Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Bialetti Espresso Maker

My husband wanted an espresso machine for Christmas.  I was utterly mystified by the number available - from Mr. Coffee's version to vintage Gaggias.  I read all the reviews.

Pod or no pod? Coffee/espresso combo? Was a milk frother important?  I had no idea other than feeling that it had to be Italian-made.

Before I spent the big bucks on a machine, I decided to spend under $30 on a stove-top Bialetti.   It's made in Italy, looks retro and sleek, and has a cute mascot on the front.  Plus, you can get it at Target.

What a great cup of espresso!  Dark, rich, and fast.  The unit is fairly easy to clean, doesn't take up space on your counter, and looks cool enough to leave on your stove top.

So, if you are interested in dipping your toe into the world of espresso, this is a cheap and satisfying way to go.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire

My favorite Christmas song of all time is "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire."  When I lived in New York,  I loved getting roasted chestnuts on the street corners.  So, when I saw that Trader's Joes had whole Italian chestnuts to roast yourself, I was excited.  The little buggers are slippery, making it difficult to cut an "X" into the flat side - and a few had no flat sides.  Of the whole lot, about seventy-five percent had already gone bad - it is a rather soft nut seemingly prone to mold.  So, after roasting, we only culled about 10 good nuts.  They popped open, cream colored and wrinkly, but tasty.  Santa approved as an accompaniment to frosted sugar cookies on Christmas Eve.  Buon Natale!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Floods in Liguria 2: Vernazza Relief Effort

Vernazza, from the high trail to Monterosso, April, 2011
For those of you who want your donation to stay in Vernazza, rather than go to the general Liguria and Tuscany flood emergency, please check out Save Vernazza.  This is the Italian version of a nonprofit, started by American women expats whose adopted home is Vernazza.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Floods in Liguria

Vernazza flooding (Photo credit Laspezia.menticale.it)
The floods in Liguria, and more specifically, the Cinque Terre, are not getting the press that Turkey's earthquake or Bangkok's floods are receiving, but they have devastated the region.  The towns worst hit are the lovely Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare.  To help the people rebuild in Vernazza and Monterosso, here is a bank account set up for relief donations. 

And, here is a link to give via credit card through the Italian Red Cross.  You can choose "Tuscany and Liguria Emergency."

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Italophilia O.C.D. things to do after returning from your Italian holiday

1. Force your children to listen only to Strega Nona books at bedtime
2. Change your Travelocity Farewatcher to monitor airfares only to Italy
3. Wear lots of leather and scarves
4. Attempt to smuggle in non FDA-approved cured meats
5. Call your cul-de-sac a piazza
6. Harass the wine guy at Trader Joe’s with obscure requests
7. Try to talk Nutella into hiring you as the West Coast sales rep
8. Turn your mid century modern ranch into a Tuscan villa
9. Buy a Fiat 500 for your family of 6
10. Start saying rocket instead of arugula

Sunday, September 11, 2011


Just tried the trip planning itinerary-maker at plnnr.com.   It's free and you can choose from about 20 destinations, mostly European.  Florence, Milan, Naples, and Rome are currently available.  You pick your date, number of days in the locale, the type of trip (with kids, outdoors, best of, culture) and then choose your intensity level - from light to extreme.  Lastly, you choose the number of stars you want for your hotel.  The itinerary pops up with a daily route with color photos, trip advisor reviews, and wikipedia info for each of your activities as well as a hotel recommendation near your activities.  After customizing the itinerary as much as you want to, you can save and print it.

I chose the moderate intensity level and found it was extreme for me.  It'd be cool if you could input the ages of the children you'd be traveling with for more appropriate activities. You can adjust the weight of each item, for instance, make "garden" have the most weight or "museum."  All in all, it's easy and fun, especially if you don't like flipping back and forth through guidebooks.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Ventura Mushrooms

If you want the freshest cheapest mushrooms around, head to what most locals refer to as the California Mushroom Farms (now Modern Mushrooms) in Ventura, on Olivos Adobe Road.  The hours are odd and it's hard to find, but you can get wonderful white, portabella, and more exotic varieties.  The quality and prices are far superior to the grocery stores.  A whole bag of giant portabella caps is a few bucks.   They don't have every type every day, but whatever they have will be good.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Throw together Italian night

Tessa Kiros' Twelve cookbook has been my go to for simple meals.  Her Spaghettini aglio, olio e peperoncino (spaghetti with garlic, olive oil, and chili) seems to go with everything you might have on hand in the house.  The sauce recipe calls for 1/2 cup olive oil, 3 cloves of diced garlic, a handful of chopped parsley (fresh is called for, although dried seems fine to me), and 3 small crumbled red chilis (I use a couple of shakes of the dried chilis from the shaker).  That's it.  You can add some peas or halved cherry tomatoes to the sauce at the very end.   Then toss it with whatever pasta you have in the cupboard.  My husband always loves it and it is super easy! 

