One could easily fall for an Italian. They talk so sweet and call you beautiful. But, aside from it all being talk, how do people date in Rome?
In the usual way. They meet at bars, at social events, at sporting events, and many use technology. Bumble, OkCupid, Tinder, Grinder, Facebook, Instagram, Meet, and many more. Tinder which was known for mainly hookups is now used for dating. Bumble is where the women make the first move.
In person and online, it dating is still a visual affair. Once someone sees someone that they like (a nice smile, and not too many sunglass photos — no duck face!), then they ask for “a coffee.”
I heard that people are quickly moving offline and to the “coffee” so they can see if there is any chemistry at all, quickly.
There is the stereotype of the Latin lover and for some that is true. I met an woman who, twenty years ago, moved to Italy to find a man. She did within three weeks. She found a friend who let her sleep on her floor while she set herself up in Rome. I guess she got tired of sleeping on the floor.
As they say, what does not kill you, will make you better. I am always suspicious of things that are supposedly really good for you or things that will increase my sexual stamina. Usually these things are things that are terrible tasting.
Italians have an obsession with their intestinal and gut health. Drinking a little digestif, digestivo, is something many of them are accustomed to.
Digestifs are usually an alcoholic beverage that you enjoy at the end of meal. It is not meant to be downed like a shot. As with many things in Italy, most of the Italian digestifs are bitter. Oh how they love bitter here!
I have tried a few. Some made from walnuts and some made from arugula. The one made from arugula is a specialty of Ischia, an island near Capri.
If they are not too bitter, then they are often too sweet. When I tried the Ratafia, I was delighted because while sweet, it at least tasted good.
Some countries are great for tourists. Italy is one of them. Is it this way for everyone? Here is my list of diminishing joy.
Tourists: At the top, tourists. To be a tourist in Italy is a delight. All the mechanisms are here, from ATMs, efficient trains, to affordable food to make you spend your money! The average salary in the United States is almost double that of the average Italian salary, making American dollars welcome.
Exchange students: With the benefit of home and host nation working to make your study abroad semester ah-maze-balls, this is clearly a great place to be. A semester is like a long holiday filled with movie sets, people flirting with you, free things (sample this, take this, have this), and the massive moshpit of AYCE other students all here to find the dolce vita, or meet Romeo, or feel inspired by Raphael, in a land of where wine is part of daily life (and gives no hangovers because of the rules limited wine production to grapes). Every year, Florence receives over 7,000 American exchange students (80 percent women).
Digital Nomads: This new group of people will find Italy a great place to be. The limits on sitting in cafes and restaurants is fairly limitless, the Internet speed is not bad, WIFI is almost everywhere and free, and overall prices are not too high.
International organization employees: Life in Italy with the aid of your home and host nation to smooth out the transitions makes life in Italy a cushy place. Depending on how many years one is assigned to Rome, reality may set in.
Native born white Italians: Yes, life is sweet. The bureaucracy is just a reminder to slow down…
Students: This includes non-exchange students, Italian and foreign. Being a student in Italy is a life filled with optimism and discounts.
Expats/binationals: For these long term residents of Italy, it is a great place but you still have to deal with the bureaucracy which may drive you absolutely bonkers at times, but then, after a stop at a coffee bar, it will seem all okay.
Long term white immigrants who speak fluent Italian: Life is good, even sweet at times.
Newly arrived immigrants: For those who are not white and do not speak Italian, life in Italy is confusing but it will get better.
There are currently 60 million Italians. In 2019, 65 million tourists visited Italy. It may seem like there is no more room, but actually, there is. Try visiting Le Marche, Abruzzo, Basilicata, Sicily, Calabria… or visit in the off season.
The Aeolian islands are called the gourmet islands. I think they may have styled themselves as this as a tourist attraction. Conde Naste Traveler magazine called them this and based the article around a female Michelin star chef who owns Signum on the island of Salina, the second largest of the Aeolian islands. Lipari is the biggest.
Getting to the islands is by boat or catamaran. Of helicopter if you want. The catamaran from Milazzo on Sicily took under two hours. The port restaurant at Milazzo is really good. Best bread I’ve had, excellent sandwiches, good beer, and well, overall better than they need to be for having a captive audience. The ferry from or to Naples from Salina is about six hours and I wouldn’t recommend it. The air conditioning only worked well on one side and because the Italians have a severe fear of upsetting their digestion, those that had sat over there were wearing their jackets and scarves but refused to move. Even in the windy cold side of the boat, it was still only 80 F or 27 C. The hot side of the boat was 99 F or 37 C (I carry a thermometer with me for just this sort of situation). When I opened up some of the vents to get more air, I had many fingers waggled at me to stop. The toilet also became somewhat of a fetid horror.
Getting to and from the islands is fairly easy as there are ferries and local boat companies that stop at the various islands including Stromboli, famous volcanic island. Ask at your hotel or B&B. Everyone knows everyone on these islands so they will all have a cousin or brother or son who has a boat.
But, the islands are famous for their food scene. The restaurants I liked in Santa Marina on Salina were Lo Schiavo, nni’ Lausta, and Mamma Santina. Down in Lingua, there is a restaurant, Il Gambero, on the harbor which runs a shuttle (the dad runs it) to Santa Marina. Try the local speciality called “pane cunzato” a sort of large garlic bread with various toppings. I loved it because they used raw garlic. Although seafood is the speciality, there are vegetarian options on all the menus.
If you have an opportunity, buy the fresh tuna tartare at the fish shop, Pescharia A Lampara (there is only one fish shop). It’s so fresh and glistens like rubies.
While resting between meals, buy linen and crochet. If you can afford it. Some of the nice dresses were handmade and cost 700 euro. Be aware that this is small town life so many shops close for lunch. But a few don’t and most have air conditioning. The people are generally friendly. The main street of Santa Marina is mainly pedestrian making for good shopping and eating. And people watching.
For happy hour, go to the Hotel Mercanti di Mari by the harbor where they have a make your own bruschetta station. Drink wine and admire the view of the harbor.
If you want a nightclub, go to the Porto Bello restaurant by the dock. Just be aware that any shenanigans you take home with you will be known all over the island. If you don’t mind adding to the local action, then never mind.
The reason many go is for the food and one could just visit Salina and eat well. But, stay a while longer, and become part of the local soap opera scene… I befriended a local, not knowing that he was a local passionate about more than fish. When I described this local casanova to the manager at the place where I was staying, she said with a wise nod that she knew who I was talking about . She added, “he is busy busy all the time”… on an island with as many bikini clad tourists as this one, one can see how he constantly had a fresh “catch.”
Otherwise, sit back and enjoy chatting with the locals and soaking up the local. If you imagine a BBC feel-good romantic comedy, then you get an idea of what I saw in this little island buzzing with flashing smiles, bronzed arms, and twinkling glances.
Some of the worst meals I’ve had in Italy have been in fancy expensive Michelin star restaurants. Some people get super excited about Michelin stars and deem those restaurants better than others. I do not get it. The Michelin star system started out as a way to get the tires worn out. Italy does not need these fancy restaurants. Actually the Michelin star system has nothing to do with how fancy the restaurant is but solely the food, cooking, and constituency of those things. The general public seems to not know this. Michelin is not even all over the world yet (they say that they are taking is slowly). Michelin has not reached South America yet. Imagine that! There are restaurants in Lima that should have a star, but Michelin hasn’t gotten there yet. If consistently making good food was really the reason to give a place a star, then many more would have them.
The food in Italy is already natural, local, and delicious. The various types of Italian cuisine (there are many) are based on local, simple, and delicious. Michelin seems to go for innovative, expensive, and small portions. Add to that how hard it is to get a reservation at a Michelin star restaurant, and it is just not my idea of a good food experience. Some of the finest dishes I’ve tasted were not by a Michelin star chef.
One thing that many people like about small portions is that it allows them to try many things and it is a form of portion control. You can try that anyway in Italy. The portions of appetizers and first courses are not necessarily that huge. Or share with a friend. Most restaurants will even split the dish onto two plates.
The last Michelin star restaurant experience underlined why Italy doesn’t need Michelin Star restaurants. One of the dishes “invented” was a bao, a steam Asian style bun. But it wasn’t as good as the authentic ones and I do not think it highlighted the ingredients. Then we had an appetite stimulant of pickles which were the most sour I have had in Italy. I can see how this was innovative for Italy where sour is not sour. One dish was a roasted escarole (half an escarole head). It cost 38 euro.
I guess my biggest peeve with these restaurants is that they are so pricey and pretentious. Most of the places on my list are not expensive, and not pretentious. Nothing makes food taste bad like attitude.
The current system where restaurants are listed in the Michelin guide is just like Yelp or TripAdvisor. The guide in Italy is Gambero Rosso. The Michelin guide is separate from a chef earning a star, of which there are 367 (318 have one star) in Italy. I am glad when a woman gets a star but I don’t think that makes the overall system better. The Michelin guide badge is a round red sticker that you can see on many restaurant doors alongside the ones for TripAdvisor.
I tend to use Google ratings because I like the democracy of the system. It relies on average eaters reviewing places and not a specialized team of experts who want to wear out your tires in France. In Italy, most restaurants make consistently good food. Or consistently bad. Try them for yourself.
I can’t figure out why I keep getting free food (and other gifts). Do I look hungry? Is it because I buy a lot? I’m not talking about samples. I get lots of those too. I mean real gifts like cakes, chocolates, and other things. Do I look like I can’t afford it? Like I don’t have enough money? Well, my clothes sense does perhaps say that… but I don’t think it’s charity.
I pondered this for a while and I think I figured it out. One thing is that I am a regular… I tend to go in to the same places late in the day. The proprietors can create goodwill by giving me free food — which they might have to throw out anyway. But, does that explain the chocolates? I’m beginning to have a growing suspicion that some of these Romans are nice people… which also makes me wonder if I didn’t think they were? I think I need to get out more. Maybe’s it’s because I ask so many questions about the food and clap my hands in glee. The result is that I garner quite a bit of goodwill because I usually re-gift, pass on, the gifts of food that I get, from cakes to chocolate. This pandemic has clearly made me unaccustomed to human kindness. But really, I don’t think it’s that. Or is it?
Now that I’ve thought about it in the cultural context, I think that while every country will tell you that food is their national obsession, and I am not sure that Italy leads in that. But, Italians will talk about the next meal while eating the current meal. The giving of food is an expression of love, or at least friendliness.
The Italians are a tactile, hugging, kissing people and this pandemic has forced them to keep their distance. I had not thought about how hard this must be for them on this account as well. To go from daily kisses and hugs to absolute zero.
Suddenly, this is much deeper than I thought. This makes me think even more deeply about these gifts that I receive. When the Italians can air kiss again, will this stop the gifts of food? Somehow, I don’t think so.
When researching my book about Italian food, I discovered the round melon cucumber of Puglia. It was described as a cross between a melon and a cucumber.
I was eager to try it and I thought I would have to wait till I could travel to Puglia. But, one day at the Campo de Fiori market, I saw it. The cucumber tastes like a mild cucumber (even milder) but has the shape of a melon. The rind is slightly leathery and I actually liked the way it has a pleasant chewiness.
Imagine if these were grown without seeds? They would be perfect for sandwiches. Never mind that, after my terrible encounter with a normal Italian cucumber back in November, I was just happy that this one didn’t bite my tongue off with bitterness. I had a Greek salad the other day, and the cucumber was equally bitter.
I didn’t expect the cucumbers to be bitter in Italy. But, then again, Romans like bitter greens like chicory so why not bitter cucumber (not to be confused with bitter gourd).
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One of the cutest things I encountered in Italian class was a misunderstanding. Our teacher would say, “chiaro?” often. This went on for days until finally one of my classmates asked what does “chiaro” mean? She thought that it meant “honey” or some other term of affection and that our teacher was calling us this several times an hour! Our teacher was asking us if we understood what was being said! “Chiaro?” means “clear?” in Italian.
Today is Boxing Day which is St. Stephen’s Day here in Italy. As we are on day three of red zone lockdown, I have time to reflect.
Moving to a new country has both its delights and irritations. Then, there are the things that I just hadn’t contemplated or expected.
