In the Middle of a Light Show in Italy

It was another magical evening in Italy. Sitting under the vine covered pergola we watched the flames from the wood fired brick oven lick the surface of our bistecca fiorentina until it had become charred and brown.  The scent of lavender and rosemary lingered in the air and as the sun set, the leaves of the olive trees glistened like silver. Framed in the door way of our casa colonica was a well- worn farmstead table with a plate of crostini and the obligatory bottle of vino rosso.  And then it happened, out in the distance as if competing with the lights from the Tuscan hill towns in the valley below, flickering dots of white appeared in the sky. Like hundreds of miniature Italian “fairy” lights on a Christmas tree they began to pattern the sky.  We were right in the middle of a light show courtesy of Luciola italica, the Italian glow fly.

With over 2,000 different varieties in the temperate and tropical regions of the world, glow flies (often called lightening bugs or fire flies in the States) can be found in gardens and naturalized areas from June through early summer.  The ability to generate their LED-like glow is reminiscent of an alchemic reaction that occurs in the insect’s abdomen.  Luciferin, a biological pigment activated by the enzyme luciferase, is fueled by oxygen and voilà, bioluminescence.  Both the male and female are capable of producing this effortless glow primarily to lure prey, discourage predators and most importantly to attract a mate on those dreamy midsummer nights. The glow fly can only survive in extremely balanced ecosystems, where it can find its preferred food, the garden snail. Together they are part of a balanced ecosystem and your gardening ally. The presence of glow flies illuminating your Italian garden is an indication that your garden is healthy and well-adjusted and living “la dolce vita”.

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Italian Apps

Travel or bring Italy home with phone apps that ooze “la dolce vita”. From ways to expand your Italian vocabulary with mobile flashcards to i Carmina, a web application that displays a different classical poem every day (in English and Italian), you’re just a browser away from total Italian immersion. 

Extensive data bases, navigation capabilities and advanced graphics make today’s upgraded phone apps insanely popular.  Here is a list of a few to further your Italian Education.

Traveling overseas? Look for self-contained apps and be sure to check with your provider to find out how to avoid enormous roaming charges when you get back from your trip

AccelaStudy uses a flashcard-like approach and audio pronunciations to familiarize you with over 2,100 Italian words in more than 60 subject areas. You can test yourself in English or Italian and save your progress between study sessions

Italia Oggi for Italy’s daily news

Tour 4D Milan , the city’s most significant landmarks viewed at different angles for a 3D view of the city

MuoviMi connects you to Milan’s public transportation system with time tables, Metro and tram lines

Florence in My Heart, one of several different audio guides to some of Italy’s most traveled cities

Rick’s iPhone App, Rick Steves’ personal interactive, multimedia guides with commentary and suggested restaurants, hotels and WC along the way

A Medieval Pig

It’s almost summer and that means a day at the grill. Italians love to cook over an open flame. Wood fired pizza, the infamous Tuscan T-bone (bistecca alla fiorentina) and one of Italy’s all-time favorite dishes arrosto di porchetta allo spiedo (spit roasted suckling pig).   Pork based Italian dishes have been part of the culinary history of Italy since the time of the Etruscans. Pigs and their rogue cousins, the wild boar (cinghiale ), have been made into salame, salumi (the most famous being prosciutto) and sausages for centuries.  Italian sagras (street fairs) often feature spit roasted pork and traditionally every Italian family in Parma kept a pig that was butchered in the late fall for feasting and celebration. The Italian pig has inspired many cookbooks including Daniela Garavini’s book Pigs and Pork: 90 Recipes from Italy’s Most Celebrated Chefs and many regional specialties including Lardo di Colonnata, an artisanal delicacy made from a layer of fat from the back of the Cinta Senese pigs native to Tuscany.

But the lowly pig was to achieve elevated status during the Middle Ages and Renaissance at the banquet tables and boardrooms of some of Italy’s most powerful families. Cinta pigs, raised in and around Siena as early as the 14thcentury, are depicted in a famous fresco by Ambrogio Lorenzetti (1338) in Siena’s Palazzo Comunale (town hall). Titled L’Allegoria del Buon Governo a Cinta pig is led into a town that prospers under a good and wise government.  In the contra fresco il Cattivo Governo (the bad government), the pigs are missing. And at the medieval banquet table the pig was rubbed with aromatic spices and herbs and anointed with wine.

