What Americans Notice In Italy

Now that I’ve had my first American visitors, they suggest that I write about what they noticed while in Italy. They noticed three very different things…

Adults making love to their gelatos: This is what they really noticed. They said that it was not normal in the United States to see a grown adult in business clothes “making love” to an ice cream, while walking on the street. I have no photos of this so instead I include a photo of a gelato that I ate… while on the street. As you can see, gelato melts fast so you have to eat it fast.

Note that my gelato has “panna” or whipped cream on it. This is normal in Italian gelaterias. Another thing that is normal is that no matter how small your gelato, you will usually get two flavors.

Peanut and salted caramel gelato.

Swastika graffiti: On the walls. In the United States, it would removed or painted over fairly quickly.

Five inch platform mules: On women. I guess it should be ten centimeter platforms since this is in Italy.

The Perfect Apulian Coastal Town – Polignano a Mare

View to the right from the cafe.

Sapphire blue water, cute old white stone streets, a public beach, and easy access to other places (if you ever want to leave), Polignano a Mare has it all. The city is walled and the old part is pedestrianized. The only wheeled vehicles inside are pedicabs transporting customers and their luggage to the many hotels and B&Bs.

It was hard to get a photo of this door without people in front of it, but I managed to snatch one in the few seconds between tourists.

The old city has many shops but doesn’t feel excessively touristy (even though it is), and once in a while you can glimpse real people living their lives here.

The swimming area is surrounded by cafes on cliffs.
The beach is a pebble beach but that’s the only downside.

Since visiting, I have been raving about this town. It just seems too perfect. Even in 95/34 degree heat.

There is poetry dotted all about the town. This basically says, “Happiness is easy when the sea is in front of you.”

We went just for a the day but I could see staying here for an entire vacation.

The access to the beach overlook.

Outside the old city, there are also lots of streets and neighborhoods to explore, or stay in, but we only explored the old town. We parked in the piazza just outside the old walls, helped by old gentlemen sitting in the square (they helped explain the parking sign — lunch is free parking), and when we returned at the end of the day, the same gentlemen were doing their “passaggiata” (daily walk to be seen, see, and catch up with neighbors) in the square.

Try to get that table for the photos. It was a bit windy out there so we ate inside.

We ate breakfast at a cafe, Caffe Dei Serafini, with a jawdropping view. Utterly amazing. The restaurant is in a cave wall of the city on the cliff and has only one table for two/three out on their tiny balcony… but if you are lucky, you can get that table, or, at least, use it for photo ops.

View to the left from the cafe balcony. Around the corner to the left is the swimming beach.

While I thought Lecce was more intellectual, and Otranto had a smaller vibe, I think that Polignano a Mare has a good combination for an overall Apulian vacation. And it has those blue waters.

I’m told that Sicily and Sardegna have blue waters as well, but for now, these have been the most jewel like yet.

A snorkeler seen from the balcony. Photo with an iPhone. No filter.

My photos were taken with my iPhone and I did not use a filter. The water really is that color. Better than on postcards.

The Not Pizzas of Puglia

The focaccia of Puglia is famous and there is so much olive oil in it that it seems like a fried pizza even though it’s not deep fried. Also, it’s a bread, not a pizza.

A panzerotti looks like a calzone but it’s not one. The reason is that a panzerotti is fried, not baked. Panzerotti are specialities of the central and southern parts of Italy, especially Puglia/Apulia.

Panzarotti are also called calzoni fritti, fritte, and frittelle.

They are much like pizza and pizza is popular in Italy. While American pepperoni pizza is rare to find (not impossible, you just have to call it “con salame picante” to get something resembling it), I was delighted to find that spicy salami was one of the flavors on offer. If you ask for a “pepperoni” pizza, they will think you want a bell pepper pizza.

Humane Airport Furniture

Let’s be real. People in airports need to sleep on a flat surface. So many airports make this hard to do but Rome and Copenhagen (and maybe others) have furniture that one can lie down on. Thank you.

After all, it’s not like we want to be tired and exhausted when traveling. It just is a reality. If we can rest horizontally for a bit, we will be much better tourists.

The Return of the Tourists in Shorts

Aperitivo of Aperol Spritz (the standard) in front of the Pantheon. It almost can’t get more touristy than this.

The tourists are back. Well, primarily, the German and American tourists. The kind that wear shorts. The Romans are so happy to see them. The waiters are perky and filled with enthusiasm after 18 months of no tourism. The Italian government opened up to American tourists back in May and the start was a bit slow (although I saw some within days of the “re-opening” of Italy). But, now, it’s almost July and kapow! They are back! Not like before 2020, but much more than I’ve seen here in the last six months.

