Marjorie: Hello hello, is this La Locandiera ?
Restaurant owner: Yes yes hello, good day.
Marjorie: This is Marjorie Shaw from Rome. I had a wonderful, unforgettable meal with you seven years ago. I would like to book for some clients.
Owner: Ottimo !
Marjorie: Are you the owner Pepe Frollo?
Owner: No, I bought the restaurant from him seven years ago.
Marjorie: Ah. Do you still eat as well at the restaurant as you did seven years ago ?
Owner: Better !
Marjorie: Better, why ? Do you have a new cook ?
Owner: No, we have the same cook but he is much happier.
Conclusion : I booked for two persons for Sunday at 1 PM.
And there you have it — Italy.
Spring at Landriana. We bring you here our photo essay of the 18th edition of Rome’s premier annual flower and garden show; our third review, in as many years. (See Primavera alla Landriana and the Gardening Event of the Year .)
What strikes us always is how the attendees and exhibitors alike are so visibly harmonious with the plants, the gardens and one another. There is rich variety and diversity; but, cacophony, which is so ever present in Rome itself, is here absent. Nearly everyone seems unselfconsciously well dressed, whether conservatively so or joyously eccentric. And not an automobile in sight ! Such civility, an oasis of calm and good will towards all — people, plants and dogs.
This year, we also include a photographic tour of the Landriana gardens, roughly begun in 1956 (reclaiming land laid waste by the Allied landing at Anzio and advance on Rome during World War II) but whose design as a formal garden was laid out in 1967 by the great British landscape architect, Russell Page. The gardens have evolved since to their present state — a destination for those who love gardens and, in any event, a worthy detour for all — if you are not already a serious garden lover, you may after a visit here well become one.
While open year around, except for the months of August and December, visits are only by guided tour and are not every day of the week, nor even weekly — so for those of you traveling with Insider’s Italy, let us know in advance of your interest so that we can work it into your itinerary. Finding Landriana may also prove difficult but our driver, Gustavo, will make make it very easy, indeed, for you. Gardens are near and dear to us at Insider’s Italy and planning itineraries with a garden emphasis is something we love doing for our clients.
The Flower and Garden Show
photo courtesy of NTV
An announcement is made, while we’re en route, that the train will be delayed by 30 minutes to an hour. Alas, it hasn’t happened yet but hope springs eternal. Like children listening to the radio on an early snowy morning hoping to hear that school has been cancelled, we hope that our train, en route from Rome to Florence, will be delayed so that our delightful journey on the new Italo train will be drawn out indefinitely –– and this even though we’re travelling with two young children.
Our snug and very comfortable private compartment for four has large, clean windows to look out onto the passing Lazio, Umbria, Tuscany landscapes. The children are so content with books and drawing paper that they have only passing interest in the movies offered on their individual monitors, like those in business class on airplanes. And, since we mention airplanes, the food on Italo is much better than even that on most business-class flights –– not that we wish to damn by faint praise. In fact, Italo has partnered with Eataly (the same Eataly in New York City that has attracted such positive attention).
If one wants a substantial meal, served in the form of Japanese bento boxes, one orders it in advance, and it is succulent and fresh; otherwise, in the Club Car class, one is offered an assortment of delicious and innovative fresh snacks, both sweet and savoury.
Wireless internet is free. Bathrooms are impeccable. Would we like a newspaper? Architectural Digest? Our personal steward in the salotto (salon) car appears often to ensure that all is just as we wish.
However, perhaps the best and most important part of Italo is the staff. They are mostly young, vibrant and demonstrate the esprit de corps and bonhomie that only good management that treats all its employees well can sustain.
It starts when one enters the special office of Italo in whatever train station one happens to be in. From being in a big, ugly and impersonal station, one feels as if one has been transported to a small-town or country train station. One is greeted by a host of service personnel asking (in English for non-Italian speakers) if one needs assistance, which assistance is given immediately. Missed one’s train? Do not worry –– a new ticket is issued for the next train (a confession: we know, as this has happened to us twice). Confused about which track? There are Italo train personnel standing at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the proper train track and alongside the track, as well, to direct one to the proper carriage –– all seats are reserved by number of course, unlike American trains. Travelling with children and too much luggage? Train personnel helped us carry our bags from the Italo office to the track where we were met by other personnel who helped us onto the train.
