Category Archives: Tuscan Traveler’s Picks

Cats of Italy – Free eBooks

cats-of-italyThe Cats of Italy is a book for four longish short stories written about cats who live in four of the most scenic culturally rich parts of Italy. The stories are written from the viewpoints of the cats. Each story is also a travel guide of the cities and countryside of Italy. The book is a perfect holiday gift for the cat fancier, for those who have a passion for Italy, or for the special person who love both felines and Italian culture and history.

From December 10 through 14, 2016, the individual stories are available for free on Amazon in digital form, good for any Kindle or Kindle apps on phones or tablets. The physical book of the collection is also available on Amazon.

Cats of Florence

Cats of Florence for Kindle 2500 PixelsGuido, a Florentine cat, tells the tale of a dark and stormy night, eerily similar to the night that he was born, but this time he is trapped in a medieval tower. How did he get there? It was a quest.

By answering the appeal for an adventure from Gatone, their plump friend, Guido and his brother Dante cross the terracotta roofs of Florence to visit Dante’s House and Dante’s Church.

Thwarted by a wicked priest and a sticky, smelly boy, the three cats are trapped in a medieval tower while a storm rages outside. Will they ever get home? Therein lies the tale.

Cats of Venice

Cats of Venice for Kindle 2500 PixelsRegina is not feeling the love at home in her roof-top apartment and garden in Venice. A mishap results in a dunking in the canal. Life outside her palazzo would be a catastrophe except for the help offered by two “free” felines, Fosca and Casanova.

The threesome tour Venice, learning about the famous cats of Venetian history. But of course, Regina refuses to listen to her new friends and is captured and imprisoned.

Landing on her feet in an historic regal barge on the Grand Canal, Regina finds there is no place live home.

Cats of Rome

cats-of-rome-for-kindle-2500-pixelsFlavia, Cicero and Rocco are residents of the cat colony living in Largo di Torre Argentina, an ancient temple site in Rome. Where Julius Caesar met his end, the cats of Rome frolic.

A Cat Sanctuary with a feline clinic has been built by the Cat Ladies of Rome at one end of Torre Argentina. Now it is under threat from the bureaucrats who protect the archeological ruins of Rome.

The three cats take action going all the way to the top for support to save their sanctuary. It never hurts to have a friend in high places.

Cats of Calabria

cats-of-calabria-for-kindle-2500-pixelsVanda, Uffa and Pussipu live near the sea in the southernmost region of Italy. Pussipu is the pampered pet in a villa marked by a dark past and a darker present.

Vanda is the loved companion on a farm where the best mozzarella di bufala is made.

Their new best friend is Uffa, who surprisingly smells of licorice. The sights and smells of Calabria infuse their story.

Tuscan Traveler’s Picks – Nonfiction Books to Read Before You Go To Italy in 2017, Part Two

Instead of relying on internet sites and travel guides to inform your upcoming visit to Italy, get a copy of these histories, essays, cultural musings, and cookbooks to heighten the anticipation for your travels. Guide books are great planning tools, but an in-depth discussion of history and culture and cuisine will result in a richer Italian adventure. These books are set in Rome, Tuscany, Venice, Florence and Sicily. (Please add to the list by commenting on this post and check out last year’s picks.)

legal-holiday-books-624x445Tasting Rome: Fresh Flavors and Forgotten Recipes from an Ancient City by Katie Parla and Kristina Gill

Tasting Rome is a love letter from two Americans to their adopted city, showcasing modern dishes influenced by tradition, as well as the rich culture of their surroundings.

The new book provides a complete picture of a place that many love, but few know completely. In sharing Rome’s celebrated dishes, street food innovations, and forgotten recipes, journalist Katie Parla and photographer Kristina Gill capture its unique character and reveal its truly evolved food culture—a culmination of 2000 years of history.

 

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Their recipes explore the foundations of Roman cuisine and demonstrate how it has transitioned to the variations found today. There are the expected classics (cacio e pepe, pollo alla romana, fiori di zucca); the fascinating, but largely undocumented, Sephardic Jewish cuisine (hraimi con couscous, brodo di pesce, pizzarelle); the authentic and tasty offal (guanciale, simmenthal di coda, insalata di nervetti); and so much more.

Studded with narrative features that capture the city’s history and gorgeous photography that highlights both the food and its hidden city, you’ll feel immediately inspired to start tasting Rome either in the actual city or at home.

A Literary Tour of Italy by Tim Parks

41jtihlzrnl-_sx319_bo1204203200_Tim Parks with his finely observed writings on all aspects of Italian life and customs has now compiled a selection of his best essays on the literature of his adopted country.

From Boccaccio and Machiavelli through to Moravia and Tabucchi, from the Stil Novo to Divisionism, across centuries of history and intellectual movements, these essays give English readers, who love Italy and its culture, a primer on the best writing throughout Italian history.

Kirkus says: “Italian identity, [Parks] concludes, comes from a sense of belonging to groups such as family, friends, region, church, and political party. He often takes issue, therefore, with biographers who fail “to draw on the disciplines of psychology and anthropology” to examine the personal and historical contexts of their subject’s life.”

The author’s deep familiarity with Italian culture informs these intelligent, perceptive essays.

In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri

51wnsrzeh6l-_sx315_bo1204203200_Over the course of four novels and story collections, Jhumpa Lahiri has written about themes of identity, estrangement and belonging. She has received numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize; the PEN/Hemingway Award; the Premio Gregor von Rezzori; the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature; and the 2014 National Humanities Medal.

All the while, the Indian-American author has faced these issues herself. Torn between two worlds, she has felt like an outsider in both. The author has spent a lifetime caught in the clash between her parents’ Old World customs and the American culture that has so rewarded her achievements.

She fell in love with Italy and dreamed of immersing herself in its language and culture. It was an infatuation that became an obsession. In the end, Italy proved to be a place to neutralize tensions that had haunted her for decades. Learning it is an act of rebirth, of rebuilding a fractured self and changing course. In Other Words appeals on many levels—as a passion project, cultural document and psychological study. True to the nature of her quest, Lahiri wrote this book in Italian, rough edges and all; it conveys an intimate view of the complicated bonds that exist between language and identity.

Tuscany: A History by Alister Moffat

51sqgmsrvmlIf you travel to the region, you’ll want to take with you Moffat’s Tuscany: A History; and if you read the book first, you’ll want to travel to the region.

Ever since the days of the Grand Tour, Tuscany has cast its spell over world travelers. What is it that makes this exquisite part of Italy so seductive? To answer this question Alistair Moffat embarks on a journey into Tuscany’s past. From the flowering of the Etruscan civilization in the 7th century BC through the rise of the powerful medieval communes of Arezzo, Luca, Pisa and Florence, and the role the area played as the birthplace of the Renaissance, he underlines both the area’s regional uniqueness as well as the vital role it has played in the history of the whole of Italy.

Insightful, readable and imbued with the author’s own enthusiasm for Tuscany, this book includes a wealth of information not found in tourist guides.

City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas by Roger Crowley

city-of-fortuneThe rise and fall of Venice’s empire is an irresistible story and Roger Crowley, with his rousing descriptive gifts and scholarly attention to detail, is its perfect chronicler.

