Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Competition at the core of greatness

The fact of the matter is this...competition between artists drove the best art in Italy. There are many great stories about how the artwork was vastly improved when there was a competition to earn the commission. The most famous is likely Brunelleschi v. Ghiberti for the Gates of Paradise. Ghiberti went on to win. The result was two of the most beautiful doors in the world. The loss drove Brunelleschi to create the dome of Florence at the mother church.

Michelangelo competed mostly against himself. At times his competition against other artists was real. He very much wanted to create the pendant for his David, but that commission went to a better aligned artist named Bandinelli. He created his Hercules and Cacus; A marvelous work, but would Michelangelo have done better?

The ebb and flow of political alignment surged through Italy’s power base. Who knew the right rich and powerful patrons? What did the Pope want? Who was whispering into the ears of the decision makers to control who earned the work? This is the basis of many decisions. The entire political structure worked from who you knew, being a courtesan, and raising up the identity of your friends. It is very much like today. Is it any wonder that the Ivy league has so many successful alumni? Is it entirely due to their intelligence (which we cannot fully ignore) or is it that the majority of students come from rich and powerful families who are very well connected?

Bernini and Borrimini are two great examples of how the powerbase worked in Rome. As noted in earlier posts Bernini was very well liked and connected. Borrimini wasn’t liked and the decision makers didn’t like working with him due to his difficult nature. Borrimini didn’t do himself any favors being so disagreeable. There were times, however, when Bernini was out of the circle.

Bernini had an embarrassing failure at Saint Peter’s when his bell towers didn’t have the right foundational support and had to be ripped down. This was a lot of egg on his face. Imagine a world without TV or newspapers as we know them today to spread news. Gossip was king and it could ruin people. It drove Bernini into a category of failure he wasn’t use to at all. This lack of divine light on Bernini opened the door for Borromini to win some important commissions. The powers that be are fickle and if you don’t stroke the right people bad things happen.

Pope Innocent X wanted to decorate Piazza Navona. His family home was on the Piazza along with his family church. Borromini was a respected (although disliked) architect/engineer. The pope asked him to pipe water into the Piazza using some of Ancient Rome’s springs and aqueducts. He successfully did so for the Pope. Then Pope Innocent X wanted a fountain to raise the caliber of the Piazza to Papal standards and change it from a market to a socially graceful Piazza worthy of a Pope. Borromini dreamed up the design of the fountain being built with the four major rivers of the world and went so far as to draw sketches to illustrate his vision.

Bernini was still out of favor, but his allies worked with him to bypass his ill-favor and help him win the commission anyway. At a dinner party with the Pope the model built by Bernini was placed so that the Pope would see it as he walked from room to room. See it the Pope did and fell in love with the design. This was a risk taken by Bernini’s ally and Bernini himself. The commission was given to him. Think of poor Borromini. He built the pipes to bring the water to Piazza Navona, came up with the design, and still lost the commission. Why? Bernini had people working with him behind the scenes and put him in a position to win at every turn.

You always attract more bees with honey. (That would have been a great metaphor if the Pope came from the Barberini family :)). The point of this is simple, the art of Italy is even more beautiful if you understand what happens behind the curtain and that it is always better to be graceful and fully understand who is making the final decision where commissions are concerned.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Borromini - Looking in from the outside.

Borromini – Looking in from the outside

It is quite a strange thing; the power of relationships and who you know carries you much further than raw ability and talent. Take Franceso Borromini for example. He was quite literally a much better trained architect who understood the mathematics and technology behind creating some of Rome’s most beautiful churches, yet he remains relatively unknown to the throngs of tourists that besiege Rome every year. Why? He didn’t play the game. Bernini, on the other, hand was a master courtesan who capitalized on relationships and won the majority of the best commissions during his lifetime even if that meant stealing them.

Borromini was literally despised by the powerbase of Rome. He was irrational, didn’t listen to what the patrons wanted, and was a stubborn man, who thought he and he alone knew best. It put him into a position that forced him to look into the world of art from the outside hoping to win work over better positioned artists with lesser ability, but better connections.

During his lifetime he was trained as an architect by Carlo Maderno and had the privilege of working on Saint Peter’s in Rome. He worked alongside Bernini on the project with Maderno in charge. The two architects were rivals through and through and during their lifetimes pushed each other to even better achievements. Bernini’s came easily where Borromini’s came with a struggle. That is to write that Borromini’s work came easy because he was a masterful architect, but his disagreements in design and execution with his paying patrons and other architects forced him to bitter arguments and disagreements almost daily.

It has been written that Borromini’s work came from his soul. He was a devout Catholic and his devotion was delivered in his architecture. One of his best works is San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane in Rome. It was built for free by Borromini for the religious order of Barefoot Trinitarians. The dome of the church is a sight that should make any itinerary. Borromini uses some core geometric figures as a religious metaphor: the triangle and the circle. The triangle represents the Trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. The circle represents the eternity of God.

“These figures and images are everywhere in San Carlo(ino), and they reach their figurative and literal zenith in the dome itself. Looking up from the center of the church, a visitor sees a dove, its wings outstretched, enclosed in a triangle, which in turn is surrounded by a circle. Borromini placed a potent symbol of God surrounded by the Trinity and the Infinite at the pointin the church closest to Heaven. It is a stirring reminder of the order’s and Borromini’s faith.”

The others of his most famous works are Saint John Laterano and Saint Agnes in Agony. Saint John is the official church of the Papacy in Rome. This was a huge commission for Borromini. Saint Agnes was done for the Pamphili family and Pope Innocent X.

During the work on Saint John a worker was found murdered and Borromini took the brunt of the blame. The Pope had to intervene to insure that his punishment wasn’t too severe so he could continue work on the project. He didn’t commit the murder, but it was on his watch. Saint Agnes is eternally harassed by Bernini from his fountain of Four Rivers in Piazza Navona. The statue with his hand being repelled by the church and covering his face is said to be Bernini’s final argument against the work of Borromini. Whether it is true or not remains a mystery. You should decide for yourself when you visit the Piazza.

Borromini, after a long and difficult life, fell on his own sword. He died alone and unloved. His works are his children and his gift to us. It is who you know not what you know that leads to success and a life of leisure.

Be sure to visit San Carlo, Saint John, and Saint Agnes in Rome to experience a delightful view of a master’s mind and what comes of raw ability in spite of a lack of powerful friends.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Shakespeare couldn't make this stuff up!

Gian Lorenzo Bernini is one of Italy's most famous artists. He has created some of the finest works, for the finest families, at some of the finest locations in Rome. He was truly a courtesan. His connections to powerful families earned him commissions he, by rights, shouldn't have earned. That isn't to write he wasn't worthy, but inexperienced in certain specialties like architecture.

Most people are aware of his competition with the lesser connected Borromini. This stemmed from Borromini being the superior architect. Even so, Bernini often won commissions over Borromini due to his connections. It really comes down to who you know.

