Home for the holidays

We’ve headed home to the U.S. for the holidays and I’m in Chicago now. Talk about some reverse culture shock! Big SUVs, big supermarkets, big everything. Even the toilet bowls have more water in them than the ones in Italy (check out this YouTube link for a philosophical explanation:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XfOa8G8J72g)

But the main difference I’ve noticed has to do with children. We went to church last weekend with Alex and had to keep the stroller in the back room, whereas in Pesaro, people keep the babies and strollers next to the pews. In Pietrelcina, a small town in southern Italy where we lived prior to Pesaro while Michael did research, not only were there plenty of babies and strollers in church, but churchgoers talked constantly (and rather loudly!), and flowed in and out of the church like it was their home—which, in a way, it is. People in Pietrelcina feel especially blessed by Padre Pio because they’re his kin—they come from his hometown. My husband calls it a form of “Old Testament spirituality,” which differs from the “New Testament spirituality” that other devotees show toward Padre Pio, where all are Padre Pio’s spiritual kin as long as they believe in him, regardless of where they are from or who they are (Matthew’s Gospel and St. Paul’s Letters talk about this as the basis of the catholic (or universal) church).

Anyway, we attended Mass in Chicago and noticed that as soon as a baby started fussing, the parents whisk him or her to the back of the church (or to a “cry room.”) Alex particularly likes to “sing along” to the music at Mass, and so when he started doing this, I raced to the back of the church. It was so quiet in there! In Italy, when Alex fussed, we would just walk him around to calm him, and no one seemed to mind that we stayed inside. We’ve apologized to people (even the priest!) in church in Pesaro when Alex would cry and everyone looks at us like we have two heads. “But, he’s a baby! He’s supposed to cry.  It’s natural.”

We’ve noticed that the U.S. certainly has a very different “baby culture” when it comes to these public places—especially restaurants. We were able to take Alex into any restaurant (fancy or low-key) or bar in Pesaro, and that’s certainly not the case in Chicago. I feel like there’s a much clearer separation of adults and children. If you want to go to a restaurant, get a babysitter. They get babysitters in Italy as well, of course (mostly it’s la nonna, or grandma, that watches the baby), but if you prefer to take your child out with you, no one seems to bat an eye.

We’ve already begun to discover places that are baby-friendly (we had no problems going out for sushi last week), and so far everyone has been just as nice as in Italy…although strangers don’t stop us all the time on the street wanting to touch or pinch Alex’s cheeks. 🙂

Posted in America, Italy | Tagged , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Round 1: Bar Astra vs. Nerocaffè

My two favorite bars in Pesaro for drinking a cappuccino are Nerocaffè, located in the main piazza, and Bar Astra, located at the entrance to the centro storico. Nerocaffè opened last December and has since become a very popular hangout. The interior design is beautiful—all blacks and purples and copper. It’s like a trendy New York City café, adding some needed glamour to Pesaro’s piazza. The staff is friendly and efficient, the pastries are fresh, and the cappuccinos are amazing.  The selection of aperitivi is also top-notch.


And yet, I still have an affinity for Bar Astra, the first bar we frequented when we moved to Pesaro. Bar Astra also houses a movie theater, and in the summer of 2009, they revamped the building, making it much more chic and elegant. They also added a gelateria section near the cash register, which significantly upped the business, especially during the summer months. The gelato isn’t the best in the city, but they serve a generous portion for 1.50 euros. Another bonus: you can add minutes to your cell phone here. The friendly staff, delicious cappuccinos, diverse pastries and generous aperitivi all receive an A.

Bar Astra

Still, it’s tough to pick a favorite. If I’m going for the quality of the cappuccinos, I’d say they’re equal. Both Bar Astra and Nerocaffè make creamy—but not too frothy—cappuccinos and the coffee is strong, but not bitter. In another post, I’ll talk about the criteria for judging a great cappuccino. Stay tuned!

Bar Astra vs. Nerocaffè. Winner? A tie.


Posted in cappuccinos, coffee, Italy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

L’ora dell’aperitivo

Ah, the aperitivo hour in Italy, like happy hour in the U.S. but so much better.  I love bitters and Italy is full of bitter aperitif options: Aperol is a spritzer favorite in Italy and is very refreshing, combining the flavors of bitter orange, rhubarb and gentian, an alpine flowering plant. Campari is also popular—my husband ‘s favorite drink is a Negroni which combines Campari, sweet vermouth and gin. It’s too strong for my taste, but I can certainly appreciate the bitter flavor. I always buy Crodino in the supermarket (a flavorful non-alcoholic bitter that I discovered while pregnant).  In fact, when we return to Chicago I need to find a store that carries it.

Back to Italian happy hour. In addition to the bitter aperitifs, I really like how bars and cafés offer an array of appetizers—all included with the price of a drink. Many of these appetizers are beautifully presented and delicious to eat. So for 3-5 euros, I get a nice drink and an all-you-can-eat selection of delicious cheeses, pasta, fruit salad, mini pizzas, olives, or, on a recent outing, a lovely couscous dish.  One of our favorite bars is Casa Vaccaj, housed in one of the oldest edifices in Pesaro, and whose owners offer a really excellent spread of diverse appetizers: a mix of strawberries, pistachios and grapes; spinach quiche; slices of lonza (a local salt-cured pork) and slabs of parmigiano reggiano; a salad of mint, balsamic vinegar and eggplant cubes, and much more.

