Captain of Our Hours

As the new year rolls around, whether one is eating grapes, lentils (As the Italians do. Apparently, they also believe that wearing red underwear will bring you good luck as it is a vibrant color.), or carrots to bring good fortune, the new year is about starting over, finding joy and prosperity. The pandemic has lead to the great resignation as more and more people, with the luxury, choose to leave their nine to five daily grind. Supposedly, most people are not happy with their jobs. I have, in my travels, been fortunate enough to meet people who love their jobs. Alessandro is one of those people.

Last summer, when we were in Positano, we wanted to go on a boat ride. With a pandemic raging, we wanted to be alone on a boat. With a captain. My friends had just arrived from the overseas. They wanted to organize a boat ride, sun and water. We set off for the beach at the appointed time. At the checkin counter, the staff showed us a photo of the boat that they had chosen. A lifeboat type with limited shade. It was 100 degrees. For 400 euro. No roof. No toilet. Possibly an invisible tiger.

I vetoed it. We opted for the bigger boat with a toilet. I didn’t want to be on a dinghy with jet-lagged friends fighting over shade and nowhere to pee.

Alessandro was our captain. The boat was immaculate and Alessandro was absolutely the sweetest guy. He pointed out good swimming spots, Saracen forts, historical locations, homes of famous people, and other points of interest along the coast. He was happy to share his knowledge of the area (where to stay on Capri, etc.) and to chat about whatever you felt like asking him. Even if you ask him about his life as an Italian. Or why he commutes on a dangerous mountain road. Also, as an added bonus, he plays good music and will even take requests. Alessandro has another life as a music producer so ask him about that!

If you are interested in celebrity yacht spotting, he can name almost all the famous yachts you will see (and play along with you in guessing how many millions they cost). He has been a boat captain for seven years so he can drive the boat with the merest touch of a finger. To add to his charm, Alessandro also served us Prosecco in a dramatic and environmentally friendly way (take the tour to find out about that — it will make you see why Alessandro is the sexiest man alive). He will serve you but, of course, does not drink himself. After your swim, he will even hose you off in a manner that is so bashful and gentlemanly. He is adorable. Another thing about Alessandro. He loves his job. He really does.

Lucibello is the company that rents boats.

Back to the boat review. It may seem expensive. I think it cost 700 euro for four hours (with the toilet, Prosecco, towels, captain, etc.). But on the other hand, it’s really really private. There are ferries, but I recommend a private boat tour.

The boat company was nice and even waited thirty minutes to start our tour when my friends needed to go back to the hotel for their sunglasses. I waited at the yacht club on the beach and chatted with a club member (I laugh because the club was a bunch of chairs under umbrellas and the club member explained that even though he has a tiny boat, he has to be a member of the yacht club to moor at the beach. He drank a Corona and smoked while chatting. That seems a metaphor for pandemic clubbing.)

Lolling about on the padded front of the boat is wonderful.

We had an hour off the boat, in Amalfi, but next time, I would forego that and stay on the boat with Alessandro. It is a lovely way to pass the hours.

Not pictured is the rubber dinghy.

All in all, worth the price. Date of experience: July 2021. No tigers seen.

The toilet is below deck, under the brown wood cover.
The “yacht” club and our boat.

I’ll admit that when we got to the dock, I initially wanted the bald pirate for a captain (in the photo, you can just see him in the orange shorts). He looked like he would be full of trouble and lore (but I am not sure he spoke English). But, in the end, I am glad that we met Alessandro. He steered us well.

Italy Is a Film Set

The movies have influenced pop culture so much that when people think of Italy (which is gorgeous to visit on its own merits), people want to visit the towns where films made them famous or were imagined. So which of those places do I hear about most? Italy has a famous film pedigree from long before Under the Tuscan Sun (Fellini, Leone, etc.). But, in more modern times with the acceleration of social media, the obsession with overall mystique about Italy and “the sweet life” is here to stay. Here are some of the films and locations that you may want to visit, not including Italian films.

An enchanted April if every there was one.

La Dolce Vita, Rome, and more specifically, the Trevi Fountain. Anita Ekberg famously so bought in to the idea of the sweet life that she moved to Italy after frolicking in the movie. (This movie introduced the word “paparazzi” to the English language).

