Reason 10-Italian Gardens

Villa Cimbrone in Ravello

Villa Cimbrone in Ravello

Continuing with the November theme ″Why I keep coming back to Italy″ …

There are plenty of wonderful places to walk off a delicious meal in Italy. One of my favorite places to stroll is an Italian garden. Large or small, formal or informal, famous or forgotten, Italy provides a wonderful assortment of gardens for every taste. And when I’m busy touring around the country, it’s been a joy to discover a peaceful garden where I can escape the crowds and just enjoy the lovely scenery with a few locals. Here are a few of my favorites.

Rock Gardens at Villa Carlotta

Rock Gardens at Villa Carlotta

Lake Como
A wonderful area for visiting formal gardens is Lake Como, where there are several Villas with their large, manicured gardens. One of the largest gardens can be found at Villa Carlotta, an easy boat ride across the lake from Bellagio. The villa itself is now a small museum with several wonderful sculptures by Antonio Canova, but the almost 20 acres of botanical gardens are what attract the most visitors. Give yourself plenty of time to walk the trails that wind up and down the hillsides and terraces that showcase a wide variety of plants and garden styles.

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Reason 9-Fast Food

Focaccia in Vernazza

Focaccia in Vernazza

Continuing with the November theme ″Why I keep coming back to Italy″ is Reason Nine–Fast Food.

Although most Italians prefer to sit down and enjoy a meal shared with friends and family, they sometimes resort to fast food, like we do. Yet the choices you find in Italy are quite different than what’s available in my home town. Here’s what to look for…

Tavola Calda
Larger cities and even some small towns will offer freshly cooked food to go at a small shop called a Tavola Calda,  Look in the cases and you’ll find freshly baked lasagna, baked pastas and many more choices. I always look for a nearby kitchen, to make sure the food is fresh.

Tamburini fast plates

Tamburini fast plates

Salumeria
Technically, a Salumeria sells meats and what we call salami, in America. However, many of them also offer cheeses, breads, salads and tasty panini sandwiches to go. The famous Salumeria, Tamburini, in Bologna is an amazing butcher and food store packed with wine, local products and much more. It also provides a delicious fast lunch.

 

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Reason 8-Slow Food

Fresh Pasta

Fresh Pasta

Continuing with the November theme ″Why I keep coming back to Italy″ is Reason Eight–Slow Food.

When you arrive in Italy, it’s time to slow down and enjoy the wide variety of culinary delights. Although there is always the option of a four course meal for lunch or dinner, it’s up to you. Order one plate or several and savor the fresh and local cuisine. You have the table for as long as you want—that’s why you must always request the check, il conto, because only the diner decides when it’s time to move on.

Farmers' Market

Farmers’ Market

The Slow Food Movement started in Italy. It was in the early 80s when Carlo Petrini and other friends first talked about ways to preserve the culinary traditions of their country. When McDonald’s decided to open a franchise near the Spanish Steps in Rome, the group became more active and the movement found a name—Slow Food . Since those early years, the movement has expanded its scope and gone international.

 

Chalkboard Menu

Chalkboard Menu

Thankfully, the traditions of Italian cooking have a growing audience in Italy and throughout the world. And luckily, for those of us who travel to Italy, most offerings are fresh and local. Italian restaurants rarely boast about serving these fresh and local products. This is just the norm in any good restaurant—large or small. At first I was disappointed when I couldn’t order my favorite salad, the Caprese one cold spring day. But, it was too early—and the tomatoes and basil weren’t in season—so any decent Italian restaurant won’t have it on the menu.

I rarely find my way into a Michelin Star restaurant, but I’ve had some fantastic meals. After traveling in Italy a few times, this is what I’ve learned…

Look for the chalkboard menu that changes daily. This means that the menu adapts to what is fresh and local. It doesn’t always guarantee a great meal—but it’s a start.

Avoid restaurants that have four or five menus in several languages and a long list of items. These restaurants are usually found close to popular tourist sites and will often be mediocre.

Look for fatta a mano or fatta in casa on the menu. This means that the pasta is made in-house.

