For many, many years I've been intrigued by the concept of the 'Gladiators' of ancient Rome (not to mention that one of my all time favorite movies is Ridley Scott's 'Gladiator' with Russel Crowe) .
Were they slaves who were forced to fight, were they free men who were the glamor athletes of their time? Francesca Bezzone of L'Italo-Americano magazine researched Gladiators and found that before Pompeii and Hercolaneum were rediscovered by archaeologists in the 18th century, we knew relatively little about them and the way they lived, but today, thanks to the findings coming from these two cities, we can reconstruct fairly well the way these entertainment-warriors were selected, and perceived by the public.
So who were they?
Gladiators were not a right or privilege of the Romans: sources tell us long before the Romans that the Etruscans, too, had a penchant for arena fights, not only a way to entertain, but also a window for the rich and famous of the time to show off their wealth and power. The Etruscans were not much different from our forefathers, the Romans, who used gladiatorial games as a way for the Emperor to display power, riches and, often, his right of life and death upon other human beings. Mind you, in Roman times gladiators also had a pretty strong political role: rulers used them and their combats to sweeten up the common people to draw their attention from more pressing issues such as high taxes, lack of food, poverty, another war to fight and pay for.
Thanks to archeological research, we know that Roman gladiators were usually aged between 20 and 35 years of age and had an average height of 1.68 meters (around 5ft 5in): do you think they were short? Well, not for those times, when the average height for a man was just that.
But the first question to ask ourselves is: who were the gladiators and where did they come from? Well, there is a fairly widespread misconception they were exclusively war prisoners and slaves forced into fighting for the sake of Roman pleasure, but sources tell us a fairly different story. If, indeed, a great part of them had been captured during combat and forced into becoming an arena hero (a bit like the way you see in the movie Gladiator, with Russell Crowe, where his best fighter friend was a captured enemy warrior), there is proof a number of free, Roman men decided to take up this dangerous career. Dangerous, because you risked your life every time you went to work, but the rewards could be incredible, if you were good and lucky.
Free gladiators came usually from Rome’s poorer social strata, and saw the arena as a way to gain prestige, popularity and, first and foremost, wealth: the best gladiators were protected by noble families, received lavish gifts and could in fact lead a pretty glamorous lifestyle. Many of them, it seems, were also favorites in the bedrooms of Rome’s most powerful Matrons: it is even said that Eppia, wife of a Roman senator, abandoned her husband to be with a gladiator.
Living as a gladiator
In many ways, gladiators in Rome were like modern day athletes. They bonded during training and fighting and often shared profound friendships, to the point official unions called 'collegia' were formed. Collegia took care of many aspects of the life of gladiators, including the expenses related to their funeral and burial, should they die during a combat, and financial compensation for their family.
If you wanted — or were selected — to become a gladiator, you had to attend one of the Empire’s gladiatorial schools, the most important of which was in Capua. And, just as it happens today with footballers or other athletes, there were bonafide talent scouts cruising the Empire, looking for fresh talent to add to their “teams.” If you were a free man, they’d entice you to become a fighter with tales of wealth and status; if you were a slave or a prisoner, you had no choice but go with them.
Life in the gladiatorial school was very strict: all men had to train daily and it was not all about fighting. Indeed, the first months were dedicated to become “gladiator fit,” which means physical exercise and strain could become rather excruciating. They all followed a healthy, three-meal-per-day diet, which is thought to have included fruit, vegetables, cheese, grains and meat, although recent archaeological findings appear to prove many gladiators were, in fact, vegetarians (to my great chagrin).
But the comparison with modern athletes ends pretty much here: all gladiators attending school had to sleep and spend all of their free time in 'cells' and were only freed from them while training and eating. They would fight four to five times a year, and most of them specialized in specific types of combat. A harsh life, for sure, but the rewards were worthy in the eye of a vast majority of them, because gladiators were the Empire’s stars: they endorsed products, their portraits were placed in public places, children had toys — often clay figurines — modeled after them. And, they were, as we said, considered great lovers and Roman women thought their sweat was an aphrodisiac.
Little curiosities about our fighting heroes
Gladiators have always been very popular characters of Roman history: they embody strength, courage and as we mentioned have a good deal of sex appeal. But, there are many things we believe about them that are not as true as we think.
For instance, not all gladiators were men: women liked their fighting, too. Contrary to men, though, the vast majority of women chose to become fighters freely, attracted by the lifestyle and by the allure of the arena. There is also new research about the gladiators and death: while the risk of not ending up alive at the end of a combat was certainly high, death in the gladiatorial arena was not as common as many of us may have learned from history books and tv; indeed, gladiators were only part of the arena entertainment offered during the games, which usually also involved animal fights and, alas, executions.
