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Italy’s Hidden Gems

Find out what's happening at L&B and stay up-to-date with the latest outings of our well-traveled Italy experts.

Amatrice and the Politics of the Big One

One of Italy's prettiest villages isn't there any more, according to the Mayor. People have come together to save what they could.

A recent earthquake has been a tragedy of monumental proportions for residents of Amatrice and smaller villages that surround it. An idylic corner of Lazio was reclaimed by the earth from which it sprouted. A city you are sorry you missed has been leveled.

Yet, even as the Travel Curmudgeon, I have seen amazing things grow from this tradgedy. Sudden, natural disasters bring people together in an amazing way. African immigrants volunteer to don hard hats and dig into the rubble. People and pets presumed dead rise from the ash and rockfall to live again.

But here's the thing, pessimist as I am, I still think the mayor of Amatrice is wrong. There is always something there. Foundations are there. Rocks can be re-stacked just like they were stacked to make the huddled-together lodgings in the first place. Whole towns can be rebuilt--and have been rebuilt in the past. There is no shortage of labor in the world. There is a shortage of desire and the inexcapable tyrany of I ricchi, the rich we worship and to whom we tithe. Balance has left the building.

Ever hear of a little burg called Munich? Bombed. 71 air raids over a period of five years. The historic buildings rebuilt. The recipe: desire, stones, plaster, artisan craftsmanship for the details. Now there is wealth, happiness, and beer.

One of the most amazing statements about this tragedy came from a facebook post by an American who posted a lamentation on the destruction of beautiful old cities like Amatrice. I often wonder--if we trully love these cities with compelling architecture and people-friendly public spaces in which citizens enjoy the warmth of congregation--why we don't demand from our "leaders" these same characteristics in our modern world? Because our "leaders" no longer feel it neccessary do the people's work? Because we just don't care enough? Because we're all too busy looking for a job?

Amatrice could be rebuilt better than it was. A big part of the tradgedy has recently been linked to Mafia seismic updates that were never performed. We the people demand cheap and get even cheaper. Stop it. Grab a rock. Stack it. It's a start.

There is a symbol of Amatrice that is really quite spectacular when you think of it.. It's called pasta all'Amatriciana. It's big in Rome, where they make it with bucatini. The sauce is traditionally simple: cured hog jowl (guanciale), tomatoes, some hot pepper to taste and a dusting of pecorino cheese. The thing is, you see it all the time outside of the region of Lazio. But people react differently to it than they do to other out-of-the-region concoctions. Say you see "Tagilatelli Bolognese" on a menu in Venice. If you are "in-the-know" you'll snigger at the notion and move on gingerly. Nothing Bolognese should be eaten outside of Bologna unless you're a tourist uninterested in local food and custom. But Amatriciana, in my experience, is universal. Its existance on a menu doesn't mean that the restaurant has caved to tourist "taste". After all, Americans would shy away from hog jowl anyway. (Here's a page that gives you more info and shows you how to make a deviant Amaticiana)

So if you see a restaurant willing to feed you this fantastic pasta dish and contribute a portion of the cost to earthquake relief in Amatrice, eat hearty. Have a couple bowls. Think of the little villages that surround Amatrice. Some of them were crammed with second homes of city dwellers who wanted their children to know the safety of living and playing in a small village in the countryside. Italians are known for having acquired second homes as the population ages and parents pass away; a stone house lasts a very long time if you keep the roof in good shape. Usually.

Ironic, isn't it?

Enter Renzo Piano

According to a recent story in the Guardian, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is consulting Architect Renzo Piano for help with the reconstruction, a "national recovery plan" that seems like a fantastic one.

It's brilliant. For details, let's head on over to the Transparent Language Blog where you can read in English or Italian. Here's a juicy bit:

“Non si deve allontanare la gente da dove ha vissuto. Amatrice, Pescara del Tronto, Arcuata, Accumoli, Grisciano: bisogna ricostruire tutto com’era e dov’era. Sradicare le persone dai loro luoghi è un atto crudele. Vuol dire aggiungere sofferenza alla sofferenza”.
“You mustn’t take people away from where they have lived. Amatrice, Pescara del Tronto, Arcuata, Accumoli, Grisciano: we need to rebuild everything as it was and where it was. Uprooting people from their homes is an act of cruelty. It would mean adding suffering to suffering”.

Yep; stack the rocks. Only better this time.

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Italy's Best Smaller Lakes

I like lakes. I also like fresh water. I live on the water in California. Small lakes are better than oceans or seas because the water is calmer. When the lake gets glassy and reflective there's no limits to the romantic notions the calm can spur.

