Archive for the ‘Italy’ Category

Travel to Italy: Packing for Spring and Fall

April 12, 2010

Packing for Italy the Right Way

As both a fairly seasoned traveler and a resident of Italy, I have some experience in packing for travel here to share with you.

Packing for summer and winter are fairly easy here…in the winter it will be cold and rainy or cold and snowy depending on how far north or south you are in the country…in the summer it will be hot, damn hot…in August you will melt…you need a bathing suit and sunscreen.

In spring and fall the weather here is extremely variable.  This is not just based on where you will be in the country, of course the more northern regions, like Milan, Como and Venice, will tend to be cooler.  But within regions temperatures and weather can vary significantly…and by significantly I mean within 10C/20F within a day or two.

Because of the tendency for weather to change and for most travelers to want to experience a fair amount of the country in a fairly short amount of time here are a few tips to keep you dressed comfortably for the weather:

  • Pack layers—this is key, when you set off in the morning you will want an average of three or four…by late afternoon you could be down to the final layer.  I prefer skinny strapped tank tops, short sleeved shirts, light sweaters and a light jacket.  These all pack easily.
  • Always pack a bathing suit…you never know when a gorgeous beach day will present itself…it could happen in April or October.
  • Sunglasses are a must.
  • Do not forget to pack shoes for various climates…cold feet do not make for comfortable walking tours.  To save packing space wear the bulkiest shoes you will be bringing on the plane.
  • Pack the smallest umbrella you can find…there are generally people selling them when storms pop up, but it is nice to have one ready and it will rain in both the spring and fall.
  • Make sure to reserve some room in your luggage for shopping…if you do not find at least five adorable things you want to buy here then you are, indeed, unusual.
  • If you are arriving on a Sunday make sure that you have all of your necessary toiletries…depending on where you are staying it may be difficult to find them on Sundays (or especially the Monday after Easter) and going two days without a toothbrush is never pleasant.

On a final note, make sure to get a good sized memory card for your camera and pack extra batteries…you will take a HUGE amount of photos here.

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Spring in Italy

March 25, 2010

Spring, Springing Over the Arno

Finally, Finally.

After an exceptionally long and cold winter spring has finally arrived in Tuscany.  The sun was shining nearly all day today, the sheets dried on the line in just a few hours and gloves and a scarf were wonderfully unnecessary during daylight hours.

Another American expat living in Tuscany, Judy Witts, posted a great artichoke recipe to take advantage of the abundance of artichokes at all of our local markets right now.  The strawberries are already tasting absolutely fantastic and I can not wait for the explosion of produce that is already beginning to reach its apex.

Despite the winter wonderland type weather we experienced this year, Florence being covered in snow just before Christmas is definitely NOT typical of the weather patterns here, I am quite glad that I will be seeing no more snow and hopefully no more sub-freezing nights.  Spring in Tuscany is beautiful and I promise to spend a day taking photos to share with everyone just how beautiful it is.

A Taste of Tuscany

March 3, 2010

Tuscan Food Festival at its Tastiest

For all lovers of real Tuscan food, Slow Food, artisanal food, essentially all things yummy and delicious, there is another event coming up that you will either completely enjoy or be completely jealous of me for attending.

The weekend of 13-15 March, Taste will be held in Stazione Leopolda.  This is more than just a simple walk around and nibble tasty examples of what local producers have to offer.  Instead, there are actually lectures and speakers whose love of food and intensity in speaking about it can inspire even the most staunch consumer of mediocre cuisine to aspire to culinary mastery.

There are, of course, a huge variety of incredible foods available for purchase.  For those who will, by chance, be in Florence that weekend, these make fabulous gifts to bring back with you…if you are able to hold off on eating them yourself.

Everything from olive oils to cured meats to wine to chocolate is available, as is a wealth of information on a bevy of products and production methods.

For those who must live vicariously through Florentine residents, I will be posting notes and photos after the event.  Maybe they will inspire you to either move to Italy or at least take a well-deserved trip to travel Tuscany next year.

Travel in Italy: the Weather and Mother Nature

February 23, 2010

Tuscan Weather? Not Always...

