Contrary to Popular Opinion . . . driving in Italy is not an extreme sport!

Although Italy has an excellent network of motorways (Autostrade), Americans generally find driving in Italy somewhat intimidating. They would rather be lulled into the complacency of a motorbus tour or buy a pass on the Eurostar. Both have their place and for some may be the best way to travel but don’t be overly concerned about driving in Italy.

Here are 5 things you must do before you drive in Italy

  1. Have a well-planned itinerary and thoroughly familiarize yourself with it before you go. Don’t be too ambitious. Pick a route and follow it and know where you’re going. This is no time to improvise. Calculate your daily driving distance and remember that although the distance between Castellina  in Chianti and Siena is only 10-12 miles (16.4km) because of the winding  roads (Via Chiantigiana Road Highway Strada Regionale SR222 / Strada Statale SS222) it may take at least a half hour to get  there.
  1. Have a GPS, a good road atlas and regional touring books. They are mandatory. I have driven  in Italy for over 14 years and although my Michelin Tourist and Motoring  Atlas and TCI maps are dog eared and falling apart I would not leave home without them. I’ve heard the shrill “recalculating” on my GPS too  many times to rely on only one set of directions.
  1. Understand that everyone gets lost in Italy, even Italians! So be prepared with some common Italian phrases and vocabulary to get help.  Sono perso (I am lost). Aiutami! (pronounced ay-yoo-tateh-mee) (Help me) and Ho bisogno di indicazioni (I need directions) and two more things semaforo is stoplight in Italian and girare is to turn ovest (west), est (east), sud (south) and nord (north).
  1. Rent a car before you go so that terms and arrangements for pick up will be in place before you leave and you will understand what you will be getting and ask for one that is small. There is a reason Italians drive small cars and it isn’t just because of the price of fuel. Think of where you will be driving and more importantly where you will be parking. For all practical purposes there is no parking in Italy. Your choice of car is pivotal to a pleasurable driving experience inItaly. I have driven a Fiat, Lancia, Peugeot, Opal, PT Cruiser and Jaguar in Italy. You want to have enough trunk space but you want the car to be small enough to  negotiate the narrow streets of the towns and villages you want to visit, make a quick exit off the autostrada, get out of a roundabout and get on or off the tangenziale/bypass (beltway around the city). All terms and arrangements for pick up will be in place before you leave and you will  understand what you will be getting.
  1. Understand how Italian’s drive. Italian’s are confident drivers who feel they know what needs to be done in order to get from one place to  another. They may follow too close (but then again they have a different  system of measurement than we do), they are opportunistic and want to fill  in the space between each car length (but then again their country is smaller than ours) and they drive faster than we do ((I call the left lane, the  passing lane on the Autostrada, the Ferrari lane). But they are not foolhardy and contrary to popular opinion they do obey travel signals. They are very courteous drivers on the Autostrada, using the passing lane only to pass.
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Alitalia – Runway Fashion

Volare, oh oh
Cantare, oh oh oh oh
Let’s fly way up to the clouds  . . . On the fashionable wings of Alitalia.

Airlines have always been an icon of fashion since the 1950’s when flying meant traveling in style. Being a flight attendant was a dream career. She guides you, she feeds you, she transports you in comfort and trend spotters reported on the what she worn as some of the world’s top designers made the airline uniform fashionable .

Flight Attendants always looked so glamorous,  a living, breathing billboard of the benefits and perks of flying on that particular airline. Over the years some of Italy’s most notable designers such as Giorgio Armani and Alberto Fabiani  helped create fashionista flight attendants for Alitalia. Their designs have so influenced popular culture that the Mattel corporation joined forces with the airlines to introduce a unique collection of Barbie dolls representing Alitalia flight attendants and pilots dressed in the airline’s historical uniforms. The dolls are dressed in exact replicas of the company’s uniforms, which have been created by Italy’s top designers from the fifties to today.