During the Barberini Papacy Bernini could do no wrong and won any commission he wanted due to the Pope pulling strings or hiring him outright for work for the Church. More on his connections in a different post. This post is about love and murder.

Many people know about the pain of love, the agony of love, the kind of love that drives us all insane. It forces us to do things we wouldn't otherwise dream of doing. This is true even for a genius like Bernini. You can't make this stuff up...the great Bernini was caught up in a love triangle that Shakespeare would envy.

Bernini by his own admission was a man who had "great inclination to pleasure." Bernini was having an affair with Costanza Bonarelli who was married to Matteo Bonarelli, one of Bernini's assistants. Bernini was open about his affair. Some think she was the model of Divine Love for Pope Urban's tomb.

Bernini heard a rumor that his brother Luigi was also having an affair with his Costanza. One day, Bernini lied to his brother stating that he was going to the country. Instead, he went to Constanta’s house to spy on her and to see if his brother would show up. Sure enough he saw his brother leaving Costanza's house, with her kissing him as he left.

Bernini followed his brother to St. Peter's and attacked him with a crowbar. He ruthlessly beat him intent on killing him. It is likely a combination of being humiliated as well as the love he felt for Costanza. Luigi escaped with two broken ribs and a hell of a beating. It doesn't stop here. The next day Bernini ordered his servant to go to Costanza’s house and cut her with a razor. Bernini wanted to insure that she wouldn't appeal to another man. The funny thing is Bernini was mad that she cheated on him, but he was having an affair with a married woman and was shocked when she strayed even further? In her bed Costanza was cut with a razor. Bernini once again attempted to attack his brother with a sword. He escaped into Santa Maria Maggiore.

The Pope intervened and lessened the charges. Bernini was forced to pay a fine. Luigi left Rome and was replaced at St. Peter's as a superintendent on the commission. The Pope absolved Bernini due to his excellence in art.

A bust of Costanza is now in Florence. It is thought that Costanza's likeness was used in Bernini's Medusa at the Capitoline Museum in Rome.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Mannerism, The Rape of the Sabines, & Giambologna

One of the first works of art to be started and complete without a patron. This beautiful sculpture is at home in the Loggia of Florence. It has a prominent spot at the front right. With its twisting figures, raw emotion, and grace it is a proud pendant to the Perseus of Cellini.

The sculpture was created by Giambologna. It is named the Rape of the Sabines, but it didn't start out that way. Giambologna was a student at the Art Academy in Florence and wanted to prove his technical skill with multifigured sculpture and complex narrative. This was only allowed because he was a student who was to learn the art of sculpture free of direction and traditional convention. This is the painting that, more or less, kicked off Mannerist sculpture.

First how the sculpture landed in the Loggia. When Giambologna completed his masterpiece Cosimo I's son Grand Duke Ferdinand I saw it and decided then and there that it should be added to the Loggia. This was a huge deal. Consider the artwork and sculpture of Florence and you'll get a sense of how important it was to even be considered for placement in the Loggia.

The powerbase of Florence discussed what the work repressented...what was the narrative of the work? A few things came to mind. First, it was considered to repressent Andromeda, the wife of Perseus, to tie it to Cellini's work and complete the narrative theme of the Loggia's statues. That didn't really fly. I'm not sure why since it would have worked. Raffaello Borghini, a member of the Academy, offered the Sabines as its narrative and it stuck.

The story of the Sabines is about the founding of Rome. The Roman's needed more women to grow the Eternal City's population. As the Romans often did they took what they needed from neighbors. This is no different. They took the Sabine women by force (they did ask first, but were denied) and brought them back to Rome. The statue repressents the sacking. It isn't actually a statue of rape, but it does conjur up the image rather well.

This is one of the more photographed statues in Florence due to its location in the Loggia. The next time you see it in a photoalbum you can tell them the artistic and historical story.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Even now...the taxis try to rip you off!

Wow...what an experience. I am always amazed at how the cabs try to rip you off. I don't often take taxis in Italy. I prefer to walk and enjoy the city. That noted going to and from the airport I take a cab, getting from the train station to my hotel, and if I have to get across town in the rain.

Kristen and I picked up a cab on Saturday morning to go from Rome to the airport. We picked up the cab at the piazza at the top of the Spanish steps in front of our hotel. The taxi stand has a sign stating that rides to the Airport are 40,00 Euro and luggage is free. I knew that the rate to get to and from the airport was set by Italy at 40,00. The cab driver placed our bags in the trunk, got in and started the meter. I knew he was going to try to get more out of me than the standard rate. He took the longest way to FCO that I have ever seen, he went through the FCO cab stand to get his ticket, then he dropped us off. The meter read 67,00. We quickly jumped out of the car and grabbed our bags. I went into my wallet and discovered I only had a 50,00 bill. I told the driver the regulated rate was 40,00 and he went into the BS about it being so early, and he placed the bags in the trunk so that changed the standard fare to a metered fare. I gave him my 50,00 tried to get change (knowing that wouldn't happen) and walked away.

Another time in Rome we jumped in a cab from Fiori to get to our hotel at the top of the steps. It was raining and we had a few drinks so we didn't want to walk. As we started to drive away I noted the meter was running with 6,50 on it. I didn't say anything, but when we got to our destination I only paid the delta between 6,50 to 10,00 and just walked away.

Another time in Rome walking from Termini (train station) to the cab stand a guy walked up to Kristen and me and asked if we needed a taxi. I had no intention of taking his ride, but decided to see how bad he was going to try to rip me off. I told him our destination and he offered 30,00 Euro including the bags. The fare in a taxi picked up in the taxi line would only be 15,00 or less so I laughed and walked away. He offered to lower his fare to 25,00.

Taxi Tips:

1. Ask how much the fare will be to your destination before you get into the car.
2. Don't take rides from unauthorized cars at the airports and train stations.
3. Always get in the cab line to insure the car is a real taxi.
4. Pay only the standard fare of 40,00 euro to and from the airport to the center of Rome.
5. If the meter is running just pay the difference between the cost and where the meter started.
6. Pay and walk away. They know they are ripping you off and won't do anything if you pay and walk.
7. Have change so you don't have to give a larger bill. Harder to get change back than pay less.
8. Bag charge is BS. Don't pay it.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Pack light, pack light, pack light

2 weeks in Italy, one carry-on and a backpack! The key to enjoying yourself in Italy is to pack light so traveling isn't a pain. Running through train stations and getting through the airport are so much easier with only a few things. Plus you don't have to check any luggage which is fantastic. I did go a little crazy at REI this weekend. I bought a new carry-on bag, backpack, fleece, and wired camera strap. Oh, I did buy a new travel duffel bag to load with the stuff I buy for the return trip. It comes in its own zip pouch and clips onto my roller bag.