Roman Holiday. This film may also make you want to visit Rome. Rome houses Cinecitta, the Pinewood Studios or Hollywood of Italy. A place where one can visit many places and times all in one filming location (and some of the set pieces may actually be real!). At almost any time, there are films being filmed in Rome. Even during the pandemic, the Gucci film was on location in down town Rome.

The Godfather, Taormina, 100 miles east of Palermo, the capital of Sicily.

While this looks like Tuscany, it is actually just outside Rome.

Room With a View, Florence, Hotel degli Orafi was the set for the “pensione” with the view.

Gladiator, in Tuscany Val d’Orcia. The soundtrack and the scenes of the protagonist longing for elysium (paradise) so he could reunite with his family, is some of the most haunting and beautiful cinematography out there. I often want to add Lisa Gerrard’s score to my Instagram posts but I don’t want to add a sad note to the beauty I see.

Tea with Mussolini, filmed in Florence and San Gimignano.

Enchanted April, filmed at Castello Brown in Portofino, on the Ligurian Coast north of the Cinque Terre. This is where the author stayed in the 1920s.

Under the Tuscan Sun, Cortona, but filmed in Villa Laura. This film seems to be the end-all of wistful movies about Italy.

Eat, Pray, Love. Rome and Naples. This book and movie had the added bonus that it was non-fiction so it made la dolce vita seem even more attainable.

The view from bed in Positano.

But, there are other places that could be on a movie pilgrimage. In Positano, one can stay in the hotel (Albergo California) which stood in for an apartment (perhaps even the room!) where the heroine in Under the Tuscan Sun met her romantic interest, Marcello. In Verona, one can visit Juliet’s house! Also, many a James Bond movie and Mission Impossible have had scenes in Italy. Not to forget, Indiana Jones, and now that I think of it, so many more.

The Amalfi Coast, one of the most magical locations, is a popular film location.

All over Italy, there are villages that seem like movie sets. For example, near Rome, is a town called Sermoneta (named after money because it cost so much to buy the town) which is a perfectly preserved medieval town.

To read other lists of movies, read this article. Or this one about films set in Italy. I also found this article useful.

I am sure that I will go to many of these places in the future. It is hard to not trip over them as it seems like most of Italy is a movie set.

The Artichoke King

Trimmed artichokes ready for purchase.

As it is once again artichoke season, I have been thinking about them again. There is more to this thistle than one would think. There was once an artichoke mafia and the head of that was called the “The Artichoke King.” This was way back in 1920 in America. The mayor of New York, at the time, La Guardia (that guy who got an airport named after him) took a hard stance against the mafia. In his words: “A racketeer in artichokes is no different than a racketeer in slot machines.”

In Italy, the artichokes are sold with the stem, which is also edible.

The artichoke even inspired poetry. In this poem by Pablo Neruda of which I quote a short bit:

Scale by scale,
We strip off
The delicacy
And eat
The peaceful mush
Of its green heart.

There are many different types of artichokes.

The artichoke was also considered an aphrodisiac for many centuries. Marilyn Monroe was the first official California Artichoke Queen in 1949.

Cardi, or cardoons, can be grown in the dark, making them white.

The artichoke is related to the cardoon, the artichoke thistle, which is part of the sunflower family.

A “Jewish style” artichoke is a fried artichoke.

I had a realization last winter — the microwave is an excellent steamer. I discovered this after I had heard about this from some cooking show or another. Previously (and perhaps because I had a mother who did not own a microwave) steaming artichokes involved that weird satellite dish steamer, scalding steam, and balancing the atomically hot metal thingy with heavy artichokes. Now, I simply wash and steam (I like to let my artichokes have a good drink of water when I bring them home so that the leaves plump up). Then into the microwave for about five minutes per artichoke depending on the size.

These mini artichokes fit in a muffin tin.

Today, there is no longer an artichoke mafia but the artichoke type most commonly sold in the US, are the kind with the hairy heart. I wish they would switch to the kind that has an edible heart.

M’s Adventures Food Valley Tour

The valley of Bologna-Modena-Parma is known as food valley. (It’s also known as motor valley because Ferrari and other luxury cars companies are located there.) Most of these recommendations were from Joyce of Vinotalia and Carmelita of Cook Italy. Plus some from my cousin and Google.

The aging room at Red Cow Creamery in Reggio Emlia.

