Sunday, May 31, 2015

Where To Eat in Florence (the Update)

OK, a long, long time ago I wrote a post about where to eat in Florence. And I'm more than happy to update it now.

Full disclosure, before we go any further: I'm talking about Florence, Italy. Not Florence, S.C. OK, OK, here we go.

I wasn't there very long so I only have a few places to recommend. But I think you will like them. And in an unusual move, they are all places I'd never been before.

Trattoria Cammillo

Don't trust me with recommendations? Va bene. Trust The New York Times, which has reviewed this spot on Borgo San Iacopo very favorably several times. Not enough? OK, Beyonce and Jay Z were there last week. Ci siamo?

It's really your classic old-school trattoria. White table cloths, a touch of fancy, the thought that an important Italian dignitary might be in a corner table. Walls covered with art, the industrial coffee maker in a corner, just inside the door. Waiters in classic service garb. And the food is lovely.

I ate one of the best pasta dishes I've had in a while: paccheri sul coniglio. Paccheri pasta in a stewed rabbit sauce.

Plus a lovely glass of Vino Nobile, which was the "degustazione" of the evening. That was a new one for me.

Alex, my very lovely dining companion, had bistecca alla fiorentina (which you can see above).

Cento Poveri

This is a good, tried and true Florentine trattoria not far from Piazza Santa Maria Novella. Feeling a bit gluttonous (which in Italian sounds much less sinful: golosa), I ordered a plate of pasta: pici al granchio (in photo above). Pici, a type of thick, long pasta with a large piece of crab settled on top and quite delicious, once I'd managed to extricate its essential goodness from its hard shell (like so many other things that come in hard shells).

I also had a really lovely cheese plate.

And I found the prices to be giusti, and despite the location (on Via Palazzuolo) -- really a stone's throw from Tourist Central.

Alle Murate

In some ways you could say this is an odd ball. A former prison that's now really a cultural space as much as it is a restaurant and bar.

I had a plate of prosciutto crudo (which, in Italy, can almost never fail) followed by a lovely salad, plus the company of an even lovelier former roommate, Irene.

Besides what I ate, what's more important is that this place be on your radar as a punto di referimento. There are gallery openings, concerts, lectures, all sorts of cultural activities going on here that merit your attention or really anyone's attention. This week alone, there will be dance performances by Italian, Korean and Japanese artists.

Also: Near my favorite part of Florence: Piazza Sant'Ambrogio.

So, buon appetito!

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Rome Notebook (An Italian Walks Into a Bar)

3:30 p.m. May 13, 2015.

I'll call this post: The difference between Rome and Florence: Take One

In a nondescript bar across from the Campidoglio/Monumento Alla Patria, I find a mix of tourists and Romans but the bar remains quintessentially Italian. It should be totally overrun by tourists, it should have no Italian identity left. If it were in Florence in the same kind of location, it would be the worst place to stop for a snack.

An Italian walks in, carrying a motorcycle helmet and wearing a tan fishing-style vest that’s popular among men in Italy. He exchanges one look with the barista, and tutto e’ inteso. Everything is clear.

The look from the barista says, “Oh finally you’re here!” and “What a day we’re having!” The look from the regular – because it’s clear from the first second, the way he walked in, the way he surveyed the bar and looked at the bartender that he’s a regular – says, “Do you see what I’m saying?” and “Can you believe that?” Where both parties know exactly what “that” refers to.

All without uttering a word. A few helpful Italian hand gestures, the jutting out of the chin, an “O!” or two, and everything is clear between these two.

This is the kind of drama that draws me in. It’s the everyday drama of Italy. I eat my schiacchiata with prosciutto crudo and I stare at the two expectantly. Go on. It’s getting interesting.

5 p.m., the same day

I’m on the fifth floor of my tiny, nothing-special hotel, gasping and gaping at a tiny rooftop deck whose view takes in a large, stately cupola and a dozen or more private rooftop decks, some with flowers, some with laundry. All with the majestic silence of Rome from the air, broken only by the neighborhood church bells, chiming out 5 o’ clock.