I now have everything I need for a great trip: bags, camera, video camera, hotels, train tickets, fleece, and a well planned itinerary. The only thing left to do is book my reservation for the Accademia, Uffizi, and Borghese.

With only one carry-on bag I am limited to what I can bring so doing laundry is something I'll have to do midtrip. I'll likely cheat and have the hotel do it and pay a premium. I've never liked the idea of wasting time scrubbing my clothes. I don't like it here and I surely won't like it while in Bella Terra.

I'm not sure what I'm most excited about for this trip? Seeing some of my favorite artwork, the food, or seeing K's face enjoying Italy since she hasn't been there before. Probably seeing Italy through her eyes.

Remeber - pack light, only bring what you need, and make reservations at key museums so not to waste any time waiting in line. Oh, if you run out of something Italy has everything you need so don't sweat it.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Santa Maria del Fiori of Florence

When I think of Florence the first thing that comes to mind is the Duomo. In fact, other than the Colosseo the Duomo has to be up there as the most used icon to represent Bell'Italia.

The story of the Duomo is a great one. Florence built their magnificent Duomo as you see it today. The dome was left unfinished because no one had the archictural know-how to complete such a large, unsupported dome.

Florence held a competition...many competed. One architect had the idea to pile dirt for the workers to reach dome as they built it. Then, to get it cleaned out, add coins to it and allow the populace to come in with buckets and retrieve the dirt hoping to get a coin or two. This was quashed.

The artist that ultimately won the work was Brunelleschi. He didn't really have a lot of architectural experience, but his model was the best, offered a free standing, unsupported dome (like the Pantheon in Rome), and seemed the safest due to its double-shelled and ribbed support system.

One of his principle competitors for the work was Ghiberti who recently defeated Brunelleschi for the work on the Bapistery Doors of Florence a few steps away from the Duomo.

Florence decided to give the work to both artists - Ghiberti and Brunelleschi. This didn't last long though.

Brunelleschi worked tirelessly to prove that he should be the one and only architect on the job. He ultimately won his independance.

The know how to create such a large dome was lost to the ancient Romans. Brunelleschi traveled to Rome to study how the Pantheon was built. He climbed on it, sketched it, and used it as a model for his dome in Florence.

Brunelleschi's concept was innovative. He built a dome on top of a dome so the interior would support the exterior, allowing for access for maintenance and cleaning, and the weight of the overall dome would be support across both structures. He also added support ribs. Eight in total. Think of two eggshells one on top of another and you can visualize the concept employed by Brunelleschi.

It is a magnificent sight to behold. Its shadow is believed to cover the whole of Tuscany. When you stand under it you are in awe of its size and beauty.

When it was blessed after it was built Pope Martin V gave Florence a golden rose in honor of the great accomplishement. You can see it in the Duomo museum today. The first mass was given by another Pope after the entire Duomo was complete. This is a great church touched by the hands of many vicars of christ.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Glorious Limoncello!

A delicious drink after dinner, before dinner, or for no reason at all. Limoncello is easy to make at home. You'll be surprised what you can accomplish with a few lemons, some vodka(or everclear), water, and a little sugar.

15-20 lemons
2 (750-ml) bottles 80-proof vodka or everclear. Buy cheap...not Grey Goose necessary!
4-6 cups water
2-4 cups sugar

Wash and dry the lemons. Only use the ones without blemished peels or pare off any spots and the stems, ends. Remove the peel from the lemons with a sharp peeler or fine grater, carefully avoiding the bitter white pith. If any white pith remains on the back of a strip of peel, scrape it off. If you get any of the white part in the batch, the limoncello will be bitter.

Put the peels in a glass jar(glass is key. Plastic jars leave a funny taste) and add the vodka and/or Everclear about two inches below the top and seal tightly. Leave the jar to steep in a cool, dark place until the peels lose their color, at least 2 weeks.

Put the water and sugar in a saucepan, stir and slowly boil until it turns clear. Let the syrup cool

Pour the Lemon & Vodka mix through a colander into the cooled sugar water. It will turn yellow. Let sit for 20-30 minutes.
Add to clean, hinged, resealable bottles and place in the freezer.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Mascarpone Cheese and Fig Preserve

This is one of my favorite recipes for a great and very easy dessert.

Mascarpone Cheese - you'll find it in a plastic container about the size of a cream cheese.

Fig Preserve - Harder to find...try a gourmet store or a higher end wine shop with a market.

1. Place all the Mascarpone cheese into a bowl.
2. Mix in 1/2 of the fig preserve (you can adjust, but start with a little and add to taste). Less is usually more.

Mix well and place in fridge for an hour or so.

Serve with bread sliced into bruschetta sized slices. Toast them if you like.

This is great for dessert or breakfast.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Vatican looking for the next Michelangelo

Today's masters came to be through great work commissioned by rich patrons and most importantly the church in Rome. Think of the collection of masterpieces you can enjoy in the Holy See. Michelangelo, DaVinci, Bernini, Raphael, Caravaggio, and many more.

Well, you may see some of our contemporary artists added to the list. The Church will be holding a good, old-fashioned, commission earning contest. The goal is to have artists refresh spiritual art. The winner will be chosen by the Holy See and a team of art critics and artists. The theme of the project will be to give the competing artists a theme like light, suffering, or death, or something more direct like David.

I'm interested to learn that the Church is looking for wealthy patrons to sponsor the artists and the artwork to the tune of $1,000,000.00 or so...maybe more. I can't wait to see who steps up.

At the end of the day we may end up with inspired work done in fresco, sculpture, mosaic, or oil.

The Church is concerned about the loss of "figuration" or the artistic rendering of religious themes or Saints that the world has come to recognize...think of David with sword in hand and head underfoot, Saint Longinus with his spear, Saint Peter with his keys, the Annunciation with Saint Gabriel and Blessed Mary.

I read the plan is to have the Church educate people on modern interpretation of these age old themes. It will be interesting to see just how flexible the Church will be at the end of the day.
I'm a huge fan of the Renaissance masters, but am excited to see what this competition yields.

I'll keep you posted on what I find out in the year to come.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Enoteca Cul-de-Sac a Roma

For a great taste of Italy dine at Cul-de-Sac in Rome. It is near Piazza Navona and has a great menu. They specialize in wine, cheese, and salami, but have a great list of dishes for each course.

This is a great place to enjoy different wines and cheese from throughout Italy and France. I recommend going for dinner, but get there a bit early to get a seat. You can take the wine with you if you have any left over.

In addition to the great wine list you can try grappas, cognacs, and much more. The price is right, the options are plentiful, and the good divine.
Here are some of the dishes on their standard menu. They also offer specials daily.
Sun dried tomatoes in olive oil
Bean soup
Too many cheeses to mention...a great and rich list

Check out their website. It's in Italian, but easy to read.