The New York Times bestselling author charts Venice’s astounding five-hundred-year voyage to the pinnacle of power in an epic story that stands unrivaled for drama, intrigue, and sheer opulent majesty. City of Fortune traces the full arc of the Venetian imperial saga, from the ill-fated Fourth Crusade, which culminates in the sacking of Constantinople in 1204, to the Ottoman-Venetian War of 1499–1503, which sees the Ottoman Turks supplant the Venetians as the preeminent naval power in the Mediterranean.

In between are three centuries of Venetian maritime dominance, during which a tiny city of “lagoon dwellers” grow into the richest place on earth. Drawing on firsthand accounts of pitched sea battles, skillful negotiations, and diplomatic maneuvers, Crowley paints a vivid picture of this avaricious, enterprising people and the bountiful lands that came under their dominion. From the opening of the spice routes to the clash between Christianity and Islam, Venice played a leading role in the defining conflicts of its time—the reverberations of which are still being felt today.

Mozza at Home: More than 150 Crowd-Pleasing Recipes for Relaxed, Family-Style Entertaining by Nancy Silverton

As an award-winning chef and the owner of six busy restaurants across two continents, Nancy Silverton was so consumed by her life in the professional kitchen that for years she almost never cooked at home. With her intense focus on the business of cooking, Nancy had forgotten what made her love to cook in the first place: fabulous ingredients at the height of their season, simple food served family style, and friends and loved ones gathered around the dinner table. Then, on a restorative trip to Italy—with its ripe vegetables, magnificent landscapes, and long summer days—Nancy began to cook for friends and family again, and rediscovered the great pleasures and tastes of cooking and eating at home.

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Now, in Mozza at Home, Nancy shares her renewed passion and provides nineteen menus packed with easy-to-follow recipes that can be prepared in advance and are perfect for entertaining. Organized by meal, each menu provides a main dish along with a complementary selection of appetizers and side dishes.

Whether it’s Marinated Olives and Fresh Pecorino and other appetizers that can be put out while you’re assembling the rest of the meal; simple sides, such as Roasted Carrots and Chickpeas with Cumin Vinaigrette, that are just as delicious served at room temperature as they are warm; or savory main dishes such as the Flattened Chicken Thighs with Charred Lemon Salsa Verde—there is something here for every occasion.

And don’t forget dessert—there’s an entire chapter dedicated to end-of-meal treats such as Devil’s Food Rings with Spiced White Mountain Frosting and Dario’s Olive Oil Cake with Rosemary and Pine Nuts that can be prepared hours before serving so that the host gets to relax during the event, too.

Enjoy this diverse group of books through the winter months and then in the spring head to Italy because everyone should be Italian once in their lives.

Tuscan Traveler’s Picks – Books to Read Before Traveling to Italy in 2017, Part One

Over the winter months, reading from the new crop of fiction set in Italy will heighten the anticipation for your upcoming Italian vacation. Guide books are great planning tools, but novels and short stories add depth, fantasy, historical background and imagination to an Italian adventure. These books are set in Rome, Florence, Venice, Sicily and Naples. (Please add to the list by commenting on this post and check out last year’s picks.)

legal-holiday-books-624x445The Girl from Venice by Martin Cruz Smith

the-girl-from-venice-9781439140239_hrA suspenseful World War II love story set against the beauty, mystery, and danger of occupied 1945 Venice. One night, under a canopy of stars, a fisherman comes across a young woman’s body floating in the lagoon. She is still alive and in trouble. Born to a wealthy Jewish family, she is on the run from the Wehrmacht SS. An act of kindness leads to the world of Partisans, random executions, the arts of forgery and high explosives, Mussolini’s broken promises, the black market and gold, and, everywhere, the enigmatic maze of the Venice Lagoon.

Martin Cruz Smith is the consummate researcher, but he doesn’t bog the break-neck pace of his plot down with blocks of historical fact. By the end of the book, however, you will have an in-depth understanding of life in Venice and northern Italy as the war drew to a close.

Conclave by Robert Harris

In this thriller, the pope has died. Behind the locked doors of the Sistine Chapel, one hundred and eighteen cardinals from all over the globe will cast their votes in the world’s most secretive election. They are holy men. But they have ambition. They have rivals. Over the next seventy-two hours one of them will become the most powerful spiritual figure on Earth.

cb6dqs8w0aalwzzThe classic English mystery novel often involves a locked room. The suspects gather in an enclosed space. They cannot wander out or establish their alibis. They are trapped with each other as social rivalries, hidden love affairs, and old enmities emerge. A conclave of cardinals charged with choosing a new pope after the incumbent dies fits this tradition nicely – one of the largest locked rooms ever. Even the word conclave itself, from the Latin clavis, or key.

Siracusa by Delia Ephron

40293-1An electrifying novel about marriage and deceit follows two couples on vacation in Siracusa, a town on the coast of Sicily, where the secrets they have hidden from one another are exposed and relationships are unraveled. This is a story of two complicated marriages, one vulnerable child, and a trip to Italy that changes each of their lives forever.

Ephron excels at re-creating the atmosphere of Siracusa, with its serpentine streets, rocky outcroppings and “tattered” buildings. Her writing captures the tastes and aromas of the markets and the restaurants, where her characters savor wine, oranges, gelato, figs and spaghetti alla vongole. Ephron delivers a powerful meditation on marriage, friendship, and the meaning of travel. Set on the sun-drenched coast of the Ionian Sea, Siracusa unfolds with the pacing of a psychological thriller and delivers an unexpected final act that none will see coming.

Death at the Duomo by Ann Reavis

Death at the Duomo High Res Front Cover 1500 PIXELSThis page-turner is thrilling mystery set in the Renaissance City.

An explosion rips through the Easter festival in front of the Duomo in Florence, Italy, but no one claims responsibility. The vicitms are not only Florentine, but also visitors from throughout the world. The security forces of Europe and the United States join together to hunt down the killers. Caterina Falcone, a Florentine investigator, and Max Turner, an agent from the U.S. Embassy, team up to find out why an American student was at the cathedral when the bomb exploded. Max hunts a bomber who sows death around the globe. Inspector Falcone believes the identity of the perpetrator can be found close to home. Together they race across Tuscany to stop a killer before more people die.

The Beach at Night by Elena Ferrante

cover_9781609453701_722_600This picture book about a lost doll on an Italian beach is aimed at readers aged 6 to 10, but the famed Elena Ferrante, author of the best-selling Neapolitan novels, doesn’t sugarcoat things for young readers. It is best for the fans of the original Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi, rather than the sugar-coated Disney version. The writing is poetic and evocative, but some parents will find the story too scary for some children. Every fan of Ferrante’s novels should get a copy for their libraries.

Told from the lost doll’s point of view after she is abandoned by her young owner to face nighttime terrors such as the Mean Beach Attendant of Sunset and his friend, the Big Rake. Celina, the doll, has a terrible night, one full of jealousy for the new kitten, Minù, feelings of abandonment and sadness, misadventures at the hands of the beach attendant, and dark dreams. But she will be happily found by Mati, her child, once the sun rises.

The Serpent of Venice by Christopher Moore

theserpentofveniceGreed, revenge, deception, lust, and a giant (but lovable) sea monster combine to create another hilarious and bawdy tale from modern comic genius, Christopher Moore.