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Private Tours - Palazzo Vecchio

Florence is expensive.  Even the churches have admission fees.  One good deal we found was the free guided tour of the Palazzo Vecchio (included in the price of admission).  They are in English or Italian and all focus on various aspects of the Medici family’s reign of power.  The palace has secret passages and eavesdropping rooms behind hidden doors.  It's pretty cool.

We took the tour that included the map room's secret passageway to Bianca’s eavesdropping chamber. Bianca was the mistress, and later the wife, of Grand Duke Francesco de’ Medici.  He respected her opinion so much that he built her an eavesdropping chamber over the Salone dei Cinquecento, where important government matters were discussed.  The peep hole is disguised as an air vent and gives you a great bird's eye view of the salon.  

There are other tours of the patrol path (the crenulated area around the top) and also a "secret passages" tour.  They also have workshops for kids and actors in period costumes.  Check it out here.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Finding Nemo sequel to be set in Florence?

One of the most loved family flicks from Pixar, Finding Nemo, may have its next sequel set in Florence according to The Florentine.  I doubt the Arno can be as intriguing as the Pacific Ocean.  Cars 2 recently went European, maybe Italophilia has captured the creative team at Pixar.  Who can blame them?

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Jervis Bay, Southern New South Wales

Kangaroo at the beach, Jervis Bay, NSW
Cove, Jervis Bay
A totally non Europe-related daydream.  Jervis Bay, Australia.  We visited Sydney, Jervis Bay, and stayed on Heron Island on the Great Barrier Reef about 10 years ago.  Jervis Bay, with its squeaky white talcum powder sand, parrots that sit on your shoulders, and kangaroos (my favorite animal, with sea otter being a close 2nd) peeking out from the forest, is a strong contender for a possible retirement spot.  Pristine would be the word I'd use, with fully intact sea shells the size of your palm dotting the surfline and dolphins frolicking nearby.  Small town Huskisson is a good place to stay, with friendly people and pleasant eateries.  The other side of the park has great surf.  We went in April and had the whole place practically to ourselves.  Photos courtesy of Jervis Bay Tourism Board.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Do you know Filippo Brunelleschi?

Da Vinci and Columbus get a lot of respect. But, both drew inspiration from Brunelleschi’s designs.   

One of history’s greatest architects and inventors, Brunelleschi is best known for Santa Maria del Fiore’s soaring dome in Florence, better known as “the duomo.”  Finished in 1436, it took 16 years to build and still holds the title of the largest brick and mortar dome in the world.   

Da Vinci sketched hoists and cranes that Brunelleschi designed to build the duomo, while Columbus used navigation technology gleaned from sun experiments atop the duomo.  Filippo is also credited with the first patent and the invention of one-point linear perspective. He is fittingly laid to rest in Santa Maria del Fiore.  This short, homely, unmarried, paranoid man is well described in Ross King’s Brunelleschi’s Dome.  A quick and entertaining read for anyone that has climbed between the dome’s shells and emerged atop the cupola with all of Florence spread out below them.  King does a bang up job describing the intricacies of his inventions without causing your eyes to glaze over.  

Other significant Brunelleschi designs:
Oespedale degli Innocenti
Pazzi Chapel, Santa Croce
Basilicas of Santo Spirito and San Lorenzo

Monday, June 27, 2011

Strawberries with balsamic vinegar

Tried the strawberries with balsamic vinegar, sugar, and wine recipe from Tessa Kiros' Twelve cookbook.  Substituted Grand Marnier for the wine.  Very good and also hit the mark on having less than five ingredients and using one prep and serving dish!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Living La Dolce Vita? A Book Review

Just finished Raeleen d'Agostino Mautner's book.  She is something of a cultural psychologist.  This is more of a self-help style book than a manual on how to live superficially like Italians (throw on a scarf and heels and sip a glass of wine on your balcony, etc.).   

Much of it is common sense, but it is a good reminder of why the Italians seem to be living simpler, more relaxed lives.   If your life is totally out of whack, this is a great book.  If you already lead a balanced life and have your priorities in order, you may not need this book. 

She definitely makes a lot of generalizations, but you'd have to in order to summarize the lifestyle of an entire country.  Worth a read when you feel like you are on the hamster wheel, buy it used.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Limoncino or Limoncello?