This meant that people got their need for blood and gore out of the way by the time gladiators came “on stage,” which often allowed them to end their fights alive, even if they lost. And, gladiators had their own energy drinks, too: apparently, they would mix together water, vinegar and wood ashes to create an reinvigorating concoction, the chemical traces of which were found in the bones of gladiators analyzed a few years ago by the Medical University of Vienna.
"My name is Gladiator . . ."
In last month's blog we learned about cork trees. Wine corks are made from cork oak (Quercus suber), which are native to southwest Europe and northwest Africa. The tree forms a thick layer of bark that once it reaches the right thickness is harvested and processed into wine corks, as well as many other useful items. What’s truly unique about this process is that unlike almost all other products made from trees, cork is a completely renewable resource. The harvesting of cork doesn’t damage the tree and so they are left uncut and allowed to continue to grow. Pretty cool!
Over the last few weeks we've been asked about corks vs. screw caps . . . which is better? Is there a difference? Is it all about cost? Should I be wary about buying a higher priced bottle of wine if it has a screw cap vs. a cork? Why veer from tradition?
Well, like most innovation, the answer was necessity. Since cork is only stripped in nine-year intervals, the cork companies weren’t necessarily scrambling to provide the developing areas of the wine-producing world (like New Zealand - yes this craze started in New Zealand!) with the best corks. This meant that these regions were receiving subpar corks that were more likely to produce cork taint. Not wanting their juice to taste like wet, moldy newspaper, the New Zealand wineries began using screw tops. The idea of screw tops for wine had existed since the 1970s but consumers had been slow to accept change.
So, is one better than the other, are there advantages/disadvantages for the wine using a cork or a screw top? Here's the bottom line for us. For wines that are meant to be consumed young, like whites, rosés, and fresh styles of reds (Pinot Noir, Gamay, Dolcetto, Schiava, Grenache and Carignan), screw tops are perfect because these wines don’t need to breathe. For wines that need a little age to come together (Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Pinotage, Malbec, Aglianico, Petite Sirah, Mourvedre, Sagrantino, Bordeaux, Nebbiolo and most Barbera, Merlot, Aglianico, Tempranillo, Sangiovese and Zinfandel), corks are really the only way to go for now; however, we’ve heard talk of a breathable screw top in the works.
Now, that’s not to say we're topper snobs. We're more concerned with the juice inside, not the way the wine is topped, but its helpful to know which wines should be corked vs. screw topped . . . at least for now.
il vino è vita!
Ever wonder where the 'corks' in wine bottles come from . . . how they're made? And, there has been a great proliferation in items made from cork over the last several years.
Laura Morelli of Italy Magazine tells us the stripping of cork oaks (Quercus suber) is nothing new. In fact, we know that the inhabitants of pre-Roman Italy were already using cork to cap bottles of wine and oil, but they also used the material to make surprising objects. Pliny the Elder, the esteemed Roman naturalist, wrote in his Natural History that cork oaks were used “chiefly for ships’ anchor drag ropes and fishermen’s drag-nets, for the bungs of casks, and also to make soles for women’s winter shoes.”
Just as in centuries past, the processing of cork still begins with stripping bark from the oak, a process that does not harm the tree itself. The bark is seasoned in vast outdoor vats for up to two years. Then the cork is boiled and disinfected, dried, cut, and packaged.
Although workers on Sardinia were well experienced with harvesting the bark of cork oaks and working the material for a variety of uses, it wasn’t until relatively recent times that they began exploiting the island’s natural resource on a wide scale. In the mid-nineteenth century, Sardinian entrepreneurs began to cultivate crops of cork oaks more systematically. They began to produce wine stoppers on a large scale, using their own local raw materials as well as bark imported from Corsica and mainland Tuscany.
Today, cork is considered one of Sardinia’s most characteristic natural resources and manufactured products. The town Calangianus, on the north end of Sardinia, is the island’s major cork production area. Hundreds of cork enterprises (sugherifici), large and small, are concentrated around this town of just four thousand inhabitants. The cork industry is divided into two main sectors, industrial and artisanal.