Their address is:
Enoteca Cul DeSac Piazza Pasquino, 73 00100 - Roma Tel. 06/68801094 - google maps will show you exactly where it is...only a few steps from Piazza Navona.

This would be a great place to start your Rome at Night tour via Unabellavista.

Monday, September 15, 2008

So much more than a ceiling

The Sistine Chapel is so much more than a ceiling. It is dripping with the handywork of Italy's masters from start to finish. The walls are covered by not only Michelangelo (obviously the ceiling, but also the Altar wall with his Last Judgement), but also with Perugino, Rosselli, Botticelli, Signorelli, and Ghirlandaio.

The chapel was built by Sixtus IV and is named after him. His nephew, Pope Julius II, went on to put on the ceiling with the help of Michelangelo. Pope Paul III asked Michelangelo to paint the Altar wall.

Sixtus IV wasn't getting along with Florence and the Medici too well. By a show of peace and putting it behind them Florence and Lorenzo sent a team of his, or rather, the city's masters to decorate the wall of the chapel. Did they ever!
One wall is decorated with the life of Jesus. The other wall is painted with the life of Moses. They are glorious panels that are worthy of a visit alone. Throw in Michelangelo's work and well...you have the Sistine Chapel.
Michelangelo's ceiling is the book of Genesis painted with prophets and ancestors of Christ. He also decided to add 10 shields in alternating sections with another biblical story line. Oh, for good measure this was his first real commission in fresco never having done one of this magnitude previously. He also painted the stories of David & Goliath, Judith and Holofernes, the Crucifixion of Hanaan, and the Brazen Serpent. His Last Judgement shows Jesus in a whole new light. He painted popes too; starting with Saint Peter and ending with Pope Felix I.
When in Rome you must visit the Sistine Chapel. Don't rush and don't just look up. Be sure to enjoy the walls. You won't be disappointed.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Vera Pizza only in Italy and one place in Chicago!

Pizza, the real deal, can only be found in Italy. The pizza there cannot be compared to anything we have here in the U.S. Like the wine and cheese of the boot, the pizza also has a quality control method to insure that it is made with exactly the right ingredients and process.

Don't get me wrong; I love Chicago and NY style pizza. They're delicious, but quite a bit different than what is found in Italy.

The original pizza can only be found in Napoli. Pizza Margherita is made with dough, tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, and basil. It is named after Margherita of Savoy and has the colors of the Italian flag. She is buried in the Pantheon in Rome.

The true process of pizza making is standardized by the Associazione vera pizza napoletana. They even offer courses to learn the proper way to make it for individuals or businesses.

Here is how the real deal is made and it is delicious.

1. dough from scratch made from wheat flour (type 0, 00 or a mixture)

2. Neapolitan yeast

3. water.

4. kneeded by hand

5. after rising, formed by hand...no rolling pin and only 3mm thick

6. dressed with only red sauce, mozzarella, and basil.

7. baked in brick oven for 90 seconds at 485 degrees.

You will often find olive oil with hot red pepper flakes soaked in it to drizzle over the pizza. It is amazing and a great touch.
If you live in Chicago you can try the real deal, certified pizza at Spacca Napoli. Go often! Don't forget to try the chocolate gelato with spicy red pepper...OMG, it's amazing.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

31 Days of Italians & JT Mancuso

Are you Italian? Do you love the Italian culture? You must visit http://home.earthlink.net/~31italians/ to get the scoop on the many and great contributions of Italians. Each day in October JT Mancuso will post an achievement of note. Check it out...you'll be impressed by what we, from the boot, have contributed stateside.

I would also like to share her entire site. Ms. Mancuso has done a great job of organizing all things Italian with great links to other sites, book reviews, and, of course, great Italian food. Her website is http://www.jtmancuso.com/ you'll be happy you saved it in your favorites.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The only Gothic church in Rome

Rome is a city of magnificent churches. Each one of them has a character all its own. In the center of Rome near the Pantheon and Piazza Navona are a collection of churches that are worthy of a full day enjoying. The churches of note are the Pantheon, Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, Gesu, and Saint Ignazio.

All of the majesty of Rome's churches comes through with these. However, there is only one Gothic church in Rome and it is steps away from the Pantheon. If you are looking at the doors of the Pantheon in Piazza della Rotunda with the fountain at your back walk to the left of the Pantheon about 50 feet. You'll see an ancient Egyptian Obelisk atop an elephant. This is Bernini's work and marks the piazza in front of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva.

Minerva has work by the hand of Michelangelo, Fra Angelico, and Bernini to name a few. Michelangelo's Risen Christ is at the altar. Christ was originally naked, but has since been covered by a garland for modesty. An unnecessary touch, but done nonetheless. This is one of the few Michelangelo sculptures you will enjoy withouth a huge crowd at your back or without a reservation.
Santa Maria Sopra Minerva translates to Santa Maria over Minerva. Originally this church was a temple to Minerva for the ancient Romans.
What is Gothic? One of Europe's most famous Gothic Church is Notre Dame in Paris and it is a shining and beautiful example. Italy's most impressive Gothic Church is in Milan. It seems to rise from the earth and shoot to Paradise.

Some key features of Gothic architecture are Flying Buttresses - struts from the nave, Pinnacle - pointed caps, Gothic rib - where the point of arches are the same height as the vault's crown.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Win a free stay in Rome from Venere.com

Check out the details on this link...watch a video, answer a few short questions, and you're in the running.

Good luck!

Italian v American cuisine and lifestyle

In Italy dining is an event. The day starts with a very light breakfast of a roll, some cheese, maybe a chocolate roll, some espresso, and fruit. There are no huge skillets to be found.
Lunch is a great break in the day and is usually the larger meal. It takes around 1.5 hours to dine on multiple, realistic sized portions. Wine is enjoyed at lunch and is a social event between friends and family. Many Italians go home for lunch, but in the larger cities many eat out at restaurants.
Dinner is really an epic event. Dining starts around 7 or 8 and lasts 2-3 hours.
It is hard to find candy bars, chips, and other junk food. I'm sad to write that it is becoming more available these days. A snack in italy is gelato, a slice of pizza, a light panini, or fresh fruit.
I rec'd the above email from a friend. I'm not sure where he found it, but the subject line read, "after two years Michelangelo's David returns from the U.S." I'm afraid to admit it, but it is true. Two years here eating McDonalds and other junk food this is what the result would be.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Time to jar the tomatoes

This is one of my favorite times of the year. The tomatoes are growing ripe and ready to be picked. The mornings and nights are chilly. And soon, after 2 days of hard, but fun work, I get to restock my shelves with my Nonna's homemade tomatoes.

The key is fresh tomatoes, some pickling salt, and basil. I can't give out the entire recipe, but can talk about the process. It's a family secret you know?

