Browsing category: Crafts in Umbria, Italy Blogging Roundtable, Life in Umbria, Things to do and see in Umbria

Christmas Markets in Umbria: A New Tradition

Our monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable is talking about traditions this month! Take a look at posts by Jessica Spiegel and Alexandra Korey. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Welcome back to our table…come pull up a chair and join in on the conversation.

I have to admit that I’m not completely sold on the whole Christmas market thing. An import from northern Italy—which, one presumes, imported it from the Alpine villages across its borders—these picturesque seasonal markets, composed of a number of small booths where artisans and artists hawk their wares, are starting to pop up more and more during the weeks leading up to the Christmas holidays in piazzas across Umbria.

Unfortunately, a number I’ve visited have been disappointments…just a handful of booths, or poorly organized, or largely forgettable items for sale: Umbria is obviously still in the embryonic phase of its holiday market tradition.

There are two exceptions to this largely insipid pool: Assisi’s pretty market the first weekend of December and Perugia’s large market which takes over the whole of the Rocca Paolina for the month of December.

The Rocca is a fascinating place to wander through anytime—the remains of the medieval cityscape perfectly conserved beneath the modern streets of Perugia above—but is particularly suited to a meandering market, with booths tucked away in the various alleyways and niches which make up the brick and stone underground warren. The booths ranged from ceramics and leather goods, to handmade toys and accessories. There were a number of vintage clothing and jewelry sellers and a great selection of fun items for kids.

The biggest selling point—aside from the dramatic setting and number of sellers—was the range of prices. You can easily find a number of unique stocking stuffers for under €20, up to more expensive leather bags and coats. I’m especially heartened each year by the number of local artisans with handmade crafts and food, always something I am happy to spend my (limited) Christmas budget on.

Unfortunately I’ve never snapped pictures when visiting the market, so a big thanks to Gigi Bettin from Via di Francesco for pinch hitting for me and loaning me some shots!

Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!


Digging for Umbria’s Black Gold: Truffles

Our monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable is talking about harvest this month! Take a look at posts by Kate Bailward, Jessica Spiegel, Melanie Renzulli, Alexandra Korey, Gloria, and Michelle Fabio. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Welcome back to our table…come pull up a chair and join in on the conversation.

There are some firsts you never forget. Your first kiss (Bubba, fifth grade) and your first heartbreak (same kid). Your first hiring (Gino’s Italian Deli) and your first firing (same job). Your first drive (1982 Dodge Colt) and your first accident (same car). And, in my case, the first time I ever tasted truffles (June, 1986).

I was a high school exchange student staying with a marvelous family in Assisi and during my first week there my “host sister” told me, “Mamma has prepared something special for lunch!” We all sat down at the table, where steaming plates of perfectly cooked spaghetti dressed with just a few drops of golden-green Umbrian olive oil waited. I watched as the family’s mother reverently pulled out what looked to my midwestern American eyes like a clump of dirt and began to grate it over each individual dish. I started to panic. (I had just recovered the previous day from the shock upon hearing that Umbrians regularly ate mice. Only after much elaborate gesticulating and explaining did I realize that what I had understood from the heavily accented English to be the small rodent was actually the word “maize”. Much to my relief.)

I could see no way of diplomatically refusing to eat the soil-covered pasta, and while all eyes around the table were fixed on me, I took my first bite. It was an epiphany.

Nothing can describe the penetrating, earthy (no, it’s not dirt, but its flavor suggests loamy woods and wild mushrooms and crisp autumn days and burning leaves all rolled into one) taste of the world’s most precious tuber. Grated over pasta, mixed in sauces and patès, simply wrapped overnight in a soft towel along with fresh farm eggs for a truffle-infused frittata the next day…these divine delicacies–the Romans believed that truffles were the fruit of the sacred thunderbolt of Jove—are one of the staples of Umbrian cuisine.
Their ubiquitous presence on menus across this central Italian region belies the fact that they are not that easy to come by. They require a precise microclimate at medium-high altitudes, calcareous soil, stony and rich in clay, sunny yet damp spots near oaks, hornbeams, hazelnuts and holm oaks.

They also require a nose—a good nose. These elusive fungi usually grow covered by leaf litter or under the forest floor and eyes aren’t good enough to roust them out. You need the nose of a dog, and I don’t mean in the figurative sense: a real truffle dog. Dogs are trained as pups to sniff out truffles (pigs were once used, but had the bad habit of eating what they found) and used by professional and amateur truffle hunters across the region to locate their woodland treasures. After years of passively eating truffles, I was ready to switch to the active side of the equation and participate in a truffle hunt myself.

When pondering truffles in Umbria, the town of Norcia in the far southeast corner of the region, bordering on The Marches, inevitably comes to mind. Truffles are to Norcia what bicycles are to Beijing and sin is to Vegas, so much so that the common name of the dark Tuber Melanosporum Vitt is Norcia Nero or Norcia’s Black Gold and the town holds an important truffle fair and festival every year in late February. But to participate in an actual hunt, I crossed to the opposite corner of the region and ended up on the upper northwest border with Tuscany among the picturesque wooded rolling hills of the Upper Tiber Valley.

I met up with the delightful couple, Saverio and Gabriella Bianconi, of Tartufi Bianconi located in the small town of Città di Castello. In the truffle business since 1990, for the past decade the Bianconis have opened their doors to travellers and gourmands from all over the world to share their love of the local history, culture, and cuisine—all of which are closely intertwined with this delicacy. I immediately headed out with the affable Saverio, whose knowledge of the Upper Tiber Valley was exhaustive and enthusiasm infective, to a nearby truffle reserve where we met up with two local foragers and their professional canine colleagues: Asia and Sandy.