Most of the industrial-scale cork factories on Sardinia are focused on the production of wine and champagne corks, or 'tappi', churned out in breathtaking numbers. A single sugherificio can produce tens of thousands of tappi per day, many destined for the great wine producers of Tuscany and Piemonte. Sardinia has earned a worldwide reputation in the production of wine corks, because of the high quality of both the material and the long experience of Sardinian cork makers. Winemakers from Tuscany to California to South Africa—and most recently, China—import Sardinian wine corks in vast numbers.
Giovanni Pasella, a fourth-generation wine cork artisan, tells us, “Today, most of the production of tappi is consolidated in a few companies of enormous size. As a result, some of our smaller companies have decided to focus on specific, high-value steps of the processing. Others have pursued the production of “natural” corks aimed at the highest end of the market —intended for fine wines and special aging.”
In the 1990s, there was a move among winemakers away from natural wine corks and toward plastic, but cork is coming back into vogue. “Cork is an exceptionally pliable material,” says Pasella. “European winemakers are returning to natural cork after a ‘parenthesis’ of the plastic cap.” In addition, the larger cork factories are looking for new opportunities for the use of cork, and Sardinian entrepreneurs are exploring the use of cork in surprising ways—the production of shoes, of apparel, even eco-friendly building materials like wallpaper.
Pasella says that he believes Sardinia’s cork producers must continue to think beyond the wine bottle with their products and processes if they are to adapt to changing global markets. “We face many challenges, but those of us in the cork industry around Calangianus have always been good at collaborating to overcome obstacles. That takes determination—and humility.”
Davide Sessa says working from his small leather and cork studio outside of Cagliari, “My challenge is to make objects that no one has ever imagined could be made with cork.” Sessa’s workshop, filled with jackets, umbrellas, hats, shoes, and other items—all crafted from the bark of the island’s cork trees—stretch the imagination of what could be made from sughero, one of Sardinia’s most versatile raw materials.
Although tourism on Sardinia is on a much smaller scale than mainland Italy, it remains one of the most important sectors of the island’s economy. And, Pasella says, a growing number of those visitors are interested in their products, “We recognize that outside visitors to the island are an important driving force for economic growth,” says Pasella. “More and more people want to learn about cork processing. For us, it indicates how important it is to preserve our know-how and to share it with the growing numbers of visitors who come to Sardinia.”
Davide Sessa says that it’s not only a growing number of visitors to the island but also the creative impulse itself, that he believes will keep the working of cork alive for the next generation, whether in the making of wine corks or objects yet unknown. “What motivates me to create is often the desire to materialize something I’ve seen in a dream or vision. I don’t think about reselling a new creation. I make it for the pure joy of seeing something new born from my own hands. That’s the secret.”
A lot of the cork wares sold throughout the retail shops of Sardinia are aimed for the tourist trade, stamped with scenes of Sardinia or silly sayings in Italian. Make the trek to Calangianus, or seek out the island’s individual cork artisans, to ensure that you buy a high-quality, handmade item directly from the source. Handmade cork items are relatively affordable, easily portable, and make great gifts to bring home in your suitcase.
L‘ Italio-Americano, the #1 source of all things Italian since 1908 reminds us when growing up your Nonni (grandparents) curing your ailments with peculiar medical remedies is as natural as getting double portions on your dinner plate. We all got warm milk, honey and a drop of whiskey when we had a bad cough, and eating eggs or drinking milk was certainly forbidden if we were taking antibiotics. My Nonna, as many others from the Liguria area, also swore by 'segna la tosse con l'olio d'oliva’- she would make crosses on my chest after dipping her finger in olive oil warmed in a half of a walnut shell for a cough, or putting a pungent smelling herb (still don’t know what it was) under our pillows when we had a cold. Every time I’d roll over I’d get this awful smell of something and thought – my God, what is that, and then I would remember my Nonna had put it there. But, you know what, my colds didn’t last very long!? If some of these concoctions and practices are certainly more folklore than medicine, some others have solid roots in ancient medical practices and are worth knowing.
In any case, they all are part of that immense, age old traditional knowledge that makes so much of our heritage and marks our identity of Italians so profoundly. And you know what? Some of them, it seems, truly work. Let’s take a closer look at five of the most common throughout the peninsula.
"sage is known to have anti-fungal, anti-bacterial and astringent properties, reason for which
it is a fairly common ingredient in many a toothpaste
1. Sage leaves to clean your teeth
Out in the garden was usually a sage bush, Italians often grab a couple of leaves and start brushing their teeth; “They’ll keep your teeth white,” we're often told. And indeed, there is science behind this old remedy so dear to Nonna's: sage is known to have anti-fungal, anti-bacterial and astringent properties, reason for which it is a fairly common ingredient in many a toothpaste, at least here in Italy. And it certainly does freshen your breath!
