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Italy Travel Tips
As the old adage goes, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do," and when I ate in Italy, I tried to behave like a native. I liked to think that I belonged there, that I didn't stand out like the touristi because I insisted in eating only at the smaller, family-run trattorias. There you can get the best of the region's cooking while blending with the natives as you bask in the flavors and culture of their life. One way to accomplish this is to familiarize yourself with Italian eating customs.
Italians eat only two main meals a day. They generally skip what we and Britons consider breakfast and opt for a cup of cappuccino. Lots of milk in coffee is definitely a morning ritual for Italians.
I'd like to offer some advice for savoring an Italian meal. First, don't be tempted to nibble on that gelato or cannoli during the day if you are planning to enjoy the experience of a full Italian lunch or dinner. This is a memorable occasion for your palate and realize that eating is done with great pleasure and gusto.
Second, if you do decide to dine Italian style, don't rush through your courses: learn the art of slowly savoring your meal over a bottle or two of wine and good conversation. Italians take great pleasure in serving people the food they lovingly prepare, especially foreigners who are learning about their country. If you charge through a meal as if you have a plane to catch you are insulting the restaurant chef and staff and are considered gauche. You will very likely be dealt with accordingly. So, relax and enjoy one of life's greatest pleasures and one of Italy's many great accomplishments!
One more word of advice: Italians usually eat their dinner later than Americans do. Plan on getting to your restaurant (at the earliest) by 7pm. I made the embarrassing mistake of walking into a trattoria solo at 5 pm because I was hungry. I found the restaurant was enjoying its family meal with the staff before beginning the evening's work. Of course they were gracious and charming and hopped up from their dinner table and prepared me my meal but I couldn't help feeling guilty as I ate knowing that I cut short one of the favorite parts of their day.
The Festivals of Italy
With a culture so steeped in religion, history, the arts, food and even superstition, it should not come as much of a surprise that Italians have found an opportunity to celebrate at least one (if not several) festivals each month of the year. This is fortunate as a traveler can experience Italy's culture and history. This list is certainly not complete and dates may be slightly altered from season to season.
Epiphany celebrations all through Italy in early January (5-6).
Shrovetide carnivals, similar to our Mardi Gras, are pre-Lenten celebrations, they tend to be especially boisterous in Venice.
Holy week and Easter celebrations throughout Italy, particularly beautiful in Rome where the Pope leads a procession on Good Friday.
Jazz festival in Milan.
Palio Balestra (medieval crossbow contest on horseback) using antique weapons held in Gubbio.
Historical regatta of the four Ancient Maritime Republics involving boat race between rival sea towns of Pisa, Venice, Amalfi and Genoa. Spoleto's world famous arts festival is held in June.
The Umbria Jazz festival is held every July in Perugia and is one of the most popular festivals in Italy.
The medieval Palio festival where ancient clothed riders race bareback around the town's square in Sienna (held both months).
Jousting performed by Saracen, dressed in ancient suits of armor held in Arezzo. Italian Grand Prix held in Monza.
Truffle hunts, market and fair held in Alba. Feast of St. Francis held in Assisi.
Sigillo festival: A wine and chestnut event held in San Martino.
La Scala opera season opens with great fanfare in Milan.
Places to Stay
Central Italy conjures up the quintessential classic Italian accommodations that we all dream about: the Italian villa perched high above the rolling Tuscan hills of chianti or a seventeenth-century castle set above panoramic views that afford you miles and miles of horseback riding pleasure. Sounds too good to be true? Hardly! There are many companies that specialize in just this sort of accommodation.
Rentvillas is the largest vacation home rental company in Italy. It is an example of one of the many companies that specialize in a complete rental service of villas, ancient restored castles and charming stone farmhouses in Tuscany. But the service doesn't stop there. There is a comprehensive and informative, color picture-filled catalogue of the elegant, historic and gracious accommodations that she offers in Veneto, Tuscany, Umbria, Lazio, Apulia and Sicily. You can choose to spend your holiday exploring the Tuscan countryside by day and relaxing in front of a roaring medieval castle fire by night or opt for an elegant, stylish urban apartment in Florence that is close to the heart of the city. Either way, you areassured of personalized service that fits your needs. At peak season, which extends from April through October, you can rent a splendid country residence for an average cost of $1250 per week for 3-4 people. This price includes all the amenities of a country manor and then some. An apartment in a metropolitan area will be approximately $1000 per week for 1-3 people. Country living requires a car. Minimum stay runs one week from Saturday to Saturday. For information:
700 East Main Street
Ventura, CA 93001
Cooking Vacations in Italy
The purpose of this section is to acquaint you with a few of the lesser known culinary vacation schools that deserve merit. Certainly there are many schools to list, and quite a number of these boast "star chefs" and cookbook authors. It is not my intent to promote an already well known school but to offer a more moderately priced yet thoroughly enjoyable alternative in different regions of Italy. This is a delightful way to learn more about the Italian culture. Through cooking and on conducted tours you often can talk first hand to cheese makers, vintners, and pasta makers while learning the history of the region. The cost for one-week cooking classes and accommodations is between $3000-$4000. This does not include airfare but may include meals, excursions and ground transportation to/from the airport. Check with each school for more details.
