Pete’s Red Sauce

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Back when moving abroad was just a fantasy, I got in touch with my friend Eileen to see how life abroad was going for her. She and her husband made the transition from military life to retirement in Malta. (They were even on “House Hunters International.”) I always hoped we could meet up again.

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Eileen and I were friends what seems like a lifetime ago as military wives in Hawaii. She helped me through a tough year when my husband was in Afghanistan. Our diversions included pontoon boating at the Kaneohe Bay sandbar and organizing neighborhood parties. She was my partner on a women’s sailing club. When my husband returned from war and I got pregnant, she and her husband, Pete, held a surprise baby shower for us.

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It’s been nearly 13 years since that baby shower and the military moves that separated us. Ever since we’ve been in Europe, I’ve been trying to figure out when to squeeze in a visit. When would I ever be this close to Malta? I had to work it into our travels.

Our reunion came last week, when our boys were away on a school ski trip. Sarge and I dropped the boys off on a bus headed to Bosnia. We drove to the airport with our fingers crossed. We prayed the boys would be OK on a ski trip away from us.

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We arrived in Malta to see Eileen holding a welcome sign. We talked like old times. Our husbands bonded over military service stories. And we helped them celebrate another milestone. We were in town for their daughter’s eighth birthday.


One of my favorite parts of seeing old friends is just hanging out and getting a glimpse of life on their turf. Malta was amazing. It’s on our list of “Places Where We’d Like to Retire.” But rekindling an old friendship was even better.


During our years apart, Eileen and Pete did Navy moves to Italy, Hawaii and California. Eventually, they moved back to Italy. Pete retired from the Navy, and they went to cooking school in Florence on the GI Bill. Pete was our chef on the trip and made us lasagna and Caesar salad with homemade dressing. He gave me tips on coddling an egg for dressing and making spinach seasoned with garlic and oil.

He told me one of his biggest lessons from culinary school is that you can make a good meal with just a few ingredients. I took notes on his red sauce, which doesn’t need hours to simmer:

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  • about ¼ cup olive oil (enough to fully coat the bottom of a large pot. He said it will seem like a lot of oil.)
  • 3 to 4 cloves of pressed garlic
  • 2 teaspoons dry basil
  • a pinch of salt
  • a dash of chili pepper flakes
  • 2 (700-gram) jars of “rustica” (rough-cut) tomatoes
  • 1 (700-gram) jar of thin crushed tomatoes
  • 1 bay leaf
  • salt or more garlic to taste


Pour the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the garlic, and bring the oil to temperature. You want to flavor the oil but not brown the garlic. Add the basil, a pinch of salt and some chili pepper flakes. Stir with a wooden spoon. Once it starts to boil, and before the garlic browns, lower the heat and add the crushed tomatoes.

In Pete’s case, he used two 700-gram jars of rustic (rough-cut) tomatoes and one jar of thinner tomatoes. He said when I’m back in the States, I can make substitutions. Instead of jars, I can use two cans of crushed tomatoes and one can of tomato puree.

Add a bay leaf.

Let the sauce come to temperature. Bring to a boil and then simmer until slightly thickened. The tomato will soak up the oil. You don’t need hours of simmering. It takes about 30 minutes. Taste to see if it needs more salt or garlic. Remove bay leaf before serving.


We’ve already tried this upon our return to Croatia. I have never gone to culinary school, but I’ll never turn down cooking lessons in someone’s kitchen. I may never buy jarred sauce again.

Thanks for the memories, Pete and Eileen. I’ll think of you every time we have pasta and red sauce. Hope to see you again soon, wherever we are in the world.


Rome, where we almost made history


The metal prayer candle stand teetered, tipping burning candles and hot wax precariously close to the edge. I hurried over to steady the stand as our tour guide came up beside me.

“You almost just made history,” she said, mostly to my 10-year-old, a curious boy who likes to touch things. It was a close call.

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Thankfully, on our trip to Rome, we did not burn down the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere, the city’s oldest and only remaining medieval-style church. It dates back to the third century, and I would have hated to destroy it. The prayer candles must have been working. We said a lot of prayers on this trip.