What do you get when you stitch Othello, The Merchant of Venice, and “The Cask of Amontillado” together? Well, you get this rollickin’ adventure in which Pocket, the Royal Fool introduced in Moore’s Fool (2009), is lured to Venice, where he thinks he’ll be having a fun time with the beautiful Portia, but where three men (including a guy named Iago) are actually planning to murder him. The upshot is, if you’re the kind of reader who insists Shakespeare is untouchable, then this novel will probably annoy you. On the other hand, if you’re a fan of Moore’s brand of history-mangling humor, you’ll dive right in.

Cats of Italy by Ann Reavis

cats-of-italyThe cats of Italy lead rich and adventuresome lives in this book of four short stories. Cicero and Flavia race to save a cat sanctuary in the center of Rome. Dante and Guido take a friend on a quest that goes awry in a medieval tower. Regina falls into a canal, is rescued by Fosca and Casanova, and becomes queen of the regatta. Vanda and Pussipu love their lives in Calabria, but not all the Southern Italian cats are so lucky.

Cats of Italy is a compilation of four short stories: Cats of Rome, Cats of Florence, Cats of Venice, and Cats of Calabria. These tales will enchant cat lovers, both young and old. Those who are fascinated by Italian history and culture will find the little-known (but true) feline facts in these stories will enhance their next visit to Italy.

Tuscan Traveler’s Picks – Best Day in Chianti Classico Region, Part Two

If you have been following Tuscan Traveler’s Best Day in the Chianti Classico Region, Part One, it should be about 1pm and time for lunch. Time to take the Strada del Vino (SR222) from Greve to Panzano to a very special butcher shop..

Stop Four: Panzano

Leave Greve, following signs for Panzano. You will wind up the side of a ridge. About half way up you will see on the other side of the valley (on your left) a large pink villa surrounded by cypress trees. This is Villa Vignamaggio, the home of Mona Lisa before she moved to Florence, got married and sat for Leonardo Da Vinci’s portrait.

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Just before you arrive at Panzano’s town square you will see the driveway to a big parking lot on your left. Park here – it’s free.   If you get to the town square, drive around it and go back to the parking lot.

In Panzano, walk around the shops on the piazza. See the water colors by Carmine in the gallery called Artemisia. Explore the local wine selection at the enoteca.

For lunch, go uphill off the square (if you are looking at the door of the enoteca, the street is to your left) and find Antica Marcelleria Cecchini, Dario Cecchini’s butcher shop. On the candy-striped façade there is a marble plaque with a rose above it and the picture of a T-bone steak on it. Inside, you will frequently find Dario behind the raised counter. Introduce yourselves.

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If there are snacks set out, have a glass of wine and some of the tidbits. Notice the great products Dario has for sale. He will vacuum pack meat for you to grill up at your apartment in Florence or villa in Tuscany. The salami, sausage and porchetta are fabulous and easy snacks. Pick up a jar of the red pepper jelly, made in the butcher shop kitchen. The fenel pollen and Chianti herbed salt make great gifts to take home to the cooks you know.

 Have lunch upstairs at Dario DOC where the best burgers in Italy are served or across the street at Solociccia. Both places were created by Dario. For true lovers of grilled meats the Officina della Bistecca serves up a set menu that includes three different cuts of steak.Come hungry.

A vegetarian menu is available at each of Dario’s places, but this is a butcher shop. If your group wants lighter fare, have lunch at Oltre il Giardino (across the town piazza and to the left) or at Enoteca Baldi on the piazza.

After lunch, take a walk to digest before getting back in the car. Straight across the piazza follow the street toward the church at the top of the hill. Before you start to climb you will be at Verso X Verso, a shop of hand-made shoes, purses, and other wearable art.

Now it is time to make a choice: More Chianti countryside or wine tasting. You don’t have time for both. If you want to explore more of the Chianti Classico region head on to Volpaia. If wine is your goal, go back to Castello di Verrazzano.

Stop Five: Volpaia

Leave Panzano on the same road (left out of the parking lot) and in the same direction (don’t go back to Greve). Watch for signs to “Radda”. You will come to a left turn where you have a choice of going straight to Castellina in Chianti or to turn left to go to Radda. Before Radda you are going to look for signs to “Volpaia”. If you get to Radda you have gone too far.

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The left turn for Volpaia will be on a very sharp left curve in the road and the left you take will be even sharper. After that, watch for the Volpaia signs and follow them. You will go down hill a bit and then you will climb, climb, climb up a winding road. Volpaia is the highest hill town in Tuscany.

As you enter Volpaia you will see a sign for the parking lot. Park there – it’s free. If you get to the town center, turn around and go back to the parking lot.

Castello di Volpaia owns the entire hamlet and inside all of the medieval walls is a modern winery and an olive oil press. Contact them a month before your visit and schedule a tour of the winery.

 Stop Six: Chianti Cashmere Goat Farm

If you want to visit Nora Kravitz at Chianti Cashmere contact her a month beofore your visit to get permission.

Leave Volpaia by the same road and at the main Radda road turn left to Radda (be careful, you are turning into a sharp, blind curve).

Before you get to Radda you will go under a bridge made of terracotta brick and then come to a stop sign. You will turn left to Radda at the stop. You will then pass an industrial building and the road will curve to the left over a bridge. Don’t go over the bridge but take the hard right onto a road that ends at that curve with a stop sign.

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Drive slowly along that road constantly looking to your left for a metal sign with an image of a goat cut out of it. You will take a left at the sign and end up on a narrow rocky dirt road that goes sharply downward. Follow the road to the end and park at the house.

Look around for Nora Kravis and the goats and the Abruzzo guard dogs. The farm, known as La Pensola, is where Nora, originally from New York, spent over thirty years building her dream of operating the only privately owned cashmere goat farm in Europe. In the spring forty to fifty baby goats scamper up the hillsides, cavorting among the trees.

There is a store, open from 12pm to 4pm, where Nora sells cashmere goats’ milk products and scarves, shawls and stoles, and blankets and throws made out of the cashmere fiber.

Stop Seven: Rampini Ceramics

You may have had a long enough day by now and want to go back to Florence or you may want to see a small family-owned ceramic factory, Ceramiche Rampini. Leave Nora’s farm the way you came, but before turning right to go under the terracotta bridge, turn left and follow the signs to “Gaiole”. You will go through La Villa and come to a right turn with a sign for “Gaiole”. Take the right turn.

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On the ridge to your left you will see a  large villa with a fabulous façade, the Villa Vistarenni Winery. Very soon after you will come to a sharp left turn in the road and a short driveway on the left of the turn that has a sign for Rampini Ceramiche. Turn in at the gate and park. The showroom is up the stairs. IThe kiln is in the big brick building to the left of the showroom. Over the kiln is the artists’ workshop. Ask if you can see the workshop.

Alternative Stop: Castello di Verrazzano Winery

To get to Castello di Verrazzano you will return from Panzano to Greve. If you didn’t see the main piazza of Greve, stop and see it now. As you leave Greve, watch on the left side for the Castello di Verrazzano wine tasting room with a big sign. It is in the hamlet of Greti. Turn left at the tasting room and follow the small road across the bridge and up the hill. It will wind and then turn into a dirt road, but keep going.

cantina_2You will come to a widening in the road with a big tree and a school bus stop sign and the road in front of you will split. Stop here to look at the castello from a distance.  Walk down the lower road (right side) a bit to view two villas on facing ridges. The closest is Castello di Verrazzano. It was the home of of the family of Giovanni Verrazzano who discovered New York harbor in the 1400s. On the far hill is another walled villa winery that is called Castello Vicchiomaggio.

