Tag Archives: Italy

Francesca’s Footprints – A Student Finally Learns Something Important

It is a joy to learn something new and surprising. As a teacher, it is even better when I learn from a student. Here’s a story many of you at TuscanTraveler.com may know, at least in part. It’s about Ann, the Tuscan Traveler. She’s published a book! I wrote the Foreward.

Ann was a San Francisco lawyer in search of any enlightenment that nine months in Italy could bring her when she walked into my Italian grammar class in Massa Marittima, near the Tuscan coast, in 1998. To be kind, let’s say that she had no ear for my melodic language.

Francesca Al Vapore!
Francesca “Al Vapore”!

Changing focus, she sought to learn to expand her kitchen skills beyond admittedly delicious chocolate chip cookies and carrot cake to include Florentine and Tuscan recipes. I was conducting cooking classes for Americans and other tourists. Ann, unfortunately, could never master a passable soffritto or achieve al dente when it came to cooking pasta.

I was ready to give up on the notion that Ann was ever going to awaken to the state of being Italian even for a day, but then we started to delve into the customs and practices that make Italian food authentic. Maybe it is the lawyer’s need for defined rules and precedents or Ann’s love for research that, combined with her passion for eating, if not cooking, Italian food led her to collect what she came to call the Italian Food Rules.

Italian Food Rules FINAL DIGITAL FRONT 1000 PIXELS

After nine months in Florence became over fifteen years in Italy, Ann is still clearly American, but she knows more than most Italians about the basis of the food practices that are passed down from generation to generation. Her delight in each discovery has frequently been shared in her writing on TuscanTraveler.com and, now, in this enchanting book.

The facts, fictions, history and reasons behind the Italian Food Rules, as well as the revelation of the mere existence of so many customs or edicts, will assist any visitor to Italy by making their stay easier, less confusing, and richer. For Italians, their response to reading Ann’s list of the rules is usually “giusto, giusto” (“exactly right”) and then delight when they read the rationale and history of the gastronomic commandments passed down from their grandmothers.

I never knew where Caesar Salad originated (certainly not Italy), or why spaghetti with meatballs was considered an Italian dish, or why Americans always wanted a bowl of olive oil with a squiggle of balsamic vinegar delivered immediately to the table when dining at a trattoria. I enjoy eating lampredotto and lardo on a regular basis, being very familiar with these Tuscan specialties, but I never thought much about their origins in Italian history until Ann started asking questions, urging me to translate at Florentine tripe stands, and traveling to Colonnata to see where herbed lard is aged.

The bricks that form the foundation of the most loved cuisine in the world today are important and should be preserved. Ann Reavis has given us the gift of memory in her light and amusing book of Italian Food Rules.

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

Italian Life Rules – Superstitions, Familiar and Strange

The first use of the Latin superstitio is found in the writing of the historians Livy and Ovid (1st century BC). At that time the term “superstition” was used in Italy mostly in the negative sense of an excessive fear of the gods or unreasonable religious belief, as opposed to religio, the proper, reasonable awe of the gods.

photo by Ann Reavis

The term superstitio, or superstitio vana (vain superstition) was applied by Tacitus and Domitian (80 AD) to those religious cults (druids, early Christianity) in the Roman Empire that were officially outlawed.

Throughout history, Italian culture has been rich with superstitions for good or evil that continue to form the basis of many of the Italian Life Rules. Today a visitor may be surprised at which superstitions are taken seriously and which are taken with a grain of salt, so to speak.

photo by Ann Reavis

Here is a non-inclusive list of Italian superstitions so that you don’t put a foot wrong during your next visit:

The Evil Eye (Malocchio)

The Evil Eye is one of the most ancient superstitions in Italy. Every region seems to have their own version of the Evil Eye, but some take it more seriously than others. One thing they seem to have in common is that the Evil Eye is caused by jealousy and envy. One test for the Malocchio is done by dropping olive oil in a plate of water. If the oil forms one large drop in the middle of the plate it’s a sure sign of the Evil Eye, but after chanting the right prayers that usually only women are allowed to know, the oil may break up into tiny droplets and spread out, thus breaking the curse of the Evil Eye. The cornicello (see below) is also used to ward off the malocchio.

key ring amulets from Naples

The Devil’s Horn (Corno)

The use of the Corno, or Devil’s Horn, is a curse of impotency or of the cuckold. The twisted phallic red coral, gold or silver amulet (cornicello) is often worn or carried by men to ward off curses on their “manliness” or mojo. Although many claim the amulet represents one of the horns of the devil, the Corno predates Christianity by thousands of years. The horned god Faunus was known for his wild nature and interest in fertility. The ancient Romans knew well  Cernunnos, the horned Celtic god of fertility, life, animals, wealth, and the underworld. The horns of an African eland most resemble the original amulets.

