The endless possibilities of the day ahead. Travel is exciting, invigorating and in the best possible way unpredictable. Here are six 10 split-second decisions that I would not hesitate to make on your next trip to Italy.
Should I Stay or Should I Go . . . Off the Tourist Flow?
If your destination is one of Italy’s Big Three (Rome, Florence or Venice) and you have an opportunity to travel outside the tourist flow – go. As spectacular as these cities are, the personal charm of Italy lies just beyond. Here is where the real magic begins.
Should I Visit an Italian Terme?
Terme is the Italian word for thermal waters. Popes, pilgrims, princes and everyday Italians have traveled to these natural hot springs seeking the beneficial virtues of the waters to regenerate the body and mind since ancient times. Bagno Vignoni, a small medieval town south of Siena is a perfect place to “get your feet wet” when it comes to the terme experience. You can check in to the local term or just walk down to a trickling hot spring to sooth your tried feet. Popular termes in the same region include Montecatini and Saturnia. I prefer Antica Querciolaia near the town of Rapolano Terme which is very accessible and family oriented.
Should I Do Some Outlet Shopping?
There are many outlet malls within driving distance from most major Italian cities with high end designs at outlet prices. Why would you not go?
Should I Forgo One Large Museum to Visit a Small Lesser Known One?
When you think of Italy you think of world class museums with an archival wealth of art and history. The Vatican Museum, the Uffizi, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice,
Pinacoteca di Brera and Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan. Italy is an open air museum. But don’t forget to seek out some of the small, lesser known museums. A good local museum will add to your understanding of the region and as you won’t have to queue to view exhibits, you can be in and out in less than an hour.
Should I Include a UNESCO Italian World Heritage Site in My Travel Itinerary?
There is nothing more evocative than eating the food or drinking the wine in its place of origin. Food immersion is the best way to experience the true Italian lifestyle. Eat locally to eat like an Italian. Be a little adventurous and try the speciality of the house, the advice of the chef consiglo dello chef.
Pappardelle con Lepre or a Ragu’ con cinghiale. Truffles in Tuscany or Piemonte. Sugo all’amatriciana in Rome. Spaghetti Bolgnese in Bologna and gelato everywhere.
The driving distance between the town of Cesena and the town of Rimini is insignificant, about 27 kilometers or 17 miles. But as far as the making of piadina, Emilia Romagna’s iconic unleavened flat bread, there is a significant measurable difference between the making of this Italian flatbread sandwich between the two. Although Cesena piadina and Rimini piadina both share the same ingredients (O or OO wheat flour, lard (sometimes olive oil), a pinch of salt, baking soda or mother yeast and water) and both are cooked on a traditional testo (teglia), or griddle, the thickness of the piadina between Cesena and Rimini becomes thinner. 5 mm thick in Cesena to 3 mm (1/8″ thick) in Rimini.
This unique creation filled with local greens, salumi and cheeses layered onto a simple flatbread of freshly cooked dough is served at family tables and from small carts throughout the towns and villages of Romagna and neighboring cities (I have had it in Ferrara). The thickness and size is a function of the locale – softer, thicker and smaller inland, thinner and larger toward the coast. Extra virgin olive oil makes a lighter and crispier piadina. Lard from rendered pork fat or strutto makes a richer and softer piadina. The piadina is a staple of Italian street food and its regional variations are one of many that make seeing and savoring Italy such a gastronomic delight.
At Montetiffi, a village near Sogliano, 90 kilometres (56 mi) southeast of Bologna , original clay pots are still made to cook piadina. This craft dates back to 1527 when the pot makers of Montetiffi are mentioned in historical documents.
Clean lines and high level function have been a hallmark of Italian design. In cooking simple ingredients well-prepared define Italian cuisine. The Italian aesthetic for simplicity in form and function combined with tradition is never better demonstrated than by the Italian sponge cake (Pan di Spagna), a simple, airy cake made with only 3 ingredients: eggs, sugar and flour…no baking powder, no butter and no oil!