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We toured Rome with a party of nine – me, Sarge and the boys, my in-laws and brother-in-law’s family – and one more if you include Anni, our tour guide from Local Guddy, a service that pairs tourists with locals to see sights beyond the beaten path.


We did do the typical touristy things that I had seen before on other trips, making stops to marvel at the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel, the Colosseum and the Forum. We tossed some coins in Trevi Fountain and sat on steps nearby to eat gelato. We sweated under the summer sun. We visited St. Peter’s Basilica and St. Paul’s Outside the Walls. We met nuns, gypsies, tramps and thieves and left Rome minus one wallet and passport – but that’s another story for another time.

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With Anni, we discovered an excellent restaurant close to the Vatican (Trattoria Vaticano Giggi) that serves authentic Roman pastas and wine. We visited an uncrowded hilltop (Gianicolo, or Janiculum Hill) with spectacular views of the city. Sarge made friends with a gladiator who let him wear his helmet for a photo op. We cooled our feet in a fountain (Fontana dell’Acqua Paola) that was not nearly as crowded as Trevi. We filled our water bottles from beautiful public drinking fountains that are piped into the city’s aqueduct system. And we discovered the neighborhood of Trastevere.


Seeing Trastevere was one of my favorite parts of the trip. I would have never known it was there because it’s not on the must-see list of Rome. Maybe it should be. The former working-class neighborhood on the west bank of the Tiber River has all of the cobblestones, piazzas and charm of Italy without the August crowds we ran into everywhere else.


The Basilica di Santa Maria was magical. Anni told us it was the first church in Rome to hold a public Mass and the first church to be dedicated to the Virgin Mary. While we were inside, sunlight streamed in on the ornate, golden walls. We walked around and admired the mosaics, the history, myths and traditions. I will think of it every time I see a prayer candle and remember the time we almost made history.




Pigeons in the Piazza


Back when we were young newlyweds, Sarge and I planned a European rendezvous.

At the time, he was serving a yearlong deployment in Afghanistan, and I was working as a newspaper reporter in Hawaii. We met up on his mid-tour leave in Germany, rented a car on an Army post and set off for more countries than we had ever been – all in the span of two weeks.


One of my favorite spots we visited was Venice, where we stayed in a hotel off the beaten path that had interesting artwork on the walls and a romantic arbor-covered restaurant in the back garden.

When we made spur-of-the-moment plans last week to take a weekend trip to Venice, I pulled out my worn Italy guidebook that I packed from the States and searched for that little hideaway. Of course, it was completely booked. It’s July in Venice. But through the magic of the internet, I found a reasonably priced apartment across the canal on the island of Giudecca, and we piled in our tiny rental car for another European road trip.

We told the boys we’d do all of the quintessential touristy things we could fit in a 24-hour tour, including taking in the art and architecture, a gondola ride, Venetian food and souvenir shops.


I had forgotten about the birds. I had no idea one of my boys’ lasting memories of Venice might just be playing with the pigeons.


As soon as we entered St. Mark’s Square, it wasn’t the breathtaking beauty of what Napoleon once called “the drawing room of Europe” that they boys noticed. It was the hundreds of pigeons and what seemed like almost as many Bangladeshi birdseed hawkers.

Half a dozen vendors accosted us, shoving bird food in the boys’ hands and roses in mine, and putting their palms out to Sarge for money. It probably cost Sarge 40 euro for us to walk across Piazza San Marco.

“We’re not spending money,” Sarge explained when I urged him to stop handing out coins. “We’re making memories.”

Those street hawkers loved us. The boys made it out of the pigeon frenzy alive, and I ended up with a dozen red roses.

I also had a chance to relive some nostalgic memories. We took that gondola ride with the kids, just like Sarge and I had done years before.


And the next morning, we found that hotel with the grapevine arbor. It wasn’t open to the public for breakfast, but we snapped a few photos anyway.

We picked up some souvenirs, a glass bracelet for me and fedoras for the boys. “W” talked me into letting him get a dog, at least one made of Murano glass. Thank goodness he didn’t pick a pigeon. Those things will give me nightmares.