Related to the Corno is the hand gesture (extending only the pinkie and index finger like a pair of horns) known as the mano cornuta, which can be used (pointing upwards or directly at the victim (cornuto)) to curse another or not so subtly send the message that a man’s wife or girlfriend is straying. This gesture can also be used  to ward off the Evil Eye (pointing fingers down).

Lucky Numbers

The number 13 is lucky in Italy, especially when gambling. The number 13 is also associated with the Goddess of Fertility and the lunar cycles. It is thought  the number brings prosperity and abundant life. Although 13 is considered lucky, sitting down to a table with 12 others is an ill omen. At the Last Supper Jesus ate with his 12 disciples before one of them, Judas Iscariot, betrayed him. Italians aim to avoid a similar turning of the tables. In modern times it seems the Friday 13 is starting to lose its charm in Italy, as with the rest of the world.

Unlucky Numbers

The number 17 is considered unlucky. This has to do with how it is written. Italians dislike the number so much that some hotels don’t have a 17th level. When 17 is written using Roman numerals XVII, it can be rearranged to spell the Roman word VIXI meaning “I have lived” and is found on ancient tombstones, thus tempting death. When written using Arabic numerals, 17 is still considered unlucky since it resembles a man ( the 1) hanging from a gallows (the 7).

photo by Ann Reavis

Superstitions Pertaining to Bread

A loaf of bread must always be placed face up, or else bad luck will come.  Again, some claim this has a basis in Christianity with the symbol of Christ as the Bread of Life. It is impolite to turn the bread up-side-down or to stick a knife into a loaf of bread. Bread is considered a staple of life and so every precaution is taken in order to prevent cursing the supply.

photo by Ann Reavis

No Birds in the House

The presence of a bird in the house (either as a pet or accidentally) brings bad luck. Mere bird feathers, especially peacock feathers with their Evil Eye, can curse a household or the wearer of a feathery hat. Some say the superstition has a Christian origin from the Bible story where Peter denied that he knew Jesus three times before the cock crowed. Paintings of birds are also be avoided.

Blessing/Exorcising a New House

The blessing or exorcism of a new house in Italy is still practiced, especially when it comes to newlyweds. Moving into a first home was accompanied by the necessary rituals to rid the place of any spirits that may have ben left by the previous owners and could harm the new couple or their first child. A new broom is a common first gift to sweep away evil spirits. Sprinkled salt in the corners of the house will purify it. Neighborhood priests go house to house before Easter to bless each home with holy water (in modern times a tiny note is frequently wedged in the door to notify the residents of the service).

The Witchdoctor (Mago/Maga)

Southern Italians, Sardinians and Sicilians, mostly of the older generation, still mix folk medicine and ancient superstitions. When home remedies did not work and modern medicine was not an option (from either lack of money or language), some neighborhoods have the services of a man or woman trained in ancient practices, bordering on witchcraft.

Older Sicilians can recall ancient rites, involving making dolls to curse an enemy, amulets to protect themselves from evil, or, on the more positive side, love potions to encourage a slow suitor.

Marriage Superstitions

Singles, don’t let a broom touch your feet when someone is cleaning the floors. If you do, you will never be swept off your feet and get married. Likewise, never sweep over the feet of an unmarried person, or they will never marry.

photo by Ann Reavis

Cats – Good and Bad

It’s bad luck to have a black cat cross your path. On the other hand, it’s considered a good fortune if you happen to hear a cat sneeze.

What Not to Put on a Bed

Don’t put a hat on a bed. Traditionally, when the sick were on their deathbeds a priest would come to receive their final confessions. The priest would remove his hat and set it on the bed so that he could put on the vestments. Thus, a hat’s temporary resting place is associated with eternal rest, a thought that keeps Italians from sleeping peacefully.

A bed should never face the door because it replicate the position of a coffin in a church.

Other unlucky items to keep off the bed are clothes hangers, hairbrushes, and shoes (of course the last is a hygiene issue, too).

Bad Luck Toasting

Never raise a toast with a glass full of water as it is bad luck. Don’t cross arms when you clink wine glasses together. Also, be sure look fellow toasters in the eye when clinking glasses and don’t slip up by forgetting to take a sip before setting your drink down, otherwise you will have seven years of bad sex.

Spills of All Kinds

Don’t spill salt or olive oil for fear of bad luck. This conception may have begun as a trick to motivate people to handle the previously expensive goods with care. If it happens, however, toss a bit of salt over each shoulder or rub a drop of oil behind each ear. If you spill wine at the dinner table, wet your fingers and dab some behind every person’s ear.

photo by Ann Reavis

Hearses – Coming and Going

Don’t follow a hearse that isn’t carrying a coffin. You are in death’s wake and soon people might be attending your funeral. However, if the hearse bears a body, it isn’t in pursuit of another passenger, so you are safe, just like if you pass a hearse driving in the opposite direction.

