Monthly Archives: August 2011

Save Time, Skip the Line, See the Duomo … and More!

I have a friend who recently visited Florence for a week with a to-do list that didn’t allow for standing in line for hours – too much to see, too little time. Unfortunately, Florence is the city of lines and, although with some planning a resident or visitor can reserve spots (for a price) in a shorter line at some of the museums, there was no way to avoid the queue at the Duomo. My friend solved her problem by signing up for a 15 euro tour of the cathedral that she didn’t want to take, but this saved her from standing with hundreds of people, waiting to get in the front door.

408 in line for the Duomo at 10am on August 24
408 in line for the Duomo at 10am on August 24

I have another friend who is one of those “it’s Tuesday so it must be Florence” type of traveler. He has to see the Uffizi, the David, the Duomo and the Baptistery between 9am and 7pm – no time for lines.

ARTFAST Priority Line Sign
ARTFAST Priority Line Sign

To the rescue comes the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore and a Milan-based company called Key Fast. In partnership, they are trying to give visitors (tourists and citizens, alike) the option to skip the lines at the Duomo (visited by over 25,000 people per day), Brunelleschi’s Dome (approx. 2,000 climbers/day), Giotto’s Bell Tower, the Baptistery, the Duomo Crypt and the Museo Opera del Duomo. The cost? A mere 7 euro for a Priority Pass that is good for unlimited expedited entries for an entire year. (To be clear: this card does not get you free entry, just fast entry (see below).)

For the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, this is forward thinking, unexpected of the 715 year-old lay organization that is charged with the conservation of the cathedral. For Key Fast, operating as ARTFAST, it was “simply” seeing a need and providing a solution.

One wishes that listless Ministero per I Beni e le Attivitá Culturali and bureaucratic Polo Fiorentino Museale, which are charged with solving the dual disasters of the never-ending lines at the Uffizi and the Accademia, take note of the ingenuity of the spry Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore.

ARTFAST is a gem of an idea of the folks behind the year-old SKIFAST smart card. (SKIFAST allows skiers to get on the slopes faster by skipping the lines at the lift ticket windows.) ARTFAST, using the various sites in Piazza del Duomo as a trial operation, eventually hopes to aid visitors in Rome, Milan and Venice, to move more quickly into venues to marvel at the art and history, rather than roast slowly in the August sun. And, hopefully, ongoing negotiations will result in the service being offered at other museums in Florence (there may be hope for the Uffizi and Accademia, yet).

ARTPASS representative answers questions about the service
ARTPASS representative answers questions about the service

Visitors (and residents) can choose to buy the card and then go directly to the Priority Pass entrance (it may be a different door, it maybe a different speedy lane to the original entrance). Once inside, if there is an entrance fee (as with Brunelleschi’s Dome or the Baptistery) the Priority Pass holder will go immediately to the kiosk to purchase an entry ticket. If there is no entry fee, as with the main sanctuary of the Duomo, those with the Priority Pass will merely show their card to the attendant and enter (later, this activity will be mechanized with a swipe of the smart card).

ARTFAST hopes that soon the visit to the ticket kiosk will be unnecessary because of plans to install (at the cost to the Key Fast company of over 100,000 euro) a wi-fi smart card system that will allow ARTFAST cardholders to pay the fee by swiping the same card that allows them expedited entry.

All aspects of the service are not in place yet (wi-fi repeaters and smartcard readers need to be installed in very wi-fi-unfriendly ancient stone structures (something the prescient Brunelleschi never envisioned), therefore ARTFAST is testing parts of the system by using a simple plastic pass that is being sold by company representatives outside the door to the ticket office at the bottom of the stairway to Brunelleschi’s Dome. They can take all credit cards (except Amex), as well as debit cards. In the first ten days of the trial period, ARTFAST has been surprised and gratified by the popularity of the service. The initial supply of cards has run low some days.

Priority Pass to skip the line at 5 locations in Piazza del Duomo
Priority Pass to skip the line at 5 locations in Piazza del Duomo

As an American, I could tell them that my compatriots, on a hot (hitting over 100 F this week) museum-filled day in Florence, would be happy to pay 7 euro to be spared 30 to 45 minutes in line. (Today, I counted 408 people in the queue outside the Duomo just before the door opened at 10am.) This is especially true since the card works in five locations and can be used over and over (by the same person) for a full year. Reportedly, tourists from Spain, however, are outnumbering Americans in purchasing the pass.