The dogs were literally trembling with excitement as I got kitted out with my “bisaccia”, or traditional leather truffle bag, and headed into the woods. As soon as they were let free and given the command, they began zigzagging through undergrowth, nose to ground, sniffing for buried treasure. Not three minutes had passed when Asia began circling a spot, and delicately pawing her way through the dried leaf cover and damp humus underneath. Score! A pair of lovely black truffles, about as big as walnuts, were about two inches underground, and I was as proud of her hunting prowess as if she had been by my own. Less than an hour later, with a warm thank you and goodbye to our two “tartufai” truffle hunters and their dogs, I set off with Saverio to his home and business to have our booty weighed and sorted.

Once at Tartufi Bianconi, I discovered Saverio’s tiny private truffle museum–floor to ceiling packed with charming and quirky truffle hunting tools, memorabilia, and an educational display with various samples of local and foreign tuber varieties and curiosities. His lighthearted explanation included wily tricks local foragers use to sell their finds at the highest price (including packing the truffles’ warty skin with pebbles and dirt to make them heavier, thus more valuable, and passing off truffle-shaped stones as the real thing) and to keep the best foraging areas a secret (one local “tartufaio” regularly goes out in drag, so he won’t be recognized and followed to the woods by competitors). Afterwards, I had a peek in their processing rooms, where they weigh, sort, clean and prepare the truffles—drying, deep freezing, or chopping them for patè, sauces, and infused olive oil.

Saverio’s wife, Gabriella, then welcomed me into her homey kitchen and led me through a tasting of the four main truffle varieties found locally: the delicate white truffle (I was there just as the white truffle season opened, and was lucky to be able to sample this rare treat fresh from the woods) sliced paper thin and served raw with lightly salted butter, the stronger summer white truffle, or Bianchetto, which was stored minced and frozen and now served with just a drop of olive oil, the local black truffle (Gabriella had me first taste it raw, then gently warmed in olive oil to demonstrate how this brings out the aroma), and the strong Norcia black truffle, again warmed in olive oil to accentuate the flavor. After 25 years of enjoying truffles, I felt I had finally discovered how to distinguish between them and use each variety to its best advantage—knowledge I will be using to my best advantage at future dinner parties!

We finished our day in the best possible way: cooking and eating our bounty. With Gabriella as instructor, and using all local ingredients and products prepared by the Bianconis, we prepared a pecorino flan with honey and truffles, egg tagliatelle dressed in fresh truffle, a juicy beef roast with truffle sauce, and finished with a wonderful traditional dessert–zuppa inglese–made with custard and sponge cake. We chatted, laughed, and swapped stories from the first bite of antipasto through the last sip of smoky-sweet vin santo made by a micro-vintner down the road. In this day of discoveries, the biggest one was this: truffles are not about food, but about people. The history of people who have foraged for them for millenia, the culture of people who keep this history alive, the passion of people who pass down this culture in the kitchen, the stories of people who are passionate about this breathtaking valley and its bounty.

A special thank you to Saverio and Gabriella from Tartufi Bianconi for a wonderful day!

Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!


Italy Roundtable: Partytime at Assisi’s Calendimaggio

Our monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable is talking about community this month! Take a look at posts by Kate Bailward, Jessica Spiegel, Melanie Renzulli, Alexandra Korey, and Gloria. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Welcome back to our table…come pull up a chair and join in on the conversation.


Assisi– with its iconic Basilica of Saint Francis, picturesque twisting stone alleyways, and breathtaking views over the surrounding olive grove-covered hills–is not known for its nightlife. The atmosphere of this beautiful and stately hilltown is staid and spiritual, lending itself more to contemplative walks and quiet cappuccinos than bacchanal excess and nocturnal partying.

That is, except for those three days (and nights) a year when Assisi really lets her hair down. For the past 50 plus years, Saint Francis’ hometown sheds its normal air of peace and brotherly love to spend the first Thursday, Friday, and Saturday of May locked in intense competition as the Parte de Sopra and the Parte de Sotto put on elaborate processions, scenes of medieval life, and concerts with period music as they compete for the Palio, judged by a panel of three experts, one specialized in history, one in theater and the arts, and one in music.

Virtually everyone who lives in Assisi – and many locals who have since moved away but make a yearly pilgrimage during the days leading up to Calendimaggio – participates in this community-run festival, from building sets and sewing costumes, to acting in the Medieval scenes, to singing in the choir, to going around town each evening to light the many torches illuminating the streets (yes, there is a special group of guys who are specialized in the torches). In a town in which only about 1,000 people currently live in the historic center, almost 2,000 routinely participate in some way in the festival, which brings the town together in both solidarity and rivalry like no other event.

The festival—currently shortlisted for UNESCO World Heritage recognition—is seen best from the bleacher seats in the main piazza (tickets available in the tourist information office); Thursday, Friday, and Saturday afternoons are filled with processions (Thursday is marked by the keys to the city being ceremoniously handed over by the Mayor to the Master of Ceremonies for the three days of festivities; Friday the two Parti compete in crossbow and Medieval games; Saturday afternoon is the theatrical procession. Perhaps the most spectacular of the three days of festivities is Saturday night when fire and pyrotechnics play a large part of the show.). On Thursday and Friday nights the scenes of Medieval life which each Parte organize in their respective areas of the town are open only to the judges, but can be seen by the public projected on screens in the main piazza.

