There is a reason people have flocked to la bel Paese as part of their Grand Tour in the nineteenth century and are still doing it today. Tourists gather en masse in hopes of discovering the romance, history and beauty of Italy. Blame the artists. That's right, the romantic movement in art filled the salons, galleries and the homes of the elite (who could actually afford a "Grand Tour" for a year or more) and in essence promoted the beauty of Italia. Here are a dozen of what I consider the most beautiful and romantic of this type of painting... who wouldn't want to travel to Italy after seeing the grandeur?
Gulf of Naples by moonlight by Ajvazovskij
Ponte Rotto by Hubert Robert
River Beggers by Caneletto 1780
View of the canal channel from the Ponte San Marco, by Giuseppe Canella - 1834
Ragusa, Sicily by Emil Jakob Schindler
Fireworks in Naples by Oswald Achenbach
The Shipment, by Segantini Giovanni
View from the Ponte Vecchio in Florence over the Arno, by Palladini 1862
Rome and Castel Sant Angelo by Silvestr Fedosievich Shchedrin
I stumbled across the compelling videos of Andrea Giraldo on Facebook this week. Both his Facebook page and You Tube channel share the name, Il Mio Viaggio a New York, and contain many videos of an Italian's look at tourist sites and everyday life in and around the Big Apple. He speaks in Italian, but the visuals tell his story well enough. Here are a couple of my favorites...
The first is when he visits a "Chuck and Cheese" (as he pronounced it), a kid's party and game venue for the "working class"....
The next video is his visit to a street vendor selling hot tins for lunch. As most Italians take 2-3 hours to go home for lunch (their riposa) he must be in shock with the long lines of people getting take out food from a cart and gobbling their lunches down in 10 minutes while sitting on ledges on the sidewalks of Manhattan.
Click the photo above to watch this Italia Slow Tour video on the high mountain plateau of Castelluccio in Umbria. Lentils are considered good luck when eaten on New Year's Day in Italy. This video shows how the plants were harvested in the old manner--with winnowing baskets. The variety of lentil grown in the high altitude of Castelluccio is a PGI product and is very high in iron and protein. Wath this charming older woman as she shows how to seperate the lentils from the chaff.
There are industrial creations that become iconic images in our minds and in history... the VW Beetle, the iPod, the Moka coffee pot, the Coca Cola bottle, the Fiat 500 (Cinquecento). Many have become inspiration for artists worldwide.
One more comes to mind: TheVespa motor scooter.
The classic shape of the Vespa has been around since 1946, evolving in design over the years by its parent company, Piaggio, but keeping its basic elements: a unibody with covered engine and wheels, a two-person boat-shaped seat, a flat floorboard with cyclops headlight and a fairing to protect legs from the weather.
Many use the bodies of their scooters as their canvases, while others prefer to interpret the iconic shape of the Vespa in other mediums. They have been painted, bejeweled, sculpted, photographed and made into jewelry. Right now we will take a look at the art of mosaic, where cut pieces of tiles or stone used--some mosaics created on the vehicles themselves.
Finally, there is this amazing mosaic illustration by Chris Sumka, an amazing mosaic artist from Edmundton, Alberta, Canada. Chris uses ceramic tiles and natural stone in his pieces. He often has existing creations for sale but also works on commissioned assignments.
In a land ravaged by earthquakes, floods and volcanoes from time to time, it's no wonder that in Italy, one will occasionally discover one of the many Ghost Towns...
Perched high on a rocky outcrop, with buildings precariously built under overhanging cliffs, is the beautiful remains of Pentedattilo, a village in southern Calabria. (The look of this village--tucked under dolomite cliffs--reminds me of the twin villages of Pietrapertosa and Castellmezzano we visited in Basilicata.) The village is a 45 minute drive from Reggio-Calabria. It got its name from the Byzantine word Pentedáktilos, which means five fingers, a reference to the five deep valleys surrounding the mountainous village. First inhabited in "Magna Graecia" period and then the Romans, Pentedattilo offers a wonderful view of the sea.
Being one of the oldest Ghost Towns of Italy, the town was severely damaged by an earthquake in 1783, which led to large parts of the population moving to the nearby seaside port town of Melito Porto Salvo. Today a modern-day with the same name of Pentedattilo was built on another hilltop a bit closer to the sea. The residents still attend Catholic services in the restored Chiesa dei Pietro e Paolo (Church of Saints Peter and Paul) standing proudly against the threat of Nature under the cliffs in the old town.
After some restoration in the 1980s, the old village today has a few new residents, although many ruins still sit without roofs, windows or doors just waiting for the Voyager with camera to capture its haunting beauty and solitude. Oddly enough, the village becomes the site of the International Pentedattilo Film Festival... with appropriate their motto, "Don't be a Ghost".