We brought a bottle of the lemon liquor back from Liguria this trip.  I had been calling it Limoncello but today I noticed the bottle said Limoncino.  After half-hearted googling, it seems in the north they call it Limoncino, particularly around the Cinque Terre, and in the south Limoncello.  Yet another reason to get to the Amalfi Coast someday!  Then I ran across a producer in Ventura County.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

How to dress like an Italian

This book is old, 1992, but still rings true.   Sienese women seemed to be even better dressed than the Florentines, if that is possible.

Things I noticed about Italian women on my last trip:

1. Radiant, natural skin (no facelifts or breast augmentation for that matter, either!)
2. Curve-skimming feminine clothes, not terribly trendy
3. A few classic high-end accessories (knock-offs ok, too)
4. Scarves, scarves, scarves
5. Glossy, well-cut hair with subtle highlights if any, longish
6. Heels!
7. Great leather items
8. Ironed clothes and polished shoes
9. Killer shades 
10. Natural makeup

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Basil Advice

Info on this Ligurian staple with a bit a history.  We have yet to use our Volterran mortar and pestle, but maybe this article will get us in gear.

Hard Rock Cafe in Florence?

I am thinking the Hard Rock Cafe is not the best addition to the Piazza della Repubblica!  Do they really need this?

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Great meal in Santa Ynez

A fine meal was enjoyed yesterday at Trattoria Grappolo in Santa Ynez.  The tortelloni di zucca was rich and fantastic - pumpkin, walnuts and a cream sauce.  Nice selection of Italian wines, including a local Super Tuscan-style.  And, they also share a few recipes.

Mona Lisa crypt found in Florence?

The final resting place of the mysterious woman said to have posed for the Mona Lisa may have been found.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Italian cookbook recommendations

From the SlowTravel Forum, here they are:

Divina Cucina’s Recipes (recommended the most times)
Twelve by Terra Kiros (recommended many times)
Flavors of Tuscany by Nancy Harmon Jenkins
G.Franco Romagnoli - The Romagnoli Way
The Italian Country Table: Home Cooking from Italy's Farmhouse Kitchens
The Splendid Table: Recipes from Emilia-Romagna, the Heartland of Northern Italian Food
Tuscany: The Beautiful Cookbook
A Tuscan in the Kitchen 

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Italy Trip Report, 2011

Trip Report: Firenze, Cinque Terre, and Toscano hill towns
Tenth anniversary, April, 2011

Planning - including shoe strategy

My husband and I hadn’t really been alone together since our first child was born. It was our 10th anniversary and I had been hoarding air miles in my account since before our marriage. For some reason his mom graciously agreed to fly out to take care of our kids for 2 weeks. There were a lot of variables in play, much could go wrong, but it was worth a shot.

We wanted art, history, views, active pursuits, food and wine, sun, sand, and charm. I’d studied in Florence 16 years ago, and had been trying to get back ever since.  I ended up using these resources for my research: Eyewitness Guide: Florence and Tuscany, Rick Steve’s Tuscan Hill Towns and Cinque Terre, Slow Travel and Frommer’s Forums

Our itinerary boiled down to 2 weeks - 4 nights Florence, 3 nights Cinque Terre (Vernazza), 3 nights hill towns of Tuscany (Volterra, Siena, Montepulciano), and 3 nights back in Florence.

I booked the mileage award tickets 9 months out. We booked rooms in Florence and Vernazza (if you want a view room in the CT, book ahead) about 3 months out via the hotel’s own web sites (we were aiming for 70-90 euro places with a bathroom in the room). We decided to wing it with hotels in the hill towns. The other pre-booked items were the car through Autoeurope, Uffizi tickets (crowded even in April), a tour at the Palazzo Vecchio, and a Vespa tour of Chianti.

And shoes? This was my biggest challenge. How could we blend in and look like stylish Italians without killing our feet? I didn’t go as far as wearing 3 inch heels on the cobblestone streets like the locals, but did bring a few items that worked well: Born wedge sandals, Eurostep dark leather walking shoes, and Reebok black Simplytone shoes (felt like walking on pillows). And if you throw a classy belted trench coat over anything, suddenly you look put together. Additionally, Columbia’s wrinklefree travel dresses came in handy. My husband's black sport coat was used daily.

Vespas in Chianti
Firenze - 4 nights

The party started early as we arrived at LAX 4 hours before our flight. This is not a problem if you have access to the Air France VIP Lounge, where we drank champagne and ate brie with two British paratroopers. Flying business class made the journey part of the vacation as well. Thank you airmiles!

