Intensity of Flavors

When I have been away from Italy for more than a week or so, I am all the more struck by the differences on my return. It makes me think of all of you, and your own first impressions during that first day in Italy.

Returning to Rome this week after a 16 day absence, I was greeted by golden, limpid light, so different from the silver skies I left in Washington. 

What moved me most, though, as it always does, was the experience of profound, characterful flavors. For all the considered food shopping I did, and the restaurants I tried, I would have given up any Washington meal for just one of these. 

A cappuccino served in a thick ceramic cup, and, without my specifying anything, that arrives the right temperature, with a balance of coffee to milk to surface crema that makes you close your eyes to concentrate on the sweet balance. 

A thin-sliced orange that inside is red, orange, and raspberry, and with tangy, perfumed, long lasting aroma.

Spinach that tastes of the earth, rich, strong, with delicate leaf and sturdy stem. And eaten at room temperature. With a new season olive oil with bite and personality and elegance.

Gorgonzola that has been cared for : runny but not too much so, pungent and creamy, sweet milk integrated with earthy molds.

A chunk of bread where the crust is so bite-able and so crunchable, with a large poared, grayish interior tasting of sweet, perfumed wheats and fresh yeasts.

Water. My son says the thing the thing he missed most was Roman water. Cold, flavorful, with no off-flavors, a food in and of itself. 

All of these struck me within two hours of laying my suitcase down, because everything I mentioned was eaten for lunch on arrival. Four days home now, the experiences have begun to stack one upon the other and have settled into the normalcy of meals enjoyed during the Italian day. Each is simple, but each is a celebration.

We plan specialized trips for travelers who love to eat. Sometimes those travelers do not know until they come to Italy how much they love to eat. With our mindful guidance their taste buds awaken, and with each considered morsel they put into their mouths, they discover that the experience of eating here is central to the joy of travel in Italy. 

Please travel with us this year. Celebrate with every meal. Please visit us at

Sharing with you all of our discoveries — restaurants, trattorie, markets, food artisans, in-home cooking classes, food shops and much more — is our greatest joy. 

Agretti and Longing

Does it happen that eating certain foods creates a fully three-dimensional feeling inside of you ?  The feeling I have when I eat agretti is longing.  Salsola soda, more commonly known in English as opposite-leaved saltwort, have for more than 35 years been a central part of my Roman springtime.  This grassy, chive-like green, typical of Rome (I have not seen it anywhere else) is a market, restaurant and kitchen staple for weeks that span from late February into April.


Agretti in the market


I like agretti steamed, al dente, with new season olive oil and a good squirt of lemon.  I also like them just-a-bit- above room temperature which is the way they are often served in restaurants. They go beautifully with mint-imbued, stewed artichokes or thin slices of boiled potatoes. Agretti have a real, green punch to them, that fills your mouth with a burst of chlorophyll and slightly acid pleasure. And a texture that is unlike anything else that I know.

Agretti washed and ready to be steamed

Agretti washed and ready to be steamed

Agretti fill me with longing.

Agretti come out when the days are lengthening.  And every time I eat them, at just past 50, I remember again the acute feeling of adolescent longing the springtime would always draw out in me. Was it the wistful cry of the just-returned swallows that filled the sky, and that tickled my young emotions ?  Was it the feeling of warm air and the promise of a summer ?  The promise of windows open and breezes to tease teenage thoughts ? Was it the flirty sensation of the short sleeved shirt and the sleeveless dress after months of long sleeves and wooly sweaters ?  What was it ?  Whatever it was, it all happened just as the agretti arrived.  And the agretti were there every day, appealing and curly on the plate, full of the promise of spring, and just as the season of longing began.  And I forked them into my mouth – and longed.

Agretti in the market

Spring time

Even today, as I trim off their earthy roots, rinse and pop them into the same pan that my mother used always to cook the agretti… I long. It is a wonder and a comfort to feel an emotion so familiar, a friend that has accompanied me, in certain seasons, for so much of my life.  That feeling is just the same, though I am no longer 13 or 15 or 17.  My lolling-tongued dog roams underfoot, and my two children noisily, cheerfully, help me take out the platter on which to put the agretti. They don’t like agretti at all — but then they are not yet at the age of youthful longing.

We will see what happens when that time comes.

And when it first comes, if it begins as the agretti make their spring time arrival at the Roman table.

