Monthly Archives: November 2008

Mangia! Mangia! – Biscotti di Prato is 150 Years Old

When an American dunks a biscotto wedge into his coffee – something an Italian never does (biscotti are dipped into Vin Santo or nothing) – he is honoring the memory of one of the first biscotti makers, and certainly the most famous, Antonio Mattei. Biscotti di Prato, sold worldwide in Mattei’s distinctive blue bag with gold lettering, turns 150 years old this year.

Antonio Mattei's Biscotti di Prato
Distinctive Blue Bag of Mattei Biscotti

In 1858, pastry chef Antonio Mattei opened a biscottificio in Prato (near Florence) at 22 Via Ricasoli. The storefront and vast simple kitchen continue operating in the same location today, producing and selling the typical twice-cooked cookies made of flour, fresh eggs, sugar, almonds and pine nuts. The result of his unique recipe gained immediate popularity over a century ago. In 1861, he was winning prizes at the Esposizione Italiana in Florence and in 1867 at the Exposition Universelle in Paris.

The interior of the store with its marble bench tops and wooden shelves holding rows of neat blue packets of biscotti (also know as cantucci) can’t have changed much. The smell of baking wafts out the doors as customers come and go.

The 19th century Italian cookbook author Pellegrino Artusi had this to say about the original Mattei: “Antonio Mattei, that good man from Prato … I say good, because he was a master of his trade and honest and hard working as well. Alas, my dear friend, who always reminded me of Cisti, Master Giovanni Boccaccio’s baker, died in 1885, leaving a void in my heart. Letters and science aren’t always necessary to win public esteem; even a very humble art, accompanied by a kind heart and practiced with skill and decorum, can make us worthy of the respect and love of our fellow men.”

Artusi also lauded Mattei in verse, quoting:

Under rough manners and coarse features
Beautiful hearts and pure senses are often hidden,
We fear men who are overly courteous,
For they are like marble slabs: shiny, smooth, and hard.
(Filippo Panati, 1824).”

Kind-hearted Antonio Mattei once hosted a party of nuns from the city of Mantova who were on their way to Rome. To thank him they gave him their recipe for Torta Mantovana. It proved to be a terrific success.

Mattei Biscottificio in Prato
Mattei Biscottificio in Prato

As Artusi noted, Antonio Mattei died in 1885. Ernesto Pandolfini took over in 1908 and ran the Fabbricante di Cantucci until 1961. Ernesto introduced Brutti Buoni, chewy almond macaroons, and the Filone Candito, a bread made with brioche dough that contains candied cherries and is covered with a thin layer of marzipan. In 1961, Paolo Pandolfini and his cousin Renzo Guarducci stepped in. The Pandolfinis are still making Biscotti di Prato, Brutti Buoni, and Torta Mantovana today, in addition to Antonio’s Biscotti della Salute, sweet bread crisps that are lighter and meant for breakfast.

The Torta Mantovana, Brutti Buoni,and the Filone do not travel well, and to sample them you must visit the shop in Prato. Brutti Buoni, shortened from Brutti ma Buoni (Ugly, but Tasty), is a lump of a cookie sitting on a communion wafer. It is best eaten fresh-baked when its crispy exterior guards a soft, chewy center of crushed almond barely-cooked dough. Within three days it becomes a rock.

Brutti Buoni
Brutti Buoni

Blue is an uncommon color for food packaging, and this may be why Antonio decided upon it when he began selling his biscotti. It’s distinctive and can be recognized at a distance whether in a shop in Florence or an Italian deli in New York. The Biscottificio Mattei ships its Biscotti di Prato all over the world.


Visit the official web site of Mattei Biscotti of Prato.

Burnt to a Crisp! – Signage in Italy

A new sign went up in Florence on Via dello Studio two weeks ago. It messes up one of the the best photo vantage spots for shots of the Duomo. It points at the cathedral. It informs tourists that toilet facilities were in that direction.

With 5 million visitors each year – mostly day trekkers – wandering the cobblestones of Florence, such facilities are necessary, to say the least. And they are rare. And hard to find. So a sign is good. Toilets are good. Any tourist, who has been thrown out of the Savoy Hotel because a requirement for using the public restroom is that one has a room in the hotel (thus negating the need for the public toilet), knows that really public loos are good.

