can also assure you that bottles of Rioja will be always present in my house, along with Valpolicella, Montepulciano D’Abruzzo and Tuscan reds.

Cristina, grazie mille for your time and expertise!  Now, let’s all raise a glass of Italian wine and toast autumn’s arrival!

Foodie Tuesday: Benvenuti!

Welcome to the very first Foodie Tuesday here at Ad Alta Voce. From here on out, Tuesdays will celebrate all things food-related, including (but not limited to!) recipes, restaurants, markets and specialty stores, chefs and food personalities, cooking shows, and perhaps even the occasional guest post.

Since my own wedding is only about a month away, it seems fitting to begin Foodie Tuesdays with a post about a happily married pair of food-lovers: actress Debi Mazar and musician/buon gustaio Gabriele Corcos, hosts of the Cooking Channel’s new series, “Extra Virgin.”  With no small amount of playful banter and genuine affection, Debi and Gabriele spend each episode creating rustic, Tuscan-inspired meals for their children, friends, and each other.

Given my affinity for smart, lippy dames and 1940s-inspired attire, it’s no surprise that I am a wee bit smitten with the tart-tongued Debi Mazar. Pairing vintage elegance with a Queens accent, Debi is both fabulous and down-to-earth.  Sure, she hangs out with Madonna and attends Hollywood premieres, but she’s also a relatable working mother.  Debi’s love of at-home entertaining is rooted in practicality: “…if we go out to dinner, then it means we’ll probably also go to the movies. And between dinner and the movies and getting a babysitter, it’s about $400 for the night. So we have people over for a great meal. It’s been our way of having a social life.”

It’s fitting, then, that Debi married Gabriele, who hails from the olive-growing countryside of Fiesole, in Tuscany.  He describes himself as “a very hungry guy” who “cook(s) to feed my kids right, and to possibly get laid at least twice a week…to keep traditions alive, and because my kitchen is the warmest place in my house…”  Gabriele is quintessentially Italian: he not only understands how to cook and eat well, he understands why doing so is of the utmost importance.


There are lots of good reasons to watch “Extra Virgin.”  The recipes are back-to-basics Italian soul food, eschewing esoteric ingredients and complicated techniques in favor of wholesome, seasonal flavors.  And it’s fun to live vicariously through Debi and Gabriele, whether they’re raising chickens in their Los Angeles backyard or grilling porterhouses in their Tuscan kitchen.

The best reason to tune in to “Extra Virgin,” though, is to be reminded that the main ingredients for la dolce vita—the sweet life—are simple and readily available.  We just need a kitchen, a sense of humor, and most of all, the people we love. Buon appetito!

“Extra Virgin” airs on The Cooking Channel every Wednesday at 10:30 pm ET.

Fish are jumpin’, and the cotton is high…

Every summer, I am seduced by the scent of sunscreen and the promise of languid afternoons spent at the beach. But every year, despite my best intentions to wear cute sundresses, shop at farmer’s markets, and be all dewy and cheery in the heat, I seem to wind up cranky and sweaty on a subway platform, cursing the convection oven that once was Manhattan.

This summer has been unremarkable, save the bomb scare in Times Square and a relentless heat wave, neither of which were particularly enjoyable. So I suppose it makes sense that I’ve been reminiscing about a few, more voluptuous, summers of yore. To wit:

The summer I turned 17, I moved to Italy. The honeyed late-August sun poured itself on everything and the world and I were very, very young. I swooned daily over fresh basil, fresh boys and the lushness of life lived in a foreign language.

One Seattle summer was all faux-sophistication at sidewalk cafés and drinking rosé as twilight whispered across Puget Sound. I remember goat cheese and asparagus omelets in the morning and garden parties at dusk. I was free in the way that is only possible when one is 23 and unfettered by ambition or obligation.

And recently, I found a journal entry from the summer I lived in Spanish Harlem:

In the absence of a working air conditioner, an ancient fan hums in front of my open window. My rigid and long-standing habit of falling to sleep in total silence has been broken. The noise from the street has become a lullaby of sorts. The shouts of neighbor children and the Spanish admonitions of their mothers are accompanied by the alto saxophone sighing on my stereo as I drift off to sleep. That the saxophonist in question has broken my heart seems vital.

I have always slept on my stomach, a straight line, arms folded above my head. My sleep has always been deep and long and still. July finds me splayed across the whole of my bed, stirring throughout the night. I sleep in satin slips, occasionally with a sheet for cover. My sleep has become light and I rise earlier, perhaps to clear space in the cooler morning for writing, thinking, tea. Perhaps to clear space for the afternoon siesta that has become routine.

I cannot get enough quenepas, the peculiar fruit that was foreign to me until a brief liaison with a Cuban guitarist. He called them mamoncillos. The fruits resemble tiny limes and they hang in a bunch, like grapes. When I crack the peel with my teeth, the taste is bitter and the fruit inside, a pulpy pit, comes out easily. I keep the quenepas in the refrigerator and suck on the cold tart fruit until my mouth is sore.

When my errands are finished, I am anxious to leave midtown Manhattan, with its stodgy businessmen and ladies who lunch. I see blonde Amazons with Coach bags and Banana Republic khaki skirts and I imagine that their lives are as immaculate and crisp as the white cotton blouses they wear. The 6 train can never come soon enough.

I look forward to leaving the stark chill of the subway and ascending the stairs into the enveloping heat of the barrio. I let my hair curl in the humidity. I feel my hips circling in figure eights as I walk. I no longer hurry. Sometimes I stop and buy an horchata, the Mexican drink of rice milk and almond, sold by a young woman who speaks no English, from a sidewalk stand.

Tito Puente and Arturo Sandoval follow me everywhere; when their mambos are not playing on my iPod, their paint-peeling trumpet sections squeal from shop windows and passing cars. My heart has begun beating clave rhythms, although clapping them is still tricky.


Much has changed since my halcyon summers in Italy, Seattle, and Spanish Harlem. I’ve long since traded the barrio for Brooklyn, and I’m happy to report that both my air conditioner and my relationship are highly functional. The beach awaits, Tito Puente is still on my iPod, and today a farmer’s market is bustling a mere block from my home. Even as I type, August is leaning into the sun, beckoning me to follow, suggesting that perhaps this summer is not unremarkable, after all.