As a person who can be a bit of a geek, I have always looked up weather patterns and historical averages before traveling anywhere and then checked the 10 day forecast on MSN the day that I am doing my packing.  It wasn’t until I moved here and posted a few of my Winter weather gripes (knowing full well the weather conditions in the winter prior to moving) on my Facebook page and had friends respond that I realized that my standard weather research is not normal.

The above photo, taken in San Gimignano, a lovely walled town in Tuscany known for its Vernaccia wines, is the weather most people expect when they travel to Italy, Tuscany in particular.  Wine tasting outdoors in that kind of weather with that kind of scenery is what most people dream of when they think about vacationing in Italy.  Intensely blue skies dotted by white puffy clouds will welcome you throughout most of the high season, but:

  • Rainfall occurs throughout the year here.  While the rainy season is predominantly in the winter, generally not more than a couple weeks will go by without some rainfall.
  • Winters are definitely cooler than most tourists expect…even in the generally temperate central and southern regions of the country.  Snow-capped peaks are typical every winter in Tuscany, and this year we had a snowfall that actually stuck for days just before Christmas this year.
  • The climate varies significantly from the north of the country to the south.  If you will be traveling along the length of the peninsula: for instance, Venice, Florence, Rome and Sicily, you will very possibly encounter a large variety of weather.  Remember the northern end of the country is the Alps and the southern end is on the same latitudes as North Africa.
  • August is hot.  August is boiling hot.  Unless you are accustomed to living in a sauna only travel to beaches or mountains in August.  If you ignore this sage advice and you melt, you have had ample warning and your heirs may not sue me.  There is a reason the majority of the country shuts down for the month.

If you do happen to travel here in the winter do remember to pack full foul weather gear and shoes or boots that can handle the weather.  Most good hotels will have umbrellas available or there are always enterprising young men who brave the rainstorms to sell umbrellas to those who are caught unprepared.  In the summer it will be hot virtually everywhere except high in the mountains.  Packing tips for spring and fall will follow…they need their own post.

The more prepared you are when you arrive here, the even more enjoyable traveling to Italy will be for you.

Buon Viaggio!!

Grocery Shopping in Italy

February 22, 2010

Sooooo, you are coming to Italy and you’ll be staying a while.  You love food and want to learn more about it or you are simply a student who needs to feed herself while studying and soaking up Tuscan ambiance.  You’ve rented an apartment in Italy and you a ready to stock up that kitchen.

But, you don’t stop to think that the grocery store could be a different experience here…I sure didn’t.  Of course, I knew about the markets in Italy and had been there when I had traveled before, but the grocery store experience was slightly new and different.

So, we have an entrance to exit guide of a typical trip to the grocery store using my local Esselunga as a roadmap:

  • Parking. Don’t. Walk.
  • If you want a basket they are by the front door.  If you want a cart you will have to “rent” it with a single euro coin.  Have your coin ready before going to the store.
  • Produce can not be touched with bare hands…yes I know you are supposed to wash it when you take it home…just use the supplied gloves if you don’t want to be cussed out by an 80 year old 4’10” woman who probably could do you bodily harm.
  • You must weigh and tag your produce before leaving the produce section…they do not do this at the register in most stores.
  • Stocking is done throughout the day…many times at the busiest times of the day…if you do not see something ask…it very well could be on its way out “fra un po.”
  • If you are looking for ethnic items it is best to try to find and ethnic store…remember tortillas are ethnic food here.
  • The deli section…Godsend to those who can cook and those who are learning.  Fantastic meats, cheeses and prepared foods in most of the larger stores…do not freak out on the whole pig legs on the shelves…or the heads.
  • Meat sections…everything is pretty much the same except for the fact that there will be some items Americans don’t usually run across.  Pigeons, quail, rabbit, tongue, tripe and liver are standards here…I have seen a girl lose it over the poor bunny that was on display.
  • Checkout…unload in an organized way…you have to bag those groceries yourself, into bags you either bring with you or bags you buy there…and you have to do it fast…that same 80 year old woman will bag her groceries faster than you and she will yell at you again…and she can probably trek down the sidewalk faster than you, while carrying four bags of groceries and smoking a cigarette.

