Category Archives: Italy


Levanzo is one of the three Egadi Islands off the western coast of Sicily (the other two are Favignana and Marettimo). A 20 minute hydrofoil ride from the port of Trapani, Levanzo is super tiny, with a total area of 5.82 square kilometers (2.25 sq mi). About 65 people live on the island year round. I spent several days there last month.thumb_IMG_1761_1024

This is how it happened. I was having dinner with the Upstairs Vegetarian and our friends Marzio and Giulia one night in the dead of winter when Giulia started rhapsodizing about this island where she had spent a lot of time when she was younger: Levanzo. She described the island as a paradise: beautiful, unspoiled, quiet and super-undiscovered. My buddy Jane and I had been talking about a beach holiday this summer and when I sent her the name of the island she snapped into super-organized holiday planning mode and quickly made all the arrangements.

As it turns out, I probably should have asked Giulia a few more questions. My idea of the perfect beach holiday is lying on a sunbed with an umbrella, a book and a big bottle of water. Every so often I’ll wander down the sandy beach to the water’s edge and have a little paddle. Levanzo is not a place of white sandy beaches and lazy long days with a good book. There are three beaches on the island — Cala del Faraglione, Cala Tramontana and Cala Minnola. Two of them are very pebbly and unprotected from the blistering hot sun; Cala Minnola is a sort of concrete slab once used for landing boats. The concrete beach is backed up by a copse of trees, which provides some shade but getting there requires scrambling up a rocky hill. I tend to be clumsy and to fall down a lot (loyal readers may remember the Great Broken Back Caper of 2015) so I’m pretty unenthusiastic about rocky hills. Getting into the water is also a challenge — more rocks, many more rocks. Great for snorkeling though, which is Jane’s thing. It’s possible to rent boats to take around the island and swim from the boats, neatly avoiding the rock issue, but three of the five days we were there were windy and the boatmen wouldn’t take us out. On the plus side, the ferry couldn’t cross from Trapani, cutting down on the number of day trippers. On the other hand, by the end of the three days, the island had nearly run out of supplies — Levanzo has no agriculture to speak of and completely depends on Sicily for produce and water.thumb_IMG_1757_1024

Levanzo has just one tourist site: the Grotta del Genovese, a cave containing prehistoric cave drawings (we didn’t get there). I understand that there are lots of nice hikes to be taken but that’s not really my thing. There is a tiny grocery store and an excellent bakery. If you are looking for lots of restaurants and nightlife, this is not the island for you. I don’t care much about nightlife but I really, really care about food. As you know. Fortunately, Levanzo did not let me down. There are two restaurants, one of  which is attached to the slightly down-at-heels Paradiso Hotel, and one of which is a bar/superb lunch and dinner spot: the Romano Bar, Pizzaria and Restaurant. We ended up having breakfast and dinner there practically every day (we tried the Paradiso but it was just so-so). At lunch we went to the bakery for a cabucio (also known as pane cunzatu), an amazing Sicilian sandwich on a soft bread loaf with fillings like tomatoes, oregano, anchovies and different kinds of cheeses.

Here’s some of what we ate.

Stuffed mussels

Stuffed mussels

Roasted squid

Roasted squid

Mixed fishy antipasto, mostly variations of marinated anchovies, squid and shrimp rolled up in marinated veggies. So good.

Mixed fishy antipasti, mostly variations of marinated anchovies, squid and shrimp rolled up in marinated veggies. So good.

And more

And more: raw shrimps and some fried stuff

Fried squid and some local (bony) fish

Fried squid

Gigantic shrimps

Gigantic shrimps

And the very excellent Sicilian salad of tomatoes, onion, capers and basil, which we had at every meal

And the very excellent Sicilian salad of tomatoes, onion, capers and basil, which we had at every meal

Even though Levanzo might not be my first choice for a beach holiday in future, we did have a lovely time. We stayed in a very clean and comfortable little apartment (La Plaza Residence). The main drag along the port is about two blocks long and practically everything you need is there (there is a bank machine up the hill a bit). Everything else is dirt roads — virtually no cars on Levanzo. Very quiet and relaxing. And because there are so few people, it only takes a few days to pretty much know, or at least, recognize everyone. It’s a friendly place. Everyone pulls their weight: the guy who sold you coffee in the morning might be taking you out for a boat ride at noon, unloading the ferry at four and waiting on your table at night. So that was fun.

And then there’s this. thumb_IMG_1767_1024


Ten things to know about Italians

It has been my observation that virtually every expatriate with access to public media eventually writes something along the lines of “Ten things about (country X) you need to know before you go” or “Ten things about (the natives of country X) you need to know before you go.” I totally understand the impulse. I mean how much fun is it to reduce an entire nation of people to a stereotype? How much fun is it to make blanket generalizations from the pedestal upon which tourists (American tourists at least) tend to place themselves when abroad? So much fun. Now it’s my turn!