The Italian sponge is used as a base for fillings and candied fruits and is key ingredient in hundreds of classic Italian desserts like zuccoto and Sicilian cassata. Pan di Spagna‘s light airy texture absorbs “like a sponge” (once cooked, it can absorb almost up to twice its weight) so it is often layered and soaked with a flavored syrups or spirits or used to soak up the juices from fresh fruit. It stacks wonderfully. Layered with a cream filling it is an impressive dessert but just as enjoyable eaten on its own sprinkled with powdered sugar.You will find its simple, delicious flavor and spongy texture a perfect base for your Italian layered or rolled cakes and desserts.
I was introduced to the Italian Sponge by my mother-in-law Marion who used it to make Italian Rum Cake, a family tradition for celebrating birthdays and many special occasions. I have never made it as well as she or my Aunt Margaret who Americanized it as the chiffon but I have learned a few secrets to perfecting a successful Pan di Spagna.
Use extra large eggs at room temperature
Use cake flour if possible
Beat the egg whites until tripled in volume but not dry
Beat the egg yolks and sugar for no less than 15 minutes; it is during this stage that air is incorporated
The dry ingredients must be sifted together and added on top of the egg mixture, a little at a time and deliberately folded gently together with a spatula or wooden spoon. If you pour too much flour in too fast it will sink to the bottom of the bowl
While the cake is baking don’t be tempted to open the oven door or the cake will deflate quicker than a Patriot’s football
When the cake is done, turn off the oven but leave the cake inside with the oven door slightly ajar for about 10 minutes
Cut the cake only when it has cooled
If you plan on layering the sponge, soaking the layers with a flavored syrup or liquor, do so and then wrap the layers in cling film and leave in the refrigerator overnight before spreading each layer with filling for the final assembly
There are many versions of Pan di Spagna. I have a version made with a Zabaglione Moscato Wine Cream Filling that I use in place of pastry cream or custard. It also eliminates the need to soak the layers in a flavored syrup or liquor as the creme is made with Piemonte DOCG Moscato.
Pan di Spagna with a Zabaglione Moscato Wine Cream Filling
Ingredients for the Pan di Spagna:
5 large Eggs
1 1/2 cup Sugar
1 1/2 cup Flour
(you can add 1 teaspoon Vanilla or 1/2 teaspoon Lemon Zest) as a flavoring
Let eggs come to room temperature before starting. Butter and flour a 9″ (23 cm) cake pan. Set aside. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees F. Sift the flour into a bowl; set aside. Separate the eggs yolks in one bowl; whites in another. Add the sugar to the egg yolks, and whip with an electric mixer until thick. Stir in the lemon zest and vanilla. Rinse the beaters off well, whip the egg whites to a stiff peak. Then fold the beaten egg white into the yolk mixture. Add the flour a bit at a time to the egg mixture, and fold it carefully in. Pour the mixture into the prepared cake pan, place in oven, and bake for about 20 minutes. When done, a toothpick will come out clean, and the top will be golden. Turn upside down on a wire cake rack to cool.
Assemble the Layers:
Slice sponge cake in half with a thin bladed serrated knife to form two layers.Combine stabilized whipped cream with the Zabaglione Moscato Wine Cream (according to taste) to make a filing for the layers. Retain some of the whipped cream to be used as a frosting. Place bottom sponge layer on platter cut side up, generously spread layer with filling. Top the cream layer with another layer of sponge cake. Frost the top sponge cake layer (and sides of cake) with remaining stabilized whipped cream. Cover and refrigerate 1 hour before serving. Refrigerate any leftovers.
You may have noticed that the Italian Sponge has a Spanish name. Pan di Spagna means Bread of Spain. For nearly half a century, Spanish monarchs ruled Naples, Sicily and Sardinia. Gastro-historians credit the introduction of a Spanish influenced “sponge-like” cake to the Northern Italian table because the learned cities of the North like Parma in Emilia Romagna embraced a cosmopolitan cuisine and were influenced by the marriage of the Parmese Duchess Elisabetta Farnese to the Spanish King Philip V (1714).
Others attribute the Italian sponge to Giovanni Battista Cabona from Genoa. Cabona went to Spain in the mid 1700’s as part of the domestic entourage of the ambassador of Genoa. The inventive young baker was asked to create a new and original cake for a royal Spanish banquet. Working with basic and simple ingredients, Cabona was able to create an incredibly light and airy cake, and gave it the name Pan di Spagna, in honor of the hosting country. The cake so pleased the Court of Spain that it was renamed Génoise, in honor of the Genoese creator. Throughout Europe it is still known as Génoise, while in Italy it has maintained its original name, Pan di Spagna.