A Word to the Wise

Never trim toe and finger nails on Thursday.

Don’t start a journey, new project or get married on a Friday or a Tuesday.

Never have your hair cut during the new moon.

Never get a perm during your menstrual cycle.

Eat plenty of lentils on New Years’ Eve.

If you give a gift of a new wallet, always put at least a coin in it.

To prevent a downturn of fortune people practice tocca ferro and touch iron if they think something bad is going to occur. Italian men, knowing what must be protected at all costs, may tap their testicles, known as tocca palle. This is similar to knocking on wood.

photo by Ann Reavis

Good Omens

Seeing a spider at night: a sure sign of monetary income.

When you drop something then someone is thinking of you and their name starts with the first letter of item dropped. (Drop a pen (penn a) and Pamela is thinking of you.)

When your nose itches, it’s either “pugni o baci,” punches or kisses.

Finding a button on the ground: a new friendship is on the horizon.

Dreaming of someone dying and you will have added ten years to their life.

When a new moon appears, the minute you see it say the New Moon Incantation: “Benvenuta Luna che mi porti fortuna!” – “Welcome, moon and may you bring me good fortune!” This is to be repeated, bowing respectfully at the lunar sliver 13 times with a coin in each hand.

Eat lentils on New Years Day and money will follow during the year.

Broken Hand Mirror

Bad Omens

Killing a spider will take money away.

Breaking a mirror will result in seven years of bad luck.

Giving a handkerchief as a gift will bring tears.

Crossing silverware on the table foretells strife.

Passing each other the salt hand to hand (without putting it down on the table) will lead to imminent fight between the two.

Nuns crossing your path (or is this only for school children?).

Walking under a ladder.

Crossing arms when shaking hands in a group.

An owl sighting is a vision of the spirits of the dead.

Sources and Websites of Interest about Italian Superstitions:

About the etimology and general information about superstitions look here, here, here, here and here.

Rick Zulo at rickzulo.com

Eleanora Baldwin at aglioolioepeperoncino.com

VeniVidiVinoItaly.com

LifeInItaly.com

Carol King at ItalyMagazine.com

More recent:

TheLocal.it

Gina Fava at Bostoniano.info

Tuscan Traveler is collecting more Italian superstitions. Please leave a comment if you know of one that needs to be added to the list.

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

Italian Food Rules: The Book

Burnt To A Crisp – The Italian Post Office, Of Course.

Among my friends and family, they know how much I hate Italian Post Offices. Some have described it as a phobia: ufficiopostalefobia (postophobia (var. Italian)).

The smaller the better
The smaller the better

Actually, it is not the post office building that I object to. There are many incredibly beautiful post offices in Italy.

It’s the people who work there.

The façade hides it all
The façade hides it all

Actually, before the byzantine numbering system was put in place, I disliked everyone I came into contact with at the post office, because when we all had to stand in a waiting line, Italians (men or women) seemed to think the closer they were pressed to the back of the person in front of them (me), the faster they would get to the window.  Or they (mostly the wily pensioners) would cut in front of me with “solo una piccola domanda” (only a short question).

Get your number here
Get your number here

Actually, it’s also that computerized numbering system, now in place in most of Florence’s post offices, I loathe. Because although it has been explained to me that it was the fruit of a scientific study that determined that the pattern of letters and numbers it spits out is the fastest and fairest way to get people served at the post office, I can (in the hour that I am sitting waiting for P178 to appear) unscientifically observe that there are only two windows serving P (for postal) clients, including those with fifty registered letters to have stamped, inscribed, digitally recorded, and sent, and one or the other of the employees behind those two P windows will step away for a pausa (break) at frequent intervals.

Actually, I don’t dislike the people behind the windows (well, except for one or two, and those who live in Florence know to whom I’m referring), I abhor the bureaucratic system in which they have their secure jobs-for-life and I assume they are as unhappy to be there as I am. They sure seem sad. Not a smiley face among them.

Italian postal employeesActually, I didn’t mean to disgorge all of the above because today, I got a present.

But first, a little background. I follow (mostly lurking) the Italian Reflections Group (IRG) on Facebook. It’s a fabulous group of about 1,042 English reading/writing expats living in Italy. About a week ago one of the IRGers posted a diverting story about how on her third trip to the post office to try to mail her EU-bound holiday cards, she was informed that they were smaller than standard size so the postage for these too dainty missives would be 2.50 euro ($3.44) each, instead of the standard rate of 85 centesimi (cents) ($1.16). She, being more polite than me, did not stomp off cursing. She asked if the postage would drop to .85 if she put each holiday envelope into a standard envelope. The answer was “Dipende …” It depended on whether the weight of the combined envelopes and card exceeded the maximum weight for standard postage.

I then told this postal story to Francesca, the Florentine, in an attempt to justify my fobia. She snorted and said, “Well obviously she does not have a “Bustometro.” “Huh?” I said.

