Category Archives: Tuscany

Italian Life Rules – The Anarchy of Shutters

One sunny autumn day Francesca and I were walking through a narrow medieval street downstream from the Ponte Vecchio.

“Anarchy,” said Francesca, “I like it.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Look up there,” she said, pointing to the top floor of a medieval building in the center of Florence.

“I don’t see anything anarchical.”

“The shutters. They are turquoise.” Francesca pointed at a pair of small shutters on one window on the top floor where a noble family’s servants once lived.

The Grand Duke watches over brown Florentine shutters
The Grand Duke watches over brown Florentine shutters

Sure enough they were a light blue-green — different from every other shutter in Florence. This is absolutely illegal under the code of the Belle Arti, the governing body of all aspects of historical buildings in Florence. All buildings inside the now mostly absent 16th century walls of the city are deemed to be historical.

Shutters in Florence and Tuscany, as well as some other regions in Italy, can only be dark brown, black, dark gray or dark green. Any other color or lighter shade of one of the allowed hues is deemed out of compliance. A homeowner can expect a registered letter in the mail demanding change on threat of a substantial fine.

Another Grand Duke and the window shutters in Piazza Signoria
Another Grand Duke and the window shutters in Piazza Signoria

Shutters are important to the smooth running of Italian life. Not the color, just the use of shutters. Only Americans and the British throw open their shutters and windows on a sweltering summer day in hopes of catching a stray breeze. (As in “mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the mid-day sun.” (Noel Coward).)

Shutters throughout Tuscany are consistent
Shutters throughout Tuscany are consistent

The Italians know that windows and shutters must be closed by 9am to hold in the night’s coolness and then at sunset they must be opened throughout the house to cambiare l’aria (change the air) throughout the night. Of course, the window in the bedroom will be closed as the occupants retire to prevent the dreaded draft (colpo d’aria) from striking the exposed necks of unwary sleepers. In the morning the process starts again.

The other kind of window shutter, the heavy rolling wood or metal blind, known as an avvolgibile, is found on most modern buildings (less than 100 years old) and provide the same service for standardized windows. (They are also better at denying entry to cat burglars.)

The lack of standardized window frames make traditional wooden shutters a common sight in the historic cities of Italy, but also prevents the use of screens to deny entry of the ever-present mosquitos. Itching tourists frequently complain about why even a five star hotel can’t figure out how to install window screens.

Green shutters do not keep the mosquitos out
Green shutters do not keep the mosquitos out

However those same tourists love the standardization of architectural artifacts, such as terracotta roofs and pale golden painted walls. It helps reinforce the cliché of Florentine and Tuscan style. But perhaps it would be better for Florence and the Florentines to take a risk and flaunt bright yellow, blue or even red and white striped shutters.

 

Italian Food Rules: The BookItalian Life Rules (the book) is coming in Summer 2014. Italian Food Rules by Ann Reavis is available now. You can buy Italian Food Rules by using these links:

Amazon. com (U.S.) eBook for Kindle & Kindle Apps

Amazon. com (U.S.) paperback

Amazon.co.uk (United Kingdom)

Amazon.it (Italy)

Amazon.de (Germany)

Amazon.fr (France)

Barnes & Noble (U.S.) eBook for Nook

Tuscan Traveler’s Picks – Women Artists Now More Visible at the Uffizi

INVISIBLE WOMEN, a documentary based on the book Invisible Women: Forgotten Artists of Florence, written by American Jane Fortune (The Florentine Press, 2009) won an Emmy award on June 1, 2013, as the Best Documentary in the Cultural/Historical Program category by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. The documentary, produced by WFYI Productions of Indianapolis, was recently aired on American public television (PBS).

Tuscan Traveler's Favorite Painting by Artemisia Gentileschi (Uffizi)
Tuscan Traveler’s Favorite Painting by Artemisia Gentileschi (Uffizi)

“Winning the Emmy is a new boost to my project, which aims to restore and exhibit artworks by women in Florence,’ said Jane Fortune, art collector, philanthropist, as well as Founder and Chair of Advancing Women Artists Foundation. ‘To achieve these goals it takes technology and skill. It takes the commitment of the city’s museum directors, its restorers and its citizens in general, who are eager to finally learn more about these lesser-known works.” (See the website of Advancing Women Artists for an interesting recounting of the restoration of Artemisa Gentileschi’s David and Bathsheba.)

Restored Painting by Artemisia Gentileschi (David and Bathsheba)
Restored Painting by Artemisia Gentileschi (David and Bathsheba)

“Efforts to safeguard works of art are obviously directed to our cultural heritage in general. What I think we are doing on many fronts is dedicating supplementary attention to works of art by women, through initiatives like restoration and presentation to the public, placing an emphasis on the personalities of these women artists,” said Cristina Acidini, Superintendent of Florence’s Historic and Artistic Ethno-Anthropologic Patrimony and the Polo Museale.

Restoration funded by the Florence Committee of NMWA
Restoration funded by the Florence Committee of NMWA

Suor Plautilla Nelli, Artemisia Gentileschi, Elisabetta Siriani, Irene Duclos Parenti, Elizabeth Chaplin, Lavinia Fontana—the search for women artists in Florence spans hundreds of years and leads the art lover through the halls of the city’s museums, where a sprinkling of representative works gives incentive to further investigation. The whirlwind tourist knows nothing of them, while the art-loving resident lucky enough to happen upon an occasional exhibit aimed at unearthing the city’s hidden cultural patrimony may only vaguely remember their names.