Each bushel yields around 10-12 jars of tomatoes, give or take.
1. Tomatoes

2. Boil water

3. Pour boiling water over tomatoes

4. Fish them out with a slotted spoon.

5. Peel skin off. Simply flick the tomato with your finger and the skin pops, then peel.

6. cut in half and squeeze out the seeds into a cone colander.

7. flatten each skinned half or quartered tomato.

8. Add pickling salt to the mason jar.

9. Add a layer of tomatoes

10. Add fresh basil

11. Repeat steps 9 & 10.

12. When jar gets half full use a wooden spoon, the non spoon end to push down the tomatoes and release any trapped air.

13. Fill to the top, and place a basil leaf, then add wax sealing lid.

14. To seal, add jars to boiling water until seal pops shut. Place in a cool dry place and check their seal. Any that didn't seal are no good and must be eaten right away. The others are good to go into the cellar.

Now for the tomatoes in the cone colander.

1. Add all the excess stuff.

2. Push down often to extract all the juices.

3. As the juices come through you'll pour it through a cloth that is tied tightly over a clean bucket.

4. When all the tomato juice has been pushed through the cloth you'll add salt and boil in a pot.

5. This makes, in essence, tomato juice that can be added to your tomato fillets when cooking.

This jarring process makes the tomatoes a bit salty so no need to add much when cooking. In fact don't add any more at all. It is a great base for any Italian tomato based sauce or dish.

The key is to reduce it until the tomatoes melt in your mouth, but still hold their shape in the bowl. A skill that will take years to master. My Nonna did it perfectly, but it has taken her a lifetime to master.

Be sure to follow a specific recipe to get great tomatoes. This is only meant to give you an indication of how the process works.
One final note about my Nonna. At her age she had more energy than the entire family put together. She was always the first one up to get started, always the last one standing, and it seemed effortless to her. I miss her dearly and my tomatoes will never be the same without her.

Ciao Nonna :)

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Ahhhh, Siena. Rome's sister city.

The founding of Siena has its roots in the founding of Rome. Rome was founded by Remus and Romulus. Remus was killed by his brother Romulus. When Remus died his two sons fled Rome to safety. When the did they had stolen a statue of the She-wolf suckling the twins. Their names were Senius and Aschius. As they fled north they were protected by a white cloud during the day and a black cloud at night. She takes her name from Senius.

The colors black and white are present everywhere in Siena...namely the Duomo that carries the two colors throughout its facade. The flag of Siena is also black and white. The city's crest is called Balzana. You will also see the statue of Rome's She-wolf throughout Siena.

Siena was a city that survived and flourished without access to water for trade. Instead her money came to the city from the road that went from Rome to Paris named Via Francigena. Most travelers stopped in Siena for the night so like today much of the city's money comes from travelers.

Siena was also a banking city. It was the official bank of the Vatican and today you will still see signs for the Bank of Siena...the oldest bank in Italy. There are silver mines around Siena in the countryside.

Like most towns in Tuscany Siena was most often at war with Florence. Unfortunately, Florence won and controlled Siena. Today you can still see the Medici Walls and Medici Crest around the city of Siena. The famous poet Dante fought against Siena with Florence.

Siena is a fantastic place to visit and call home while visiting Tuscany. I prefer to stay in Siena and take day trips to Florence and other hilltowns. The food is wonderful, the people are amazing, and it is, per capita, one of Italy's wealthiest cities.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Cellini almost died by the head of Medusa

Cellini was a goldsmith and bronze sculptor from Florence. He was creating the famed Perseus and Medusa now in the Loggia of Florence. During the casting process he nearly died.

As he poured the molten metal into the cast of his Medusa and Perseus his studio caught fire. He and his assistants fought so hard to prevent it from burning down he caught a terrible fever. He lay in bed for three days fearful of death due to his fever.

One of his assistants came to him saying, "Poor Benvenuto (Cellini), all is lost." This news enraged Cellini. He let out a yell he claimed could be heard throughout Italy. He jumped from bed with his terrible fever to assess the damage to his statue.

The metal had cooled and didn't set properly. It has a rough look and almost looked as if it couldn't be saved. Cellini began to reheat the metal. He bought oak from a carpenter down the street and reheated the cast to a liquid. The damage done during the first pour reduced the amount of salvageable metal. As it turned to a liquid he knew he wouldn't have enough for the entire pour. He had his servants bring all the pewter in his entire house adding it to the molten liquid.

He worked so hard for so long that he forgot about his fever, his asssistants worked as hard doing the work of three men per person.

Cellini poured and saved his masterpiece.

He wrote about the entire process in his autobiography. It is one of the better reads about life and work in Renaissance Italy from the hand of a master.
The image of Cellini is from the walkway near the Uffizi in Florence.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The cells at San Marco in Florence

Fra Angelico was a Dominican at San Marco in Florence. The artwork he painted on the walls is a must see while visiting Bella Firenze. A short walk from Michelangelo's David you'll enjoy a view into the life of a Dominican Friar, understand how they lived their lives, and enjoy some of the world's most beautiful frescoes.

The work isn't created in a consistant narrative, but rather, a view into the belief system of the friars. Each room or cell has a fresco that the friar would study while in his bed chamber. The fresco delivers a message on the value system of the Dominicans. Each fresco contains a scene from the life or passion of Christ. Many of these frescoes place Saint Dominic in the scene.

Saint Dominic was the founder of the order and placed three critical components to the life and values to each friar. 1 - live in poverty, 2 - education, 3 - be good to everyone.

The Dominicans didn't beg. They chose to spend their time in study. Those that were less intellectual spent time in the trades. Fra Angelico dedicated his life to art. He only painted religious scenes, would weep as he painted a crucifixion scene, and lived his life in poverty dedicated to the order.

San Marco has cells meant for only the brothers to see. They did paint scenes in the common areas where guests would be able to see the artwork. One of my favorite, non-cell, paintings is of the Annunciation at the top of the stairs as you enter the cells. This is a public image, but it is unlikely non-brothers would see it since it was placed in the hallway of the sleeping quarters.

The Altarpiece is one of the common area paintings and contains the Virgin Mary, Jesus, Saint Dominic, Saint Francis, Saint Cosmas and Saint Damian. Cosmas and Damian were the family Saints of the Medici and since the Medici family funded the rebuilding of San Marco their patron Saints were included in the Altarpiece.

Be sure to spend at least 2-3 hours here to fully enjoy the artwork, get a feel of the life of the Dominicans, and enjoy a brief step back into life in Renaissance Florence.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Mortal Gorgon Loses Her Head in Florence

One of Florence's greatest statues is outdoors for all to enjoy day or night. Located in the Loggia dei Lanzi in Piazza Signoria Cellini's Perseus and Medusa is one of the world's masterpieces.

Perseus was the son of Zeus and Danae. As most Greek myths go Perseus mortal grandfather was told by a prophecy that he would be killed by his grandson. Perseus was exposed to the sea only to be found by a fisherman.