Clearly, the parent company of Italo, Nuovo Trasporto Viaggiatori (NTV), views itself not just as a transport company but as an up-scale tourism venture. On our last trip, returning to Rome from Padua, we had a very pleasant chat with a member of the train staff –– a lovely young woman. She holds a BA degree in tourism. This is a company that takes seriously a commitment to customer service, employee welfare and social responsibility. It was she who explained to us the conscious management decision not to have music piped through the audio system and to instruct all employees not to wear perfume or cologne. The offered moistened towelettes are unscented.
The president of the company and an investor is Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, the chairman of Ferrari. One of the other investors is the head of a fashion shoe company, Tod’s. Thus, it should not be surprising that the trains are well engineered and beautifully designed. Interestingly, for a private railroad company, another investor is the French state rail agency S.N.C.F.
In anticipation of your first voyage with Italo, do take a virtual tour of this extraordinary train, courtesy of Italo.
Train travel in Italy is now a joy.
Last month, to further celebrate winter in Italy, we left our home in Rome to travel south to Puglia — an easy three-hour drive to our first destination, Ruvo.
Some essays are best said with images, and not with words. So we will say very little.
Except perhaps that Puglia is one of our single favorite regions in all of Italy, and when we are not there, we always wish that we were.
No other region of Italy holds so much interest for the historian and particularly for the architect : its Norman castles, cathedrals, trulli, masserie, dry walls.
No other region offers cuisine that is more succulent. This is principally an inland cuisine, solidly peasant-based, vegetarian-oriented, and where the profuseness of vegetables and high quality hard wheat yield Italy’s best bread and the most varied and interesting utilization of seasonal produce.
And the olives.
We dream of the olives. There are roughly 60 million olive trees in Puglia — approximately one tree for each Italian. This is the world’s oldest arboreal landscape. About six million of the trees are considered monumentali or monumental trees and just under half a million trees are known as ulivi secolari or trees older than one century. No one knows how many trees are between one and two thousand years old but there are many of them — certainly thousands and thousands — whose age has been established through carbon dating.
First destination, Ruvo.
Romanesque arch, Ruvo Cathedral
Cathedral tabernacle, Ruvo
Pugliese pasta and taralli
En route to our second destination, Castel del Monte.
Castel del Monte
Overlooking the sea and the surrounding countryside, Castel del Monte was one of the most important castles built by Frederick II and was constructed in the 1240s. Frederick II’s hunting lodge — or possibly citadel – was a unique and innovative masterpiece of architecture and engineering.
Doorway, interior castle courtyard
Shadows and light
Our second destination, a favorite country inn near Ostuni.
A warm welcome.
Doorway from courtyard to garden
Winter in Puglia
Olive varieties, local production. Unlike Tuscan olives, Puglian olives are picked when red (and very ripe)
Drying the lavender and tomatoes
Old olive press, detail
Ancient olive press, less ancient mechanism for turning the wheels
Entrance to main house
Contentment on a cool winter’s night
Bottom of the stairs
Timeless comfort from another era
Left, wedding dress of owner’s mother. Right, festival dress from Ostuni
1949 Fiat, getting ready for a tour of the olive grove
To the ancient olives
May I have this dance?
How old are you?
1,000 to 2,000 years. What’s 1,000 years to a tree ?
And how old are you?
Centuries old dry wall
Playing in an olive tree that is over 1000 years old.
On the road to Trani…
Long abandoned trulli compound
Cabbage patch and ancient olive grove
Our final destination, the coastal city of Trani…
Trani Cathedral at dusk
Rome has not the elaborate and extraordinary costumes and masks of Venice (we’ll post photographs from a prior trip in another blog) but this year Rome was about the only place in Italy where foul weather didn’t obstruct the main celebratory events of Carnevale. So the Insiders were able to enjoy the wonders of Carnevale at home in Rome in the Piazza del Popolo. Let us know if you would like next year to celebrate Carnevale here too. Wondrous events will occur on Rome’s major squares and the historic Via del Corso, this between February 22 and March 4. We will have the entire schedule of events for you, and know the perfect hotel — as well as the best place for Carnevale costumes (for children and adults) and dancing, the best source for original Carnevale confetti — and certainly for Carnevale pastries !
Carabinieri officers in full dress
The Pines of Rome
The evening fireworks closing the Carnevale festival were preceded by a horse show of riding to music, known as freestyle-to-music dressage or kür.
Cavalry of the Carabinieri
Charge of the Light Cavalry
En route home, walking through the nearly deserted Piazza Navona…
Italy, how do I love thee ?
Let me count the ways.