These are magical days when flags and banners hang from each window, a taverna (temporary restaurant) is bustling to serve hungry festival-goers under the Piazza del Comune, costumed theatrical processions, crossbow tournaments, feats of physical strength, Medieval choirs with historic instrumental accompaniment, and dancing go far into the night…indeed, on Saturday the rowdiness flows to dawn, when the verdict from the three judges is announced and the winning Parte literally dances in the streets (And piazzas. And fountains.).

These photos of past editions of Calendimaggio are courtesy of Via di Francesco.

Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!


Italy Roundtable: Finocchi Rifatti al Pomodoro

Our monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable is throwing a party this month! Along with Kate Bailward, Jessica Spiegel, Melanie Renzulli, Alexandra Korey, Gloria, and Michelle Fabio, we’ve invited the folks from COSI (Crazy Observations by Stranieri in Italy) to talk with us about this month’s theme of “authenticity”. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Welcome back to our table…come pull up a chair and join in on the conversation.


Late last year I reviewed the delightful “Sustenance: Food Traditions in Italy’s Heartland” in which author Elizabeth Wholey takes readers on an absorbing journey through the history and culture of the Upper Tiber Valley, passing by way of the area’s farms and their stocked pantries.

To illustrate and enliven her narrative, she includes a number of simple, traditional dishes taken from the well-worn recipe cards of country housewives from the four regions which meet in the Alta Valle del Tevere: Umbria, Le Marche, Tuscany, and Emilia Romagna.

As a further homage to this excellent little book, I decided to try out one of these recipes for this month’s Italy Roundtable, as nothing can better illustrate authenticity in Umbria (or Italy as a whole) than its traditional cuisine. I immediately knew which to choose; I had just had a conversation with a visiting friend about one of our winter staples: fennel. Along with greens, cauliflower, and broccoli, this crisp, anise-flavoured, celery-like vegetable is omnipresent at our table during the colder months, but besides simply slicing it and dressing it with a bit of salt and olive oil or, if we are feeling posh, mixing it with thinly sliced oranges and either black olives or pomegranate seeds to form a colorful salad, I’m not particularly creative with how to serve it.

So when I spotted Finocchi Rifatti al Pomodoro—billed as “Angiolina’s Thrice Cooked Fennel with Tomato Sauce”—I knew that was the one.

Here it is:

Prep time:

10 minutes

Cooking time:

40 minutes


  • 3 Tbs olive oil
  • 500 g ripe, flavorful tomatoes, coarsely chopped, or 350 g Ortobono pomarola, or canned Italian tomatoes
  • 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 250 ml water
  • 1 lt oil for frying
  • 400 g all-purpose flour for dredging
  • grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese


To make the tomato sauce: in a 2 lt heavy pot with a close-fitting lid, heat the chopped garlic in the oil until its aroma is just released (do not overcook), the add the chopped tomatoes or pomarola sauce, water, and salt. Cook for 10 minutes; remove from heat and set aside.

Heat the frying oil to 180° in a deep, heavy saucepan. In a separate pot, bring to boil 2 lt of salted water. Prepare a large bowl with flour for dredging.

Thinly slice the fennel bulbs, wash, and add to the pot of boiling water. Cook for five minutes [I found that this was too long…I would cook just until fork-tender; about three minutes], then remove and dry them on a clean towel.

When they are cool, dredge them in the flour and carefully place in the hot oil. Fry, turning occasionally, until they are a golden color. Lift them out and place in the pot with the pre-prepared tomato sauce.

[We got into a little trouble here, having discovered that fried fennel is pretty darn good just all by itself. Mostly because pretty much any food is pretty darn good if deep-fried. But we managed to quit snacking on them and got most of the fried fennel slices in the pot of sauce.]

When all the fried fennel is in the pot of sauce, cover it and cook on the stovetop for about 10 minutes over low heat, stirring occasionally and adding additional water to prevent sticking. When the sauce has become thickened and creamy, transfer the fennel with the sauce to a warm serving dish and serve with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

A special thanks to Elizabeth Wholey for allowing me to reproduce her recipe here!

Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!

And from our friends at COSI:


Italy Roundtable: Lost at the Table

Our monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable has grown over the past month! Along with Kate Bailward, Jessica Spiegel, Melanie Renzulli, Alexandra Korey, and Gloria, we welcome new member Michelle Fabio from the wonderful Bleeding Espresso blog to explore this month’s theme: lost in translation. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Welcome back to our table…come pull up a chair and join in on the conversation.


I’m not sure how it came up. We may have been talking about childhood memories, or maybe some American movie, or maybe just our favorite foods from growing up. But for whatever reason, I started describing to my children -bicultural but 90% Italian in matters concerning the palate – that perennial favorite: Kraft Macaroni & Cheese.

I watched as their expressions shifted from mild interest to disbelief to outright disgust as I described the bright orange powder which, when mixed with milk, butter, and slightly overcooked elbow pasta, would transform through some sort of gastronomic alchemy into what was, in the 1970s, our hands-down favorite meal and one of the pillars of our household cuisine.

“Wait, what? It was dried, powdered chemical cheese?!? And you ate it?” my children cried in horror. And then, “So if you ate that and you’re fine, why can’t we have Coke?”

It seems odd, but I had never really thought about some of my favorite and, admittedly, slightly disgusting favorite dishes from growing up during what was probably the lowest moment for American cuisine. They had gradually faded from my memory over the distance decades and oceans, and it was only during what quickly become one of my children’s favorite topics of dinnertime conversation that I revisited these dishes.

Over the next few weeks, a myriad of nostalgic favorites were discussed, to the growing incredulity of my children. What was served at home and school in the Chicago suburbs in the 1970s and 80s was as odd and gastronomically untranslatable to two Italian children growing up in the Umbrian countryside in the 21st century as molecular cuisine or whatever tube worms eat in the depths of the ocean.