Years go by and Perseus is now a man. He attends a banquet and at the banquet he is fooled into promising to do anything that is asked of him by the King. The King asks him to fetch the head of Medusa. Medusa was one of the three Gorgons and the only mortal one of the three.

To begin his quest he is aided by Athena and Hermes. Perseus heads to Libya to seek 0ut the Graiae. When he finds them he steals their shared eye and tooth. In turn they tell him where and how to find Medusa. He also receives a pair of winged sandals, a magical bag, a magical helmut, and a shied from them. Hermes throws in a sickle-shaped sword too.

Off he goes to find and kill Medusa in her lair. If he gazes at her he'll be turned to stone. Perseus finds her sleeping and sees her through the reflection in his shield. His blow is guided by Athena. He places Medusa's head in his magical bag and flies away wearing his winged sandals.

Athena takes the head of Medusa and places it on her shield. It is now called an Aegis and is meant to frighten enemies during battle.

Cellini did his Medusa in bronze. It nearly killed him and burned down his studio. More on Cellini and the process later. Caravaggio created a painted shield with the head of Medusa now located in the Uffizi. Bernini created a masterful sculpture of her head in stone located in Rome at the Capitoline Museum.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Cacio all'argentera - Herbed Italian Cheese

This is a crowd pleaser and very easy to make. It serves four, but can easily accomodate more.

2 Tbl of olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 lb of Provolone cheese, cut into 1/2" slices
1 Tbl balsamic vinegar
1 tsp each of fresh oregano and rosemary
cracked black pepper
Italian bread

Heat the oil in a large non-stick pan over medium-high heat. Add the cheese and cook until it begins to soften slightly (around 2 minutes). Turn the cheese with a spatula and cook 1-2 more minutes. Scatter the garlic into the pan along with the vinegar and herbs. Saute until the garlic begins to sizzle.
Pour directly into serving platter and enjoy.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Dante - The father of the Italian language

Dante Alighieri wrote the Divine Comedy. It ranks up at the top with the world's best Epic Poems. In it Dante travels through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. His guide in Hell and Purgatory is another great poet named Virgil. In Heaven his guide is his beloved Beatrice.

The love story between Dante and Beatrice is worthy of Shakespeare. Having only met her a handful of times and sharing only a couple of conversations they never grew their relationship beyond a casual one. Only seeing her from afar Dante loved her so. He loved her so much that she has been immortalized the Divine Comedy as his guide through Heaven.

The Divine Comedy was written in Italian rather than the standard Latin or Greek. By doing so Dante brought the Italian language to center stage. This let Europe know that Italian was worthy of the highest use in literature. It also brought the trilogy to the masses throughout Italy that couldn't read Latin.

Each book contains 33 cantos. The Inferno actually has 34 because of the introduction. Each of the three books end with the word stars.

The Inferno is the most famous 0f the three due to Dante's colorful descriptions of the tortures of the nine levels of Hell, each sin that caused the sinner to be eternally tortured on that level, and bring contemporary Florentines, Romans, Popes, and other political figures to Hell while they lived in Dante's Italy.

One of the tortures that sticks in my mind is where a sinner, submerged under boiling pitch has his flesh ripped apart by demons using grappling hooks if they come above the boiling tar.

In the Divine Comedy Dante encounters Odysseus, Achilles, Charon, Saint Peter, other great Epic Poets, and many more.

It is well worth a read even if you only get through the Inferno and Purgatorio.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Beware of Greeks bearing gifts!

The history of Greece versus Troy is fantastic. Two of the world's best books / epic poems tell us the story. Evidence of the epic war are everywhere in Italy through art.

The Vatican Musuem has one of my favorite statues that delivers through sculpture one of the pinnacle moments of the Trojan War, has been touched by Michelangelo, and is considered one of the finest examples of Ex Uno Lapide (carved from a single stone) in the world.

The Laocoon was carved in 25 BC...yes 25 BC by three Greek sculptors. It is the priest Laocoon and his two sons being dragged to their deaths by a serpent. The serpent was sent by Apollo as punishment for Laocoon's awareness of Greek treachery. The gods played an enourmous role in the fall of Troy.

The Greeks seemed to leave the beaches of Troy leaving behind a gift of a giant wooden horse. This gift was the brainchild of Odysseus. The Greeks sat quietly in the belly of the wooden horse, the Trojans opened up the city walls dragging the gift into the square. The Trojans, thinking the war was over, celebrated all night. Late into the evening when the Trojans slept the Greeks dropped from the horse and...well, the rest is history.

Laocoon knew this was a treacherous gift and warned the Trojans. Apollo punished Laocoon for his foresight and dragged him and his children into the sea.

This great sculpture was found in a vineyard in Rome on the Esquiline Hill. It was brought to Rome from Greece by Emperor Titus in 69 AD. The pope at the time of the discovery of the Laocoon was Pope Julius II...of course. Michelangelo himself went to identify the great sculpture, repaired the arm of the Laocoon (you can still see the cracks). Julius II offered the vineyard owner 600 gold ducats for life to own the great work.

It is now placed in the Vatican Museums and is one of their prize works.

Oh, by the way, the phrase, "beware of Greeks bearing gifts" was uttered by Laocoon and has remained a timeless phrase to this very day.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Italian Sangria

In Southern Italy you will enjoy chilled red wine...yes chilled. In it you'll find sliced peaches and oranges. It is easy to make and turns cheaper wine into something delicious.

First buy a gallon jub of Gallo Paisano.

Put the wine into a pitcher add sliced peaches and oranges

place in the fridge for a few hours

When you pour it to serve add a splash of sprite or 7 up.

Be sure each glass gets a bit of fruit to enjoy after the wine.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Narcissus in Rome

Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio painted a Narcissus. It is in the Barberini Gallery. Well worth a visit while in Rome. There are many great paintings at the Barberini, but this is one of my favorites.

Narcissus was a proud and beautiful youth. So beautiful that he didn't want to give himself to any lover. One of his spurned lovers yelled, "may Narcissus love one day so, and himself not win over the creature whom he loves." Nemesis, the god of vengeance, heard the cry and granted it. After a hunt in the woods Narcissus came upon a still dark pond and fell in love with his own reflection. He died gazing at his beauty and a flower grew in his place.
Art scholars question the authenticity of this work. Is it or isn't it a Caravaggio? Until they prove otherwise I'm giving him credit.
The image is fantastic. Caravaggio perfectly captures the emotion of Narcissus. He longingly gazes at himself, the water has an inky color that repressent his anguished soul.