It’s exactly how I thought it would be. The trip, I mean. If I arrived safe and sound, and at my hotel in fairly decent shape (i.e., slept a few hours on the plane), I’d be quickly satiated, which is to say happy. And I’m not fussy. I don’t need a parade. I only need Rome to be Rome.

That said, I think Rome forgets sometimes it’s Rome (if a city can be said 'to think'. Which it can't. But suspend disbelief for a moment). One tiny, two-second glimpse of the rooftop deck – I'm still climbing the stairs, still tentatively opening the door – and then suddenly an enormous cupola is filling my vision field. I'm on top of the world. Absolutely stunning.

Rome thinks this is normal! Because it is – for Rome.

The Eternal City? Check.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Rome, afternoon, 14 May 2015

Jeanne Shops In Italy (My Top Picks)

OK, here are my favorite purchases from Italy earlier this month:
The coffee cup with the Palazzo Vecchio design. A must-have! Notice the green moka in the background. I couldn't resist. You can never have too many moka coffee pots. And besides as Leo says, "Green is our favorite color, Mommy!"

Placemats. OK, we use a lot of placemats at our house. And it's an everyday way to keep a little bit of Italy in my life.

For the little, future Mario Andretti in your life.

The most incredible tote bag I have ever seen! A tote bag with pithy little sayings about all the wonderful things one should do in one's life and they're all in Italian? Ding ding ding that's a gift for Ciambellina.

And as I mentioned in a previous post, I stocked up on my Elena Ferrante titles. What a twisted book cover this is, no? Well, I suppose, ci mancherebbe. Some of what she writes is a bit twisted.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Why People Fall In Love With Italy (And In Italy)

It rarely fails. Tell someone I used to live in Italy and the swooning commences.

And these days, right after the person I’m talking to swoons, he or she launches into tales about upcoming or recently-completed trips to Italy.
Americans are in love with Italy. And understandably so. It’s a country of such exquisite beauty – not hidden, not at certain times of the year or limited to one particular feature or area – that you’d have to be somewhat immune to human charms in general to resist.

As it turns out, we can map some of the reasons we all love Italy.

1. The country is actually organized.

Hard to believe, right? You tried ordering a coffee at a caffe in Italy during peak morning hours and felt as though you were at the running of the bulls. Or worse, you rented a car in Italy. Yikes!

But it’s organized around public transportation, and divided, for the traveler at least, into two neat spheres of interest: country and city. To be sure, Italians themselves often live in drab, modern apartment blocks in the suburbs. But visitors are able to move fairly quickly and easily on the public transport system between stunning cities and the gorgeous Italian countryside to take in the best in urban and rural life.

2. Rituals remain at the center of Italian life.

Italian life is still dictated by rituals, and delightfully so. There’s a time of the day, week, year or season to do something.

And many Italian rituals are ours for the taking. You can do your own evening passeggiata, strolling past shop windows and stopping to admire the view or chat with someone. You can browse the flower stalls at the market or order un’etto of prosciutto crudo (but don’t slice it too thin, please). You can learn when to order a cappuccino and when to limit yourself to an espresso.

Italians. The people who not only invented the phrase buon appetito, but also a specific corresponding response: grazie, altrettanto!

3. What a visual culture it is!

It’s a visual culture. They understood #travelpics and click-bait long before the Internet arrived. My recent trip to Florence and Rome left me astounded by the gorgeous flowers tucked into every crevice. Gelsomina spilling over the walls of the city, geraniums hanging in flower pots, and quite a few other plants I can’t even identify. I, too, have house plants and tend flowers on a veranda. But they look nothing like this.

And don’t get me started on shop windows. The Italians are geniuses at arranging shop windows (along with the prices, thank you very much). So well-organized are Italian shop windows that they lure even someone like me, a confirmed non-shopper, into all kinds of stores.

They still live life outdoors -- unlike most Americans.

