Spotlight on Italy

by eons contributor on April 25, 2008

La Bella Italia. According to UNESCO, half of the world’s historic and artistic assets are within her boundaries. And from her sun-drenched beaches to her snow-capped Alps, from the tiniest, remote village to her most cosmopolitan city, Italy pulses with life and an ineffable beauty. Here are some “must savor” experiences selected by Italy travel expert, Kathy McCabe.

The Five Lands of \

Regional Cuisine of Italy

Eating is taken very, very seriously in Italy. But what you eat often depends on what region of the country you’re visiting. Here are some of the specialties on the menu in different parts of Italy.
Emilia-Romagna:

  • Parma’s claim to fame is prosciutto, that dry-cured, pressed ham that is sliced thin enough to be almost transparent. About one-third of all prosciutto http://www.mmdtkw.org/VProsciutto.html produced in Italy comes from Parma.
  • Nearby, Reggio Emilia is the birthplace of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, those giant wheels of cheese that are be aged for a couple of years until the cheese experts of Reggio Emilia decide it’s ready for consumption and shipment around the world. You’re welcome to visit some of the cheese makers.
  • The region around the town of Modena is famous for a very special and very expensive balsamic vinegar, Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena. To make this special balsamic vinegar, grape juice is aged for at least 12 years (or, to be labeled extravecchio, 25 years) and carefully fermented in barrels until the vinegar is as thick as maple syrup. I love to tap out a few drops on a single raspberry for a stunning taste. You can find genuine aceto from Italy in gourmet grocery stores in the Unites States, but take note: Small containers can cost more than $100 each.
  • In the city of Bologna, The Learned Order of the Tortellini keeps a watchful eye on the naval-shaped pasta that Bologna claims to have invented. The folks in Modena, however, claim tortellini was invented by a local chef who dreamed of Venus rising out of the waves and, glimpsing her perfect naval, recreated it in his kitchen. But don’t try to convince anyone in Bologna of that

Piedmont:

  • Among sought-after delicacies, the white truffle (tartufo bianco) of Alba surely ranks near the top of the list. Its nickname, “white diamond,” hints at its price (which this year is about $375 per 100 grams) but not necessarily its appearance, which resembles a lumpy potato. It’s the unique taste–strong, with a hint of garlic–and fragrant aroma that give this truffle high value.
  • More than half of the region’s 170,000 acres of vines have earned Italy’s prized D.O.C. (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) label, a guarantee of a place name and production formula awarded by the government. Piedmont also has more D.O.C. zones (50) than any other region in Italy. Some 800 Piedmontese vintners produce Barolo and Barbaresco. Both are made from the highly tannic nebbiolo grape, which reportedly gets its name from the fog (la nebbia) that often covers the local hills.

Veneto:

  • Venice: If seafood is your thing, then Venice is the place to go. Don’t miss the zuppa di pesce (fish soup) and succulent scampi. And you’ll see many pasta and risotto dishes flavored with cuttlefish ink. Don’t let the black color turn you off. Properly prepared, cuttlefish is delectable. What you can be sure of: dishes are always made with ingredients in season. Thus, you’ll find pasta e fagiole, a hearty pasta and bean soup, on many restaurants’ winter menus. More Veneto specialties

Tuscany:

  • Fans of great steaks can enjoy the regional specialty, Bistecca Fiorentina, or “steak Florentine.” It’s always a t-bone steak grilled over an open fire and accompanied with a dash of local olive oil. That olive oil, by the way, is considered a great condiment to be sprinkled over bread, steaks, and vegetables.
  • Don’t be surprised when you taste Tuscan bread; it’s made without salt. Enjoy it with a generous slice of the local pecorino cheese made from sheeps’ milk. Ricotta is the younger version of the cheese; older, more mature pecorino is hard and sharp to the taste. Some locals add a dollop of honey to a snack of Tuscan bread and pecorino.
  • Then there are the wines of Tuscany, especially those from the Brunello, made entirely from the Sangiovese grape and aged for at least four years. While there are dozens of wineries in Tuscany, it’s best to make reservations before visiting. One of the best-known names is the Banfi winery, which boasts a first-rate dining room that, of course, serves Banfi wines during lunch. Advance reservations are a must. For more information on the region.

Campania:

The volcanic soils of Campania combine with a perfect climate to grow the best fruits and vegetables in Italy, which combine with the fruits of the sea for delicious fare.

