Is It True That You Don’t Tip In Italy?

Is it true that you don’t have to tip in Italy? Yes, it’s true. But people are happy if you do. In sit down restaurants, one can add ten percent or so. In the touristy places, they may expect it. But, as there are so few tourists (and right now during an orange day or month, no traveling outside your city — so only very local tourist) in Italy due to the virus, I think the foreigners make sure to tip.

In a taxi, round to the nearest Euro. In a casual place, like a stand up pizza place, no tipping necessary.

Not sure about tipping the shampoo gal/guy as I haven’t been to a salon here (a bad haircut helps keep me at home, although shaving my eyebrows would work better).

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.

Soup for Soupy Skies

A really old photo of a delicious Korean beef rib soup.

After the gray skies of Lima, I feel like it’s blue skies here in Rome every day. But, of course, that’s not true. There are rainy days and I’ve had to use my umbrellas for the first time in years (it never rains in Lima). When it’s rainy out, I really like to slurp soup.

One of the delights of Peru was that I never had a bad bowl of soup. It seemed like everyone knew how to make “sopa criolla” or creole soup — basically a chicken noodle soup. The kind your Jewish mother used to make (as David Chang says).

While I like chicken soup, I love spicy Asian soups with spice and treasure trove of ingredients in my bowl. Some of my favorites are hot and sour soup, pho, and laksa. Pho always allows for lots of greens which I love in spicy soup. Laksa is a curry style soup with noodles and seafood, plus tofu cakes, and many other things.

Pho is a clear bone broth soup.
Look at the serious amount of greens this couple is putting in their pho.
Laksa with hard boiled eggs, fish cakes, and other yumminess.

In Singapore, I went to the most famous location for laksa. It was good. One day I went to a mall (it’s a country of malls), and found a “pick your own 100 ingredients” soup place. Heaven! While not on par with the famous place on the number 14 bus, even the laksa at the airport was good.

Laksa with tofu cakes, seafood, and the usual noodles.
Laksa on the menu!

Here’s to happy virtual traveling and soon, slurping at the source!

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.

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.

A Unique Time To Be A Tourist in Your Home Town

Where have all the beggars gone, long time missing? Maybe the way of the tourist trinket shops.

It’s a sadly unique time to be a tourist. The streets are empty in a way that one just would not have imagined. Normally, over 60 million tourists visit Italy. Due to the pandemic, not only the international, but also the intra-country tourists, are not here. Just the Romans.

I went to the Trevi Fountain and was one of three tourists. Not that there were no people there — there were. But they were working. I went to the Pantheon (well, to the square, as the Pantheon is closed), and finally got begged from. But only from two beggars. I also wonder where the pickpockets go during this time. I did not see any of them either.

At Piazza Navona (the big rectangular one with the three fountains), I finally saw more people. Once the tourists come back, I can imagine that this square will be wall to wall with people. As it was, there were only a few hawkers and they were not too aggressive. One greeted me with a phrase from the Lion King, which did catch my attention. But, in general, the hawkers seemed fairly listless, as they saw no reason to make much effort when there are no cash cows in town. Who knew that one would miss being milked?

Mealtimes in Italy

Okay, so mealtimes in Italy.

Colazione (breakfast): Breakfast is a cup of coffee with milk like a cappuccino. Maybe a croissant or a sandwich (triangular white sandwiches like the triples in Peru). Italians don’t really eat much for breakfast. They consider the milk in the coffee to be the “food.” But, later in the morning, they will have more coffee. Coffee is a small cup of coffee like an espresso. No coffee in Italy is ever the size of American coffees. Italians will have many coffees throughout the day, although milk in coffee is only for breakfast (so before 11 a.m.).

Around 10 or 11 a.m., Italians might have a small snack with their next coffee.

Pranzo (lunch): Lunch is generally eaten from noon to 2 p.m. but on a Sunday, lunch can be later.

Merenda (tea): At around 3 p.m., Italians (and certainly children) will have a snack. One could have a gelato… or some crackers and cheese.