That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

What's good about Italian lakes? Italian lakes can have medieval hamlets and castles built right up to the water. You can't say that about a lake in Iowa, can you?

While Italy's big lakes--Como, Garda, Maggiore--make fine destinations, there is a problem of scale. Like the Great Lakes, they overwhelm. Better to slide your kayak or canoe into Lago di Iseo and paddle gently.

Lago di Iseo? What?

If you hadn't heard of Christo and Jeanne-Claude's Floating Piers project, in which "100,000 square meters of shimmering yellow fabric, carried by a modular dock system of 220,000 high-density polyethylene cubes floating on the surface of the water" were installed at Iseo by the artists, you might be in the dark as to the location of this gem of a lake tucked between lakes Como and Garda. It happens to be my favorite of the Italian Lakes. It is, as the official site says, "The Romantic Choice".

The little lake contains Montisola, the largest lake island in all of Europe. You might see one or two of the island's three cars, owned by the priest, the doctor and the mayor.

Lago di Iseo is in the Franciacorta wine region. Romantic? Franciacorta sparkling wine is Italy's best sparkler, rivaling the most expensive of Champagne.

But that's not all. Drive north through the Oglio river valley into the Valcamonica and you'll come upon Italy's very first UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the largest collection of prehistoric petroglyphs in the world. Not only that, but you'll be in an area of alpine walks peppered with villages that seem to have escaped modern times.

Lake Trasimeno

Ok, Lake Trasimeno is not tiny. Trasimeno happens to be Italy's largest non-Alpine lake but is fairly shallow. In 217 BC Hannibal brought his elephants and fought the Romans on the north shore of the lake in the second Punic War. Hannibal won. It's in Umbria, but close to the western boundary of Tuscany, near the wine region of Montepulciano, so the wines from the western side of the lake are very good (try Madrevite and see the Etruscan tomb).

Stay in the town of Castiglione del Lago if you wish to stand at the castle and look out onto the shimmering, shallow waters of the lake as you see above. Take the little passageway between the Palazzo della Corgna (see the frescos first!) and the 13th century Castello Del Leone if you don't mind narrow spaces. Castiglione was once on a small island linked to the mainland by a Roman dam, but is now on a penninsula that juts into the lake.

Lake Massaciuccoli

massaciuccoli oasiOk, it's a pretty sure bet that you can't even pronouce this one unless you're fluent in the Italian Language. But any way you say it, the lake is famous. Yes, none other than composer Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini considered the lake a "paradise" and had a villa right on its shores, which you can visit today. You can also attend the Puccini festival in the outdoor theater on the lake, called the "Gran Teatro All'Aperto Giacomo Puccini."

Oh, but that's not all! You can head to the other side of the lake in a boat (or something) and come upon the Oasi LIPU Massaciuccoli. It's a bird watching sanctuary. You walk in the marshes on raised walkways to experience nature close up. If you're there early enough in the morning while the birds are feasting, there are blinds set up for you to watch or photograph from.

But even that's not all! There is a Roman villa complete with baths overlooking the lake just uphill from the marshes. Below the ruins of the villa are new excavations of Roman Massaciuccoli--and a small museum.

Find out more about Lake Massaciuccoli.

Talk to Me

So these are a trio of my favorite lakes. Tell me yours in the comments if you are so inclined.

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Massimo Bottura: The Skinny Chef You Might Trust as President

Certainly you have heard of Chef Massimo Bottura and his restaurant Osteria Francescana in Modena. Mr. Bottura has been climbing the charts of restaurant fame. He is climbing no longer. He has made it to the top. His is the current best restaurant out of the World's 50 Best Restaurants.

So what is chef Bottura doing right now, as I sling words from a poor comunity devistated by fire? Perhaps you think the chef would be hobnobbing with the rich and famous--but no, he is in Rio. While it's true that cooking has become a sport, the chef is having none of it. He is dishing up Olympic leftovers for the poor. 5000 people will be fed great food that was on the way to the garbage pail. Not-so-perfect fruit and vegetables, the modern biblical loaves and fishes, multiply the food available to the masses if you let it. Cooking and serving it will train cooks, bakers, and servers. How many economic wins can you get in a paragraph?

Massimo Bottura became my hero one night as I was streaming a program called Chef's Table. It was all about the chef and his restaurant. All standard stuff, until the torta.

Here's the scene, reenacted. The last two pieces of lemon tart have been ordered at the end of a long night. The pastry chef removes a piece from the pan and places it on the plate. As he is removing the next piece, it falls on the edge of the plate, the crust cracking like an egg shell on hot concrete. The pastry chef is devistated. Chef Bottura looks on, thoughtfully.