4. Italians are born communicators -- and remain so.

During my visit, my Italian friends expressed the same concerns I have about our digital culture, and the cult of the devices we have in our pockets, or really in front of our faces all day and all night. But, I can see, even in just the short while I touched down in Italy, that if given the chance, Italians would still prefer to talk to people face to face. Why else would the Italian coffee bar exist? They can make coffee at home.

And thank God they don't because there's nothing more entertaining than watching them as they kvetch with the barista over the partita or politics!

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Signs You're In Italy

I went to Italy, as I’ve said, to rediscover the ways Il Bel Paese has thoroughly enchanted me and millions of others. Enchant, perhaps, may not be the right word. Maybe I’ll use the word that I wrote in my first post – beguile. Because Italy can be just as maddening as it is beautiful.

So, here are some signs you might just be in Italy:

*When I get into the taxi that will take me from the airport in Rome to my hotel, the temperature is above 80 degrees but the taxi driver has the windows cracked open only slightly, and the AC is decidedly not accesa (not on). To his credit, he offers to turn it on. But I want Rome to be Rome – and that means putting up with the heat in the old way.

*I’m raising or lowering something called a saracinesca. It’s a slatted, wooden window screen that works like a pulley. Oh what a racket it makes! The sound of it going up or down – and the wooden slats banging against each other – is part of the soundtrack of Italy.

*The tripe food cart vendor is doing a killing

*In a taxi ride back from a friend's house in Rome, the driver is blaring the Juventus game on the radio. When a key goal is scored, I notice him pumping his fist, and when I look up in the rear view window, I see he's trying to catch my eye. That goal? It's something he wants to celebrate WITH me. OK. Forza Juventus!

*I walk into a coffee bar off of Campo dei Fiori in Rome only to find the largest ciambellina I’ve ever seen, which I devour to the sounds of Gianna Nannini’s “I Maschi” (I love that song!) and the comments of the bartender who’s talking over the previous night’s Juventus game with a regular.

*The door key to any place I’m staying is tricky enough that it might overwhelm the CIA

*At the airport in Rome, there's an initial security check, after which you receive plastic bags for your phone cords, which is followed by check-in, and then the actual security screening. And just when you think you're ready to relax at your gate, you realize you have to take a shuttle bus to the terminal.

*You think we need one more? You think we need one more. OK: one more (to steal one of my favorite movie lines). And so let it be an omnibus: I know I’m in Italy because I’m walking everywhere, observing everything, game for anything; church bells are ringing; if it's Sunday, men are walking with their families while pressing portable radios to their ears to catch the partita; young couples are lavishing affection on each other while perched precariously on motorini and everywhere I look, there's something stimulating my brain in unexpected ways.

Also, every few seconds, I hear a man yell out, "O!" (The Italian way of saying, "Hey there.")

Monday, May 25, 2015

Ponte Vecchio, Florence, 7 p.m., 17 May 2015

At that hour, my spot along the Lungarno was the best place to enjoy the bridge, packed as it was with tourists and sunset-seekers taking in an impromptu concert.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

What I Bought in Italy (Hint: Not Leather Goods)

Well, first and foremost, books. I bought tons of books while I was in Italy. Just ask my shoulder.

I bought two hardbacks of the remaining Elena Ferrante novels I have not read.

A book of interviews with famous Italians about the state of the country. A picture book for Leo about "Pimpa" (an Italian cartoon dog) going to Florence, and learning about Dante and Florentine history.

The Paolo Giordano novel that's gained success, in translation, in America.

But other things, too.

A brown shoulder bag with the Vespa logo. Magnets. Because you need them. For your fridge. No?

Placemats. Because they have Italian words on them. A t-shirt. (Because it has Italian words on it. Are you sensing a pattern? I bought the books for that reason, too, ahem). A sunny orange Fiat 500 t-shirt for our little driver.

I look at my haul of Italian treats, and honestly I feel a little guilty. So much consumption! But on the other hand, I was catching up. A 10-year absence from Florence is no small hiatus. And besides, after posting photos here of the gifts Mike has brought back for me from Italy for years, this is the first time I can build a "shrine" of my favorite Italian things that consists entirely of items I bought. Because I was there! There, in Italy! Me!