The documentary Invisible Women will have its Italian premiere at Florence’s Odeon Cinema on Tuesday, June 25 at 7pm. Tickets cost 6 euro, with proceeds going to the Advancing Women Artists Foundation which restores and safeguards works of art by women. The Odeon Cinema is a partner in the event, evidence of its ongoing commitment to culture in the city of Florence and of its international nature.

For information on the evening visit the websites of The Florentine (www.theflorentine.net) and the Odeon Cinema (www.odeonfirenze.com). See the Facebook page.

For more information contact: Linda Falcone, Advancing Women Artists Foundation (linda.falcone7072@gmail.com)

Finding Art by Women in the Strangest Places

One of the most interesting, but least visited museums, in Florence is the Garibaldi Museum, maintained by the Associazione Nazionale Veterani e Reduci Garibaldini, in the 10th century tower, Torre della Castangna which stands in Piazza San Martino, on the corner of via Dante Alighieri. It has in its collection a portrait by one of Florence’s most talented artists, working at the dawn of the 20th century, Elisabeth Chaplin.

The Torre della Castagna is interesting in its own right, being one of the least altered medieval towers in Florence. In 1038, the tower was given by Emperor Corrado II to the Benedictine monks of the adjacent Badia Fiorentina in order to help with the monastery’s defenses. In 1282 the tower became the meeting place of the Priori delle Arti, the governing body of the Florentine Republic. The name of the tower came from the fact that the members of the Priori used chestnuts (castagne) to cast their votes.

Torre della Castagna home of the Garibaldi Museum
Torre della Castagna home of the Garibaldi Museum

Today, the tower houses a collection of artifacts having to do with Giuseppe Garibaldi, a central figure in the Italian Risorgimento, since he personally commanded and fought in many military campaigns that led eventually to the formation of a unified Italy.

Among the collection is a portrait of Anita Vignoli (née Castellucci) painted by Elisabeth Chaplin. Anita Castellucci, named by her father after Garibaldi’s beloved Brazilian wife Ana Ribeiro da Silva (commonly known as “Anita”), who fought with Garibaldi. Her Vignoli husband worked to carry on Garibaldi’s legacy into the 20th century. Anita Vignoli is wearing her father’s medals.

Portrait of Anita Castellucci Vignoli
Portrait of Anita Castellucci Vignoli

Elisabeth Caplin, born in France, came from a family of painters and sculptors. In 1900 her family moved to Italy, first to Piemonte and afterwards to Savona in Liguria. It was there that Elisabeth started to teach herself to paint, with no formal training and only the advice of Albert Besnard. When the Chaplin family took up residence at the Villa Rossi in Fiesole in 1905, Elisabeth had the chance to visit Francesco Gioli’s studio and meet Giovanni Fattori. (Her painting of Anita Castellucci Vignoli was painted sometime between 1906 and 1922.)

An almost Invisible Woman - Elisabeth Caplin in Torre della Castagna
An almost Invisible Woman – Elisabeth Chaplin in Torre della Castagna

Chaplin’s visits to the Uffizi Museum were decisive. She learned from copying the classics. From 1905-8, she painted her first large canvases and in 1910 her Ritratto di Famiglia (Family Portrait) for the Florence Society of Fine Arts won her a gold medal. In 1916 she moved with her family to Rome, where she would live until 1922.

Elisabeth Chaplin's self-portrait (Vasari Corridor)
Elisabeth Chaplin’s self-portrait (Vasari Corridor)

She participated in the Venice Biennale in 1914 and in the Paris Salon in 1922 and thereafter. In the 1930’s Chaplin produced numerous frescoes and murals. In 1937 she won a gold medal at the International Exhibition in Paris and in 1939 she was given the French Legion of Honor. She returned to Italy after World War II.

Chaplin donated her entire body of works to Florence. Fifteen of her paintings are on show at Palazzo Pitti’s Modern Art Gallery, while almost 700 (paintings and sketches) are in storage. Why are so many masterpieces by extraordinary women artists hidden from the public eye and from the enjoyment of visitors? See a small part of the story at the Odeon Cinema on June 25.

Open on Thursday afternoon
Open on Thursday afternoon

Mangia! Mangia! – Dante Would Have Loved the Prato Bread Festival

Tourist are frequently surprised when they first taste traditional Tuscan bread that is always made without salt. Tuscans, especially those from Florence and Prato, would not eat it any other way.

The best bread in Tuscany
The best bread in Tuscany

Dante agreed. “Tu proverai si come sa di sale Lo pane altrui, e comè duro calle Lo scendere e il salir per l’altrui scale.” In these lines from the Paradiso of ”The Divine Comedy,” Dante learns of his exile from Florence and is given some idea of the difficulties he will face. ”You shall learn how salty is the taste of another’s bread, and how hard a path the descending and the climbing another’s stairs,” he is told.

Some say the best Tuscan bread is made in Prato. Pane di Prato is justifiably famous throughout the region. There are Florentines who virtually refuse to eat any other bread than Pane di Prato, even if their regard for the rival Pratesi is of a somewhat lesser degree. The bread of Prato was already being sold in the Florentine markets of the 16th century as a prestigious brand. It is said that the Medici served only Pane di Prato at their villa at Poggio a Caiano.