Click here for more style in the aisle aviation fashion and on the following  site link for a runway fashion show with archived flight attendant uniforms.

*a 2010 Survey by SkyScanner listed Alitalia number 5 in the Top Ten Most Stylish airline uniforms

 

A Travelogue of Flavor

Nothing can transport you to Italy quicker than opening a good bottle of Italian Extra Virgin Olive Oil. The aroma, flavor and taste reflect the character of the land. From the delicate, fruity oils of the Ligurian Riviera to the pungent, peppery oils of Tuscany to the soft buttery flavors of the Umbrian hills, the oils of the Italian peninsula are like a travelogue of flavor.
Click on the following link to see and savor the olive oils of Italy at  A_Taste_of_Cositutti_Olive_Oil_Tasting 2 [Autosaved]

Less than 30 years ago olive oil was relatively unheard of in the US. It was barely mentioned in the early editions of the Betty Crocker Cookbook and wasn’t looked at as an ingredient in cooking until 1973 when Marcella Hazan published her classic book on Italian cooking.

A Virtual Vendemmia

In Italy the grape harvest (la vendemmia) begins in the early to mid-Fall usually during September and October. Every region of Italy grows grapes and the cities, towns and villages across the country celebrate the harvest with grape festivals (sagre) making Autumn one of the best times and seasons to see and savor Italy.  I will not be in Italy this year until the end of October when my friends at Tenuta Vitanza near Montalcino in Tuscany tell me I will only be able to pick grape juice! Che peccato! My only vendemmiathis year will be virtual.

Here are a few favorite Italian grapes that are part of my virtual pick.

Albana: found in Emilia Romagna; Albana di Romagna a rich, sweet passito wine made from partly dried grapes (on the vine, in small boxes, on wooden grates, or indoors using air);I first had this wine after dinner at Trattoria La Romantica in Ferrara for an out-of-body wine experience

Barbera: the third most planted grape in Italy, popular because of its low tannins and high acidity making it a perfect pairing for tomato sauced pasta

Bonarda: classic grape grown in Piedmonte, Lombardia and Emilia Romagna; in the Oltrepò Pavese for Colli Piacentini DOCs and the killer Colli Piacentini Gutternio; Bonardo Oltrepo Pavese was our cousin Roberto’s favorite wine; deep. ruby-red purple, bright and cheerful, with an aroma of violets and a taste of blackberries, easy to drink

Dolcetto: another Piedmontese grape; dark, purple skinned; the everyday wine of the region

Nebbiolo: grows in the foggy mist of the Langhe region of Piedmonte (nebbia is the Italian word for fog) used in the making of two of the classic bold wines of Italy, Barolo and Barberesco, the king and queen of Italian wines; wines with age

Malavasia: grown in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region; the vine was introduced to the area by Venetian merchants who brought cuttings from Greece; my favorite is the sweet Arquatum-Passito di Malvasia that I have had at Ristorante Don Ferdinando in Castell’Arquato with my friend Rita

Sagrantino: the main red grape of Umbria used to make the most excellent DOCG Sagrantino di Montefalco; “la dolce vita” squared (to the highest degree); high regard for the wine of this grape begins with an afternoon spent in a wine bar in Umbria with my friends, Luca and Luigi over a bottle of Montefalco Sagrantino

Sangiovese: the iconic Italian grape used to make Chianti Classico; follow the Trail of the Black Rooster (Gallo Nero); found in Brunello, Morellino, Super Tuscans and Carmignano with wine memories made at Tenuta di Capezzana with the Contini-Bonacossi family

Trebbiano: grape used to make Vin Santo, the wine of the saints; grapes are held in baskets then strung together on cane stands where they are dried for several months in the vinsantaie( a large ventilated room) then fermented and matured for over 4 years in caratelli (small chestnut barrels)