A tour group.

It’s been both enjoyable and sad to have Rome to myself without tourists. I think I prefer it with tourists. Even if I don’t really want to go downtown anymore… until winter.

Golf cart tours and tourists in shorts.

While I know that most tourists come to Rome in July and August, it’s much better in February. The weather is better and the skies are blue. Currently they are gray and overcast from humidity.

Tiramisu Tasting

This article is dedicated to a friend of mine who suggested I do a list of best tiramisu places (plus, it was recently the golden anniversary of tiramisu). There are over 12,000 restaurants in Rome, and I’d wager that most serve tiramisu, so I can’t tell you which is the best. Of the ones I’ve had over the past few months, these are some that I would recommend.

Before I moved to Rome, I didn’t like tiramisu. I realize it’s because in my experience, usually the tiramisu was a large cold clumpy mass, possibly made with alcohol. I don’t like the taste of alcohol interfering with my sweet dessert. I prefer my tiramisu to be creamy (more on creamy at the bottom) more like a trifle or Eton Mess.

An espresso size tiramisu from 3 Caffe.

Mimi e Coco (Via del Governo Vecchio 72, on one of the most picturesque streets in the center of Rome) serves a super creamy tiramisu in a glass, more like a trifle.

Mimi and Coco made one of the best I’ve tried.

Tre Caffe (Via dei Due Macelli 107, near the Vatican) serves a tiny tiramisu that satisfies.

Fisherman Burger (Via Ravenna 34) lets you eat it as you wish, serving the three parts separately.

Eat as you wish.

Di Qua (Via delle Corrozze 85B, near the Spanish Steps) have a creamy tiramisu that I even ate although I had no more appetite.

Matricianella (Via del Leone 4) also serves a creamy tiramisu.

Two Sizes (Via del Governo Vecchio 88, across from Coco e Mimi) serves tiramisu in two sizes, to go. You can take them as gifts or home to enjoy on your own.

Clear layers from Two Sizes

Many pastry shops and gelato shops will sell tiramisu and every (almost) restaurant will serve it. However, cheesecake and brownies are beginning to make their inroads.

From La Romana Gelateria, an ice cream chain.

A interesting note about saying something is “creamy” — I told an Italian that I liked the creaminess of something and she said, “no, not cream, panna.” The word, “crema” in Italian refers to pastry cream/custard. For whipped cream, one uses “panna” in Italian. There is a lot of whipped cream in Italian food. It’s offered at almost every gelateria to top off your gelato, they have desserts that are stuffed with whipped cream, and even a breakfast bun stuffed with whipped cream. Panna is manna to me. I like it creamy.

As for the best tiramisu… it’s probably the one you are currently eating.

The Fifth of the Four Roman Pasta Sauces

Just as Roman cuisine is famous for using the “quinto quarto” (fifth quarter) of the animal, Rome famous for four pasta sauces — with one that is made from the part of the animal that no one wants to mention — the fifth quarter. Or is it the opposite?

In most restaurants, you order your pasta dish by the sauce as there are traditionally certain pastas for certain sauces. In a few, by the shape of the pasta, although most places will have already decided which pasta they are cooking that day. I find that many restaurants use the large tubular pasta as it fills the plate better. There are officially 350 shapes of pasta but many have different regional names and new shapes are being invented constantly. Italians will tell you that the pasta should fit the sauce so that the sauce sticks to the pasta. Some Romans will tell you that only certain sauces go with certain types of pasta.

A basic thing about Roman cooking. It’s simple with few ingredients and use the best quality that you can afford. Also, almost no garlic or chili. The Italians are sensitive to regional names so even describing something as “like bacon” can be controversial.

Cacio e pepe spaghetti

Cacio e Pepe (catch-ee-oh-eh-peh-pa): Basically it’s called “cheese and black pepper” and that’s what it is. Usually a long string-like pasta like spaghetti although traditionally, tonnarelli (a rougher hand cut “square” long pasta) is used. Spaghetti means “strings.” The cheese used is Roman Pecorino, the sheep’s milk version similar in hardness and age to Parmesan (which comes from Parma), and pepper. One makes the sauce by using hot water that the pasta has been cooked in. There is no cream added. It’s a very simple sauce.

Spaghetti alla carbonara (although the pasta may have been a slightly thicker kind).