Easter Egg Hunt in Rome

Easter is not Easter without an egg hunt.  In Rome we hid a red egg and it was our children’s task to find it.  A number of Insider’s Italy clients’ children — from little kids to older teenagers — were also looking.  But the eggs were not always easy to find, thogh we offered clues and maps.

Here are some of the best places to hide Easter eggs in Rome. 

"Nasone" fountain

Palm, Villa Sciarra




Primavera !

Spring is here !

In Rome, we are celebrating with vignarola, which is spring in your bowl, a combination of artichokes, peas, fava beans, spring onion, canasta lettuce, garlic and olive oil—a wonder. Enjoyed on our terrace—because the al fresco dining season has begun here, at least for lunch, and very soon will extend to evenings too.

And if we had been through the exceptionally rough winter that so many of you still endure this year in the U.S., we would be hard pressed to chose among these springtime Italian treats. (Please complete our no obligation survey if you would like our special ideas for your own trip.)

1. The Valle D’Orcia, where the unworldly, near-fluorescent springtime green is unforgettable. Red poppies will soon add to the beauty. Hill-towns are varied, vineyards remarkable (ask us for our lists of mostly smaller, special vineyards of Brunello and Rosso di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.) Many of our vineyard favorites are organic or natural—and in each we will make direct connections for you to the owner or winemaker. Would you be interested in our favorite Valle D’Orcia (sheep) cheese makers, or a private seminar on local cheeses, possibly paired with local wines ?


2. Gardens are at their seasonal peak.  Gardens are an Insider’s Italy specialty, and we are delighted to include as many as you wish in your itinerary, or to build a trip around our favorites that will be at their best during your travel dates. Some of these are closed to the public but we arrange for special visits.


We also have garden experts who can accompany you — please ask us for details.


Lavender is beautiful throughout the world but our lavender farm—included in many spring time Ultimo itineraries—is a remarkable inclusion; the lavender is backed by Assisi.  None of our Roman friends have ever heard about special discovery—but past clients in California, Texas and Georgia all know the spot !


Our lavender farm in May

3. Spring time religious festivals are splendid in Italy with a degree of civic participation that may be unmatched by any other European  country.  Here (photo below) a whole town turns out to prepare for the Infiorata in which locally gathered flower petals (drying in great racks below) are made into city-wide street carpets portraying scenes that are sacred or floral.


Ask us please for our list of region-by-region festivals (we have ourselves attended most we suggest).  We often select your bases because of the occurrence of a special celebration in that place on a particular day.

Other spring festivals include superb food sagre—to greet the arrival of spring-time foods (asparagus, strawberries, black celery, fava, flowering caper) and, worth the trip to Italy for alone, the May recreation of medieval life that overtakes the tiny Umbrian city of Bevagna.  It is not surprising that tourism here is nearly all Italian : after all, we are in spring, and the peak tourist season has still not begun.


4. Artichokes. We did mention them, but must do so again : they are so much a part of Italian springtime eating, in so many regions, and we hope you will let us tell you about our many favorites up and down the peninsula where they make them so well — including restaurants that seasonally serve only artichokes in dozens of special ways.



5. Swimming without the crowds. You will have many very special beaches to yourselves. The one below attracts tortoise and dolphins. We swim in Sicily in April.  And know many of the loveliest beaches.



6. Poppies. I have seen them all over Europe, but the poppies of Italy seem even more beautiful. Poppies bloom from January through June in much of Italy.



Mix them with at least ten varieties of wild flowers in a particular location in Umbria — and with flowering lentils — and you have surely one of the most beautiful springtime spectacles in all of Europe. Flowering starts in May.

7. Important, popular sights like Sicily’s temple of Juno in Agrigento are relatively tourist free in the spring.  Allowing you the space to enjoy as long as you wish, without crowds.


According to the UN’s world tourism organization, there are a billion international tourists today, a figure that will double in a decade. Places available for them to visit will certainly not double. The historic buildings, towns and landscapes of Italy are vulnerable and irreplaceable—touring them out of the peak tourist period, for example in the spring and not in the summer, means that you are not contributing to the savagely concentrated over-visiting that occurs during standard June through September vacations months.

8. Some of the best opera and symphonic music of the year is in the spring—this in larger urban opera houses like Milan, Naples, Rome and Florence and less celebrated ones (like the smaller jewel-like theaters of Emilia Romagna, which have an unusually discriminating audience.)