It's simple, really. My Mother grew up in a poor immigrant Italian family in Hoboken. I'm sure her Neapolitan parents passed on this tradition. When you're poor in Italy, you are superstitious about money so you tend to push luck on your side with certain traditions. You would eat coin shaped lentils on New Year's Day, for instance. My Mother taught me that putting a pile of coins--whatever you happen to be carrying in your pocket at the end of the year--on the windowsill will guarantee that you have money all year long.
One rule: Put the coins out before midnight.
Felice Anno Nuovo!
Postscript: Years ago when I lived in my loft/studio in the Flatiron district of Manhattan, I used to have my windows washed by professional window-washers. You know the kind... they clip their safety belts on to lugs outside of the commercial building windows, then lean back over the void to soap up, clean and then squeegie the windows clean. I had a 50 foot long wall of 10 foot tall windows running along the front of my sixth floor loft. Once a month, they would clean the city grime off the windows and suddenly the front of the studio would seem a lot brighter.
One year, in a cold January, I noticed that the years of accumulated nickels, dimes, pennies and quarters were gone! There must have been $20-30 in coins out there. I figured one of my window-washers must have needed it more than I did...
...unless it was those notorious, thieving Flying Rats of New York--the pigeons! --Jerry Finzi
When I was a kid, I just loved toast with butter. My Dad had a special way of making it. Although we had a "normal" electric toaster, Dad would pull out his old-fashioned, four slice toaster gizmo and place it over one of the gas burners of our cooker. There was something special about the taste and texture of toast made like that... more blackened spots here and there, more smokey tasting and although the bread was crunchy on the outside, the bread stayed moist inside.
When we Voyaged to Italy, we discovered an Italian kitchen tool that brought back memories of my father's special, stove-top toaster--the brustolina. Nothing more than a simply designed sheet metal device with holes on one side and a wire rack on the top side and a retractable wire handle to make storing in a kitchen drawer or on a shelf practical. You lay the brustolina on top of a burner on your stovetop with the wire grid on top and then place your bread for toasting. Flip the bread by had to toast the second side. Simple.
Brustolina, tostapane, and graticola are common names for this kitchen staple throughout Italy. Virtually every kitchen has one. The Venetian word brustolina is a derivative of brustolar, meaning toast or roast, and can also mean toasted pumpkin seeds. Tostapane is the Italian word for a bread toaster, and graticola is the word for a grill or grate. One brand name is La Gratella.
A brustolina has many uses: grilling slices of polenta, toasting thick slabs of Tuscan bread for bruschetta, roasting peppers, eggplant or zucchini, or heating up slices of pizza, focaccia or cornetto and other sweet breakfast rolls.
The Brustolina with its wire handle retracted
Here are some ideas...
Use the brustolina over any kind of stove-top, electric or gas.
Cover with foil when roasting peppers, eggplant that might mess up the wire grid.
Adjust your heat source to warm or cook.
Simply place over your stove with the grill side up
Place slices of food on the grill
Monitor the underside of the food for desired doneness
Turn over the food to toast or heat the other side
The wide handle can get hot! Use a potholder.
Your Brustolina will darken with use. This is normal.
A well aged Brustolina
Place the toasted food under cover to keep warm before serving.
When you’re done, let the brustolina cool, then just turn it upside down to shake out breadcrumbs. You can use a dry stiff brush for any remaining crumbs. The grid is not removable.
Grill bread for bruschetta or crostini.
Thaw bread and other baked goods.
Add more crunch to bread, rolls, croissants, etc.
Add crisp to polenta
Roast peppers, zucchini, eggplant and other vegetables
This tradition has its roots in the Middle Ages when superstitions (and the plague) ran rampant, many promising to cure a person of his ills or perhaps bring good fortune and love. Red represents passion, blood flowing through your bod and thus life itself. It's no wonder that most red-blooded, passionate Italians bring in the New Year by wearing red undies... but I wonder how many of them stick to the tradition of throwing away the undergarments just as the New Year commences. (How would one accomplish this?)
So, whether playing Tombola (Italian Bingo, read more HERE), dancing it up at a party, watching the fireworks in the Piazza or from your own balcony, don't forget the sausage, lentils and the red underwear! Felice anno nuovo!
Italian fireworks are very special and well known for two main reasons: their exemplary quality and the intensity of their colors.
Around 1292, when Marco Polo was alive and actively trading European goods for Eastern merchandise, he brought back with him a mysterious black powder. This powder could somehow miraculously explode when ignited, so (as you might expect) it was immediately put to military use throughout Europe. The Italians, however, found a much more creative use for this extraordinary powder and created the first European fireworks with it. During Europe’s Renaissance (approximately 1400–1500 AD), the Italians further improved and developed their fireworks and turned chemical explosions into a consummate art form.
