Alpha Italy

bestofitalyThere are some things in Italy that are over the top, the star of the group, the best investment, the cherry on the sundae, the most dominant person, place or thing you can see in Italy. I get asked ‘What is your favorite thing to do in Italy?” all the time and I tend to want to say everything because for the most part it’s true. Italy is the gastronomic epicenter of the world and 60% of the world’s most important works of art are in Italy with almost half of those in the city of Florence. Traveling in Italy will take you down Roman roads, past castles with Celtic altars and Etruscan ruins, through medieval walled cities and alpine lakes, visiting Renaissance chapels and Gothic cathedrals into family trattorie, vineyards and orchards to experience the food of Popes, princes, pilgrims and kings and wanting more.

It’s hard not to have the best time seeing and savoring Italy but it can happen. Many Americans have a narrowly defined, commercialized view of the people, places and food of Italy and pre-packaged tours often result in a show and tell version that can be less satisfying. If you’re planning a trip to Italy, take some time to “get off the bus”. There should be no excuse to come back from a trip to Italy boasting about the most wonderful food you ate, wine you drank and what you saw.

Here are some of our favorite alpha experiences traveling in Northern Italy, Tuscany and Umbria. Some are on and some are off the tourist flow. They are in no particular order and are just the beginning of your tour of a land perfectly constructed for the enjoyment of man. Where even after 15+ years and 15,000+ miles seeing and savoring Italy makes me come back for more.

Driving le strade dei vini  e sapori, the wine and food routes of Italy

Seeing 1800 statutes up on the roof of the Milan Duomo and the baptismal pools of the paleo-Christian archeological site hidden below

Stopping at an aperitivo bar in Milan for a struzzichini (nibble) and Campari and Soda

The Obika Mozzarella bar in La Rinascente  and window shopping on Via Monte Napoleone in Milan

An afternoon spent at Castello Sforza in Milan

The luminous crystal roof of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan centro

The Navigli canal district of Milan

Michelangelo Caprese

A dinner of costoletta alla Milanese and an authentic Milanese risotto

A plate of Milanese Osso bucco

An authentic Margherita pizza

Eating panforte in Siena

Panoramic landscape of The Chapel of the Madonna di Vitaleta near San Quirico d’Orcia in Tuscany

A bowl of Tuscan ribollita

A panzanella salad

A summer afternoon spent at the lake side resort town of Sirmione near Lake Garda stopping at every gelateria

Walking the promenade of Bellagio

Eating lavarello, a type of whitefish, on the shores of Lake Como

Off the tourist radar to see the Roman ruins of Veleia near Castell’d’Arquato near Parma

Tuscan crostini di fegato and fettunta

A panzerroti, a pocket of soft billowy dough that tastes like a closed pizza, down the street from Milan’s Duomo at Luini’s panificio

Milan’s Ambrosiana gallery and library to see Caravaggio’s Basket of Fruit and Leonardo’s Codex Atlanticus

Leonardo’s Last Supper in the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria della Grazie, Milan

A taste of gelato at any Riva Reno Gelateria or Gelateria di Piazza in San Gimignano

The funicular to Bergamo Alta, (the upper part of the city), the capital of polenta for a taste of polenta e osei, tiny little bird cakes gilded a yellow gold to imitate polenta and stuffed with almond paste and chocolate mousse

A stay at Le Ginestre , a two-storied Tuscan farmhouse, on the grounds of Castello Bibbione, Machiavelli’s Hunting Lodge, San Casciano in Val di Pesa near Florence

The dramatic Camera degli Sposi  in Palazzo Ducale, Mantua, one of 500 rooms of Renaissance glory in the renowned court of the Gonzaga

The Great Fresco Cycle of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua

Eating a bistecca alla fiorentina (Tuscan T-bone) in the Val d’ Chiana

Radda in Chianti to visit the Chianti Cashmere Goat Company

A stay at the Hotel Tiferno in Citta’ di Castello in Umbria

Driving a Ferrari through the streets of Maranello

The Eugubine Tablets in Gubbio

Baci and chocolate at the Perugina Chocolate Factory in Perugia

Fidenza Village Outlet Shopping Center near Parma

Siena’s Campo and Lorenzetti’s allegorical frescoes of Good and Bad Government in Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico

Eating a plate of cappellacci  di zucca (big hat pasta) with a butter and sage sauce in Ferrara