Official Website

Last weekend was the first, and hopefully not the last, annual Festival del Pane di Prato. All of the bread bakeries were showing off their best breads, including the famous bozza, a small quickly rounded loaf with a rustic crunchy crust. The soft middle part of the loaf is honeycombed in appearance and somewhat elastic. When you squeeze a bozza, it springs back into shape. The taste is salt-free, yeasty and slightly acidic.

Hot schiacciata cut up and served to the festival crowds
Hot schiacciata cut up and served to the festival crowds

The Festival served up hot schiacciata for all attendees. Street performers celebrated the bakery theme. Despite the unseasonable rain nobody could be depressed when there is the unlimited supply of yeasty bread.

Making schiacciata with fresh Tuscan olive oil
Making schiacciata with extra virgin Tuscan olive oil

The bread is baked in the pre-dawn hours in a variety of forms that adapt themselves to every need: the cazzottino (‘a small fist”) is for breakfasts and snacks, perfect with a few slices of Pratese mortadella; the filone seems made to be sliced and slathered with flavorful marmalades, or drizzled in local olive oil and sprinkled with salt — the pan con l’olio used for snacks for kids and just about anyone else – or to make the traditional fettunta (toasted, rubbed with garlic and seasoned with olive oil, salt and pepper) reserved for the dinner table. But the best is the bozza, which goes well with everything and when it is stale and hard as a rock, it becomes the prime ingredient for panzanella, ribollita, pappa al pomodoro and other tasty dishes.

Bread bakers take rolling pins to the streets of Prato
Bread bakers take rolling pins to the streets of Prato

The Pisans get all the blame from some pundits for the salt-less bread made in Prato. Supposedly, they attempted to force Florence to surrender in one of their endless battles against each other by blockading the salt that arrived at the Pisan port, preventing it from reaching Florence via the Arno River. Prato, as Florence’s nearest neighbor, was caught in the fight.

Bread of all kinds at the Festival of the Bread of Prato
Bread of all kinds at the Festival of the Bread of Prato

Others claim that the wide spread poverty in the Middle Ages is to blame – that salt was too costly for the Tuscans to use in bread-making. (It’s hard to credit this story because poor Italian peasants in other regions couldn’t afford salt, but didn’t give up making salted bread.)

I like to think it was the pope’s fault. During the 14th to 16th centuries, it is said, the popes, who controlled much of the Italian peninsula (known as the Vatican States), levied a tax on salt. Pope Paul III raised the tax in 1539 and the Perugians and the Tuscans refused to pay it. The government of Perugia even went to war over the issue – the Salt War of 1540. The Perugians lost the war, but some say the citizens then refused to buy the salt, thus forcing the fornai (bread bakeries) to produce salt-free bread. (Tuscan bread is one of the few that remains salt-free today, but there are many historical references to bread made without salt in other parts of Italy.)

The perfect Pane di Prato
The perfect Pane di Prato

During the 16th century in Tuscany, the Tuscan Medici dukes controlled all of the resources, including salt, for Tuscan towns such as Prato. When they needed cash (for a war or for building a new villa) they raised the price on salt and other commodities. Thus, pane toscano (Tuscan bread) became bread famous throughout Italy for being sciocco, from the word in the Tuscan dialect for “insipid” (to Tuscans “sciocco” also means “stupid”, but that doesn’t fit this situation because they think salt-less bread is anything, but stupid). Those who are not Tuscan make fun of the bread of the region, but Tuscans, like Dante, mourn it when it is not available.

Salt-less Tuscan bread is not intended for eating on its own. It’s usually served along with the main meal and is meant for sopping up thick, rich, spicy sauces. The bread doesn’t compete with the flavors in the dish, both are enhanced.

 

Prato bakers also produce a great wheat bread
Prato bakers also produce a great wheat bread

The Bread of Prato’s lack of salt helps keep it fresh for several days. Since it has no salt to hold in water, it does not form mold – it just becomes hard as a rock when it is stale – thus making it the basis of many of the tasty dishes that are renowned in Tuscan cuisine.

Bread baking and the arts celebrated in the streets of Prato
Bread baking and the arts celebrated in the streets of Prato

The following Italian dishes are made with stale salt-free Pane di Prato:

Ribollita – a twice-boiled thick vegetable soup (ribollita means ‘re-boiled’), made of black and white cabbage, white beans and other vegetables, made thick with crumbled stale Tuscan bread or poured over toasted Tuscan bread.

Pappa al pomodoro – a bread-based thick tomato soup in which stale Tuscan bread is rehydrated and crumbled; then cooked with the tomatoes, basil and garlic to make a tasty pappa.

Panzanella – a summer salad dish. Stale Tuscan bread is soaked in water, squeezed into a damp mass, crumbled into a big salad bowl and cucumber, raw onion, fresh diced tomato and fresh basil leaves are added. The ingredients are tossed thoroughly with some extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper.

 

Cacciucco – a fish chowder from Livorno made of fish, mollusks and crustaceans. The Livornese claim that the recipe should contain at least five types of fish to match the number of ‘c’s in the word cacciucco. Once cooked, the cacciucco is served on a bed of toasted Tuscan bread that has been rubbed with a clove of fresh garlic.