Reggio Emilia Teatro Municipale Valli

Reggio Emilia Teatro Municipale Valli

Please ask for for listings, and have us hand-book seats for you. Classical music is one of our passions, and we keep up with contemporary Italian singers and houses.

Hotel costs at spring’s beginning are are still very low—rising up from low to mid to high season as the weeks go by. On the Amalfi coast for example you can be swimming and still enjoying lowest season rates.


Low season rates-no crowds-dreamy weather

In the Dolomites, the loveliest wild flowers coincide with the lowest hotel rates. For reasons of both economics and to avoid severe and unsustainable overcrowding we visit Venice only in the winter and the spring. You might consider doing so too.

Padova (Padua) : over-run in the summer, arcadian in the spring

Padova (Padua) : over-run in the summer, arcadian in the spring

We’re here to assist you—families, couples, honeymooners, friends, multi-generational groups.  Let us share our favorite spring places with you.




The Truffle Dog Who Would Not Truffle

When we chose our lagotto romagnolo puppy, the last thing in our minds was the breed’s unsurpassed ability at sniffing out truffles. White and black truffles. Of which Italy has many.


And when in early December we collected Teddy his mother and father, his brothers and sisters and various relations were all involved in a rambunctious truffle hunt under the olive trees.


That involved the breeder hiding a scrap of fragrant truffle in a perforated plastic egg. Then the lagotti — Teddy’s mother at the head of the ebullient pack —  were released and set off to find it. Dirt flew. Puppies yipped with lusty enthusiasm. The truffle was found !  And hidden again.

Back in Rome, we forgot about the associations between lagotti and truffles.


Teddy made himself immediately at home here,


fast developing, in our neighborhood parks, close friendships with local puppies and dogs.  Ragù’, Marlie, Elliot, Nemo, Alice and Black were all his truffles — the objects he sought out with gusto and fervor.

And as a parallel, we got to know an exceptionally simpatico group of owners, Roman neighbors with whom we would otherwise never have exchanged a word. Conversation came easily, as we loitered under Villa Sciarra’s palm trees, and watched our dogs scamper off under the ancient wisteria.

One morning, Black’s owner asked: “And Teddy — does he truffle hunt ?”

Truffle hunt ?

“Does he truffle hunt ?”

Well, no.

“Why don’t you teach him ?”

I mulled this over. Indeed, why not ? As every excuse to be in the countryside is welcome, it was the work of a moment, through my friend Heather Jarman and her Sapori e Saperi (guided artisan food and wine adventures) to organize a truffle tutorial not far from Lucca, in Tuscany.

A private truffle tutorial for Teddy. With three teachers. The first being Riccardo, a warm bear of a man with an acute understanding of the psychology of dogs.


For 21 years he has been truffle hunting with dogs, including his own lagotti.  He would this day bring two lagotti ,Turbo and Dream, one of whom belonged to his friend Andrea from nearby Livornoi.  They too would be instructors for Teddy.



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Last Saturday we were off. It was a lovely spring day, with crocus, forsythia and buttercups bursting from the earth. Rich, brown earth, ideal for digging.

And for truffling.


Riccardo began his campaign with Teddy. But this most affable of puppies would not draw too close. For all of Riccardo’s entreaties and tasty bread scraps, extended hand and cooing words — what to most dogs would surely be a convincing charisma — Teddy was wary.


And then, from his vest pocket Riccardo produced three scraps of truffle — the marzuolo, a January to March truffle abundant in Tuscany, Piedmont and the Marche — concealed in a perforated plastic egg.

Teddy, like a cartoon character, leapt up in the air, and then issued a dark, deep growl.

Then turned on his heels and ran, very fast, away.

No entreaties — no food scraps placed in the perforated egg, together with the truffle — no cunning attempts to convince Teddy that the truffle smell was not pure evil — made even the remotest headway.

Riccardo changed tactics. Breeze and Turbo were set to work, to mentor Teddy, which Riccardo, when other strategies fail, uses as a technique to teach reluctant puppies the ropes.

For two hours, the dogs raced up and down the contoured hills, scampering under the maritime pines.

Riccardo watched for tell tale signs that the dogs were on to a truffle. So experienced is he, and so in tune with his dogs’ actions, that he can distinguish between a casual, playful pawing of earth and a real recognition of a tuber.  In Riccardo’s pocket soon was a booty of tiny marzuolo.  Found by Turbo and Breeze.