The sign went up because new facilities just opened on the edge of Piazza San Giovanni, across the street from the Baptistry. For a mere 80 cents there are seats for those who can find the door. Which brings us back to the sign on Via dello Studio. About 100 feet past the sign, the street ends at the cathedral. There the observant will look to the left and up and find another new directional WC indicator. To Giotto’s Bell Tower.

Following  along the side of the cathedral, the desperate will look in vain for the next sign. One theory some hold is that in Italy there will always be a sign until that moment when you actually need one. Having followed the sign in the direction of the bell tower, the path opens to the piazza between the Duomo and the Baptistry. There is no toilet there. And no sign.

The eagle-eyed will spot small signs across the piazza – on the corner across the road. Sure enough there is a WC sign. BUT it is an old sign and does not point to the new pay toilets. To follow that sign will lead the weary five long blocks (straight, left, right, left again and left again) to the old still-existing pay toilets on the corner of Via Taddea and Via della Stufa, which you will find eventually through no help of any additional signs.

The new facility is to the left of the old sign, through an unmarked doorway with a terracotta baby St. John (copy of statue by Michelozzo) above it, down a hallway where there (finally) sits a large sign to announce your success at finding the toilettes. Now you need change (80 cents) to buy a token to open the turnstile to enter the unisex hand-washing area.












The building at Piazza San Giovanni, 7, is across the street from the entrance door to the Baptistry. It used to be the rectory of the Baptistry and may, at some time in the distant future, become a tourist information office and meeting space.  But now, it is just the place where a large number of new pay toilets are located.

Mangia! Mangia! – Gelato and Hot Chocolate Together!

Does anyone else experience this seasonal change – a summer yen for gelato, but a winter chocolate craving? In Florence there is a small shop to visit all year long – Vestri Cioccolata (e Gelato). Leonardo Vestri has solved that problem of bridging the seasons with Affogato (Gelato “Drowned” in Hot Chocolate).

Vestri Chocolate-Covered Nuts
Vestri Chocolate-Covered Nuts

In the mid-1960s, Leonardo’s father Daniele, followed his own father into the artisanal chocolate world in the southern Tuscan town of Arezzo. Recently, Daniele went to the source to assure that he had the finest cocoa. He purchased a “finca”, a cocoa plantation in Puntacana, Dominican Republic. The dried beans are shipped to Arezzo for the final phases of toasting, refining and tempering.

Vestri is gaining a worldwide following for specialty chocolates – dark chocolate with hot peppers, Grand Duke Cosimo de’Medici’s favorite chocolate, dark Caraibico with roasted chocolate nibs, dark, white and milk chocolate-covered hazelnuts and almonds, and chocolate-covered candied orange slices and peel. Stefania, Daniele’s wife, designs the eye-catching decorative chocolates, as well as the smart boxes, trendy logo and luscious web site.

Leonardo’s passion is gelato.  In 2002, he took off for Florence where he opened a Vestri family chocolate shop, but then installed a small gelato bar where sixteen special flavors are offered each day. Leonardo starts his morning at seven making each flavor from scratch, using fresh milk, cream, eggs, fruit, Vestri chocolate, liquors and spices. Fruit flavors are only offered when the fruit is in season – for October through December, Leonardo offers fresh fig, persimmon and chestnut gelato. His traditional Tuscan Buontalenti gelato includes fresh milk, mascarpone, sugar, egg, liquor (“secret”), a hint of fresh lemon peel, and a couple of secret spices. This gelato, named after Bernardo Buontalenti, a sixteenth-century Florentine architect, who may have been one of the world’s original ice-cream makers, is a local specialty.

Leonardo Vestri scoops his premium gelato
Leonardo Vestri scoops his premium gelato

Now that Florence has a gelato shop on every corner and more opening every week (thank you, Mr. Berlusconi, for relaxing the retailing laws), it is even more important to know what goes into making the gelato you buy (especially since even the smallest cone goes for $2.40). Just because the sign at the front door says “produzione propria”, “gelato artigianale” or (for the tourists) “home made”, that does not mean that the gelato served is made with anything but powder, water and artificial colors and flavor, or even that it is made on the premises – one central gelateria boasts the sign and then proudly tells its clients that the gelato is made in Novoli, a suburb of Florence.