You can feel the tension. The camera zooms into the tart. The forlorn, cracked torta.

"Let's think about this a minute," says chef Bottura.

He is not angry. He does not raise his voice. He doesn't not threaten eternal damnation on the pastry wonk or the poor guy who designed to spatula. He leads angelically.

"What if we..."

And he's off, arranging the torta as if, cracked, it might reveal its story. He grabs a squeeze bottle of lemon zabaione, lush yellow. He swirls, twirls, smashes and adds color via bits of candied ginger and wild apple mostarda until the narrative thinkens. You can't tell if the torta is fresh out of the primordial ooze on its way to becoming whole, reborn as it were--or if it is descending into the underworld where it will become part of an adventure we all crave.

You see, we are fools. We lust for the static state of pristine beauty when it is the concept of not-so-perfect that inspires the artist, begins the fine narrative, and feeds those not deemed suitable for wealth. Marilyn is not Marilyn without that little birthmark.

For Bottura, "breaking" is a beginning and not an end, as "breaking bread" is the begining of a meal and yet it signifies more than just a meal, doesn't it?

In any case, the saga of the lemon tart everyone desires all began with finding a solution to a problem. Don't you wish there was a politician as savvy as Bottura? I certainly do. There are no shortage of problems on this earth.

You can order this lemon tart at Osteria Francescana if you went tomorrow because it's still on the menu. Just ask for "oops! I've dropped the lemon tart!"

You can't beat that for honesty. Don't you wish politicians.....

Oh, never mind. You catch the drift. Here's the recipe and a picture. It might be easier to go to Modena to have it though. That's what I'd do.

Osteria Francescana
Via Stella 22
Phone: +39 059 223912

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Who Cares if the Italian Truffle Tour You've Chosen is a Little Bit Faked? Take One Anyway.

First, let's get the bona fides out of the way. I am a veteran of countless truffle wars. I have seen lowly mutts paw the tender soils under trees with the exagerated vigor of army privates fearing the brig, a young man with a carved stick giving orders and encouraging them. When the dogs yap, and they will, the truffle man responds, raising an eyebrow before wrenching the troops back from the trenches with fearless arms, guaranteed him by his constitution. He bends, he plucks, he beams; an ugly, warted, dusty mass rolling between his fingers like a beguiling cats-eye weilded by a nemesis tempting you to risk everything in your marble bag.

The audience that has funded this exhibition is generally wowed by the action and applauds lightly so as not to startle the gods of good favor. The dogs release their pent-up anxiety by bounding thorugh the soft grass, yapping for some heavy petting. The young man will give the truffle to the cutest young woman so that pictures can be taken. All is well in the truffle world.

If you were paying attention you might notice that I have used the word "exhibition" in the previous sentence. The man with the big stick is likely to have planted the truffle you have observed close up. He is quite clever. He cannot reveal his most productive soils or he would be out of work. The other truffle hunters watch him like hawks. He watches back. Oh, the fun, the intrique, the need to deceive...

Let's get down to it: he is likely to have planted that truffle to teach a brash, young dog the ropes of finding it.

Now you feel I am saving you from being ripped off, don't you? After all, we vacationing humans value "real". We come to the silly boot to have experiences that aren't fake. (We also value gritty, although quite a bit less than we value "real" if it involves walking in hot sun with ticks.)

So now you know. But let me surprise you: go anyway. I mean, you get some fresh air, some excercise, a bit of sun-- you get to pet the dogs, remember. People like that.

And you get to eat truffles. Yes, near the end of the tour you generally end up at a place where you will consume this rare tuber over something steaming hot and fairly neutral in taste.

In fact you might be surprised when the waiter comes up behind you, leans over your plate and begins shredding the carefully re-cleaned truffle "we've found" over your steaming ravioli. Soon everything will be smelling like sex. Good sex. Dirty sex. The hot sex of your dreams.

Or maybe not:

Researchers in West Germany have found that truffles contain large quantities of a substance also synthesized in the testes of boars. In the boars it is secreted into their saliva when they court females. The Germans report that the substance's musklike scent, "emanating from the saliva foam, is smelled by the sow and prompts her standing reflex."