And Teddy ? Teddy had his own agenda, which was pure extravagant pleasure in nosing leaves, scratching at the earth, leaping over the forget-me-nots and and burrowing up to his head in pungent mud in an abandoned ice house.


He occasionally wagged a tail at the other two lagotti, but took only polite interest in what they were doing.

Back at Riccardo’s, we settled down to a four-course country lunch.


Two hours later, Teddy, rested from a deep sleep, rose from under the table.  We found him a few  minutes later.  He had just polished off a plate of food intended for Riccardo’s cat and was licking his chops.  I apologized to Riccardo’s mother, who was cooking, and asked what he had eaten.

“What was left over from your lunch”, she said. “Fettuccine with truffles.”

I looked at Teddy who in the afternoon sun, was preparing for another nap.


Riccardo’s present to us, as we prepared to drive off, back to Lucca  — “un souvenir”, he said — was the perforated plastic egg with the truffles inside. I reached out from the car to take it and as my arm came back in through the window, I heard a growl. Turning I found Teddy, sprawled on my son’s lap, preparing to show his teeth.

My husband and I enjoyed the “souvenir” on a lovely small frittata that we prepared once back in Rome.

We will never know what Teddy’s real relationship is with truffles — Riccardo says he has never seen anything like this — but we do know that if he is to eat any truffles in the future, he is not prepared to hunt for them.

Teddy is the lagotto who will not truffle.


Italian Father’s Day

Italian Father’s Day falls today, in coincidence with the feast of Saint Joseph, an older dad whom it is nice to celebrate with various wonderful San Giuseppe pastries enjoyed today Italy-wide.


Bigne di San Giuseppe for Father’s Day

Simply extraordinary pumpkin filled tortelli in Reggio Emilia

Simply extraordinary pumpkin filled tortelli in Reggio Emilia

Today three fathers with their children are traveling with us in Italy — and are well spread out over this remarkable country.

Italy, though just the size of New Mexico, offers a near unimaginable variety of locations, experiences, foods, wines and landscapes.

One father, with two children, is celebrating spring break in one of the most progressive and dynamic places in Emilia Romagna — and with (in our minds) the best food of any of the Emilia towns.

This is the city of Reggio Emilia, which does not know tourism, and is one of the many places we — and the families we plan for — love most.  While we have a wonderful, superbly located hotel here, this father chose to stay with his family in an important 17th century palace in the heart of the city, replete with furniture that has been in the owner’s family for centuries and where the owner herself, a dear friend of Insider’s Italy, assured our clients a most interesting as well as comfortable stay.

Reggio Emilia

Reggio Emilia

With his teenage kids this father is also using Reggio Emilia as a base : first for Ferrara (his family all loved the Gardens of the Finzi Contini, filmed there in 1970) where today they are exploring the lesser-known and quite extraordinary late 15th century Palazzo del Te Museum, and later walking around the four mile cycle of unbroken late medieval to 17th century walls, offering a journey through the greenery of the surrounding esplanade.  Towers, gates and ramparts can be seen along the route — something his medieval-mad son will love.

Tomorrow they will spend watching Parmesan being made — rising early and carefully shadowing a Parmesan maker’s morning.  And sampling Parmesans from an unusually representative cheese maker — trying Parmesans made from various milks including our much loved Bianca Modenese, a Slow Food presidia that makes many other Parmesans pale in contrast.

Learning about Parmesan at the source 

On Friday they will, with the family that makes it, study balsamic vinegar production, and then take a private, hands-on cooking class in which they will roll out the thinnest and most delicate egg pasta that they will likely ever have had (pasta making was a special request of the father’s 14 year old daughter.)  And learn how they can recreate it just as well at home in California.

Bologna is half an hour away, and will be their destination on Saturday — a vibrant university city with one of the most interesting churches in Italy (our own kids’ favorite); wonderful children’s bookstores (this is the center of the Italian children’s book publishing industry); the grand 498-steps-up Asinelli tower (12th century) that dominates the Bolognese skyline; and mile after mile of wonderful arcades (lovely stores !) where light and shadow change all day long, creating a moving picture show that is worth a visit in and of itself.

Another father is in Lucca (where we just spent the weekend, truffle hunting with our lagotto romagnolo Teddy : keep your eyes on this space !)  This father and family elected to use Ultimo, our most requested and most personalized service. We have had the pleasure of planning all of the details of the daily schedule for this family, which also rented one of our glorious Lucca villas.  They awakened this morning to flowering fruit trees and a garden full of camellias (the Lucca specialty.)

Lucca family villa in the spring

Lucca family villa in the spring

This morning the father and family biked today atop the much-loved, tree-topped grassy city walls.
Family biking on the Walls of Lucca

Family biking on the Walls of Lucca

… and then took a one-of-its-kind children’s tour around the city with Paola, one of our most appreciated guides. Paola has a magic box of relevant and imaginative tools that she brings out during a family tour — special puzzles, cryptograms, hunts, mazes and other smart, creative interactive aids — that help children make sense of one of Italy’s single most charming cities.

The afternoon is spent visiting olive orchards (with the producers themselves, trying together some of the best extra virgin oils in Italy.)  Children’s questions are always very welcome, and having a producer show kids the step-by-step process of how oil is made — starting in the olive grove — is an unforgettable experience.

Olive groves north of Lucca

Olive groves north of Lucca

Tomorrow they will be in Carrara and will visit not only the marble mines where the Romans, Michelangelo and 21st century sculptors have sourced their stone, but also the studios of active sculptors whose work we especially like.  And they will wade at Forte dei Marmi in seawater fast warming in the early Tuscan spring, have a lovely seafood lunch on the beach (we’ve booked the table)…
The boys at lunch on the beach

The boys at lunch on the beach

and then join the town in biking on the arcadian waterfront bike paths.
Bike ready to go in Rimini

Bike ready to go in Forte dei Marmi

A third dad with a three year old and wife is today in Amalfi.   Today is a day of walking the Path of the Gods
Walking up from Amalfi

Walking up from Amalfi

and then a cooking class with the magic Cristina in her home kitchen this evening, learning to make melt-in-your-mouth gnocchi and a variety of fish and seafood dishes, plus ways to very simply prepare spring vegetables.
Family cooking class : making gnocchi (with Cristina's own celebrated potatoes)

Family cooking class : making gnocchi (with Cristina’s own celebrated potatoes)

We celebrate, with Insider’s Italy, the idea of doing less but doing it better. Memories are set down, and family experiences really relished when we travel mindfully with a focus
on the quality of our experiences, and not the quantity.

To end this Italian Father’s Day blog, here is me with my papa, in Rome, my birth-place, during one of the major winter snowstorms that Rome used once to have. This early spring blog is dedicated to him — and to fathers everywhere. Buona Festa del Papa !

Snow in Rome Winter 1960s

Snow in Rome Winter 1960s


Memories and Holidays : The Presepio

Me at nine months with the presepio

Me at nine months with the presepio

Everyone who celebrates Christmas has Christmas memories.  Mine go back more than 40 years and are nearly all memories in Rome. And most of them involve the presepio.

Unwrapping the presepio returns me to being little, with the presepio world before me.

A few year ago, Nathan and the work-in-progress presepio

A few year ago, Nathan and the work-in-progress presepio

Our family has been collecting the presepio, or Christmas creche, since the 1920s.  Almost all of our figures are from Rome’s Piazza Navona, where at Christmas time, presepio figures have been on sale since at least the 19th century.  Our family bought presepio figures from the same family for thirty years.
Buying presepio figures in 1967 at Rome's Piazza Navona

Buying presepio figures with my family in 1967 at Rome’s Piazza Navona

Our presepio has around 100 figures, all around four inches tall and handmade in Naples or around Rome.  The oldest figures are about 90 years old, the most recent are my acquisitions of two yeas ago made by an artisan in the Naples superb of Barra.  Biblical protagonists are here…


but are not the main focus : mostly we have market vendors, trades people, musicians..
peasants and members of high society all going about their daily business.   Card players. 
Fishermen and washerwomen and fishmongers.

Since Naples was in the 18th century — when the presepio concept first developed — a thriving international port, the manger scene also includes an exotic mix of visitors – Africans, Arabs and Orientals – as found in the teaming streets of Naples itself.  Also many animals and accessories including musical instruments, farm and household implements, fruit and vegetables, dishes and pottery, and baskets.



A whole presepio world.  That same world that drew me in as a small child.

When I open the presepio boxes some time every December, first I must build mountains out of encyclopedias and paperback books, and rivers from tinkling foil.  I must make hills for camels and sheep to wander down.