2. Sliced potatoes to soothe a sore head
I admit this sounds very strange, but it is a hit among Italian Nonne. Complain about a headache and they’ll come to the rescue with a few slices of freshly peeled, raw potatoes and a neck scarf, they’ll get you to lie down, place the slices on your temples and forehead and secure them in place with the scarf. Their prompt medical intervention usually ends with the warning not to move for at least 30 minutes. And well, as strange as this remedy may sound, it sometimes work. Potatoes are rich in starch, which is known to work as an anti-inflammatory. Moreover, potato juices are alkaline and improve circulation, thus helping blood flow to the brain. So, in this case, too, science supports our Nonna's’ advice.
3. Olive oil to cool down sunburn
Many Italian grandmas do swear by extra virgin olive oil not only in the kitchen, but also when it comes to sunburn. Olive oil softens, hydrates and it’s all natural, so it does not damage your skin: the best thing to do is to dilute extra virgin olive oil with an equal part of water and then apply the concoction on burnt skin. Once again, our Nonne are not mistaken: the anti-inflammatory and even painkilling properties of olive oil have been known to the people of the Mediterranean for millennia: you really only need to take a look at Greek and Roman medical treatises to understand how important an ingredient it was in ancient medicine. And so, it transpires, grandmas know well even the Greeks, the Romans and their secrets to make us feel better.
4. Onions to get rid of earache
Nonne would take half an onion, warm it up in a bit of hot water, then have you lie down and place it on the sore ear. Needless to say, she wasn’t the only Nonna to know about the medical properties of onions, which contain a natural antibiotic called allicin, the active ingredient helping ease out the pain.
Of course, the onion’s warm vapors, released thanks to its immersion in hot water, also work as a mild painkiller, which may not be as strong as a real medicine, but certainly helps: this is why Italian grandmas of the past often liked to put flannel to heat up on the stove and then placed it tight on their grandchildren’s sore ears. And the relief, believe me, was indeed immediate! Other times Nonna would use the above olive oil, warm if and soak somme cotton in it and place it in our ears for awhile - again, the anti-inflammatory and painkilling properties.
5. Clover to kill the pain of a toothache
I think there isn’t a pain quite as awful as that of a bad toothache, especially when you’re a child. The problem is that antibiotics often take a couple of days to get rid of the pain, so the agony lasts, especially when prescribed painkillers cannot be taken more than a couple of times a day, but their effect lasts only a handful of hours. Nonne of Italy swear by a couple of natural remedies, including that of imbuing a cotton ball in brandy and place it on the sore tooth although, now that I think of it, that’s not that “natural” of a remedy!?
But using cloves certainly is. As grandmas teach us, placing cloves on the aching tooth eases the pain almost immediately. This is because cloves have known anesthetic properties thanks to a substance, eugenol, they contain in abundance. If walking around with a handful of cloves in your mouth seems odd, then you can let them soak in hot water with a spoon of coarse sea salt and use the mixture as a mouthwash.
Looking at these remedies, and at all the others they like to use, it really seems Nonne truly know best, even when it comes to health. Though I think what made us feel better was the most important and amazing ingredient of all, the beautiful, heart warming and never ending love of Nonna.
“In Italy, food is an obsession and rightly so.” Traveling to Italy for over 40 years I have witnessed this infatuation and ardent passion for food on a daily basis. That is why, it comes as no surprise that in Italy almost every ingredient or traditional recipe is celebrated in some way, typically by means of a sagra or town festival. Montaquila, a town in the Molise region of southern Italy, celebrates La Sagra della Frittata or the “Frittata Festival.” In 2018, they kicked off the event by making a BIG-frittata with 1,501 eggs!
A frittata, is a great treat and for generations Italian's used it as a solution to reducing waste. After a family dinner in which there were leftovers (not often, but occasionally) those leftovers would make a tasty frittata the next morning. The frittata is a common way to use up any leftover ingredients you have in the fridge--vegetables, protein, pasta, beans, cheese--the list goes on. You can follow the recipe below or simply adapt it with what you have on hand. Enjoy!
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Add the water and leeks to a cast iron skillet and heat over medium high until the leeks are soft; about 5 minutes. Add the extra virgin olive oil, green onion, kale, brussel sprouts and mushrooms (or other vegetable you have on hand). Heat until vegetables are soft; 10-15 minutes.