1. They HATE to be next in line. Queues in Italy reflect an insane need to be done with whatever one is doing. Instead of quietly standing behind the person who is actually first, they all stand side by side, creating confusion as to who is really first. Heaven forbid if the clerk calls on the wrong person to come forward. When that happens, everyone starts yelling at the clerk and each other (see #4). If the queue is forced into vertical formation by space or other considerations, Italians spend the entire time massively invading your personal space, trying to sneak in front of you or just stepping in front of you, pretending they never saw you were there. I suspect this is why so many banks and supermarket deli counters now use the take-a number-approach. The deep-seated queue aversion is particularly annoying at traffic lights, where the microsecond the light turns green everyone starts honking their heads off. The Italian obsession with getting there first seems very counterintuitive in a country that is supposed to epitomize the Mediterranean penchant for chillaxin’.

2. They love milling around and getting in the way. Even when Italians are not deliberately trying to jump the queue, they’re in the way. Every conversation in the out-of-doors — no matter how lengthy or how many people are involved — has to take place either in the entrance of the shop you are trying to enter or in the middle of the sidewalk you are trying to traverse. Every one. I do not know why this is.

3. Italian teenagers are very polite. That doesn’t mean they are not as loud and obnoxious as teenagers anywhere else. They are. I live across the street from Villa Pamphilli, Rome’s largest park. There is a water fountain right by the entrance and, in the summer, every day the dog and I have to run the gauntlet of 20 or so teenagers filling up water balloons and throwing them at each other while the girls run around squealing and the boys strut around with their little hairless chests on show. If their mothers knew about this they would totally freak out (see #5). Italian teenagers do a lot of screaming on buses. Singing on buses is another favorite activity.  But they always open the door for their elders and give up their seat on the bus on which they are screaming or singing. It’s Italian family values or something.

4. They loooove the drama. It’s no coincidence that Italians invented opera. Pretty much any everyday experience can launch an ear-splitting aria. Here’s an example. The park across the street features exactly two (2) picnic tables, both of which are in the dog area. For this reason, picnics abound in and around the (albeit badly-signposted) dog area as do, obviously, picnic-loving dogs, one of whom — I’m not naming any names but it rhymes with Gorgon — believes the picnic table to be his own private throne. In the summer, this happens every day: some dog or other goes nosing around the picnics in the dog area. The picnickers yell at the dog owners, who politely point out that dogs are allowed to be off-leash here. The picnickers, not caring, yell some more at which point the dog owners yell back. This goes on for a while until everyone’s day is ruined.

But it takes a lot less than a picnic-sniffing dog to set off a good old-fashioned opera. I once saw a car driver curse out a woman on crutches for taking too long to cross the street. He wasn’t trying to be mean. He was just in a hurry (see #1). All of this yelling may explain the obsession of Italians with their livers — if an ailment isn’t being ascribed to a colpo d’aria (see #5), it’s usually the fault of a mal di fegato.  For an Italian, the liver is where all your anger is stored and it’ll hurt if you get angry.

Gorgon surveys his realm.

Gorgon surveys his realm.

5. They have an extreme fear of drafts. Tell an Italian that you have a headache, sore throat, stiff neck or pretty much any ailment and they’ll explain that it’s the fault of a blast of air or colpo d’aria. During the winter (meaning from November to May, no matter the actual air temperature),  they wear puffy coats and wooly undershirts (maglia di salute or shirt of health) and wrap scarves around their necks. In the summer, they stay away from air conditioning, no matter how blisteringly hot it is outside.  If you are lucky enough to find a restaurant with air conditioning, some group will inevitably come in and ask for it to be turned off (for their health). No one but a tourist would dream of opening a window on a train.

I'm not sure if it has anything to do with digestion, but if an Italian goes swimming less than three hourr after they have eaten, they will die.

I’m not sure if it has anything to do with digestion, but if an Italian goes swimming less than three hours after they have eaten, they will die.

Being sweaty or getting wet only worsens the effect of the colpo d’aria, which is why Italian mothers wait nervously by the edge of the pool, waiting to swaddle little Guido in a towel the second he emerges from the water. It’s also why total strangers yell at you if you go outside with a wet head or walk around barefoot (even inside) and why Italians whip out their trusty umbrellas the instant there’s a drop of rain.

6. They assume that they won’t understand you. I’ve lived in Italy a long time and my Italian is pretty fluent, if riddled with grammatical errors. I certainly speak the language well enough to be understood, even over the phone where I don’t have the added advantage of being able to wave my hands around and point to things. But my accent totally gives me away and, because so few tourists speak Italian, the person I am speaking to assumes that I don’t (EVEN THOUGH I’M BLOODY WELL SPEAKING IT) and that they won’t be able to understand me. At that point, they either stammer out a few words in English or run away. In fairness, I should point out that my Italian friends and acquaintances do not do this at all. They are super happy that I am are trying to speak their language and do their best to understand me.

