Pandemics in Italy – Today and in the Past

In this time of pandemic, a study of previous epidemics in Tuscany and Italy shows many similarities of successful disease management and dismal failures. Surprisingly, not much has changed in a thousand years.

Ferrara was ahead of its time in 1630

The Black Plague (bubonic plague) ravaged large cities and provincial towns in northern and central Italy from 1629 to 1631, killing more than 45,000 people in Venice alone and wiping out more than half the population of cities like Parma and Verona. But strikingly, the northern Italian town of Ferrara in Emilia-Romagna managed to prevent even a single death from the plague after the year 1576—even as neighboring communities were devastated.

Critical in the Ferrara’s success, records suggest, were practices in use today: border controls, sanitary laws and personal hygiene.

Ferrara 1627

Ferrara was (and still is) a walled city situated along a branch of the Po River halfway between Padua and Bologna, both badly affected by plague in 1630. When Ferrara learned of the presence of plague in the region all but two of the city gates were locked and surveillance teams composed of wealthy noblemen, city officials, physicians and apothecaries were activated. Anyone arriving at the city gates needed to carry identification papers called Fedi (“proofs”) to ensure they had arrived from a plague-free zone. They would be screened for any signs of disease and quarantined. (The word “quarantine” comes from Italian quarantina (forty days) and quaranta (forty).)

Within the city, the same level of vigilance was employed to identify suspected cases of infection and move individuals into one of two lazaretti or plague hospitals located outside of Ferrara’s city walls.

German surgeon Hieronymus Brunschwig’s 1500 treatise on treating plague

For personal hygiene, like people throughout the Italian peninsula, the citizens of Ferrara turned to a variety of natural remedies for protection against the plague. But, reportedly, they prized one above the rest: a medicinal oil called Composito. “By law, a ready supply of Composito was to be stored in a locked box set into the wall of the municipal palace and only distributed in times of plague.” (History.com)

The secret recipe for Composito was concocted by the Spanish physician Pedro (aka Pietro) Castagno, who wrote Ferrara’s pandemic playbook, Reggimento contra la peste (“Regimen against the plague”), which described the importance of daily personal cleanliness (rare in the 1500s) and how the oily antimicrobial balm should be applied to the body.

Regimen Against the Plague by Pietro Castagno

“Castagno never disclosed the ingredients used in making Composito, but by examining records of materials that Castagno ordered, researchers determined that the balm contained myrrh and Crocus sativus, both known for their antibacterial properties, as well as venom from both scorpions and vipers.” (History.com)

Lodi 2020 = Ferrara 1630

In the Covid-19 pandemic, the nearby towns in Lombardy of Lodi and Bergamo showed the necessity of social distancing through lockdown of the civic population. Lodi imposed a lockdown of the town on February 23, 2020 and achieved flattening of the curve of transmission of the virus. Bergamo waited until March 8 and became the international face of uncontrolled infections.

Image: Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science, University of Oxford & Nuffield College, UK

Unlike the U.S., Italy was able to flatten its countrywide infection curve. That was due to an edict at the national level for a strict lockdown of all cities and towns. Leadership at the top is important.

Mass death in Florence – historical epidemic in recent news

Florence is well known for La Grande Mortalità, The Black Death (1348-1350), but it experienced other epidemics of bubonic plague (540 AD, 1348, 1630). In February 2014, headlines in Europe and the U.S. proclaimed that “plague victims” were unearthed in Florence.

About ten years ago, work was done to make the Uffizi more accessible(the huge museum is on the upper floors of a 16th century palazzo). This included a new set of elevators, which require deep excavation. Construction in Italy is always slow so a delay from the 2008 start wasn’t surprising. What was news, finally released in 2014, was that the delay was due to the discovery of a mass grave containing over 75 skeletons.

Epidemic victims found under the Uffizi Gallery (2014)

Archaeological excavations (2008, 2013, and 2014) reportedly led to uncover a large sepulchral area under the basement of the eastern wing of the Uffizi Gallery. Aside from single graves, 14 multiple graves were excavated and a total of 75 individuals were exhumed. It was determined that in multiple graves, up to ten individuals had been deposed simultaneously. Studies showed that this area did not correspond to an ordinary cemetery, but to an emergency burial site associated with a catastrophic event dug outside of the existing city walls possibly during an epidemic of unknown etiology.

The burial site was preliminarily dated between the second half of the 4th and the beginning of the 5th centuries AD, based on Roman minted coins associated with some of the skeletons. This is a rough estimate because the coins could have been minted in decades earlier than the epidemic.

It is possible that this burial site is connected to the Justinian Plague that ravaged the Byzantine Empire and Europe from 541 to 542 BC. Carbon-14 dating of the bones and DNA studies to determine the disease process that caused the mass death was planned after the excavation, but I have not found any indication that those studies have been published. (If anyone finds the results of these studies, please leave a comment here.)

Gaetano Giulio Zumbo’s miniature wax tableau ‘The Plague’ (1690)

As Covid-19 was starting to spread in Europe in December 2019, a team of French and Italian scientists published a study of samples taken from the Uffizi site in the Korean Journal of Parasitology. This was a discovery of what we would now talk about as a co-morbidity that may have contributed to the high death rate in these ancient epidemic victims – intestinal roundworms.