I must shake out the ancient damask that is the floor (much patched, much stained from fountains that dribbled onto it over the decades.)  I must hang the eight angels (made by four different hands, and from 1926 to 2001.)

I check to ensure that the tiny aquarium pumps are still working well on the two-spouted fountain, that the wine-makers cask’s (where the “wine” runs red as it is cranberry juice) and that the bulbs are still operative in the trattoria.


I must think about presepi of years past — look at some of the illustrations tucked into one box, made by my mother: ”particularly effective this year” penciled on a rough drawing of a presepio set-up she made and especially approved of one year.

Our presepio survived, as did many of those of my mother’s childhood, because someone wrapped each figure, mummy style, in soft paper, swaddling delicate fingers and tiny toes, wings and hoofs, cabbages and fish, in protection, and then wrapped that little bundle in paper towels or newspapers.

Out come yellowing newspapers of the 1950s and all the way through the present day. Reading headlines and advertising from these years is a wonderful diversion.
Out come a few silver fish.  Out come a few fingers too.  Presepio figures always loose a few appendages during  the stress of wrapping and unwrapping.This year we have a new puppy who would love to join my presepio landscapes.
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And also I set up the presepio far too late, anyway, to be ambitious : rather than sprawling the scene across various pieces of furniture I arrange this year’s presepio on just one long table (the market, the creche scene, the osteria and the puppet theater) while the water scenes and the musicians and shepherd are on a high, ancient dresser.
My son asserts that he will build a little rope ladder to connect the two arenas.  Which is a charming idea, but the presepio figures, I explain, have a fear of heights and would not like to undertake the three feet walk from one table to other.  (Actually, many are already lacking limbs or have had arms, legs, feet or heads glued on once or more : these four inch tall terra cotta figures are delicate.)
Nathan arranges the manger scene

Nathan arranges the manger scene

When my daughter was four she made for Jesus a teddy bear like her own and that was the size of a sheep.  We have that too, but at nine, she will not allow it to come out (‘it is embarrassing” she says to me this evening, as she stacks more mozzarella nearly into a minute basket,)

Some years when I put the figures out I recreate scenarios I have been designing since I was first old enough to help to organize the presepio.  The favorite woman with the green blouse and blue skirt carrying the ricotta always talks to the lady with the polca-dotted head scarf.
As I put the two down together, they recommence the conversation they have carried on for decades, and surely not as if a year has past.  They talk about food, and they complain about how heavy the ricotta is that they have to carry.
The puppet theater always presents the same show, the same Pulcinella (Punch and Judy) I first saw on the Rome’s Janiciulum Hill when I was three, and which plays in a happy continuous rerun in our presepio year after year after year.
I miniature myself.
I am one of the several priests with the red umbrellas or red bible and I am speaking to another two priests with a red umbrella about the weather.
I am the old lady carrying the pigeons, and the tiny mussels in the blue platter are just the right size for me to purchase. I might take them to Jesus or I might not.  I might spend the day just speaking to my so-familiar friends in the market and keep away from the butcher, whom i have never liked (he cheated me once in 1971.)
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I arrange a tiny carcass of beef among the pile up of presents at Jesus’ feet.
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This gives me the same enjoyable shiver of disgust I suspect I felt when I first was allowed to help with the presepio, and arrange the tiny gifts. There is a mound of presents strewn round the baby’s crib — pizza, oranges, fish, garlic, tomatoes, and everything else a Neapolitan would think to bring as a heartfelt gift.

An aunt I loved died this autumn. Her adored presepio figures, collected in Rome by my uncle when I was a little girl, bring 16 new people to this year’s presepio.  It is very good to have two egg sellers, one in a yellow frock and another in a blue one, both with delicate fingers holding up a small perfect egg that they hope a presepio passerby will purchase.

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At last there is a dog, a new arrival, a wooly rustic one, whom the children have placed up among the hams and salamis.
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It adds to the conviviality of the osteria to have four more merry-makers playing cards and helping themselves to the tiny carafe of red wine.
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Some of the cardinal figures — Jesus, Mary and Joseph — are allowed out only every second year as they have doubles — those from my mother’s childhood, in the 1920s and 30s, and from my own, in the ’60s,  This year we decided to put in four kings — two old ones, two from the 1960s.


The camels are a mix of old and new.

My other aunt visited last week.  She has been setting up presepi — including some of the same figures that were here — for more than 80 years.