The Forno at Scanilatella

The Forno at Scanilatella

Find Pizza al forno di legno for a wood-fired pizza. It doesn’t have to be wood-fired, but this is a very tasty traditional method that you don’t want to miss.

Save the cost of an expensive meal by trying an upscale restaurant for lunch. In the region of Emilia Romagna, we stumbled upon the Michelin starred Caffè Arti e Mestieri during lunch hour. They offered a “fast lunch” special for the business crowd that was a delicious and generous one course meal at a bargain.

Making Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese

Making Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese

Be sure to visit the local cheese shops or even a caseificio where you can see how cheeses are made. You will find a wide variety of cheeses that we never see in the U.S. Even the familiar names such as Mozzarella or Pecorino are very different in Italy. You’ll be able to find many more stages of aged cheeses and fresher varieties such as Mozzarella di Bufala, Burrata and fresh Ricotta.

 

Read some Food Blogs (see my favorites on the right sidebar) before you visit Italy. These will talk about the newer, up and coming chefs that are doing creative things with traditional dishes using fresh and local ingredients.

Wood-fired pizza in Vicenza

Wood-fired pizza in Vicenza

Each region of Italy is known for their particular specialties. If you don’t recognize something on a menu—ask about it. It may be an exciting new pasta, vegetable, fruit or cheese experience for you. Ask for a recommendation, too. Often, the dish of the day will feature a seasonal specialty.

Take a food and wine tour or a cooking class. You don’t have to commit your entire visit to a tour. There are lots of daily culinary tours offered in each region. This gives you an opportunity to visit wineries and farms—and the producers of some wonderful products such as olive oil, cheese and vinegar.

Thanks to some committed Italians, the Slow Food Movement continues to influence how we eat. And in Italy, where they have helped to preserve so many important culinary traditions, we can enjoy the fruits of their labors. It’s never hard to find a place where “si mangia bene” —one eats well, when traveling throughout Italy.

 

 

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Day Seven: The History

The Forum & Rome

The Forum & Rome

After seven days of November Blog Week, I’ve decided to slow down a bit. I’ll be posting twice a week, instead of every day. I need some time to be outdoors, hang out with friends & family, study my Italian, prepare my garden for the winter, play in my art studio and take a short trip to California. But, I will continue with my theme for the month—Why I keep coming back to Italy.

My hometown of San Diego, California was founded only a few hundred years ago—Italy’s cities date from the 8th Century BC. Even if you aren’t an armchair historian, you can’t help but be amazed at the abundance of history found around every corner in Italy.

A peak at Brunelleschi's Dome

A peak at Brunelleschi’s Dome

Walking the streets of Rome or Florence for the first time is such an exciting experience. I’ll never forget my first view of Brunelleschi’s Dome, in Florence, from a narrow side street. Even though I had seen many photos, catching a glimpse of the real thing took my breath away. There is nothing more exciting than roaming the streets of any Italian city with or without a guidebook. You may discover a minor archeological dig, Galileo’s birthplace—or a neighborhood church with Byzantine Mosaics. In fact, visit any church in Italy and you’ll often find several different centuries of architecture overlapping each other.

 

 

Selinunte, Sicily

Selinunte, Sicily

If you venture further south or hop over to Sicily, you can visit the beautiful Greek ruins in ideal settings. One of my favorite places is Selinunte and its beautiful temples located right on the southwest coast of Sicily, with the sparkling Mediterranean as a backdrop.

As we explored the island, we learned that many of the Greek myths are set in Sicily.  Along the coast near the small town of Acireale, we could view the volcanic rocks that were hurled at Odysseus. On the island of Ortygia, near Syracuse, we could find the spring of Arethusa.

 

Norman Castle near Matera

Norman Castle near Matera

Both Sicily and Southern Italy are influenced by a wide variety of cultures that temporarily conquered these strategically situated lands. The rich history is reflected in the wonderful variety of foods, spices, art and architecture. Traveling throughout this area you can see the influence of the Phoenicians, Arabs, Greeks, Romans, Normans, French, Germans, Spaniards and also the British.