Aficionados of Vestri’s gelato rave about the pistachio (“Wow!“), chocolate with pistachio (“a knockout!“), dark chocolate (“sublime!“) and “a total winner!“), the dark chocolate with hot chili (“gelato that bites back!“), and the white chocolate with wild strawberries (“ridiculously creamy!” and “pure and delicious!“) Vestri, as could be expected, specializes in chocolate gelato – classico or with an extra hint of flavor – cinnamon, chili, pistachio, mint, orange, lavender, sage, basil, Earl Grey tea, and coffee.

Affogato - Gelato "Drowned" in Hot Chocolate
Affogato - Gelato

All year long Leonardo is offering liquid chocolate in plastic shot glasses (small or large).  In the summer it is served cold.  In the winter it is heaven – hot, thick and rich. The cioccolata calda comes in two strengths – San Dominigo Cru (65%) and Venezuela Cru (75%). You can drink it straight or with cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, bitter orange or hot chili mixed in. But when the gelato and hot chocolate craving hit at the same time, the Affogato is the way to go.  First Leonardo pours in the hot chocolate (at your desired strength) and then scoops in the gelato of your choice. The most decadent choice must be 75% Venezuela Cru with Stracciatella (chocolate chip) gelato – first there is the hot chocolate hit followed by a spoon of creamy vanilla with chocolate bits. And at the end a bite or two of dark hot chocolate with Vestri artisanal dark chocolate chips makes you love that the seasons change.

More Gelato Reading

Difference between ice cream and gelato by David Lebovitz

Best discussion about selecting the right gelateria by The Food Section

Best histories of Italian gelato by Dream of Italy and Divina Cucina

Great review of gelaterias thoughout Italy by A Life Worth Eating

In a class by itself – Ms. Adventures in Italy’s Tour del Gelato

Vestri Cioccolato e Gelato

Borgo degli Albizi, 11r, Florence

Via Romana, 161 B/C, Arezzo

Vestri Web Site

Dove Vai? – New View of the Cricket Cage

Covered by scaffolding for over ten years, the Baccio D’Agnolo Balustrade, located at the external base of the cupola of the Florence Duomo has been restored and is now on show to the observant spectator. The best spot to view it is the newly open Biblioteca delle Oblate – also a great place to hang out and read newspapers and magazines (English language) for free.

View from the ground
View from the ground

But back to the balcony. Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) rightly gets the credit for designing and overseeing the construction of the dome on the Duomo.  He also designed the marble lantern that tops the terracotta-clad dome, but did not live to see it completed (1471). It wasn’t until 1506 when Baccio D’Agnolo designed the covered balustrade to cover the wide strip of bare bricks at the top of the cupola drum between the marble cladding and the terracotta roof.

D'Agnolo's Balustrade
D'Agnolo's Balustrade

The design was for a loggia-style balustrade between each of the eight white ribs that arch over the dome. Each section would contain twelve columns carved in white marble with eleven arches sandwiched by two narrow marble fences. The balcony was to wrap around each rib with another pillared arch.

The design was complicated and D’Agnolo was so proud of it that he stopped the work when one section was finished on the southeast side of the dome. He asked for comments from the artists and politicians of Florence.

Close-up of the restored balcony
Close-up of the restored balcony

As luck would have it, Michelangelo was in town, having finished the David only two years before to much acclaim. The artistic and political powers-that-be listened with bated breath.  Reportedly, Michelangelo, always the critic, said, “It looks like a cricket cage to me.”

Baccio, 13 years older than Michelangelo, was so offended by these words that he abandoned the project and it was never finished.

Cloister of the Biblioteca dell'Oblate
Cloister of the Biblioteca delle Oblate

By standing on the corner of Via dell’Oriuolo and Via del Proconsolo, you can see the newly clean section of the D’Agnolo Balustrade. But a better spot is from the third floor porch of the Biblioteca delle Oblate, located at Via dell’Oriuolo, 26 (open 8:30am – 6:30pm Mon.-Fri.).

The Biblioteca is a newly-created public space in what was an old convent. Just walk straight in from the street and take the elevator to the top.  Walk through the reading room (note the great children’s library/activity room inside) where English language newspapers and magazines are available, exit to the open porch. You will get a completely new view of the Duomo and the Giotto’s Bell Tower.