Ribollita soup
Firenze was the first stop, staying at the well-located, roomy Albergo Merlini among the “cheap” hotels on Via Faenza. Near the train station but quiet and within walking distance to all sights. Our first meal was at Antichi Cancelli, also on Via Faenza, where you both can have a primi, secondi, and wine and get out of there just under 40 euro. My husband said the lamb was particularly good. It was my first taste of the bread and vegetable based twice-boiled soup ribollita. I think I ate it 5 times on our trip.

Brunelleschi's dome
Our first full day included the Uffizi – the only tickets we pre-booked saving us hours in line - and climbing Brunelleschi’s dome, slightly curving inward as you squeezed between the two shells.

Our second day was a highlight, zipping through Chianti on Vespas. The van took 7 of us 30 minutes outside of the city, oriented us to the scooters, and off we went. Mixing it up with traffic, hills, gravel, and stopping along the way for fresh pecorino panini, gelato, and a stop at the Corsini Winery, where we toured the wine cellars and olive oil operation, had a wonderful wine tasting and lunch, and even saw the princess! A fun stop was the hotel where Machiavelli stayed while in exile. We would do it again in a heartbeat.

Nap lawn, Boboli Gardens
The next day brought us to the Pitti Palace’s Palatine Gallery, royal apartments and the Boboli Gardens. For some reason, many museums were free that week, so Italians were out in force enjoying the gardens. We fell asleep for an hour with about 40 others on a sun-dappled lawn.

Il Due Fratellini
Favorite Florence restaurants included Le Mossace (ribolitta) and Il Due Fratellini (we ate at this fiaschetteria at least 3 times, grab a panini and glass of Super Tuscan and sit on the curb near Orsanmichele). A lavish meal accompanied by excellent wines was enjoyed at Pitti Gola, where Zeno, one of the owners, should really have his own TV show. They travel all over Italy, buying up whatever the small winemakers don’t keep for themselves, making many of their wines exclusives. Rinaldi Brunello was a highlight. The pumpkin gnudi was unlike anything I’ve eaten before. Ricotta, pumpkin, and an egg made into fluffy little balls with a sauce chock full of truffles.

Vernazza harbor from the trail
Cinque Terre – 3 nights in Vernazza

After a 3-hour train ride to La Spezia, switching trains to the towns of the Cinque Terre, we emerged from the tunnel to see the Ligurian Sea. We stayed in Vernazza, near the trail to Corniglia, at Rooms La Torre. The room was spotless, new, and about the size of a king sized bed with a double bed, fridge, and bathroom squeezed in - comically tight for two people. The huge terrace’s 180-degree view included terraced grape vine hills, the pastel town, a castle (well worth the 1.50 euro), the harbor and sea beyond. Most everyone speaks English in the CT and everyone carries an embarrassing Rick Steve’s book. Try to hide it in your backpack.

Vernazza harbor from the castle
Many of the low trails were closed due to rockslides, so we hiked a combination of low and high trails. Some of the trails they said were closed were actually open. The first day we took the lower trail #2 to Corniglia, followed by the hill trail to Manarola. The elevation change was dramatic, from terraced grape vines to pines. New friends along the way included Seattleites and Aussies. In Manarola, we ate panini and pizza and shared a bottle of wine on the rocks by the harbor, before heading off to the Via del’Amore to Riomaggiore. The Aussies were game to add on a hike to a hilltop church so we joined in. About 16 miles were hiked that day. We jumped on the train back to Vernazza and closed down a bar with our new friends.

To Riomaggiore
The next day we set off “early,” meaning 9 am, taking the high trail to Monterosso. The view leaving Vernazza is breathtaking. The trail was empty save a couple Italians and Germans. My husband fixed a woman’s walking stick and we all cheered. The country cathedral of Madonna di Soviore was especially lovely. Frescoes were used throughout as money was obviously not available for marble. Plexi glass floors revealed ruins beneath. A bonus was the attached coffee shop! A lovely meal in Monterosso, where I had pear and pecorino pasta (at Via Venti), was followed by sunbathing at the “new town” beach. Warm blue sea, multi-colored pebble beach, and dramatic coastline.

Sicilian brothers at Il Pirata
Another eating highlight of the CT included Il Pirata in Vernazza. The Sicilian brothers running this place were characters, full of deadpan humor and hand gestures. Don't ask for bacon and eggs, they may kick you out. The pastries and cannoli were out of this world. Go here for your morning pastries, then go back for dinner. At the top of town, this short walk is worth your time. The raisin dessert wine schiattera and local limoncello were great.

Tuscan road signs
The hill towns of Tuscany - 3 nights 

The weather was starting to turn and our bright blue Alpha Romeo coupe was awaiting us in La Spezia. We had a wonderful breakfast in Sarzana at a roadside café off the autostrada.