 

Matera Fresco

Matera Fresco

Italy has over 50 UNESCO World Heritage sites—the most of any country in the world. So a visit to almost any city or town in Italy is always a lively history lesson. One good way to gain a quick overview of a new area is to take a guided walk with a local. Most Tourist Information offices offer a city walk (in English) for a reasonable price. You can research the popular guide books or the internet to find more good recommendations. We’ve found that the local guides are passionate about the history of their region and have many wonderful stories to share. Often, they even have access to some areas that are closed to the general public.

 

 

A  mix of architecture in Assisi

A mix of architecture in Assisi

Some of my favorite experiences have been the small serendipitous discoveries we’ve made on our own—visiting Assisi and finding the Anfiteatro Romano, a quaint neighborhood of buildings that were once part of a Roman Amphitheater—or walking the streets of Volterra and finding an Etruscan Wall. Visit any town in Italy and you can stumble upon several different centuries within a few blocks. Whether walking the Roman roads or climbing the Medieval cobblestone stairs of a hill town, take some time to appreciate the history of each town. It will enrich your visit.

An excellent resource for history and art in Europe is Europe 101 by Rick Steves. It’s an easy read that provides just the right amount of information and some excellent time lines. You can even pick your favorite periods of history and find the cities and towns that provide fine examples of the era.

 

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Reason Six: Day Hikes in Italy

Near Val Gardena-the Dolomites

Near Val Gardena-the Dolomites

How do you enjoy all of that gelato and not gain weight? It’s easy—spend some time hiking or walking the scenic trails in Italy.

There are several dramatic mountain ranges to choose from—the Alps and Dolomites in the north, the Apennines that run down the center of the country, and a few smaller ranges in the south and on the islands of Sardinia and Sicily. For those of us who enjoy hiking, climbing and walking, there are a lot of great vistas to explore.

Rifugio or Hutte

Rifugio or Hutte

My husband and I like to do day hikes, then return to a warm shower, relaxing dinner and a comfortable bed. Pick almost any major mountain range and we get all this and more. On all our treks in the Dolomites, we’ve found groomed trails, access to alpine trailheads via a tram or funicular and good signage. We like to go early in the hiking season—the first week of June, to avoid the crowds.

 

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Reason Five: Italian Gelato

Gelato in Arezzo

Gelato in Arezzo

My husband has a saying, “The best gelato, is the one in your hand”. Maybe for him that’s true, but for me, the best gelato is in Italy. There is simply no place in the world that has mastered the art of my favorite dessert. Sure, you can find some decent gelato in America and throughout world, but why not go to the source?

An Italian, appropriately named Buontalento, is credited with inventing the first, true gelato dessert (around 1550). Since that time, the art of making artisan gelato has continued to grow and develop some interesting trends.

 

 

Caruso Gelato in Rome

Caruso Gelato in Rome

Not all gelato is the same. When you are seeking out a good gelateria, look for the words Artiginale or solo ingredienti naturale. Sometimes you can even see the extra room where the gelato is being made, like Gelateria I Caruso’s shop in Rome.

Take a look at the containers and the gelato itself. If you see simple stainless steel containers, sometimes covered with a lid, this is a good sign. I also like to see a chalkboard or hand-written sign listing the special flavors of the month. If the gelato is made in-house, there may not be as many flavors, but you won’t be disappointed.

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Reason Four: Italian Coffee

Coffee Al Fresco

Coffee Al Fresco

If you are a coffee connoisseur, you’ll feel right at home in Italy. This is where you’ll find good coffee almost anywhere. From the tiny bar in the middle of nowhere to the rest stops on the super highways, the barristas in Italy know how to brew a good cup of espresso.

Traditional Cappulccino

Traditional Cappuccino

The barristas here are fast, efficient and talented. At 8 a.m. on any weekday, a small neighborhood bar can fill up quickly with anxious coffee drinkers, starting their work day. Somehow, the Italian barrista will get the orders filled and still have time to comment on the weather or the most recent news while brewing coffee and refilling the tiny dishwasher.

Don’t expect to order anything too different—it’s un caffè, which is an espresso, un caffè doppio, which is a double espresso, un caffè Americano, which is like American coffee or a few other choices such as a cappuccino or macchiato. Don’t worry—you can get decaffeinated varieties and even soy milk in most bars.

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