In the meantime, whisk the eggs in a medium sized bowl then stir in the Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, milk and parsley. When the vegetables are cooked, pour the egg mixture over the vegetables. (For a prettier presentation, remove half of the vegetables, pour in the egg mixture then layer those vegetables on top.) Cook over medium heat for 5 minutes until the eggs are just barely set. Carefully slide (use a hot pad as skillet handle will be very hot) the cast iron skillet into the preheated oven and bake for 15-20 minutes or until the edges are slightly golden and the egg mixture doesn’t run (test with knife) when sliced with a knife (I turn on the broiler for a couple minutes at the end to get a nice golden brown crust on top, but you need to watch very carefully it as it will quickly burn). Remove from oven and grate Parmigiano Reggiano over top of frittata. Serve warm or cold.
Italy Magazine tells us that at the courts of Italy’s most powerful families of the Renaissance, as well as the
Vatican, hosting sumptuous banquets was a major pastime, used especially as a demonstration of power and wealth. Skilled chefs were in high demand. Two of the most famous from the Renaissance, Bartolomeo Scappi and Cristoforo di Messisbugo, worked respectively for the popes in Rome and for the Este court in Ferrara.
Scappi started his career working for various cardinals, until he was hired to be the chef of the Vatican under Pope Pius IV and V. In 1570, toward the end of his career, he published a monumental cookbook, Opera dell'arte del cucinare, which listed 1,000 recipes of Renaissance cuisine; in it, he also described cooking techniques and tools and how to choose ingredients; he was the first to introduce ingredients coming from newly discovered America. In the book is the first depiction of a fork. Scappi wrote that Parmigiano Reggiano was the best cheese in the world (“il Parmigiano è il migliore di tutti i cacii”). Including numerous recipes of pasta, stuffed pasta, cakes and other pastry-based preparations, his book is a precursor of what would become modern Italian cuisine.
Ferrara-born Cristoforo di Messisbugo was a chef at the court of the Este, but his fame soon went beyond the city; he was often invited to Mantua, at the court of the Gonzaga, for consulting, while emperor Charles V, fascinated by his craftsmanship, nominated him a ‘count’. Cristoforo also wrote a cookbook, Banchetti, composizioni di vivande e apparecchio generale, where he described in great detail how to create the perfect banquet and the menus for his official feast at the Este court. Some of his recipes are still made in Ferrara today. Besides listing recipes, he also discusses logistics, decor, and cooking equipment. In the book, we also learn that the best caviar could be eaten at the court of the Este as it came from the Beluga sturgeon from the Po river, which flows near Ferrara.
In Italy, the rules for making the delicacy, panettone, are strict: in order to be labeled as such, a native panettone must be composed of no less than 20 percent candied fruit, 16 percent butter, and eggs that are at least four percent yolk. Attempts by the Italian agriculture ministry to have these standards applied abroad have not panned out, and the reality is that panettone is a dessert with many homes.
Panettone has actually been a worldly product from the very beginning. From the Middle Ages onward, the pastry was appropriate for a feast day precisely because it involved ingredients that were hard to come by. In the 15th century—a period in which bread flour usually involved cheaper grains like spelt and rye—the first panettone was made entirely from wheat flour, and thus more likely to impress the in-laws. And given the climate of northern Italy, additions like candied citron or orange peel would have had to come from hundreds of miles away, beyond, perhaps, even the borders of modern-day Italy.
“Panettone was not born as a homemade cake, nor has it ever been,” says Stanislao Porzio, a food scholar and author of a 2007 book on the subject. “It was never important that the place of provenance of the ingredients be near the place of preparation.
In other words, nothing is inherently inauthentic about a panettone made in the Western hemisphere. In the 1930s, when Angelo Motta was installing a 100-foot conveyor belt in his bakery on Milan’s Viale Corsica to create what Porzio calls the world’s first “industrial panettone,” an entrepreneur named Antonio D’Onofrio had already established a market for the pastry in Lima, Peru, where thousands of immigrants from Piedmont and Lombardy had arrived since the mid-1800s. Today, the brands of Motta and D’Onofrio (now owned by Nestle) compete in the Peruvian marketplace, where slices of panettone—inflected with bits of dried papaya—is the sweet of choice for both Christmas and Independence Day, celebrated in July. Italy may dominate in global panettone consumption, at a rate of 75 million cakes purchased in 2016, but Peruvian fans are no less sincere. They consumed 42 million panettoni in the same year, sometimes enjoying variations like cocatón, in which about five percent of the flour is made from coca leaves, or by incorporating a fruity edible fungus native to the pine forests around Lambayeque.