The real souvenirs, arguably, are the ones lining my pockets and the bottom of the suitcase. The scontrini – receipts – from all of the ciambelline, and cappuccini and books and bus tickets and magazines and snacks I bought. I know from experience that they truly remain long after the actual items have disappeared, been consumed or wear out from overuse. They're distinctive because they're different from American receipts and often of uniform size and rendering. They tell a tale of where I’ve been. (In fact, I find Italian receipts everywhere in our house.)

Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough time to buy the everyday things Italians buy, and which I bought when I lived in Florence. House shoes, for example. Biscotti from the supermarket – not fancy, not actually intended for Vin Santo – rather, the ones for breakfast. Or saffron. Or a type of bean called "giganti" that Mike wanted for a recipe.

Va bene, pace, maybe next time. Whenever that may be. And may it be very soon!

Thursday, May 21, 2015

A Girl’s Gotta Eat (Everything in Italy)

Is it wrong to say I didn’t eat everything I wanted to eat in Italy? That I left, wanting more? I suppose, who doesn't.

(I also left with an ungodly number of books and yet I still wanted to buy more!)

Of course, I had a mental list of the things I had to eat. And topping that list:

A ciambellina.

Not just any ciambellina. A fresh one. An airy one. An obscenely large one, or just simply, a very good one. With just the right amount of sugar crystals dusting the top.

There’s a reason it’s the name of this damn blog. These donutesque delights (above left) are the best pastries you can possibly put in your mouth. Especially if you like something that’s uncomplicated and pure. And honestly I would say that’s the essence of Italian cooking: not fussy, not overloaded with a thousand ingredients or dependent on some tricky sauce or filling. Just the genuine article.

I also ate a lot of savory foods, too, of course. Here's a partial list:

Pici al granchio (in photo above; pici is a type of thick spaghetti often found in Siena and granchio, well, just ask Leo. It's crab); Fiori di zucca fritti; prosciutto crudo; paccheri sul coniglio (photo at top); a selection of cheeses one evening as a second (which included a lovely gorgonzola, of course, that when spread on a piece of crusty Italian bread became a snack worthy of the Medici), crostini with chicken fat and carmellized onions, and so on.

Oh and gelato. Nocciola, of course, the only gusto worth my time (even if the others are pretty good, hazelnut ice cream? You kidding me? Bring another coppetta over here, right quick please!)

And I could have eaten a lot more. I didn't get around to having anything with cinghiale -- wild boar -- which amounts to a felony in some parts of Tuscany. I also didn't have suppli (or arancini) in Rome, which produces a pretty good fried rice ball, if you ask me.

I also didn't have a Conca D'Oro, or enough red wine or fettunta with pomodorini or spaghetti alla carbonara or spezzatino (stew).

But I guess that will have to be for the next time.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

24 Hours In Rome (Alive She Cried)

What can you possibly do in Rome if you only have 24 hours?

That was all I had given myself. I arrived around noon on Wednesday and was booked on the 11:50 a.m. Frecciarossa to Florence the next day so I could meet up with friends there and begin the real work of the Nostalgia Package Tour.

Oh you can do so much in 24 hours, I jotted down in my notebook, as I sat in the window sill of my second-floor hotel room in Rome, looking out over the street below and eye to eye with the ‘H’ and the ‘O’ in the vertical hotel sign on the side of the building.

Here’s what I saw, in some cases just quickly, after walking several miles around Rome over fragments of two days:

The Pantheon, the Campidoglio, the Roman Forum, Piazza Navona (with its many tiny balcony gardens), Palazzo Madama (the seat of the Italian Senate; I stood outside for a while, ogling the carabinieri in their crisp uniforms) the Thursday morning weekly produce market in Campo Dei Fiori, the Tiber, the tony neighborhood of Monti by the Coliseum, a friend from college I haven’t seen in exactly 20 years, and the largest ciambellina I’d ever seen (or eaten for that matter).