First of all, New Year's Eve is called Capodanno in Italy... and Fireworks are called Fuochi d'Artificio...
In 1830, advances in science and a much better understanding of chemistry in southern Italy made it possible to create flammable powders that would burn in different colors. For the first time, fireworks could be red, green, blue or even yellow! Ongoing research during the 19th century by both the Italians and Germans made newer and more vibrant colors possible, and it has continued ever since. During the last decade, pyrotechnic chemists have even gone one step further: they have managed to make pyrotechnic chemical reacts so they explode in colors as unusual as magenta, orange, aquamarine, lemon-yellow and even turquoise!
As for the shells that deliver these chemical wonders: In Italy the cylindrical shell is the most popular. (The Chinese and Japanese prefer spherical shells). Unlike spherical shells, however, cylindrical shells don’t have to be categorized as multi–break shells, even though they may contain a single-effect, like a willow, peony or a peony with reports.
Reports and salutes play a very important role in Italian culture–particularly during their religious festivals. Unlike may other parts of the world, daylight shows are very popular there, and they are filled with single-effect and/or multi-break shells. Color, of course, plays a much more important role during the evening displays; whereas the daylight displays are all about rhythm, and those rhythms are created using a variety of salutes, reports and colored smoke shells.
Italian shows generally contains three parts: the opening (apertura), the show itself (with the “fermata” shells), and a pré–final (the “giapponesata”) with the final happening immediately afterwards. Timing is critical for both the evening and daylight displays. The final is somewhat comparable to the way a train starts off slowly but increasingly gains speed, power and intensity.
As you might expect, most of the major competitions and displays are fired during religious feasts and festivals to honor local saints who protect the villages, towns and people living in each city. Generally, most of the larger competitions and festivals take place in southern Italy. Some locations and dates of some of the bigger festivals:
Cicciano in the province of Naples, Sant’ Antonio Abate, in January .
Cimitile in the province of Naples, San Felice in Pincis, in January .
Rapallo in the province of Genua, Santa Maria Del Campo, in July .
Scorrano in the province of Lecce, Santa Domenica, in July .
Vibonati in the province of Salerno, Sant’ Antonio Abate, in January .
Adelfia in the province of Bari, San Trifone Martire, in November .
Trecastagni in the province of Sicily, Festa di Sant’ Alfio Filadelfo e Cirino, in May.
During these fireworks competitions and religious festivals, several different companies (sometimes six or more) compete in the daylight festivities and then again during the evening competitions. If you want to see large multi-break shells and admire professionalism and exquisite artistic technique–southern Italy is the place to see it! Of course, there are a myriad of other magnificent shells (particularly characteristic of Italy’s pyrotechnic arts) displayed here as well.
The Real Deal on Italian Fireworks by Jerry Finzi
The video below is about Molfetta, where my father was born. This illustrates the typical News Year's Eve in Italy... local ordinances tend to ban fireworks but people buy them anyway and set them off on the streets of their towns--not on their own properties in rural areas (like here in the U.S.), but right on the streets of big and small cities alike. It's mayhem and chaos with explosions everywhere. Check out the video of Naples above and notice that the fireworks are going off everywhere--not in one organized, permitted location. I'm sure if you could look at the whole of Italy from space at midnight on December 31st, you'd see pulsing lights going off all over The Boot.
Over the past four years, illegal fireworks have resulted in four deaths and 1,950 injured. Last year, 561 were injured, including 76 children under 12 years of age. The animal rights groups claim that each year about 5,000 deaths of animals are caused by stress or accidents arising from fireworks.
As is typical for Italy, the laws vary from town to town and region to region. In general, no one under 18 can buy fireworks. They also are not allowed to be set off in public spaces, but it's obvious that the police are lax in their enforcement of the laws.
So, if you are in Italy this Capodanno (literally, the Head of the Year), be careful. Fireworks will start going off all over the city or village you are in... and we're not just talking about a few small firecrackers, either. I've seen videos of the type of rockets meant to go skyward shooting across a large piazza at ground level into a crowd!
Stay safe and Felice Anno Nuovo!
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Wrinkled skin, warts, black shawl, flying broomstick... sounds scary, right? Such a witch on a flying broom would strike fear in the hearts of most children, but not in Italy, and not on January 6th, the Epiphany (Epifania in Italian) .
This witch--la Befana--comes down chimneys and leaves gifts for children. And if they've been bad, she'll leave a lump of black coal... but she's usualy compelled to leave a black sugar lump rather than real coal. She's that good!