If it is either 3pm or 4pm, there will be a tour offered of the winery. It is best to reserve a space a month before your visit.

Returning to Florence

From Rampini, Radda or Vopaia, return to Panzano, then on to Greve.

From Castello di Verrazzano, go to the main road, turn left and almost immediately you will come to a left turn which should have signs to “Tavarnuzze” and “San Casciano” and, maybe, “Galluzzo”. Take that left. You will go back through Il Ferrone. You will pass the American Cemetery on your left and come to that round-about. Here you take the exit to “Firenze” and “Certosa” (the first exit off the round-about to your left). (Do not go through the tollgates and get on the freeway!) You will soon come to the Galluzzo village center and then follow the signs back to Florence.

I hope you had a great day in my favorite part of Tuscany!

Photo Credits:

Panzano – chiantiworld.it

Officina della Bistecca – oliveintuscany.com

Castello di Volpaia – castellodivolpaia.com

Chianti Cashmere – witaly.it

Rampini Ceramics – rampiniceramics.com

Castello di Verrazzano – verrazzano.com

Tuscan Traveler’s Picks – Best Day in Chianti Classico Region, Part One

Days in Florence are full and rich in art and history, but in this city of stone it is difficult to find the soothing color of green provided by plants and trees. After a week in Florence you may wish to rent a car and take off for the Chianti Classico Region. Only minutes out of the historic center you will find the first olive groves and vineyards.

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This is Tuscan Traveler’s favorite day in Chianti. You should start out by 9:00am.

Leave Florence via Porta Romana. At Porta Romana (traffic circle with “Headache Lady” statue in center) follow “Siena” and “Galluzzo” signs. Once you get to the suburb Galluzzo, follow the signs to “Siena” and “Greve” (sometimes you will see one town named, sometimes both). As you leave Galluzzo, you will see a large monastery, Certosa, on a hill in front of you. Watch for the sign to “Siena” and take a left.

After the left turn, you will cross a bridge built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during WWII after the Germans blew up the bridge to slow the Allies’ advance on Florence. You will now have a better view of the Certosa Monastery on your right.

Certosa di Firenze (Florence Charterhouse) was one of the most powerful Carthusian monasteries in Europe and exhibited, until Napoleon’s spoliation, 500 works of art. The building was erected on Monte Acuto, a low ridge south of Florence, financed by Niccolò Acciaioli, a powerful Florentine citizen who commissioned it in 1341 with the aim of creating both a religious center and a school. In the past, the Certosa was famous for its lavish library.

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The monastery is open every morning and afternoon for a few hours (except for Mondays) for group visits (in Italian) in the company of a lay brother acting as guide. Once the home of hundreds, there are only a few monks living at the monastery now. The monastery is still alive as a religious community, even if the original Carthusian order departed in the 1950s. The Cistercian order has lived in the monastery since then, restoring many areas. Donations from the tours help maintain their enclosed monastic life as well as the monastery itself.

Turn right at the top of the rise after the bridge. Follow the road to the round-about with a fountain in the center (it may not be flowing). As you go around the circle take the third exit to Siena and Greve. (Do not want to follow the blue sign to Siena (4 corsie) that leads to a four-lane highway to Siena.)

Stop One: American Cemetery of Florence

After the round-about, you will travel through Tavarnuzze and continue until you see a river on your right and then, green lawns. Slow down and look for a gate with a sign that reads “American Cemetery of Florence”. Drive through the gate (there are two entrances, so if you miss the first one, use the second). Go to the center of the curve drive and then drive straight through the entrance between the two small offices. Head over the river and at the flagpole turn right and follow the signs left up the hill to the very top. There is a parking lot (and great bathrooms). Get out and walk around.

The headstones of 4,402 of American military dead of World War II are set in symmetrical curved rows upon the hillside. They represent 39 percent of the U.S. Fifth Army burials originally made between Rome and the Alps. Most died in the fighting that occurred after the capture of Rome in June 1944. Included among them are casualties of the heavy fighting in the Apennines Mountains shortly before the war’s end. On May 2, 1945 the enemy troops in northern Italy surrendered.

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Above the graves, on the topmost of three broad terraces, stands the memorial marked by a tall pylon surmounted by a large sculptured figure. The memorial has two open atria, or courts, joined by the Tablets of the Missing upon which are inscribed 1,409 names. The atrium at the south end serves as a forecourt to the chapel, which is decorated with marble and mosaic. The north atrium contains the marble operations maps recording the advance of the American armed forces in this region.

Walk around the grave sites – the marble was quarried near the Austrian border because the whitest marble comes from there. Notice the classic Chianti view of the town of Impruneta on the opposite ridge.

Stop Two: Montefioralle

As you leave the cemetery, turn right onto the main road and drive through the towns of Il Ferrone and Passo dei Pecorai. Always look for signs the say “Greve”. There will be one place, soon after the cemetery, where on a soft curve you cross the oncoming lane of traffic to go straight, following the Greve and Il Ferrone signs.

This is an area of clay pits and terracotta ovens. You will see lots of pots and floor or roof terracotta tiles piled high.

Follow the road on to Greve. Before you get to Greve you will see the Verrazzano winery roadside tasting room in the hamlet of Greti. Remember this spot because you will come back to it later in the day.

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Enter the town of Greve, the center of the wine-making industry of Chianti Classico. Before you get to the middle of town, you will see on your right a small yellow sign for “Montefioralle”. The right turn to Montefioralle, will be soon after a stop light that is just after a new housing development (on the left) that has slender bronze sculptures near the road. (If you see the COOP supermarket on your left you have gone too far and have missed the turn to Montefioralle.)

Once on the road to Montefioralle, go straight for a bit and then the road narrows and you climb the hill. Remember to go slow because it is a two-way road. The road winds up the hill through an olive grove.

Notice how the olive trees are like bushes. You may even be able to see the stumps near the ground where they were cut off in 1985 after a hard freeze that killed the wood, but not the roots. The trees were sawed down, but new branches grew from the stumps to make these odd short three- or four-trunked olive trees.

Montefioralle is the best preserved medieval walled hill town in Tuscany. Start your tour at the end of the parking lot near the newly-restored tower gate, just up the slope from the stoplight. Walk along the village street that circles between the two walls. About five doors along the walk look for a design above the door with a V and a bumble bee.

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This is one of the homes of Amerigo Vespucci, who was a mapmaker in the 1400s and gave his name to America. Amerigo Vespucci was born (1454) and raised in Florence.

In March 1492, the Medici dispatched the thirty-eight-year-old Vespucci as confidential agent to look into the Medici branch office in Cádiz, Spain. In April 1495, the Crown of Castile broke their monopoly deal with Christopher Columbus and began handing out licenses to other navigators for the West Indies. Vespucci first worked as a provision contractor for Indies expeditions and then, became an explorer, navigator and the cartographer, who first demonstrated that Brazil and the West Indies did not represent Asia’s eastern outskirts as initially conjectured from Columbus’ voyages, but instead constituted an entirely separate landmass, hitherto unknown to Europeans. Colloquially referred to as the New World, this second super continent came to be termed ‘America’ on Vespucci’s maps, deriving its name from Americus, the Latin version of his first name.

