What Would Casanova Do?

casanova

The characters in the Venetian version of Sex in the City circa 1753 would definitely have included Casanova as Mr. Big.  Like Mr. Big, Casanova had a big personality and an adventurous unpredictability that often resulted in dangerous liaisons both romantically and politically (he spent much of his life avoiding the clutches of the Venetian Inquisitors). Casanova acquired a station in life, studying law at the University of Padua, but wasn’t content with convention.  Like “Big” he had commitment issues that according to the Heath Ledger version of Casanova were finally resolved when he met his Carrie, a Venetian feminist author named Francesca Bruni.

So what did Casanova do so well to win love time after time?  Here are a few of his secrets for a Casanova inspired Valentine’s Day.

Plan a meal that appeals to the senses with amazing and enticing aromas and a variety of textures

Choose foods that the person likes but does not eat very often

Be attentive and grateful for the company at the table

Surprise her with a small, unusual gift at the end of the meal (silver and lace were some of Casanova’s favorites)

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Pizzichi – The Shortened Form of Lasagna

A shorter version of lasagna, pizzichi pasta has a slightly raised edge (pizzichi means pinched in Italian) and a penchant for the rustic mountain flavors of the Valtellina, a region in Northern Italy a mere yodel away from Switzerland.  Made with farro, an unhybridized ancestor of modern wheat, pizzichi pasta has nutty flavor that shies away from your typical red sauce. In the Alpine Valtellina white sauces overshadow reds and pastas are often paired with cabbage, chards or leeks and served with plenty of butter. Meet me at the ski chalet for a plate. A perfect wintertime comfort food with a glass of Nebbiolo.

Pizzichi di farro pasta

Saints, Sinners, Pilgrims and Kings

The gastronomic landscape of Italy has always been populated by saints, sinners, pilgrims and kings. Curated by casalinga, home-style cooking and the monasteries and abbeys of the Catholic Church, the foods of Italy did not distinguish among those who ate them. Whether you were a Medici princess or pilgrim on the Via Francigena the flavors of  Italy found their way to the table with traditional recipes that were passed down and held in trust through the generations.  The Church was both a source of spiritual and physical nourishment and monasteries and abbeys were places where saints, sinners, pilgrims and kings shared whatever was on the table.  

I have visited many monasteries and abbeys in Italy on a parallel journey of art, history, spirituality and food. Some abbeys have been commercially re-purposed like  Badia a Coltibuono, “the abbey of the good harvest”, a former 11th century Benedictine abbey now a wine estate, cooking school and mecca  for food enthusiasts  seeking  culinary inspiration.

 Others like Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore stay true to their heritage and rise up from the stark rolling landscape of  Tuscany’s Crete Senesi, (crete means clay in Italian) like a spiritual oasis in the desert.  A popular stop on the road to Siena, the Abbey’s Great Cloister (Chiostra Grande) has 36 frescos that line the inner courtyard.

The frescos depict the life of St. Benedict including Benedict giving CPR to a monk who has fallen off a wall and a self-portrait of one of the artists, with his pet badger.  

A monastery located on the road less traveled is the forest and mountain  sanctuary of    La Verna, Santuario San Francesco, the Sanctuary of St. Francis.  It is a place  rich in the beauty of nature and works of art.  The monastery is built on the edge of a mountain cliff (4160 ft) . Driving and then walking the long, winding road to La Verna  intensifies the beauty and spirituality of this place. The chapels, buildings and grounds of La Verna tend to envelope you in a mysticism that is palpable.  It was here that Francis received the Stigmata. I can remember visiting La Verna with my 2-year-old grandson. He and I were standing on the side of a long hallway in the monastery watching the friars walking along the corridor in procession. The monks, in their brown robes, were chanting and contemplative and my grandson was holding me tight because the whole setting was solemn and imposing. Then one of the friars, stepping out of line, came over to us and put his hand on my grandson’s head and with a big smile gave him a blessing. He was filled with wonder and immediately at ease. In the Refectory (dining room) a traditional lunch of ribollita, tagliatelle, meat and fish is served. The food of Francis and his brothers was simple and wholesome and the monastic practice of extending food and hospitality is an Italian tradition that is still followed today.

Abbazia Sant AntimoAbbazia Sant’ Antimo, in Tuscany’s stunningly beautiful Val d’ Orcia, has a monastic myth attached to it that will appeal to the wine lover.  I traveled there to see the site of a legend and to experience the spiritual clarity of the Abbazia where around the year 800 Emperor Charlemagne on his return to Rome made camp. His army was suffering from the plague and an angel advised him to collect a particular kind of grass and infuse it with Brunello wine (not bad medicine). The army was cured and Charlemagne built an abbey on the site dedicated to the martyred Saint Antimo. Only 9 km from the Brunellos of Montalcino you can easily see how myth becomes reality when you are surrounded by the vineyards of the region. The abbey stands in solitary splendor against the open fields where olive orchards go on for miles and Chianina cattle graze.  One of Italy’s most beautiful Romanesque churches,  Sant’Antimo is like a laser beam concentrating all the history and mysticism of centuries of saints, sinners, pilgrims and kings that have traveled through its doors and eaten of its fields.  

 

From  Seeing and Savoring Italy – A Taste and Travel Journey through Northern Italy, Tuscany and Umbria.

Extreme Italy

Shaun White snowboards there, Lance Armstrong had the Trek Madone custom-made for him so he could tour there and you too can experience the extreme side of Italy in almost every part of the peninsula. If you like adventure travel, you can walk on the wild side in Italy along the canals of Navigli, Milan’s chic club district or get physical hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, rock climbing, skiing, ballooning, snowboarding or sailing and wind surfing on Italy’s largest non Alpine lake, Lake Trasimeno. My Umbrian friends from Perugia grew up sailing the lake and say it’s the best. For a sense of history climb to the bluff above the lake to see where Hannibal’s rout of  two Roman legions  in 217 BC took place. Over 15,000 legionnaires died and it was said that the lake turned red with the blood of Roman soldiers.

Dude ranches in the Maremma, driving to the high cliffs of  the monastery at La Verna, caving the wells of Umbria, exploring the secret underground passages of Bologna, hang gliding in the Dolomites will satisfy your sense of adventure and challenge even the most extreme sports enthusiast. Did you know that Italy has some of the most extreme golfing in Europe? Although it has been described technically as moderate, the Molino del Pero Golf Club in the Emilia Romagna Apennines is situated on such a steep rise from the Savena Valley that the first few holes have been called “the stairway to Heaven”.  When I was there most golfers were carrying their own bags over the hilly, 18 hole course with its sloping fairways which I thought was pretty extreme. I on the other hand made my way to the clubhouse for a panino and a cold drink and will confine my need for speed to a drive through the streets of Maranello in my touring Ferrari, truffle hunting in San Giovanni d’ Asso and raiding an occasional Etruscan tomb (just kidding about the Etruscan tomb!).