Teroldego:grown primarily in the northeastern region of Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol, Italy; the Dolomites, the Ice man, Italian/German  food and  a wine called Tyrolean Gold; my wine memories of Teroldego  are aromatic, heady, wild flowers and juicy fruit from a glass with my family at the Hotel Alpino in the Val di Fiemme

Vernaccia: white grape used in a DOCG in San Gimignano, Tuscany

Fish Gelato

Learning the Italian language is a little like learning to ride a bike. It seems simple at first (after pizza and pasta, bella and baci, ciao and grazie what else do you need to know). It is a relatively easy language to read and speak because it is phonetically spoken, meaning that you sound out the letters speaking it the way it is written. And if you believe everything you read on the Internet Italian must be the easiest language to learn. Almost every Google search for learning Italian brings up the following

  • Easy Italian Learning
  • Learn Italian in 10 days
  • Learn Italian in 10 minutes
  • 10 Ways to Instantly Learn Italian

But like learning to ride a bike it does take time and a dedicated effort and if you lose your balance you’ll be sure to take a fall, like my friend did when he tried to order a cone of gelato in Italy.

The set up – When ordering gelato in Italy you will be presented with a staggering array of flavors and colors displayed like works of art. It is easy to become overwhelmed by the sheer number and variety of flavors with names like lampone (raspberry), limone (lemon), stracciatella (chocolate chip), gianduja (chocolate hazelnut) frutti di bosco (“fruits of the woods” –wild berries), mela (apple), pera (pear) and pesca (peach). And here is where my friend lost his balance. “Vorrei un cono  con  pesce gelato per favore (I should like a cone with FISH gelato). Of course he meant pesca (peach) gelato. The Italian word for peach (pesca) is very close to the Italian word for fish (pesce). He lost his balance over a word ending and everyone laughed in good fun.

Sagra Season

Although Italian street festivals (sagre) can be found throughout the year, the sagre of Fall are particularly exciting.  The brisk autumn air, the colors of the changing seasons and the passion of the local townspeople to showcase the bounty of their farms and fields makes for a rousing good time.

Always ready for a celebration, Italians gather in the countryside or the local piazza with several hundred like-minded party goers in the spirit of conviviality for a festa; a party or festival that celebrates or commemorates anything from the food and wine of the region to frogs, wild boar and pine nuts. A cross between a country fair, open air market and block party these festivals combine seasonal foods of the region, entertainment and traditional folklore that attracts all ages. The food is authentic, fresh and cooked with pride and passion – a perfect opportunity to see and savor Italy. Look for posters advertising local sagre along the roadside. They are great for families and a casual, inexpensive way to taste regional Italian food in the company of everyday Italians, learning about the history and culture of Italy.

An Italian Midnight Snack

A late night snack in Italy might be plate of spaghetti aglio e olio (spaghetti with oil and garlic) made with ingredient variations from the midnight kitchen. It’s basic, it’s quick and it’s loaded with somulating carbohydrates.

Aglio e olio is a traditional Italian casalinga (home style) pasta dish. Everyone knows how to make it. It’s very simple with three basic ingredients.

 

  • fresh garlic (thinly sliced but I prefer it roughly crushed) – aglio
  • extra virgin olive oil – olio
  • pasta – spaghetti

Some recipes add or infuse crushed red pepper (pepperoncino) or chili flakes into the oil. Some recipes add anchovies or olives pressing them with the back of a spoon to break them up then cooking over a low flame until the ingredients are melted before tossing them with the hot, moist spaghetti in a large frying pan. My father-in-law would make this dish with just garlic and oil, adding some browned walnuts and breadcrumbs at the end and called it Baker’s Spaghetti.

Pasta di Mezzanotte (Midnight Pasta) is a popular pasta dish in Italy and a satisfying meal after a night on the town. There’s even a book called Spaghetti di Mezzanotte by Claudio Nobbio with witty pasta recipes for a romantic garlic lovers dinner at midnight.