Carbonara (cARR-boh-nar-ah): This is the one with the famous story about how the American GIs missed eggs and bacon and so this pasta sauce was made to cater to them. Not true but a nice story. This sauce involves pork jowl, guanciale, fried to bacon bits (they will tell you not to use bacon — but if that’s all you have…), grated pecorino, and an egg yolk. The result is a thick golden sauce.

Tonnarelli in gricia sauce (you can see how the pasta is square).

Gricia (gree-CH-ah): Is basically carbonara without the raw egg yolk. If you like bacon bits but don’t want the cloying creaminess of the carbonara, this is the one for you. It’s often used with tubular pasta like rigatoni.

Tonnarelli amatriciana.

Amatriciana (ah-mah-TREE-chee-ah-na): If you like the pork jowl bacon, you like the Pecorino, but you don’t like the egg yolk, and you wish they’d add some tomato sauce, then get the amatriciana. It’s called that because the pork comes from Amatrice, a town in northern Lazio (the region where Rome is located, south of the famous Tuscany).

And the fifth… is hard to find these days and never on the English language version of the menu (some traditional Roman restaurants will have a printed menu in English for the foreigners and a hand written on for the locals). It’s a dish called “rigatoni alla pajata” and is rigatoni with veal’s intestines (or bowel, as they will say here). It’s that particular part of the intestine from newborn calves who have only had milk. When the calf is slaughtered, the undigested milk is still in the intestine and it looks a bit like a creamy sausage.

None of these are my favorite pasta sauces. I like spaghetti alle vongole/spaghetti con le vongole (spaghetti with clams) and aglio e olio (garlic and oil) with chili flakes, a dish so simple that it’s almost never on the menu in restaurants. Apparently, it’s a drunk food that people make when they come back from being out on the town. Both of these dishes are from Naples. Many of the Italian immigrants to the United States were from Naples so the American idea of Italian food is often shaped by that. This is evident in the New York style pizza which is most like a Neopolitan pizza.

Oh, I also like penne with canned/preserved tuna or salmon. It’s one of the most common things to get in a Roman cafeteria. It’s easy to make and all the ingredients are already in the pantry.

Cute Misunderstandings in Italian Class

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.

Cute, like this tiramisu in a jar.

Binge Watching Italy

A shop in Monti, Rome.

If you want to binge on watching videos about Italy, here are some I’ve found. Mostly on food. Mostly about Rome. I will not list all of them as there are too many, but a few that will give you some leads to follow.

Rick Stein is one of my favorite TV chef presenters. The thinking chef’s chef. Here in Corsica and Sardinia.

Alex Polizzi is a British-Italian TV presenter. Here’s an episode from Puglia.

Spaghetti with clams in Rome.

Insider is a channel about food. This host is Italian and in this short video, the topic is Limoncello. There are many other videos from Insider like this one pasta in Bari. Or focaccia in Genoa.

WocomoCook is another YouTube channel that I found. Here is an episode about food in Umbria.

A show on pizza from Munchies.

A vlog channel by expat guys who live in Rome.

Or visiting during lockdown.

Choice TV show on Roman food.

Farm to Table, here in Tuscany.

Two Greedy Italians. Need I say more?

Floyd was a chef who had a good time, this time in Liguria.

Pizza by the slice (taglio) sold by weight is a very Roman food.

If you want months worth of binge watching, Rick Steves provides! Rick Steves has eight hours of free TV shows on Italy alone! He also has free audio tours, apps, books, etc. He is much raunchier on his audio tours! If you want a private guide in your ear, he has those! If you just want to watch him give good advice, watch him here.

Also, many people like Dream of Italy. Here, the host is in Amalfi and Naples.

Italy Unpacked is a more scholarly approach.

Then, there’s this guy is quite wealthy (he is an angel investor and helped start Virgin America) but decided to make a travel show because he didn’t find any that matched his lifestyle. Swish.

Possibly the most famous car in Rome? This is in Monti.

A BBC documentary on Rome.

Another BBC documentary, this one on Sicily.

A great way to learn history is with Tony Robinson. He is a great story teller, here about Caligula.

Reel Truth History makes documentaries. This one on Rome.

So many classical and historical views all in one.

And, if you want to watch people buying A Place in the Sun in Italy

Rome is very proud of their free drinking fountains. Stay hydrated!

Or follow tour guides (and me) on Instagram. More about who I follow in another blog posting.

A ‘bar’ in Rome. Drinking a coffee is a social activity and Romans do it all day long.

Why Americans Don’t Use Bidets

When in Rome? In ancient Rome, they used a rag on the end of a stick instead of toilet paper (one of the possible reasons for the phrase, “getting hold of the wrong end of the stick” — the other origin of the phrase may derive from 19th century printing press when the letters were placed in a stick and backwards — so if you got hold of the wrong end of the stick, you would not comprehend the sentence).