I also noticed men and women in religious garb everywhere, sometimes on bikes or cupping cellphones to their ears, and realized I might have been a stone’s throw from Francis.

I jotted down in my notebook, as I stood on the street, gaping up at the Campidoglio: I’m in super computer mode. As I walked the streets, I took photos, I recorded snippets of conversation on my phone, I breathed in my beloved tiny, white, gelsomina flower (which spilled over walls, and climbed up the sides of buildings, unleashing a powerful memory agent for this blogger) and I lingered over well-tended floral displays adorning terraces, window sills and the outdoor seating areas of trattorie tucked into vicoli.

It probably sounds like I was in a mad dash. But, of course, I had the luxury, in most cases, of having visited (multiple times, in some cases) whatever incredible monument I was passing.

(I also found I had such adrenaline, that a mere five hours of sleep was all I needed, especially if I stayed on my feet, drawing energy from my constant movement).

My eye was on the lookout for signs of life, symbols of the Roman personality. My objective was to breath in the Eternal City so that when I returned to America, a part of it would linger on long after I walked away from the Pantheon (my favorite building in Rome. Maybe the World. Shoot, who knows?).

Let’s just say: Mission Accomplished (as you'll see in future posts about encounters with taxi drivers and near collisions with nuns on bikes and conversations overheard and thoroughly enjoyed).

In fact, not only did I remember it’s an amazing city, I wondered – for a half-minute, abbiate pazienza – if I had chosen the wrong city to live in. Because Rome is a city I’d like to live in. A city that remains Italian, Roman to the core, a city where you can have real encounters with Italians, in Italian, if you just endeavor a bit.

Oddly enough the person I have to thank for being able to take such exquisite advantage of the scant time I had wasn’t anywhere near me. My little Leo. Since becoming a mother, I’ve learned to sfruttare (exploit) the hell out of five free minutes. So to think I had 24 hours there, well, shoot, what an embarrassment of riches.

Twenty-four hours in the Eternal City? Well, it felt like an Eternity to me.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Nostalgia Package Tour (Jeanne In Firenze)

You can retrace the steps of Dante when you visit Florence, visiting his parish church, for example, where he spied Beatrice for the first time.

Me? I’m retracing MY steps as I walk through the streets of Florence. Steps I first took so many years ago. Nostalgia comes so naturally to me that I stumbled into a tiny piazza in Rome and stumbled back nearly 20 years to a weekend getaway to the Eternal City – my first with Il Nostro Inviato (also known as Someone). I looked up at the street sign – Piazza San Pantaleo – and my mind, photographic for things like street names and addresses and the dates that important moments happened – recalled instantly that we had stayed maybe two nights at a small pensione on the piazza.

My days in Florence are filled with what the Italians might call controlli. I’m monitoring the streets, the crowds of tourists, the number of restaurants (and gelaterie – there are so many now!), the exact locations of shops (the clothing shop Gerard has moved, ladies and gentlemen. So has Patrizia Pepe’s boutique), the routes of buses I used to take (you catch the No. 23 bus now in front of the station, not on the side) and so on.

I’m also monitoring what people say. As in, I'm eavesdropping. I’m swooning over the constant flow of Italian language in my ear. Finally, I’m once again surrounded by Italian, a scenario I find so inspiring, so fundamentally pleasing I wonder if they should prescribe it as therapy? Perhaps it would only work for me. Jeanne’s Therapy. But I suppose other people could get a prescription for French Therapy? Or Spanish Therapy?

(This is hardly a new discovery since I’ve long known that quite simply, I get my jollies hearing and speaking Italian. Spanish, too.)

Of course it helps to know what the Italians are saying when you eavesdrop. But not only. It helps if you can follow the peaks and valleys of the sing-song Florentine accent, through which the natives express a constant, often hilarious litany of slights, recriminations and general observations that there’s nothing that can be done about whatever problem is under discussion but oh what a mess things have become!