7. They are every bit as bad on the road as you’ve heard. I don’t think that Italians are inherently bad drivers. They are just always in a hurry and hate to be next in line (see #1), which makes them do crazy reckless things like run red lights and make left turns from the right hand lane while going 80 km/hr. It’s a wonder that they are not constantly crashing and dying but it does explain why every single Italian car has at least one dent in it. Oh, and they also quadruple park and drive and park on the sidewalks.

8. They are obsessed with their digestion. For an Italian, the notion of digestion relates specifically to the process that occurs after a meal when the stomach content settles. It is deeply influenced the combination of foods, when they were eaten and at what temperature. So cappuccino is off limits after 10 am because milk supposedly inhibits digestion. Icy liquids are also bad for digestion and may even cause the dreaded congestione – an abdominal cramp – that will apparently kill you. Salad comes at the end of the meal because it helps you digest. An Italian host will typically offer a digestivo at the end of your meal. A thimble of this typically bitter mix of herbs, roots, plants, spices and alcohol is supposed to hurry along the 3-5 courses you just consumed. If that doesn’t work, there’s always Brioschi, a digestive aid like Alka-Seltzer, which can be found in every Italian kitchen.

Eat your salad after the meal to help you digest.

Eat your salad after the meal to help you digest.

9. They care a lot about appearances (yours and their own). You can always tell the tourists, slobbing around in their shorts and flip-flops, baggy pants halfway down their backsides, baseball cap a la Luke Danes. For an Italian to dress like this would be to dishonor la bella figura. The way you dress and carry yourself indicates your social status, your background and your education level. An Italian may not have a lot of money to spend on clothes but the clothes they have will be fashionable, of good quality, clean and well-pressed (even if they have to wear the same thing every day). Anything less and they will be judged as a lowlife by all they meet. And so will you.

Looking good is very important.

Looking good is very important.

10. They appreciate food and they know where it comes from. I know. Duh. It’s not exactly a secret that Italians are into food. But the second part of that sentence is actually more interesting (and important) than the first. Most cities around the world are totally delinked from the rural roots of agriculture. For most people, food comes from supermarkets. This is only going to get worse with runaway urbanization — by 2020, an average of 70% of all people will live in cities. Urban growth is particularly affecting developing countries, where 50 years ago most people lived on farms. Losing our ties to the countryside has all sorts of implications, such as the demise of the smallholder farmer, loss of food traditions, over-dependence on highly processed, fatty processed foods with delightful spin-offs like obesity, malnutrition and related problems like cardiovascular disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes. This is happening all over the world, the Western Foodie’s love for the farmers’ market notwithstanding.

Rome and many other Italian cities have a closer connection to the origins of its food than do many developing countries where agriculture remains the most important economic sector.

Rome and many other Italian cities have a closer connection to the origins of its food than do many developing countries where agriculture remains the most important economic sector.

But it is happening less quickly in Italy. In Rome, at any rate, there is almost a continuum between city and country. Drive a half hour in any direction and you are deep in agricultural country. And there are agricultural pockets all through the city. I used to live in an apartment in central Rome that backed up onto an archeological site that the government ran out of money to dig. So farmers came in and grazed their sheep there. Villa Pamphili is dotted with blackberry bushes and fig, lemon and orange trees and there are always oldies out there gathering wild greens and mushrooms in plastic shopping bags. Supermarkets only became a thing about a decade ago and there are still tons of fresh fruit and vegetable shops, about eight in my immediate neighborhood alone, not to mention a big farmers’ market up the road. I also count four butchers within a five-minute walk.

Are things changing here? Of course. There are fast food places everywhere (although quite a few MacDonalds have closed down in the past few years), supermarkets are supplanting a lot of the mom and pop groceries of yore and there are a lot more microwaveable options than there were five years ago. But most Italians still believe in the importance of a regular home-cooked family meal based on fresh ingredients. And as long as they understand and connect to the roots of the food they eat, that’s not likely to change completely.

Museo Piana delle Orme

My continuing quest to visit Italy’s nuttiest museums brought me to this place a few weeks ago and I can’t wait to tell you all about it. But first, some backstory. The Upstairs Vegetarian has a friend (who is now my friend too!) named Stephanie Malia Hom who is a professor of Italian, anthropologist, Italophile and many other things too. Her latest book is The Beautiful Country: Tourism & the Impossible State of Destination Italy. Doesn’t that sound interesting? Can’t wait to read it. Anyway, a few years ago Stephanie was visiting from the US and we all had dinner. She started talking about this museum she had gone to in Latina, which is 43 kilometers from Rome. As Stephanie described it, the museum seemed like the most interesting and eclectic place and the UV and I decided we must go there IMMEDIATELY. That was like three years ago and we never did go. The subject came up from time to time but we could never quite remember what the place was called or where it was. Fortunately, Stephanie came back to town and was happy to go again.