Toilet and bidet in Rome.

Modern Roman toilets look much as they do in other parts of the world, but the flush handle is usually a button on the wall. Another thing is that Roman toilets include a bidet (“bee-DAY” or “beh-day”). The bidet is basically a bathtub for your nether parts. It looks like a toilet bowl and to use it, you back down on it, wash yourself, and then dry yourself using a towel (hence why there is a towel rack nearby). The cultures that do use a bidet consider those that don’t, a bit baffling, as they wonder why one would only use paper to clean up a sticky situation?

In the middle east and Indian subcontinent, people use “the mechanical action of the left hand” instead of toilet paper. Many of these countries also have a “bidet shower” — a spray hose. In my apartment in Bangladesh, there was a spray hose near the toilet instead of toilet paper. The water pressure on the ones in my apartment had the force of a power wash, but I was told that it was to clean off my left hand, not for direct application. The bidet shower, or spray hose, is also used in Finland and Estonia, according to Wikipedia. The Japanese of old times used a stick to clean the backside but now they have electronic toilets with sprayed water and air, both warmed. Japanese toilets also can include a heated seat and “politeness” music.

The average American uses 50 pounds of toilet paper every year. Many countries do not use toilet paper. Many Catholic countries use water rather than paper, or a combination of the two. Also, considering how much paper and water flush toilets waste, perhaps the bidet shower is the way of the future? In terms of wasting resources getting rid of our waste, the city of Los Angeles spends four million dollars each year unclogging toilet paper from their sewers. In many countries, one can’t flush toilet paper down the toilet. In Peru, one puts the toilet paper in a trash can next to the toilet.

Can you tell that I’m writing a book about toilets? Due to the pandemic, toilet paper has been on our minds — a lot. I have actually been interested in toilets from a cultural viewpoint for quite a while, as toilet habits have been a bit different in many of the countries where I have lived. Going to the toilet is one of those things that people don’t talk about too much, but it is that one thing that we all do, and affects culture, from water usage, home construction, art, language, religion, and customs.

One of the many memes I collected during 2020’s toilet paper hunt.

Back to the bidet. The bidet means “little horse” in French and refers to the straddling position one assumes when using it. The bidet was popularized in France in the 18th century, supposedly much used by the French prostitutes. The British considered the French to be hedonistic, and therefore their bidets to be hedonistic. Americans of those times followed British customs and this is, supposedly, why Americans do not use bidets. But, I know more and more who are installing Japanese toilets and bidet toilets in their homes. Like in the ad below, perhaps it will become a thing in the new American toilet. Freedom Toilets?

Will the modern American toilet include a bidet?

Crave – Food at the Source

I know that it is the general convention that dishes, food, is best tasted at the source. I think that does some disservice to the diaspora and fusion food that has evolved over the millennia. That said, here is a list of food that I often crave. Actually, for many of the dishes, I prefer in their newer form. But, then again… some I prefer at the source.

Ceviche — I like the classic old fashioned version. The Peruvians love fusion. They are a fusion and so is their food. So now one can find “warm ceviche” and ceviche not made with fish.

“Ceviche classico” with “leche de tigre” (tiger’s milk) making the fish turn white.

Danish hotdog — I prefer them in Denmark. The actual hotdog is special, the ketchup is different, the dog is served with crunchy fried onions…
New York pizza — also, one of those things. Some say that the New York pizza is like a Neopolitan pizza from Naples, Italy. We shall see…
Hamburger — Some of the best I’ve had are in the United States. American beef and lack of gristle in the mix.
Banh mi — I’ve had good ones outside of Vietnam.
Pho — Also, good in the certain parts of the United States. Very bland in other places.
Korean BBQ — If one sticks to the pork belly, then it’s fairly easy to get good Korean barbecue in many countries. I think that many people think that bulgogi should be made with a high grade of beef and grilled at the table. Traditionally, bulgogi was created to use bad cuts of meat that required marinating. Usually the slices are so thin that grilling at the table dries them out. Some places use good cuts of steak and then one can dip them in sesame seed oil and salt. This is a delicious way to eat barbecue.
Chicken wings — Oddly, some of the best barbecue wings I’ve had were in a pizzeria in New Mexico.
Dim sum — can be good in many places outside China.

Laksa — so far the best I’ve had, and even some of the mediocre, was in Singapore and Malaysia. What can I say?

Most of all, the food of other lands transports you to them.

Unexpected Things About Moving To Rome

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.