Perfumes as offerings to the gods to create pleasing scents have been known since the time of ancient Egypt and Greece. Centuries later floral fragrances, flower parts and by products like orris root kept barrels of beer fresh in Germany and casks of wine aromatic in France. But no one took a greater interest in the qualities of the iris flower than Italy. In Tuscany large districts are given over to the cultivation of irises. So much so that the iris became the emblem of Florence and the practice of using dried iris rhizomes for perfumery and medicinal purposes became a major industry in 19th-century Italy.
In Chianti iris flowers grow along stone walls and olive groves, filling the space between grape vines to scent the bouquets of Tuscan wine. In spring and early summer the handsome garden blooms of Iris florentina with its floppy cupped petals and pollen laden beard color the valley of the Arno and are spectacularly displayed in Florence’s Iris Garden near P. Michelangelo. Open for 19 days it is a spring sight in Italy not to be missed.
The theatrics of drama played out in our social lives might be a little overwhelming at times but a dose of drama injected into the food we serve at our tables can be a good thing. Every once in a while it’s a good idea to re-interpret a traditional skill set of ingredients in new and different ways, stirring up conflicts with stimulating flavors and unexpected combinations.
A dose of Italian drama begins with the table setting. Italians take time and effort to prepare a well-laid table where there is beauty and grace in the smallest detail. When people gather to eat in Italy it’s about celebrating life, friends, family, and culture. The tablescapes of the Italy can be as rustic as a rural casa colonica or a refined as a Renaissance villa. Digital inspiration boards like Pinterest can help you design your vision of the perfect Italian dinner party.
The menu and meal should be alluring yet approachable, structured yet casual with an element that brings a sense of unexpected amazement. Something that Italians refer to as sprezzatura, a certain sense of nonchalance; meaning to make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it. Often people think that recipes have to be complicated to be good. Italians typically focus on the quality of the ingredients rather than the number of ingredients. So choose a centerpiece dish that is as impeccably crafted as a well designed Brioni suit.
Above all remember that the purpose of food is to “delight the palate and cheer the spirit”. Food can be very evocative. Capitalize on the cuisine of Casanova’s Venice, Italy’s Lake District, the seaside villages along the Italian Riviera, the hill towns of Tuscany and Umbria, the vineyards of Piemonte, the trattorie of Rome and the piazze of Florence. A dose of drama at the table elevates the shared and enjoyable experience of dining. Here is a topping combination for a dramatic pizza that will have your family and friends wondering at what Italian cooking school you’ve been studying.
Topping Combinations for a MeyerLemon, Smoked Mozzarella and Basil Pizza
8 ounces smoked mozzarella, pinched into bite-size pieces
2 Meyer lemons (ends trimmed), each cut crosswise into 8 very thin slices
About 3 tablespoons olive oil, for drizzling
8 to 10 basil leaves
2 ounces freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino Romano cheese
Everyone’s got problems. Especially today. Maybe it’s because we’ve lost the artistry of living that the Italians know so well. They call it benessere “a sense of well being”. Traveling in Italy and staying with my Italian family and friends has led me to believe that Italians seem to know how to balance work and relaxation, surrounding themselves with beauty and art in their homes and businesses, eating fresh and vibrant food and focusing on family and friends. Italian design and fashion, culture and living, the way Italians prepare and eat their food all combine to create a sense of well being that doesn’t depend solely on the size of your bank account or stock portfolio.
Italians have long understood how art and beauty forge and strengthen our emotional bonds to life to create a sense of well being and lighten our discontent. Here are 10 ways Italian “benessere” is making the world a better place.
1. Green agriculture and eco-sustainability
Italy is a country with “un cuore verde”, a green heart. A country that measures its worth by preserving and protecting the land. In Italy green agriculture and eco-sustainability have been a powerful movement for decades. The pleasures of the table and ecologically-balanced farming methods are valued and encouraged. Italy’s farmhouses, family vineyards and orchards have always been a model for land to hand cooking. The traditional agricultural roots of Italian casalinga (homestyle) cooking are a legacy of Italian cuisine that we can all benefit from.
Wine is not simply considered an alcoholic beverage in Italy. It is part of the local culture, a product of the land, a family tradition and an integral part of the Mediterranean diet. Recently there has been a lot of buzz about the healthy lifestyle and longevity enjoyed by the people of Sardegna who drink Cannonau, a dark red wine said to contain the world’s highest levels of antioxidants (two to three times the level of flavonoids as other wines). The people of Sardegna who drink this wine are 10 times more likely to live to be 100. Research and the known effects of flavonoids have shown that moderate wine consumption may increase life expectancy while also lowering stress levels. Wine may not be able to solve all the world’s problems but reducing stress often allows us to put our problems in perspective and find a more balanced solution.
3. Love, Friendship and Conviviality
Love is in the air all year long in Italy and has been for centuries. While we were busy developing the austere virtues of the Reformation, the Italians were relaxing in the inspiring glow of the Renaissance. And although we might want to identify the Italian style of love differently, Italians more often equate love with the concept of enchantment, charm or delight, innamorato. Italians take pleasure in the companionship of friends and opening themselves to life on the piazza. My Italian friend Luca once told me that his day would not be complete if he did not connect with at least one of his friends.
4. Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Since ancient times Italian olive oil has been an integral part of the way Italians eat. High in polyphenols and protective antioxidants beneficial to heart health, extra virgin olive oils are an important part of a heart healthy diet reducing the risk of variety of diseases and promoting good health. Italians share their love of olive oil and Italy’s precious bottles of “liquid gold” are available all over the world.
5. Art and Design
Laura Biagiotti, known for her Italian cashmere collection, has said that “Italian fashion is meant to add the extraordinary to everyday life”. From ancient Italian cultures to the Great Masters of the Renaissance, Italian art and design transcend politics, gender, economies and cultural differences to inspire and elevate all peoples of the world.
According to National Geographic writer and Emmy award-winning documentarian Dan Buettner the secret of longevity is encoded in an Italian cheese. Whether or not an Italian cheese can save the world remains to be seen but Buettner who travels the globe to examine and unlock the secrets of long life claims that a Sardinian sheep’s milk cheese is a start.
Eaten as part of a diet among people in Sardegna, designated by Buettner as a World Blue Zone (regions where long lived people can provide lessons for living longer and improving the quality of life) the cheese, known as pecorino sardo, is made from grass-fed sheep’s’ milk that results in a product which is high in omega-3 fatty acids.
7. La Bella Vita
Italy’s contribution to living a life of purpose and pleasure is eloquently summed up by Andrea Bocelli as he describes the essential elements of living life in Tuscany.
”Man was created for living here, where, with the toil of his labour in the fields, he can procure everything that he needs for a tranquil life and where he can also meditate on the profound meaning and spiritual value of his time spent on earth safe from the contradictions, vices, absurdities and tensions of the increasingly oppressive reinforced concrete world, where saying triumphs over doing, having over being, the frivolous over the useful, and the superficial over the concrete”.
Although Italians may not have invented coffee they have perfected its making and service. Italian coffee beverages bring enjoyment and satisfaction to millions of people all over the world every day and as an espresso has less caffeine than a cup of coffee, a little goes a long way in lifting our spirits.
Italians appreciate their families and develop strong bonds with older family members. Elders are celebrated and family is revered. Loving grandparents provide child care, financial help, wisdom and motivation to perpetuate cultural and family traditions. In turn, elders are more engaged and feel a sense of belonging in their families and communities. Time and age is more irrelevant and society as a whole more dependent on family values with encouragement and supportive circle of family members.
No country is more perfectly constructed to the benefit of man than l’italia. The natural landscape of Italy is awe inspiring. Italians appreciate the true beauty of their country. Preservation, protection and conservation are part of their DNA. Italians have a better perspective and appreciation for their natural resources. Old buildings are left alone. If needed they are repaired or rebuilt, but otherwise they remain part of the landscape and their timeless charm and ancient beauty enhance the landscape. The patina of age is part of the natural landscape of Italy and Italians are more culturally sensitive and socially responsible for preserving heritage sites and promoting restoration.