Another plus?  During any restaurant or café outing, you can sit as long as you like without feeling rushed. And in Pesaro, many places are very baby-friendly—even the trendy bars—which is a major plus!

How about digestivos? Those are great too and will be the subject of a future post.


Posted in culture, food, Italy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The power of wind

Italians like to talk about wind. Many Italians (the older generation in particular) think that too much air can be unhealthy and can cause mal di gola (a sore throat) or cervicale (cervical syndrome, which affects the neck). I’ve often seen Italians wear scarves in the middle of July, and my Italian-American husband remembers getting colds as a child and having his Italian mother wrap his neck in a handkerchief to help speed up his recovery.

I personally love rolling the windows down in nice weather, but I’ve often been out driving with Italian friends and they roll up the window to make sure there’s not too much wind blowing in, asking if the air bothers me. Up until about 10 years ago, many Italians affixed plastic wind guards over the side windows of their cars in order to prevent wind coming in when they rolled down their windows.

My husband is an anthropologist and he think this cultural fixation on wind could be a remnant from Greco-Roman times—if you read the Aeneid or the Odyssey, for example, winds are personified as gods who often blew heroes off course, which greatly affected their journeys—and their destinies. While Italians may not believe this anymore, many do think the wind affects one’s health and disposition. I was born in Rome and my American mother remembers Italians talking about the Scirocco wind, a strong Mediterranean wind that flows from the Sahara. Many of her Italian friends noted that it dramatically affected people’s moods, making them angrier or more irritable. My mom even recalls feeling edgier and more out of sorts when this hot, dry wind blew into Rome. She was always happy when it left.

Some Italians are particularly sensitive about wind and babies. We visited relatives in southern Italy in early August, and we took a walk outside with our son Alex because there was a nice breeze and we were stifling in the heat of the house. We were told to come back inside—the baby might get too much air or he might get sick! I found this very interesting since the popular American idiom getting “a breath of fresh air” means a change for the better. Of course, Americans are also fond of artificial air and many expect air conditioning when they come to Europe. I have a story about that, but will save it for another post.

Last year, Pesaro reconstructed their boardwalk and inlaid a marble compass near the pier. Appropriately, it’s an homage to all the different winds and where they originate: the Scirocco (from the Southeast), the Ostro (from the South), the Libeccio (from the Southwest), the Ponente (from the West), the Maestrale (from the Northwest), the Tramontana (from the North), the Greco (from the Northeast) and the Levante (from the East).  Now when I walk along the beach, I’ll know exactly which way the wind blows.

Posted in American, culture, Italians, Italy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments


Yesterday, I received the nice surprise of having my post on “the culture of driving” featured in WordPress.com’s Freshly Pressed section. I was a little overwhelmed with the sudden spike in traffic, but it was nice to see. I wanted to thank everyone for their comments and for visiting my blog! It’s much appreciated. More observations on Italy coming soon.

Posted in culture, Italy | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

The culture of driving

Something I appreciate about Italian drivers is that they rarely honk their horns. In America, drivers honk anytime someone is going too slow, or pulls out in front of them, or when they’re stuck in traffic (as if that will do anything), or, well, for just about any reason. In America, there’s the mentality of “Hey, I’m driving here! So get out of my way.” Despite what outsiders perceive as chaos when they navigate the streets of Italy, the traffic is much more fluid. Drivers are very aware of each other. Cars weave in and out of traffic—sometimes seeming to dart out from nowhere—but drivers here go with the flow. They realize this is how things work.

Instead of using their horns, drivers tend to rely on using their flashers. One aspect of the driving culture that is still hard for me to adjust to is speeding on the freeway. We’ll be driving in the left lane, passing a vehicle or two, and a car driving very, very fast will come up behind us, ride our bumper and flash us repeatedly so we’ll change lanes. Sometimes you see them coming up in the rearview so fast, you wonder if they’d plow right into you if you didn’t move over. It’s a little unnerving. But again, people recognize the rules of the road and most people move into the next lane, seemingly unperturbed.

While cars may honk infrequently, there is still quite a bit of noise pollution. The

A Cinquecento on the streets of Gubbio. Who wouldn't want to drive this car?

motorini are extremely loud. Many afternoons Alex will be napping, and one races down our street, waking him up, and probably all the neighbors napping after lunch! I may not miss the motorini when we leave Italy, but it’ll be hard getting used to large trucks and SUVs barreling down city streets again. I love the smaller vehicles here, especially the old Fiat Cinquecentos. There’s something to be said for the narrow streets of Italy: while more and more people are starting to drive SUVs, they have a hard time navigating the tight alleys of Italian towns and cities. I just wish they’d stay out of the centro storico!

Posted in culture, driving, Italians, Italy | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 79 Comments

Glorious Gubbio

It’s truffle season in Italy, and Gubbio, a lovely medieval hill town in Umbria, is known for their truffles. To celebrate our anniversary, Michael and I set out for Gubbio on a beautiful fall afternoon earlier this week. After checking out the views of the countryside from the Duomo, we ate lunch at Picchio Verde. Michael ordered a very tasty homemade pasta dish with goose sauce, but nothing compared to my homemade gnocchi stuffed with black truffles and topped with black truffle shavings. Che golosità! It was fantastic—one of the best meals I’ve had in Italy. If you’re ever in Gubbio, order this dish!

Posted in food, Italy | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments