Malta, the Fantastic

One of the things to see in Rome is the keyhole of Malta. Visiting Malta is so much more than that glimpse into the world of the knights of Malta. The tiny central island just off of Sicily is as fantastical as one imagines it to be.

Upper Barakka gardens, Valletta.

I visited on a cold winter day with torrential rains bucketing down like biblical times. Yes, I still loved it.

Photogenic shop in Valletta.

Maybe because of the weather, it was a better experience — free of the millions who flood the island every year searching for Gladiator or Game or Thrones…

Valletta, tourist and native.

We did a food and cultural walking tour. It was a great introduction to Malta.

Lots of streets in Valletta are steep.

The island of Malta has a long history as a embattled island due to its central location in the Mediterranean. To borrow from the Visit Malta site, “the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Romans and the Byzantines” and then the Berbers, Knights of Malta, French, and British all had influences on the island.

Famous harbor seen from the Upper Barrakka gardens.

St. Paul was shipwrecked here in current era 60 (AD). This is a big deal. Christianity is a big part of the island. The Knights of Malta were a Christian order which is considered sovereign, but now they are a Christian humanitarian organization. They have had different names at different times in history but they ruled Malta from the 1500s (when they were given Malta as a territory after fleeing Rhodes after the rise of the Ottoman empire) to the 1800s.

This mall also has subsidized public housing, right downtown, for as little as 30 euro per month.

Valletta has been the capital for 450 years and has a uniform look to it because it was built in three years. The buildings of the old town are all made of the same pale yellow rock that was quarried from the exact place where the buildings were built. In some ways, Valletta reminded me of the towns of Apulia like Lecce, Bari, and Polignano a mare. Maybe that is why I liked it so much. The stone is the same color as the stone used in Jerusalem.

Another instagrammable shop and remnant of the British influence.

Malta had a capital before Valletta was chosen. The old capital goes back 4,000 years and is located about 20 minutes drive from Valletta. Mdina, not to be confused with Medina, is the old capital and right outside its gate is Rabat, not to be confused with Rabat.

Gate of Mdina, the former capital.
Mdina is crushingly quaint.
The eight pointed star is symbolic for the eight “langhe” or rulers of Malta.
Mdina is a perfectly preserved walled city.
Mdina has a few pops of color other than the sandstone color of the native rock.

The language of Malta, like the people and culture, is also a mix. It has many words that are the same in Italian but I did not understand Maltese at all. No matter as they speak English as well.

The Beheading of John the Baptist by Caravaggio is in the church in Valletta.

Another reason to go to Malta is to see a Caravaggio painting. The church is also beautiful but to be in front of a Caravaggio is a special moment. This brings a visit to Malta full circle. Many consider Caravaggio to be the first cinematographer for his use of dramatic light and shadow. Malta, with its dramatic history, seems most famous now as a movie location.

The Park of Monsters

Spoiler: It looks more amazing in photos, and in your imagination. But, it was still a fun outing.

This is the most monstrous of the sculptures.

The Bomarzo Monster Park in Lazio, a few hours from Rome, is supposedly where there be monsters. This article describes it quite well.

When done with all the other touristy places (what am I saying?), there will still be more places to explore near Rome. The monster park in the sacred wood, Bosco Sacro, is a place you can go wander around for a few hours. There is parking, bathrooms, and walkways. Most of the walkways are gravel and dirt and there are stairs so it is not a wheelchair friendly place.

The same architect worked on Villa D’este but this park is meant to be a fantasy world of the weird and scary.

On a bright sunny day, with children running around, this place does not seem scary. But, imagine if they opened it at night?

Someone Else’s Treasure – Flea Markets

With many of the Romans downsizing, there is perhaps a treasure for you to find in one of Rome’s flea markets. When I got here two years ago, I may, just may, have bought some gold red velvet furniture… but not at a flea market.

Here are the major flea markets:

Porto Portese, Piazza di Porta Portese (or Via Portuense & Ippolito Nievo): This is the most famous of the flea markets in Rome. This massive long snaking street market is at the south end of Trastevere.  Sunday, 7-1. I thought it was a waste of time, but maybe because I am no longer in the market for someone else’s junk. I have plenty of my own.

Ponte Milvio, Ponte Milvio: Every second Sunday, 9-7.

Mercato di Via Sannio, Via Sannio: Mornings Monday-Saturday.

Borghetto Faminio, Via Flaminia 32. Only on Sundays, 10-7.

Mercato delle Stampe, Largo della Fontanella di Borghese: This is the place for rare books and stamps. It is located right downtown so an easy place to look for treasures. Every day, 7-1.

This shop separated out the furniture from the rest.

What can be harder to find is used furniture. There are antique stores in Rome but many are expensive. To find the cheaper ones, you will need to go to the outskirts of Rome in the more residential neighborhoods. The photos are from one of these residential shops.

One that is not too far out is Deal Done Ventino at Viale Aventino 62.

This was under an apartment building.

Even then, you may think to yourself, “this is hideous but I kind of want it…” Remember that you can haggle. Even in antique stores.

Some stores will have a delivery service so ask about that. The cost may be almost as much as the item itself. 50 euro for large furniture, for example.

Just because it is used, does not mean that it is cheap.

Lastly, sometimes you can find a furniture restorer who is also selling furniture. There are two that I can think of. One is a tiny place near the Deal Done shop, and the other is Antichito Barrique Restauro, at Via Collina 28 (on the corner of Via Collina and Via Cadorna on Piazza Sallustio, but I can’t find it on Google maps!) This is a furniture restoration shop that also sells furniture.

Happy shopping!

Pasta Trombolotto

With trombolotto seasoning and “bottarga” which is shaved dried fish roe.

***** Fabio, the owner contacted me and corrected the addresses and explained why his has two restaurants — one is the summer location. Thanks, Fabio, always nice when people improve the information on my blog. *****

Imagine taking the extra large, mild tasting, sweet Amalfi lemons… and serving them with pasta inside. Well, I finally had it. My Italian teacher kept bringing it up as a delicacy that we had to try. I imagined it, an oddity in a lemon. The months went by and due to a pandemic and other such things, it took a while for us to find a date for Pasta Trombolotto!

The restaurant is as picturesque as the rest of the town.

Finally, the date was set. It was October. The restaurant in Sermoneta was reserved and off I went. Sermoneta is a perfectly preserved medieval town about 30 minutes (by train + car) south of Rome. I looked at the bus route to the town, but one really needs a car to get there. Sermoneta (it is named for the vast amount of money paid for the town) is a dying town as all the young people are moving away. Hence why it’s perfectly preserved. It’s often used as a film set. But, the town needs more than that to survive. It needs tourist dollars.

This conundrum between dollars and reality will come up later in this story.

Famous, that’s what they want it to be.

The town is gasp-worthy beautiful. Tourism (as mentioned) has not stained the town with too many billboards and English menus. Even the postcards were non-touristy. Who prints a postcard with an overcast sky in a town of gray stone? That seems like a fail of marketing 101. There is no parking in the town so one enters a pedestrian haven. The town is hilly and cobblestoned so bring good ankles. As we ooohed and aaahed at every archway and turret, we imagined how marvelous this must be in sunlight. Or maybe the veil of night made it more dramatic?

Looking up to the “roof” of the restaurant.

Finally, we went to the restaurant famous for Pasta Trombolotto. The owner, Fabio, is charismatic and undeterred by a lack of comprehension. There are two famous Pasta Trombolotto restaurants in Sermonetta and he owns them both. One is called Simposio al Corso (it is the winter location) and Il Giardino del Simposio (open April to October). We went to the Il Giardino del Simposio located at Via
Conduttura 6. The location at Simposio al Corso which is near the entrance to the town and located deep underground. The summer location, Il Giardino, is a patio overhung with lemon trees. It feels a bit magical.

Close up of the pasta. For Italy, this is a complex sauce.

We had wine, we had appetizers, we had main dishes, dessert, and coffee, but what I recall was the pasta. That’s why we were there. It was the main show. But, it was not served inside a lemon. Frankly, I was torn. Because it was not lemon season (March), our Pasta Trombolotto was not served in a lemon. It wasn’t served in lemon shaped crockery. Not even on a yellow plate. Not that it wasn’t dramatic.

Fabio coddled and seasoned every serving individually in a pan, table side. Trombolotto is a herb and lemon infused oil. It’s good and certainly one of the most seasoned things I’ve had in Italy (remember that simple is the key here), but without the Disney-esque lemon container… well, this is why I was torn. I like that they keep it seasonal and authentic. But, part of me, the marketing maniac, wants them to at least get lemon shaped bowls with lids. Ya know?

Adding the secret spices to the pasta, table side.

The owner is trying to make the town famous for this dish. He is resisting offers to take his show to Rome because he wants people to come out to Sermoneta for the Pasta Trombolotto.

If you are ever in that area, I recommend going. The address for the winter location is Corso Guiseppe Garibaldi 33, Sermoneta. The summer location is at Via Conduttura 6. The phone number is +39 339 2846905 anytime of the year.

And, and, just to add more to this story, the owner will show you an oil that you cannot have… because you are not his grandpa. It even says it on the bottle… like the best of experiences, there is always another story.

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.

Parmesan, More Than A Cheese

These balls of cheese weigh more than 90 pounds.

Parmigiano-Reggiano is more than a cheese. No Italian refers to it as a cheese. They call it by its name.

Getting weighed and squeezed into shape.
Inside the metal girdle is a plastic cartouche with all the markings.

To be the real deal, it can only be produced in a few areas around Parma, Reggio, Modena, and Bologna. You can read about the consortium that controls it here.

But, the other very similar cheese that you find around there is also good. It’s called Grano Padano and in a way, it’s better on pasta. Leave the real deal for eating on its own.

Brine bath.

Going on a parmesan factory tour is a study in alchemy. How milk (from two different milkings) can, with a few ingredients, and many turns of the wheel, be turned into something that plays a symphony on your tastebuds, is pure magic.

The professor demonstrates how to test the cheese.

We went on a tour at the Red Cow creamery in Reggio Emilia. Our guide was a wise professor. He had been making parmesan for more than 60 years, and he still got equally excited about it every day. The tour cost 5 euro per person and was conducted in Italian. At the end of the tour, the professor had us try different ages of Parmesan. Wowza.

It has lots of stamps of origin but it probably sounded wrong and so has been scarred to mark that it is not for export.

By the time we got to the factory (10ish), the parmesan was already at the “getting swung in clothe stage. We saw a lot of balls of white curds being transferred from one cloth to another and rocked back and forth by two guys. Then we saw where the girdle with the shape and writing is applied. Then the salt baths. Finally we were in the aging room.

So old that only presidents’ eat them. Next to it an “AB” one that will not be exported.

We saw parmesan so old and crystalized that only presidents get to eat them. We also saw parmesan wheels that had scoring around indicating that they were not perfect but still saleable. Then we saw those with “AA” stamped on them. These are the perfect ones that have been x-rayed. These are only ones that get exported.

Yes, we had to wear hairnets, shoe nets, and net robes to protect the parmesan.

These cheeses have 30 percent protein and no lactose.

In the old days, parmesan and other hard cheeses were the “meat” for many Italians.

Balsamico, A Sweet and Sour Dowry

Italians love food. It is an integral part of their family structure. This is evident in the story of balsamic vinegar. In Emilia Romagna, Italy, balsamic vinegar started out as a daughter’s dowry. No gold, no houses, just the sweet product of 25 years of nurturing. This is no longer the case, but in some families, the balsamic production continues. Some also make it when they have a son.

Traditionally, when a baby girl was born, her father would make a “mother” barrel of balsamic vinegar. There is sometimes a misconception that the grapes used to make balsamic are left over from making wine. Not so. The grapes are crushed into a “must” just like in wine making, but then, a mother yeast (like sourdough starter) is added to the mother barrel. From this mother barrel, a “battery” of progressively smaller barrels are filled.

Normally, one should wait till the daughter got married, or 25 years to started imbibing in the balsamic. If the woman got married before she turned 25, she could decide to leave the battery in her paternal home or take it to her new home. On the old battery frames, one can still see the name of the girl painted on the frame, as these are passed down through generations.

So you aren’t supposed to eat the balsamic before 25 years. But, this rarely happened. Also, the balsamic evaporates. To fill up the evaporated balsamic, the smallest barrel in the battery is filled from the next big one and so on. The largest of the battery barrels is then filled from the mother barrel. Which is itself filled with fresh grape must.

The ladder up to the first floor of La Vecchia Dispensa’s tower is almost vertical.

This is how one gets “100 year old” balsamic vinegar (where a percentage of the balsamic is from a barrel made 100 years ago). I tried it and it was too musty for me. The barrels used can be old whisky casks and the barrels can be made from many types of wood. The bunghole of the barrel is loosely covered with a stone and/or a lid with a doily. The acid from the balsamic eats away at the stones so it’s cool to see how strong those bacteria really are.

Now, to what it’s called. In Europe and Italy, one must call real balsamic, “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena” — if it’s from Modena which is one of the few places where the real stuff comes from. The bottles are distinctive so that it’s hard to copy. There are many fakes. Most of what is sold is fake. The real stuff will not be sour and bite you when you try it. It won’t make you gag. The real stuff is subtle and sweet. With a slight tang. It will be complex. It’s also not impossibly expensive. 25 euro for a small bottle. But that’s the kind that one sips on a spoon or drizzles on a piece of parmesano reggiano.

One can still see graffiti from prisoners from when this was a jail.

Most of the acetaia (ah-chey-tie-ah) will sell salad vinegar products that you will like. Real aceto balsamico is not for salad. That’s how you can make it last a long time. Salad dressings are better with apple cider or red wine vinegar. Balsamic is too strong. Also, all those thick balsamic sauces in squeeze bottles are not made with the real deal.

Going for a tasting at a real acetaia is eye opening. It really is. We went to three. La Vecchia Dispensa is fantastic as a destination. Great tour, tasting, and shop. It’s in a fancy building and the tower is medieval (it was a jail/dungeon before), in the picturesque Castelvetro (one can also go on the less expensive tour that does not include climbing up into the claustrophobic medieval castle tower). The tour guide also speaks English, well.

At Acetaia San Matteo, you get a family feel and the son-in-law who shows you around is enthusiastic but doesn’t speak English. It’s marvelous but almost has a Swiss chalet feel. We also went to the a place that claims to be the oldest (they claim that their family has been selling it for 400 years) but the museum is now in a new, from 2017, farmstead. Also, their vinegar wasn’t tasty. And the place had a slight theme park feel. Too touristy. Enough about them. Go to Castelvetro and La Vecchia Dispensa.

When we were in the tower for our tour with La Vecchia Dispensa, we could see the photos of the families who maintain their balsamic there. It’s a heartwarming idea of familial love.

Oddly, or perhaps not, most of these places also sell jams and other products.

There is a lot more to aceto balsamico than I imagined. It was also a delight to go to the acetaia with a balsamic fanatic. When we got to the San Matteo location, my Italian wasn’t up to explaining things so I just blurted out “we are balsamic fanatics!” We were welcomed with a big grin.

All Hallow’s Eve

Today is Halloween, or All Hallow’s Eve, and tomorrow is All Saints Day, a public holiday in Italy, followed by All Souls Day on November 2. The tradition of dressing up and trick or treating is a new import. All Saints Day is part of the Catholic church in Italy. It is also not Day of the Dead which is a big celebration in Mexico.

These are a type of gourd, or pumpkin.

For those who believe more, for a brief time on All Hallow’s Even and All Saints Day, the dead return to this realm and visit with their loved ones who are still flesh and blood. It’s not scary. It’s a sort of reunion. People will visit their dead family members. Read an explanation here. Like all holidays, it’s build on much older ones. And, of course, there’s a bread for that. The second of November is All Souls Day. Read more about some of the regional foods and traditions here.

The idea of pumpkin as the icon of the Halloween season is also a commercial idea. The pumpkins are a food in Italy and have much more flesh so will be very hard to carve. But, they make excellent food. It is hard to find perfectly orange round pumpkins (but I’m sure that will become a common thing soon enough). As you can see from my photo below, I was more interested in the orange persimmons (sharon fruit so some), walnuts, celeriac (celery root), and the pomegranates.

Green pumpkins in the background.

The impact of All Saints Day in Rome is that the stores may be a bit packed and the traffic bad. How is this news?

Happy halloween!

Ten Gelato Places To Try in Rome

So here it is. My list of gelato shops to try in Rome. This is not the definitive list but I’m getting tired of trying gelato…

Gunther, Via dei Pettinari, 43: Gunther has three locations but this is where you will usually find him. He makes the best vanilla (from Madagascar) and his gelato is extremely creamy. He also lets you try lots of flavors until you find the ones that you want.

Gracchi, Via dei Gracchi, 272: old school but go early in the day when the gelato is fresh.

La Romana, various locations: big chain but still good gelato.

Neve di Latte, Via Federico Cesi, 1: two locations, and I’m fairly sure that the staff are hired for their looks.

Banana flavor should be brown as the bananas oxidize.

Come il Latte, Via Silvio Spaventa, 24/26: I have a suspicion that this place was started by an American. Great affagato.

Otaleg, Via di S. Cosimato, 14a: famous place in Trastevere. The name is gelato backwards but the gelato is straightforward.

Frigidarium, Via del Governo Vecchio, 112: located on one of the most picturesque streets in Rome.

Fassi 1880, Via Principe Eugenio, 65-67: Oldest place in Rome. One of my favorites because it’s out of the tourist frenzy.

Gelati Gelati, Via Cicerone, 20: I’m fairly sure that this gelato is made by the gruff guy working here. The pear compote was unusual and the grittiness worked.

Cremilla, Via di Porta Castello, 39: Almost like soft serve. Near the Vatican.

I will probably write another article when I go to more places but as I’ve been to over 30 so far, I’m in need of a break from gelato.

Bologna the Bountiful

Bologna is called “La grassa” or “the fat” city. The correct translation should be “the bountiful” as the fat represents richness. I learned this when on a food tour with Cook Italy.

The plaque explaining where the salami makers created “the fat” myth about Bologna.

The origin of the name comes from Bologna’s production of bologna, or as they call it here, mortadella. To be a protected status mortadella, there is a required number of fat squares in each.

Rich delicious mortadella.

Normally, to preserve meat, before refrigeration, is to salt, dry, or cover with fat. Bologna invented the boiling of this meat product and the city became famous for it. Hence why in the United States, mortadella is called bologna or boloney.

Bologna is also famous for its covered sidewalks, over 70 kilometers of them. Also, the red brick. But, mostly, Bologna is famous for being a foodie city. The city anchors the food valley (which is also motor valley) of Emilia Romagna.

Bountiful Bologna is often overlooked by tourists. That’s kind of nice. There are many foreigners in Bologna because Bologna has the oldest (still functioning) university in the world (started in 1088). True, the center of the town is a bit crowded but slip down a side street and you can soon imagine your own medieval scholarly wanderings. Or just shop.

So next time someone calls Bologna fat, you know that it’s bountiful. Enjoy it for yourself. More later about where to eat, shop, and stay in bountiful Bologna.

A View For My Room

In Lima, I had the luxury of ocean views. I now live inland, with no ocean views. But, I may have a remedy. I’ve been looking on Instagram, of course, and I’ve seen some azure seas that beckon like jewels glittering from the Internet. Most of the tropical views that I see on Instagram from Italy are from the South, on Sicily, or Amalfi, or Puglia… Or, I could use a photo from my archives. This photo of our “taxi” seaplane from the Maldives is still one of my favorite photos.

My plan was to paint directly on the wall… but, then I thought, why invent the wheel? I looked online and found sticky decals that already have pre-printed tropical views. There are even decals of views of forests, or even outer space.

Other than for view, I also want to be able to give directions to the bathroom by saying, “To the left of the Maldives” or some fun phrase like that. I may have to play the sounds of waves, a fan, some sand, and it will be a complete view to a tropical location. Or a kitty litter box. Oh COVID, we are all cats now.

The History of Italy — From “Et Tu?” To COVID-19

With Caesar’s death, the Roman Empire began. It reached its zenith with Augustus, the emperor after Caesar. The month of August is named after Augustus and Augustus ruled for four decades. His reign ushered in two centuries of Roman glory, called Pax Romana, Roman peace. The last five emperors of this time were selected for their ability to rule and they were known as “the five good emperors.” The inscription that one knows from movies like “Gladiator,” SPQR, is an abbreviation for Senatus Populusque Romanus, meaning “the senate and people of Rome.” During Pax Romana, trade increased including the import of slaves, silk, and spices. 

The winds of history started changing and in 395 CE, with the death of Emperor Thodosius, the mighty Roman Empire which ruled over 70 million people, was split in two, the Eastern and Western Roman Empires. Reverberating down the ages is the Sack of Rome which happened in August 410 CE. At this time, Rome was not the capital of the Roman Empire. The capital was Mediolum, modern Milan, and had been moved there in 285 CE. The significance of the fall of Rome to the Visigoths in 410 CE was that it marked the first time that Rome had been conquered in 800 years. In 455 CE, Rome was sacked again by the Vandals and that is where we get the word vandal. The sackings continued until 476 CE when a Germanic warlord declared himself King of Italy. 

At the same time as the rise and fall of Rome, the greatest story ever told happened. It was about a Jewish boy named Jesus. You may have heard it. In the Roman Empire, there were struggles between the emergent religion, Christianity, and the old religion. When the Roman Empire split, the Eastern Roman Empire became the Byzantine Empire, with its capital in Byzantium, modern day Istanbul. At the time, the Byzantines called themselves Romans and their empire was the Roman Empire since the peninsula around Rome had fallen to barbarians. This is the source of the name of the country of Romania. In Byzantium, Constantine I made Christianity the official religion in 324 CE and Christianity flourished. Back in Latin Rome, the Western Empire, things were looking dark. 

During the Dark Ages, Italian history is a series of wars, but the main thing to happen is the rise of the Papal State. In 800 CE, Charlemagne was crowned at St. Peters in Rome, by Pope Leo III, as emperor. The term, “Holy Roman Emperor” was used later to connect to the divine with the might of the Roman Empire. The empire ruled by Charlemagne and the Franks stretched down to the middle of the Italian peninsula. Even north of Rome, there were still many independent city states that flourished from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries. These included city states such as Genoa, the Norman Kingdom of Sicily, Amalfi, Florence, and Venice. Due to location, location, location, Venice became a hub for trade. 

One of the merchants who was from Venice was John Cabot. John Cabot, first to explore the North American shores since the Vikings, was an Italian. He was Giovanni Caboto, Zuan Chabotto in Venetian. He actually signed his name as Zuan Chabotto. Zuan is a form of John. Zuan Chabotto was a well traveled merchant who had been to Egypt in his trade of silk and spices. He may have been born in Genoa and a contemporary described him as “another Genoese like Columbus.” Genoa is one of those places I will visit as I have heard so many stories about it, mainly from my Peruvian-Italian family, when they tell their immigration story to the Americas. 

Amerigo Vespucci was a merchant, explorer, and navigator from Florence who was part of the Age of Discovery, or Age of Exploration, and he had two continents named after him. The earliest use of his name for the continents was on a map in 1507 when it was used for the continent of South America. Amerigo Vespucci’s legacy were his letters. In these, he described a “new world” that was not India, as Christopher Columbus said of the same place when he had bumped into it a few years earlier. There are some historians who believe that America was named after the Amerrisque Mountains in Nicaragua or Richard Amerike, supposed owner of John Cabot’s explorer ship. 

Christopher Columbus was also Italian. Cristoforo Colombo in Italian and Cristoffa Corombo in Ligurian. He was born in Genoa, son of a weaver and cheesemonger. Young Christopher helped at his father’s cheese stand. The cheese that he sold could have been “bros” cheese. Bros or “brus” is a cheese made with old cheese and grappa. Like many foods, it grew out of frugality. Old, moldy, hard, or stale cheese was mixed with homemade grappa to make an entirely different product. Grappa is the liqueur made from distilling the pomace, pulp, left after winemaking. The old, smelly, cheese was mixed with grappa, spices, and possibly butter and then left to ferment in an earthenware jar until it became creamy. This fermentation created a product that was preserved. It was served spread on bread. There are variations including using wine and “brus da ricotta” or “bruzzu” which is made without wine or grappa. Brus da ricotta is made with fermented sheep’s milk ricotta mixed with chili or black pepper. Ricotta means “re-cooked” and is the cheese made from the whey that is left over after making other cheeses. It is similar to cottage cheese. Ricotta in Italy is made from the milk of cow, sheep, goat, or water buffalo. Water buffalo were imported from Asia, perhaps as early as Roman times. 

Christopher Columbus traveled far including possibly as far north as Iceland and as far south as Ghana. Since the middle ages, the route to find spices was through the silk road and east. Christopher Columbus wanted to find a western route to the East Indies, as all of East and South Asia was called at that time. When he reached land, an island in today’s Bahamas, he called the natives “Indians” and it is assumed that he thought he had reached India.  

Then there was the Renaissance. Which means the introduction of the fork. Of course, you may recall that “renaissance” means “rebirth.” The Renaissance started in Florence in Tuscany and spread southward and then to the rest of Europe. The Renaissance was a re-awakening of culture, arts, philosophy, and literature. In 1320, Dante Alighieri wrote the Divine Comedy, a poem that he called simply “the Comedy.” This was published in his local language of Tuscan therefore cementing Tuscan as the Italian language. Modern day scholars believe that Dante was influenced by the Islamic work Kitab al Miraj which is the tale of the prophet Muhammed going to heaven. The Renaissance was a time of learning from the Islamic world, much through al-Andalus, Islamic Spain. The Divine Comedy is the journey of a man on a quest to find god. This is where we get the phrase “the ninth circle of hell” which is actually described in the story. In the ninth circle of hell, sinners are punished by being made to lie in a icy slush that is produced by never-ending frozen rain. Sounds like soup weather. The sin that sent one to the ninth circle of hell was betrayal. 

Another literary work of the Renaissance was Niccolo Machiavelli’s “The Prince.” This book was dedicated to Lorenzo de’ Medici, father of Catherine, who introduced the fork to the French court. Lorenzo’s other child, Alessandro de’ Medici, became the first Duke of Florence, and he was black, which at the time was not a hindrance to upward mobility. Alessandro was the illegitimate son of Lorenzo and an African house slave, Simonetta da Collevecchio. Female house slaves who served as handmaidens were called “ancilla.” Slavery was a common part of the ancient, medieval, and renaissance worlds. The Catholic Italians would buy slaves from the Islamic world, and the muslims would buy slaves from the heathen Catholic world. The city-states of Genoa and Venice controlled the slave routes and this included selling Slavic peoples, thus the word “slave” comes from the Slavic people of the modern day Balkans. In Roman times, slaves could easily blend in with the Roman populace so they were branded on their foreheads. 

Alessandro’s nickname was “the Moor” due to his complexion. This designation is also used with Othello, of Shakespeare fame. Some scholars believe that Shakespeare spent his “lost years” in Italy. Alessandro was assassinated by a cousin and the duchy returned to another branch of the Medici family. 

The Renaissance in Italy, along with being a time of exploration, was also a time of continued strife and battle between the city-states on the Italian peninsula. During the fifteenth century, Florence, Milan, and Venice emerged as the strongest. They signed a peace treaty in Lodi. But the wars continued. The varying Italian city-states continued to be at war with France, Spain, and Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. Charles V was King of Spain, Lord of the Netherlands, Archduke of Austria, Duke of Burgundy, and head of the House of Habsburg. As Holy Roman Emperor, he had control of the northern parts of Italy and as King of Spain, he had control of southern Italy as they controlled Naples, Sicily, and Sardinia. Charles was the grandson of Isabella and Ferdinand, who had financed Christopher Columbus. There is a Flemish legend that Charles V preferred beer over wine and as a result there are beer brands named after him.

Emergent throughout was the power of the Papacy, the Roman Catholic Church. Since gaining traction in the fourth century, Christianity had risen from strength to strength, crusades, and had split with the Counter Reformation. In Italy, while the constant battles had ravaged the economy of the Italian peninsula, the church got richer. 

New world explorers Amerigo Vespucci and Christopher Columbus were both Italian but in some ways their search for the alternate route to find the spice islands, source of black pepper, led to the demise of the power of mercantile powers such as Genoa and Venice. That, and the Black Death. The plagues 1630 and 1656 killed twenty-five and forty-three percent of the population. This loss of population, thus economic growth, lead to a decline of 31 percent in the GDP, gross domestic product, in two centuries. 

The next couple of centuries saw more war on the Italian peninsula and at the end of the eighteenth century, the result was that Austria won over Spain in ruling the Italian city-states. 

Then along came Napoleon Bonaparte. In 1796, he forced Austria to retreat, and he then spent the next three years conquering the Italian peninsula in the name of the French revolution. This included declaring himself King of Italy in 1805 in a region around Venice. He ruled the rest of the peninsula but mainly through his rule of France. In 1809, Napoleon made it to Rome. He had been excommunicated earlier by the Pope, but now the Pope fled. There was a lot more fighting and eventually Napoleon was exiled to Elba, escaped, and still did not succeed. 

The seed of unification was planted. Revolution and independence were popular at that time in Europe and abroad. The British colonies had declared themselves free a few decades back, and the French people had had a revolution as well. On the Italian peninsula, where the seed of unification was sprouting, the flame blew into the Italian Wars of Independence from 1848-1866. These wars were mainly against Austria, that big brute, and the Kingdom of Sardinia did most of the heavy lifting.

Part of the unification of Italy involved choosing a king. King Victor Emmanuel II of the Kingdom of Sardinia was chosen as King of Italy in 1861. Italy was a kingdom until 1946 when a referendum created the modern Italian Republic. Giuseppe Garibaldi was an Italian general who is considered one of the fathers of modern Italy. Garibaldi’s life took him all around the world and he became a much admired figure in history. For the sake of a book on food, I mention him as part of history. He helped create Italy as a unified country, but there are still Italians who wish he had stayed home.  

The flag of Italy, “il Tricolore” contains three panels with equal vertical panels of green, white, and red. Green is for the evergreen scrubland of the Mediterranean, white for the snowcapped Alps, and red for the blood shed during the revolution. Garibaldi’s men were also called redshirts after their uniform. According to Catholic interpretation, the flag colors represent hope, faith, and love. The “love” part of this represents the virtue of charity and love for God and for thy neighbor. Quite appropriate for a land of neighbors. Just to prove what a patchwork of nations Italy was, here is the title of the King of Italy up until 1946: 

[Name], by the Grace of God and the will of the Nation, King of Italy, King of Sardinia, Cyprus, Jerusalem, Armenia, Duke of Savoy, count of Maurienne, Marquis (of the Holy Roman Empire) in Italy; Prince of Piedmont, Carignano, Oneglia, Poirino, Trino; Prince and Perpetual Vicar of the Holy Roman Empire; Prince of Carmagnola, Montmellian with Arbin and Francin, Prince bailiff of the Duchy of Aosta, Prince of Chieri, Dronero, Crescentino, Riva di Chieri and Banna, Busca, Bene, Bra, Duke of Genoa, Monferrat, Aosta, Duke of Chablais, Genevois, Duke of Piacenza, Marquis of Saluzzo, Ivrea, Susa, of Maro, Oristano, Cesana, Savona, Tarantasia, Borgomanero and Cureggio, Caselle, Rivola, Pianezza, Govone, Salussola, Racconigi over Tegerone, Migliabruna and Motturone, Cavellermaggiore, Marene, Modane and Lanslebourg, Livorno Ferrraris, Santhia, Aglie, Centallo and Demonte, Desana, Ghemme, Vigone, Count of Barge, Villafranca, Ginvevra, Nizza, Tenda, Romont, Asti, Alessandria, of Goceano, NOvara, Tortona, Bobbio, Soissons, Pollenzo, Roccabruna, Tricerro, Bairo, Ozegna, delle Apertole, Baron 

of Vaud and of Faucigni, Lord of Vercelli, Pinerolo, of Lomellina, of Valle Sesia, of the Marquisate of Ceva, Overlord of Monaco, Roccabruna and eleven-twelfths of Menton, Noble Patrician of Venice, Patrician of Ferrara. 

Talk about name dropping, or name-including. I think my favorite part is the “eleven-twelfths of Menton.” 

Italy was part of the Allied Powers in WWI giving them a seat at the League of Nations, the forerunner to the United Nations. In 1922, the prime minister, former journalist Benito Mussolini, head of the National Fascist Party, led a coup d’etat. His rule was a “legally organized executive dictatorship” from 1922-1943. Mussolini consolidated his power through his use of his secret police, laws, and any other means necessary. Mussolini formed a Italian East Africa by invading Eritrea, Somalia, and Ethiopia. He was an inspiration to Adolf Hitler. In WWII, Mussolini entered Italy on the Axis powers siding with Hitler. He also recognized the independence of Vatican City as a country.

Italy as the Italian Republic was formed on June 2, 1946. This also gave Italian women suffrage, the right to vote. This date is celebrated as Republic Day.  Over the next few decades, Italy joined NATO, became a part of the EEC, forerunner to the European Union, and benefited from the Marshall Plan. 

In the 1990s, Italy went through terrorist attacks by the Sicilian Mafia. During the period of 1990-2011, Silvio Berlusconi was prime minister through four governments, making him the third longest lasting prime minister since Italian unification. This shows that Italy continues to be a land of neighbors. During the 2010s, Italy has been at the center of the European migrant crisis, taking in more than 700,000 refugees, most crossing from Africa. In 2020, Italy was one of the hardest hit countries in the coronavirus pandemic.