Assisi

The Franciscan Santuario of La Verna

A glass of Montefalco Sagrantino

The hot springs of Bagno Vignoni

The fish market of Treviso

A drive through Tuscany’s Chocolate Valley

Eating Tagliatelle al ragù Bolognese near Bologna

Tasting authentic Parmigiano Reggiano in Parma

The aroma of the grass, herbs and wildflowers of Italy

An insalata caprese made with authentic mozzarella di bufala, from Campania

The Luigi Fantini Celtic-Etruscan Archeological Museum near Monterenzio in the Bolognese Hills

The tri-lingual experience of the Northern Italian Trentino-Alto Adige (Sud-Tirol) and the towns and villages of the Dolomiti drinking Bozen beer, eating the local food  at Hopfen and Company  and seeing the Ice Man in Bolzano

The chimneys and Leaning Tower of Portogruaro near Venice

The seaside resort town of Carole on the northern Adriatic coast with beautiful winding streets, colorful houses and dinner at La Ritrovata Ristorante

La Rotonda; the Palladian Villas and the whimsical Villa of the Dwarfs along the Brenta Canal near Vicenza

A picnic lunch along Lake Trasimeno driving from Tuscany to Umbria

The medieval town of Castell Arquato near Parma with dinner at at Ristorante Don Ferdinando and the night at Hotel Leon d’Oro

A visit to a caseficio (cheese factory/dairy) to see the art of Italian cheese making

The Charlemagne Castello di Gropparello and “Parco delle Fiabe” for the fairies and elves of Vezzeno Gorge and the  Leggenda of the Ghost of Rosania Fulgosio

Driving through the Val d’Orcia in Tuscany

The city of Pienza for pecorino cheese and a visit to Palazzo Piccolomini

The hot springs at Terme Antica Querciolaia near the town of Rapolano Terme in Tuscany

A tasting of artisan crafted Italian beer at Birra Toccalmato near Parma

Stay at the Prisciana Suites in Ferrara and dinner at La Romantica with a visit to Castello Estense and Palazzo Schifanoia,

Museo di Tartufo in San Giovanni d’Asso for an addictive truffle experience

Abazzia Sant’Antimo only 9 km away from the Brunellos of Montalcino

Gregorian chants and the Great Cloister at Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore near Siena  

Driving the iconic landscape of Tuscany’s Crete Senesi

The authentic Northern Italian river town of Bassano del Grappa,  to drink grappa, eat white asparagus and walk across the Ponte degli Alpini (Bridge of the Alpini), a covered bridge designed by Palladio that commemorates fallen soldiers from WWII

A stay at the Lodole Country House in the Bolognese Hills near Monzuno

A visit to Tenuta di Capezzana for estate bottle extra virgin olive oil, world renown Vin Santo and Tuscan wine

Verona; the Arena, Casa Giulietta and dinner at La Greppia

The wines and cellars of Tenuta Vitanza Montalcino in Tuscany

A stop at the town of Valeggio sul Mincio with lunch or dinner at Ristorante Lepre, a Buon Ricordo member restaurant to eat papparadelle con lepre (papparadelle with hare) and a plate of tortelloni

Anything in Florence including Santa Maria del Fiore, the Baptistery, Giotto’s Tower, the Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens and the view  at sunset from Piazza Michelangelo

The Medici Chapels and Church of San Lorenzo in Florence

An incensual slice of Lardo di Colonnata over warm toasted bread

A taste of coppa ferrarese bread

An order of Olive all’Ascolana, stuffed olives ascolana style a specialty of the Marche

The mosaics of Ravenna and the starry blue ceiling of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia

UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Titian’s altarpiece masterpiece in Venice’s Franciscan Basilica of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari

A stop at a cicchetti bar in Venice for a nibble and nip

A Venetian sgroppino, a refreshing prosecco lemon sorbet combination served in a flute

Venice period

 

 

 

 

Italy’s Citta del Miele – A Honey of a Trip

bees“I didn’t feel the fatigue of the day anymore. It  made me joyous to be an apiarist.” Mario Bianco, an impassioned beekeeper who lives in the  foothills of the Alps

