A Quattrocento Wall Calendar

I’m beginning to rely on my Smart Phone calendar at the expense, pleasure and visual appeal of my calendar on the wall. Every December I looked forward to buying a calendar for the New Year, displaying it like a work of art, shopping for an interesting theme customized to my taste. One year it was Welsh Corgis, another tropical beaches, wolves, 365 days in Italy and the list goes on. You can probably find a wall calendar designed to suit everyone on the planet. A recent Bing search turned up 141,000,000 results. Last year I didn’t bother to buy a calendar and now I realize how much I miss turning the pages month by month. I need to replace the digital and repost the material version of my life day by day and take a clue from the Renaissance.

Month of March

The fresco artists of Italy’s quattrocento were masters at interpreting the months of the year and often used their art to bring attention to the passage of time and its implications. Fresco cycles with symbols and designs that represent the astrological horoscope and seasons can be found in the salons and halls of Italy’s most renown palazzi and villas.  Many 15th century fresco artists interpreted the months of the year with such stunning results that their work is among the great art of the western world.

One of my favorites is in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Painted by Francesco del Cossa and Cosimo Tura, the frescoes line the walls of the Salone dei Mese (Room of Months) in the main hall. Designed for the Estense Court of Ferrara as a retreat for pleasure and diversions (schiafonia is thought to originate from the word schivar la noia meaning “escape from boredom”) Palazzo Schifanoia is a hidden jewel on a side street of Ferrara. With a rather plain and unassuming façade, the elegant marble entry with the Estense coat of arms may be the only sign that you are about to enter into a pleasure palace filled with rare beauty and  earthly delights. The allegorical frescoes of the Ciclo de Mesi (cycle of months) are considered to be one of the greatest examples of humanistic astrological Italian art making it the most glorious wall calendar I ever saw.

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Pumpkin, Pici and Pecorino

Fall is just around the corner in all its culinary glory. I think that autumn is one of the best seasons to embrace your inner Italian and follow the Italian style of cooking with seasonal ingredients that pop with flavor.  With cooler temperatures and rainy weather the hills of northern and central Italy are alive with porcini mushrooms and soon the scent of truffles and roasted chestnuts (castagne) will fill the air.

One of my favorite fall pairings is pumpkin, pici pasta and pecorino cheese.  Italian pumpkins (zucca) tend to be smaller and meatier so when making this dish save the jack o’ lantern size variety for Halloween. Pici is a thick, chewy, hand rolled Tuscan pasta. Similar to a fat spaghetti there are several regional variations known as stringozzi or ciriole (Umbria), or bigoli (Venice). Pici is eaten with a variety of sauces including ragu’ (meat sauce) and boscaiola (woodsman) sauce made with porcini mushrooms. The following recipe is for a rich rustic sauce made with pumpkin, pancetta (bacon), onions and cream that goes well with the toothsome pici and screams Autumn.

Zucca di Sugo (Pumpkin Sauce)

  • 1 small pumpkin (peeled with seeds removed) cut into pieces about 1 x 1 inch to make 2 cups
  • 6 strips of bacon (chopped) or pancetta
  • 1 small onion (chopped)
  • 3 T unsalted butter
  • 1 T extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 glass of cream or half and half
  • pinch of nutmeg
  • 2 small leaves of fresh sage coarsely chopped
  • grated  aged pecorino toscano cheese

Saute the onion in the olive oil and butter in a large frying pan, add pumpkin pieces and slowly cook over medium-high heat until the pumpkin is golden on all sides.  The pumpkin is done when it can be easily pierced with a knife. Fry the bacon and sage in a separate pan until  bacon is slightly crisp, drain and combine bacon with pumpkin and onion mixture. Add a pinch of salt, pepper and nutmeg and cook together for another 10-15 minutes so that flavors blend and pumpkin begins to cook down. Then add cream. At this point you can slightly puree sauce with a hand-held blender but do not over process.  Return sauce to the pan. Drain and add prepared pici to pan reserving some of the hot pasta water to add to the sauce should it become too thick. Sprinkle with grated pecorino cheese.

A Square that Turns into a Shell and A Pig as a Symbol of Good Government

In the central valley region of Italy known as Tuscany there is a medieval town called Siena set within a landscape of the burnt sienna of a Renaissance artist’s paint brush. The colors of Sienese landscape are as rich and deep as the traditions and history of its people. Mario Batali once said that “nothing can prepare you for the breathtaking beauty of the main piazza in Siena – nothing” and I definitely agree with him. However it can also be said that nothing can prepare you for the number of tourists that are milling around the main piazza (Il Campo) of Siena. Overlook it! Siena has become a brightly shinning blip on the tourist radar and like many of Italy’s more popular towns and cities can be a little overwhelming at first glance. Don’t let this keep you from discovering the medieval charm and delicious cuisine of Siena.

In Siena you can discover the Piazza del Campo (Il Campo), one of the most unique places in the world, where a square turns into a big concave shell. The paving is made of red bricks arranged in fishbone style, divided into a sunburst pattern by nine strips of travertine (in memory of the Government of the Nine, who ruled over the city from 1292 to 1355). And to remind the citizens of Siena about the benefits of a good government and the risks associated with one that is bad, there is a  fresco (dal 1339) by Ambrogio Lorenzetti painted in the Sala dei Nove (Salon of Nine or Council Room) in the Palazzo Publico (Town Hall), an allegory, on the effects of Good and Bad Government. Scenes from the city of good government depict the virtues of Peace, Fortitude, Prudence, Magnanimity, Temperance , Charity, Faith, Hope, Justice, Security and a landscape of plenty including a series of dancing citizens and activities relating to farming  and animal husbandry. There is a Cinta Senese pig being lead into town, a symbol of the goodness of the land. In the contra fresco, the virtues have been replaced with Fear, Cruelty, Treason, Fraud, Fury,Tyrany, Pride, Vainglory, Avarice, Division and War. The village is deserted and uncultivated, houses are on fire and the pig is missing.

The plentiful abundance of Siena includes some of my favorite regional Italian food and wine. You must try the pappardelle col sugo di lepre (hare), ribollita (hearty vegetable and bread soup), pici (thick, chewy spaghetti), crostini di fegato (toast with chicken liver spread) Chianti Colli Senesi, Brunello di Montalcino and Vin Santo wines and Sienese sweets like panforte (a chewy fruitcake like confection) and ricciarelli (an almond paste cookie). Of course don’t forget to try the pork.

Sunday’s Cookie

In Italian biscotti means cookie. Not just the long, hard, twice baked cookie with the curved top and flat bottom that most of us associate with the word but any cookie in general. The bis – cotti ( ‘bis’ meaning twice in Italian and ‘cotto’ meaning baked or cooked) that we’re most familiar with does exist in Italy with a long standing gastrohistory and a regional version known as cantucci.

The Renaissance bakers of Prato and Florence in Tuscany took the twice baked sustainable bread found in the kit of every Roman Legionnaire, (Pliny the Elder boasted that “such goods would be edible for centuries”) and elevated it to a culinary delight. Now the rather dry, pallid staple of nourishment for Roman soldiers and ancient travelers has become so popular that there are variations and permutations made all over the world. But the best interpretation is still found in Prato where Antonio Mattei, started making the now famous Biscotti di Prato dal 1858 known locally as cantucci.

Originally made only on Sundays, Biscottificio Antonio Mattei on Via Ricasoli, 20 transformed the making of biscotti into an art. Baked with all natural ingredients according to old world traditions, the biscotti of Prato have become a food ritual that continues today under the tutelage of Ernesto Pandolfini, a natural evolution with new flavor combinations like Pine Nut, Raisin and Chili Biscotti and Chocolate Pistachio Olive Oil  Biscotti. If you want to serve a stellar Italian desert cookie, buy these. If you want to give an exceptional gift of taste, buy these. If you want to gift yourself a unique taste of Italy, buy these.

And like any cantucci a glass of Vin Santo for sipping and dipping would complete the experience.

My Italian Amuse – Bouche

In Italy, my aperitivo hour began with a Campari Orange (Campari and Orange juice), also known as the Garibaldi and a plate of fried green olives Ascolana-style, a sort of Italian style amuse-bouche. Other amusements soon followed: grilled red peppers and zucchini,  bruschetta pomodoro, pizette, mozzarella in carrozza (literally, “mozzarella in a carriage”) and plates of affettati misti (a selection of sliced cured meats).

Antipasti

I could not be happier and my mouth more entertained.  Culinarily speaking an amuse-bouche differs from an appetizer or an antipasto. Although all are served before a meal an amuse-bouche is not ordered from a menu but when served, is traditionally done so for free and according to the chef’s selection.

Designed to amuse the diner and showcase the artistry of the chef, these bite-sized hors d’œuvres are meant to “gratify the mouth” and entertain as you await your meal. Bar Italiano accompaniments,  a complimentary mini-buffet of antipasti served at every aperitivo bar in Italy are the Italian version of the amuse-bouche. More substantial and varied they are part of the Italian ” happy hour”. I use the term “happy hour” loosely because in Italy the aperitivo hour is not the stereotypical “cocktail hour” filled with Tom Cruise flair .

An Italian tradition the aperitivo hour is an after work ritual that offers a moment of relaxation at the end of a day where you go for a pre-dinner drink to relax, nibble and nip and socialize with your friends. It’s a pretty great way to see and savor Italy.

The Best Place to Eat in Italy

I’ve often been asked where may favorite place to eat in Italy is and although I’ve listed several in my book I always reply with the following –

  • The best place to eat in Italy is at the home of la tua famiglia  (the home of your family)
  • The second best place to eat in Italy is at the home of i tuoi amici (the home of your friends)
  • The third best place to eat in Italy is at “un ristorante” (chosen by your family and friends)

I say this because eating in this manner represents an authentic Italian experience around the table. Your Italian family and friends want only to serve you the best and are the most generous of hosts. When accompanied by Italians in a restaurant, the proprietor is most eager to please because you are with Italians and are considered to be one of them. Just eating in Italy is an experience you will long remember, eating in this manner touches your very soul.

At the table – Ristorante La Lepre – Valeggio sul Mincio

Being connected with in-country advice from our Italian family and friends and il consiglio lo chef  (the advice of the chef) is a definite perk but you don’t need to feel like an outsider or accept the standard tourist fare when traveling in Italy. With a little pre-trip planning and the culinary backstory about what to eat, every meal in Italy will be Buon Appetito! After all there is no better place to eat, drink and make memories than in Italy.

Begin by learning the fundamentals of Italian food. There are a number of books,magazines and web sites including a series on food and wine from the Italian Trade Commission that I have used over the years. It’s important to understand the Italian esthetic for food and their respect for the ingredients and preparation to understand the specialties of the menu. Speaking of il menu. Brush up on your Italian and know some basic phrases on ordering and making a reservation. There are several Italian language survival sites on the internet but you can’t always rely on rote phrase book sayings. Spend some time learning elementary Italian vocabulary and grammar.  Look for recommendations from fellow travels and trusted sources on restaurants (ristorante, trattorie,osterie, rosticcerie, tavolo caldo, tavalo freddo, locande – do you know the difference?). Although it has been said that you can’t have a bad meal in Italy, I’m not sure that’s completely true. As a tourist you are at risk of being misled to a lesser dining experience because most tourists have little appreciation for looking beyond the bus to discover Italy. Be a traveler not a tourist and approach your trip with the intention of pairing the flavors of Italy with the sights as one compliments the other. Then sit back and enjoy the flavors of Italy in a landscape perfectly constructed to eat, drink and make memories.

Here are a few common Italian food phrases

  • Can I order?-Posso ordinare?
  • Can I order a drink?-Posso ordinare da bere?
  • Can I see the menu? – Posso vedere il menu? or  The menu, please-Il menu, per favore.
  • Can we have the bill?-Possiamo avere il conto?
  • Is there a table free?-C’è un tavolo libero? or Ha un tavolo libero per _____ persone?
  • I should like a bottle of water (mineral water/carbonated or natural/without gas). –Vorrei una bottiglia d’aqua minerale or naturale (senza gas).
  • Do you have a house red wine(tipical of the region)?-Ha un vino rosso della casa (tipico di regione locale)?
  • Pieno –Full
  • Basta –Enough
  • I’ll have –Prendo
  • When finished ordering –e’tutto
  • When waiter removes the plate he might say –Posso (meaning I can  . . . )
  • I should like to pay. – Vorrei pagare.
  • I should like to make a reservation for this evening at 8 o’clock. –Vorrei fare una prenotazione per stasera alle otto.

Between a Bottle of Lambrusco and a Dish of Tortelli

According to the story that’s how Italian bicycle manufacturer Abici was born. In 2006 Italian entrepreneurs Giuseppe Marcheselli, Stefano Stelleti and Cristiano Gozzi had a vision to combine technology and design to create a bicycle that was a perfect blend of “yesterday and tomorrow”.

Based on a style they found in a 1950’s catalog the group combined the classic Italian bicicletta with high tech details (aluminum, carbon fiber and titanium) and a vintage aesthetic. The result is a bike with a retro design that causes heads to turn and people to ask “what bike are you wearing?” Designed in the classic car colors of the 1950’s Abici bikes are handmade in Italy with artisanal attention.  The Grandturismo Donna is especially appealing to me.  With a Brooks leather saddle that softens and molds to your body, it is a city riders dream.  An expression of urban chic, it makes for a comfortable, confident ride from café’ to club with a stop at your favorite trattorie for a bottle of lambrusco and a dish of tortelli. After all who knows what amazing ideas you’ll come up with between courses?

*The urban cycling culture of Italian cities like Ferrara have no-drive zones resulting in a high rate of bike usage. Known as the City of Bicycles, nearly 80% of the bicycles ridden in Ferrara, as in most Italian towns and villages, are vintage.  Cycling itineraries in the surrounding area are a great way to see and savor the landscape and history of the Po Valley region  with cycling routes where cars are not allowed along most of the route. The vast Padano Plains of this region of Emilia Romagna create a flat cycle friendly landscape suitable for both adults and children