  • Naples: “Naples is pizza and pizza is Naples,” say Neopolitans who demand the very best pizzas from classic, wood-fired ovens. The earliest version of pizza may have been invented by the Greeks, but the first pizzeria was opened in 1830 in Naples. And the Via Port’Alta 18 is still in business. The good folks of Naples are probably most famous for inventing pizza margherita (tomato, mozzarella, basil and olive oil) that was named after Italy’s Queen Margherita more than 100 years ago. Naples is also a city that loves its seafood–clams, mussels, and anything else found in the Mediterranean. Thanks to the region’s San Marzano tomatoes, many seafood dishes feature a tomato sauce. More on Campania

Sicily:

  • Here in Italy’s boot, you will find pasta with sardines, fresh fish, a classic Sicilian cake (cassata) made with ricotta cheese and cannoli stuffed with ricotta. The Mediterranean diet was practically invented here, and many of Sicily’s most famous dishes use heart-healthy olive oil generously. The varieties of olive oil are as distinctive as vintages of wine. Compare Carolea with Nocellara oil and you’ll be able to taste the difference. The fresh fruit on the island is splendid and the pastries world-famous.

Roman Civilization

The famous quote attributed to author John Heywood, “Rome was not built in one day,” couldn’t be more true. But, boy, look what they built there! The must-see buildings, relics and monuments of ancient Rome are well known and include the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the Imperial Forum, Trajan’s Column, Circus Maximus, and the Pantheon. But there are hundreds of other breathtaking structures throughout the city and just outside of Rome that many visitors miss. Here are a few.

  • Get Out of Rome: A great day trip from the Eternal City is Ostia Antica, the well-excavated remains of ancient Rome’s old port town. Preserved mosaics will tip you off to some of the kinds of businesses that once operated in the structures whose floor plans you can still see. The entire town will give you a great feel for everyday Roman life.
  • Hadrian’s Villa: Second-century Roman Emperor Hadrian didn’t much like city life (and didn’t much trust his political enemies in town), so he built a villa and an incredible residential complex in Tivoli, just outside of Rome. Oh, and he brought about 1,499 of his friends and staff. Even all of these years later, the collection of 30 buildings and various gardens remains worthy of royalty and your attention. You can arrange a day-trip visit to the estate through various tour companies.
  • Pompeii and Herculaneum: Both these two Roman towns shared the same fate when, in 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius erupted and buried them in lava and ash. Pompeii is the most famous of the two, and excavations give you a true sense of what Roman life was like in the good times as well as the bad times–or time–when terror rained down on the town. Herculaneum has been as well excavated as Pompeii, and the remains that have been found are in better shape. A commuter train to Pompeii from Naples takes less than 30 minutes. Just make sure you get off in old Pompeii, not the modern city by the same name. And if you do spend time in Naples, don’t miss the city’s incredible archaeological museum that houses many artifacts from Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Art and Architecture in Italy

According to UNESCO, half of the world’s historic and artistic assets are within her boundaries. Wherever you go in Italy you will be surrounded by breathtaking art and architecture.

  • Florence: No city in the world is more synonymous with art than Firenze where the entire city seems enveloped in Renaissance culture. The Uffizi Gallery and Michelangelo’s David are two top must-sees here. The Uffizi houses works by Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo and Caravaggio as well as German, Dutch and Flemish masters such as Dürer, Rembrandt and Rubens. Plan on spending some time; the Gallery’s 45 rooms contain about 1,700 paintings, 300 sculptures, 46 tapestries and 14 pieces of furniture and ceramics. Museum officials claim that Uffizi, founded in 1591, was the first museum in the world open to the public.
    Buy tickets for the Uffizi and Galleria dell’Academia, where the David is exhibited, online. Admission to both museums is in 15-minute increments.
  • Veneto’s Palladian Villas: In the 16th century, wealthy Venetians turned to architect Andrea Palladio to design their country homes. In his designs, Palladio revolutionized architectural principles. Now referred to as the Palladian style, his distinctive designs gave Venice its classical character. Eighteen of his villas remain and are considered as a whole a World Heritage site. Read more for locations and descriptions of the sites.
  • Milan: The Last Supper: Da Vinci’s masterpiece is in the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. Due to preservation efforts, entrances are limited, and the increased interest sparked by the book and movie The Da Vinci Code has made it is essential to reserve at least several weeks ahead. Buy your tickets online. Only 20 people can visit the artwork at a time, for a maximum of 15 minutes.