Soon after I was the proud owner of the two-sided document seen here:

BUSTOMETRO
BUSTOMETRO

On this side is the measurement guide so that the sender can verify the size of the “corrispondenza” before she sends it. It’s easy! Just place the envelope or post card on the bustometro so that the right lower corner fits and then find out if it is “normalizzata” or, in other words, if the upper left corner fits inside the area colored red.

Prepare the perfect envelope
Prepare the perfect envelope

If you are still confused, the other side of the bustometro shows you exactly how to use the form, with added info about how to address and stamp your envelope. If that wasn’t enough, there are also warnings not to include keys, pins, and paperclips in the contents of your mailing. (If you click on either of these photos you can see all of the fine details.)

You may not find as much comfort as I do from this gift. (OBTW it was issued in the late 1970s or early ’80s.) But I got a tremendous amount of validation that I am, and always have been, correct about how much joy and satisfaction can be gotten from the Italian Post Office experience.

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

Francesca’s Footsteps – Giving Thanks In The Maremma

Carbonifera!  Baratti!  Campiglia!

How many tourists to Italy or even, Italians, know these places? Already the names are evocative. They are all part of Maremma, the seaside region south of Livorno, but north of Grosseto, where the sea is especially beautiful and clean, and the food is as good as it can be – Acquacotta anyone? Pappardelle al cinghiale? – have you ever tried them?

Foto from Francesca Boni's BlackBerry
Foto from FB’s BlackBerry

In the summer this area is beautiful, but there are people – often too many – on the beaches (you sometimes can even go naked if your body still allows it).

BUT… now … at the end of November …OH my god!

Foto from Francesca Boni's BalackBerry
Foto from FB’s BlackBerry

I went on a weekend “retreat” to Campiglia Marittima. I needed to breathe, away from the usual Renaissance Disneyland of Florence, where I am lucky to have been born and live.

Anywhere else in Italy this weekend was rainy, cold, muddy, even snowy, and in Venice my friend had acqua alta again, poor thing, being a tour guide, that is true suffering.

Foto from Francesca Boni's BlackBerry
Foto from FB’s BlackBerry

BUT … where I was in the Maremma, the weather gifted me with two nights full of the best sound in the world – rain on the roof – followed by two days of pure perfection, with sunny, sweet air, accompanied by the most amazing clouds I had ever seen, cleaned by the storm, pieces of white cotton, sometimes pink.

Foto from Francesca Boni's Blackberry
Foto from FB’s BlackBerry

I turned my eyes for a second and here they are: two rainbows one after another. And then, close up a sighting of pure white on a brown beach: the long neck of a heron lifting off in slow motion, spreading gorgeous wings of gray and white.

To be able to walk on the beach in November is very very rare, but not yesterday. There was even a pink carpet going back and forth on the bagnasciuga made of tiny jellyfish.

Wow! What a gift from God this whole serendipity weekend, the air made me drunk with oxygen, I couldn’t stop smiling and loving everything that was around me. I felt lucky and in sync with everything and everyone else. This never happens in the city.

Of course, I forgot to bring my camera, but my beloved BlackBerry filled the need. Here they are, not technically perfect, but I hope they convey what I felt.

Foto from Francesca Boni's BlackBerry
Foto from FB’s BlackBerry

Actually with just two days away from Thanksgiving, I think this weekend is something to be very grateful for.

Thank you E&R for the house. Thank God for all the rest.

Italian Life Rules – Bicycles Are A Way of Life

“What the …? Doesn’t that old lady know the viale is dangerous and this tunnel is worse? Get on the sidewalk, vecchietta.” Francesca yelled out the window as she swerved around the bicyclist, almost hitting a Vespa in the second lane of the ring road around Florence. The scooter, in turn, darted in front of the truck in the third lane.

“Uh, Francesca, … I think that was your mother.” Annette turned to peer in the passenger-side mirror at her friend’s 82-year-old mother as she emerged out of the tunnel into the sun. “Yup, that’s her.”

“I’m confiscating the bicicletta tomorrow,” growled Francesca.

Cycling on a Milan street (photo by Radu Filip)
Cycling on a Milan street (photo by Radu Filip)

The regional governments all over Italy are pushing for more bicycling, especially in the cities. It is an effort to cut air pollution and congestion in streets better suited for horses and carts, than SUVs and sports cars. Italians are game. They have a history with bikes. The men love the sleek road bikes and the women find that shopping around town goes faster on a bicycle than in a car. With the packed city streets, a bicycle is even quicker than a scooter.

Bicycling at its best in Florence (photo by Phillip Wong)
Bicycling at its best in Florence (photo by Phillip Wong)

The Mayor’s Office in Florence came up with a plan: 22 euro a month for unlimited use or one to two euro per hour for occasional use of  225 bikes supplied by the city in three locations for hourly rentals and six places for monthly plan participants.

When it comes to competitive racing, few Italian women join the huge number of men, who squeeze into spandex and puff up the spectacular hills in the road races that take place every weekend, weather permitting, throughout the central and northern regions of the country. Even men in their seventies and eighties continue riding with organized teams.

UCI World Road Championships in Florence
UCI World Road Championships in Florence

Florence recently hosted the UCI Road World Championships, boasting one of the most difficult stages in the history of the international race circuit, through the hills around Fiesole and one of the most beautiful sprints through the historic center past the Duomo. Except for a few accidents on the downhill curves from Fiesole, the Championships were deemed a big win for the city and the international cyclists. (One only-in-Italy note: The Russian team’s racing cycles were stolen (200,000 euro loss), never to be seen again.)

The race course to Fiesole and back to Florence
The race course to Fiesole and back to Florence

Glistening new bicycles are rarely seen around Italian towns. An old beat up bike is best — less chance of theft. Also, a bicycle with soft wide tires cushions the posterior from the jarring potholes and ancient stones that make up historic medieval streets.

Weekend bicycling in Milan
Weekend bicycling in Milan

People of every age ride in Italian cities and towns. Old ladies, sexy women in stilettos, the guy with the gelled hair balancing his girlfriend sidesaddle in front or behind, the lawyer with his briefcase, and the mothers with their treasured only child in a plastic seat, frequently sighted with neither wearing a helmet like you would see in the U.S. Every neighborhood has a shop that fixes these aging, rusting bicycles, offering only air for free.

BUT Wilma’s bicycling career ended that week. Che peccato!

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

Francesca’s Footprints – Have a Nice Day & Watch Your Step

“Have a nice day and watch your step!”

I ride buses when I am in the U.S. and pretty much everywhere else.

Every single time I cannot help but notice how nice and customer friendly the bus drivers in the States are. One morning, for example, we were on our way to the Washington, DC train station, schlepping lots of luggage, it was nice that the lady driver “leaned” her bus to help us get on board.

Francesca's Favorite Bus at Union Station in Better Weather
Francesca's Favorite Bus at Union Station in Better Weather

She greeted every single passenger and did not answer her cell phone when it rang. Why am I noticing all this? Because I am Florentine. I live in the historic center and I avoid buses as much as I can – to the point of getting soaked in the rain by riding my motorino just to avoid Florentine buses.

Let me explain for those unfamiliar with the Florence ATAF system: On our Italian buses cell phone calls are always answered. Questions about stops are not answered. Speed limits are not respected. Drivers roar in to halt at the posted stops and brake abruptly at all traffic lights or during the usual dodging of double parked cars, known to all Italian byways. Just take a moment to view these spectacular circus events that were filmed by  passengers in Italy and posted on YouTube: here, here and here.

Buses in the Renaissance City
ATAF Bus in the Renaissance City

Let’s go back to that morning in Washington, DC to the beautiful African American woman driving the bus, with her long painted nails, and friendly smile. It was pouring down rain. We asked her whether there would be a stop very near the train station. She said we would have to cross the street, but then she offered to take us to her final deposit stop inside the back of Union Station so that we wouldn’t be soaked. When we got there, she explained precisely how to get to the train tracks, smiled and said goodbye.

I thanked her profusely. Smiling, she said: “This is not part of my job. This is the way I am. Have a great day!”

Now I think: either I am very lucky and always find happy drivers when I am in the United States (both in Washington and New York City), or bus drivers are happier there than in Italy, or it is just a matter of general fabulous customer service?

Cross-town Bus in NYC
Cross-town Bus in NYC

In the end if you think about it, doesn’t it take the same amount of calories to smile or be grim? Sometimes I have tried to thank the bus driver in Florence, and I got a look like I was a strange lunatic passenger.

And so I will go on riding my motorino, rain or shine in the Renaissance Disneyland where I happen to have been born by mistake, it seems.

Have a nice day, and DO watch your step!

Italian Life Rules – If The Shoe Fits

Italy is famous for its shoes and rightly so. There are, however, rules for which pair of shoes is appropriate for each occasion and location.

The short and unchanging list: 1) shoes and sandals for townwear (be it a village or city); 2) sport shoes for participating in sporting events; 3) flip-flops or rubber sandals for the beach or poolside; 4) shower shoes for public or hotel showers; and 5) slippers for home.

Italian Style seen on the streets of Florence
Italian Style seen on the streets of Florence

The trend-setting Italians base their choice of shoe both on reasons of style and of health. The sidewalks, streets, and floors in the world outside the home are not controlled nor cleaned by the Italian mother. Thus, all surfaces outside the home are suspect and assumed to contain large amounts of deadly pathogens. Shoes and sandals, depending on the weather, are to be worn at all times when outside the home, except when participating in a sport or at the beach.

Traveling Italian Style
Traveling Italian Style

No professional Italian woman transits (on foot, via car, scooter or bicycle, or on public transportation) to work wearing sports shoes with her designer slacks or skirt. Sports shoes are to be worn when participating in sporting events. Men may be let off the hook if they are wearing designer sporting shoes with casual attire.

Flip-flops are never worn by Italians anywhere except the beach, poolside or at the spa (spa footwear is usually a spa-branded slipper). After leaving the sand and entering the parking lot or street, shoes or sandals must be worn.

Good for the beach (or Jersey Shore) not for the center of Florence
Good for the beach (or Jersey Shore) not for Florence

Shower shoes are necessary for any shower that is not your own or is not maintained in the way that your mother would approve. Dangerous fungi, molds, and germs lurk, waiting for the Italian foot in public shower stalls and hotel bathtubs.

Upon arrival home, the Italian will remove his shoes and put on slippers or some footwear that is designated for the house only. An Italian does not wear these slippers down three flights of stairs to retrieve a package from the deliveryman. An Italian does not wear slippers to deposit the bundled newspapers and magazines outside the door on recycling day.

The Casa della Pantofola sells only slippers
The Casa della Pantofola sells only slippers

Bare feet are not allowed in the home, except in the shower or the bed. The coolness of the floor can lead to cramps, if not other maladies. Furthermore, between mopping and vacuuming an errant breeze might bring a dust-borne pathogen will adhere to bare feet and those feet will eventually slide between clean sheets at bedtime. Pantofole (slippers), wool for winter and open-toed for summer, are the footwear of choice for the Italian home.

Be stylish, be healthy, be Italian by wearing the proper shoe at the proper time in the proper place. It’s all part of the Italian Life Rules.

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

Friend In Florence Gets a Nod From Dream of Italy

A favorite Italian-interest website (and newsletter), Dream of Italy, just named Friend In Florence and yours truly as one of Italy’s Best Local Tour Guides for 2013. A big GRAZIE to both founder Kathy McCabe and contributing editor Rebecca Winke (also of the fabulous Agriturismo Brigolante Guest Apartments in Umbria).

best-tour-guide-badge-largeOver ten years ago, Kathy McCabe had the brilliant idea of starting one of the first subscription travel newsletter on the Internet. She was passionate about all things Italy so it became Dream of Italy, The Insider’s Guide to Undiscovered Italy. The newsletter was awarded “Best Consumer Subscription Newsletter 2007” and has been recommended by USA TODAY, National Geographic Traveler, U.S News & World Report and BusinessWeek, among other major media outlets.

Kathy McCabe
Kathy McCabe

Through her newsletter and media appearances, Kathy has become well known as the travel expert for Italy. She has helped thousands of travelers “be Italian” for a day, a week, or a month. She was recently voted one of the “12 Top Travel Twitter Personalities for 2012.” She was also the editor for the recently released mobile app – Rome: Dream of Italy.

Kathy’s first-hand Italy reporting has included assisting in the production of buffalo mozzarella in Campania, partaking in truffle hunts in Piedmont and Umbria, soaking in magical hot springs in Tuscany, watching open-air opera in Verona, visiting ancient caves in Basilicata and reviewing Italy’s newest restaurants and hotels. She recently wrote about her visit to Francis Ford Coppola’s new venture, the exclusive hotel Palazzo Margherita in the Basilicata region, for The Huffington Post.

Rebecca’s blog is one of the wryest (and truest) looks at an expat’s life in Italy. When is she going to write that book?

Agriturismo Brigolante Guest Apartments
Agriturismo Brigolante Guest Apartments

Mangia! Mangia! – That’s Amaro, Italy Loves Its Digestivos

The smoothly running digestive system is crucial to an Italian’s health and happiness. This concern is the basis of so many of the Italian Food Rules. You already know that you do not add uncooked milk to a full stomach (cappuccino, caffelatte, gelato); you do not eat “cold” melon without the “heat” of prosciutto or salt or peperoncino; you do not eat leftovers; and you do not overeat. Having eaten well, however, an Italian may partake of an herbal digestive drink after dinner.

Cynar is an amaro made from artichokes
Cynar is an amaro made from artichokes

The first attempts to aid digestion using aromatic herbs and seeds steeped in liquids were made by the Greeks and Romans. Yet today, no country can match Italy for the sheer variety of digestive remedies available. They traveled from the pharmacies of the 1800s, intended as palliatives to counter all sorts of ailments and physical imbalances, to restaurants, bars and the dinner table in the 20th century. They are bitter – that’s amaro.

These homemade restoratives, generally bitter herbs, plants and other botanicals blended into an alcohol base, live on commercially today in the form of digestives. Digestives are not the usual after-dinner drinks, like brandies, grappas and other distilled products that are meant to add a pleasant intoxicating after-note to a meal, or the sweet high-alcohol wines, like Vin Santo, which give you a final sweet taste, but not the fullness of a three-layer cake.

These digestives, or digestivi, are known collectively as amari. The word refers to the bitterness that unifies this disparate group of liqueurs. Dozens of amari are produced in Italy. Each has a proprietary formula made by distilling a wide variety of herbs and spices and tempered in barrels or bottles. Amari have been touted in Italy to cure overeating, flatulence, hangovers, gas pains, cramps of all kids, baby colic and cholera. One theory is that bitterness, typically associated with poison, cues the body to accelerate the production of saliva and digestive juices.

Amaro from Puglia
Amaro from Puglia

No two amari shares the same makeup or ingredients.  For example: Amaro Averna from Sicily is comprised of citrus, herbs, roots, and caramel; Cynar is an amaro made from 13 herbs and artichokes (Cynara scolymus), from which the drink derives its name; Nocino, is a digestivo made from green walnuts; Unicum, formerly a Hungarian amaro, contains 40 herbs and is aged in oak casks (the Zwak family, holder of the secret Unicum recipe, emigrated to Italy after WWII); Vecchio Amaro del Capo, a herbal and minty amaro is made in Calabria; and Fernet-Branca, probably the most world-famous amaro, is made from a secret recipe of 27 herbs obtained from five continents.

Fernet-Branca was created by a self-taught herbalist in Milan in 1845. The secret recipe for this digestive, first sold in pharmacies, includes aloe from South Africa, rhubarb from China, gentian from France, galangal from India or Sri Lanka, chamomile from Italy and Argentina, saffron, red cinchona bark, myrrh from Madagascar (yes, that’s right – myrrh), and elderflower. The brew is aged in oak barrels for twelve months. It is about 40% alcohol. Fernet Branca is considered by some as a perfect cure for a hangover, but Italians drink it as a digestivo after a long meal.

Frenet-Branca is the most internationally renown Italian amaro
Fernet-Branca is the most internationally renowned Italian amaro

Nocino is an amaro that can be found in most restaurants and ordered as a digestivo. But it is also the most popular amaro for the home-made digestivo, probably because of the ease of its recipe. Its main ingredient is green walnuts picked long before they are ready to eat.

The regions of Campania and Emilia-Romagna are the largest producers of walnuts in Italy. Traditionally, the walnuts are picked by a woman (there is a bit of the pagan about this concoction) on the eve of June 24th, the Festa di San Giovanni (St. John the Baptist’s saint day), the recipe is made the next day, after the noci have rested over night, and then the brew is put away until Ognissanti (All Saints Day), November 1st, when it is drunk to honor the dead. Thereafter, it is sipped as a digestivo after the big December holiday meals.

To make Nocino, the walnuts (noci) are cleaned and quartered, put into round glass bottles with a mixture of alcohol, sugar, cinnamon, and cloves and allowed to rest in a warm sunny place. The liquid seeps into the nuts and turns dark brown.  More sugar and spices are added and, if the liquid has become too strong, a little water is added.

Nocino can be made at home from green walnuts picked on St John's Day
Nocino can be made at home from green walnuts picked on St John’s Day

Pellegrino Artusi (1820-1911), the father of modern Italian cooking, reportedly suffered from a “delicate stomach” and noted in his seminal cookbook that the digestive and tonic powers of this dark and sweet liqueur were the perfect end to those heavier meals later on in the year when the cooler months arrive. Artusi’s Nocino contained  unripe walnuts, alcohol (95%), white sugar, ground cinnamon, whole cloves,  water, and the rind of one lemon. Sealed tightly in a large glass vessel, stored in a warm place, shaken “every now and then”, the concoction was ready in forty days or so. A couple of days before November 1st he would have a little taste. If it was too “spiritoso” (too high in alcohol), Artusi advised adding a cup or two of water. Then, when the liqueur is ready, strain it first through a cloth, and then to clarify it, again through a finer cloth or paper, such as a modern coffee filter, before bottling.

Artusi also recommended an amaro he called “Cinchona Elixir” made with “bruised Peruvian cinchona bark” and “bruised dried bitter orange peel.”

Don’t succumb to the distasteful practice of doing Frent-Branca shots at your local bar in Los Angeles or New York in an effort to be cool. Sip a small glass after a four-course dinner at you favorite restaurant in Torino or Milan.

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

Dove Vai? – Predappio, the Scariest Haunted Town in Italy

We weren’t there for the celebrations, but in August the town of Predappio, Italy, seemed haunted by Benito Mussolini, all the same.

Most Italians just try to forget about it, but they have just had to face up to this tricky subject again, as October 28 is the 90th anniversary of Mussolini’s “March on Rome” (1922) that brought the Fascist leader to power and enabled him to stay there for 23 years.