What were the foods – and I use the word “food” loosely – that left them most awed and amazed?

Chili Mac. This was the logical segue after Kraft Mac & Cheese (with a slight, longing detour past Hamburger Helper), and my kids were slightly less scandalized by this, as they have had chili with more or less success. Of course, the chili that they have had is my homemade black bean chili with chipotle and fresh lime which simmers on the stove for the better part of a day. The chili my mother used was made by Hormel and simmered on the stove for exactly 30 seconds before being tossed with overdone macaroni (was there any other pasta shape in the Midwest in 1981?) and served up to much enthusiasm. Had I had the audacity to bring up canned chili, I could have also mentioned Spaghettios and Chef Boyardee Ravioli, but they can’t handle the truth.

The whole genre of orange processed cheeses. Velveeta, Cheez Whiz, Kraft Singles. America has invented many wonderful things, but I venture that our eponymous cheese is not one of them. I’ve never been a big fan of American cheese, so understood my sons’ perplexed looks while I described the disconcerting color, rubbery texture, and chemical aftertaste. Cheese is our family Esperanto, apparently. That said, one of my favorite childhood memories was going to the public library on Saturday and then afterwards stopping at the Peter Pan Diner for a grilled cheese sandwich…and you can bet your bottom dollar that it was made with Wonder Bread, American cheese, and fried up in margarine. Best lunch ever.

Jello. I have vague memories of opening up the kitchen cabinet and seeing a number of those small boxes neatly stacked in a variety of flavors. We were big jello fans at our house, and jiggly trays would be prepared and then cut into ice-cube sized squares to be popped into the mouth directly from the fridge all afternoon long. Try explaining to a 10 and 13 year old Italian kid that merenda was squares of acid-colored sweet gelatin flavored with artificial fruit flavors. Yeah, it doesn’t really translate that well. Throw in canned mandarin orange slices and marshmallows, and they were backing away from the table at just the thought. But boy did I love that when I was seven. (Also: Jello instant pudding in the similar little boxes. This did not gross the kids out as much, as there is instant budino here. Which they refuse to eat. But they’ve seen it.)

Sloppy Joes. I went into a long explanation of the singular delight that is the Sloppy Joe, and when I finished there was a long silence. Then, “So, what you’re saying is that it’s ragu served on a hamburger bun?” Yeah. Exactly. I’d never really thought of it like that, but yes. They were totally on board with the Sloppy Joe, and I have promised to make it for them some day. Because, you know, they’re two boys. And Sloppy Joes are, well, sloppy. Which is pretty much the attraction there, because otherwise it’s really nothing more than ragu sauce on a bun, you big dummy.

Corn dogs. No one is quibbling about the deliciousness that is the corn dog on a stick. Really, any food on a stick is pretty much the bomb, but the corn dog reigns supreme in pure State Fair joyousness. And yet. Try to explain the corn dog concept to anyone who hasn’t had a chance to actually taste one at an age too young to ask too many questions and you are bound to get Prince-at-the-2015-Grammys shade tossed your way. My kids are off and on about hot dogs (though hamburgers are always a win), and meh about cornbread. So the combination didn’t really sway them, though the concept of it being served on a stick gave them pause. Every once in awhile, just for laughs, they’ll randomly ask me to describe a corn dog again. And I have to admit, the more I talk about it the more I realize that it is kind of weird. But I hear that pretty much everything is battered and fried and served on a stick these days, so corn dogs have become the Atari of fair foods.

Tater tots. One bite of tater tots and they would burn their Italian passports. That is all. You think your favorite school lunch day was Sloppy Joe Day, but that’s because you forgot about Tater Tot Day. The day of the week we all lived for. I haven’t actually eaten a tater tot in probably 30 years, but I was able to perfectly describe the crunchy fried outer layer, lightly dusted in salt, which would be cracked open to reveal the steaming soft totness within. And, as a close cousin to the universally beloved french fry, (so deeply part of our cultural roots that when those rats in France had the audacity to justly question our invasion of Iraq after 9/11, we started calling them “freedom fries” because the alternative—boycotting french fries altogether—was unthinkable), my sons were easy converts.

Every so often, we open up the gastronomic Pandora’s Box and I’m able to exhume other more or less horrifying (to them)-slash-nostalgic (to me) examples (Tang.), much to our mutual enjoyment. Because at the end of the day, it’s not about highlighting the crazy differences that separate their experiences from mine, but about coming together and reveling in our shared life despite those crazy differences. Sure, food is sometimes lost in translation…but family is a something we all understand.

Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!


Italy Roundtable: The Hardest Thing

We tried. We did. We tried to quit, but we just couldn’t do it. We missed our monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable date too much, so I’m back with Kate Bailward, Jessica Spiegel, Melanie Renzulli, Alexandra Korey, and Gloria to tackle this month’s theme: cha-cha-cha-changes. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Welcome back to our table…come pull up a chair and join in on the conversation.


The Hardest Thing

I used to be a bit more starry-eyed about human nature. I used to observe humanity and see only what unites us: our common basic needs, our social nature, our love of fried foods. I would hum John Lennon and feel at one with the universe.

Now, perhaps a bit more jaded or simply realistic, I tend to see what divides us. The world seems to be cracking down the middle lately in everything from politics to pop culture, and there are less and less fences to sit on. You are either left or right, trash or high culture, vegan or paleo.

One of the divisions in human nature that has come into focus for me lately is this: there are those who need stability and those who need change. I mean, I suppose like sexuality and love of Beyoncé, it’s a spectrum, but — just like sexuality and love of Beyoncé — the vast majority of us are pretty far on one side or the other. And I have discovered, after years of thinking that I was a starter for Team Stability, that I am actually the official mascot for Team Change.