La Cucina Al Focolare -- Reggello, Tuscany
Located in a converted 15th century friary, which produces its own Chianti and olive oil, this school overlooks the Valdarno Valley on the outskirts of Florence. I have had the pleasure of speaking to this staff and found them to be effusive in their love for Tuscany. As a chef by profession, I believe I would find this cuisine, the school and its surroundings to be the most desirable way to spend a week in Italy. They offer a week-long course in Tuscan cooking, wine tastings and tours through the outdoor markets and towns of the Tuscan countryside. Participants work side-by-side with the top local chefs and the resident sommelier. A wood-burning oven and rotisserie are used to learn the Tuscan way of cooking pizza, foccacia, meats and game. Classes are limited in size so you receive very attentive, personalized direction. Conducted in the spring and fall.
Peggy Markel, Director
PO Box 646 Boulder, Colorado 80306
Italian Country Cooking
Classes with Diana Folonari -- Positano, Campania
Classes are held in the Folonari home situated on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean. A limit of 12 students are enrolled in the class and you will learn Italian cuisine using vegetables, pasta, fruits, veal, fowl and fish. Classes are held in the early summer and fall.
E& M Associates
211 E. 43rd St., New York, NY 10017
Telephone: (800)223-9832 or (212)599-8280
Cookery Courses at Regaleali -- Palermo, Sicily
Classes are also limited to 12 students. Courses on Sicilian rustic food are taught in the morning and afternoons are spent visiting the archeological sites in the area or learning the Regaleali estate's production of wine, ricotta cheese and breads. Classes are held in the ancestral Regaleali home in spring and late fall. Local and guest chefs preside.
Marchesa Anna Tasca Lanza
Viale Principessa Giovanna, 9
90149, Palermo, Italy
I hope you realize that, to truly experience life as an Italian, you must succumb to the lure of its culture, the dominating force of its antiquity, the contagious mood of romance in the air and the passions of its people. Forget your phones, your newspapers and your television -- leave these at home and surrender yourself to the gentle, persuasive rhythm that flows like a current in Italy. Indulge in an espresso and engage in the idle cafe chatter with the locals. You may find yourself caught in Italy's magic spell and may never want to leave.
Italian Neighborhoods in the United States
If you can't manage a trip to Italy in the near future, then treat yourself to the next best thing by visiting an Italian neighborhood in or near your city. You can get the flavors and culture and many products of Italy without spending a lot of money. These Italian sections developed during the late 1800's and early 1900's when many poorer Italians relocated to America because of their homeland's starving economy and the dreams and promises of a more peaceful and prosperous life. These are a fiercely proud, close knit, hard working race of people who made a good life for themselves and their families despite the language, cultural, and socio-economic barriers existing for immigrants. This list of "Little Italys" is not meant to be all inclusive but more a representation of Italian sections across the nation. You'll notice the majority of people opted to settle on the east coast.
Boston, Massachusetts: The North End
Bordered by Commercial Street and the J.F. Kennedy Highway, this area is surrounded by brick and stone warehouses and the docks of Boston's old harbor. Packed in the narrow, small streets are an abundance of red brick and painted houses, restaurants and trattorias, cafe bars, shops and a seemingly never-ending selection of Italian food shops. The blending of residential and commercial works well here. This Italian section has many religious processions.
New York, NY: Little Italy
Mulberry and Mott Streets make up the heart of this Italian section, affectionately dubbed "Little Italy." Located south of Houston Street (pronounced Howston) and butting against Chinatown, this area was originally a stronghold of southern Italians, particularly Neapolitans, Calabrians and Sicilians. Full of cafes and espresso bars, religious stores, little shops, wonderful restaurants and small specialty food stores. In the latter, you will find shop owners hanging their freshly-made mozzarella, rolling out their country loaves of bread, stuffing their sausages and pinching off pieces of home made dough to make the many shaped pastas. As in Boston, these Italians are strongly tied to their religious heritage and hold many processions in the streets of "Little Italy."
Pennsylvania: South Philly
Bounded by Front, 20th, Washington and South Streets, this is very noticeably a working class neighborhood. People recognize this Italian section from the movie Rocky. Cafes and espresso bars abound. The heart of this area is the Ninth Street Italian Market where you can by anything Italian -- from fresh produce and imported cheeses to clothing and shoes. In the fall and winter you can smell the delicious earthy aroma of roasting Italian chestnuts. Full of great restaurants, trattorias and food stores, this section also indulges in colorful and festive religious processions.
Located on Liberty Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenues, this section also includes "The Strip." Though it began as a mixture of many regions of Italy, Bloomfield is now composed of Abruzze people. You can see this influence in the shops where typical Abruzze products and foods are sold. The patron saint of this region, Saint Rocco, is honored in August by the festival to attend. The area offers good restaurants, cafes and a few excellent Italian food shops.
St. Louis, Missouri: The Hill
Near S. Kings Highway and Shaw Blvd., this area has been said to resemble Rome, Italy. Many great trattorias, food stores and restaurants offer a lively and colorful slice of Italian life.
San Francisco, California: North Beach
Built around Washington Square in the north section of town, this Italian area is large and convivial. Jam-packed with cafes and authentic espresso bars and their well trained baristas, this Italian section tends to be a haven for the writer, the neighborhood resident and the tourist alike. Composed of northern and southern Italians, a tour of the area offers a huge variety of food shops, kitchen-ware shops, trattorias, and obscure little shops on upper Grant Street that offer handmade clothing and leather coats, unusual fabrics, eclectic jewelry and kitschy vintage wear that will delight the browser. The area's 150,000 residents share space with the commercial tenants. It borders San Francisco's Chinatown.