First you need to know a little bit about Latina. Mussolini founded the city in 1932, calling it Littoria. That name comes from the fasces lictoriae, a bunch of wooden sticks and usually an ax (fasces means bundle in Latin) that symbolized a magistrate’s power in Ye Olde Roman Days. Mussolini, a great hearkener back to the days of Empire, liked the image so much that he named his political party after it. Other people liked it too and tons of things feature the image of the fasces, including the Great Seal of Harvard University and the seal of the US Tax Court. I will make no further comment than to say “Isn’t that interesting.”

Renamed Latina after the war, the city’s catchy motto is Latina, Olim Palus (Latina, once a swamp). That’s because Latina was located smack dab in the middle of the Pontine Marshes, swampland since Roman times (today the area is known as the Agro Pontina). Fascist ideology was all about the noble farmer and Mussolini orchestrated a huge land reclamation project (the bonifica integrale, 1922-1935) to free up more agricultural land and combat malaria, by the way, destroying a whole load of wetland ecosystems in the process. The marshes were drained, homesteads were built and land parceled out, mosquitoes were killed and health services were established. About 2000 (Fascist, mostly from the North) families received a farmhouse, some land, a plow, tools and a couple of cows.  That all sounds pretty good, but this being Mussolini, it was all done a bit brutally.

The project employed 124 000 men at its peak. Workers lived in overcrowded  camps surrounded by barbed wire. Wages were terrible, hours were long, the food was bad, sanitation was poor and there was no healthcare. Many of the workers were infected with the malaria they were trying to eliminate.

Welcome to Il Museo Piana delle Orme. That's me on the left trying to look as short as everyone else.

Welcome to Il Museo Piana delle Orme. That’s me on the left trying to look the same height as everyone else.

Which brings us (finally!) to Museo Piana delle Orme (Museum Plain of Footprints), which totally lived up to its rep of being nutso. First of all, the place is absolutely enormous (50 000 square meters). There is a lot of outdoor space but most of the park is occupied by 13 airplane hanger-sized pavilions devoted to different aspects of early to mid-20th Century Italian history. The museum was established in 1996 by Mariano De Pasquale (1938-2006), a grower and seller of roses. Apparently he somehow acquired the wreck of an old US Army jeep in the 1960s and caught the hoarding bug. He collected everything he could find about the lives of local farmers, the reclamation of the Pontine Marshes and the battles of World War II. Mariano may have had a bit of ADD. The museum grew out of his collection. (Can’t you just hear his wife? “Mariano, you have got to find somewhere to put this stuff! If I see one more tank parked in our backyard…”).

The pavilions are filled with life-sized dioramas. There are explanatory signs in Italian, English and German (the English is remarkably lucid for an Italian museum) as well as (fairly squawky, difficult to understand) audio displays. There are buttons to push in the war pavilions and explosions ensue.

Many photos follow (Lots of these were shot by the UV, duly credited, as hers were much better than mine).

An F-104 jet greets you on arrival.


There was a pavilion devoted to toys and models (planes and boats, not the human variety).thumb_IMG_1125_1024

Two pavilions are devoted to the bonifica.

The high rate of malaria in the region was one of the reasons for draining the swamp (a task that by the way had challenged government leaders since Roman times). Malaria means 'bad air' in Italian.

The high rate of malaria in the region was one of the reasons for draining the swamp (a task that had challenged government leaders since Roman times). Malaria means ‘bad air’ in Italian. Credit UV.

The bonifica took place in three stages. First, workers drained the swamp; next, homesteads were constructed and land parceled out; the third stage, took measures against the mosquitos.

The bonifica took place in three stages. First, workers drained the swamp; next, homesteads were constructed and land parceled out; during the third stage, the government took measures against the mosquitoes. Credit UV.

Draining the swamp.

Draining the swamp.

There’s an entire pavilion filled with farm equipment. We scooted through that one — sorry, no photos. If you ever wondered whether it is possible to see too many tractors, I can assure you that a little goes a very long way.

The next pavilion is devoted to country life in the years after the bonifica.


I guess it was common for farm ladies in the 1930s to walk around with turkeys on their heads. Who knew?

I guess it was common for farm ladies in the 1930s to walk around with turkeys on their heads. Who knew?


Kickin' back at the local bar. Ah, country life.

Kickin’ back at the local bar. Ah, country life.

Then we moved on to the war years. Deportation and internment in concentration camps.

Credit UV.

Credit UV.


The names of all of the Italians sent to concentration camps are pasted on the wall.

The names of all of the Italians sent to concentration camps are pasted on the wall.

A pavilion full of tanks and the like followed (see above comment on tractors).

Two pavilions on Italy’s entry into the war, the Battle of El Alamein and the Allied landings at Messina and Salerno. thumb_IMG_1164_1024The Allied landing at Anzio rates a pavilion of its own as does the battle for Montecassino.thumb_IMG_1170_1024


Apparently Mariano actually gathered actual rubble from the ruins of the abbey at Montecassino to use in this exhibit. Credit UV. 

war war2

Finally, there is a pavilion devoted to the peacetime use of war paraphernalia, i.e. helmets attached to sticks can be used to dredge cesspools.