Fettunta – “garlic toast” made with slices of hot toasted Tuscan bread, rubbed with a clove of fresh garlic, splashed with fresh extra virgin olive oil and sprinkled with salt. Don’t try to cut into a completely stale loaf of Tuscan bread to make this; it’s too hard to cut. Use slightly stale bread – too dry to eat untoasted, but perfect for fettunta.

(Tuscan Traveler will go anywhere for great bread. Matera bread is a a past and present favorite. While in Prato Tuscan Traveler, of course, stopped at Mattei for a kilo of brutti ma buoni cookies.)

Italian Food Rules: The BookItalian Life Rules (the book) is coming in Summer 2014. Italian Food Rules by Ann Reavis is available now. You can buy Italian Food Rules by using these links:

Amazon. com (U.S.) eBook for Kindle & Kindle Apps

Amazon. com (U.S.) paperback

Amazon.co.uk (United Kingdom)

Amazon.it (Italy)

Amazon.de (Germany)

Amazon.fr (France)

Barnes & Noble (U.S.) eBook for Nook

Dove Vai? – To Siena to See the Door to Heaven

Experience the extraordinary opening of the Porta del Cielo (Door of Heaven)  – or, at least, Siena’s version of it. From April 6 to October 27, 2013, if you happen to visit Siena, don’t miss this spectacular opportunity.

[Photo Credits: Opera - Civita Group]

For the first time, after extensive renovation, it will be possible to take a tour of the walkways in the vault of the Duomo of Siena. Internal passages, balconies (both inside and outside) and hidden attic spaces will be open to small, guided groups. Until now, these parts of the Cathedral were accessible only to the architects and builders in charge of maintaining the structure over the centuries.

photo credit: www.worldeasyguides.com

The two massive towers on each side of the façade of the Duomo house spiral staircases that lead up into the roof where there is a series of walkways and rooms that provide astonishing views of both the interior of the Duomo and the city of Siena outside.

[Photo Credits: Opera - Civita Group]

You will be able to look down onto the marble intarsia floor of the main nave and understand its design in a way that until now could only be done through photographs. You will be able to traverse the walkway over the main altar and almost reach out and touch Duccio di Buoninsegna’s stained glass rose window. Finally, you will be able to walk along the balcony inside the dome of the cathedral from which there is a fabulous view of the high altar.

[Photo Credits: Opera - Civita Group]

The visiting itinerary “from above” will thus permit visitors to better understand the dedication of the Cathedral of Siena to the Assumption of the Madonna, and the strong connection the people of Siena have had with their ‘patron’ for centuries: Sena vetus civitas Virginis.

[Photo Credits: Opera - Civita Group]

The exterior views extend over the Basilica of St. Domenico, the Medici Fortress, the entire dome of the chapel of St. John the Baptist and the landscape of the surrounding Sienese hills.

The Door to Heaven Guided Tour (La Porta del Cielo)

6 April – 27 October, 2013

Reservations required: tickets per person €25, groups of max 17 people €400. Tel +39 0577 286300 (Monday – Friday 9am – 5pm) or email: opasiena@operalaboratori.com

For all of the details of what to wear and what to consider before taking the tour see the official website.

Mangia! Mangia! – Baccalà Binds and Divides Italy

In the U.S. you can count on finding a burger at every truck stop, small town or major city. In the U.K. the same could be said about fish and chips. In Italy, it’s baccalà (salt cod). In the case of hamburgers or fish and chips, the recipe never varies much, but the recipe for salt cod changes drastically from region to region in Italy. Don’t ask for baccalà alla Livornese in Venice or baccalà mantecato in Puglia.

Salt cod can be fried for the Italian version of fish and chips
Salt cod can be fried (served with patate fritte) for the Italian version of fish and chips

It’s not hard to imagine why salt cod became the go-to food around the Italian boot. In times before trucks and refrigeration, the transport of fresh fish was impossible. Despite this fact, the Roman Catholic Church mandated days of abstinence when meat could not be eaten. Salted or dried fish became a Friday and Lenten favorite. It had the added benefit of being very inexpensive and was a protein staple for the poor. Cod boasts remarkable nutritional properties: it contains over 18% protein, which once dried rises to almost 80%.

Salt cod came to the ports of Livorno, Genoa and Naples in the 11th century, brought by Basque sailors, who ventured into the waters of the northern Atlantic, hunting the whales that passed through the Bay of Biscay. They came into contact with the Viking sailors, who dried the fresh-caught cod in the cold dry North Sea winds and then broke it into pieces and chewed it like a biscuit. In the 13th century, the Portuguese, realizing the commercial value of the easily-stored dried fish, cornered the market, sending their ships as far as Greenland. They added salt to dry the fish faster, giving rise to bacalhau (derived from the Latin, meaning “baculus” or stick). They traded salt cod along the western coast of the Italian peninsula.

Fried salt cod simmering in a spicy tomato sauce
Fried salt cod simmering in a spicy tomato sauce

The history of baccalà in Venice only dates back to 1431 when a Venetian ship, laden with spices and 800 barrels of Malvasia wine, departed from the island of Crete under the command of the sea captain Piero Querini, and headed for the North Sea and Flanders. When the ship reached the English Channel, the route was disrupted by a violent storm that, after breaking the rudder, blew the ship north for many days. Boarding lifeboats, the crew (only 14 of 68 survived) landed on the uninhabited rock of Sandoy, in Norway’s northern Lofoten Islands.

For four months, the Venetians lived with the Norwegian fishermen, and learnt the art of preserving cod. Norway’s unique climatic conditions of low temperatures, dry air and a low amount of precipitation were (and still are) perfect for air-drying cod in open tents. Cod preserved in this way can last for years. Captain Querini returned home with sixty dried stockfish. He told the ruling Doges how the Norwegians dried the fish in the wind until it became as hard and then they beat it and spiced it turning it into a soft and tasty mix. The recipe was known by the Spanish words baccalà mantecato (creamed codfish). Querini went back to Norway many times, becoming a major trader in dried and salted codfish.

There are two forms of dried codfish – stockfish and salt cod. Stockfish or stoccafisso is made using the smaller cod, dried on sticks in the cold dry air of Scandinavia, creating a very light, easily transported stick fish, thus the name. Salt cod or baccalà is created from cod, three to six feet long, split, and salted on wood planks for about ten days, thus only partially drying them. Today, all of the stoccafisso and baccalà eaten in Italy comes from Norway.

Salt cod has many of the characteristics of fresh cod, large, soft flakes of succulent, opaque flesh with slightly chewy firm texture from the salting, and not at all fishy in flavor. To prepare it, the cook rinses the salt off it and soaks it in cold water for 12 or more hours, depending upon its thickness, changing the water 2-3 times daily. (Stockfish takes a couple of extra days to rehydrate.) Once it has soaked it is skinned, deboned, and ready to be made into the local recipe.

Bacala alla Livornese ready to serve in Tuscany
Baccalà alla Livornese ready to serve in Tuscany

In Veneto, baccalà is considered a real delicacy: Baccalà alla Vicentina (slowly braised with onions, anchovies and milk) and Baccalà Mantecato (an mashed preparation with extra virgin olive oil, lemon and parsley) are always served with polenta. Some other popular recipes are Baccalà alla Livornese (with tomatoes, garlic, parsley and basil), cooked throughout Tuscany. When in Rome you will find Baccalà Fritto (salt cod chunks fried in a simple egg and flour batter)and Baccalà all’Agro Dolce (with tomatoes, cooked in wine, flavored with red pepper, pine nuts and sultana raisins).

Baccalà alla Pizzaiola (salt cod covered with tomatoes, breadcrumbs, capers, plenty of oregano and baked in the oven) and Baccalà alla Napoletana (the baccalà is fried and then placed in a simmering tomato sauce, with olives, capers and pine nuts), are recipes from Naples. The Neapolitans, even today, boasts the highest consumption of both stockfish and dried salted cod. They claim there are 365 different ways to eat baccalà – one for every day of the year.

As you travel around Italy, ask for baccalà at least once at each stop to taste the true regionalism of  the country.

Italian Food Rules: The BookItalian Food Rules by Ann Reavis is available now. You can buy Italian Food Rules by using these links:

Amazon. com (U.S.) eBook for Kindle & Kindle Apps

Amazon. com (U.S.) paperback

Amazon.co.uk (United Kingdom)

Amazon.it (Italy)

Amazon.de (Germany)

Amazon.fr (France)

Barnes & Noble (U.S.) eBook for Nook

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Arno is Still Rising with the Bomba D’Acqua

Florentines always think that the river to watch after days of rain is the Arno. But this week with incredible downpours – known as bombe d’acqua (bombs of water) – a small creek, the Mugnone, threatened to overflow its banks in parts of the city.

Arno rising after bomba d'acqua
Arno rising after bomba d'acqua

The Arno also continues to rise. The Mugnone is a tributary to the Arno.

Ponte Vecchio lights up the rising river
Ponte Vecchio lights up the rising river

Residents located along the Mugnone were told to head to higher floors and parking garages warned car owners to move their vehicles to higher ground.

The Mugnone is usually a sleeping stream busy breeding misquitoes
The Mugnone is usually a sleeping stream busy breeding mosquitoes

The over-taxed freshwater sewer system flooded streets and piazzas in parts of Florence. The storm has been nicknamed “Medusa.”

A combination of the rising Mungnone tributary and the flooded sewer system in Florence.
Results of the rising Mugnone tributary and the flooded sewer system in Florence.

In Tuscany Massa Carrara, on the coast, took the brunt of the flooding with cars being swept off the streets and roads being destroyed.

Tromba d'aria off the Tuscan coast - a rare sight.
Tromba d'aria off the Tuscan coast - a rare sight.

The southern coast of Tuscany had a different kind of excitement when a rare tromba d’aria (trumpet of air), or water spout, touched down in the sea near Rosignano.

St. Mark's Square is awash with debris.
St. Mark's Square is awash with debris.

Venice is still under more and more meters of acqua alta (high water), which the Venetians are used to, but getting very tired of this winter. Fewer gag shots by tourists are turning up on the blogs.

Hard to serve lunch in Venice these days.
Hard to serve lunch in Venice these days.

But hope is in sight. It’s drier today in Tuscany and the forecast for the next week is, if not sunny, at least without the bombe d’aqua.

Even the walkways are washing away in Venice.
Even the walkways are washing away in Venice.

And my friend Giorgio (see post from two weeks ago) is heading for London, where they are used to rain. My cats, of course, will miss him.

Not much space left.
Not much space left.

But perhaps the Italians would like him to visit again only during a summer drought.