Italian newspapers, trying to work up a bit of controversy, argue the card discriminates against the poor who can’t afford to expedite entry into the cost-free Duomo. This is an accusation without basis. The ARTFAST service actually shortens the line for those who don’t take part by getting Priority Pass holders out of the queue. When, in the near future, tour operators and their huge groups use it, the pass will make the Duomo line a thing of the past.

Reportedly, the priests are concerned that the marketing the ARTFAST pass makes it look like the Duomo is not open for free visits (please note that fees are charged at Santa Croce, Santa Maria Novella and San Lorenzo…). Hopefully, they will soon realize this is merely a time-saving service that allows hundreds of people to be amazed and awed at the wonders of the third largest cathedral in the world, rather than be forced by time constraints (and perhaps, lack of patience) to forsake a visit the Duomo because of the incredible line.

Who says Florence is empty in August?
Who says Florence is empty in August?

Italian Food Rules – No Pizza for Lunch

Mangiare la pizza prima delle nove mi fa tristeza,” asserts my friend Teresa, echoing Italians everywhere – “To eat pizza before 9pm makes me sad.”

The Italian Food Rule: No pizza for lunch.

In the U.S. pizza is eaten at any time of the day – even cold for breakfast in dorm rooms on every college campus. Italians refuse to eat food served any which way, at any time of day or night.

The reasoning behind this Food Rule is exact: Pizza is to be eaten at a pizzeria at night because: 1) pizza must be made to order (no frozen pizza); 2) pizza must be eaten immediately after it comes out of the pizza oven (no take out); 3) pizza must be made by an expert – not a generic cook – a pizzaiolo (preferably born in Naples), who 4) is using a wood-burning pizza oven.

The pizzaiolo slides a pizza into the wood-burning oven
The pizzaiolo slides a pizza into the wood-burning oven

A wood-burning pizza oven takes a long time to get to the proper temperature (485º C or 905º F), so it will not produce the perfect pizza before 8:30 or 9 in the evening and it is usually considered a waste of time and energy (as well as a violation of the Food Rule) to fire it up for lunch. Pizzerias stay open until midnight or later, so a pizzaiolo gets in a full shift of work from prep at 7pm to clean up at 1am.

Another reason for the Food Rule is that pizza, unlike pasta, is considered a social food – a food for lovers and friends, not family. Pasta is associated with home and Mom’s cooking. Traditionally, Italians were expected home for lunch for Mom’s pasta. After Mom started working outside the home, the pasta meal moved to dinner – everyone was still expected to have their feet under her table at 7pm and pasta was served more times than not.

Pizza is a for lovers and friends
Pizza is for lovers and friends

Since the perfect pizza can’t be made at home (no kitchen oven reaches 485º C and most of the private wood-burning pizza ovens built in Italy are installed on the request of foreigners who want a “true Italian experience” at their vacation villa or Tuscan farm house), it becomes a social event. Pizzerias provide an upbeat, carefree, casual environment (no worries about getting tomato sauce on Mom’s favorite tablecloth). If there is a wood-burning pizza oven, it is usually on display, as is the pizzaiolo, adding to the festive atmosphere.

Americans are frequently disappointed with the pizza they eat in Italy. Of course, this is mainly because they ignore the Italian Food Rule: No pizza for lunch. But it is also because they expect Italian pizza to be like the pizza in Chicago, heaped high with everything. Perhaps generic pizza is more of an American fast food than a traditional part of Italian cuisine. Whereas, Italians have eaten pasta since the 12th century, pizza is relatively new on the scene.

History of Italian Pizza & How it Was Introduced to the World

Some say pizza was created in Italy in the late 19th century because of the tale of the queen and the pizza. But the pizzeria that served the queen tells this story:

Queen Margherita - famous because of a pizza
Queen Margherita - famous because of a pizza

“In 1780, the pizzeria Pietro e basta così (which means “Peter and that’s enough”) started its activity in Salita S.Anna di Palazzo near P.zza del Plebiscito. Its pizza, already extremely favored by the Neapolitans, soon became famous and appreciated in the whole city.