There were also some peacocks, ostriches and chickens hanging around (well, they were fenced in) between the various pavilions — I guess to keep the kiddies entertained.

Hello there!

Hello there!

In addition to the usual postcards and guidebook, the museum shop sells loads of uniforms and bayonets.

All your gas mask needs can be met right here!

All your gas mask and helmet (and cesspool deredging) needs can be met right here!

I didn’t go into the bar/restaurant because I was in charge of the dogs but by all accounts it was clean and served various hot dishes.

Remember this: Il Museo Piana delle Orme. A must see if you’re are in the ‘hood.

Dining out in Umbria

My birthday was a few weeks back and to celebrate my friend Susan kindly invited me and some other friends to her spectacular country house outside of Orvieto for the weekend. It’s seriously bellissima — and available for rent. I stayed there with my whole family several years back and have very fond memories, except for the part where my dog ran away but that’s another story. Susan had planned the weekend like a champ and we did many memorable things, most of which — surprise, surprise — centered on food.

Here are some highlights.


Play with meeee!!

Baby goats! We went to the Fattoria Il Secondo Altopiano to taste some cheeses and play with the world’s most adorable baby goats (there were also sheep, donkeys, a handsome rooster and a Little Sebastian-style mini-horse but the goatlets were the cutest). We also tasted (and bought) some delicious and super fresh goat cheese and yoghurt made right on the premises. Whenever I am fortunate enough to O.D. on cheese, I always think of this (from the 1.30 mark).


Yoghurt tasting at the Fattoria dell’Altoplano. There is no comparison between this and the store-bought stuff.

Dinner the first night was at Trattoria del Conte. Unpretentious local spot with unpretentious local food with a twist. Really great. The first thing we ate was fagottini al formaggio e pere al burro ed erbe cipolline – little pasta sacks stuffed with a creamy cheese and pears in a buttery sauce. They were exceptional — and that really should mean something coming from me because I’m no great pasta eater. The most impressive thing was how they managed to tie up the tiny sacks with a sprig of chive. I’d never have the patience — or the dexterity — to do that.thumb_IMG_0921_1024

Next, I had guanciale al’aceto and puntarelle in salsa di alici. Guanciale is hog jowl (la guancia is cheek in Italian) and is a major ingredient in such things as carbonara. In this instance it was cut in long slices, like bacon, sprinkled with balsamic vinegar and draped over toasted bread. Very melt in your mouth stuff, the richness of the guanciale offset by the tang of the vinegar. thumb_IMG_0927_1024Puntarelle, a member of the chicory family, is named for the pointy-tipped stems hidden within spiky outer leaves. It’s super crunchy and fresh tasting and I love it but it usually comes swimming in a sea of anchovy vinaigrette. My salad was perfect: just enough dressing to give it a flavourful punch, not enough to weigh it down. thumb_IMG_0931_1024My dining companions were more reserved (but, hey, it was my birthday weekend) and ordered plates of greens for their next course. I know, good for you, but kinda boring, right? Jane, bless her, had a giant pork chop. Jane loves pork chops.thumb_IMG_0930_1024

The next night we went to La Locanda di Colle Ombroso. Open on the weekends, this tiny restored farmhouse has only about five tables. And a roaring fireplace. It was enchanting. All of the ingredients are either produced on the farm of the restaurant’s owners — a charming young couple, Igor and Eleonora — or sourced locally. thumb_IMG_0979_1024

First, they brought out an array of meats and cheeses. A particularly delicious thing was the carpaccio di lombetto (cured pork loin). And some boring little chickpea cake that I gave to the Upstairs Vegetarian in exchange for some porky bits. The bread (which I don’t have a photo of, sorry) was homemade using wheat from the farm. thumb_IMG_0981_1024

Lombetto with fresh goat cheese and chickpea whatnot for trading.

Lombetto with fresh goat cheese and chickpea whatnot for trading.

The next course was a cream of leek soup (the Italians call it vellutata or ‘velveted’) with a gorgonzola cream and a hearty chickpea one. Both super yum. thumb_IMG_0984_1024


Next up was thinly sliced roast beef with two sauces (one béarnaisey, one more of a vinaigrette); roast pork with a creamy sauce involving mandarins and, for the U.V., a flan involving lentils with a curry sauce. thumb_IMG_0990_1024



Dessert was a chocolate torte with sour cream. Yes, we did push the boat out that night. thumb_IMG_0993_1024

Dinner was lovely, but it is really the atmosphere that makes La Locanda di Colle Ombroso such a special place. thumb_IMG_0978_1024

The next day, we visited Cività di Bagnoregio, which if you haven’t been, hie you hence at the first opportunity. It’s beautiful and dramatic and also reminded me how incredibly unfit I am (much walking uphill is required to get there). thumb_IMG_1010_1024After visiting the wonderful painted egg museum, we moved on to Orvieto to check out the shop of Marino Moretti, a friend of Susan’s, who does the most extraordinary ceramics. Check this out (you might want to turn off the sound, which gets old fast).