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Men in Tights Never Go Out of Fashion

For years I’ve been telling my touring clients at FriendinFlorence.com to listen for the sound of drums and trumpets in the alleys of Florence. “You are sure to see men in tights if you find the corteo,” I say.

Corteo for the three kings on Epiphany in January
Corteo for the three kings on Epiphany in January

Throughout the year, there are at least thirty parades, processions, or other celebrations with historical costumes, including men in tights. The drummers are in tights, the trumpeters are in tights, the flag wavers are in tights, even the noblemen on horses are in tights as they ride in the corteo.

The Flag Wavers need the flexibility of calzemaglia
The Flag Wavers need the flexibility of calzamaglia

What brings this to mind today – a day without a corteo – is the wonderful column by Maureen Dowd in the New York Times. Mantyhose are apparently all the rage. In fact, yesterday I was in the Paperback Exchange Bookstore in Florence and there were two trendy men wearing mantyyhose. They looked something like this gentleman, but they incorpoated more layers and more color:

All over Europe Mantyhose are a La Moda
All over Europe Mantyhose are alla Moda

The U.S. has it’s own men in tights but they are usually super heros.

Batman & Robin flaunted their tights
Batman & Robin flaunted their tights

Britain had Robin Hood. Ms. Dowd rightly observed that in the 1993 film Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Robin, Little John and the Merry Men sang, “We’re men, we’re men in tights; we roam around the forest looking for fights.”

Men wore tights for over 300 years in Italy
Men wore tights for over 300 years in Italy

Florence, however, has the longest and most colorful history of men who showed a lot of leg. Frescos celebrate the fashionable men who roamed the streets generation after generation for almost 300 years (14th – 16th centuries). Lorenzo the Magnificent was … yes … magnificent … in tights (something had to distract the focus away from that nose). Michelangelo probably didn’t change his calzamaglia more than once a month, if that often. Even Savonarola, the monk of the Bonfire of the Vanities, didn’t disparage the well-turn calf sheathed in skin-tight stockings.

The historic soccer game Calcio in Costume take place in June in Florence
The historic soccer game Calcio in Costume takes place in June in Florence

The Calcio Storico in Florence has for centuries shown how manly men in tights can be. Or perhaps it’s because they are wearing stockings and bloomers that makes this annual game so bloody and violent. I hadn’t thought of it that way before.

Emilio Cavallini His & Hers
Emilio Cavallini His & Hers

It was, of course, a Tuscan, Emilio Cavallini (born 1945 in San Miniato near Pisa), who introduced unisex hosiery to modern times. In 2009, his high-end stocking company designed products for a more male sensibility and now it sells about 30,000 pairs a year to men. The new billionaire owner of Spanx didn’t skyrocket to success by ignoring the growing male market – look for Spanx this year for men who want to smooth those unsightly thigh-topping saddlebags.

The Conservative Man's Brosiery
The Conservative Man's Brosiery

Runners have been sporting spandex for years never knowing how fashionable they were (perhaps only worrying about that chaffing problem), but now they can toss away the all black look and add a little creativity with stripes, skulls, plaids and polka dots.

Colorful Mantyhose for Spring 2012?
Colorful Mantyhose for Spring 2012?

And maybe rainbow colors will show up in the designers’ lines for men next season and we will have come full circle from the trend setter of the Renaissance to the fashion forward man of today.

Mangia! Mangia! – Cioccolata Calda, the Best Florence has to Offer

Before the New Year’s diet resolution kicks in there was time for one last venture into the world of great hot chocolate in Florence. This time it was a paper cup of Grom’s Fondente with a moustache of whipped cream and a tall white ceramic cup of Catinari’s Fondente with only a silver spoon.

Deep dark chocolate from the best cocoa beans the world has to offer
Deep dark chocolate from the best cocoa beans the world has to offer

Of all the cioccolata calda in Florence, Catinari is the best in quality, quantity, presentation and experience. Vestri comes in second in taste, but the plastic cup is a flaw. Grom serves three interesting versions of high quality, but the paper cup and no place to sit are drawbacks. Rivoire has the old world ambience, but has let the quality slip and, though unlikely, it seems like the cups have gotten smaller.

Mangia! Mangia! has already discussed the hot chocolate of Vestri and Rivoire. The first week of a new year is perfect for measuring Grom against Catinari.

Roberto Cantinari – Father of Tuscan Chocolate

A life devoted to chocolate – Roberto Catinari, now in his mid 70s, is credited with inspiring Tuscany’s young chocolatiers, who gave birth to the “Chocolate Valley” that runs from Florence through Prato and Pistoia and on to Lucca and Pisa.

It is said that his love of chocolate began in Switzerland where the young Pistoian immigrant began work at seventeen as a dishwasher in a pastry shop. It was over ten years before he worked his way into the white coat of a pastry chef. He spent ten more years perfecting his craft.

Roberto Catinari has the perfect face of a master chocolate maker
Roberto Catinari has the perfect face of a master chocolate maker

In 1974, he returned to the mountains north of Pistoia and his mother’s house in the hamlet of Bardalone, to start a business with his wife. Six years later they moved to a more advantageous location in Agliana (between Pistoia and Prato) where the kitchen and shop continued until 2007 when he obtained a larger space nearby.