Remember your conversions. One kilogram is 2.2 pounds, a liter is about a quart, un etto is 1/10 kg…the dollar and euro conversion…well, sorry that one changes a lot.  Basically produce is usually cheaper, milk is always more expensive, meat is roughly the same and the quality on all tends to be high.  Be prepared to run a shopping cart obstacle course…don’t question it, it’s just like parking a car here.

Do try to head to the local markets here…they really are a don’t miss…the quality and freshness of the produce is amazing, you will find only fresh in season goodness and…perhaps it is just my prejudice… but I really believe the produce tastes better.  Then head home and let the creativity begin.

Wine: seriously, you have never seen so much good quality, reasonably priced wine. Ever. In your life.

Classic Treats for Carnevale

February 8, 2010

Fresh Cenci: the Cookies of Carnevale

Italians celebrate everything with food and Carnevale is no exception. One of the simplest joys of the Carnevale season in Italy is cenci.  These are fried cookies that are available in every pasticceria and bar and grandmother’s kitchen.  Not only are they easy to make, but they also happen to be highly addictive…be forewarned if you happen to make these and plop yourself in front of the TV with a DVD it is very possible to finish the whole batch.  It’s more possible to finish the whole batch if you take the bottle of Vin Santo with you from the kitchen to the TV.

This is one of those recipes that also offers the happy convenience that you likely have virtually everything in your kitchen already…maybe not the Vin Santo, but then you have an excuse to go buy more wine.

Ingredients:

1   cup all-purpose flour
3   tbs butter (melted)
2   tbs granulated sugar
1   egg
2   tbs Vin Santo (you can substitute rum)
1   tsp vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
Oil for frying (I like sunflower)
Confectioners sugar
Place the flour in a medium-sized bowl  and add the other ingredients slowly, mixing well. Form a dough and knead the dough for a minute or two. Cover the dough with cellophane and allow to rest for an hour. Roll the dough out onto a lightly floured board until thin.  Using a fluted pasty wheel, cut  the pastry into strips, or  simply use a knife and cut into strips about 8 inches long and 1/2 inch wide, and tie each strip into a knot.  Heat your oil to 375F and fry the strips a few at a time until golden.
As you remove from the oil, place the cookies on a plate covered with paper towels to absorb any excess oil.  When they have dried slightly, sprinkle with confectioner’s sugar.
These cookies do not have a long lifespan, therefore you will be forced to consume them rapidly…within two days…and hopefully with a tasty Vin Santo.
Buona Festa and enjoy Mardi Gras!!!

Carnevale in Italy

February 7, 2010

Venetian Carnevale Masks are Gorgeous

Carnevale in Italy is a celebration that lasts the entire duration of the weeks leading up to Lent.  Since even the nominally Catholic in Italy generally give up something for Lent the last hurrah celebrations that Carnevale epitomizes are amazing here.  Any of the “vices” that are likely to be sacrificed for Lent are practiced in abundance until the sun rises on Ash Wednesday.

Whether your vice of choice is wine, cheese, meat, cookies, chocolate or just creating general mayhem, you will be surrounded by fellow “villians” at every turn.  What a fabulous way to lead up to a fast of any type.  There are parties for three weeks in most places, with the final Saturday and Sunday being the biggest. (People still have to go to work on Ash Wednesday so Fat Tuesday is usually semi-tame.

In my opinion the two best places to attend Carnevale are Venice and Viareggio, even though other cities have celebrations, these two stand out.  Most people are familiar with Venice’s reputation as a fantastic place to spend these weeks,  the centuries of masked balls, the gorgeous Venetian Carnevale masks and the deliciously wicked and decadent parties are well known.  But if you are traveling and do not have an invite to a private party it’s a little like window shopping with an empty wallet.  If you do have an invite for a ball or party, by all means deck yourself out as amazingly as possible and get ready for a party that will satiate all five senses.