Then it was lunchtime. I have to say that by this time I was fairly convinced that I need never eat again (of course, in between the meals I’ve described there was plenty more eating of cheese, and bread  and cake). However, I bravely gave it the old college try.  We went to Hosteria Posterula, which was suggested by Marino Moretti. A cosy family-owned joint. The food was excellent and not pricey. I had a delicious dish of prosciutto over melted mozzarella covered in black truffle shavings. thumb_IMG_1076_1024Another offering was gnocchi with truffles and cacio and a third was umbrichelli with egg yolk, truffles and anchovies. There was a bit of a truffle motif, true. But it was a great place for lunch and I will go again for sure. thumb_IMG_1077_1024thumb_IMG_1078_1024


Bye Orvieto! We’ll be back!

Trattoria del Conte. Localita’ Buon Respiro, 18. Orvieto. Tel: 0763 217046

La Locanda do Colle Umbroso. S.P 55, km 4.8,  Porano. Tel: 340 2714727

Hostaria PosterulaCorso Cavour 312, Orvieto. Tel: 0763 341245

Ovo Pinto

Easter greetings, my peeps (get it?)!wpid-20120223__120226-peeps

One thing I love about Italy is the weird and wonderful museums. I’m not talking about the typical ones that everyone comes here to see like the Capitoline Museum, Villa Borghese, Palazzo Barberini, etc. etc. forever. No, I’m talking about museums that are a bit off the beaten track and decidedly lacking in Caravaggios. I’ve written about some of them in Rome, like my beloved Museo delle Cere (featuring what appear to be department store manikins and only one female figure — Sleeping Beauty — whose chest moves when she breathes); the Criminology Museum (known to its chums as MUCRI and highly recommended); and Il Piccolo Museo del Purgatorio (the Little Museum of Purgatory, also highly recommended). Today, fittingly as it’s Easter, we’re going to talk about Ovo Pinto — the Museum of the Painted Egg.

Before we go on, let me just point out that I am not saying that Italy is unique in having offbeat museums. I am sure they are everywhere (she said, harking back to Graceland — been twice, it’s awesome — and that big ball of twine in Kansas). It’s just that there is soooo much art here and the Italians are so serious about it. Kinda makes the offbeat feel a bit more unusual than it normally would.

We all associate painting eggs with Easter but apparently the pursuit has been around a lot longer than Christianity. Decorated ostrich eggs have been found in Africa dating back 60 000 years! The ancient Egyptians, Persians, Phoenicians, and Hindus believed that world hatched out of an enormous egg and saw the egg as a symbol of new life. Also death. Also kingship. It’s confusing. But some of them put decorated ostrich eggs in graves 5 000 years ago.

It appears that Christianity may have pinched yet another pagan custom. The early Christians of Mesopotamia  dyed chicken eggs red to symbolize the blood of Jesus. And so on down the centuries. That’s enough history for today!

Now, on to the Egg Museum. It’s basically two rooms in a tiny building in a tiny medieval town in Umbria, Civitella del Lago-Baschi. The whole thing started with an egg painting competition between schools, back in the 1980s. Twenty-five years later there were about a million painted eggs in someone’s basement (I’m guessing) so someone got the bright idea to put the best ones in a museum.

And it was a bright idea. Pinto Ovo is adorable and charming. The contest continues. In recent years it has been opened up to adults as well as the kiddies. and it’s international now — eggs come in from all over the world (that must be a bit nerve-wracking for the sender!). You can see entries from Bali and Brazil below. Any kind of egg can be used but it has to be real. No cheatin’ with plastic eggs. The contest takes place around Easter and each year has a different theme (for the adults, I think the kids can do what they want). This year it was the plays of Pirandello. I thought about entering but 1). I’m no artist and 2) I’d have to read the plays of Pirandello.

I took tons of photos, many of which follow. Some of these are pretty amazing.


I love this one. It’s called ‘Free at last.”

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Ovo Pinto, Piazza Mazzini 9, Civitella del Lago – Braschi, Tel: 3408995074.

International Holocaust Remembrance Day/Italian Heroes

In 2005, the UN General Assembly designated January 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Brief aside: when I was doing the research for this story, I was struck by how many Holocaust remembrance days there actually are. Some of them relate to national history, e.g. Poland’s falls on the day of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, France’s falls on the anniversary of the round-up of more than 13 000 Jews in Paris in 1942. In the US, it actually lasts over 8 days, starting on the Sunday before the Jewish observation day, known as Yom HaShoah. This is usually in April or May. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum — located on the National Mall in Washington, DC (Go.) — organizes events and sends out informational materials to schools and such.