Or tell of one experience yesterday when, after tripping on stairs, I found myself with a swollen knee that looked like a model of the Pantheon’s dome. By great good luck, that same evening one of my son’s friends came to play, and later came his mother, Anna, a homeopathic physician. “Ammazza” she said (loosely, “Holy Cow”.) She looked at my knee, prodded it, and took out a notebook. Here were my instructions :
I was to take clay, mix it with water, add 10 drops of very low potency arnica (made from flowers from the Valle d’Aosta) and create a thick paste that I should apply to my knee. Cover with baking paper and tie with butcher’s netting. Leave overnight.
All of which I did. It was charming playing with the mud. The children loved applying it to my knee with slaps of the spatula. All night long, I could feel it drying and cracking.
The next morning I removed the butcher’s netting and the baking paper and the fully dried clay : my knee looked again like my knee.
I telephoned Anna. She was not surprised at all. Excellent.
And then :
Did I know about cooking with mud ?
And as quickly as she diagnosed my initial problem, she prescribed a recipe of her mother’s which she said I would find just as satisfactory as the last night’s therapy. Roasted chicken with star anise, lemon rind and olive oil in a clay crust. Did I have pencil and paper ? Good. Here was how I was to make it.
Italy is a country where we create and recreate continuously — a Roman capital is incorporated into a Renaissance door frame, a medieval palazzo is the foundation for a baroque palace. And here — thanks once again to Italian creativity and resourcefulness — therapy for my knee becomes a superb lunch. With clay and star anise.
Italy, how I love thee.
After a winter that has really not been a winter, in Rome we are preparing for a possible tiny dusting of snow.
This does not mean, in the style of our hardy New England relatives and clients, preparing for frozen pipes or getting out the snow shovels.
It means covering the lemon trees.
Telling the first terrace spring crocus that all will be well.
And fortifying ourselves with a platter of Rome’s best carnival frappe.
While much of Italy produces its own magical pre-Lenten sweets, there is nothing we love more than those two most emblematic Carnival desserts, frappe and (most especially in my own case) castagnole.
While pastry stores put these out immediately after Epiphany to tempt would-be dieters, really the period when they should be enjoyed is Carnival, which concludes next Tuesday.
We think that we have already found Florence’s best (Cantinetta da Verrazzano). And Venice’s best (La pasticceria del Ponte.) Every Florentine and Venetian has their own idea of course.
This man is waiting impatiently to buy a tray of castagnole. Why must he wait so long ?
This weekend, dear readers, we are on our annual hunt for Rome’s best frappe and castagnole. And shall report the full evaluation of our five guests tasters, all aged ten and under –all experts in the field.
Here we have one experienced taster, with strong opinions
A presto !
We’ve written on our philosophy of travel before. In an increasingly globalised society — one where wearying sameness produces irreparable cultural damage and makes your trip so much poorer — we will, again and again, offer you experiences that are wondrously diverse from what you will find at home.
Insider’s Italy plans special trips that are the exact opposite of shallow, easy, fast-paced travels.
And in 2013, we reaffirm our travel philosophy :
1. We do not book large US style hotels, ever.
Chianti Classico inn
Nearly every one of our hotels is an historic inn that has kept local character, architectural details and spirit. Every single one has taken special interest in sourcing local and national materials in tiles, fabrics, furniture, stone. Many of them are eco-conscious. Many are associated with agricultural estates.
Sicilian Olive Oil agriturismo
In your travels we want you to celebrate the differences in ways of life. Your hotel — or your villa — will feel Italian — or more specifically Venetian, or Sicilian, or Tuscan or…
2. It is usually hard to plan an American city vacation without a car. In Italy, conversely, we book city hotel locations such that you can do nearly everything on foot.
Without exception, Italian cities are fascinating in their urban planning, architecture, colors and life. Walking is a delight. Walking allows for discoveries you can never make otherwise. Our own self-guided walking tours — filled with Insider’s details — fill the Plans we write for you.
3. Even in the countryside, we encourage limited or minimal use of a car. When inns or hotels are not accessible by public transport, and we do book cars for our clients, we also suggest maximum use of public transport and walking trails. We suggest use of smaller cars with highest fuel efficiency.
We have guides for many countryside locations, including on these historic Campania region walking paths.
Their expertise lies as much in geology and local history as it does in flora and fauna.
On horseback in the Abruzzi with Francesco and his horse Dollaro
Here our special friend Gio cuts up his own Slow Food presidia tomatoes for you for a morning merenda and pours on local, new season oil. You will enjoy this during a long stop on one of the world’s very greatest walks, which he leads for our travelers.
4. We Americans are obsessed with change and speed. Insider’s Italy travels instead generally focus on exploring a small area in depth — and moving as little as possible.