Eating cookies for breakfast: that takes getting used to. They also eat croissants (un cornetto is a croissant) and pizza for breakfast. The breakfast pizza is a sandwich made with pizza bread which is like focaccia (the pizza can be many things here and is in many ways simply “bread”). Another thing is that mayonnaise for your sandwich for breakfast is okay, but most sandwiches are quite sparsely filled and have very little “lettuce, tomato,…” but instead the extremely popular bologna, mortadella, provides enough fat (there is a required amount of fat squares that must be visible) to butter the sandwich. Another thing is that you can get meatballs, ham with fresh mozzarella, sautéed broccoli greens, and almost anything in a sandwich. It just won’t be very tall.
Trash on the street: the trash dumpsters are communal and this means that there are trash dumpsters on every street. It’s all out there for everyone to see. Not hidden away in the bowels of the buildings or back alley.
Tupperware/food containers: I had not expected this to be so hard to find. I suppose it’s because Italians eat fresh food every day. Or at least they don’t cook up a storm on a Sunday and then neatly stack containers of food in the freezer. It’s not that Italians don’t have left overs. They do. They are extremely frugal. But, they just store it in some other way. I’m not sure what. On the other hand, I can easily find a pasta making board at the kitchen store.
Ham (proscuitto cotto): It’s so good here. And I’m not even talking about proscuitto and porchetta, and all those other lovely pork products. I just mean simple pink ham to go on my bread.
The freshness: fresh fruit is sold ripe here so it also goes bad a bit faster than in the U.S. Fruit is not stored in the fridge so it dries out or begins to molder. The clementines are lovely this time of year in Rome but I didn’t expect them to start going mushy on day five. One day I ate eight clementines to eat them all before they went bad. I could freeze the pulp but fresh juice is not as common here as in Peru. In Peru, one always new it was morning because of the sound of blenders whizzing all over Lima. In Peru, the method is to blitz the fruit and then sieve it. Here in Italy, the fruit, usually oranges, are pressed. The greens are really green and Italians love greens.
Preserved Fish: jarred tuna is in almost anything here — and on pizza. Anchovy: yes, on everything. Not gelato. But, the anchovy is good. Since Italian food is not that spicy, anchovy is the strong flavor. And it’s not that strong.
Prices: pizza is affordable ($4 for a personal pizza, no tipping so reasonable for lunch). Eating out/taking out is affordable (my pasta and a drink on Piazza Navona was 13 Euro). Christmas cards and stationery are pricey (4.5 Euro for a card). Taxis are not cheap as they run the meter from when they choose to take your ride, not when you get in the car. This makes it about 5 Euro per kilometer. But so worth it on these hard and ankle-mangling cobblestones. While the price of items in stores is higher than in the U.S., it is possible to shop at the many Chinese-run stores and buy the “made in China” straight from China. I went to one such store, loaded up my arms, and was shocked that it cost a total of 13 Euro. In contrast, my hot water kettle (it is fancy) cost 48 Euro.
English: I knew that most people would speak some English. They do. If not, they will probably find someone. But, it is possible to live in Rome without speaking Italian. Not as much fun, but possible.
Friendliness: I didn’t expect people to be so friendly. I never thought of Italians as friendly. Maybe it’s just in Rome? Maybe it’s because the shop owners and restaurant owners are so happy to see a customer after almost a year of COVID? Maybe it’s that unicorn called “customer service?” Maybe because I try to speak Italian? Or because I say “buongiorno” to everyone, even random people on the street… Whatever the reason, most people I interact with are friendly.
While this year’s Christmas celebrations in Lima will be very different, I thought I would recount the lovely one that I had last year when I was invited to spend Christmas with my Peruvian family. Enjoy.
A Peruvian Christmas involves church for mass at 8 p.m. on December 24, followed by dinner. There will be ham, turkey, and there will be certain salads (involving mayonnaise) with rice and potatoes, but mainly there is dessert. From the Italians, the Peruvians eat panettone for Christmas. This a dry version of the British Christmas pudding, in many ways. There are certain brands that are more prestigious to give to one’s doorman, maid, or friends, and you will recognize them from the colors of the boxes.
At midnight there will be fireworks but since private fireworks are illegal (the city will put on a show), many families will use sparklers instead. Christmas is during early summer in Lima, so it’s beach weather. That said, decorations will still be greenery, Christmas trees, and fake snow. It just doesn’t have the same feeling of a snowy cold wintery Christmas.
