Adventures in Tuscany

We were in my old stomping grounds this past weekend: Florence, Italy, where I studied abroad my junior year through Gonzaga University. We also managed to hit 7 other cities/towns along the way: Prato, Monteriggioni, Siena, Pisa, Lucca, Collodi and Pistoia.

The Life of St. John the Baptist, Prato

We took a pilgrimage to Prato first because I wanted to see some art by Fra’ Filippo Lippi, one of my favorite Renaissance painters. The Duomo in Prato houses some of his most beautiful fresco cycles, although my favorite is in Spoleto, which we saw last October (see photo below). Next, we went on to Florence. We packed in a lot in two days—we went to the Uffizi (my favorite art museum), San Lorenzo, Santa Maria Novella, Santa Croce, the Duomo, Piazza Signoria, Piazzale Michelangelo…and, we ate at La Spada, a rosticceria restaurant we used to frequent when I studied abroad. It was still delicious! The great thing about Florence (and Italy in general) is that you are able to soak in so much art in museums such as the Uffizi, but then you can step outside the museum walls and visit the churches for which these pieces were created. It provides an inimitable context for understanding not only why the artists painted what they did, but how and for what reason.

The Assumption of Mary, Spoleto

On Saturday, we had lunch in the small hill town of Monteriggioni and then spent the afternoon in Siena. The Duomo of Siena is one of my favorite churches. It has spectacular inlaid marble floors and zebra-striped columns and a fabulous fresco-filled library, Biblioteca Piccolomoni. It’s well worth the entrance fee. We met up with a friend for drinks in Piazza del Campo and made sure to buy the famous Panforte and Panpepato cakes before we left.

Piazza dei Miracoli, Pisa

Sunday was a busy day, and it was by far the hottest day of the weekend. Poor little Alex was ready to melt, but he was a trooper throughout the trip! We drove to Pisa and spent a few hours in the Piazza dei Miracoli. The Leaning Tower, Duomo and Baptistry are all made of bright white marble so it was stunning against the immaculately kept green grass and the backdrop of the fierce blue sky. We then drove to Lucca and cooled off with some granitas in a piazza near the home of noted opera composer Giacomo Puccini. Maybe it was the heat, but I wasn’t that impressed with Lucca. Everyone talks about it as the ideal Tuscan town, and it’s a big stop for tourists, but I honestly didn’t see anything too special about it! We went to Pistoia later in the afternoon and I preferred it. Sitting for drinks with the Piazza del Duomo in the background…well, it’s something you can’t replicate in the U.S.

On the way to Pistoia, we made a brief stop in the town of Collodi and took pictures of the world’s tallest Pinocchio. Collodi is the birthplace of Carlo Lorenzini (better known as Carlo Collodi), the author of The Adventures of Pinocchio. So, it was a whirlwind trip, but we had a great time. Take it from me—if you plan out your itinerary, you can definitely see Tuscany in 72 hours and not feel rushed.

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Buon Ferragosto!

August 15 marks Ferragosto—an Italian holiday that the Catholic Church celebrates to commemorate the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. In fact, the tradition goes back even further, to ancient Roman times. First proclaimed by the Emperor Augustus in 18 BC, the Romans honored the gods of agriculture and fertility and celebrated for the entire month of August. Now, Ferragosto is a one-day holiday, although many businesses still take off several days.

Festa del Duca 2010, Urbino, Italy

In honor of Ferragosto, we drove to Urbino to witness the annual Festa del Duca festival.  Every August, the townspeople dress up in Renaissance garb and host jousting tournaments, parades and concerts, among other activities. There was also an open-air market where we bought some local meats, cheeses and pastries, and a fantastic bottle of homemade black licorice liqueur. It was a great day to explore my favorite local town. A la prossima festa!

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Padre Pio pilgrimage

pilgrimage at dawn

August 10th was the 100th anniversary of Padre Pio’s ordination in the Cathedral of Benevento, Italy, and Michael was conducting research in Pietrelcina, St. Pio’s hometown, where they celebrated the event by walking 12 km from Pietrelcina to Benevento. The pilgrimage began at 4 am (so Michael woke up at 3 am!), crossed through the countryside and lasted 5 hours. It was attended by 150 people, including several local news organizations. Michael was interviewed by one–click the following link to listen:

arriving in Benevento for Mass with the Archbishop

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Off the beaten path

This morning we had breakfast at Gelateria Caffé Letterario Ludicano, and it reminded me of a New York coffee shop—very modern inside, but nestled in an old building with trendy outdoor tables. I had a delicious chocolate covered donut and Michael had what started out as a good pastry but as he progressed, the “panna cotta” filling started to taste like a stick of butter. The cappuccinos were served in lovely marigold and violet cups which got 10 points for presentation, but the flavor was a bit lacking. The milk wasn’t as rich and creamy as in some other Pesaro bars. Overall, though, it was worth a visit. The café is tucked off the main street and provides a quiet atmosphere to read the paper and sip a morning coffee. It’s also located a few steps from Pesaro’s famous conservatory so it’s a popular spot for students and at times you can hear them practicing their music from the surrounding buildings.

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Missing the Oregon coast

Oregon coast, photo credit by Michael A. Di Giovine

This morning it’s already scorching and hundreds of bronzed bodies frolic in the surf. The sea is calm and clear as bathwater, not mosso, with rough waves, like I prefer. Then, I can at least pretend I’m looking at an ocean instead of the sea. I admit, on days like this, I miss the quiet radiance of the Oregon coast. The water may be freezing, but it’s not meant to be a sunbather’s beach–it’s for bikers, joggers, walkers, dreamers and thinkers. There is no baking hot boardwalk filled with carousels and vendors. There is just pure, hypnotic beauty.