Stopping to marvel after a long walk in one of our favorite gardens
Our clients travel slowly, stay a while, and enjoy every experience without accelerating on to the next destination over the hill.
5. We recommend local artisans, small scale food producers and others whose work is socially enriching and whose professions need support if they are to survive.
Florence Paper Store
We lead you to a magician with local leathers who produces timeless products of great elegance and style, and who is following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather.
Traditional artisinal Tuscan fabrics
Please encourage farmers who refuse the American model of factory farming and visit an organic dairy that makes what must surely be the best buffalo milk mozzarella in the world.
Responsible, with the other water buffalo ladies here, for the best mozzarella in the world
Instead of directing your spending power towards touristy chains that have a negative effect on a city, let us help you to invest in the health of small enterprises and the living fabric of the place.
Hand made ricotta and caciotta
A typical example of the sort of discovery we love to share is Casolet, which is one of the most exciting cheeses we have ever eaten.
This raw milk cheese, which has been made since Roman times, is produced in very small batches only in the Val di Sole, in Trentino Alto Adige, 90 minutes northwest of Venice, and is rich, vibrant and pungent, with a remarkable buttery finish. Nowhere in America will you find a cheese like this — it is not exported –- and sampling it with a local apple (indigenous varieties unknown in the US) is a Slow Food paradise pairing.
Learn an Italian artisan technique yourself. Let us guide you into the homes of small artisanal producers eager to show you how traditional foods have been made for centuries.
Learn to make Cristina’s magnificent, tiny gnocchi (cooking in her own kitchen, with her own potatoes, which you have picked yourself..)
Or mosaics, with Arianna in Ravenna.
6. The docent guides we suggest are all locals and are deeply involved in their field : these are architects, restorers, painters, educators,historians…
Children are encouraged to look closely, ask questions, investigate at their own pace
Walks are on foot, and purposely slow paced so that you can speak, ask questions, and develop a real understanding of the subject matter.
Frank, one of our favorite docents, is an Italian Renaissance specialist who grew up in Rome
7. We do not recommend fusion or nouvelle cuisine restaurants — but only traditional, regional favorites.
We will introduce you to the best Italian home cooking, the kind you will never find outside of Italy. This is direct, free of artifice, and is a celebration of seasonal ingredients.
This boat belongs to two fishermen, who are both brothers and cooks. They will come and collect you and take you to their superb “trattoria”, accessible by sea and footpath only.
Pasta alle scoglie
Italian cooking is at its most successful when direct, uncomplicated, free of artifice in taste or appearance.
- Salvatore. The wine he’s drinking and the vegetables you see are all his own.
Our ideal restaurant is probably family-run, and directed with passion and humility. The best restaurateurs in Italy today come from a strong regional or local tradition.
Slow Food : all ingredients (including olive oil) are the owners’ own or are locally sourced — and there is nothing on the menu that is not regional or seasonal or traditional
7. Our Regional Eating guides, and market guides for most locations, help you to understand what is local and in season in each location so that you do not miss superb, strictly regional delicacies that you will not find at home.
Organic/wild herbs and kitchen ingredients from Sicily’s Monti Iblei
Vittorio — having taught Nathan how to catch a fish — now teaches him how to bone one
8. We encourage off-the-beaten-track regional travel. Please let us guide you to the Trentino, to Basilicata, to the Abruzzo… to regions where traditional life continues.
Castel del Monte
Our hotels and inns here, as throughout Italy, are all selected to offer a very high level of comfort and four- and five-star standards.
Two hours east of Rome, we recently saw an elderly local lady balancing on her head — with great grace — a copper urn that she was carrying from a fountain to her home. As a child, I would see this in Rome. Traditional sights like this are gone from every major Italian city, and you will not find them either in Tuscany. Let us guide you to regions that are more off the beaten path.
9. In June, for the fourth time, we are joining the centuries-old transumanza, or transhumance, for three days of walking with the sheep. For perhaps 3000 years nomadic herders and shepherds have been moving their sheep from winter to summer quarters on paths that are so well beaten as to be visible from the air.
This three-day experience is not for everyone (camping and homemade traditional country meals, including just-made sheep’s milk ricotta and fresh pasta) but for others an experience like this is a celebration of Italy’s “differentness” and rich agrarian history and will be the highlight of a trip.
The point we make is this : throughout your travels, please consider partaking in situations that are unlike anything you will find at home and that are unique to the fabric of Italy.
10. Please consider traveling as we do, with Slow ideals. You will be part of a small but significant revolution. And your trip will be so much richer for it.