It filled my heart with the sweet, comforting warmth of continuity to watch her with my children puttering away among the market figures, intent on arranging a scene that she too has been playing in her head for decades (she has her own similar Neapolitan presepio too.)


Aunty Chrissy, who has been setting up presepi for more than 80 years

Aunty Chrissy, who has been setting up presepi for more than 80 years

“You really need to enter into it and think what would be realistic”, she reminds me, as she unwraps from an ageless tissue paper a tiny hammer and places it in the hands of the coppersmith.

She moves him a bit away from the cobbler.

“Too much noise to have them working so closely together”.

When the presepio is put away — tradition says on February 2 though we sometime put it away sooner or later — a little piece of me disappears into the presepio boxes.

There is not much I love more than the presepio, which in its high level of artisanship, its celebration of markets and family and food and socialization — encompasses most of the Italian features I hold most dear.  I will think about it for the rest of the year, considering modifications (or not) for the scene on the following Christmas, and keep an eye out for the odd tiny object — one never know where things may pop up — that might make a good addition.  Like two bunches of Puglia wild oregano which this year are perfect umbrella pines.

What will next year bring to the ongoing and quite magic world of presepio ?

Tanti auguri



Giving Thanks

Thanksgiving fills my heart with thanks.

I give thanks for the possibility to travel all year long in a country which affords me my profession, daily renews my spirit, and, though only as large as New Mexico…. offers a world’s worth of variety.
I give thanks for its artisans.
And its farmers.
And their artichokes.
And its gardens.

Stopping to marvel after a long walk in one of our favorite gardens

And its cats.
And its timeless faces that could be Roman, medieval, Renaissance.
And for traditional costumes.
And for the thousands of Italian olive trees that have been carbon dated and are close to 2000 years old.  And still produce olives.
For Stefania, at our luxury Alto Adige hotel favorite, who loves children, makes them so very happy and feel so very welcome, and has that superb Italian ability to transmit genuine interest in guests younger and older. And for Ugo and Evelyn and such remarkable owners and staff in every hotel and inn and villa where we book.
And for continuity. The possibility to participate in the Transumanza — we’ve now done five — walking with sheep in a 2000 year old tradition, taking them from their winter to summer pastures and summer to winter pastures.
I give thanks for superb bread.
And for the most beautiful Roman bridges — and still in use.
Medieval walls and gates.
And stone walled villages where everything is in balance.
And for continuity.  With a rock, Isabel cracks open succulent pine nuts on the exact wall where 35 years ago I used to do the same.

And for Rome at sunset.



For surely the best cannolo in the world.


Travel’s purpose is to celebrate differentness.


And unfamiliarity.
And landscapes unlike any that are in your at-home daily life.
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And not only new foods, but familiar ones, prepared superbly.
And new environments.
And hotels unlike anything you have seen before
I give thanks for the long long travel seasons.  For swimming in Sicily in April.
And on the Amalfi coast in November.
I give thanks for our so many gifted docents —  like Nadia Garlatti in Matera (foreground, with clients). With passion and considerable sensitivity, she shares what it is to live in the single longest continuously inhabited placed on earth — and in a region that we love (but where few tourists ever venture.)
Io con clienti
I give thanks for Italy’s mountains. Forty percent of Italy is mountainous, with the Alps as the northern boundary and the Apennine Mountains forming the backbone of the peninsula.
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And rivers (and my favorite restaurant on its banks.)
I give thanks for the extraordinary variety of wild flowers.
And for Italy’s plains.
And I give thanks for my wonderful travel companion and husband Robert.
And two children who love Italy at least as much as I do.
And for all of you.  Happy Thanksgiving.

With much affection


What makes an Insider’s Italy City Hotel ?

Perhaps it is easiest to explain by introducing you to one that has all of the criteria.

t is smaller rather than larger.

It is owner managed.

Though it is modern — we do not have many modern hotels in our collection  — it is beautifully built.  Much care went into the choice of materials.  Walls are thick, doors solid, wood floors and carpets well cared for.

It has an unbeatable location — in this case a few minutes walk from the station, and a few minutes on foot into the pedestrian center.

It has warm, personable, professional staff who are exceptionally well trained and also simply lovely people.

The manger is involved, works the desk, and offers a personal welcome.

Rooms are perfectly kept, warm in cool weather and appropriately cooled in hot weather.