On the 25th, there will be more celebrations with other members of the family or friends. I was lucky to be invited out to a country house for the 25th. There were Marinera horses (they are trained to dance the national dance) to admire, games to play, a fully stocked bar, lots of traditional “creole” style food (served in traditional ceramics in this case — the hostess is the mostest, it must be said), and relaxed chatting. Oh, and Peruvian donuts, picarones.
My favorite were the appetizers of fried yuca with huancaina sauce and taquitos with guacamole. These are very Peruvian, at any time of year.
Being included in my friends’ family Christmas was the best gift one could imagine. Family, food, and friendship. Festive!
Even if you don’t celebrate anything at this time of year, I hope you still have a good one, even if it’s a dance around a festivus pole!
During this pandemic, time has slowed down, and yet, it seems to take a long time to get anything done. In Italy, as recently as two hundred years ago, time was also different, not due to a pandemic, but because time was told differently. The day started not at midnight, but at sunset. As I wait for my time to move to Italy, I am sharing another segment of the book I wrote about what I wish I knew about food in Italy. This is from the chapter called, “Saucy,” ostensibly about spaghetti sauce… and yet, the chapter covers so much more, including the three musketeers, and Elvis.
One of the gripes about Italian food outside of Italy, is that there is no such dish called, “Spaghetti with Meatballs.” Despite the role that this dish plays in the American iconography of Disney’s Lady and the Tramp. The famous scene with the spaghetti and meatballs shows that by 1955, when the film was released, this dish was already iconic to American Italian cuisine. (A fun note: The model for Tramp was actually a female dog.) Also, there is no dish called, “Spaghetti Bolognese.” The sauce served with spaghetti is called a “ragu” in Italian. Ragu is a sauce. Bolognese sauce comes from the city of Bologna, in the north of Italy. Thicker sauces like Bolognese usually accompany thicker types of pasta like lasagna pasta. Meatballs, called polpetta in Italian, are never served with pasta.
Ragu comes from the French word, “ragout” which means a stew. The French ragout comes from the verb “ragouter” which means “to revive the taste.” In the nineteenth century, Alexandre Dumas wrote in his culinary dictionary that ragout made French cuisine “shine.” This is the same Alexandre Dumas who wrote The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. The Count of Monte Cristo is actually based almost entirely on the life of his grandfather, Marquis Alexandre Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie who fathered General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas Davy de la Pailleterie with his black slave, Marie-Cessette Dumas. To read about this, read The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss. It is a swashbuckling tale if ever there was one.
Alexandre Dumas fils (son), the son of Alexandre Dumas pere (father), was a playwright and wrote the tragic Camille, possibly one of the most tragic romances I’ve watched on stage. This play became the basis for Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata. La traviata means “fallen woman” in Italian. Both Alexandre Dumas, father and son, were born out of wedlock and illegitimacy is a common issue throughout the son’s writings.
Giuseppe Verdi’s birth was registered as “born yesterday” on October 11, 1813, in the church register. At that time, the day began at sunset, not at midnight, so Verdi celebrated his birthday on October 9. He was born in a village in municipality of Busseto, in the province of Parma, in the region of Emilia-Romagna, in northern Italy. Supposedly VERDI was used as an acronym for Vittorio Emanuele, Re D’Italia, which means Victor Emmanuel, king of Italy who was the first king of Italy, to signify the Italian unification movement. Verdi got involved in politics and was a staunch supporter of Italian unification. It took almost fifty years for Italy to become unified.
Verdi also wrote Aida, possibly the most baroque over-the-top-operas of all time. Verdi wrote Aida upon request by Ismail the Magnificent, Viceroy of Egypt and Sudan, to celebrate opening of the Khedivial (Royal) Opera House in Cairo, not to celebrate the Suez Canal as some sources will state. Aida had its world premiere in 1871. Aida is the love story of an enslaved Ethiopian princess and an Egyptian military commander. The story is set in the ancient capital of Egypt, Memphis. The glory days of Memphis were 5,000 years ago. The name Memphis is the Ancient Greek version of the Ancient Egyptian name meaning “enduring and beautiful.” The ruins of ancient Memphis are just south of the pyramid of Giza in Cairo.