Enjoy the “Kodak moments” of Montefioralle. Be sure to walk a ways down each of the small alleys that branch off the main village road – there are great views to be seen.

Stop Three: Greve

Leave Montefioralle by going back the way you came and continue on into the center of Greve. After the COOP supermarket, at the next stop light see if you can turn right into the main piazza of Greve with the City Hall at one end and a church at the other. A covered porch (loggia) surrounds the plaza. If allowed, drive in and park. (Be sure to go to the parking toll machine and put in an euro or two and get a slip of paper to put inside your windshield.)

If you aren’t allowed to drive into the main piazza then turn left at that same stop light and go across a bridge and turn right into the big parking lot. (I think it is free, but look around for a toll machine or an attendant.) Walk back to the main piazza with the statue of Giovanni da Verrazzano (another local boy who became an explorer) and tour the shops around it.

It’s lunchtime! Find Tuscan traveler’s Best Day in Chianti Classico Region, Part Two.

Tuscan Traveler’s Picks – Death at the Duomo, 5 questions for the author

Death at the Duomo is the first book, just released, in a new series of mystery/thrillers set in Florence, Italy. The Renaissance City’s fictional murder rate is about to rise, requiring the pairing a young Florentine detective, Caterina Falcone, half American, half Italian, with Max Turner, an agent from the American Embassy. The first novel begins with an explosion outside the Duomo on a festival day.

Death at the Duomo High Res Front Cover 1500 PIXELS

(Most long-time readers of this website know that the author of Death at the Duomo and Tuscan Traveler are one in the same. So this is the semi-strange situation of a self-interview to announce the book’s launch.)

Where did you get the premise for Death at the Duomo?

I love mysteries of all kinds, but especially those set in countries not my own. My favorites are by Donna Leon, Fred Vargas, Jason Goodwin, Daniel Silva and Joseph Kanon. After I had lived in Florence for a few years, I kept discovering places or events that I thought would be perfect for a murder. One was the exhibit of anatomical waxes at the La Specola Museum (the site used in the upcoming Caterina Falcone mystery) and another was Scoppio del Carro (literally, the Explosion of the Cart), the event at the beginning of the first book. With the colorful history of Florence there are unending possibilities for intriguing plots.

Scoppio del Carro (photo by Joe Messina)
Scoppio del Carro (photo by Joe Messina)
Do you prefer to write a novel or a non-fiction book?

I started Tuscan Traveler to keep my writing “up to snuff”. The website provided the basis for my first books, Italian Food Rules and Italian Life Rules, as well as giving me bits of information for my touring clients. I found, however, that it was more fun to incorporate the scenes from Florentine life, information about Tuscan food, and tidbits from historical Florence into a novel. So I gave Caterina Falcone a father who is a chef and restaurant owner. I learned that FBI agents are stationed at most US embassies, but have restrictions placed on how they operate in foreign countries, and Max Turner came to life. I especially enjoy exploring the experiences, good and bad, of foreigners when they encounter the Italian food and life rules, so each of the mysteries will involve tourists and expats in Florence and Tuscany.

Museo La Specola (photo by Daderot)
Museo La Specola (photo by Daderot)
What was the best part about being a writer in Italy?

I have a great group of writing friends who meet two times a year in Matera, a fascinating town in the Basilicata region. In the spring a small group meets for a brainstorming session. Death at the Duomo was born there. In the fall the Women’s Fiction Festival takes place. The second year I went the speakers included experts in forensics, cyber-crime and investigations of international crimes. The third or fourth edition concentrated on food writing. Recent years have been rich with information about indie publishing. Every year, literary agents and editors from major publishing companies are available for pitches from authors and staff panels on what’s new in the world of publishing.

matera-womenAre you going to write a memoir about your sixteen years in Italy?

No. Others have written much better books than I could, ranging from the more standard “under the Tuscan sun” narratives to innovative memoirs, such as Dianne Hale’s two books on language and Mona Lisa.

What are your favorite Italian-theme books?

Besides my own, I would pick any book by Donna Leon, The Tigress of Forli by Elizabeth Lev, any book by Beppe Severgnini, The Venus Fixers by Ilaria Dagnini Brey, any book by Conor Fitzgerald and Medici Money by Tim Parks. Other books that I like can be found here.

Tuscan Traveler’s Picks – Novels to Read Before Going to Italy in 2016

Many visitors to Florence in 2016 will either learn for the first time or will remember the Great Flood of Florence, which occurred on November 3, 1966, fifty years ago. Both the nonfiction and fiction lists are sure to include books about the flood and the response of the world to the catastrophe. Tuscan traveler has chosen two books, one and old favorite and one new for this year’s holiday “picks” list.

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Lucrezia Borgia could have used the Renaissance version of Olivia Pope, but she is finally getting a proper revision of her reputation with two recent novels.

Any of the following novels will make great holiday gifts for those going to Italy next year or for for the armchair traveler with a love of all things Italian.

Falling in Love by Donna Leon

51EmmG3EazL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Donna Leon’s Death at La Fenice, the first novel in her beloved Commissario Guido Brunetti series, introduced readers to the glamorous and cutthroat world of opera and one of Italy’s finest living sopranos, Flavia Petrelli—then a suspect in the poisoning of a renowned German conductor. Years after Brunetti cleared her name, Flavia has returned to Venice and La Fenice to sing the lead in Tosca.

Brunetti and his wife, Paola, attend an early performance, and Flavia receives a standing ovation. Back in her dressing room, she finds bouquets of yellow roses—too many roses. An anonymous fan has been showering Flavia with these beautiful gifts in London, St. Petersburg, Amsterdam, and now, Venice, but she no longer feels flattered. And when a talented young Venetian singer who has caught Flavia’s attention is savagely attacked, Brunetti begins to think that Flavia’s fears are justified in ways neither of them imagined. He must enter in the psyche of an obsessive fan before Flavia, or anyone else, comes to harm.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

51PUTD03R7L._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_A modern masterpiece from one of Italy’s most acclaimed authors, My Brilliant Friend is a rich, intense, and generous-hearted story about two friends, Elena and Lila. Ferrante’s inimitable style lends itself perfectly to a meticulous portrait of these two women that is also the story of a nation and a touching meditation on the nature of friendship. This is the first of four known as the “Neapolitan Quartet.”

The story begins in the 1950s, in a poor but vibrant neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples. Growing up on these tough streets the two girls learn to rely on each other ahead of anyone or anything else. As they grow, as their paths repeatedly diverge and converge, Elena and Lila remain best friends whose respective destinies are reflected and refracted in the other. They are likewise the embodiments of a nation undergoing momentous change. Through the lives of these two women, Ferrante tells the story of a neighborhood, a city, and a country as it is transformed in ways that, in turn, also transform the relationship between her protagonists, the unforgettable Elena and Lila.