Here is a recipe right up my grill, a regional preparation from the town of Arezzo, located in the middle of four valleys in southeastern Tuscany. One of my favorite Seeing and Savoring Italy sites, the locality and customs of cooking make it an evocative setting for sapori della Toscana, the flavors of Tuscany. The recipe is a grill friendly version of the traditional spit roasted whole suckling pig and uses the holy trinity of medieval spices (cloves, nutmeg, coriander and black pepper). Basting the pork with red wine as it grills prevents the meat from drying out and “imbues it with a subtly sweet flavor”.

 Divertiti

 

Porchetta con Spezie Medievali

(Garlic Studded Pork Loin with Medieval Spices adapted from The Italian Grill cookbook by Micol Negrin)

6 garlic cloves, peeled

1 ½ t coarsely ground sea salt

¾ t coarsely ground red and black peppercorns

1/8 t ground cloves

1/8 t ground coriander

1/8 t freshly ground nutmeg

2 fresh rosemary sprigs (leaves only) + a bundle of fresh rosemary sprigs for basting

3 pound boneless pork loin (with a layer of fat on top)

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

1 cup red wine typical of Tuscany

 

Using a mini food processor or a mortar and pestle crush garlic with ½ t salt, ¼ t peppercorns, nutmeg, cloves, coriander and rosemary leaves until a paste forms.  Using a sharp paring knife, strategically make a series of tiny slits into the top portion of the pork loin (6-8 in total). Using your fingers, press a small amount of the spice mixture into the slits. Rub the outside of the loin with olive oil, season with salt and pepper and the remaining spice mixture.

Heat the grill to a medium flame. Grill pork loin until that outside is browned and cooked all the way through to an internal meat temperature of 175 degrees.  While grilling baste the meat with the bundle of fresh rosemary dipped in the red wine, anointing the pork every 10-15 minutes. Remove the pork to a cutting board and cover with aluminum foil to rest for 10 minutes. Slice on the diagonal.

Serves 4-6

 

What Do Giorgio Armani and I Have in Common?

What do Giorgio Armani and I have in common? In a word the color gray.  Armani’s 2011 Autumn/Winter menswear collection, decidedly shaded gray this year, was praised by the New York Times as nothing short of “illuminating”. The designer explained his choice of gray saying “Gray, because it goes with everything and you can add to it”.  Essattamente Giorgio. I couldn’t agree with you more.

 I love gray. I live in a gray house, I drive a gray car. My couch is a shade of gray and my favorite cardigan sweater is gray. Some people aspire to planting a white garden. Mine is a variation on gray with Artemisia and sage. I got excited when I saw a web site for gray weddings. At first I thought it had to do with marriage at a certain age but happily discovered it applied to anyone who loved gray. You can plan your gray wedding with gray invitations and wedding favors, a gray tablescape (accented with silver), gray flowers and a cutaway oxford gray morning coat for the groom. There’s even a gorgeous gray wedding dress by Vera Wang that just might convince the bride to forego white.  Italians have always liked gray from the blue-gray marble of Carrara, highly valued by Renaissance sculptures including Michelangelo to the crisp, clean taste of a Pinot Grigio, the most popular imported varietal in the United States (Pinot Grigio takes its name from the bluish-gray (grigio means gray in Italian) color of the fruit. Now if I could just get use to those gray streaks in my hair.

Eat a Piece of History

According to Federico Fellini, life is a combination of magic and pasta and surely no pasta is more magical than croxetti. Thin sheets of pasta dough are pressed between engraved wooden moulds to create disc shaped coins with fanciful images. In medieval times the images were taken from the coat of arms of noble Ligurian families, hand stamped into the pasta and displayed for status and wealth at the dinner table. Other images included flowers, fruits and intricate designs that reflect the maker’s mark. Traditionally croxetti were stamped with the Christian cross (croxetti) giving this ancient craft cut pasta its name.