My son recently started using a guitar pick, after two years of lessons playing with his fingers. He fretted and fussed and got frustrated, and then one day picked out the first iconic notes of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” as if he had been doing it for years. And he said to me, with the frank wisdom that is found only in 10 year olds, “It wasn’t that it was hard. I was just scared it was going to be hard. The changing isn’t hard, it’s the thinking before the changing.”

And therein lies the truth, at least for me. The hardest thing isn’t the changing, contrary to what I thought for most of my life. The changing, I have discovered, is my lifeblood. It makes me feel vibrant and courageous and purposeful and, ultimately, triumphant. The hardest thing is the standing still and thinking before the changing.

Which brings me to a Whole Bunch of Great News! Or, at least, great news for a newly-outed Change Poster Child. In our world of the Italy Roundtable, many of us have gone through big changes since we last sat down to chat – babies have been born, international moves have been made, careers have been formed – and I have some news of my own to toss into the ring.


Brigolante Goes to Town

We are adding three new apartments on to Brigolante! We have recently taken on three pretty studio and one bedroom guest apartments in a historic palazzo right on the central Piazza del Comune in Assisi. Unfortunately, the Roundtable decided to launch before we are ready with our new website, but in the coming season we will be able to offer guests a choice between Brigolante Country here in the hills outside of Assisi and Brigolante Centro right in the heart of Assisi just steps from all the sights.

After a few years of languishing and feeling a little directionless, when the opportunity came to add new offerings and shake things up a bit, I jumped at it. I hadn’t realized just how much I needed a new challenge to stimulate me and get me excited about my business (my first “baby”, born before the real babies came along) again. I’ll be announcing our news with a big website launch, but I wanted to share it with my readers in the meantime.

These apartments have terraces with a view over the piazza, quiet inner courtyards with pizza ovens and ringing churchbells, and lots of space and light. The best part is that with more guests, there’s more of an opportunity to organize activities and events…so get ready for wine tastings and pizza parties and all sorts of fun stuff in the coming months!


Rebecca Leaves Town

Another exciting change recently was my involvement in producing a fabulous new travel series for PBS with Dream of Italy, an Italy travel newsletter that I have contributed to a few times over the years. When the editor at Dream of Italy and producer of the PBS series, Kathy McCabe, contacted me about collaborating with the production logistics, I really had to think about it. The project involved traveling for five weeks, which was a logistical challenge both for my family and professional life, and I just wasn’t sure if it was feasible.

But, like the wise boy said, it’s the thinking before the changing. In just a few days, a number of things fell into place in a way that was both serendipitous and timely and I was able to participate in this amazing adventure which took us from Piemonte to Puglia, passing through Tuscany, Umbria (of course Umbria!), Rome, and Naples and the Amalfi Coast along the way.

Dream of Italy – 2015 Teaser from Trivium Films on Vimeo.

It was hard work, but also perhaps one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had. Not only did I meet some amazing people (and see old friends), but I was able to rediscover the passion and warmth that had made me fall in love with this country over 20 years ago which I had begun to lose sight of recently. The series is coming out this spring, so check your local PBS listings to watch!

Other changes? Yes, lots of them. With the fervor of the newly converted, I am giving a stiff beating to my rug of life to see what flies off into the ether and what sticks around and reveals itself to be woven into my essence. It’s taken me a long time to pull that rug up off the floor and take it into the sunshine, but once I did it I realized that it was, surprisingly, the easiest thing.

Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!



Italy Roundtable: Panzanella

This edition of the monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable is a bit sluggish…blame the August heat.  Take a look at what my fellow bloggers including travel writing powerhouse Jessica Spiegel (on leave this month),  professional travel writer Melanie Renzulli, art historian and general brainiac Alexandra Korey, Tuscan uber-blogger Gloria the hilariously irreverent Kate Bailward and me have to say. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Please, pull up a chair to our Roundtable, have some popsicles, and join in on the conversation.



August in Italy

August in Italy is hot. Hot hot. Too hot to work (which is why this post is late), too hot to sleep, and too hot to cook—much less eat–much of anything.

There is one dish that I can always stomach, no matter what the thermometer reads. No, it’s not gelato (there are days when even gelato seems a challenge) and it’s not pasta salad (though it’s a close runner-up). It’s panzanella.

Panzanella is both a quintessentially Umbrian and a quintessentially summer dish. Umbrian because it is a delicious way to use up stale bread, which appeals to the parsimonious Umbrians and their farming traditions of not letting anything go to waste, and because pretty much every cook has their own version of it, depending upon their tastes and vegetable garden. Summer because it is built around flavorful garden tomatoes, fresh basil, extra virgin olive oil, and not much else–all ingredients that abound in these summer months—and involves not a lick of flame to make.

When the temperatures soar, make yourself a big ol’ plate of panzanella. And then take a nap in front of the fan.




Preparation time: 15 minutes

Ingredients for four servings:

  • 200 grams traditional Umbrian bread (cooked in a wood oven is best), cubed
  • 3-4 ripe tomatoes (cherry tomatoes work fine, as well), chopped
  • 1 small red onion, chopped
  • 1 stick of celery, sliced
  • (optional, according to taste: 1 cucumber and/or 1 carrot and/or a few leaves of romaine lettuce and/or capers and/or minced garlic and/or red or yellow sweet peppers)
  • a handful of green or black marinated olives (the good ones, people)
  • a bunch of fresh basil, chopped
  • red wine vinegar
  • extra-virgin olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste


Cut the vinegar with the same volume of water, making enough to soak the bread cubes. Soak for about five minutes, then press out the liquid well (the cubes get a little mushed up…it’s fine.).