Opera

Italy is the heart and soul of opera.

  • Milan’s La Scala: Officially known as Teatro alla Scala, Milan’s opera house is the very center of the opera world. If you’re not an opera fan, you likely will be after seeing a performance here. The audience is a show in and of itself; don’t be surprised to hear the spectators boo if they find a performance lacking. For a schedule of performances and to buy tickets, go to La Scala’s website.
  • Arena di Verona: Taking in an opera at Verona’s world-famous Roman amphitheater ranks as a must for any opera lover. The venue, which holds 22,000 people, is the best preserved structure of its kind. Almost every night during the summer, spectators sit under the stars, holding small candles, continuing a tradition started by the ancient Romans. For tickets go to the Arena website.
  • Venice’s La Fenice: Over the course of its history, Venice’s Teatro La Fenice (The Phoenix) has certainly earned its name. After sustaining significant damage from several devastating fires, this opera house has risen from the ashes an astounding three times.
  • Puccini Festival: For over half-a-century, this opera great has been celebrated with an open-air summer festival on the banks of Lake Massaciuccoli in Torre de Lago, where Puccini once lived.

Special tour: Sicily

J.W. Goethe wrote in Journey to Italy, “To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is to have not seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything.” An island the size of Vermont, Sicily is Italian of course, but that’s only a more recent development. For thousands of years, Sicily was under the domination of outside forces including the Greeks, Arabs, Romans and Normans. Their influences are layered throughout the Sicilian lifestyle – from the architecture to the cuisine – and combine to create a complex and fascinating place, well worth visiting.

  • Palermo: Sicily’s capital city is filled with the architecture of its conquerors as well as chapels, churches, palaces and crypts worth visiting. Most noteworthy, the Palantine Chapel, filled with Greek Byzantine mosaics. Just walking around the city and experiencing “the theater” of everyday life is enjoyable in Palermo.
  • Agrigento: A visit to this town is a must as it is home to some of the best-preserved Greek temples in the world, including Greece.
  • Siracusa: Roman and Greek Ruins
  • Taormina: When you’re ready to relax, head to Taormina. This pretty town is best for shopping and sunbathing (head to the beach at nearby Giardini Naxos), but there’s also a Greek amphitheater worth visiting.
  • Best Restaurants: Il Mulinazzo, 45 minutes outside Palermo, considered Sicily’s best restaurant, is a destination unto itself. Also of note, Il Duomo in Ragusa. Its young chef has earned two Michelin stars.

Shopping in Italy

The dollar may not be strong against the euro but shopping in Italy is still worthwhile and for the shopaholics among us, downright exhilarating. Because of rising prices, you will have to look harder for bargains than in years past, but isn’t that half the fun? If you are buying items at a market or dealing directly with the owner or manager of a store, don’t be afraid to negotiate for a sconto (discount), especially if you are paying cash. Italy has two official sale periods, one in mid-January and one in mid-July.

  • Fashion: Milan remains Italy’s fashion capital and if you are looking for designer duds or just want to window shop, head to the quadrilatero alla moda. Be sure to check out the Armani Superstore which sells everything from clothing to chocolates.
  • Ceramics: Two of Italy’s ceramics centers are Deruta in the region of Umbria and Vietri sul Mare on the Amalfi Coast. Walk down the streets of either of these towns to watch artisans at work and compare designs and prices. Definitely plan on shipping your purchases home.
  • Leather: Florence is famous for leather goods – shoes, jackets, purses. The best places to buy these items are in the street markets or at Scuola del Cuoio, where a consortium of leather artisans sell their creations.
  • Outlets: If you’re visiting Milan, Florence or Rome, you might consider visiting one of the outlet centers outside the city for the best fashion bargains. Outside Milan, visit the Serravalle Outlet Center. From Florence, rent a car or take a day tour to Prada’s outlet (named Space) and The Mall (which has outlets of many designers including Gucci and Armani). The local outlet mall for Rome is McArthur Glen.

    Kathy McCabe

    Eons contributor, TravelDragon Friend!

    Kathy McCabe is the founder, editor and publisher of the subscription travel newsletter, Dream of Italy, The Insider’s Guide to Undiscovered Italy. The four-year-old newsletter has been recommended by Rudy Maxa, USA TODAY, National Geographic Traveler, U.S News & World Report, and American Way (American Airlines). Through her newsletter and media appearances, this Italian travel expert has helped thousands of travelers experience authentic Italy

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