The Florentine patois seems perfectly attuned to bursts of desperation, expressed through comments like, “Dio buono, ragazzi!” (Good God!) and complaints of any kind, though mainly of the most pedestrian nature (a signora told me yesterday that she had been waiting 30 minutes for the No. 4 bus. I don’t belittle her complaint – the No. 4 bus jilted me, as well, because I wasn’t standing in the exact right spot).

And of course there are controlli of the most personal kind. My old apartment now has mosquito screens on the windows that I can see from the street. (I should say: Apartment No. 3 in Florence…I haven’t visited #1 or #2 yet. I did see #4. It’s a medieval tower in the center of the centro storico. So not much has changed, although they have cleaned up l’Arco di San Pierino where the Antico Noe sandwich shop is located. Exactly where did all the heroin addicts go?).

Today, the day stretches before me, and it promises to bring hundreds of small discoveries. I may even do something new (Museo Stibbert, anyone? Apparently the grounds of the museum constitute a gorgeous park, a stone’s throw from the center of Florence).

All I know is I’ve paid for the Nostalgia Package Tour. The “This Is Your Life” Full Immersion Tour. And the “Brush Up On Your Florentine Dialect” Tour.

Also the “Can I Really Be This Lucky?” tour. The answer to that last one is a resounding yes.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Morning in Rome

It’s noon on May 12, 2015 and apparently I’m about to touch down in Rome. Ladies and gentlemen, signori e signore, I’m back.

I’m sitting in my seat on the airplane and I see it. I see IT.

It’s Italy. It’s Italy.

My Italy. Just beyond the green and red Alitalia logo on the wing of the airplane is a country called Italy.

Wait—applause! Everyone is so glad we landed safely that they give the pilot a hand. Benvenuti! The Italian guy next to me has already donned his sunglasses. You can never be too cautious.

Am I ready?

To be honest, I’m a bit nervous. Will Italy and I still be in love?

Well, before we can even figure out whether we want to resume our love affair, there’s a slight delay in disembarking. You see, you can’t take the plane all the way up to the airport. You just can’t. You have to take a shuttle bus. Which isn’t here yet. Obviously.

Once inside the airport, it’s the usual major airport hysteria combined with a particular brand of Italian caos. But my suitcase arrives, the hotel pickup shuttle is there waiting for me, and we’re off.

And within a few minutes, gazing out at the city from the back of the taxi, I have that feeling again. I get it every time I see Rome. I don’t know how else to express it other than, “Oh right, Rome is so beautiful, so masterful, so all-encompassingly majestic that swooning is inevitable.”

It’s almost as though I forget or the human brain, my human brain, simply cannot spend all of its time computing how fantastic a place like Rome is. Each time I visit, I remember why it’s the Eternal City. Eternally enchanting. Eternally beguiling. Eternally mine (and yours) – if only I can find the time to catch a plane and get here.

Because when I do, I see vistas like the one in the photo above. Small, little splashes of Italy to brighten not just your day, but your life.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Luca Carboni's "La Mia Ragazza" Feels Right Now

I've been listening to Italian music and podcasts and interviews and anything I can think of, in preparation for my trip to Florence next week.

This slow-tempo, contemplative song by Luca Carboni has long been one of my favorites and feels right this week, as unexpected emergencies explode in our little domestic life, and render the trip a bit of an afterthought.

In many ways, the visit to Florence is neither here nor there. Sounds odd to say, but I simply love Italy. And I will love it, from near or afar.

Enjoy the song! It's about a man who falls in love with his girlfriend all over again as he sees her give birth to their son.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

"I meant to say"

He says that now, too. "I meant to say blueberry, Mommy. I meant to say blueberry!"

Instead, he said raspberry.


A two-year-old, almost three-year-old, who seems to soak up every turn of phrase, every nuance, every blessed word you say.


I'm sure it's typical, for children his age. But it's new to me. Hence this blog post.

You can call it a comeback

My african violets have finally come back from the dead, after years of budless limbo.