The trumpets blaring and drums thumping in the famous choral march in Aida is one of the most recognizable tunes in our collective hearing. Ordinary people cannot belt out the chorus from Aida, but most think they can do a fair version of “O Sole Mio.” “O Sole Mio” was written in 1898 with lyrics by Giovanni Capurro and music by Eduardo di Capua and Alfredo Mazzucchi. “O Sole Mio” means “my sunshine” in the Neapolitan dialect which uses “O” instead of “Il” from the standard Italian as the preposition. This catchy tune was so popular and well-known that, at the 1920 Olympics, when the orchestra had not received the music for the Italian national anthem, they played “O Sole Mio” instead. That shows hows catchy a tune it is.
In 1958, a young enlisted man from Memphis, Tennessee, Elvis Presley, heard this song when he was stationed in Europe. After he returned to the United States, he requested that a version be written especially for him. This became his best-selling single, “It’s Now or Never,” one of my favorite songs. I always thought this song was about “carpe diem” as in the Latin term meaning “seize the day,” but it’s about seize the guy, before he falls out of love with you. The original phrase carpe diem by the Roman poet Horace in 23 BCE, was “carpe diem quam minimum credula postero,” which translates to “pluck the day, trusting as little as possible in the next one.” Basically, to live today to the fullest. Which Elvis certainly did. Of the song versions, I even like the disco version by Al Martino, an Italian-American who played a singer in “The Godfather.” “O Sole Mio” is sung in the canzone napoletana tradition. No, not calzone. That’s a pizza pocket.
The Neapolitan style of singing was taken abroad at the end of the nineteenth century by singers like Enrico Caruso, the famous opera singer. He was from Naples, and when he need a song for encores at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, he would sing songs from his hometown.
There are many Neapolitan languages, “napulitano” in Neapolitan, which originated in the Kingdom of Naples. Most of these languages, dialects, cover the southern half of the Italian peninsula, with around five million speakers. Like standard Italian, it is a Romance language, from the Vulgar Latin adverb romanice, “in Roman.” Vulgar meant everyday, vernacular, language, not foul language. There were three forms of Latin. The Romance languages arose in Europe between the third and eighth centuries.
For language nerds who don’t speak Latin, look up Romance languages on Wikipedia to see side by side comparisons of the same sentence in the various forms of Romance languages. For the nerds, did you know that Dr. Seuss invented the word nerd?
The title of this blog posting refers to a Danish movie from 2000, and my current activity. “Italian for Beginners” is a lighthearted entertaining movie about Danes who want something a bit more interesting in their lives so they go to Italian class. Romance and “viaggio” to Italy ensue.
Learning Italian is a bit topsy turvy for me as Italian is, in many ways, the opposite of English and Spanish. For example, the “che” is a “kah” sound and the “ci” is “cheh” sound as in “ciao.” The double ell in Spanish is spelled with a “gli” in Italian but the double ell like in “bello” is a really forceful ell sound. The ñ in Spanish is spelled “gn” in Italian so that “gnocchi” is “ñ-o-key” — and so on.
Actually, the phrase I’ve learned the best is “attenta su pronuncia” – watch your pronunciation.
But, it’s most important to say hello, goodbye, please, and thank you. So far I’ve learned that the Italians are very formal so one should not use “ciao” unless you are family or you are close friends. (Also, “Ciao” derives from an old Venetian saying for “I’m your slave.”)
Hello: “buongiorno” (bwon-jorno) until sundown and then it’s “buona sera” (bwon-ah sarah)
Goodbye: “arrivederci” (a-riv-eh-dare-chi)
Please: “per favore” (pear fa-vore-eh) or “per piacere” (pear pah-chair-ee)
Thank you: “grazie” (gra-ts-ee-ay)
Excuse me: “scusi” (skoo-zee) is the formal form and “scusa” is the informal.
One thing I have learned about Italian is how to say “good luck!” Contrary to direct translation, it is not “buona fortuna!” Instead, it’s “jump inot the mouth of the wolf!” Or “In bocca al lupo!” This is the equivalent to “break a leg” in Italian.