A Historical Postscript

The architect Baccio D’Agnolo did not escape the critics once he left the service of the Duomo Works to start his own studio. In 1523, he designed the Palazzo Bartolini on Via Tornabuoni. The debate was bitter with many thinking that the architecture was better suited to a church. This time though D’Agnolo fought back. His inscription over the door, Carpere promptius quam imitari – “It’s easier to criticize than imitate” – was Baccio’s firm reply.

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Duomo Clock Keeps “Italian Time”

Most people don’t know that modern clocks run on “French Time.” There is only one clock in the world that runs on “Italian Time” and it is in the Duomo in Florence.

“Paolo made the colored sphere of the hours above the main door within the Church, with four heads, painted in fresco.”  Giorgio Vasari, in his “Lives of the Artists” (1550), goes on to tell us that Paolo Uccello was paid 40 lire in February 1443 when he finished the face of the clock, decorated with the heads of the four Evangelists, on the inner façade of the front wall of Florence’s Duomo (cathedral). Uccello also designed the single golden shooting star-shaped hand that circled his fresco, denoting the time.

Italian Time Clock in the Duomo
Italian Time Clock in the Duomo

Florentine clockmaker Angelo di Niccoló devised the clock’s first weight and counterweight mechanism. In the 17th century, Galileo Galilei designed a pendulum for the clock, improving the clock works.

This is a most unusual clock to the modern eye, not only because the Roman numeral XXIIII (24) is at the bottom, but also the clock runs right to left (counter clockwise).  The hand of Uccello’s clock moves like the shadow of a sundial or wall meridian- counter to the movement of the sun. This was entirely proper in the 1400s.  It was not until the 17th century when there was international standardization of all European clocks to mandate left to right movement.

Clock above the front door of Florence Cathedral
Clock above the front door of Florence Cathedral

A 24-hour clock is common in Europe (know as military time in the U.S.).  But the hour designated by the number 24 on the Duomo clock is not midnight, but is the hour of sunset. Sunset was a more important concept in the 1400s because that was the time that the gates in the high walls surrounding the city would close and all residents should be inside. The bells of the Duomo, timed to the clock, would ring at set intervals before sunset to warn farmers and others to stop work and head back inside the protective walls.

The time of sunset changes, however, throughout the year.  The clock is re-set each week so that the last hour of daylight always coincides with the Roman numeral XXIIII. Thus, the clock tells the observer how many hours have passed since the sunset the day before – the Italian Hour of the present day.  For example: On November 4, sunset is deemed to be 5:15 and the clock hand will point to XXIIIi (24).  On November 5 the clock will be at XVII (17) at 10:15 in the morning to show that 17 hours have passed since sunset.

Italian Time is also known as “Julian Time” (per Julius Caesar’s reform) or the “Time of the Hail Mary” and was used in most of Romanized Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. The rest of Europe used “Ora Oltramontana” (“hour other side of the mountain” or Transalpine Time) or French Time, which counted time from twelve to twelve, calling the hours from midnight to midday “morning hours”, and the hours from midday to midnight “evening hours”, also know as Gregorian Time after Pope Gregory XIII (1583).

In 1669, the French system prevailed by international agreement and Uccello’s clock face was repainted to depict a twelve-hour clock.

In 1968, a five-year restoration process was started and the twelve-hour clock face was removed. Underneath it another twelve-hour face was found and under that a 24-hour design by an unknown artist.  By 1973, the original Uccello fresco was uncovered and restored to it former glory.

Four Versions of the Duomo Clock
Four historical versions of the Duomo Clock

The original gilded copper hand of the clock created by Uccello was lost when the new 12-hour design was implemented in the 17th century. Restorers went back to Uccello’s original “contract of work” in order to recreate his design – “For the gilding of the clock’s star and for the gilding of the single sphere at the point of the ray …” Restorers also examined the design of the Star of Bethlehem that Uccello had included in his stain glass window, located in the cathedral dome. Then, a new single gilded copper hand in the shape of a shooting star was devised to count the time on the clock.

Since the 1980s, Lucio Bigi and Mario Mureddu have wound and reset the clock every week.  They wrote a small book about the clock, “L’Orologio nel Duomo di Firenze” (The Clock in Florence’s Cathedral), published by Libreria Editrice Fiorentina this year.

Visitors to the Duomo may want to step back in a few hours later on the day of their visit to observe the movement of the only clock in the world that keeps Italian Time.