Since the 13th century, La Befana has been leaving her presents in children's stockings, but her story goes back much further than that. La Befana was stopped by the Three Wise Men and asked her to lead them to the manger and stable where baby Jesus was born. La Befana was so nasty and shoved them away without helping. But seeing the Christmas Star in the sky, she was drawn to find the reason for their quest and brought her own gifts for the Baby Jesus. Although she followed the Star, she wandered without finding Him. To this day, she flies around the world in search of that special child, and just in case she misses him, she leaves gifts for each and every child to make up for her past indiscretion.
In just about every town in Italy there will be celebrations, feasts, parades, marching bands, flying witches, floating witches, puppet witches and witches brooms and black cats everywhere...
On January 6, children will find their stockings filled with presents... and also discover that all too suddenly (at least to an Italian child), the Christmas season comes to a close. Some slices of sweet panettone, a cup of cioccolata calda, and playing a few rounds oftombola with the famiglia after playing with their new toys, and this magical Natale season tucks gently into their lifelong memories...
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Everyone loves to bake, eat and share Italian Christmas cookies during the holiday season, which in Italy is quite long. To get you all the way through to the Ephipany on January 8th, here is a list of the 10 best--along with links to authentic recipes from Italy...
Le Nevole: A spiced, grape must type of rolled wafer from Ortona, Abruzzo. Must is simply the crushed grapes used in the fermentation of wine. You can simply pulse some red seedless grapes in a blender as a substitute. RECIPE
Struffoli: This is perhaps one of the most popular Christmas cookies known to most Italian-Americans. Italians in southern Italy inherited this recipe from the Greeks, after all, southern Italy was originally Magna Grecia--part of the Greek culture way before the Romans. They are small fried balls covered with honey and sprinkles, often piled into a little mountain. RECIPE
Zaletti: This biscotto gets its name from the Venetian dialect word for yellow--zálo. They are yellow from the stone ground corn flour they are made from. This is a very ancient peasant recipe which typically contains raisins soaked in either grappa or some other spirit, then dusted with powdered sugar. They are eaten with a sweet dessert wine or with espresso in the morning. RECIPE
Baci di Dama: These "Lady Kisses" from Piedmont are made with hazelnuts, almonds and either milk or dark chocolate--or some of each. Two small dome shaped cookies are glued together to form pursed lips ready to kiss. RECIPE
Occhi di Santa Lucia: As a boy I loved these crunchy, sugar glazed treats at my Grandmother's apartment in Hoboken. A Pugliese specialty, the Eyes of Saint Lucia are essentially tarelli, a hard bagel-like biscuit popular on Santa Lucia Day on December 13th. They differ from tarelli by the addition of white wine and the snow-white glaze.
Cuccidati: Cucciddato(also, Buccellati)is filled, shaped biscotto made in Sicily during the Christmas season. They are stuffed with dried figs, raisins, orange peel, honey, chocolate and dried fruit. They can be small, but can also be donut sized and can be made as a large ring torta. The traditional nut used are pistachios, but walnuts or almonds can also be used. RECIPE
Mostaccioli: These chocolate covered, spiced biscuits are essentially the gingerbread of southern Italy. The recipes can vary greatly, but usually contain some sort of holiday spices like cinnamon and nutmeg, citrus and perhaps wine must (the root of the name). They can be hard or softer depending on the regional recipe, with the hardest recipes being used to create shaped mostaccioli (animals, religious figures, etc.) . The most popular shape for home bakers is a diamond or rhombus. RECIPE
Bocconotti: (Calzoncelli) From Puglia, a land where almond groves are abundant, comes this tasty fried biscotti filled with almond paste. RECIPE
Palline di Mandorla all’Arancia: (Orange-almond balls) This Sicilian recipe couldn't be simpler... almonds ground into a flour, orange juice and liquor, sugar. An elegant, pop-in-your-mouth bit of Sicily.
Biscotti occhio di bue: (Bull's Eye Biscotti) This is an extremely popular and widespread Christmas cookin in Italy. It consists of two cookies with jam in between, the top cookie with an "eye" cut out of its middle. Although jam is traditional, many are filled with Nutella. RECIPE
I hope you enjoy making these recipes. You might have to do some metric conversions but the slight trouble will be worth it.
Greccio is a small town near Rieti, where St Francis conceived the first living nativity scene ever made in history, in 1223. To keep this tradition alive, the inhabitants of Greccio recreate this live nativity scene every year since 1973, a great event one might participate during Christmas time.
Experience the Italian lifestyle, heritage, cuisine, art, music, language and traditions, while learning how our own Grand Voyage to Italy affected our lives back at home--per sempre--forever. Andiamo, take a Grand Voyage with us...