In sales, Italian confectioners have been outpaced for a long time by companies like Bauducco, another multi-generational enterprise, founded in the 1950s by an Italian immigrant to Brazil. The company is probably the biggest panettone producer on earth, making more than 200,000 tons each year for more than 50 countries and operating six industrial bakeries, including one in the United States.
“It’s a tradition that goes back generations,” says Ricardo Bastos, a Brazilian grocer in the Astoria section of Queens, New York. Bastos sells Bauducco’s panettone year-round at his store, Rio Supermarket.
Stanislao, the historian, admits to having tasted the Bauducco brand himself, and gave it a tactful review. (“It had a different, romantic character.”) He remains passionate about preserving the traditions of panettone-making in his home country of Italy and is the sponsor of a petition on Change.org to have the recipe recognized as a valuable cultural artifact by Unesco. In 2008, he launched Re Panettone (“Panettone King”), an annual competition in Milan aimed at promoting panettone variations made by artisanal bakers and pastry-makers. While far-off ingredients like saffron or tonka bean are welcome, entrants eschew the use of preservatives—even those somehow permitted by the Italian Pastry and Pasta Association—and are rewarded for their attention to detail and respect for the original formula.
A more historical perspective . . . The pastry was first mentioned in a manuscript from the 1470s, written by a preceptor in Milan’s House of Sforza. A legend tells of a story when Ludovico il Moro was the Duke of Milan. It begins one evening when the Duke's cook was asked to prepare a delicious banquet for the duke and a number of nobles. The cook successfully prepared the feast, however, he forgot about the dessert in the oven, which had burnt by the time he remembered it. The cook was in despair but thankfully the little kitchen boy, Toni, suggested using the sweet cake he had made for himself in the morning using flour, butter, eggs, lime zest, and raisins. The cook was afraid he had no other solutions, so agreed to offer the cake to the guests. They both nervously stood behind the door to see the reactions of the duke's friends.
To the cook's relief, everybody loved the cake. The duke enjoyed it so much that he asked for its name. The cook responded "L'è 'l pan de Toni", meaning 'the bread of Toni'. The name has since evolved to Panettone.
Hoping you get to enjoy a slice of my bread, L'è 'l pan de Toni, or panettone, this Christmas season . . . Buon Natale!
Want to drink Italian coffee according to etiquette? Italy magazine tells us these are the rules you need to follow on your next espresso break or when serving to family and friends.
How to stir
Even if you don’t put sugar in your coffee, it is always preferable to stir espresso with a teaspoon so that the aromas are well distributed; according to etiquette, you need to stir in delicate movements, from top to bottom, without ever bumping the cup because making noise would be impolite.
Where to place the teaspoon
After stirring, etiquette says you have to place the teaspoon on the right side of the small plate where the cup rests. Do not put the spoon in your mouth: it is considered bad manners to taste the coffee with the spoon that was used to mix it.
How to hold the coffee cup
According to etiquette, you have to lift the cup using only thumb and index finger without ever raising the little finger. The coffee should be drunk in small sips without blowing on it if it’s too hot; just wait a few minutes before drinking it. The cup should be brought to the mouth and not the other way around; once you’ve finished drinking, the cup should be placed back on the small plate.
Water: before or after coffee?
Water should always be drunk first to cleanse the palate in order to better taste the aromas of coffee.
If you’re serving espresso at home, there are rules to follow too:
- Coffee should not be served at the table, but in the living room;
- If the coffee is prepared with the moka machine, the moka should be put on the tray along with cups,
sugar bowl and milk;
- It’s always best to accompany coffee with a good dessert.
In our travels here at Villas of Italy we always take copious notes about restaurants, new or old, hotels, sights and attractions. We use these when crafting our tours in order to give our guests the best possible tour experience. And, we are always on the lookout for the best restaurants no matter where we go.
Silvia Donati at Italy Magazine shares with us The 41st edition of “Ristoranti e Vini d’Italia” (Restaurants and Wines of Italy), the guide published every year by L’Espresso, one of Italy's foremost weekly newsmagazines, was presented last week in Florence (inaugurating the ‘2019 season’ of the culinary guides, which concludes in November with the release of the most prestigious of all, the Michelin guide).
More than 2,000 dining establishments are featured in the L’Espresso 2019 guide, and not just the fanciest ones, but also trattorie, osterie, pizzerie, street food places, vegetarian and vegan-friendly restaurants, hamburger places, panino (sandwich) places, and more.
Restaurants in the guide are assigned from one to five hats, with one hat indicating good cuisine
and five hats indicating excellence . . . the best overall.
There are seven restaurants in the guide with five hats;
restaurants that make the best classics of Italian cuisine;
Lunch of the year: Osteria Francescana (which this year won first place in the 50 Best World’s
Restaurants guide), Modena. Owner / Chef Massimo Bottura tells us, “our kitchen is not a list of
ingredients or a demonstration of technical abilities. It is a narration of the Italian landscape and our passions.
Cooking is a collision of ideas, techniques and cultures. It is not mathematical. It is emotional.”
Best host service: Palagio at Four Seasons in Florence.
Best new restaurant of the year: there are two in the 2019 guide;
Patisserie of the year: the three Michelin-starred St. Hubertus in San Cassiano (Bolzano, South Tyrol), with pastry chef Andrea Tortora.
Female chef of the year: Chiara Pavan, from one Michelin-starred restaurant Venissa in Mazzorbo (Venice). Mazzorbo is an island connected to the island of Burano by a foot bridge. This restaurant and chef are a 5-minute boat ride from our villa on the nearby island of Torcello where our guests stay during our Venezia – La Serenissima tour.
Chef Chiara Pavan, from one Michelin-starred restaurant Venissa in Mazzorbo
So, whether or not you travel with us, use this guide to try the best restaurants in Italy, and let us know what you think . . . we'll add it to our notes.
Francine Segan with Italian Magazine shares with us how ancient Romans approached staying healthy. Many of these same 'health tips' exist in Italy to this day. So, what did the ancient Romans do to stay healthy.
The ancient Romans thought that wine was essential to good health because they considered it an aid to digestion. They also thought that drinking wine sparked conversation during dinner. Wine was so important to them that the ancients called a meal without wine a “dog’s dinner.” So do as the ancient Romans—sip, chat, nibble, sip.
Food not pharmacy
The ancient Romans followed the teachings of Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine, who famously wrote, “Let food be thy medicine.” When patients were sick the first thing Hippocrates prescribed was a change in diet. There weren’t drug stores back then so ancient Romans tried to cure their illness by either eating-- or not eating-- certain foods.
Marcus Cato, the second-century BC Roman statesman, devotes several pages in his book, On Agriculture, to the “so-called Seven Good Things” about cabbage. According to him cabbage can treat wounds, reduce swellings, set dislocated bones, and even prevent drunkenness. The ancients believed the cabbage was sacred, “the prophet among vegetables.” A common exclamation at the time was, “So help me Cabbage!”
Sigmund Freud wasn’t the only one into dreams. Hippocrates analyzed dreams to help diagnose what ailed his patients. He believed that while we sleep our body tries to communicate to our brain. For Hippocrates, if someone is healthy he dreams, more or less, about normal daily activities. But if a patient is ill, they might have odd dreams, which is the body’s attempt to explain what’s wrong. Hippocrates and ancient Romans thought, for example, that dreams about floods might mean kidney problems, dreams of trees falling might mean a man had reproductive problems and needed the equivalent of ancient blue pill. Interestingly, Hippocrates observed that patients often have frightening nightmares after a too-heavy meal. The ancient Romans thought figs kept away nightmares. Don’t take any chances; try the Fig Focaccia recipe below.
Eat your veggies….raw
There are many modern health authorities and chefs who advocate a raw-foods-only diet, a notion with its roots in antiquity. Galen, physician to Emperor Marcus Aurelius, recounts a story of a medical student who “resolved never to light a fire.” Eating only raw foods, the student “stayed healthy during all these years.” Galen wrote extensively on healthful eating and recommended raw salads dressed with oil, honey, and vinegar for good digestion. For an enticing accompaniment for raw veggies try an Olive Puree.
Don’t dine solo
Dinner in antiquity was almost always a social affair shared with a few close friends at someone’s home. The ancient Romans actually believed that eating alone could give you indigestion because without fun conversation you might eat too much and too fast.
Exercising in the town gymnasium or public baths was part of everyday Roman life. Hippocrates wrote, “Walking is a natural exercise, much more so than other exercises.” Galen, a first century Roman physician, was such a prolific writer that his complete works have yet to be fully translated. In one of his books, On Exercise with the Small Ball, he recommended sports as an excellent and economical way to stay fit.
In antiquity, Roman citizens considered it a virtue to take care of their bodies, believing it demonstrated their self-control and discipline. Look at Hippocratic’s advice for those with sore, over worked muscles, “get drunk once or twice” and have “sexual intercourse after a moderate indulgence in wine.”
If it’s from the water, eat it
Ancient Romans, like modern Italians, love fish, not surprising for a country with so much coastline.
The ancient Romans enjoyed a fermented fish sauce called “garum” or “liquamen” which they manufactured and distributed throughout the Mediterranean and northern regions of Europe. This all-purpose salty condiment topped everything from vegetables to meats, and was used as we might Worcestershire or soy sauce.
Archeologists recently excavated an amphora, or large clay vessel, at the site of one Roman ruin in England. The outside of the vessel reads, "Seasoned tuna garum, for the pantry, excellent and of high quality.”
Sweets in moderation
Ancient philosophers wrote often about healthful eating. Plato, for example, noted that sugar should be avoided by all athletes saying, “something which all men in training understand—that if one is to keep his body in good condition he must abstain from such things all together.” However, even Plato would have approved of these Bay Leaf Cookies adapted from On Agriculture, a book by the Roman Statesman Cato the Elder. The original recipe is for “Must Cakes” -reduced grape syrup- like Italy’s modern-day saba, plus spices and cheese baked on bay leaves.
10 1/2 ounces, about 2 cups, all-purpose flour
1 packet, 1/4 ounce, fast acting yeast
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more as needed
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
18 very small figs
3 tablespoons honey, plus more as needed
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Sift the flour onto a clean work surface or into a large bowl. Make a well in the center and fill with 1/2 cup of warm water (keep another 1/4 cup of water handy to add later). Sprinkle the yeast on the water, and let the yeast bubble, about 2 minutes. Add the oil, sugar and salt, and slowly begin to incorporate the flour into the center hollow, combining with each addition, until dough forms. Knead the dough until smooth and rest it in a lightly oiled bowl until it doubles, about 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 350 F and oil a flat cookie sheet or baking pan, at least 12 inches wide.
Roll out the dough into a circle about 10 to 12 inches in diameter. Place on the prepared pan. Pierce the dough throughout with a fork. Carefully cut a cross on top of one of the figs, halfway down, so the figs opens like a flower. Press it into the center of the dough.
Remove the stems from the 17 remaining figs, slice them in half, and arrange them around the focaccia, cut side up, pressing them into the dough as far as possible.
Put the honey into a small bowl and heat for a few seconds in the microwave or over boiling water. Stir in the lemon juice. Drizzle the mixture over the top of the figs and foccaccia dough. Sprinkle with rosemary. Bake for about 30 minutes, until golden and cooked through. Remove from the oven and drizzle with more honey.
Olive Puree with Raw Veggies
From: The Philosopher’s Kitchen, by Francine Segan (Random House)
1/2 cup pitted whole oil-cured black olives
1/2 cup pitted whole brine-cured green olives
1/4 cup chopped onion
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, minced
1 teaspoon fennel seed
1/4 cup minced fresh parsley, mint, and basil
Zest of 1 lemon
Assorted raw veggies
Combine the olives, onion, olive oil, garlic and fennel seed in a food processor and puree until smooth. Place in a serving bowl, top with the minced herbs and the lemon zest. Serve with raw vegetables.
Bay Leaf Cookies
Yield: 2-1/2 dozen cookies
From: The Philosopher’s Kitchen, by Francine Segan (Random House)
1/2 cup lard or butter, room temperature
1/4 cup sugar, plus 1 tablespoon, divided
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup saba, grape must reduction
1 teaspoon anise seed
1 teaspoon ground cumin
2 1/2 cups all purpose whole wheat flour
1/2 cup ricotta
3 bay leaves, finely crumbled and coated with olive oil
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Beat the lard or butter and sugar in a large bowl using an electric mixer until creamy. Add the egg, salt, baking soda, grape juice concentrate, anise seeds, and cumin and continue beating. Slowly add in the flour until combined.
In a small bowl mix the ricotta and remaining tablespoon of sugar until smooth.
Drop the dough by rounded teaspoonfuls onto a greased non-stick cookie sheet and make an indent in the center with a teaspoon. Place half a teaspoonful of the sweet ricotta mixture into the center. Top with a sprinkle of crumbled bay leaves.
Bake in the center rack until the bottoms are golden brown, 15 to 18 minutes.
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Tony Moglia's grandparents immigrated from Italy in the early 1900's. He's a dual citizen who has traveled extensively throughout Italy for 40 years. He's happily married to a vibrant dancer who together have two children and three grandchildren. Tony has dreamed of Villas of Italy since his first trip to Italy, and now he shares his dream with you.