Elena Ferrante is the pen-name of an Italian novelist whose true identity is not publicly known. Though heralded as the most important Italian novelist of her generation, she has kept her identity secret since the publication of her first novel in 1992. The fourth book of Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, The Story of the Lost Child, appeared on the New York Times 10 Best Books of 2015.

The Sixteen Pleasures by Robert Hellenga

51CTmMUboFL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_With graceful, assured prose, this 1994 novel gives a wry but empathetic view of the human character and an authoritative command of fascinating background detail are among the distinguishing features of this deeply satisfying first novel. Set in Florence after the terrible Arno flood of 1966, it is told partially by narrator Margot Harrington, a 29-year-old American book conservator who has come to Italy as one of the “mud angels” who volunteer in the wake of the disaster.

Margot’s life has been a series of bright promises deflected to dead ends, and she hopes Florence will provide a key to her future. Art restoration expert Dottor Alessandro Postiglione–debonair, middle-aged and married–suggests that Margot lodge at a Carmelite convent whose abbess is his cousin. When the nuns discover a priceless (and proscribed) Renaissance manuscript of 16 erotic poems and drawings, the abbess asks Margot to sell it, secretly, so that the convent will have the funds to resist the overbearing bishop’s efforts to seize its treasured library.

Many strands wind through the rest of the narrative: details about techniques of book and art restoration, observations of convent life refracted through Margot’s Protestant sensibilities and such arcane (and humorous) information as the methods by which a canonical court decides whether a man is truly impotentia coeundi (and thus entitled to an annulment).

The Flood by David Hewson

51ZxgG7pQXL._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_A dazzling Italian mystery, rich in intrigue and dark secrets, from an internationally bestselling crime writer at the height of his powers.

Florence, 1986. A seemingly inexplicable attack on a church fresco of Adam and Eve brings together an unlikely couple: Julia Wellbeloved, an English art student, and Pino Fratelli, a semi-retired detective who longs to be back in the field. Their investigation leads them to the secret society that underpins the city: an elite underworld of excess, violence and desire.

Seeped in the culture of Tuscany’s most mysterious city, The Flood takes the reader on a dazzling journey into the darkness in Florence’s past: the night of the great flood in 1966. Hewson is a favorite of mystery readers who enjoy his series featuring police officers in Rome, led by the young detective and art lover Nic Costa, which began with A Season for the Dead.

The Pope’s Daughter by Dario Fo

51Ef-T3FZ2L._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_Lucrezia Borgia is one of the most vilified figures in modern history. The daughter of a notorious pope, she was twice betrothed before the age of eleven and thrice married—one husband was forced to declare himself impotent and thereby unfit and another was murdered by Lucrezia’s own brother, Cesar Borgia. She is cast in the role of murderess, temptress, incestuous lover, loose woman, femme fatale par excellence.

But there is always more than one version of a story.

Lucrezia Borgia is the only woman in history to serve as the head of the Catholic Church. She successfully administered several of the Renaissance Italy’s most thriving cities, founded one of the world’s first credit unions, and was a generous patron of the arts. She was mother to a prince and to a cardinal. She was a devoted wife to the Prince of Ferrara, and the lover of the poet Pietro Bembo. She was a child of the renaissance and in many ways the world’s first modern woman.

Dario Fo, Nobel laureate and one of Italy’s most beloved writers, reveals Lucrezia’s humanity, her passion for life, her compassion for others, and her skill at navigating around her family’s evildoings. The Borgias are unrivalled for the range and magnitude of their political machinations and opportunism. Fo’s brilliance rests in his rendering their story as a shocking mirror image of the uses and abuses of power in our own time. Lucrezia herself becomes a model for how to survive and rise above those abuses.

Blood and Beauty by Sarah Dunant

UnknownBy the end of the fifteenth century, the beauty and creativity of Italy is matched by its brutality and corruption, nowhere more than in Rome and inside the Church. When Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia buys his way into the papacy as Alexander VI, he is defined not just by his wealth or his passionate love for his illegitimate children, but by his blood: He is a Spanish Pope in a city run by Italians. If the Borgias are to triumph, this charismatic, consummate politician with a huge appetite for life, women, and power must use papacy and family—in particular, his eldest son, Cesare, and his daughter Lucrezia—in order to succeed.

Cesare, with a dazzlingly cold intelligence and an even colder soul, is his greatest—though increasingly unstable—weapon. Later immortalized in Machiavelli’s The Prince, he provides the energy and the muscle. Lucrezia, beloved by both men, is the prime dynastic tool. Twelve years old when the novel opens, hers is a journey through three marriages, and from childish innocence to painful experience, from pawn to political player.

Stripping away the myths around the Borgias, Blood and Beauty is a majestic novel that breathes life into this astonishing family and celebrates the raw power of history itself: compelling, complex and relentless.

The Memory Key by Conor Fitzgerald

Unknown-1The sniper’s bullet doesn’t quite dispatch notorious terrorist Stefania Manfellotto, but the investigation into the attack on the Rome university campus that leaves Manfellotto brain damaged—as well as the subsequent fatal shooting there six months later of witness Sofia Fontana—could finally deal a death blow to the career of Commissioner Alec Blume in Fitzgerald’s cerebral fourth mystery featuring the maverick American expat (after 2012’s The Namesake).

By rights, Blume shouldn’t even be involved in the politically sensitive probe, which falls under the jurisdiction of the rival Carabinieri. But that detail isn’t about to deter him once his old mentor, magistrate Filippo Principe, appeals for help, any more than he would dream of changing his opinion on a road rage homicide just because his lover, Chief Insp. Caterina Mattiola, sees it differently. Blume’s readiness to pursue any leads in an increasingly puzzling case helps make him an outstanding detective, but also, within a society that puts such a premium on personal relationships, a perennial outsider.

Bitter Remedy is Conor Fitzgerald’s most recent Alec Blume novel.

A Beam of Light  by Andrea Camilleri

51doaZBVrfL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_When Inspector Montalbano falls under the charms of beautiful gallery owner Marian, his longtime relationship with Livia comes under threat. Meanwhile, he is also troubled by a strange dream as three crimes demand his attention: the assault and robbery of a wealthy merchant’s young wife, shady art deals, and a search for arms traffickers that leads him deep into the countryside, where the investigation takes a tragic turn.

Also published in 2015, in Game of Mirrors Inspector Montalbano and his colleagues are stumped when two bombs explode outside empty warehouses—one of which is connected to a big-time drug dealer. Meanwhile, the alluring Liliana Lombardo is trying to seduce the Inspector over red wine and arancini. Between pesky reporters, amorous trysts, and cocaine kingpins, Montalbano feels as if he’s being manipulated on all fronts. That is, until the inspector himself becomes the prime suspect in an unspeakably brutal crime.

More Novels for Those Who Love Italy

In the right side column of this blog, near the top, there is a link to Tuscan Traveler’s Amazon Store. Buying books through the store does not increase the cost of the books to you, but does help to support this blog. The store can also be used to just browse for books about Italy without the need to make a purchase.

Tuscan Traveler welcomes suggestions for books to add to the list.

Fiction Categories: Tuscan Traveler’s Fiction Favorites, Historical Fiction, Mystery & Thriller, Literary Fiction, Romantic Italy, and Italy for Kids & Young Adults.

Tuscan Traveler’s Pick – The “New” Duomo Museum

Florence’s cathedral museum, known officially as Museo dell’ Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore (Museum of the Works of the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore), hosts the world’s largest collection of Florentine Medieval and Renaissance sculpture. It reopened to the public on October 29, just in time for Pope Francis’s visit, after an expansion and renovation project lasting two years. The 45 million euro project was funded by the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, and was design by Adolfo Natalini and Guicciardini & Magni Architects.

Sectional view of the Duomo Museum
Sectional view of the Duomo Museum

The museum is the anchor for what is known as Il Grande Museo del Duomo, which also includes the Duomo, the Campanile (Giotto’s Bell Tower), the Cupola (Brunelleschi’s Dome), the Baptistry, and the Crypt.

Inside the Museum

Known more simply as the Opera del Duomo or Duomo Museum, it now contains over 750 marble, bronze and silver sculptures and reliefs, including works by Michelangelo, Donatello, Arnolfo di Cambio, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Andrea Pisano, Antonio del Pollaiolo, Luca della Robbia and Andrea del Verrocchio, among others.

The museum displays the original artworks that have been removed from their positions from the façades of the Duomo, Bell Tower, and Baptistry (thereafter replaced by copies) or taken out of daily liturgical use, either for conservation or modernization.

Donatello’s Penitent Saint Mary Magdalene
Donatello’s Penitent Saint Mary Magdalene

New displays effectively highlight Donatello’s Maddalena, sculpted in wood; the original bronze doors created by Lorenzo Ghiberti for the Florence Baptistry, known as the “Doors of Paradise”; Michelangelo’s unfinished Pietà; and 27 silk and gold embroidered panels designed by Antonio del Pollaiolo.

Reconfigured Doors of Paradise
Reconfigured Doors of Paradise

The Gallery of Brunelleschi’s Dome (1418–36), on the first floor, is one of the most educational highlights of the museum, housing 15th century wooden models including one attributed to Brunelleschi himself, period materials and the tools used to build the dome. The gallery also contains two large wooden models of the Lantern and of the Dome and video provides a virtual view of the building of the edifice.

Salone del Paradiso
Salone del Paradiso

Because the space of the museum doubled in the new renovation, visitors can also see many works previously held in museum storage, including forty 14th and 15th century statues and fragments of the cathedral’s original medieval façade, which are effectively displayed on a full-sized model made of resin and marble dust of the version designed by Arnolfo di Cambio (1296) that was subsequently destroyed in the 16th century and replaced in 1887 by the present façade. The new Duomo Museum project was under creative direction by Monsignor Timothy Verdon. He is reported saying that the biggest problem was “how to exhibit more than 100 fragments of the cathedral’s lost medieval facade, dismantled in 1586-87, forty statues, many monumental in scale, and some sixty architectural elements”. The medieval façade was rebuilt on the basis of an extant 16th century drawing. The grand room is entitled Salone del Paradiso.

Michelangelo's Pietà
Michelangelo’s Pietà

Michelangelo’s Pietà used to be displayed in a small niche room off a stairway in the old museum. Now it has its own room, the Tribuna di Michelangelo. This was Michelangelo’s next-to-last sculpture that, according to contemporary sources, “he meant to adorn the altar near which he expected to be buried in a Roman church. Begun around 1546-1547, the Pietà was abandoned at the end of 1555, when Michelangelo mutilated it: a destructive act due to the elderly master’s frustration at finding flaws in the marble block. Pieced back together, the work was acquired in 1671 by Cosimo III de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and placed in the crypt of the Basilica of San Lorenzo; in 1721 it was transferred to the Duomo and set opposite the Holy Sacrament altar.” (museumflorence.com)

Tribuna di Michelangelo
Tribuna di Michelangelo
American Director of the Museum

Monsignor Timothy Verdon was born in the United States (Weehawken, NJ, 1946). He is an art historian with a Ph.D. from Yale University.

His first interest in Italian art started as a teenager with visits to the New York City Metropolitan Museum. His first visit to Italy was a trip to Venice at the age of 18. He planned to immerse himself in Renaissance art and based his future studies on the use of iconography in Renaissance and Medieval art.

He has lived in Italy for 47 years and since 1994 has been a Roman Catholic priest in Florence, where he directs both the Diocesan Office of Sacred Art and Church Cultural Heritage and the Cathedral Foundation Museum (Museo dell’Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore).

Monsignor Timothy Verdon
Monsignor Timothy Verdon

Author of books and articles on sacred art in Italian and English and has been a Consultant to the Vatican Commission for Church Cultural Heritage and a Fellow of the Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies (Villa I Tatti), and currently teaches in the Florence Program of Stanford University.

Monsignor Verdon’s decisions to make this not only a museum containing the past, but to use the communication tools of the present, served to create one of the most relevant museums in Italy for visitors of all ages and interests.

 Tickets

The combined ticket for the Baptistry, Bell Tower, Dome, Crypt and museum is €15 (Children 6 to 11, €3; under 6, free). Entry to the cathedral is free.

Photos and Video of the Museum

Get a preview of the Museum with a walk through described and photographed by art historian, Alexandra Korey.

The website of Il Grande Museo del Duomo has additional videos and photos.

National Geographic documentary about Brunelleschi’s Dome.

Articles in the Wall Street Journal and NYTimes.

Mangia! Mangia! – Zucchini Flowers Italian Style

My father just posted a couple of beautiful photos of the zucchini flowers from his veggie garden and asked if they were really good to eat. Simple answer: Yes, the flowers are scrumptious! However, Italians have two pieces of advice for my father: 1) pick the male flowers now and cook them up immediately, and 2) don’t let the zucchini squash grow beyond five inches long before harvesting it.

Gorgeous zucchini blossoms (photo gourmasian.com)
Gorgeous zucchini blossoms (photo gourmasian.com)

Americans are notorious for growing gigantic zucchini and then searching for ways of disposing of the tasteless watery squash. Garrison Keillor reportedly claimed July is the only time of year when the citizens of Lake Wobegon lock their cars in the church parking lot, so their friends won’t put a squash or two on the front seat.

Too big already (photo gardeningknowhow.com)
Too big already (photo gardeningknowhow.com)

Italians frequently buy their zucchini with the flower attached. The squash is firm, flavorful and can be eaten either raw or cooked in a dozen different ways.

Pick it now! (photo http://bonnieplants.com)
Pick it now! (photo bonnieplants.com)

But, back to the flowers. The gorgeous golden blooms should be plucked from the garden according to their sex. Judy Witts at Divina Cucina explains this well. The male flowers will never produce a squash, so snap them off and eat them now. Judy also gives us a recipe for fried flowers, the way most people love to eat the blossoms.

Male and female zucchini flowers (photo foodcity.com)
Male and female zucchini flowers (photo foodcity.com)

In Rome, you will find stuffed zucchini flowers, full of ricotta and a sliver of anchovy, fried up in golden olive oil. If you want them stuffed, but not fried, cooking the ricotta filled flowers in a fresh tomato sauce is delicious, says Jamie Oliver.

Delicious fried zucchini flowers (photo lifesambrosia.com)
Delicious fried zucchini flowers (photo lifesambrosia.com)

Mario Batali offers a frittata decorated with blossoms, but you can also make an eggy frittata with both chopped baby zucchini, overlaid with golden flowers.