Don’t forget to sweeten your Italian journey by exploring Italy’s citta del miele (cities of honey).  46 cities and three mountain communities across Italy’s peninsula have been joined in association to support and promote the recognition of the tradition of Italian honey. Sponsored events encourage visitors to learn about the world of Italian apicultura (beekeeping) and experience honeys completely unique to each region with distinctive aromas, sensory characteristics and flavor profiles. From the Alps to the Apennines, from the farms and agriturismi of Chianti to the curious Miele Amaro di Corbezzolo  (bitter honey) of the island of Sardenga and the rich, wild honey produced by nomadic bees along Tuscany’s Etruscan coast  ,Italian honey reflects the terroir of the region much like a fine wine. The cities of honey have a strong commitment to biodiversity, aware of the irreplaceable role the ape has in environmental monitoring. Association efforts promote sustainable production methods and certified organic and traditional products.

Any trip to Italy should include a honey expedition to at least one of these cities to explore the countryside, parks, food and local traditions .

Italian honey is a perfect complement to a fruit and cheese plate like the iconic pears, pecorino toscano and chestnut honey. However you can go off script using Italian honey in unique and innovative ways as in this condiment made as follows. The ingredients are

5 T unsalted butter, 1 small diced onion, 2 small diced carrots, 2 T mild flavored Italian honey, 2 T grated bitter chocolate, 2 T aged balsamic vinegar, 3-4 T of sultanas (pale yellow, seedless raisins), 3-4 T of roasted pine nuts, a bit of coarsely chopped fresh parsley and marjoram, a small whole bay leaf and coarse sea salt. Sauté the onions in the butter until slightly caramelized. Add the carrots, herbs and sultanas and coarsely chopped pine nuts. Add salt and stirring, add the honey and chocolate, mixing well on low heat. When cooked,  add the balsamic vinegar, causing it to evaporate. The end result must be a dense sweet and sour sauce, ideal for roasts and boiled meats.

Tutti Frutti Italian

One Italian word that has become part of the Anglo-American vocabulary, so much so that we often mistake it for an English word, is tutti-frutti. We have tutti-frutti ice cream, candy, nail polish, lipstick, juice, chewing gum, shoe colors and paint swatches. Not to mention the 1950’s Pop chart mega-hit Tutti Frutti by Little Richard.  In Italian tutti-frutti means all fruits and even though it may have been coopted to suggest a variety of non-edible likenesses, for me, it is a food memory of the kaleidoscope of colors, flavors and aromas of the fruits and vegetables at the open air markets (mercati) in towns and cities across Italy.   fruit

Thriving centers of Italian commerce, mercati are an ideal place to see and savor Italy. Together with the local fruttivendolo (greengrocer) you can find vibrant and fresh fruits and vegetables on display with care usually reserved for an exhibit in a museum.

Happy to help and generous with suggestions about cooking methods and culinary tips, the food vendors carefully select the best produce to present to you as the “fruits” of their labor. Shopping at the central pizza is a social and commercial tradition that is centuries old and an ideal place to experience the spirit of a town and the personality of the Italian people.

Have Laptop Will Travel . . . to Italy

Mandarina duck biker business rucksackWhether traveling for business or pleasure, a laptop computer has become as essential as a Dopp kit for gli uomini or a beauty bag for le donne.  Finding the right bag to keep your computer healthy and happy on the piazza in Florence, the Campo in Siena or an aperitivo bar in Milano requires some thought. Size (generally from 13 to 17 inches), safety, the number of compartments you’ll need and whether you want a laptop backpack, shoulder bag, sleeve or case all are important. Finding the right way to carry anything when traveling is a very personal choice and being overburdened will make you feel like a llama trekking the Andes. To avoid morphing into a pac animal when traveling choose your luggage and laptop bag wisely. Spending a little more money on well designed travel gear is money well spent. You don’t want the handle to fall off when you’re trying to make that connection between Zurich and Milano and you don’t want the zipper to break when you’re trying to stuff that Prada bag in your suitcase.

Here are a few laptop/netbook bags and tablet bags that were chosen by Seeing and Savoring Italy travelers.  No bag will appeal to everyone but the design, construction and organizational capabilities of this group make them choices to consider.