Catinari, with his flowing white beard, could be a chocolate wizard from a Harry Potter novel, but he looks at his work as a craft to be mastered. Over the past thirty years he has created a business where at first no one would pay for quality ingredients until today when chocolate-makers beg for a chance to spend time learning in his relatively small chocolate laboratory. He demands attention to detail, the best ingredients, and a passion for chocolate from all who work with him. Catinari keeps the facility small by choice – a way of valuing quality over quantity. His focus is on the value that hand-made attention to detail and the best raw ingredients bring to the final product.

The beautiful entrance to Catinari's Arte del Cioccolato
The beautiful entrance to Arte del Cioccolato

Except for the shop in Agliana, there is only one other Cantinari Arte del Cioccolato shop and that is in Florence, down a specially decorated little alley at the bottom of Via Porta Rossa where it meets Via Tornabuoni. It’s easy to miss. Here the attention to the main ingredient is readily apparent and drinking cioccolata calda is a special experience.

First, there is the walk down the short paved alley with decorative trees and huge flickering candles. The tiny shop is paneled in dark wood with glass cases full of meticulously decorated chocolate candies. Two comfortable seats are inside and outside, heaters keep the small tables warm even in winter. Arte del Cioccolato serves either Fondente (dark chocolate) or Al Latte (milk chocolate) flavors, both made with chocolate from São Tomé, the small island in the Gulf of Guinea off the coast of Africa. A large ceramic cup is filled just over half way with thick hot hot chocolate, placed on a saucer with a spoon. The spoon is useful for cooling the first sips and capturing the last bit coating the sides of the cup. None should be missed.

Grom – The Boys from Piedmonte Aim to Bring Gelato to the World

Grom, the upstart youngster, opened its doors in May 2003 in the center of Torino, and the success was immediate, unlike Alberto Cantinari’s experience driving around Tuscany for years, slowly building a fan base. At Grom, long lines formed in front of the store from the very first day and the two founding partners, Guido Martinetti and Federico Grom, planned for world-domination with their artisanal gelato.

Grom offers three flavors of hot chocolate
Grom has three great flavors

In January 2005, they decided to expand with the opening of new stores and invest in a centralized laboratory suitable to meet the production demand of the future. The goal was always the same: offering the very best. The centralization of the first phase of production (the mixing of raw materials) became a key decision allowing for a strict quality control standard. But most important, like Catinari, they wanted to assure the quality of the ingredients, for instance, by allowing only certain types of fruit available at local consortia, rather than at the wholesale fruit markets found in each city. The liquid mixtures produced in the laboratory, are checked by a team of experts and then distributed three times a week to each store, where they are blended daily to create incredible gelato. The same system is used for Grom’s cioccolata calda. This attention to quality and the right raw material is at the origin of what makes Grom famous throughout Italy and already many parts of the world (New York City, Paris, Osaka, Tokyo, and Malibu, so far).

Grom’s centralized laboratory also produces the excellent liquid chocolate served at each store as hot chocolate. Grom offers a choice of three flavors:  Bacio, Al Latte and Fondente.  All include fresh milk, dark chocolate of the best “crus” around the world (Al Latte uses Teyuna cocoa of Colombia, Bacio incorporates Tonda Gentile Trilobate hazelnuts and the Fondente starts with Ocumare chocolate from Venezuela), and a few drops of cream. There are no thickeners and the liquid chocolate is heated on the spot in each gelateria so as not to weakening the complex flavors of the great chocolates.

It’s true that it may not be fair to measure Grom, a gelateria, against three chocolate makers when weighing the merits of cioccolata calda in Florence. It didn’t come in first ,but it certainly was a credible competitor. Next winter, perhaps the hot chocolate at Café Giacosa and Café Florian will be on the list of challengers. But now, the New Year’s diet commences…

Grom – www.grom.it (in Florence) Via del Campanile at Via delle Oche – Ph. +39 055.216158. Open from 10:30am to 11:00pm

Roberto Catinari, www.robertocatinari.it,www.artedelcioccolato.it Arte del Cioccolato, Via Provinciale, 378; Agliana; +39-0574-718-506; (in Florence) Chiasso de Soldanieri, near the corner of Via Porta Rossa and Via Tornabuoni); +39-o55-217-136.
Open from 10:00am to 8:00pm

Mangia! Mangia! – Christmas Lunch with Chiara Latini

It is not uncommon for Italians to start discussing what they are going to eat at the next meal moments after they finish that last one. We decided to eat Christmas lunch with Chiara Latini near Certaldo the day after we had Thanksgiving dinner with her parents at Osteria di Giovanni in Florence. And we did so – along with over a hundred other holiday celebrants, including a couple of surprise visitors from North Carolina.

Chiara follows in the footsteps of her father Giovanni and her grandfather Narciso by managing the family restaurant, Ristorante Latini, outside of Boccaccio’s birthplace Certaldo on the road to San Gimignano, the famed “Manhattan of Tuscany” .

Visitors from the USA - Chiara with her Guilford College professor
The Kirchers from North Carolina - Chiara with her Guilford College history professor

Pranzo di Natale at Ristorante Latini was a classic experience of an Italian family festive lunch. Unlike an American celebration that can go from soup to nuts in 45 minutes, Italians take their time – a three hour meal is short. There is always time to take a quick refreshing walk (it was a gorgeous sunny day) between courses, or to make the obligatory “Auguri” phone calls, or even to rearrange the seating arrangements at the table so everyone gets a chance to catch up with an aunt or cousin who’s been out of touch for a week or two.