If you are traveling and won’t be arriving in time to secure an invitation in Venice, head to Tuscany and make sure to book a hotel room in Viareggio.  The trains stop too early to enjoy the festivities and you do not want to be driving those roads at that time.  The parade that is put on on the weekends is unmissable…read up on a little Italian politics before coming and watch the way they skewer their politicians in paper mache.  Eat up everything the street vendors and restaurants have to offer and then head to the discos that are towards the northern end of the city…and don’t plan on sleeping until sunrise.

Chocolate in Italy: Pure Heaven

February 6, 2010

I have just returned from the Fiera del Cioccolato in Florence’s Piazza Santa Croce.

Do you like chocolate?  Do you LOVE chocolate?  Then this event and similar events that occur in different regions of Italy are the place for you.

Nuggets of Joy

My hands down favorite of the festival was Chic & Shock .  Of everything they offered…and believe me, the selection was extensive…my favorites are pictured above.  For a business that is only 16 years old…a blip on the radar in Italian terms…the quality and beauty of their artisanal chocolate is amazing.  In addition to the bars of chocolate, which were phenomenal, I took home “frutto di bosco,” “cannella” “rosa” and “amarena.”  The process for these little gems takes three days because different components must set before the next can be added.  So, combine intense flavor with artistry that creates a miniature log of white and dark chocolate filled with berry infused fondente and topped with a little chocolate ladybug for 1€ and you can understand why I fell in love.

Truffles Galore

My second favorite was Di Maria, who unfortunately have email, but do not have a website yet. The truffles where classic example of what chocolate should be.  My favorite was actually the coconut and white chocolate, which is absolutely flabbergasting to me because I always prefer dark chocolate.  The milk chocolate filled with Grand Marnier was also outstanding and how they managed to create lighter chocolates that I fell in love with amazes me.

Chocolate Equipment

The final standout to me was Dolci Express.  The quality of the chocolate was high…and I loved the heart shaped chocolate suckers.  The thing that really made me fall in love was the “Chocolate Equipment.”  The photo does not do the pieces justice, but these would be an ideal gift for a man’s man chocolate lover for Valentine’s Day.  They have crafted all sorts of tools and objects from chocolate…little boys went crazy for these and I think grown up boys would too.

Any time you are in Italy there is likely a chocolate festival going on somewhere nearby.  They are not always easy to find online…so I will be compiling a list of all that I can find…stay tuned.

The Mediterranean Diet: Eat Yourself Skinny

February 4, 2010

Italian Snack Time

Pasta does not make you fat.

Anyone who has spent any significant amount of time in Italy can tell you this.  A Mediterranean diet will not only make you skinnier, it will make you healthier.

I already ate a fairly healthy diet before moving here because I am a huge fan of quality food, freshly prepared.  I have made my own soup stock and sauces from scratch for years and am a Slow Food aficionado…including being a member of their LinkedIn group.  Basically, I didn’t just hop on a bandwagon.

Not only does the typical diet in Italy help maintain a healthy weight, but it also helps maintain your health.  The science backs it up.  The World Health Organization stats back it up.  Most importantly, everything tastes good so it is not only easy to adopt, but, unlike “diets”, it is also easy to maintain.  Who doesn’t like a diet with spaghetti, pizza and red wine as basic components?

What are some of the most basic tips that will keep your body slim and your taste buds satiated?

  • Eat fresh
  • Eat multiple times a day
  • Don’t eat chemicals
  • Eat colorfully
  • Eat when you are hungry

Italians eat throughout the day and in small portions, except on holidays…then all bets are off.  Food is bought much more frequently than is typical in the US, going to the market every couple days is not at all unusual.  Preservatives are avoided as much as possible because they aren’t necessary if you go to market three times a week.

Beyond freshness, plates are colorful.  Different fruits and vegetables are in abundance in bowls and refrigerators in every house in Italy…and they are eaten with gusto.  This is great not only for flavors and a balanced diet, but also because of all the phytonutrients and antioxidants, besides, if you don’t eat them mamma or nonna will not be happy.

So what does an Italian typically eat?