Artisan in Volterra
About 2 hours later we were in a cold and rainy Volterra. The beautiful medieval town was shrouded in fog. The roman amphitheater and baths were wonderfully preserved and used to be the town garbage dump! We ducked into a take-away pizza shop where we at Schiacciata (thinner, crispier foccaccia) with sea salt and nutella, as well as excellent pizza. A fantastic and inexpensive dinner was had at Il Pozzo Oegli Etruschi. My husband raved about the stuffed wild boar. I had the zuppa Etruscha alla Volterrana, another fantastic peasant-type soup. The roomy Albergo Nazionale fit the bill both cost- and location-wise.

The next day we drove to a rainy San Gimignano, it was full of tourists and we didn’t stay long.

Eating panini in Monteriggioni
Monteriggioni was a lovely, well-preserved tiny fortress built by Siena to give warning if Firenze was on the attack. The Antico Travaglio bar crafted fantastic paninis (mine was pecorino, tomato, and truffle oil) and we picnicked with our wine on a bench in the main square surrounded by turrets and olive trees.

We drove on to Siena, where we stayed at the clean and friendly nun-run Alma Domus. The staff was especially wonderful at this convent turned hotel just under San Domenico church, which looks awfully austere next to Siena’s main cathedral. The relic of St. Catherine’s mummified head is especially powerful.

Stairs to Torre Mangia
We visited the usual sites, Il Campo, climbed the windy Torre Mangia, spent a lot of time in the beautiful cathedral, with its lovely mosaic floor, Pisano pulpit, Bernini chapel, and legions of popes staring down at you. The Alma Domus staff recommended Osteria Il Campaccio. This well-priced meal was stellar (my husband loved the pork with prunes).

Pienza alley
The next day we drove to Montalcino (the town that produces our favorite Brunello wines) but found the shopkeepers and Italian tourists snooty. We moved on to lovely Pienza, with its perfect Renaissance square and idyllic views. We rolled into Montepulciano late and struggled to find a value hotel, but ended up passing Albergo La Terrazza and ringing the buzzer. Roberto and his wife Vittoria were the most enthusiastic and gracious hosts. We had a large sitting room, four-poster bed, parking and excellent breakfast for 90 euro.

We expected to stay one more night in a hill town, but frankly, we were ready to be back in the city. We found that we weren't the "rent a villa in Tuscany"-type folks. We considered sleeping in Greve in Chianti but found it soulless and overpriced, although we did have good wine and a nice walk in nearby Panzano in Chianti.

Another amazing panini at Il Due Fratellini
Back in Florence - 3 nights

We got back to Albergo Merlini, which felt like home, had a tasty Sicilian dinner with ornery service at Trattoria Il Bargello after I Cche ce ce wouldn’t allow us to wait for a table.

San Miniato
The next day was the Bargello, a quick lunch at Il Fratellini (eat here as often as possible, I'd do it daily if I could) and walking to Piazza Michelangelo and San Miniato Al Monte. Le Mossace was again our choice for dinner. Although I am a vegetarian, I enjoyed the loud sound of chopping through meat and bones in the open kitchen at Le Mossace.

Our last day in Florence was filled with a visit to the San Marco monastery with Fra Angelico’s frescoed cells (highly underrated site and not crowded), a fantastic, fast, and cheap meal at Da Mario (worth the wait), and a guided tour of the Palazzo Vecchio, focusing on the Medici family’s reign of power. The map room with the secret passageway to Bianca’s eavesdropping chamber was a highlight (tours are free and some are in English, book ahead at www.palazzovecchio-familymuseum.it).

Mercato Centrale
The Mercato Centrale is worth a visit if you want to get well-priced vaccuum-packed meats, olives, and tomatoes. Be sure to check the USDA web site to see if your edibles will make it past the dogs sniffing your luggage in the airport.

We had gelato from about 15 places and our favorite was Carapina on Via Lambertesca near the Uffizi. Give the Vin Santo flavor a try.

Street art, Oltrarno
Our last night we tried to be adventurous and walked to a recommended pizza place in the Oltrarno. We had slow rude service and the joint was too trendy, so we left. We stopped at a family run trattoria where my frittata and insalata caprese were wonderful but my husband’s pork chop was dry. I believe it was God’s way of saying that it’s time to go home.

Early the next morning we left for the airport and my husband left his wallet in the cab. He realized it not long before our flight was to depart, ran back to the cab line, waited for a cab to show up, told them what happened, and somehow they got a hold of the cabbie, who raced through town in time to return my husband’s wallet and for us to make our flight. Thank you cabbie Signore Manelli!