At rest, on the top of the world : The Path of the Gods
I was taken by a remark in this weekend’s New York Times ( “The War Against too Much of Everything”) : “ ‘As our planet gets warmer, as animals go extinct, as the humans get sicker, as our economies bail and our politicians grow ever more twisted, Americans just go shopping,’ Adbusters says on its Web site. Overconsumption is destroying us, yet shopping is ‘our solace, our sedative: consumerism is the opiate of the masses.’ ”
I thought of recent correspondence with dear repeat clients, now close friends, who wrote me some years ago that “we need to get away this holiday from the relentless spend spend spend mentality which annually grips Dallas and area.
And the Christmas carols that have been playing in the supermarkets since before Thanksgiving.”
“We want to get aways from the commercialism, the excessive lights, the gross-ness of the push to acquire.
We want a quiet holiday, a family one, very few presents, family richness only. Marjorie, please help !”
We did. They went to Amalfi for ten days, where the only excessive lights were on the eve of the festa of Saint Andrew, where traditional fireworks light up the hillside below Amalfi. Christmas Day lunch was a seaside feast of tagliolini with lemon, local grilled fish and artichokes, and traditional Christmas desserts. The Dallas family spent the afternoon on the beach, listening to the gentle waves, talking, and enjoying the quiet simplicity of this most gentle (if we celebrate it lightly) of holidays.
An alternative to the over consumption is to partake in, if not abstention, a thought to buy only hand-produced presents, easy if you plan a trip to Florence during one of the twice-monthly Fierucola markets.
The early December one – where we bought most of our holiday presents this year – celebrates exclusively local artisans – of pottery and olive wood, of honey and vegetables, of cheeses and textiles (linens, flax, cotton) of homemade toys, wools (cashmere, angora, sheeps wool) and kitchen tools, of herbs …
Florentine aristocrats and bohemians both — and no one we could see whom was not Italian –
carried home beautiful, inexpensive gifts for loved ones and perhaps even themselves.
Close t0 fifty stalls filled harmonious Piazza Santissima Annunziata.
No recorded holiday music.
No pressure to buy. Just a celebration, now as for centuries, of simple, lovely and hand made goods.
All through the year there are Fierucole in Florence, and with each season, their offerings change. We have our own listings of artisan-only markets in every corner of Italy and are happy to share these with you.
Buon Natale !
While they are not behind the desk, nonne (grandmothers) in many ways direct at least six of the hotels we love most, and where we book so often for you. They are seen often however checking over rooms, fussying over details in the hotel dining room or helping their middle aged children, who officially are the managers. These are all four and five star hotels.
We celebrate nonne often when we confirm a cook for your villa or a cooking class : our experience is that more often than not, your cooking teacher will be a nonna.
Nearly every restaurant we recommend and book for you is family owned, and more often than not there is a nonna either cooking or a retired cook/nonna somewhere in the background. One outstanding example is in Ceglie, in Puglia. The 93 year old nonna is the cook. Her ebullient son, who is 30 years younger, is the maitre and owner. He is the first to say that the restaurant is really all hers, and his substantial paunch indicates that for six decades Nonna has fed her son well.
Nonne serve essential roles in Italian society : the repository of a profoundly rich and varied regional culinary tradtiion, a connection with Italy’s pre World War 2 past, the child caretakers of choice for a whole generation of young Italian parents. Nonne (and nonni too) seem to power the economy — it is they that allow daughters of small children to go back to work, as they look after their grandchildren. Nonne collect children after school. Nonne take children to the seaside when school ends. Nonne treat nipotini to their after school gelato.
A nonna began Insider’s Italy with me.
Nonne are busy all across Italy today, preparing for the immediate days of feasting that come soon : the seafood feast that is traditional on Christmas Eve, Christmas lunch, and for the family feast of Santo Stefano (December 26). Nonne will be back in action on New Year’s Eve (perhaps), again New Year’s Day (tradition demands quite specific menus for each of these days) and then again on Befana, Epiphany, when good children receive their holiday stockings (Nonna-approved contents.)
Nonne run artisan stores — I buy my linens, jewelry, shoes and jersey knits from nonne whose grandchildren — from babies to adults — are often in the store when I am there too. Shopping is more like visiting friends who have lovely things to show me, and is one more reason why I own very little that is not Italian made. Loredana, who has appeared before in my blogs, and grows remarkable vegetables with (nonno) Domenico, is a nonna, whose daughters and grand-daughters are nearly always at hand, trimming vegetables or at work weighing customers’ produce.
A society where nonne are so relevant, so integrated within society and viewed as so precious is a society that is much the richer for it.
Vivono le nonne !