Mix the bread with the chopped vegetables, olives, and basil in a large salad bowl. Dress with olive oil, salt, and pepper to taste.

Let the panzanella rest in the refrigerator for about two hours.

Yep, that’s it. Nap time.


Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic.


Italy Roundtable: Talking the Talk

This edition of the monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable is a hodgepodge, a mishmash, a mélange, a potpourri–a “Grab Bag”, if you will.  Take a look at what my fellow bloggers including travel writing powerhouse Jessica Spiegel (on leave this month),  professional travel writer Melanie Renzulli, art historian and general brainiac Alexandra Korey, Tuscan uber-blogger Gloria the hilariously irreverent Kate Bailward and me throw into the pot. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Please, pull up a chair to our Roundtable, have some assorted chocolates, and join in on the conversation.


Grab Bag

We opened up the topic this month for pretty much anything—I think most of us are limping over the academic year finish line and the creative energy necessary to come up with a compelling topic was just too much to ask—thus shooting ourselves in the foot. Because it turns out that nothing is more paralysing than unlimited choice, as anyone who has ever spent a Saturday evening at Blockbuster Video knows.

As I was ruminating over the topic buffet stretched before me, a recent conversation I had with a fellow expat about fluency came to mind. We had been talking about when, exactly, a person could be considered fluent in a second language; we agreed that the better we spoke Italian, the more we realized how far from fluent we were. And it came to me: perhaps one of the biggest steps towards fluency can be measured not by knowing what a word or phrase means, but by knowing what it doesn’t mean.

Italian is, like many languages, vastly nuanced and often the contextual meaning of a word or phrase and the literal meaning of that word or phrase diverge dramatically. These intricate subtleties are hard to master, and when you reach that magical sweet spot of not only understanding them but employing them to shade your own conversation, it’s a small personal triumph. Here are a few of my favorites, many of which took me years to grasp. Maybe with these helpful explanations, your learning curve will be steeper than mine.

1. una ventina di giorni
What it should mean: around twenty days
What it really means: I have no frigging idea when the spare part I need to repair your deep freezer will arrive-slash-that rash will clear up-slash-your tax returns will be ready for you to come in and sign but it seems either impolite or impolitic to admit it, so I’m just going to throw a random bookmark sort of number out there to appease you, which can either turn out to be tomorrow or turn out to be the 27th of November, 2017. So don’t start calling me on day 19, because that will perplex me. Just assume a zen acceptance of the unknown. And have a glass of wine. Wine helps.
“When will my cell service be active?”
“Una ventina di giorni.”
“Ok, I’ll go have some wine.”

2. una bella signora
What it should mean: a beautiful woman
What it really means: the first Pavlovian qualifier for any human being with two x chromosomes, regardless of any other accomplishments, achievements, talents, crimes, or misdemeanors which they may have racked up over their lifetime. It can also be tacked on to the end of the list of accomplishments, achievements, talents, crimes, or misdemeanors, casting them into the shadow of the overpowering importance of being una bella signora.
“Jane Goodall, una bella signora, is a British primatologist, ethologist, anthropologist, and UN Messenger of Peace. Considered to be the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees, she is the founder of the Jane Goodall Institute and has worked extensively on conservation and animal welfare issues.” Or “Jane Goodall is a British primatologist, ethologist, anthropologist, and UN Messenger of Peace. Considered to be the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees, she is the founder of the Jane Goodall Institute and has worked extensively on conservation and animal welfare issues. She is also una bella signora.”

3. quanto basta
What it should mean: just enough
What it really means: If you find yourself staring at the page in the cookbook where 90% of the measurements fo ingredients listed in the pollo alla cacciatora recipe have, instead of metric quantities, q.b. next to them and you are scratching your head and asking yourself, “Well, how much is just enough?”and, “If I knew how much was just enough, I wouldn’t need a frigging recipe, would I?”, give up. You are obviously not genetically predisposed to the eyeball method of cooking employed with nonchalance and mastery by most Italian cooks and if you shadow them in the kitchen trying to quantify the handfuls and pinches and Nutella jars of ingredients they are tossing into the pot, you will be good-naturedly mocked. Just get yourself invited to dinner to eat the pollo and stick to bringing brownies (the good ones from your mom’s 1973 Better Homes and Gardens) for dessert. Italians love brownies.
My neighbor’s recipe for crostata:
Flour q.b. (“How much is that?” “Oh, you know, cicca. Enough to make a mound.”)
Eggs q.b. (“How many is that?” “Oh, it depends on how big they are. 2. Or 4. Sometimes I put in 5.”)
Sugar q.b. (“How much is that?” “Oh, not too much. You don’t want it too sweet.”)
Oil q.b. (“How much is that?” “Oh, enough to make a dough.”)

4. Ci vediamo.
What it should mean: See you soon!
What it really means: This is not in any way an allusion to a future meeting, so don’t be whipping out your daytimer to pencil in a chit-chat. This is merely a non-committal, amicable way to part company, and does not denote a particular desire for the declarer to either see or not see you ever again. This neutral nicety is completely devoid of promise, so when weeks pass and no invite for a drink or dinner comes, do not take it personally. On the other hand, a “Prendiamo un caffè!” may indicate a nano-micro-kind-of-committment, so if fates and the winds decree that your paths serendipitously cross over the next twelve months you may actually share an espresso. Or you may not. It could go either way.
“Ci vediamo!”
“Sì, ci vediamo!”
“Who was that?”
“I have no idea.”