Booq Boa Squeeze

Mandarina Duck Biker Mix Clipboard

Mandarina Duck Biker Business Rucksack

Belkin Slim Notebook Polyester Backpack

Targus Ultralife Thin Canvas Slipcase

Food Pirates

PirateSeeing and savoring Italy requires a savvy traveler and a savvy shopper both in-country and when you get home. Not all products labeled Italian are Made in Italy. According to the Italian Food Board “food piracy or agro-piracy” is a major problem in the US, Canada, Argentina, Great Britain and other countries where counterfeit Italian products especially cheeses, salami, wines, oils, pastas,  balsamic vinegar even peeled tomatoes are the most copied. They are sold as Italian with vaguely Italian sounding names (Milaneza vs Milanese) and labels but are not the local product or regional specialty from Italy. The taste and substance often have very little in common with the original product. Be aware of what you’re getting and what you’re paying for. The quality of authentic Italian ingredients are far superior and your  purchase supports Italy’s food business and helpsFood Piracy to ensure that the traditional flavors of Italy are preserved and protected.

One of the most egregious examples of counterfeit food is olive oil, especially extra virgin. True extra virgin Italian olive oil is expensive to sell in the U.S. and the world  market. True extra virgin Italian olive oil comes from ancient tree stock. Cultivated,  hand-picked  and net harvested the olives are processed with 24 hours. Processing temperatures are monitored and no chemical solvents are used to extract the oil. The flavor, aroma and heart-healthy compounds found in extra virgin olive oil make it a superior product that elevates everything it touches.

But because of the labor intensive methods of growing, picking and processing;  some oil companies will bring in oil from different parts of Europe package it in Italy and call it “Made in Italy”. But bottled or packaged in Italy doesn’t mean the same as cultivated and grown.  It’s important to look at the origin of the oil not just where it’s bottled.  Avoiding fakes comes down largely to being an informed shopper and buying from trustworthy sources.

You do have a choice about what you buy and who you  agri-support. If you choose to buy an “imitation” so be it. Just don’t call it “Made in Italy”.

I Like it Rough

Italians perfected the art of making dried pasta in the16th century to create a food that could be stored for long periods and provide them with a meal in times of famine.  Little has changed over the years as artisan pasta makers continue to preserve the traditional ways of making pasta by using perforated bronze plates that mold the pasta and by allowing for slow drying times. Dried pasta has always been more typical of Southern Italy because it keeps well in the hotter, drier climate of the south. Fresh pasta (pasta fresca), often made with eggs and often served with creamy sauces, has been more characteristic of the North especially in the region of Emilia Romagna where you can sample some of Italy’s finest pasta. pasta boys

Short, thicker pastas like grooved penne or rigatoni are better with a full, meaty sauce while long, thinner pasta like spaghetti are best served with smoother sauces using oil. My friend Luigi, who has a doctorate in agronomy, gave me a short course on the different types of dried pasta by taking 5 popular pasta brands and rating them from best quality to least. A high quality pasta made with bronze dies gives a rough texture to the pasta.

The rougher the outside of the pasta the better the quality of the pasta.  Why? because sauces will adhere better giving a more uniform and consistently delicious flavor to each bite.

pasta and luigi

Mother’s Day with the Medici

caterina de mediciCelebrate Mother’s Day with a Medici feast for a taste of the Italian Renaissance. Follow the traditions of the Renaissance tables of the Medici who introduced the concept of the well laid table to the people of Florence. Dinner with the Medici would be served in several courses and include roasted meats of game or fowl like capon, pigeon or peacock. Pine nuts and raisins were common in Italian Renaissance cooking and were used in both sweet and savory dishes. Tarts, custards and puddings made with cherries sweetened with wine were popular. There would be no tomatoes, peppers, kidney beans, turkey or potatoes! These ingredients native to the Americas were not yet known in Europe.
The Medici’s epicurean tastes were transferred to France when Catherine de’ Medici wed King Henry II, bringing with her Italian cooks, recipes and the fork! Her influence reputedly reformed the antique style of French medieval cooking and gave rise to the science and art of cooking practiced today. Here is a recipe for a historically delicious salad written of in history books as Catherine de’ Medici’s favorite salad.
Insalata di Caterina
Wash and dry well a variety of mixed salad greens and place in a large wooden bowl. Toss with a few pieces of Pecorino Toscano (a soft sheep’s milk cheese), anchovy fillets packed in oil and a few capers. Make a dressing using the best Italian extra virgin olive oil you can find, red wine vinegar, coarse ground salt and pepper. Garnish with wedges of hard-boiled egg,