The Narcissus flower grows on the water's edge and is named in honor of this Greek youth.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Talking Statues - Achilles rejoins the fight

In Rome even the statues talk. There is a statue of Menelaos with the body of Patroclus near Piazza Navona. It has been a staple of Roman politics since the 16th century.
It was named Pasquino because the statue was placed near a tailor's shop named, of course, Pasquino.
On it the Romans placed notes of political discontent since it was illegal to outwardly voice resentment to the government. When you visit the statue a few blocks from Piazza Navona you'll even see notes posted today. They'll be in Italian so take a few pictures and translate the notes when you get home or ask a nearby local if they would translate for you.
One of the more famous notes was placed on Pasquino in the mid 1600's directed at Pope Innocent X. This is the pope that funded and built the famous fountain of Four Rivers by Bernini in Piazza Navona with taxation of the Romans. The note read, "We don't want obelisks and fountains; we want bread, bread, bread."
A little on the story of Patroclus and Menelaos. Achilles chose to remove himself from the war against the Trojans in the Illiad due to a slight by general Agamemnon. The slight was over a woman who Achilles claimed as his own as a spoil of war. General Agamemnon took her from Achilles. Achilles removed himself from the war and remained in camp and vowed not to fight until he got back what was rightfully his. His cousin Patroclus wanted to join the fight, but Achilles refused.

One night while Achilles slept Patroclus donned his cousin's very recognizable armor and ran into battle. The Greeks thought Achilles was back. A battle raged that pitted "Achilles" against the great Hector of Troy. They fought one-on-one with Hector killing "Achilles." The Greeks and Trojans thought that the feared "Swift-Footed Achilles" had been slain. When his armor was removed it was discovered that it was Patroclus.

The Greeks brought the dead body to Achilles who flew into a violent rage. He rejoined the Greeks, but in the fashion of a great warrior rode to the gates of Troy, challenged Hector to a one-on-one battle and slew him. Then to add insult to injury tied his dead body to the back of his chariot. He dragged him around the walls of Troy three times and all the way back to camp.
More on the story of Troy and the importance of the Illiad to art in Italy and Greece.
Oh, one more thing, the Borghese museum statues are organized starting with the statue that ultimately kicked off the Trojan war with Venus Victrix and ending with Aenaes fleeing from Troy to found Rome.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Ordering espresso at the train station

Ordering your espresso at the train station is a little different than at a cafe in the city. At the station you must first go to the cashier and pay for it. You'll then get a receipt that you bring to the cafe counter. The barista will come up to you and take your ticket. Tell them what you want. They'll tear it indicating that you have been served.

Italy has changed the sugar servers. They are now the individual sugar packets or sugar pourer. I miss the old school servers that had spoons in them. I guess for health reasons it makes sense to have packets, but I always enjoyed the large community sugar bowl. Each cafe usually had a different one that automatically opened when you removed the spoon.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Museo San Marco - Fra Angelica

Museo San Marco is home to the glorious work of Fra Angelico. He painted the cells of the monastery for his brothers of the Dominican church in Florence near the Galleria del Accademia.

This museum isn't usually too busy, but provides a great look into Friar life of the Renaissance. Fra Angelico decorated the cells of the Friars with scenes of Saint Dominic inserted into Biblical scenes. Each image repressents divine life and illustrates the goal of each Friar in their work. Fra Angelico's Annunciation is one of my favorites in San Marco. His Annunciation is one of my favorite Annunciation scenes.

Savonarola lived here. You can visit his large cell with his desk and chair. You can also see his cloak. Savonarola took Florence away from the Medici family. He preached and raised the citizens to riot. He was responsible for the fire of the vanities forcing citizens and artists to burn things that were deemed "illegal" for church going people. It is sad to note that Botticelli burned some of his paintings in the fire. Savonarola was ultimately hanged and burned to death in Piazza Signoria. Rebels didn't last long in Florence.

San Marco delivers the calmness of the Friar's life. Its cloister is beautiful. The Dominicans were determined to avoid the moral problem of wealth and lived peaceful lives (except Savonarola).

Fra Angelico often wept before painting scenes of the crucifixion and refused to work on anything but sacred images. He was given the name Angelico by another Friar.

Pope John Paul II entered him into the church's official role of beautiful Christian. I recommend spending at least 2-2.5 hours at San Marco to soak it all in. You may have to wait a few minutes before entering each cell for those ahead of you to exit. The rooms are small and people often enjoy each work for 3-5 minutes.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Top Ten Ancient Rome

1. Colosseo - Rome

2. Foro Romano & Palatine Hill - Rome

3. Pantheon - Rome

4. Pompeii & Herculaneum - Rome

5. Roman Ampitheater - Verona (still used for concerts and entertainment today)

6. Piazza Navona - Rome

7. Hadrian's Villa - Tivoli

8. Ostia Antica - Ostia Antica

9. Domus Aurea - Rome

10. Paestum - Paestum

Friday, August 1, 2008

Live like a Roman - rent an apartment

A great way to enjoy Rome is to live like a Roman. Renting an apartment is affordable and places you in the daily routine of the Roman lifestyle. There are many companies that offer flats or apartments. I have personally used the Parker Company. They have a great inventory of property suitable for 1 up to 12 people.

You can jump online, check availability, book your room, and make your deposit. Once you arrive in Rome you meet a representative from Parker at the property. They take your cash deposit, give you the keys, and instructions on how to depart after your stay.

We stayed at a great apartment a few steps from Campo di Fiori. It was cheap compared to a hotel in the center of Rome. Most stays are a one week minimum.

Visit the website at www.theparkercompany.com/ You can also order a full color catalog. I recommend doing both.

Parker has property rental throughout Italy.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Capitoline Museum of Rome

Considered the oldest art collection in the Western World the Capitoline Museums offer a great starting point to enjoy Ancient Rome, the Forum, and the Colosseo.

Gifted by the Pope Sixtus IV to the Roman's to prove the greatness of the Roman history this art museum offers a view into anicent Rome that will truly bring the Eternal city to life. Pope Sixtus was the uncle to Pope Julius II. Sixtus built the Sistine Chapel and it bears his name.

Julius II(Sixtus IV's nephew) decorated the ceiling with the help of Michelangelo. Michelangelo decorated the piazza in front of the Capitoline Museum. The statue in front is Marcus Aurelius and has survived because at the time of its placement Pope Paul thought it was the Emperor Constantine. A replica sits in the piazza. The original is inside the museum.

Two of my favorite pieces in the museum are the Colossus of Constantine and the micromosaic taken from Hadrian's villa. You can also see the Dying Gaul and the boy removing a thorn from his foot.

This museum is well worth the visit. You also get a great vantage point into the Forum for photos and the entrance into the Forum is a short walk from the Capitoline Musuems.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Tragedy of the Tomb

Michelangelo was commissioned by Pope Julius II to create his tomb. It was going to be a glorious eternal resting place for Julius with over 40 statues. It would have been a mausoleum if it were completed to the original specifications.

Michelangelo himself traveled to Carrara to harvest the marble, he paid for it out of his own pocket, and began work in Rome. This was going to be the ultimate accomplishment for the artist. It tested his ability as an architect and sculptor.

During the course of work the Pope created a private corridor from Saint Peter's to Michelangelo's studio to suppress any jealousy. He would visit the artist and his work often. Bramante began whispering into the Pope's ear to stop work on his tomb. It was a bad omen. The pope eventually listened.

Michelangelo went to get payback on the marble and wasn't admitted to see the pope. This happened three times. Michelangelo freaked out, sold his stuff, and moved back to Florence. He eventually reconciled with Julius. Shortly after he was commissioned to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

The tomb was never completed to its original standards. It now rests in San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome. It does contain the Moses by Michelangelo and is amazing. It is said that this statue alone would do Julius honor enough.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Top Ten (actually twelve) Botticelli

Botticelli was one of the finest artist the Renaissance produced. Most of his work can be enjoyed in Florence. Here is a top ten (actually twelve) of his must see work.
1. Birth of Venus - Florence - Uffizi
2. Venus Primavera - Florence - Uffizi
3. Madonna del Magnifica - Florence - Uffizi
4. Adoration of the Magi - Florence - Uffizi
5. Calumny of the Appelles - Florence - Uffizi
6. Temptations of Christ - Vatican Museum - Rome
7. Punishment of Korah, Dathan, & Abiram - Sistine Chapel - Rome
8. Events in the life of Moses - Sistine Chapel - Rome
9. Pallas and the Centaur - Florence - Uffizi
10. Judith - Florence - Uffizi
11. Madonna of the Pomegranate - Florence - Uffizi
12. Cestello Annunciation - Florence - Uffizi

Monday, July 28, 2008

Buon Americano Buon Appetito

The Italians are very easy going. They love their culture, their food, and they especially love when travelers embrace being Italian while visiting Bella Terra.One of the best things Italy delivers to you is the food. It will set a whole new level of expectation as to what good is when dining. Everything from the bread to the dolci. Espresso is a religious experience. Pizza is an artform. Fresh fruit will give you the chills. The cheese and salamis are in fact second to none (sorry France). The pasta and the endless variety of pasta sauces will amaze you.

I recommend writing in a journal throughout your entire visit to Italy. Write down the name of the cafe, the city, what you ate or drank, and rate it. Almost every restaurant has a card at the host station to grab. Be sure to grab one and drop in in your envelope of cards. They will keep the memories alive in your scrapbook and be fun to look through in the years to come.

The key to getting the most out of your dining experience is to embrace each meal. Go outside of your comfort zone and stay away from staples. Don't pass on a wonderful spaghetti marinara, but compliment your meal with an out of your box second course. Try a different dessert at each meal. Try a different gelato flavor each time...you'll eat it 4 times a day so you'll have plenty of time to enjoy your favorite.

Here are some tips to get the most out of your dining experience.

1. Be polite. Service goes much slower in Italy...don't be offended. They aren't blowing you off. The Italians enjoy dining as a full experience to be slowly enjoyed. Embrace it.

2. Try to speak a bit of Italian. They'll know you aren't fluent and won't expect you to know more than the basics. Try to say hello, thank you, where's the bathroom, etc. They'll love it and you'll be surprised at how much fun it is.

3. Ask the server for his / her recommendation. "Che cosa ci consiglia per primi piatte, secodi piatte, dolci, antipasti. You will then be delivered excellent recommendations and specials of the day that will raise your meal to a new level.

4. Ask for a wine recommendation in addition to your meal.

5. Many times they will offer a "misto" of dishes per course if you ask. You will be surprised that in Italy this is a compliment. In the U.S. restaurants will be offended. Not in Italy. They want to share their culture and food with you at every turn.

6. Don't assume the server speaks English. Ask if he / she does "Parla inglese?"The key is to take your time, try new things, be polite, tip, and you'll have a wonderful meal every time.
Don't forget. The server is not going to bring your bill (conto) until you ask for it. It is impolite in Italy to assume a table is finished. The sign to ask for you bill is the same in the U.S. as in Italy. An imaginary pen in hand as if you are signing a credit card slip works perfectly.There is a full article on the unabellavista tips page that you can download and enjoy. I also cover this topic in my podcasts on iTunes.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Italian living at home - Italian cheese clubs

It is hard to get to Italy often enough to satisfy our love of Bell'Italia so bring Italy to you with an Italian Cheese club.

I have been a member of the cheese club offered by Italian Cooking & Living magazine for years and I love it. Each month you get 2 different types of cheese straight from Italy to your doorstep. Membership to the club is free. You then choose between 1/2 pound x 2 cheeses per month or 1 pound x 2 cheeses per month. I get the 1/2 pound and have been very happy with it. In addition to the cheese you get a recipe or two, a write up on the cheese and how it is made and the region it is made. Great stuff.

This is a great site. Shipping to the U.S. is a bit expensive, but if you and some family or friends love Italian cheese go in together. It divides the shipping cost (Cheese is shipped by air from Italy) between you. They help you buy the right amount to capitolize on shipping. The site is well organized by country (if you want to buy French or other European cheeses), by milk type, sharp, sweet, aged, and more. The selection and options are fantastic.
When was the last time you saw Taleggio at your local gourmet store?

A sample from their website:

Taleggio D.O.P. is a soft Italian gourmet cheese that is considered a delicacy when served in many dishes or when served on its own as a delightful Italian taste treat.
It is a gourmet cheese of very old origins, perhaps even before the 10th century. Its regional origin was the Val Taleggio, in the province in Bergamo, from which derives the name of the cheese. Currently the area of production and ripening of the Taleggio cheese is Lombardy, Piedmont and Venetia regions.
The rind of the cheese is thin, and of soft consistency; its color is natural rose-orange, with the presence of a characteristic grey and green light sage color mould. The paste is uniformly compact, softer under the rind and the color changes from white to pale yellow, with some small circles. The taste is sweet, with light acidic vein, slightly aromatic, sometimes with a truffle aftertaste; the odor is characteristic.
Taleggio gourmet cheese should be served to room temperature, to fully display its taste and its aroma. It is not necessary to remove the rind, but it is sufficient to gently scrape it. Most Taleggio cheeses are matured for a minimum of 40 days and in order to comply with US FDA regulation for export to the USA the maturation of our Taleggio cheese has been extended to over 60 days.

Italian wine is easier to come by at your local liquor store. Join a cheese club or buy from Cheeseline.com to bring a little Italy to your doorstep and enjoy!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Panzanella Salad - it's amazing

This is a great recipe that can be enjoyed year-round. It is quick and easy.

6 cups day old Italian bread, torn into bite-size pieces

1/3 cup olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons vinegar

4 medium ripe tomatoes, cut into wedges

3/4 cup sliced red onion

10 basil leaves, shredded

1 cup fresh mozzarella, cut into bite-size pieces

*add a few anchovies if you like.

**I like to add a few pinches of crushed red pepper.