Mussolini brought fascist architecture to his hometown
Mussolini brought fascist architecture to his hometown

For many years after the fall of fascism, Italians turned their backs on their recent history. The fascist party was banned, the history curriculum in Italian schools even stopped at World War I. But gradually in the 21st Century old taboos are being broken.

The dress code for the celebration is rigorously black. The chants nostalgic, a medley of Fascist truisms peppered with clipped bursts of “Duce, Duce, Duce” will be hushed when the parade enters the cemetery in this central Italian town this week to arrive at its mecca: the tomb of the former Fascist dictator.

Tomb of Benito Mussolini
Tomb of Benito Mussolini

It’s always thus in Predappio, three times a year, a strange and scary group of odd fellows gather – the older black-suited Mercedes owners, the young tattooed skinheads, military-styled (also dressed in black) middle-agers, who unload black SUVs of pretty Stepford wives and two to four children, all coming to commemorate the day of Mussolini’s birth (on July 29, 1883, in a house not far from the cemetery), his death (at the hands of partisans on April, 28, 1945) or the March on Rome, which brought Mussolini’s party to power in Italy in October 1922. This year, on the 90th anniversary, the crowds are sure to be bigger and more strident in these time of economic turmoil when the trains do not run on time.

Mussolini’s tomb gets between 80,000 and 100,000 visitors a year, with peaks during the three commemorations.

After Mussolini’s corpse was hung upside down on meat hooks on April 29, 1945, in Piazzale Loreto in Milan, where citizens vented their fury at their former leader, he was buried in an unmarked grave in a nearby cemetery. A year later, neo-Fascist loyalists dug up his body and hid it in box in a convent in Lombardy until 1957, when the remains were returned to Mussolini’s widow, who buried them in the family crypt in Predappio. Supposedly, the brain took a separate path, but was eventually reunited with the corpse.

Such veneration weighed on Italy’s leaders in 1945. After Mussolini was killed, a decision was made to obscure his grave site, much the way military officials in the Transitional National Council of Libya chose to bury Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in a secret location last month and American commandos buried Osama bin Laden at sea in May, to avoid creating a shrine for their supporters.

Room of honors in the crypt dating from 1945 to 2012
Room of honors in the crypt dating from 1945 to 2012

In fact, Italian authorities’ efforts to hide the burial site backfired on them, as its location rapidly became a matter of intense interest. “The vitality of Mussolini’s afterworld life was great as long as the mausoleum didn’t exist. A corpse that is nowhere is everywhere,” said Sergio Luzzatto, a historian at the University of Turin who wrote The Body of Il Duce about the corpse’s travels. The popular documentary Il Corpo del Duce was inspired by the book.

“Italians lived the absence of the body as a presence, so continuing the love story between Italians and their leader, which was very carnal in many ways,” Luzzatto wrote. That story ended when the body was returned to the family and “it became fixed and sepulchral,” primarily in the guest books at the tomb, where visitors can sign and leave comments. New commemorative, adoring metal plaques, dated 2011 and 2012, keep getting attached to the walls of the underground tomb where Benito is not alone – he is surrounded by the long past and recently deceased Mussolini family members.

Other family members share Mssolini's crypt
Other family members share Mssolini's crypt

Still this October other admirers will come to glorify an epoch in which they believe that Italy, in contrast to today, counted for something in the world. Some today think that Italy needs a distinct change – that it is the laughingstock of Europe, especially after the Berlusconi bunga-bunga years.

Plaster bust for Dad, T-shirt for Mom, and a Benito bib for Baby
Plaster bust for Dad, T-shirt for Mom, and a Benito bib for Baby

A museum of Duce memorabilia opened in 2001, curated by Domenico Morosini, a successful Lombardy businessman, in what was once a Mussolini summer home. The registers are shelved under a beam inscribed with a Mussolini citation: “It is not impossible to govern Italians, merely useless.”  The museum gets between 2,000 and 3,000 people a year.

Selling well in Mussolini's hometown
Selling well in Mussolini's hometown

On Predappio’s main street, bordered by a jarring number of gargantuan Fascist-designed buildings, on a steaming hot day in August we toured a handful of shops doing brisk business in Fascist memorabilia, selling everything from truncheons to bronze busts of the long-dead leader to Mussolini calendars and authentic German helmets, circa 1945. Ever felt a cold chill climb the back of your neck on hot summer day?

Truncheons on sale for neo-fascists
Truncheons on sale for neo-fascists

This is just the kind of tourism that Predappio’s center-left mayor, Giorgio Frassineti, would rather avoid. “We refuse a vision of Predappio of the few, of the people who attend the commemorations, but also of those from the extreme left who want to cancel its history,” Frassineti told a New York Times reporter, apparently straddling the divide that splits this tiny haunted community.

The smallest town with the biggest fascist-inspired buildings
The smallest town with the biggest fascist-inspired buildings

To see what happened October 28, 2012 view the videos in this article.