The International Day, which seems to be observed by most European countries, including Italy,  falls on the anniversary of the 1945 liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in Poland by the Russian army. To remind you, around 1.1 million people died at Auschwitz-Birkenau, including 960 000 Jews. Other victims included approximately 74 000 Poles, 21 000 Roma, 15 000 Soviet prisoners of war and at least 10 000 people of other nationalities. The Russian army found about 7 000 starving people in the camp, those who were to weak to walk; as Soviet troops approached Auschwitz in January 1945, the SS evacuated the camp, forcing about 60 000 prisoners to march 30 miles to board trains for other camps. But first they destroyed four crematoria, burned written records and demolished many buildings. About 15 000 people died on the death marches.

The UN urges member states to honor Nazi victims during the remembrance days and to develop educational programs to help prevent future genocides.  To do my part (and only 6 days late), I thought I’d tell you about three brave Italians who risked their lives to save the lives of their neighbors.

Padre Niccacci

Padre Niccacci

The first is Padre Rufino Niccacci (1911-1977). Niccacci was a Father Guardian of the Franciscan Monastery of San Damiano in Assisi. The Internet does not reveal what exactly a Father Guardian is, but it must be pretty important because after the Germans invaded Rome in September 1943, the Padre protected 300 Jews taking refuge in Assisi, hiding them in 26 convents and monasteries that were under his direction. He dressed many of them as monks and nuns and taught them Catholic rituals. Others lived in parishioners’ homes and, with fake identity cards, found jobs and blended into the community. The town’s printing press, which during the day printed posters and greeting cards, printed false documents at night that were sent by courier to Jews all over Italy. Not a single refugee was captured in Assisi. No one involved in the rescue operation ever betrayed it. After the war, Niccacci established a small settlement for destitute Christian and Jewish families in Montenero, outside of Assisi, and served as a parish priest in his home town of Deruta. In April 1974, Yad Vashem — Israel’s official memorial for the victims of the Holocaust — named him as one of the Righteous among the Nations. The Righteous are non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.

Giorgio Perlasca

Giorgio Perlasca

Giorgio Perlasca was a former fascist who fought for Franco during the Spanish Civil War. But he went very sour on Mussolini. He hated Italy’s cosy relationship with Nazi Germany and the Italian race laws of 1936. Many of his friends were Jewish. During WW2, Perlasca avoided military service by working as a livestock agent supplying meat to the Italian armed services. In 1940, he was sent to Zagreb and Belgrade and travelled widely in Eastern Europe. Here, he observed the massacres of Jews, Serbs and other minorities. He was sent to Budapest where — tall and handsome — he enjoyed a busy social life until the fall of the city to Hungarian Nazis in July 1943, when he was interned as an enemy alien (because Italy was at this point on the side of the Allies). Escaping, he went to the Spanish Embassy in Budapest where he assumed he would be given asylum, having fought for Franco. He was correct: within a day, he was given a Spanish passport with a new Spanish name — Jorge.

Perlasca learned that the Spanish Consul was issuing ‘letters of protection’ to Hungarian Jews to keep them from being deported to Auschwitz. The Consulate also employed Jews as clerks, and housed them in eight apartment blocks under its control. Perlasca volunteered to help. In November 1944, with the Russians approaching Budapest, the last remaining Spanish diplomat fled the capital. But the diplomat forgot to take the embassy seal with him and Perlasca got busy stamping documents that proved that the embassy was still open and that he was the charge d’affaires. He used the seal to issue thousands of letters of protection to Hungarian Jews and organized food, medical aid and protection for the Jews in the Consulate’s apartments, which had extraterrorial conventions that gave them sovereignty. An intelligence network tipped him off so that he could fend off Nazi searches. More than once he used his false identity to throw Nazi gangs out of the houses, when they threatened to murder or deport the Jewish residents. Perlasca saved at least 5 500 Jews from the gas chambers, constantly risking his life to do so. After the war, he returned to Italy. He did not talk about his actions in Hungary to anyone, including his family. In 1987, a group of Hungarian Jews related to people he had saved finally found him, after searching for years. In 1988, Yad Vashem recognized Giorgio Perlasca as Righteous Among the Nations.

Last but not least is the story of Andrea Albisetti, the station master in Tradate (a town between Varese and Milan). One of Albisetti’s tasks was to receive the mail that came in from Rome and Milan each day. During the war, this included arrest orders for dissidents and Jews. Albisetti routinely held the envelopes containing the arrest orders against a lightbulb so that he could read the names on them. He warned the potential arrestees before the envelopes were opened by the authorities, giving them time to escape. Albisetti’s story seemed doomed to disappear in the mists of time; like Perlasca, he never talked about what he had done and although there were stories out there about the station master, no one could remember his name. It was only recently that Federico Colombo, a young educator and the president of the Tradatese Historical Society, uncovered the truth while doing research for a Holocaust commemoration ceremony. Colombo had been told the story of the station master by an old man he interviewed for a high school project. He stumbled upon similar stories twenty years later while doing his research. He put  two and two together and — finally — revealed Albisetti’s role in saving the dissidents and Jews of Tradate.