Aperitivo (happy hour): after work, Italians may have a tapas/mezze style spread. Many judge the bar based on the selection of free nibbles. During the current COVID restrictions (restaurants close for in restaurant dining at 6 p.m.), many people are having aperitivo at 3 p.m. Why not?

Cena “che-na” (dinner): Dinner is generally at 8:30 p.m. or later. One had a snack earlier, thankfully.

Square Pizza — Culture Shock in Italy

Culture shock seems like an outdated phrase from the 1980s, but then again, I find that the 1980s are still around… for example, when I was traveling in Kenya in 2012, the radio stations all played Michael Jackson’s songs as if they had just come out. Now in 2020 in Italy, the down jacket is back from the 1980s. Not really back, as it never left as it is still the fashion to dress like Hans Solo in certain other Latin countries.

In a way, the down jackets remind me of the “pizza bianca” or “white pizza” that is a common food here in Rome. It’s a bit shocking that the pizza is square, sold by weight, and can still be pizza — even if it has no sauce or cheese. Yes, it really can still be pizza. In a way, in its purest form if one reads the etymology of the word, pizza.

More shockers another time. I need to go get a pizza and put some cheese and ham on it, and call it a sandwich.

Whatsapp? Are You Zooming to a Google Meet For Quality Facetime?

For the past seven months, many of us have spent time socializing and working on Zoom, Google Meet, Whatsapp, Facetime, and more. I do not know which one is better, but here are few things I’ve learned about them.

Zoom is now a verb. That’s how big it is. For more than 50 people, someone needs to have a paid account. With the paid version, I have the option to “hide self view” which allows me to not have to look at myself when I am looking at the grid view. There are a few other features like the ability to change the view when sharing someone else’s “shared view.” The free version has a meeting limit of 40 minutes. Zoom allows you to share your screen and have a “green screen” virtual background. I enjoy this feature quite a bit. It allows me to travel every time I zoom.

The main plaza in Lima, Peru.

Google Meet, previously Google Hangouts, also requires a paid account and the non-Google emails must be “let in” to the meeting “room.” The professional account can host meetings of over 100 people.

Whatsapp now allows for up to eight faces to appear on your phone screen. The computer version of Whatsapp does not allow video. Whatsapp is owned by Facebook. One can also have video calls on Facebook Messenger. 

Facetime is the classic Apple iPhone product.

Skype was one of the revolutionary early products for video calling. It was acquired by eBay and it is now owned by Microsoft. Microsoft deactivated some of the features in 2017. Microsoft Teams seems to have take over many of the features. 

I find that I actually prefer using most of these video calling programs for audio only. I don’t need to see people’s faces when I talk to them. But, that may just be me. 

With friends and family all over the world, these various options are an important part of keeping in touch. My very informal and tiny survey of my friends is that they seem to prefer Zoom. They seem to feel that it connects better, and that is the point.

The Beginning of the Internet

I was doing some research on Italy, and I got to a screen that said, “You have reached the end.” During this time at home, you too may have reached the end of the Internet… but, did you wonder where it began?

The plaque put up by Arlington County.

The Internet started just a few steps from Washington, DC, USA, fifty years ago. Developed from 1970-1975 in Arlington, Virginia, the “ARPANet” (Advanced Research Projects Agency Net) was developed as a communications tool by the military. A small plaque stands on the side of the road in Arlington, Virginia. The plaque has a smaller plaque with zeroes and ones representing the binary code for “ARPANet.” Although Arlington County claims to have invented the Internet, the first computer-to-computer transmission was in California in 1969, but it was the ARPANet who figured out how to dice up information into binary code…. which became the Internet, online shopping, electronic mail, blogging, and video-calls (imagine no Zoom?)… The World Wide Web.

A whole new world.

The Time Is Here at Last for the Count of Monte Cristo

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 TraviataLa 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.

Neopolitan pizza — American style

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 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.