Handmade tortellini in a capon broth
Handmade tortellini in a capon broth

The menu was classic. Latini’s own production of thin-sliced prosciutto, creamy ricotta, and crostini with herb-infused lardo and liver paté made a promising start, followed by two pastas, one in brodo and the other with a spicy venison meat sauce. The main dishes were served family-style, so there was a choice of one or all of guinea hen with an onion sauce, beef roasted with a red wine sauce, or crispy roast duck. Roasted potatoes cooked with garlic and rosemary was the classic contorno.

Festive apple cake
Festive apple cake

I have a major sweet tooth so the highlight to me was the apple cake. But the dolci didn’t stop there. Chiara was also serving almond or chocolate biscotti, chocolate truffles, panforte with figs, and ricciarelli (soft almond cookies).

I’ve been wating for Chiara to start her own line of chocolate cantucci (biscotti) studded big chocolate chunks – Chiara’s Chocolatey Chocolate Chunk Cantucci. It has a ring to it, right?

Ristorante Latini
Ristorante Latini

Now we have a week to recover before the New Year’s breakfast – probably American pancakes, bacon and eggs, orange juice and champagne. As I mentioned, Italians are forward looking when it comes to food.

Ristorante Latini
Via dei Plantani 1,
Loc. La Steccata, San Gimignano
Tel: 0577 945 091

Directions

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Artisan Woodworker of Cortona

Fifteen years ago on my second visit to Italy, I went to Cortona. Why? To have tea with Frances Mayes, of course. I planned to spend the following year under the Tuscan sun – a sabbatical from my law firm life. Who else would be the best source of info?

We did not sip tea under the shady arbor of grapevines, near the fragrant lavender patch, behind the golden and peach-colored walls of the restored Bramasole villa. No, we sat in the back of the Caffe Bar Signorelli in the main square of Cortona for two hours over countless cups of ever-weaker tea. I can’t remember what I learned about how to have an exceptional extended vacation in Italy, but I remember the author was charming and was a major proponent of buying a second home in Tuscany.

Umberto Rossi's showroom at the corner of Piazza della Repubblica
Umberto Rossi's shop in Piazza della Repubblica

On the same visit to Cortona, I also met Umberto Rossi. Some would call him a falegname – a craftsman of wood – although the better term would be artisan. Umberto is a master craftsman in “turned” wooden objects, using a lathe to make the thinnest possible wood bowl or objet d’art. But it was the fruit he created that caught my eye – apples of acacia or palisander wood, pears of tulipwood, and two cherries of cherry wood, joined by stems of lemonwood, no thicker than the real thing.

Umberto's pear of tulipwood and cherries of cherry wood.
Umberto's pear of tulipwood and cherries of cherry wood.

I met Umberto in his small shop on the same square where I had tea with Frances. After a long discourse on how each item was made and the decisions that go into choosing the wood, the preparation, the tools and the amount of skill and labor that go into each item, I bought three pieces.

Umberto said he couldn’t understand why someone would buy a piece of his work and not ask about the type of wood or how it was made. That wasn’t a problem with me. I wanted to know about all of it. I had never seen such intricate craftsmanship with such an eye to detail outside of a museum. He invited me to visit his workshop just down the hill on Via Guelfa. My memory of this place is that it was crowded, dark, cold, and full of sawdust and pieces of wood, as well as all of the equipment needed for his work – but it was a long time ago, I may have the details wrong. It was there, looking at rough chunks of chestnut and olive wood, small logs of mahogany and rosewood, and even a cube of ebony, that the philosophy attributed to Michelangelo came to mind – Umberto seemed to look at a piece of wood and envision the form contained inside and it was his mission to bring it to life.

An apple made of palisander wood.
An apple made of palisander wood.

Then, Umberto invited me home to meet his wife, Dee, who, like Frances Mayes, was from the American South. Maybe it was that southern hospitality, but Dee kindly interrupted her dinner preparations to make coffee for the tourist her husband brought home with no warning. I never did learn how Dee Morton, an artist from Georgia ended up in a cozy apartment in a soon-to-become-famous, but now a definitely obscure, rocky hill town on the edge of Tuscany, with woodworker Umberto Rossi. Besides cooking dinner and making coffee, she was wrangling two kids, the youngest just one year old – it didn’t leave a lot of time for personal histories.

Turned and carved wooden objects in the window.
Turned and carved wooden objects in the window.

Last week, I went back to Cortona. Frances Mayes has since moved to North Carolina. Umberto’s shop was closed tight by ancient faded green wooden doors – no way to peer in, no big sign to say it was still his shop – but there was a small card taped to the door that gave a phone number and directions to the workshop. “Open on request.” As I debated the issue, a woman arrived wearing a warm coat and jaunty beret. It was Dee Morton.

Apples in a variety of woods in the showroom.
Apples in a variety of woods in the showroom.

The shop is now a showroom – same size, but with elegant glass cases. Umberto’s exquisite work remains the focus, but now also there are Dee’s drawings and paintings on the walls and the artwork of their talented now-teenaged children on display.

Have lunch at La Bucaccia on Via Ghibellina in Cortona
Have lunch at La Bucaccia on Via Ghibellina in Cortona

I, of course, added to my collection. Then we went off to one of the best restaurants in Cortona, La Bucaccia, (Via Ghibellina, 17), for a lunch full of local specialties, but that’ s for a later post …