The Gardens of Ninfa Hack

thumb_IMG_2028_1024My mom was here for three weeks and we had many adventures, which I’ll be telling you about in the coming days (unlikely) and months (more likely). The first thing I’ll be telling you about is our outing to the Gardens of Ninfa. According to the Upstairs Vegetarian’s big fancy newspaper, these have been called the “most romantic gardens in Italy.” I don’t dispute the sentiment but I tried to find out who first called them that and everything referred back to the same 2002 New York Times story, sometimes mistakenly claiming that the Times called Ninfa the “most beautiful gardens in the world.” My point is that the Times didn’t call them the most romantic etc. It just made the observation that they had been called that. A guy called Charles Quest-Ritson — excellent name — wrote a book called Ninfa: The Most Romantic Garden in the World but it was only published in 2009 i.e. seven years after the NYT article came out. And that’s how facts are made, my friends. Anyway, the Times story is interesting and here’s the link.

I’d never been to Ninfa before. Mostly I was put off by the weird hours. It’s only open a couple of days a month during the summer. And you have to go in with a guided tour so they can keep an eye on you and make sure you’re not tromping around ruining all the romantic (or beautiful) flora and fauna. Ninfa is located about 40 miles southeast of Rome, near Sermoneta. It has a pretty wild and wooly history. The town dates back to Ye Olde Roman Days and probably got its name from a nearby temple dedicated to some water nymphs (there’s a lake on the premises). Ninfa did well in medieval times because people needed to pass by there on the way from Rome to Naples and the Ninfans charged them a huge highway tax. Pope Alexander III was crowned at Ninfa in 1159. I can’t seem to find out why but it was during one of those confusing Antipope times and he wasn’t all that welcome in Rome. Later the German Emperor Barbarossa (who was the Antipope’s big defender) came along and burned down the town because Alexander was hiding out there.

In the 13th century, Ninfa and a bunch of other towns became the fiefdoms of Onorato Caetani thanks to the intervention of his uncle, Pope Boniface VIII — a very bad guy (Boniface, that is) if you listen to Dante. Onorato put in the gardens. In 1382, two Caetanis had a big war over who should be pope and ended up destroying the town. Again. Poor Ninfa. The town was briefly repopulated during the 16th Century but that didn’t last because the Pontine Marshes, which Italy had been trying to tame since Roman times, began to encroach on the area and malaria, as they say, was rife. BTW, it was our old pal Mussolini who finally put paid to the marshes in the 1930s. But that’s another story (and a good one). I’ll tell you about it another time. The Ninfa gardens were (re)created in the 1920s by Gaetano Caetani in the English style under the guidance of his Brit mother Lady Constance Adela (Ada) Bootle-Wilbraham and — sorry Charles Quest-Ritson — if that’s not the best name you’ve ever heard I’ll eat my hat!

So here’s the hack part (see title of post). Everything is a hack these days so I thought I’d jump aboard that bandwagon. When we arrived at Ninfa in the late morning it was scorchingly hot and there were about a bazillion people ahead of us in line. I stuck Mom in a nice shady spot and queued up while the UV (who was our chauffeuse during Mom’s visit, thanks UV!) set off to get the skinny. Here it is: there is an English language tour twice a day, at 10:30 and 3:30. If you go on the English tour you can completely bypass the bazillion people in line and go sit in a nice shady spot to wait for your guide with the other nine people who know about this. Good, eh? Just don’t tell everyone or it will be ruined.

It not being anywhere near 3:30 we went off to troll for lunch. Nearby we found a fantastic spot called Il Casale di Nonna Lina. Very picturesque and brilliant food. Here’s what we ate:

Fagioli all'uccelletto (beans little bird style), with bacon and tomato sauce. Very Tuscan dish this.

Fagioli all’uccelletto (beans little bird style), with bacon and tomato sauce. Very Tuscan dish. I don’t know why it’s called this. Are the beans supposed to look like little birds? Did people used to cook birds in this manner? My favorite Campbell’s soup used to be bean and bacon. Maybe that’s why I love this dish so much. 

Lasagna with cherry tomatoes and burrata (Mom and the UV had this).

Lasagna with cherry tomatoes and buratta (Mom and the UV had this). Buratta, BTW, gets spell-checked as buritto!

An a big hairy steak with lardo casually draped over it. Obvs that was mine.

A big hairy steak with lardo casually draped over it. Obvs that was mine. I heart lardo

We finished by splitting a slice of strawberry cheesecake.

We finished by splitting a slice of strawberry cheesecake.

Cute, eh?

Cute, no?

Okay, now that I made you sit through all that historical stuff, not to mention lunch, with no further ado I present to you the most romantic (or beautiful) garden in Italy (or the world)! No waiting!

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Il Casale di Nonna Lina. Via Le Pastine 70. Doganella di Ninfa. Tel: 0773 310179.