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Recipes from the Alps

A few weeks ago, our friend traveled to Dobbiaco, a city in the South Tyrol region of Italy. It’s often called the “gateway to the Dolomites,” a section of the Italian Alps. It’s an interesting region because it’s has established a certain level of regional autonomy in Italy, and many people from this area consider themselves Austrian instead of Italian, even though, by birth, they’re Italian citizens. They also speak German instead of Italian.

Our friend found two postcards with recipes from the region that I wanted to share. You’ll notice that the food is much more Austrian than Italian. One is for a dessert very similar to the funnel cake in the U.S. and the other is a type of potato dumpling that reminds me of a pierogi filled with a beet purée. Enjoy!

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Farfalle pasta al pomodoro

To welcome our friend visiting from Washington, DC, and to take his mind off his lost luggage (curse you, JFK Airport!), we decided to make a light pasta dish perfect for that jet-lagged hunger: homemade farfalle (or bow-tie pasta) in a simple sauce made with the tomatoes we brought up from the farms in Benevento this past weekend.

To make the pasta dough:

300 grams of semolina flour (doubly machinated if possible)

100 grams of regular “00” flour (bread flour)

3 eggs

1 T oil

Pinch salt

Mix the flours and salt together in a bowl. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs and oil together. Add the beaten egg mixture to the flour. Mix together until you form a ball of dough. (You can tell when the dough is right by the following: add more water until the mixture forms  a cohesive ball of dough. If the ball of dough sticks to your hands, however, work in more 00 flour until it doesn’t stick.) Roll out the dough onto a flat board and let it sit until it isn’t gummy anymore, but is still soft. (If it cracks when you pick it up, you’ve left it too long). An hour or so should do it. Then cut the dough lengthwise into ¾-inch wide strips. Cut these strips into 1-inch pieces, so that you have lots of ¾” x 1” rectangles. Pinch the middle of each rectangle together so they look like bowties (or butterflies). Hint: instead of using a knife, you can get a small wheel that looks like a small pizza cutter but the wheel is bevelled, which gives the pasta those zig-zag edges.

For the sauce, clean a pound or so of fresh tomatoes, preferably San Marzano or cherry tomatoes. (Interestingly, in Italy the larger, less tasty tomatoes are used for salads while the really tasty little ones are used to make sauce; in the U.S., we usually do the opposite!). Some people first boil all of these tomatoes for a few minutes, then cool them to take off their skins, but we just chop them all up and put it in a large saucepan with plenty of olive oil and garlic, a little bit of water and a few leaves of basil or a pinch of oregano, and let it cook down for 2 hours or so. Salt to taste, and when you’re ready to serve, garnish with plenty of chopped basil and a little more extra virgin olive oil.

Buon appetito!

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Let’s hit the beach

So, I live in a beach town and where do all the Pesarese go on vacation? To the beach. If not here in Pesaro, then a beach in Cuba, Egypt, Greece or Sardinia. I walked by a travel agency this morning—Eden Viaggi—and all the advertisements in the window were for beach vacations and all the pictures looked the same. Maybe it’s because I was never one of those people who enjoyed going on a vacation just to sunbathe (I get bored too quickly!), but I find it interesting that even people who live at the beach year-round want to escape their beach town for another. I suppose it’s the lure of the vacation and experiencing the sun, the sand and the surf of another place.  Or, perhaps the Pesarese are just true beach connoisseurs and know the best spiaggia spots around the world.

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Living off the land

This past weekend we went to San Giovanni Rotondo, Pietrelcina and Benevento, and we came home with many delicious fruits and vegetables from Michael’s relatives. It’s nice to get food fresh off the farm! Michael picked over 5 kilos of plums from his uncle’s garden and we made several jars of jam. We still have leftover sauce so I’ll have to make a plum dessert (or two).

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Spaghetti with a Lemon “Carbonara” Sauce

I have another delicious pasta recipe courtesy of chef Michael Di Giovine! I hope you’ll enjoy. His words and recipe are below:

Spaghetti with a Lemon “Carbonara” Sauce

I’m taking liberties with the title of this recipe. Although there are many variations, I believe that a true Roman carbonara is made with eggs, pancetta, and grated Pecorino Romano cheese; in addition to the lemon, this one uses heavy cream (a common yet inauthentic ‘addition’ in many restaurant carbonara sauces), and leaves out the crispy pancetta. But I saw this recipe back in springtime, when lemons were in season, in a La Cucina Italiana magazine. We made it once and it was delicious; I unfortunately sent the magazine home, but today fiddled with the recipe and this tasty version came out.

Spaghetti or bucatini pasta

3 egg yolks from medium-to-large eggs

½ cup of heavy cream

½ cup of grated Parmesan cheese

grated skin of one large lemon

fresh cracked black pepper (to taste)

fresh nutmeg (to taste)

fresh chopped parsley, thyme, and/or marjoram (to taste)

While you wait for the water to boil for the spaghetti, beat together in a bowl all the ingredients except the fresh herbs (parsley, thyme, marjoram), which will be used as a garnish. When the water is boiling, add 2 tsp of sea salt, and then the spaghetti. When the spaghetti is al dente (or however you like it), turn off the heat, drain all but a little bit of the hot water; the bottom of the pot should be just slightly wet. If you are dumping the spaghetti into a colander, be sure NOT to “wash” it with cold water; you want to keep it hot and starchy. Put the spaghetti in the colander back into the pot with the remaining hot water. Dump the sauce mixture into the spaghetti pot, and mix for a few minutes with a fork. Like a regular carbonara sauce, the heat from the spaghetti will cook the raw egg without having to re-light the stove. Serve hot, with the chopped herbs as garnish.

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