In this study, paleoparasitological investigations were performed on 18 individuals exhumed from 9 multiple graves to assess the burden of gastrointestinal parasitism. Five out of eighteen individuals (27.7%) tested positive for ascarid-type (roundworm) remains or “decorticated” Ascaris eggs found in the “soil” retrieved from where the abdominal organs would have been.

Roundworms, which can grow to 12 inches long, commonly infest human populations under dire sanitary conditions. Archaeological and historical evidence indicates that Florence (known in Roman times as Florentia) suffered a period of economic crisis between the end of 4th and the beginning of the 5th centuries AD, and that the aqueduct was severely damaged at the beginning of the 4th century AD, possibly during the siege of the Goths (406 AD). The scientists wrote: “It is more than plausible that the epidemic, possibly coupled with the disruption of the aqueduct, deeply affected the living conditions of these individuals. A 27.7% frequency suggests that ascariasis was widespread in this population.”

This investigation shows how paleoparasitological information can be retrieved from the analysis of sediments sampled in cemeteries, thus allowing a better assessment of the varying frequency of parasitic infections among ancient populations. The scientists did not believe that the roundworm infestation caused the mass death, but may have created a weakened population that could not survive a more severe infectious epidemic.

We look forward to further scientific studies emerging from the Uffizi Gallery archeological site.

Black Christ of Lucca – Oldest Carved Wood Statue in Europe

Imagine the feelings of the soldiers of the segregated African-American 92nd Infantry Unit after they cleared the Nazi forces out of the Tuscan town of Lucca on viewing the Black Christ of the the Lucchesi in the city’s cathedral. The awe-inspiring black figure crowned with gold, framed by a free-standing ornate marble chapel, is also known as “Il Volto Santo” (“The Holy Face”). Some of those soldiers returned to Lucca on a regular basis to visit the memorable relic.

Unadorned Black Christ of the Lucchesi

The Legend

Legend holds that Il Volto Santo, a wooden crucifix, was carved shortly after the resurrection of Christ by Nicodemus, who assisted Joseph of Arimathea in depositing Christ in his tomb. But having carved the body of Christ, Nicodemus fell asleep before carving the face. When he awoke, the face was miraculously completed. Thus, it is deemed to be the true depiction of Christ.

The story becomes even more fantastic in that it claims that the the eight-foot crucifix was then hidden for over 700 years at which time it was discovered, loaded onto an unmanned ship, which set to sea, and eventually landed on the coast of Italy. From there, a cart steered only by oxen brought the crucifix to Lucca where it has remained ever since.

Cathedral of Lucca

Recorded History

However the wood carving arrived in Lucca, the first recorded account places it in the Basilica of San Frediano in 782 AD. When the new cathedral, Cattedrale di San Martino, was consecrated in 1070, the Holy Face statue was moved there, where it remains to the present day. It became the symbol of the city of Lucca and one of the most revered icons (with attendant miracles) of Christianity, reknown throughout Europe. An uninterrupted flow of the faithful traveling the Via Francigena, the pilgrims’ road between Rome and Canterbury, stopped in Lucca to see Il Volto Santo. In 1087, King William II of England, took a solemn oath in the name of the relic.

Dante, in the 14th century, knew Il Volto Santo of Lucca. Dante wrote in Inferno: Canto XXI of the fifth chasm where embezzlers and thieves serve their sentences. The story is about Martino Bottario, a renowned magistrate in Lucca at that time, who is mocked by devils yelling “here the hallow’d visage saves not,” making it clear to the damned that not even praying to the relic will save him. His damnation will be as eternal as Il Volto Santo. Dante would probably be happy that the crucifix survives to the present day and Martino Bottario still suffers at the hands of the demons of the fifth chasm.

The intricately carved dark wooden crucifix, located in a free-standing octagonal Carrara marble chapel, which was built in 1484 by Matteo Civitali, the sculptor-architect of Lucca. Modern thought was that present crucifix is an early 13th century copy of the original, ascribed to the circle of sculptor Benedetto Antelami. The theory was that the original was chipped away beyond repair by relic-seeking pilgrims. But this theory has recently been proved wrong.

The Black Crucifix is Over 1,200 Years Old

On the occasion of the 2020 celebrations for the 950th anniversary of the creation of the Cathedral of Lucca, the Opera del Duomo of Lucca requisitioned a series of diagnostic investigations on the crucifix of the Black Christ. The tests were carried out with the Carbon 14 method, by the Florence office of the National Institute of Nuclear Physics CHNet – Cultural Heritage Network. Three wooden samples of the sculpture and a fragment of canvas applied on the wooden surface were used for the tests. They gave a striking result: the work can be dated between the last decades of the eighth and the beginning of the ninth century.

Oldest wooden statue in Europe

It is confirmation that the carving is the first and only Holy Face crucifix, which ancient texts claim to have arrived in Lucca in 782 AD and not a 12th-century work, a replica of an older original that had been lost, as art historians believed until the Carbon 14 tests. In light of the new data, Il Volto Santo di Lucca is the oldest known intact wooden sculpture in the Western World.

Of particular importance for the dating of this extraordinary work is the result obtained from the examination of the linen cloth, placed between the wood and the paint, given that the cutting of a vegetable fiber destined for weaving did not normally precede its processing, while the wood used in the carving could be subjected to a seasoning period after the tree was cut.

Detail of undecorated statue (photo: Lucio Ghilardi)

The deep brown hue of the sculpture is from a polychrome brown covering over the wood. This was determined in 2013, during restoration of the marble chapel, when non-invasive x-rays and multispectral analysis were performed on the crucifix. Historic documentation reveals that the color was present in the 17th century, but does not say when it was applied.

Currently, in addition to the Carbon 14 tests, the Opera del Duomo in Lucca has commissioned the CNR Institute of Applied Physics in Florence to carry out investigations on the layers of color present on the surface of the sculpture, and is awaiting those results. A survey of the microclimate inside the chapel of the Holy Face is also underway, which for a year will test the humidity and temperature values, fundamental for the conservation of a wooden work.

Time for Pesto

Italian cuisine is not only regional; it is also seasonal. Insalata Caprese (mozzarella, tomato and basil) is not served in the winter. Spicy, hearty Pappardelle al Ragu Di Cinghiale, does not please on a hot summer’s day. When spring arrives it is time for pesto.

Ligurian Basil (photo visitgenoa.it)

Pesto is a sauce synonymous with Liguria and pesto alla genovese unites the region. Unfortunately, for those of us living outside of Italy and craving pesto, it is incredibly hard to find the real thing. Too often a jar labeled “Genovese Pesto” contains some basil, spinach, canola or safflower oil, pecorino cheese or grana padano, ground walnuts or cashews, lemon juice concentrate, dried minced garlic, salt and pepper.

For those looking for the remembered taste of spring on the coast near Genoa overlooking the Ligurian sea, its time to shop for fresh basil, garlic, pine nuts, Parmesan cheese and extra virgin olive oil, and if you are a purist, pull out the mortar and pestle. (If not, a food processor is found in many an Italian kitchen, although here’s a low tech option.)

Ligurian Garlic (photo by liguriafood.it)

For those with pandemic time on their hands: in the mortar pine nuts are muddled with fresh garlic and salt; basil leaves are added with a drizzle of olive oil and vigorously worked with the pestle into a smooth paste. (Both words – pestle and pesto – derive from the Italian verb pestare, meaning to crush or clobber. Late Latin – pisto. ) Finely grated cheese from Parma is stirred in at the end.

The ancient Romans used to eat a similar paste called moretum, which was made by crushing garlic, salt, cheese, herbs, olive oil and vinegar together. The use of this paste in the Roman cuisine is mentioned in the Appendix Vergiliana, an ancient collection of poems where the author dwells on the details about the preparation of moretum. During the Middle Ages, a popular sauce in the Genoan cuisine was agliata, a mash of garlic and walnuts. Garlic was a staple for the seagoing Ligurians.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil (photo oiliocristofaro.it)

The introduction of basil, the main ingredient of modern pesto, occurred in more recent times and is first documented only in the mid-19th century, when gastronomist Giovanni Battista Ratto published his book La Cuciniera Genovese in 1863.

The recipe for pesto alla genovese was often revised in the following years. A recipe from La Vera Cuciniera Genovese by Emanuele Rossi (1865), which is quoted in Grande Enciclopedia Illustrata della Gastronomia, began with “Put three or four garlic cloves in a mortar with some basil leaves (depending on how perfumed the basil is, at a rough proportion of four or five leaves for every garlic clove) …”

In 1944, The New York Times mentioned an imported canned pesto paste. In 1946, Sunset magazine published a pesto recipe by Angelo Pellegrini (1904 – 1991) who immigrated from Tuscany, at age 9, to the state of Washington. In 1948, he wrote The Unprejudiced Palate, an important work in the history of food literature that remains in print. Genovese pesto was not immediately embraced by the American public and did not rise in popularity until the late 1980s.

Ligurian basil is known for its mild, elegant flavor and delicate leaves. In the region, basil is grown according to DOP (denominazione d’origine protetta) standards, set in 2005, which protect the integrity of the product and emphasize its specific terroir.

Trofie Pasta

The type of pasta is also important. Linguine trenete (a thicker version of traditional linguine) or short, twisted trofie. Said to have been invented in the Ligurian seaside town of Recco when a pasta maker rubbed her hands together after kneading a batch of dough and the curled pieces that fell away became trofie. Also, remember that in Italy the pasta is dressed, not drowned, with pesto alla genovese, as with any other sauce.


Genoa native, restaurateur, and self-styled ambassador of pesto, Roberto Panizza created the Genoa Pesto World Championship in 2007 with a bunch of like-minded friends.

Held every two years, it’s a competition to promote the product and teach the world how to make it properly in a mortar with a pestle. According to the championship website: “Behind pesto is history, and art, and a quality of life.… The contest can be won by Italians or by foreigners. But above all, the winner is Pesto, a healthy, natural and democratic sauce.”

Pesto Trivia: During the G8 Summit that Genoa hosted in 2001, Silvio Berlusconi, then the prime minister, decreed that garlic be left out of the pesto served at the official lunch. Worse, he stipulated it be called “basil sauce” rather than pesto alla genovese. The locals were horrified, and protested by throwing garlic at him.

Tuscan Traveler is Back and Tuscany has Changed

Tuscan Traveler has been on hiatus for about a year and for nine months of that time Florence and Tuscany existed without change – packed with tourists, full of art and history, replete with fabulous food. Then the world turned upside down and Italy helped lead the way with Covid-19 cases, but also with testing and treatment – experiences that helped the rest of Europe and the United States. Tuscany, to date, has 9,445 cases and has lost 854 people to the virus.

Florence has been locked down since March 9, a much stricter practice than is occurring in 90% of the United States. This gave way to views of the city much more like it was 500 years ago than today. Films using drones can be found here and here. An empty Renaissance urban landscape.

Coronavirus update April 27, 2020 from the Sachi art school in Florence:

Last night, in a televised address to the nation, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte outlined Phase II of the government’s response to the Coronavirus crisis. Described as “coexisting with the virus,” Phase II will see the gradual easing of restrictions starting May 4, but there is a system in place requiring each region to inform the Ministry of Health on the curve of infections and on the success of the measures. Conte stressed that the decision to ease the restrictions could be reversed if the coronavirus epidemic shows signs of worsening again.

An update is expected in mid-May, but for now the plan is to further lift confinement measures on May 18 (retail shops, museums, libraries, and cultural sites), and then again on June 1 (bars, restaurants, hairdressers, and beauty salons). Conte confirmed that schools will not reopen until September. As of May 4, the following will be allowed:

Outdoor individual exercise (at any distance from home), keeping a social distance of 1 to 2 meters.

Takeout food from restaurants (food must be eaten at home or in the workplace)

Movement from one municipality to another, but not between different regions except for proven work-related matters, health reasons, or extraordinary circumstances

Visiting relatives (no large family gatherings or parties allowed)

Funerals with close relatives in attendance (no more than 15 people and social distancing must be kept)

Visiting public parks (local authorities will determine which parks can be opened, depending upon how feasible it is to respect health and safety measures).

Returning to one’s own home from a different region

Reopening of factories, building sites, wholesale, and real estate

Note the following restrictions:

Anyone with a fever must stay home by law

Protective masks are required on public transportation (this is a central government requirement, but local regional measures in Tuscany are currently stricter.            

Masks must always be worn when leaving your home). The price for protective masks should not exceed €0,50.

Church services remain banned


South of Tuscany


As seen worldwide, the virus moved countrywide in Italy. The main concentration originated in the north, but before the nation locked down there was a rush to the train stations by those with families in the south and the virus came too. For small hill towns like Nerola outside Rome this was especially devastating since there is no local hospital and the population is made up of older residents.

The name Nerola is probably derived from the Sabine word nero or nerio, which meant “strong” and “brave”. The inscription on the fountain in the piazza of the town hall “A Nerone tuum Nerola nomen habet” traces the origin of the name back to the Roman emperor Nero, whose ancestors had distant Sabine origins.

The Sabines divided into two populations just after the founding of Rome. The population closer to Rome transplanted itself to the new city and united with the preexisting citizenry. The second population remained a mountain tribal state, coming finally to war against Rome for its independence along with all the other Italic tribes. After losing, it became assimilated into the Roman Republic. It is in these low mountains that Nerola sits.

The town’s defining characteristic is the castle. The Castello Orsini di Nerola or Castello di Nerola is a medieval, Romanesque-style castle situated atop a hill above the town proper. The original castle likely dates to the 10th century, but documentation places the castle in the hands of the Orsini family by 1235. In that century, the outline of the castle, with merlonated walls, a moat, and towers was built. Ultimately, the castle would be sold in 1728 to Cornelia Barberini and Giulio Cesare Colonna. It was used as shelter by the Garibaldini in the 1867 attack on Rome. It now functions as a hotel and conference center.

Today, the castle presides over a town completely quarantined by the Italian government with the army moving in to enforce the order. With a population of 1,900 people, Nerola was declared a red zone in the first week of April, after 77 coronavirus cases were found, many at a local nursing home. The mayor, Sabrina Granieri, tells of the shock of the town’s residents, who were not even allowed out to shop for groceries (supplies were delivered to each home), but expressed their hope that testing of the entire population may help to inform the national response to the virus. (See interview with the mayor.)

All those who have a special affection for Florence, Tuscany and Italy, we wish that it will not be long before we can return to spend time with friends, reacquaint ourselves with favorite pieces of art, and savor that scrumptious Tuscan cuisine.

Tuscan Traveler’s Picks – Cucina Tipica, An Italian Adventure by Andrew Cotto

Andrew Cotto, author of three novels and numerous magazine and newspaper articles, lives real life in Brooklyn, but dreams of Italy ever since a life-changing year in a Tuscan village over fifteen years ago. The experience, especially the wine and food, finds its way into the pages of his new novel, Cucina Tipica, An Italian Adventure.

Many Americans dream of living for a year or two in Italy, but you actually did it. Over fifteen years ago, you and your wife and your eighteen-month-old daughter pulled up roots in New York and moved to Tuscany for a year. How did you make that happen when so many people don’t?

Good question. It must have been a combination of youthful indiscretion (we were in our early-30s at the time) and a burning desire to do something different. In reality, the move was part of my transition from the corporate world to that of writing/teaching, so there was going to be some limbo time while I wrote and planned…Why not spend it in Italy?

The “barn” in Antella where Andrew and his family lived for a year.

Your new novel, Cucina Tipica, An Italian Adventure, is set in the same small Tuscan town where your family lived during that year in Italy. Besides the setting and the food, how did your experiences in Antella, near Florence, find life in your novel?

Besides the setting and the food (which the novel makes clear are very important to me), the best thing about Antella was its representation of everyday life in Italy. There were no tourists (besides us!) and, therefore, a quaint rhythm that we loved. We spent a lot of time just hanging around the piazza or the café; I regularly visited the butcher (who quickly became a dear friend and ambassador) and the fruit/vegetable stand, the groceria and gelateria…Just immersing in a traditional community without the trappings and burdens of tourism was very special. We made friends that we keep till this day, and I paid homage to their lifestyle in the novel (even using actual characters, such as the butcher). It’s intended to juxtapose with life in America, in general, and New York City, in particular.

The title of your book and the wild boar cavorting on the cover imply that Italian food is another character in the story. It that true? And specifically, how does cinghiale (wild boar) figure in the plot?

Yes, it is so true! Food and setting are characters in this book, and the food in particular plays a very important function as it doesn’t just provide the characters (particularly the protagonist, Jacoby, who has a “golden palate”) with sustenance and pleasure, but also a real sense of wellness. It is eating well (and drinking well, I should add, as there’s lots of wine consumed) that validates the everyday beauty of being alive. This is somewhat grandiose sounding, I know, but I believe it to be true and something so often overlooked.

As far as the cinghiale goes, you’ll have to read the book to discover the very important role a particularly malevolent and large one plays in the plot. I’ll give you a hint: It’s very “barn to table.”

What are the best aspects of being an American living in Italy? What are the worst aspects of being an American living in Italy?

Beyond the obvious aspects of eating/drinking amongst natural beauty and human achievement, I love being an American in Italy because it’s liberating. There are no civic obligations, no need to follow the news or current affairs. My Italian is functional, but I can easily tune out any conversation and therefore not be privy to conversations others are having (all I hear is lovely language exchanged). I don’t worry about the day to day minutia that complicates life when one is at home and in the grind. This is a big part of the book where Jacoby wants to be an “American Italian” – an identity, I guess, slightly less official than an ex-pat.

I know this is contradictory, but the hard part is being removed from America, as there is – for me, at least – a need to follow what’s happening at home, if even only tangentially at times. I love America and so want to be part of that whole “more perfect union” prospect.

Andrew Cotto in Italy

How did your year in Italy change the trajectory of your life? Or did it?

As noted, I was transitioning careers, so my life was going to change at that point whether I spent it in Italy or not, but – that said – the experience of living, really living, somewhere else inspired a great appreciation of place and how the “where & when” of our existence has such an impact on our lives. I take this knowledge into the classrooms where I teach and the narratives I create. Obviously, my love of food and wine, also, increased dramatically, and this informs my life everyday as does the knowledge that there is a place on earth that I get to dream about regularly and visit fairly often.

What question do you wish people would ask about Cucina Tipica, An Italian Adventure?

It’s a tie between:

Where will the sequel take place?

Who will play Jacoby in the movie?

(TuscanTraveler should have asked Andrew to answer his own questions…)

Finding the Foods You Miss After Leaving Italy

To many of us who had the fortunate experience of living for years in Italy, we miss many things when we return to our home countries. For me the list is long and populated with the foods I despaired at finding on this continent. But I was wrong.

Burrata

Mozzarella in the U.S. is notoriously rubbery and tasteless. Burrata, the most decadent of all mozzarella cheeses, must be eaten fresh and doesn’t travel well from Italy

Burrata is a little mozzarella sack filled with creamy goodness. It’s made from fresh cow’s milk (Of course, I also love the version using the milk of water buffalos, but the breed is rare in the U.S. I wrote about mozzarella di bufala here and here.). The outer shell is solid mozzarella, while the inside contains stracciatella(“rags” of mozzarella) and cream, giving it an incredible rich, soft, creamy texture.

But then I discovered BelGioioso Burrata at Whole Foods. Of course, the company has deep roots in Italy. The BelGioioso story began over a century ago when the great-grandfather of the current BelGioioso President, Errico Auricchio, founded a cheese company near Naples. In 1979, Errico moved his family from Italy to America with the goal of continuing his great-grandfather’s legacy. He wanted to craft the best Italian cheeses in the United States.

When Errico came to America, he scoured the United States in search of the highest quality milk to begin his goal of making exceptional specialty cheeses. It was in Wisconsin that he found the dedicated dairy farmers and abundant green pastures that produce superior milk.

In addition to his immediate family, Errico also brought with him two master cheesemakers, Mauro and Gianni. They carried with them a strict focus on quality and a passion for crafting flavorful Italian-style cheeses using artisan methods. Mauro and Gianni remain part of the BelGioioso family today and work tirelessly to share their wisdom with each new generation of cheesemakers.

BelGioioso Burrata is not just close to the quality of burrata made in southern Italy, it is equal to that luscious treat, especially when paired with tomatoes from the farmers’ market, fresh basil, and a great extra-virgin olive oil. But what about that olive oil?

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

My preference in olive oil is the Tuscan-style that has a crisp flavor, like fresh-cut grass, green and a slightly sweet. It has a peppery aftertaste that can catch in the throat. It took me years to find an oil that measured up to Tuscan oil in the U.S. – I had friends bring bottles from Florence – but finally in San Francisco I found Bi-Rite supermarket-branded Frantoio Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil, made for the specialty market by Frantoio Grove in San Martin, California.

When I checked the Frantoio Grove website I found the following explanation from the owner:

The first step was to decide what style of oil to make. The vast majority of oil produced in California is made from Spanish varieties. Either the old growth canning olives (Mission and Sevillano) now converted to oil production or the modern varieties of Arbequina and Arbosana grown in high densities on a large scale. Both styles produce mellow more buttery oil, soft in flavor.  There are currently 50,000 acres planted to this style in California.

As a small producer, it made no sense to compete on their style of oil so I kept looking. The most interesting oil on the market to me were the Tuscan blends. These oils tend to be more pungent and peppery and, in my mind, more interesting. It was suggested that I consider growing an orchard using a single variety. After much research and tasting of varietal oils we decided on the Frantoio (Fran-toy-ō) variety and then planted Frantoio Grove in 2005.

The professional taster’s comments for the 2017 harvest are:

* Spicy grassy green aromas with warm undertones of cinnamon

* Soft and beautifully balanced on the palate with a complex mixture of green and ripe fruity notes (nutty, floral, artichoke, fresh-cut grass, cinnamon, with some wood/hay/straw.)

* The finish is long-pleasantly peppery and slightly bitter with a lingering nutty sweetness.

I clearly found the olive oil for me!

But since it is not inexpensive, I only use Frantoio olive oil for salads, veggies, bruschetta and burrata – any time the taste of the oil is an important part of the dish.

When I’m cooking with olive oil,  I agree with Samin Nosrat, who in her new book Salt Fat Acid Heat, recommends Costco’s Kirkland Signature Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil.  I knew Samin when she worked at Zibbibo in Florence and she knows her olive oil. My personal preference is Costco’s Kirkland Signature 100% Italian Extra Virgin Olive Oil.

Dario Cecchini’s Panzanese Steak

I have written about the meat empire in Panzano, a tiny town in Tuscany. It’s been over four years since I have been able to savor a three-finger thick rare steak grilled by Dario Cecchini. I’ve written about Dario’s butcher shop and restaurants many times (here, here, here and here). And I have not had a steak to compare in the U.S.

But now I hear Dario has come to my continent. Instead of flying for eight hours, I just need to catch a plane to Nassau, Bahamas. Dario’s first steakhouse outside of Italy opened December 22, 2018. Called Carna, it’s located in the Baha Mar resort.

It’s time to take a vacation!

Uffizi Wants Its Painting Back!

In 2015, a German was appointed to run the most Italian of museums in Florence, Le Gallerie degli Uffizi, the Galleries of the Uffizi (includes not only the Uffizi Gallery, but also the Vassari Corridor, the Boboli Gardens and the Palazzo Pitti), the first time a foreigner has run the museum. After only three years on the job, the new German director of the Uffizi, Eike Schmidt, is drawing international attention by demanding the return of a painting stolen by Nazi troops in 1943 and presently in the hands of a German family. Schmidt says the German government has a “moral duty” to help bring the still life Vase of Flowers, painted by Dutch master Jan van Huysum back to the museum.

Tuscan Grand Duke Leopold II originally bought the painting in 1824, which he displayed in the Palazzo Pitti. Included in a large collection other Dutch masters, Vase of Flowers was part of the Uffizi’s collection (the gallery opened to the public in 1769) for over one hundred years before it taken down and hidden away in the Tuscan countryside to protect it (along with most of the art in the Uffizi) during World War II. But German troops found and stole this work, among many others, in 1943 as they retreated north away from the Allied advance.

The fact that Vase of Flowers survived the theft and journey to Germany came to light in 1991 after the unification of Germany. Intermediaries for the unidentified family have demanded payment – which the Uffizi refuses – while Germany says a statute of limitations on crimes committed more than 30 years ago stops it from intervening.

Schmidt has called on Germany to abolish the statute of limitations on works stolen by the Nazis so all looted art can return to its “legitimate owners.” “Because of this, the wounds of World War Two and Nazi terror have not yet healed,” Schmidt said in a statement on the gallery’s website.

With a most modern method, the ancient Uffizi made the controversy public on Twitter  with hashtags like #Nazis and #Wehrmacht to make digital demands that Germany return the stolen painting. With a link to a lengthy “appeal to Germany for 2019” the museum also posted on its website a video showing Director Schmidt affixing a black-and-white photo of Van Huysum’s still life in the Room of the Putti of the Pitti Palace, where the painting once hung.

Around the photo in bold red lettering is the word “stolen” in Italian, English and German, and a caption posted in front of it explains that the work was taken by German soldiers and is now held by a German family. Schmidt hopes that generating publicity about Vase of Flowers should make it harder for the Germans who hold the painting to try to sell it.

The New York Times reported:

The painting has been the object of “on-and-off negotiations” for decades between Italian authorities and agents for the German family that has the work, Mr. Schmidt said. He said he did not know the identity of the family, but that it was “very likely” that they were related to the soldier who took the painting during the war.

Last year, a representative for the German family offered to return the work in exchange for a substantial sum of money (Italian media reported the sum as 500,000 euros, or about $567,000), prompting the museum — and Italian judicial authorities — to take action.

“We’re trying to get the German family to understand that we are not in a legal position to buy something that according to Italian and international law we already own,” said Mr. Schmidt.

Italian authorities have opened a criminal investigation into the painting’s movements since it was taken from Italy. They have reportedly asked German judicial authorities to cooperate in the investigation.

Director Eike Schmidt

Eike Schmidt, 50, was born in Freiburg im Breisgau, and studied Medieval and Modern Art History in Heidelberg, where he also completed a doctorate with a thesis on “The Medici Ivory Sculpture Collection in the 16th and 17th Centuries.” From 2009 until his move to the Uffizi in 2015, he was at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts as curator and director of the Sculpture, Applied and Textile Arts Department. From 1994 to 2001, he worked as a researcher at Florence’s Deutsches Kunstshistorisches Institut. Between 2001 and 2006, he was curator and researcher at Washington D.C.’s National Gallery of Art, from 2006 to 2008 curator of the Sculpture and Decorative Arts Department at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Between 2008 and 2009, he worked at Sotheby’s in London as director and head of the European Sculpture and Applied Arts Department.

Uffizi Director Eike Schmidt’s Message to Germany

 

Tuscan Traveler’s Pick – New Biscotti Museum in Florence

On the occasion of the 160th anniversary of its founding, the Biscottificio Antonio Mattei, the famed biscotti bakery, is opening its Piccolo Museo Bottega  in the heart of Florence.

Shop in the Biscotti Museum

With the same spirit of simplicity and elegance that has always distinguished Mattei’s image world-wide, the well-designed space contains an archive of memorabilia and documents that tell the story of both the company and the Pandolfini family, who have been operating the  biscottificio since 1904, when they inherited it from Antonio Mattei.

A portion of the Mattei archives

The museum of Mattei’s long history is divided into five sections dedicated to the various phases of the workmanship, from the historical tools to the ever-evolving packaging to the new takes on the decades-old recipe. And, of course, it will also be possible to buy and taste their scrumptious products.

Another goal of the Piccolo Museo Mattei is to highlight the synergy and relation between the two similar, but competing towns – Prato and Florence – by opening a “window” onto lesser- known Prato’s history in order to make both Italian and international visitors aware of one of Prato’s gourmet offerings.

Piccolo Museo Bottega

Via Porta Rossa 76/r

Monday  3.00pm / 7.00pm

Tuesday / Sunday  10.00am / 7.00pm

Mangia! Mangia! – L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele Opens in Florence

The famed Antica Pizzeria da Michele of Naples opened a location in Florence in early May. Located at Piazza del Mercato Centrale, 22R, the Florence pizzeria will follow the same formula that has won it acclaim in Naples.

L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele (photo: facebook.com/damichelefirenze)

This means they only serve margherita and marinara pizzas (don’t try to ask for anything else, including extra cheese, pepperoni or mozzerella di bufala), as well as offering the same wine and beers that are served in the original pizzeria.

Reportedly serving 3,000 pizzas per night at the original Naples flagship location (in Via Cesare Sersale), where a line snakes down the street, da Michele has been the destination of pizza purists from around the world. Florence can now enjoy a taste of Naples. The Condurro family has served the same recipes since 1870 from the same location since 1930. The opening in Florence follows those in Milan, Rome, London and Barcelona, as well as in Japan (Tokyo and Fukuoka).

Pizza Margherita da Michele

There is even a book (only published in Italian): “L’antica pizzeria da Michele. Dal 1870 la Pizza di Napoli.” Written by Laura Condurro one of the great-grandchildren of Michele Condurro, “Michele” of da Michele. She details the history of the Condurro family who for over a century has been able to preserve flavors and respect the quality of a typical and irreplaceable product of the Neapolitan culinary tradition, which has not allowed the “papocchie” (messes) that have nothing to do with the taste of authentic pizza.

Michele, the progenitor, passed on to his children and grandchildren the passion for a product that represents Naples in the world. Luigi, one of Michele’s sons, often repeated that: ”È la passione che fa fare bene le cose…io so fare bene pochissime cose nella mia vita, ma quelle poche cose le faccio con passione,con la convinzione di essere il migliore.” (“It is the passion that makes things do well … I can do very few things well in my life, but I do the few things with passion, with the conviction to be the best.”)

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Expatriate Stories, Dr. Buly finds Podere Collalto

Owning a villa in Tuscany, producing fine wine and fragrant olive oil, is the fantasy of many Americans, but one that rarely comes to fruition. For years, Dr. Robert Buly nurtured such a dream, but once it came true he still had to keep his day job as a renown orthopedic surgeon in New York to fund his expatriate life.

View near Trequanda, Italy

A family history of immigration from Europe to the United States forms the basis of Dr. Buly’s interest in Italy and adds depth to his appreciation of the land of which he and his family now have stewardship. Although Bob and his family haven’t moved to Tuscany for good, his heart seems to be in Trequanda.

Grandparents Emigrate from Ukraine to Pennsylvania

Soon after the turn of the 20th century there was a grand immigration from Eastern Europe to Western Pennsylvania by those in search of work in the thriving steel mills, including Bob’s grandparents traveling from Ukraine for a better life. Their son, Mike (Bob’s father), who had just started to work as a plumber, rushed to enlist when the U.S. entered World War II. He was sent to Italy.

Mike Buly in Florence 1945

Mike Buly was a soldier in the U.S. Fifth Army. Moving north up the Italian peninsula he fought to liberate Italy from the occupying Germans at a time that it was essential to split the attention of the enemy forces as the D-Day landing was being implemented. As the Fifth Army entered Tuscany they took heavy casualties. Many of Mike’s comrades now lay buried in the American Cemetery of Florence.

Mike Buly Finds a Bride in Italy

Soon after the the town of Trequanda was liberated in southern Tuscany Mike and a buddy commandeered a motor scooter and took off through the countryside looking for a place to buy a few straw-covered fiascos of the local red wine. Seeing some lights on a hilltop, they droved into the village of Torre a Castello. A local festa di liberazione was taking place with music, dancing, food and, most important to Mike and his friend, a lot of local wine.

Fedora Gigli, who lived in a nearby village, was attending the celebration with seven of her female cousins. The two young American soldiers in uniform became the hit of the party. And that was the night Dr. Buly’s parents fell in love.

Italy was liberated April 25, 1945, and victory in Europe soon followed on May 8. Mike Buly could have chosen to take his well-earned discharge, but he reenlisted once his commanding officer confirmed that he could remain with the U.S. Army in Italy instead of going to the Pacific. He immediately started to jump through the Army’s bureaucratic hoops necessary to marry an Italian citizen, as well as to beg permission from Fedora’s family.

Mike and Fedora get married in 1945

Mike and Fedora were married in the village of Serre di Rapolano, just ten miles from where they first met. The entire village turned out for the wedding on November 29, 1945. Post-war Italy was in a state of chaos and poverty. Through the black market Mike was able to obtain gasoline for the vehicles, food and wine and even the hard-to-find ingredients for the wedding cake. His sister Stella, who lived on a farm in Pennsylvania, couldn’t attend, but sent Fedora a wedding dress. Fedora’s young cousin Giulio was part of the wedding party (he plays a big part, later). Fedora emigrated with her new husband to his hometown in western Pennsylvania. She and Mike would raise five sons. Robert Buly was the third.

When the Buly family finances could afford it, the seven of them would travel to visit Fedora’s extended family. (Remember the seven female cousins? They were only a fraction of the clan, all living near Siena.) Bob and his brothers became fluent in Italian since their mother spoke it at home. They all loved Italian food and the Tuscan lifestyle. Bob always dreamed of being able to have a place in the Italy that could produce olive oil and wine.

Finding a Place to Call Home in Italy

In 2006, after years of searching for a suitable place, Bob’s cousin Giulio (the 1945 ring-bearer) learned that Podere Collalto was for sale, approximately 6 miles from his own vineyard and farm, just outside the Tuscan town of Trequanda. Podere means farm and Collalto means high hill.  The hilltop farm with its classic expansive Tuscan view had land for a vineyard and already contained over 300 olive trees.

Olive Groves at Podere Collalto

From their large casa colonica (farmhouse), Bob’s family can see the towns of Montalcino (the home of world-famous Brunello) and Montepulciano (the excellent, but less well known, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano). Bob felt that the climate and soil should certainly be conducive to producing an excellent wine. His cousin Giulio felt that U.S.-based Bob was crazy for attempting this endeavor. Giulio has his own vineyard of almost 6 acres and offered to sell a portion of his grape harvest. But, Bob, whose undergraduate degree from Penn State’s college of agriculture was in plant science, felt just buying grapes to make his own wine would not be the same. He wanted to establish his own vineyard.

Casa Colonica at Podere Collalto

The vineyard was planted in early 2008. The altitude provides a summer breeze which dries out the vineyard after rainstorms and cool nights to allow the grapes to rest. The soil in the region appears to be perfect for olives and grapes, rocky, full of minerals and drainage, and not overly fertile. Bob likes to say that Italians feel that, like people, olive trees and vines do better in the long run if they have to suffer and struggle somewhat as they develop.

Buli “Estate 44” Toscano Rosso

Bob started with 1.2 acres of Sangiovese, Cabernet and Merlot grapes to create a red blend, known in the U.S. as Super Tuscan. He also planted some white grapes to be used for Vin Santo. In March 2012, he tripled the size of the vineyard and added a Shiraz varietal. The vineyard now produces about 1200 cases per year. Bob Buly called the winery Buli (the Italian version of his Ukrainian name). He named one of his red wines Estate 44, which in Italian is Summer of 44, to honor the soldiers who liberated Trequanda on July 1, 1944.

Bob has the help of not only his family, but also an enologist, Massimo Carpini, to employ more scientific techniques rather than the traditional Tuscan methods of his cousin, but harvesting the grapes is still labor-intensive and done in the traditional way. To bulk up his labor force Bob has managed year after year to convinced his American friends, professionals from all walks of life, to come to Tuscany during the vendemmia (harvest) for a few days of backbreaking physical labor, followed each evening by a great meal and a lot of wine from past vintages.