These pasta coins go well with lighter sauces made with fresh herbs, olive oil and butter or pesto to showcase the designs on the thin discs. One of my favorite ways to prepare croxetti is sugo bianco, in a white sauce made with butter, garlic, extra virgin olive oil, pine nuts and Parmigiano cheese. I am suggesting ingredient sources for this recipe because the quality of ingredients does make a difference in the final product. Serve this recipe as Italians would do, a first course (primi) a wonderful and unique beginning to an exceptional meal for your family or friends.

Croxetti con Sugo Bianco

1 package of  La Bella Angiolina  Croxetti Pasta

4 T unsalted butter

½ – 1 cup pignoli (pine nuts)

2 cloves of peeled and roughly chopped fresh garlic

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/4 cup whole milk

¼ cup grated fresh Parmigiano Reggiano cheese

1 T chopped marjoram

Salt and pepper

Boil the pasta according to package directions. When draining pasta retain some of the boiled pasta water. In a blender combine pine nuts, garlic and oil until smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Melt butter in a small saucepan with marjoram. Gradually add the melted butter to mixture in blender. Add some of the retained pasta water to loosen the sauce if necessary. Pour drained pasta on to serving platter and lightly dress with sauce.

Note: You may have more sauce than needed. Do not over sauce the pasta. Pasta should not be swimming in the sauce but each pasta coin lightly coated. Serves 4 persons as a primi course.

Travel Outside the Box

    I’m always trying to think of a way to describe what it’s like when I return from a trip to Italy. Invariably I end up with wide-eyed stares and mouths open in disbelief. At first I’m not sure if this is good or bad but as my journey continues and I talk about my experiences the most frequent comment I end up getting is AMAZING.  I always get to spend time with people who are passionate about Italian food and culture and I’m fortunate to spend time with them eating and cooking some fabulous food. I’ve traveled to small towns and villages and some hidden places that are typically off the tourist radar for most Americans. And my Italian family and friends make sure that I see Italy through their eyes to experience the heart and soul of the Italian people.  So I guess that in some ways you can describe my travels in Italy as somewhat unconventional, what I call “traveling outside of the box”. And what I’ve learned is that there is a different way of traveling in Italy, a way that is more than just a “show and tell” tour that results in some unique and memorable travel experiences.

People often ask me how to see and savor Italy. Begin by looking for sites that pair food with the history and culture of a region, an evocative site where you can imagine the history of the food being prepared and eaten. For example if one of your favorite Italian foods is pasta with Bolognese sauce, plan on visiting Emilia Romagna to eat tagliatelli alla Bolognese under the porticos of Bologna. Incorporate the experience of eating into the experience of traveling. Let food become more than a necessity. Let it become part of the experience and not just an afterthought.  Most travelers don’t think of pairing food and travel in quite this way.  We eat on the run at home and end up doing the same thing when we travel. We don’t think about making our travel experience more meaning through the food we eat. Yet unique and exceptional experiences are everywhere when taste traveling in Italy. There should be no excuse to come back from a trip to Italy without boasting about the most wonderful food you ate, wine you drank and what you saw.

So begin to re-think your travels in Italy. If you’re not sure how to do this call us or better yet plan on coming along on a Seeing and Savoring Italy Small Group Tour.  Tour itineraries are based on my book  and are scheduled periodically throughout the year.

Why I Write About Italy

Some of you ask why I write about Italy. There are many reasons but it all begins with a family picture.  This is a picture of our Italian family with their friends taken in 1919 in the countryside near Vicenza.Someone drew arrows on the picture pointing to our relatives including Gino, the one with the big hair! To me it represents the idyllic Italian lifestyle and the pleasures of “villegiatura”, leaving the life of the city for a villa in the countryside.  Even though my Italian family was not traveling to their villa along the Brenta Canal, they still enjoyed picnics in the countryside and each other.

Traveling in Italy and staying with our Italian family and friends has led me to believe that they seem to know how to balance work and relaxation. They travel through the work day with a mid-day break, surrounding themselves with beauty and art in their homes and businesses, eating fresh and vibrant food at meals.  Italians exist with fewer clothes, simpler food, smaller houses, apartments and cars. They eat less, weigh less, buy less but better quality. They travel more and enjoy their friends and family more.

I want to imitate this but can I. Can Italy be duplicated?  Unfortunately no! Italy is unique with a historical landscape that colors all that has come before and will come after.  But for those of us who have visited this remarkable land, we yearn to bring a part of Italy home and I am no different.