Where to stay:

Locanda del Feudo, in Castelvetro, near Modena: Recommended by Vinotalia, this is an all-in-one place with hotel, gourmet restaurant, and foodie experience. Without having to drive home. Also, where La Vecchia Dispensa is located for a balsamic tasting and lesson.

Sotto I Sasso, a farm stay south of Modena. You will be out in the countryside but it’s peaceful and the restaurant onsite is delicious. The host is so personable that you will feel like you are a personal guest. It’s hard to find but worth the search (left of the parking lot! When you go, you will know what I mean).

Il Terrazzo Di San Colombano, in the center of Bologna (Via Parigi 13). They are on Booking but send a whatsapp message to +393470581371 and the owner will respond (you will get a better price too). Located on a quiet side street, includes paid parking, and a terrace. You can enjoy not driving as you wander the streets of Bologna. Don’t be wigged out by the maid.

Towns to visit aside from Modena, Parma, and Bologna:

Castelvetro, but you will be there anyway. Joyce recommends this town. And now, I believe that Elizabeth Minchilli and the Pasta Grannies went there. Who’s next? Stanley Tucci?

Volta Mantovana: not actually in Emilia Romagna but just north in Lombardy. It was a wonderful discovery recommended to us by a fruit seller on the side of the road.

The garden at the enoteca in Volta Montaovano.

Parmesan tour: Red Cow dairy in Emilia Reggia. The tour costs 5 euro. Call to arrange. It is only in Italian. Red Cow is a unique dairy in a world of unique dairies. They only use milk from the local red cows.

Balsamic tasting (if you can’t go, learn some of what I learned by reading my article about balsamic here):

La Vecchia Dispensa: Recommended by Joyce. 30 for the deluxe tour, shop is great. In English. An excellent way to learn about the process.

Also, Acetaia Matteo, is delightful family run business, but the tour is only in Italian.

Bologna is famous for it’s covered walkways.

Wine tasting:

Lambrusco at Fattoria Morretti. Ask Joyce from Vinotalia or the host of where you are staying. Most can arrange the tour for you. Many vineyards have a shop where you can just show up and taste.

In Volta Mantovana, do a wine tasting at the Enoteca Gonzaga. It’s in a beautiful castle. The sommelier actually knows his stuff and is not just a bartender. I think his name was Paolo but when tasting wine before noon, the names all blend together…

Lasagne at Aldina in Modena.

Food to eat: Emilia Romagna is famous for their mortadella (bologna), tortellini, ragu (meat sauce) on tagliatelle (never spaghetti), and lasagne. Almost anywhere will serve all these dishes. Plus, gelato. They also think they invented here in Emilia Romagna. Go to Sable in Bologna.

The Aldina market in Modena.

Restaurants/Food places:

Trattoria Aldina, Modena. A low-key casual place. Nothing touristy here. Right across from a great market.

Salumeria Simoni deli, Bologna. High quality items to buy as snacks or for a bite.

Enoteca Italiana, Via Marsala 2, Bologna. They have wine tastings and light lunch items.

Sable Gelato, Via dei Mille 3/a, Bologna. Hard to find, located behind a newspaper stand. Worth finding. The owner things nothing is more beautiful that fresh made gelato…

Bruno e Franco, La Salumeria, Via Guglielmo Oberdan 16, Bologna. Buy food to make at home.

Tiramisu from Locanda del Feudo.

Best Secret in Plain Site:

This shop called Aguzzeria del Cavallo, Via Drapperie 12, Bologna. Thanks to Cook Italy for showing us this emporium. It’s ostensibly a kitchen and knife store. But, so much more! We just called it the “horse” store and we were determined to go back.

Fines: A final note. It is hard to visit the smaller town without a car. It’s hard, impossible, to drive in the scenic towns of Modena, Parma, and Bologna, without getting a traffic ticket months later — so many of the streets are restricted to even drive on if you are in a personal vehicle. Sigh. There are cameras everywhere and they will capture your car as you look frantically for how to get out or find parking in the historic centers. But, enjoy it while you are there. Just know that months later, you will get to relive it. (also, if you rent from Hertz, you get a copy emailed to you ahead of time so you can scrutinize the Italian text trying to figure out where you incurred the infraction. It will take many months for the actual paper fine to reach your mailbox). So, advice: park outside the bigger towns of Modena, Parma, and Bologna.