The chemical is twice as abundant in truffles as in the blood plasma of boars. Furthermore, it and related steroids are produced in the testes of human males and secreted by their armpit sweat glands. It can also be detected in the urine of women. ~ TRUFFLES: WHY PIGS CAN SNIFF THEM OUT

I do not always wax poetic over boar testes or saliva foam, even if they sound like the exotic ingredients in the amuse buche they might serve in that restuarant none of us can afford. But still, the point of the whole excercise is to let these oders waft over your vacationing body. The sub plot is that your neighbors back in Cabbot Cove aren't having the dish you're having and you're bound to become absolutely giddy over the one-upmanship thing. I mean you've had a glorious experience that started with a little amusement, a little uglyness wrenched by obedient dogs from the forest soil that will become the focus of an expensive gourmet lunch, which you've taken with a bit of wine in the company of other folks quivering in anticipation of sexy tuber delights.

Thus I cut to the chase. Go. Just go. Don't be put off by the exhibition, the saliva foam, or the dirt on your shoes. You will discover the Italian countryside. You will eat like you've never eaten before. You'll have done something so weird it's wonderful. You have a story. Go with it.

Here's a start: Seven Delicious Days of Truffles and Wine in Piedmont




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Fabriano: It's All About That Paper

Can you name a business that's been able to sustain itself since the year 1264 without changing directions, without corporate buyouts, without bankruptcy? I can. Even better yet, it's a business we've written off after making hapless stabs at going "paperless". Yes, I'm talking Cariere Milani Fabriano, the oldest continuously operated paper mill in Europe. It's still going...and you can visit.

The declaration on Fabriano's About page may tickle your intellectual fancy. Once upon a time, in lands far away...:

The invention of paper is traditionally attributed to the Chinese, but it was actually the Arabs who, after having learned the rudiments of manufacture and made a few improvements, spread the new product throughout the west. It was a long, arduous process that was completed in the second half of the 13th century in Fabriano, a little town of the Marche inland. The reason for this location, which made Fabriano the most important paper production centre of Europe, is very probably linked to the vicinity of Ancona, a port that was particularly open to trade with the Arab world.

So Fabriano eventually got a chance to improve upon the Chinese/Arab process--and they didn't stumble:

Cartiere Miliani Fabriano claims to have innovated three techniques which are still a part of papermaking today: the identification of papers using watermarks, the hydraulic hammer pile for pulverizing the rags, and gelatin sizing to strengthen paper and render it more receptive to ink and paint. ~ Fabriano

What does this have to do with tourism? Well, you can visit the Paper and Watermark Museum of Fabriano and see how how paper and watermarks have evolved over the years into high-tech security mechanisms embedded in paper checks and banknotes. It's all quite fascinating--and the town itself is a rather interesting bit of medieval architecture and town planning. You can spend a whole day discovering the religious version of history in the many churches. There's an old pharmacy where you'll be welcomed by a carved wooden statue of a bare-breasted warrior woman carrying a big stick. There is one of those little baroque theaters, cute as a pin. If you were looking for an off the beaten track destination in which to stay for a week and explore, this might be the place.

But let's start with the watermark. When watermarked paper is in front of you, resting on a table for example, it appears as a rectangle of pure, unadulterated whiteness. But then, hold it up to the light.

How do they perform this trick? First you take a bit of wire and shape it into filigree designs, then attach it to the mesh of the paper molds:

Then you dip your mold into the vat of vegetable fibers, the "liquid paper" you will press and dry

Here it is wet:

And thus, after pressing and drying your sheet, you have made an artisinal paper with a wire watermark, the wire making the paper almost imperceptably thinner where it pressed into the wet pulp.

There isn't a consensus on what the earliest watermarks were for. They could have been to identify particular paper, or the manufacturer, or, in the service of kings, to convey a secret message or, more likely, to prove the provenience of the message. Watermarks eventually became used to mark different types of paper--or different batches. Remember that the 13th century was a time of Religious pilgrimage, and Romanesque churches of the times were full of carved symbols because few of the faithful could read. In that context, a symbol rather than a written message would be much more useful to the common worker shuffling paper around the known world.

mussolini watermark

In any case, if you were to make a more three-dimensional mesh and attach it to the paper mold, you could get some delicate shading in the image. By the 18th century, Fabriano was noted for a sort of watermark art with amazing image quality, like the one you see to the right of Italy's most popular politician.

Fabriano Paper Mills makes a variety of art papers, including some with artichoke fibers (an experiment--yes, you can smell the paper). They also print currency, banknotes. They sponsor events and workshops.

Visit. See how far the simple watermark has come. See how a 750 year old company can thrive.

[To read more about how these simple watermarks evolved into security devices to make banknotes and checks difficult to counterfeit, see Watermarks.

To see a map of Le Marche showing the location of Fabriano, see: Le Marche Map and Guide.]

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