  • Prima colazione—the first breakfast, usually toast or a croissant and some fruit or fruit juice and yogurt and, of course, coffee
  • Secunda colazione—the second breakfast, usually about 11 or so, a small sandwich and some coffee.
  • Pranzo—lunch, a sandwich or small plate of pasta and a salad…a small plate of pasta means about 125g or a little over 1/4 lb and with a tomato based sauce typically.
  • Merenda—snacktime, cheese or fruit and most likely an iced tea.
  • Cena—dinner, this is generally good sized and is eaten fairly late 9pm.  Some soup or antipasto, a small pasta serving and a small meat serving, roast pork, seafood or steak and a large salad or vegetables…and a glass of red wine.

Italians consume as much fat as most Americans…but, almost all of the fat is in the form of olive oil.  Olive oil is monounsaturated fat, and gives you fat and flavor without issues with cholesterol and heart problems.  The meat here is lean and high quality and portions are sized right.  It’s the same thing with cheese, every house has multiple types of cheese, but people eat it in small portions…an ounce here or there or grated over pasta.

Good food does not make you fat.  Eat fresh, eat healthy and eat a little at a time…except on holidays, we all need to have fun.

Eat like an Italian!!!

Things I’ve Learned Living in Italy

January 27, 2010

Travel in Italy: Gondolas Rock

I had mistakenly believed when I moved to Italy that the previous four trips I had taken here had prepared me for all possible cultural misunderstandings and missed cues.  I was woefully wrong.  I have a feeling that the learning will continue until I am a feeble old woman chasing my own grandchildren out of my kitchen with a wooden spoon, at which point I just won’t care anymore.

Some things I have learned have been positive, others negative and virtually all have been amusing…sometimes more for the people informing me than for myself.  In no particular order, I have learned that:

  • Soccer is a religion.
  • Your weight is open for discussion.
  • I am too skinny.
  • Putting the “wrong” sauce on a pasta is a crime.
  • Ironing socks is not strange.
  • Americans can’t make coffee.
  • Salt is not optional, ever.
  • Pork CAN be consumed at every meal. Yum.
  • Wine is a food group…this one was just reinforcement.
  • Eggs are for dinner, not breakfast.
  • Your entire life is your neighbors’ business.
  • Dinner before 9:00 is uncivilized.
  • All telecommunications companies are thieves.
  • Good customer service comes from non-contract employees.
  • Businesses closing for a month is perfectly normal.
  • Two weeks of vacation is NOT normal, it’s criminal.
  • Going out without a scarf and gloves if it is below 70 means you will get sick.
  • Going out with wet hair means you will surely soon die.
  • Ugly shoes are illegal.
  • Jeans that are not skin tight should be thrown out.
  • Belts are mandatory.
  • You can walk cobblestone streets in 4 inch heels…it just takes practice.
  • Leaving the house not put together will get you strange looks.
  • It is unhygienic to walk in your own house barefoot..even if you washed the floors 15 minutes before.
  • Tanning is healthy.
  • Paying 10€ for a spot on the beach is normal.
  • 80 year olds in bikinis and speedos are normal.
  • Superstition is alive and well.
  • A guy touching his balls is not sexual…he is warding off bad luck.
  • Italian cussing is much more colorful than most American cussing.
  • Having a clothes dryer is akin to having a bomb shelter.
  • Growing your own veggies is normal.
  • Eating offal doesn’t raise an eyebrow, eating a rare steak is the only way, but eating a rare hamburger will kill you
  • You are still a boy or girl until you are about 40, chances are you still live at home, too.
  • Not having a dark tan in September means that something is terribly wrong in your life.
  • Driving rules, lines on the roads and most stop lights are merely suggestions.
  • Parking on sidewalks and at freaky angles doesn’t get a second look.
  • A woman who can parallel park in the “back in, then pull forward” method is a rare anomaly.
  • Having a cell phone tucked into your helmet, smoking a cigarette, balancing a Louis Vuitton bag…all while riding a Vespa in 3 inch heels is NOT an anomaly.
  • I will never be as stylish as most Italian girls are by the time they are nine years old.

I love Italy.