Contrary to popular opinion, driving in Italy is not an extreme sport. Italy has an excellent network of motorways and if you are comfortable driving in the States, exercise common sense and be aware of your limitations based on language skills and itinerary you should be fine. Like all road trips you need to be flexible and have a sense of adventure. Expect to get lost even with a good GPS (mandatory). If you want to get off the tourist flow, travel like an Italian and see the country from the ground up, consider driving. Just remember do not park in a space marked Divieto di Sosta (No Parking) and follow a few helpful tips that I have learned driving in Italy.
4. Don’t Bother Visiting Milan
At first glance Milan can be a little intimidating. It doesn’t have the historical familiarity of Rome, the Renaissance art of Florence or the landscape setting of the Tuscan hill towns and for this reason many tourists tend to avoid spending time there. But that would be a pity because Milan has a style all its own, a style worth taking the time to see and get to know. Here is a list of must do’s for first time travelers to Milan. Sights and sounds they need to take the time to see and savor. I call it the M-List.
3. If You’ve Seen One Church in Italy You’ve Seen Them All
Each church in Italy is a time capsule of the art and history. Hidden meanings and messages that reveal themselves to those who take the time to explore them. Not only the great churches in the guidebooks but the small churches and chapels in the towns and villages contain works of art that are the envy of the greatest museums in the world. Each church has a architectural backstory and a sacred personality.
2. You Don’t Need to Know Italian
Of course, many Italians do speak English but if you will be traveling to little known places in Italy, outside of the tourist “comfort zone” you will need to understand and speak some Italian. That way you can experience all that Italy has to offer. Take some time before your travels to learn some basic Italian including verb conjugations. Phrase book Italian is confining and is a little like speaking from a script. Learning vocabulary is good but limited. Commit to a program that builds on more than rout sayings and idioms to carry on a conversation or you may end up like this.
1. Thinking That Traveling in Italy is Like Traveling in the States
You will be happier and more satisfied with your travels in Italy if you remember that you are traveling in Italy, a European country with a different monetary system, mindset and culture. Italians in Italy are not Italian-Americans. They are not stereotypical caricatures of the American media or even the same as our Italian-American relatives. They eat Italian food not Italian-American food. They don’t put Parmesan cheese or even call it Parmesan on seafood pasta or cut their spaghetti with a knife. They live in a political-economic system with different social mores and although there are more similarities than differences between us, respect and embrace the differences and you will have a more enjoyable time.
Engage in a mindful travel experience; actively attentive, aware (never order a cappuccino after 12 o’clock) open to the possibilities. Deliberately keeping in mind that you are a guest in their country and an ambassador of ours.
A fregollata is a cookie from the Veneto region of Northern Italy with a crumbly, porous texture. In the Veneto, fregolotta comes from the local dialect word for crumb “fregola”. The combined ingredients create a mixture of large crumbs of dough (fregole) which you drop into the baking pan and press into larger “crumbs”creating one large oversized cookie.
A traditionally made fregollata is fairly hard and meant to be broken into bite sized pieces and shared at the table with a glass of passito wine or spirits. It is not overly sweet as is the case with many Italian cookies and desserts (saving the richer versions for special feasts and occasions). The fregollata has taken on mythical proportions partially due to its size and partially due to the number of variations in the making. Some versions use cornmeal, cake flour, eggs, cream and citrus zests.
Our chosen version of a fregollata is more biscuit-like, a giant Italian crumb cookie made with a shortbread dough filled with marmalata to create a jammy tart. A juxtaposition of crumbly dough, brilliantly colored jam and the sliced edges of sharp almonds – an Italian cookie mosaic influenced by the Byzantine art of the Veneto.
Fregollata Tart (adapted from Food52)
12 tablespoons (6 ounces) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup (3 1/2 ounces) sugar
1/4 teaspoon pure almond extract
1 1/2 cups (7 1/2 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup (2 ounces) not too sweet apricot jam (or other jam of your choice)
1/3 cup (1 ounce) sliced natural almonds
1. Heat the oven to 350 °F. Position an oven rack in the center of oven.
2. Place the butter, and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat on medium speed until the mixture is very light in color, about 3 to 4 minutes. Use a rubber spatula to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the almond extract and blend well, another 30 seconds.
3. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour and salt. Add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture and combine on a low speed just until the dough is thoroughly combined, about 30 to 40 seconds. Measure out 1/2 cup of the dough and set it on a small plate, then place the plate in the freezer (this will chill the dough and make it easier to crumble).
4. Press the remaining dough into a 9 or 9 1/2-inch tart pan in an even layer (the edges can be a little higher than the rest, just be careful that the center is not the thickest point). Traditional recipes advise dipping your fingers in a mixture of eggs and cream to moisten them so the dough does not stick or if the dough is too sticky, just chill it briefly.
5. Use a small offset spatula or the back of a spoon to spread the jam in a thin, even layer over the surface of the dough, leaving a border of about 1-inch around the edges.
6 . Remove the reserved dough from the freezer and crumble it into small pieces over the layer of the jam, allowing some of the jam to peek through creating a mosaic like pattern. Sprinkle the sliced almonds evenly over the top of the tart.
7. Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, or until the topping is golden brown. Remove from the oven and place on a rack to cool completely. If your tart pan has a removable bottom, to un mold, center the tart pan on top of a large can so that it balances midair as the rim of the tart pan falls to the counter. Leave the bottom of the pan under the tart for support, or run a large spatula between the crust and the pan, using the spatula to guide the tart onto a plate.
There are many ways to see and savor Italy. To experience the noble vineyards, pilgrim paths, iconic art and architecture and like the proverbial onion or tip of the iceberg you need to dig deeper and peel away the layers of “show and tell” travel to discover Italy beyond the beltway.
Travelers can follow itineraries along the Roads of Wines and Taste (le strade dei vini e dei sapori) in and around Italy to immerse themselves in the traditions, territories and tastes of a particular region. A behind the scenes, back road tour of the gastro-history of Italy to visit artisan producers and generational families committed to preserving the culinary culture shaped by the region in its geography and traditions. I have followed many of these routes over the years and highly recommend them.
One of the best ways to see and savor regional Italy is in the provence of Siena. Siena’s Duomo, Il Campo and Lorenzetti’s allegorical frescoes in the Palazzo Publico (Town Hall) have made Siena of the most popular places to visit when traveling in Tuscany. But if you’re looking to travel beyond the obligatory wine and dine sites of Siena there are a series of local itineraries that are worth “getting off the bus” or better yet taking the time to explore on a road trip through the region.
One little known itinerary consists of eight destinations that cross the lands of Siena into the “traces of transhumance”, a fascinating course of travel designed to express the value and worth of the paths once crossed by shepherds during the seasonal movement of their livestock. This time-honored tradition of mobile pastoralism gives you a true sense of the connection between the land and the artisan’s hand. Along the rural paths there are often rest areas, shelters, chapels, taverns and inns, hiking trails and scheduled festivals that create a historical itinerary of the food and cultural traditions of the region.
Depending on our generation, memories of Memorial Day in the US often focus on a wall with a mirror-like surface that winds its way through Constitution Gardens in Washington DC. A lasting impression and memory, it honors US soldiers who served, fought, died or were missing in action during the Vietnam War. Having lived through those times I always experience a sobering nostalgia about the casualties of war with diverse reasons why wars are fought.
Italy’s memories of war often reflect personal experiences of solders and civilians with events that conflicted the entire world. The Monumento alla Resistenza in Sesto San Giovanni designed by Piero Bottoni and Polish artist Anna Praxmayer is a concrete wall monument reminiscent of the Viet Nam War Memorial in Washington. Scratched on its surface are not names but scenes that trace in thirteen stages the anti-Fascist struggle of the Italians during World War 2. Located in the Piazza della Resistenza, the wall gradually rises higher toward the sky with the sculptured form of Victory freeing a flight of bronze doves.
We visited The Wall several years ago with our Milanese cousin Lidia who now lives in Sesto. She like many other Italians of her generation have memories of bombings and hidings as children and families that lived through war, resistance and liberation. Lidia tells of being sent to live with relatives in Monza to escape the bombings of Milan and while riding her bike in Monza being caught in an air bombing. She showed us the building she hid in. The damage is still there. Having seen both Walls the damage of war is undenied.