For this reason a century later, in 1889, the pizzaiolo of that pizzeria, now called Pizzeria Brandi, Raffaele Esposito, was invited at Court along with his wife Maria Giovanna Brandi. He baked three different pizzas for King Umberto I and Queen Margherita of Savoy. The Queen’s favorite was a pizza evoking the colors of the Italian flag – green (basil leaves), white (mozzarella), and red (tomatoes). This combination was named Pizza Margherita in her honor.”

Just over 150 years ago, Italy was a land of city states – Florentines did not eat what Romans ate and Venetians did not eat like the Sicilians. Pizza was strictly a food of Naples. But as World War One loomed, Italians from Naples emigrated to the U.S. In 1905, the first Italian pizzeria opened in New York and the fad spread much faster in the states and the rest of the world than it did in Italy.

Only with World War II did pizza become a dish made throughout Italy, this time sought by American soldiers as they made their way from Sicily through Naples to Milan and Venice. The pizza craze was also spread in Italy by the migration of southerners looking for jobs in the north after the war and was made trendy by the popular croonings of Italian-Americans Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin: “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie … that’s amore.” (Turn up the sound on Pizzeria Da Michele’s website.)

Pizza Margherita was named for a queen
Pizza Margherita was named for a queen

Rules for Making Perfect Pizza

The uneven nature of pizza quality throughout Italy, of course, led to new Food Rules. Purists, like the famous pizzeria Da Michele in Naples consider there to be only two true pizzas – the Marinara and the Margherita and that is all they serve. The Marinara has a topping of tomato, oregano, garlic, extra virgin olive oil and usually basil. The Margherita, is simply tomato sauce, mozzarella di bufala, fresh basil, and extra virgin olive oil. In Florence, Enzo, the pizzaiolo at Osteria Cafe Italiano serves three – Marinara, Margherita and Napoli (with capers and anchovies).

Due to the large number of pizzerias in Naples, the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (True Neapolitan Pizza Association) was founded in 1984 to certify the pizzerias using the proper ancient artisan traditions of authentic pizza. They have illuminated signs outside of pizzerias that follow their methods so Neapolitans know where to go for pizza verace.

A thin layer of perfect sauce is all that is needed
A thin layer of perfect sauce is all that is needed

The association set out very specific rules that must be followed to create an authentic Neapolitan pizza, including using ‘00’ flour (highly refined Italian flour), San Marzano tomatoes (grown in volcanic soil surrounding Mount Vesuvius – less acidic and slightly sweeter than other tomatoes), and Mozzarella di Bufala or Fior-di-Latte (fresh mozzarella made with milk from either water buffalo or cows).

The dough must be hand-kneaded by the  pizzaiolo and must not be rolled with a pin or prepared by any mechanical means, the pizza must not exceed 35 centimeters in diameter or be more than a third of a centimeter thick at the center. The sauce is spooned on and spread with the back of the spoon into a thin layer. Other ingredients are not piled on, but are scattered in a haphazard way. The pizza must be baked in a wood-fired, domed oven at 900°F for no more than 60 to 90 seconds.

Eccola! The perfect Margherita pizza – the crust is thin, dry and golden at the center; the edge is thicker, breadier and slightly scorched; the sauce is bubbling, but does not pool in the center; the cheese is melted and strings out as the slice is lifted (though some claim another Food Rule – pizza is to be eaten with a knife and fork); the two or three green leaves of basil are whole and only slightly cooked; and finally, a swirl of fresh extra virgin olive oil is added as an accent before the pizzaiolo releases it to the table.

Pizza Marinara - garlic and sauce, but no cheese
Pizza Marinara - garlic and sauce, but no cheese

Other Italian Food Rules for Pizza:

One pizza per person.

Drink beer or acqua frizzante with pizza

Leftover pizza is left, not taken home.

Do not ask for grated Parmesan for pizza.

Hot chili pepper (peperoncino) in oil or as powdered flakes is an accepted condiment.

Pizza may be eaten by the slice, usually while standing, at lunch.

It is sad to eat pizza alone.

Can you think of other Italian Pizza Food Rules?

Flying pizza dough
Flying pizza dough

Short List of Great Pizzerias:

Best pizza in Naples:

Pizzeria Da Michele

Pizzeria Brandi (formerly Pietro e basta cosi)

Best pizza in Florence:

Pizzeria Osteria Café Italiano

Munaciello

Best pizza in Rome:

bir & fud

Pizzeria Da Remo

What are your favorite pizzerias in Italy?