Bathrooms are not only perfect, but full of thoughtful details including lovely artisanal soaps and perfect towels.

Rooms are quiet.

Beds are a dream.  Pillows very comfortable.  Linens are Italian – and lovely.

And breakfasts not only delicious but with a strong focus on local products, Italian seasonal fruits, with organic offerings.  And perfect coffee.

The price is right.

And there you have it.  The Hotel Card in Rimini is an Insider’s Italy favorite.

Via Dante Alighieri, 50.
Tel. +39 0541 26412

That Rimini is a charming, not-touristed jewel of a small city — quite unconnected with the sprawling beaches most people associate with Rimini  — is also in its favor.  It is a walking and biking town with interesting Roman and Renaissance roots and art works.   And it has one special osteria, owner-managed by fishermen who serve only their own seafood (and close when there is no catch), easy to walk to from the Hotel Card :

Il Pescato del Canevone.  Open Tuesday through Sunday lunch and dinner daily except Saturday, when dinner only.  Closes when fishing impossible because of bad weather.
Via Luigi Tonini, 34.
Tel. +39 366 35 41 510

Amalfi in November

Last weekend in Amalfi reminded me how the Italian summer goes on and on.

Early November on the Amalfi coast means tintore and pedirosso grapes plucked from the vines in Tramonti.
We found them when we ventured inland, a few kilometers from the sea, where rounded hills, terraced slopes and gentle valleys host intensely fertile lemon orchards, vineyards, chestnut groves and olives.
Leaves are just beginning to turn in these early days of November. The olives have been gathered and so have most of the grapes, but there are still quite a few bunches that their friend the organic winemaker offers to the children.
 The children reach up to pluck grapes of their own.
We pick and sample succulent late season figs.
On the Amalfi coast in early November, tourists have nearly all gone away. Hotel rates are 50-70% less than in August.
The light is golden, the water inviting.
The air warm and dry.
Our favorite hotel — where I have myself been staying for 20 years, and where owners and staff will greet you as friends — is barely full. Staff are very relaxed but as delighted as ever to focus on making you especially comfortable.  (For similar conditions, consider March, April and early May too.)
By the sea a duck called Caterina stays and keeps the children company in their fishing.
 They fish the way local children here have fished forever.
using a simple line and hook wound round a piece of cork.
As bait, they use shrimp from the sea and mussels. A dear friend plucks mussels, below, from the rocks…
Easily  the children fish up several ombrina… and a rockfish.
In early November, coastal meals are all outside.

As have so many Insider’s Italy clients, we enjoy a lunch that celebrates the seasons — pizzas with local mozzarella, local Furure tomatoes (which with its new potatoes, brought culinary fame to this tiny hillside village), greens from Cristina’s naturally organic gardens, homemade wines, grilled eggplant. Cristina must surely be among the single best cooks on the coast, and is remarkable in that she cooks nearly exclusively what she produces on her property — and only those dishes that are local, traditional and seasonal.  These are her garden potatoes, with the church of Sant’Elia in the background.
Her husband Uberto fishes, and looks after her chickens and pig
Uberto maintain the single most interesting larder I have ever seen, at its most replete in November.  Nathan is in wonder.
Uberto and Cristina offer our clients superb in-home cooking classes which for many of you have been the highlight of a trip.
Cristina flours the chldren’s four fish and fries them in her olive oil. The fish join the lunch.
Cristina’s tomatoes dry outside in a bunch, ready to be cut and used to enliven the next months’ cooking.
We walk and climb steps
taking paths we have enjoyed so many times before (like this one to Atrani.)
And walk to Conca dei Marini, a village I have been visiting since I was six weeks old.  Here is the view looking east from that town. Note the neatly terraced vineyards, vegetable gardens and olive and lemon groves.
Capers spring from the walls.
We swim and lounge some more.
And eat some more.
And walk some more.
If we want, four major archeological sites are just an hour away. If we want, we can spend a day in Naples with our superb docent guide Sabrina — this for one of the world’s great archeological museums and one of Europe’s great cities. If we want we can spend the day sailing to Capri, stopping at bays and beaches along the way to swim, to lunch, to explore.If we want we can take one of Italy’s best walks, a four hour adventure that offers a bird’s eye view over much of the entire coast.

We do not want.

Like so many of our travelers, despite our ambitions to undertake all sorts of plans, we do not move.

It is all too perfect.

Amalfi in November.