There is a wine bar in Florence that offers a focaccia with a light cheese, decorated with splayed zucchini blossoms, kind of a squash blossom pizza.

Zucchini blossom frittata (photo by seaweedandsassafras.com)
Zucchini blossom frittata (photo by seaweedandsassafras.com)

So my father should either cook up those male flowers now and the female blossoms when the baby zucchini is just long enough, or he should make a sunny bouquet to decorate the center of the dinner table. Zucchini flowers should not just hide away in the garden.

Tuscan Traveler’s Picks – 6 Questions For Susan Van Allen

Susan Van Allen probably never sleeps. She has written three interesting books that are must-reads especially women traveling to Italy. Her travel stories have been published in many media outlets, including National Public Radio, Town & Country, AFAR, Chicago Daily Herald, several Travelers Tales anthologies, and CNN.com. She makes presentations about Italian travel at such venues as The New York Times Travel Show and Museo Italo-Americano in San Francisco. She has a touring business, which introduces women to the joys of various regions of Italy every spring and fall. She’s also been an actor and a television script-writer.

Susan Van Allen in Florence
Susan Van Allen in Florence

Your book 100 Places in Italy Every Woman Should Go was very popular. Now you’ve published 50 Places in Rome, Florence, & Venice Every Woman Should Go. Did you have a different goal with the second book?

Instead of covering the entire country, the goal with 50 Places is to focus on the major cities—”Italy’s Big Three”. These three spots are often overwhelming, and many travelers arrive with “Must See” lists and then miss out on the fabulous unique spirits of each place. With so many guidebooks covering Rome, Florence, and Venice, 50 Places is for those seeking a more personal approach, as though they’re traveling with advice from a trusty girlfriend. For example, for the major sites, like the Uffizi in Florence, I give readers focus to see the art as glorifications of different aspects of femininity—from the sensual Goddess Venus to the compassionate Madonna—AND add in a Golden Day tip for the perfect place for dinner afterwards. I also steer readers to less crowded places in these popular cities, such as the stunning Palazzo Barberini in Rome, or to immersion experiences, such as maskmaking in Venice, that gives travelers the chance to have a hands-on experience of this beautiful tradition.

I believe you grew up summering at the Jersey Shore. What are some of the major misconceptions Italian-Americans have about Italy?

You’re right—I grew up on the Jersey shore, (West Long Branch, to be exact), surrounded by Italian Americans—including my mother. Her parents, my Nana and Papa, were part of the big wave of immigration from southern Italy in the early 20th century, and like the rest of these early immigrants they brought traditions from their homeland, that created an Italian-American culture. It’s radically different from Italian-Italian—so many Americans are shocked when they arrive in Italy and find it different from what they imagined.

A major misconception is around the food. American travelers are surprised to find no chicken parm on the menus, rarely spaghetti and meatballs served together as it is in America, and that the pizza that is most revered in Italy (from Naples) is not served in sliced pies, but in single servings of whole rounds, with soft centers, and eaten with a knife and fork—so delicious!

50PlacesRomeFlorVenLG1Another misconception is about Italian women. In the movies, we’ve seen all those Italian mammas with loads of children, stirring sauce at the stove. Sure, there are still Nonnas—grandmothers who spend days in the kitchen, but modern Italian women work, the birth rate is low—most have just one child, and husbands share in the cooking and child care.

Then there’s the endless tape about how dangerous the city of Naples is—and many travelers don’t even go to this marvelous city. An expression I grew up hearing was “Va’ a Napoli”—Go to Naples!—which meant: “Go to Hell!”. These days Naples is actually a flourishing city, with a vibrant historical center, amazing archaeological museum, fantastic food, and fabulous, welcoming natives—it’s a place to truly experience the vibrant soul of southern Italy.

It seems to me that your recent book Letters from Italy: Confessions, Adventures, and Advice is even more personal than the other two. What was the impetus for that book?

The impetus came from my beginnings as a writer, when I got the best advice: Write as if you’re writing a letter to a dear friend. I approach all my writing that way, including 100 Places and 50 Places—which are actually a mix of guidebook and travel essay. Letters from Italy brought me the satisfaction of sharing my experiences more completely, and includes essays I’ve written for National Public Radio and Travelers’ Tales anthologies. It’s a collection of nine stories from my travels over the years, ranging from adventures climbing to the top of the island of Stromboli’s volcano, to truffle hunting in Umbria, and the joys of flirting in Rome. I loved including practical advice at the end of each story for places to stay, eat, and shop, as whenever I read other travel stories I’m dying to know the practical details, so I can experience the same things the writer has, and come away with my own take on it.

You share your favorites in 50 Places in Rome, Florence, & Venice Every Woman Should Go. Have you ever been tempted to leave one out – a restaurant, a hotel, a small church or museum – because you don’t want it overrun with tourists? Were you tempted to keep it to yourself?

I’m not the type to keep Italian treasures to myself—I believe abundant Italy has enough for all of us, and am thrilled when I meet readers at my signings or travel shows who’ve taken my advice and discovered for themselves some of Italy’s less-trodden spots. One woman made a whole poster of the great time she had on the island of Ponza for me, another was ecstatic about visiting the Tarot Garden (packed with stunning mosaics) in a less explored province of Tuscany, and often when I’m back in Italy and re-visit my favorite shops, (like Marina e Susanna Sent in Venice—run by two sisters who make gorgeous contemporary glass tableware and jewelry), I’m happy to hear that women have come in and bought beautiful souvenirs, thanks to finding out about their place in my book.

Fresco from the Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii
Fresco from the Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii

You take women on small group tours, custom-designed to experience southern Italy and Florence. Describe one of your favorite experiences from one of these tours.

There are so many favorite experiences from these tours! I love to open the door for women to be in places I’ve fallen in love with and be by their side as they are seeing, tasting, and feeling the spirit of these places for the first time. And then there’s the great bonding that happens among women from such a variety of backgrounds, life experiences and ages. In one short week—from our welcome aperitivo to the farewell dinner—with so many adventures in between, I’m always thrilled to see how friendships are formed that last well beyond the Golden Week.

A favorite experience from a recent week in southern Italy was when we ended our tour of Pompeii in front of the recently restored mural in the Villa of Mysteries—a jaw-dropping painting cycle that shows a woman’s initiation into the Cult of Dionysus. As our guide took us through each panel, she became overwhelmed with the beauty of it and got teary-eyed—so did the women surrounding me—all of us taken in by the deep passion of this creation from thousands of years ago! It’s a memory-of-a-lifetime we will always treasure.

What, in your opinion, is the best advice to give travelers to Italy?

Go ahead and plan with the help of books and online resources, but always be sure to follow your personal desires, your mood day-by-day. This means slowing down, and leaving time for spontaneity. That’s when the Magic of Italian Travel takes over, you’re immersed in the sensual pleasures and wonderful surprises of the Bel Paese, and the trip becomes a soulful, transformational adventure beyond your imaginings. Buon Viaggio!

100 Places in Italy Every Woman Should Go at Amazon.com

50 Places in Rome, Florence and Venice Every Woman Should Go at Amazon.com

Letters from Italy: Confessions, Adventures, and Advice at Amazon.com

Susan Van Allen’s Blog

Susan Van Allen’s Web Site