Location: Lago Patria, Giugliano in Campania, Naples
I tell your mother that your family’s house is beautiful, but she doesn’t seem to believe me. It’s too small, she says, we don’t have much space.
Your apartment building is of modest size and sits on a dusty street of sporadic loud noise and chaos, lingering evidence of its neighboring big sibling Naples, located just a few kilometers south of here. A large grey building sits right across the street, abandoned and graffitied, and I wonder if it’s as dangerous inside as it is unsightly on the outside, and what types of people lurk around here after hours. When we go out at night, we drive past stretches of cornfields lined with prostitutes, some huddled together in packs, others standing further apart from each other, all waiting to pay the bills.
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Location: Val d'Orcia, Tuscany, Italy
When most people think of Tuscany, they dream of rolling green hills, aged “noble” wines, quiet Renaissance towns, and charming little cobblestone streets. When I think of Tuscany, I dream of Pici.
My husband and I spent a few days road tripping through Southern Tuscany. We started in Florence and then made our way through Siena, Pienza, Montepulciano, and Cortona, all the while eating and drinking copious amounts of Pecorino cheese and Brunello wine. It was awesome. I highly recommend the Tuscan hills as an escape from any smog infested cities you may call home (a.k.a. Milan).
Location: Serramezzana, Salerno, Italy
Our friend comes from a hilltop town in the province of Salerno, population: 90. It is quite literally located on top of a hill, which you can only access by speeding up a winding road with just enough curves to make you nauseous.
Last summer, we stayed for a few days at his family’s house, where he grew up. His father and grandfather built their gigantic, rustic two-story house with their bare hands. Although he doesn’t consider where he grew up a traditional farm, they own a decent amount of land where they grow corn, potatoes, sunflowers, tomatoes, green beans, onions, figs, eggplants, and other fruits and vegetables.
Location: Rome, Italy
I try to make a trip to Rome every year. With the newest and fastest Frecciarossa train you can get there in 2 hours and 55 minutes from Milan. A trip that only 5 years ago used to take 4 hours (once, when commuting from Milan to Rome during my then long-distance relationship, I was stuck on the train for 9 hours. “Trainitalia apologizes for the five hour delay,” a voice said over the loud speaker as a total stranger and I exchanged exasperated looks).
“Why is your Rome your favorite city?” people ask me, “Surely there are more beautiful places in Italy!” After fumbling around in my brain, the answer is actually very simple:
The other night our friend surprised us with a chocolate salame.
It’s not as weird as it sounds. A “salame di cioccolato” is a common Italian dessert, and no meat involved.
(*Note: In English it’s referred to as a “chocolate salami.” For some reason, Italian words in English are always changed into their plural form. Like “panini.” It’s annoying when someone orders a “panini” in the USA, it’s PANINO).
In case you were wondering, there has never been a single Starbucks anywhere in Italy. One could attribute this to the fact that traditions reign in the bel paese and any perceived attempts to bastardize a real Italian espresso would not be tolerated. Coffee is a huge part of daily life here, and like so many aspects of Italian life, if anything new and foreign is introduced, wary and unwelcoming eyes are widened. At least this was the case when the older folks were in charge, but now the younger generation is slowly taking over (those who haven’t fled Italy in desperation for decent jobs). Shockingly and refreshingly enough, this new generation is not afraid of portable coffee cups and whipped cream on their coffee! They are not only accepting these completely non-Italian habits, but are totally enjoying them.
Location: Palermo, Sicily
Arancini are originally from Sicily, so of course, the best arancini I’ve ever had were in Palermo.
These savory fried rice balls are made everywhere in Italy, but from personal experience, they aren’t very good unless they come from the homeland. Elsewhere, they are always too dry, lacking flavor, or the rice-to-other-ingredients ratio is terrible. My favorite are the arancini al ragù (rice, tomato sauce with minced meat, peas, onions, and mozzarella), but they can be filled with a variety of ingredients like ham, mushrooms, and spinach.
Location: Rapallo, Liguria, Italy
Focaccia di Recco came into my life one balmy summer evening in a small, unassuming restaurant in downtown Rapallo. Knowing it was a regional specialty, my husband and I ordered it expecting the usual thick, somewhat dense but soft bread that the word focaccia usually refers to. Then the waiter came over and set down this silver plate of what resembled jaggedly cut up, crunchy quesadillas. I tore off a piece and took my first bite. The hot, savory, melted cheese oozed out on all ends of the thin, crispy bread. Simple, yet absolutely scrumptious.
While visiting my sister-in-law, I curiously snuck a peek at the baby food they had at home. Differences in eating habits between Italy and the US are always interesting to me.
In addition to the jars of fruit and vegetable medleys and meats like beef and turkey, which are typical to both cultures, there were these 3 gems: tomato and ricotta, prosciutto, and rabbit. I love how baby food mirrors local culture and what everyone eats as an adult.
Location: Merano, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy
We spent this New Year’s Eve in Merano, a lovely town completely surrounded by mountains in Trentino-Alto Adige. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the region, Trentino-Alto Adige is basically the least Italian place in Italy. Situated on the borders of Switzerland and Austria, it’s is an autonomous region (their healthcare and school systems are separate from the rest of Italy) divided into two parts: Trentino, the southern province, and Alto Adige (South Tyrol in English), the northern province. Merano is in the Alto Adige part. Generally speaking, those who are from the area identify more with the German culture and lifestyle, and are not too fond of being considered Italians.
For those of you coming to Italy in search of the best local cuisine, my one piece of advice is to visit an agriturismo. An agriturismo is basically a restaurant, sometimes with rooms for rent similar to a bed & breakfast, attached to a farm. They grow all of their own produce and raise their own livestock, and then transform everything into delicious regional specialties. Imagine organic fruits and vegetables, yummy local cheeses and wines, gelato made from fresh milk, and freshly rolled pastas! Each agriturismo’s food is specific to the region they’re in, setting them apart from many restaurants in the city, which usually have the same generic dishes served throughout Italy. It also gives you a chance to try some lesser-known local specialties or traditional foods with a twist.