5. Spaghettata
What it should mean: a casual dinner among friends at which a simple pot of pasta is served
What it really means: A fabulously prepared meal of at least five courses which rivals what you served at your own wedding, during which the hostess spends the entire evening apologizing because there’s not enough food and explaining that everyone should eat up now, because there are only three desserts. And gelato. Because she makes her husband leave in the middle of the meal to pick up some gelato. And for fruit there are just strawberries. But you can have them with whipped cream or sugar and lemon juice. Unless you want them with balsamic vinegar. Do you want them with balsamic vinegar? Because they’re out of balsamic vinegar but they can just call her mother who lives next door and she probably has some, or wait, her great-aunt always has balsamic vinegar. Who wants strawberries with balsamic vinegar? Because as soon as the husband comes back with the gelato he will be sent out again for balsamic vinegar.
“Listen, Saturday night you want to come around for dinner. Just some friends, nothing special. A spaghettata. There will just be around 30 of us. I started cooking ten days ago. No big deal, really.”


Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic.


Italy Roundtable: In Memoriam

This edition of the monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable touches on a sticky wicket of a topic, but will surely be well played by my fellow bloggers including travel writing powerhouse Jessica Spiegel,  professional travel writer Melanie Renzulli, art historian and general brainiac Alexandra Korey, Tuscan uber-blogger Gloria the hilariously irreverent Kate Bailward and me. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Please, pull up a chair to our Roundtable, have a cuppa, and join in on the conversation.


Women in Italy

On May 5th, 2005 I came home from dinner at a pizzeria in Assisi to find two messages on my home answering machine (remember those?). The first was from my college roommate Susan, living in Asia at the time. “Hi! Listen, give me a call when you get in, okay?” she intoned. “Huh,” I thought happily, “She must be planning a visit. Strange she’d call rather than email, though.” The second message began and I heard the strained voice of my college roommate Pam coming through the line from New York. “Sweetie, call me.”

I didn’t call. I sat and stared at the phone for a good ten minutes, until my husband said, “Well, aren’t you going to call them back?” But I couldn’t pick up that phone–not yet–because there was only one reason that both Susie and Pam would call me. And that reason was our fourth roommate, my dear friend Nina. I knew that once I picked up the phone, once I dialed those numbers, once I heard what I already knew could be only terrible news, nothing would be the same again. So I froze time for those last moments of my girlhood, and then I dialed the phone and became a woman.

I was 22 years old when I moved to Italy, convinced of so many things—first among them my adulthood. I smile now with tender affection at that girl, little more than a child, playing at being a grown-up. So brash and brave and ready to conquer the world, so proud of her adolescent wounds and scars and heartache that she carried like medals of honor into battle, sure that she had weathered the worst and earned her stripes as a woman. So unaware that of all the accoutrements of adulthood—the jobs and marriages, the children and debt—it is, ultimately, loss that pushes us over the threshold.

Nina died at 34. She collapsed on her kitchen floor while making breakfast for her husband and two daughters from a blood clot in her lung. She was one of my closest friends—we lived together for most of college, stood up for each other in our respective weddings, one of her daughters’ middle names is Rebecca—and I would give anything to have her back, all gorgeous 6 feet of her, turning heads with her black hair and red shoes. She was one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, spoke several languages (having majored in her first love, Italian), swore like a sailor, wrote the funniest letters in the history of the English language, gave a great manicure, and viscerally loathed cats, spiders, her brothers’ ex-girlfriends, dirty houses, superficiality, and pretence.

Her death has been both my life’s worst trauma and most precious gift. It marked the beginning of my life as an adult woman, because with it came grief, of course, but also a coming of age that only a loss of that measure can bring. Nina herself had told me this, having lost her mother in a tragic car accident shortly before her wedding in 1995. In one of our long talks during those hard first months, she said, “You know, Mom’s death has made me fearless. Once the worst has happened, you suddenly feel like you have the power to face anything. It’s like I’m a grown-up all of the sudden.”

With this adult awareness there comes both power and duty. I feel the responsibility every day to live my life with double the intensity and mindfulness. I try to savor each fairytale sunset twice as long, breathe in the scent of my sons’ hair twice as deep, laugh with my girlfriends twice as loud. I have–for some inscrutable and unjust reason–been granted a life where another’s has been taken, and so mine must count twice to make some sort of sense of the senselessness.

Last week marked eight years since Nina’s death–a moment and a lifetime—and in keeping with women in Italy it seemed fitting to pay homage to her, the friend whose life inspired me to move to Italy and the friend whose death pushed me to grow into a woman. On the 5th of May this year, like each of the past eight, I wore her favorite color (red) and choked down her favorite cocktail (Blue Hawaii, a drink I find so abhorrent that the bottle of Malibu I bought in her honor has lasted eight years) and renewed the pledge I made at her graveside all those years ago: to live my life fearlessly, like a grown-up. Like a woman. Like Nina.


Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic.


Italy Roundtable: Spring in My Step

This edition of the monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable includes the debut of our new blogger (one of my personal favorites), the hilariously irreverent Kate Bailward! Welcome aboard Kate, to this project organized by travel writing powerhouse Jessica Spiegel, and including professional travel writer Melanie Renzulli, art historian and general brainiac Alexandra Korey, Tuscan uber-blogger Gloria, and me. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Please, pull up a chair to our Roundtable, have a power bar, and join in on the conversation.



So, I’d been thinking about spring, because that is our Italy Blogging Roundtable theme this month. I’d also been thinking about women in Italy, for reasons that will become clear to you come the second Wednesday of May. And in the delta of these two streams of consciousness, it had come to me how much I hated the theme of spring and that perhaps I should suggest a substitute to my fellow Roundtablers. Except that one overachiever who shall remain unnamed actually WROTE HER POST three weeks ahead of time, so by the time I got around to suggesting a theme tweak it couldn’t be changed anymore.

I donned my creative cap with the word spring and, though there is a member of the Roundtable who shall remain unnamed who was really hoping for it, I couldn’t come up with any mattress spring-themed post that would be appropriate for a family show. Second on the interpretive list was “spring in my step” and what it is that puts it there when the weather turns warm. Without doubt one of the biggest sources of spring in my step is my annual spring fitness push.

With the thoughts of women in Italy that were already churning in my head, I started ruminating over the differences I’ve noticed over the years between how I (and most of my American girlfriends) approach physical fitness and as opposed to how Umbrian women (in my experience–which is confined to a small set and limited geographical area–so your mileage on my generalizations may vary) of my same age do.

First, a declaimer: I know fit American women and I know fit Umbrian women…and I also know out of shape women in both countries. Though the obesity levels in the US are over-the-top, my social group tends to be in more-or-less acceptable shape. The same is true for my Umbrian friends, who also generally eat much healthier food and have a healthier lifestyle. That said, I’ve found that how the two female cultures view exercise and sports is very different.


What They Do

Americans are more fad-dy. I can say this, because I am firmly in this category. I do not have a particular love of sports, but I do have a very strong love of food. I adore eating but abhor shopping, so to keep me in pants and the zero sum equation balanced, there’s really only one solution.

The reason that I’ve burned through so many different physical activities in the past two decades isn’t due to an ingrained love of sport but a short attention span. I find that I get bored with what I’m doing after about two years. I’ve gone through a plethora of fitness activities–swimming, aerobics, step, spinning, Pilates, kick boxing, salsa, Zumba—and am always ready to try the Next New Thing.

Umbrian women, with a few exceptions, generally concentrate on two activities: walking and “palestra”, and stick with it. I do enjoy walking, but I have come to find that walking for exercise and walking with very chatty Umbrian girlfriends do not mix. Yes, they are there ostensibly to stretch their legs, but they are mostly there to catch up on gossip and swap recipes. When I’m up for a friendly stroll, that’s cool. When I am trying to power walk off a plate of gnocchetti al Sagrantino, I’m hoofing it hard enough to pant. It is not conducive to a lot of chit chat.

Palestra, the Italian word for gym or fitness center, is the most common response when you ask an Umbrian woman what she does for exercise. This is an umbrella term covering anything from walking on the treadmill for an hour to doing a circuit on the weight machines to taking the classes offered, which can range from your standard step aerobics to yoga. Things Umbrian women rarely do in palestra, based upon my two decades of observation: 1. sweat; and 2. lift weights.


How They Do It

They rarely do n. 1 for the same reason that I find I can’t power walk with them. The average female gym-goer here does 3 minutes of actual exercise for every 17 minutes of leaning up against a machine to chit chat. So in an hour or two of “training”, there is really only about 12 minutes of actual exercise going on. They rarely do n. 2 because in the gym, as in life, Umbrian women are well turned out. They wear matching (often ironed) active wear, they come in full hair and makeup, they often take a break to head back into the locker room to pull themselves together, and they tend to choose fitness “light”…the stuff that doesn’t muss and fuss.

This is how I go to the gym: I wear a baggy-ass pair of yoga pants that has lost its drawstring, so I have to roll the top over onto itself to keep them up. I wear a Michelle Shocked concert t-shirt from 1991 that has a rip on the collar and is yellow in the pits. I come with no makeup and generally dirty hair (I figure I’m going to shower afterwards, so why bother.) And when I’m there, I work. Hard. At the weights. Again, not because I am particularly athletic but because I am 1. busy and need to pack as much action into 45 minutes as I can; 2. the biggest tightwad on earth. If I’m paying an effing gym, I’m squeezing them for all they’re worth, and 3. I like to eat. Have I mentioned the eating thing?

When I’m done, my face is beet red. My hair is plastered to my temples and I have sweat dripping from my chin. Even if I were to have the propensity to chat, I would hardly have the breath to do it. I am not attractive at the gym. Not attractive at all.


And Why…

There is a big difference in my experience between the motivations behind exercise for American and Umbrian women. Almost all the Umbrian women I know exercise exclusively for esthetic purposes. To wit, to be thin. Though most American women I know have an element to esthetics in their fitness motivation, I also know many adult women who exercise primarily for sport (marathon runners are thick on the ground), for strength (Crossfitters galore), for peace of mind (meditive movement), and for competition.

I think this may go back to something I’ve talked about before: the fact that most Umbrian women I know spend an enormous amount of time on domestic chores, cooking, and generally GM-ing their families. This doesn’t leave much for activities as self-indulgent as sport for the sake of, you know, fun. It’s mostly about keeping yourself looking good so your husband is less likely to stray. Or, so you are still marketable if he does.

American women tend to put less in their domestic gratification basket and more in their personal gratification basket. My American women friends spend a significantly less amount of time at the mop and ironing board, but read and blog, or train for cross-country bike races, or follow all the subplots in Game of Thrones, or pick up Spanish. This also circles back around to What They Do: if you are only exercising to keep in shape, you’re probably fine power walking or doing aerobics three times a week. If you are coming at it from the goal of sport, competition, or simply to pick up a new skill, you’re more likely to be attracted to trying something new and, at times, trendy.

Now, of course, I’ll need to come up with something interesting to say about women in Italy for May, since I blew my idea already this month. But that’s cool. I’ll give it some thought while sweating away at the gym.


Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic.