Monday, February 25, 2008


Florence, Italy - I am loath to admit it. I like to pretend that travel writers have a natural penchant for communicating and navigating, for discovering hidden gems and for avoiding cultural misunderstanding. I believe we should be immune to the pitfalls that plague the unprofessionals.

But this weekend in Florence I had to face the truth. In the course of 24 hours, I found myself standing in a line that stretched around the block to see Michelangelo's David; I found myself unintentionally eating the stomach of a cow for dinner (a Tuscan specialty!); and I found myself paying 7 euros for a tonic water. For those of you who are not au courant on your exchange rates, that's a $10 soda. Ah... the joys of travel.

Despite all that, Florence was glorious. The weather was sunny and warm, a welcome change from the damp chill in Venice. We spent most of the weekend perusing the city's amazing array of Renaiisance art. It's not my favorite period in art history, but the more I learned about it, the more I appreciated the artistic innovations that were introduced. Compared to the drudgery of the Middle Ages, this stuff was revolutionary.

My favorite museum was the Uffizi Gallery, once the private offices of the Medicis, now home to a profusion of Michelangelos, Donatellos, Rafaellos and Leonardos. But the fabulous thing about Florence is that the art is not cooped up into one museum - it's everywhere. Galleries, palaces and churches all over town contain masterpieces by celebrated Renaissance artists. On Sunday afternoon, we strolled along the Arno River away from the center to escape the crowds. We happened to poke into a charming little church, the Chiesa di Ognissanti, and we stumbled on two dazzling paintings by Boticelli (who, as it turned out, was buried in the crypt).

As for Michelangelo, we decided very quickly that there was nothing to gained by waiting, even for David. The trick, of course, is to get up early and arrive promptly at 8am, as the museum doors open. That strategy worked marvelously at the Uffizi; but at the Galleria dell'Accademia we were foiled. A sign was posted announcing "The museum will open at 10am due to a staff meeting." The ol' Saturday morning staff meeting!

Of course, that extra two hours was plenty of time for every single tourist in Florence to finish their breakfast and make their way to the gallery, which explains the line that stretched around the block. So we abandoned our original plan. When we came back the next day at 8am the place was nearly deserted.

The artist and writer Giorgio Vasari described David as such:

"Nor has there ever been seen a pose so easy, or any grace to equal that in this work, or feet, hands and head so well in accord, one member with another, in harmony, design, and excellence of artistry. And... whoever has seen this work need not trouble to see any other work executed in sculpture, either in our own or in other times, by no matter what craftsman." 

I am no art critic, but I just didn't see it that way. David definitely has certain body parts that are disproportionately large. It's not what you might think... I'm talking about his massive muscle-bound arm that hangs almost to his knees, and his huge hands that could crush any skull.

I'm not saying he is not a good-looking guy. On the contrary. (In fact, we were both inspired to join the gym.) But as a paradigm of perfect proportions, I am not so sure.

On Friday night we wandered into a friendly little trattoria for dinner. The menu was simple and not too expensive. I thought it was a great opportunity to sample trippa alla fiorentina, the local specialty. For some reason I thought it was fish.

When my food arrived, it looked like a plate of worms in tomato sauce. And frankly, that's what it felt like, slithering around in my stomach. That's when Jerry remembered that tripe is not fish, but the stomach of a cow.

I am an adventurous eater so I was willing to give it a go. In fact, I ate most of it. But while pushing it around on my plate, I happened to flip over a piece of the rubbery, fatty flesh, and discovered the honeycomb shaped cavities of the reticulum that were clearly visible on the other side.

"I really wish I had not done that," I said.

"That's really interesting," Jerry said.

Neither of us ate another bite.

Fortunately, we had a fantastic follow-up the next night, which renewed my enthusiasm for Tuscan cuisine. The Ristorante Cibreu is one of Florence's fanciest. If you are willing to wait, you can go next door and eat the same food at the tiny Trattoria Cibreu. No reservations, no credit cards, no fuss, no frills - just a hand-written menu of daily specials, 14 euros a piece.

Jerry started with polenta, a staple that has been sustaining northern Italian peasants for centuries. I had the fish soup, which was a thick, smooth puree with a rich roux base. For a main course. Jerry had veal medallions, doused in spicy tomato sauce, served with a side of chickpeas. I was not sure what I was ordering, but it ended up being a cod mousse, a creamy spread, served with garlic toast and marinated roasted onion. Florence is in the heart of Chianti region, so that was the house red that complemented our meal. Everything was absolutely divine. It was unquestionably our best meal in Italy - and not a piece of pasta in sight!

Unlike these other anecdotes, there is no happy ending to the story of the 7-euro soda. I did complain to the waitress that we were overcharged. She was not very happy about it, but she did give us 2 euros back; somehow that seemed beside the point (as if a 5-euro soda is more reasonable). Later that same day, another server tried to shortchange us. I guess that tourists are easy targets for such petty scams. I realized that it's necessary to read the menus carefully, to double check prices vigilantly and to count change. Always.

It was really off-putting. I mean, this is what I expect in Africa, not in "civilized" Europe. In countries that are racked by poverty, people can perhaps be forgiven for trying to rip off the tourists, who generally have so much more than the local people. But that's hardly the case in Italy!

Anyway, that was my reminder that I am not immune. It happens everywhere - to everyone. Apparently, those Florentine waitresses don't care that I am a travel writer who has been robbed, cheated and short-changed on five continents!


Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Pizza Party

Venice, Italy - What better use of my time in Italy than to try to clear up the confusion surrounding an internationally favorite food? The food is pizza, and the answer is none.

I always understood that pizza was an American invention, product of Italian Americans, mind you, but nonetheless a New World creation. I now realize that misunderstanding was a product of my American upbringing (propaganda!). All authoritative sources agree that pizza as we know it comes from 18th-century Naples. The key bit is the tomato, as people had been eating flat bread with cheese for thousands of years before that. But it was the Neopolitans that added the tomato. I think we all can agree that is a defining feature.  

Apparently there is a restaurant in Naples that opened in 1830, though they had been making pizza and selling it on the street since 1738. Antica Pizzeria (as it is appropriately called) is still there today, making it the oldest pizzeria in the world. Just for the sake of comparison, the first pizzeria in the United States was opened in Manhattan in 1905 by Gennaro Lombardi (though he had been selling pizza from his grocery store since 1898). The point is that there's really no contest.

In any case, today the pizzeria is a crucial feature of the Venetian dining scene, as in all Italian cities, I suspect. Pizza-makers put their pies in the window to entice passers-by to come in for a slice. Or in some cases, they don't even have to come inside. This is the Venetian version of the drive-through window.

There is one thing that continues to confuse me, and that is the conection between certain Italian geographical locations and certain types of pizza. I learned - from writing countless restaurant reviews of pizza places in Boston - that Neopolitan pizza is a thin crispy-crust pizza; and Sicilian pizza is the square pizza with thick, chewy crust that we use to get from Mr C's Deli when I was a kid.

In Venice, all pizza has thin, crispy crust, which I celebrate (no disrespect to Mr C's). But the whole Neopolitan-Sicilian-Roman-etc-etc designation remains a mystery. At one pizza place near the Rialto bridge, the Napolitana was an anchovy pizza; add capers to that and it would become a Romana. When we went to the Pizzeria Kalia - our new favorite place that is a dangerous 17-second walk from our front door - the plain anchovy was the Romana, while anchovy and capers was called Siciliana. I have begun to believe that the geographic naming of pizzas is a clever marketing ploy designed to get people to eat more anchovies.

Not that I need any prodding. I think it is un-American to like those salty prickly little fish as much as I do. I'm sure I could have my passport revoked for putting anchovies on bread and calling it an appetizer.

But here in Italy, I seem to be among gastronomically like-minded people (does that make us similarly stomached?). Rare is the menu where the acciuga does not make an appearance. Certainly one anchovy-themed pizza is the bare minimum for any self-respecting pizzeria.

As previously mentioned, the inviting Pizzeria Kalia is right around the corner from our apartment. Why it took us two weeks to go there, I cannot explain, but we finally went for dinner on Saturday night. This is a real neighborhood place, with photos of the sponsored football team on the walls and guys in the kitchen yelling to their friends who stop by.

We ordered the Siciliana pizza, with anchovies and capers. When it arrived at our table, it had two anchovies on it.

Okay, I exaggerate. There was a third little fish bit that might generously be called "a half". So, two and a half anchovies.

This brings me to another way in which Italians and Americans are different: Italians see their pizza toppings not as a central force but as an added flourish. Here, toppings are to be used sparingly, like a condiment. At home a pizza is defined by its toppings - lots of them.

Now I have to confess, in this case I cannot deny my roots (and this is one of the most significant differences between my husband and me). He likes vanilla ice cream; I like Ben & Jerry's Chubby Hubby. He's happy with a plain omelet; I will empty the entire refrigerator into mine. He is likely to order a slice of cheese pizza. Not me: I like a lot of stuff.

But still, I had to admire the elegance with which our Siciliana was presented: two and a half anchovies, gracefully stretched across the pie; a scattering of capers under the cheese; and a few black olives tossed on, almost as an afterthought. Let's face it: these are ingredients that don't require high volumes. Especially in Italy, where the fish and produce seems to be so much more flavorful than back home. 

As I ate my pizza, carefully rationing out the one anchovy so that I could savor it throughout the whole piece, I found myself marveling at the spiciness of the tomato sauce and the creaminess of the mozzerella. And of course the crispy crust. Jerry declared it to be the best pizza ever; and I had to admit that this simple Siciliano was giving Emma's a run for her money.

I'm not saying that I prefer the minimalist pizza (what do I look like, a communist?) But the Kalia has me intrigued... I may have to follow up with a Romana and see how they handle that.





Monday, February 11, 2008

In the Hood

Venice, Italy - We have been in Venice for about a week, so I figure it's time to show my faithful readers around the neighborhood.

We live in the Castello district, which is just east of the central Piazza San Marco. I still don't know why it's called Castello. It sounds like there should be a castle here, but there's not, unless you count the ancient and off-limits Arsenal. This massive fortree occupies a huge portion of the Castello, so perhaps it is the namesake.

But the neighborhood is better known for its maze of alleyways, strung with drying laundry; its intricate network of canals, crosscrossed by bridges; and its sun-filled squares, each with its own church and bell tower, ringing out on the hour.

Our local square, or campo, is the Campo Santa Maria Formosa, complete with 13th-century palace, 15th-century church and 21st-century capuccino bar. According to my guidebook, it is "the quintessential canalside campo", which means gondoliers sitting in the sun, singing to potential fares passing by, and no less than five footbridges leading to and fro.

There are many things to love about Venice, but the thing I lovet he most is the abundance of whimsical architectural eccentricities, often in the most unexpected places. Mighty lions, pious Virgins, funny faces (or "grotesque", as this one is called) adorn otherwise featureless facades. These details pop out whenever you think to pay attention to such things (and sometimes when you don't).

The Campo Santa Maria Formosa is far enough off the tourist trail that it has a real "neighborhood" atmosphere, thanks to local residents buying produce, kids playing kickball and dogs making it their own. Most importantly, it has - down a dark, narrow alley - an unpretentious enoiteca, La Mascareta. We did not intend to make this "our place", but somehow we keep ending up here for wine and cicetti (snacks).

Our flat is one bridge off the Campo Santa Maria Formosa, which means we have a tiny slit of a view of the square from our kitchen window. Otherwise, we look out at a narrow green canal and the grand facade of the building opposite.

This seems very romantic, especially when the occasional singing gondolier passes beneath our window. But we soon realized that overlooking the canal in Venice is equivalent to overlooking the street anywhere else in the world. Basically, it means there is traffic outside our window (and let me tell you, the water taxi drivers are not averse to using their water taxi horns).

Our apartment is in a 15th-century townhouse, complete with original woodbeam ceilings and replica marble floors. The walls are lined with bookshelves and hung with prints. We quickly learned how to use the stove-top espresso maker, so we've got the most important stuff down.

I anticipate the kitchen will be seeing a lot more action, especially since we recently discovered the wine shop where we bring our own bottles and fill them straight from the barrel. At 2 Euros a pop, there is only one thing to say: Salute!

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Farewell to the Flesh

Venice, Italy - We arrived in Venice just in time to catch the last few days of Carnevale, the pre-Lenten festival that culminates in martedi grasso, or Fat Tuesday. This is the Venetian version of Mardi Gras, but it is a far cry from that jazz-infused, body-baring celebration in New Orleans. And I can state from experience that it is much more covered-up and less spontaneous than that Brazilian Carnaval (which I experienced last year -- see my photos here).

All of these festivals foretell the onset of Lent, the 40 days of fasting and prayer that preced Easter in the Catholic calendar. As such, the carnival is known for drinking, dancing and other indulgences that should be sworn off in the following days. Historically, crowd-pleasing activities ranged from operatic performances to bull-baiting and firing dogs from cannons. In Victorian Venice, the highlight was the masquerade ball. 

When Napoleon conquered Venice in 1797, he put an immediate end to the festivities associated with Il Carnevale. Later rulers like Mussolini ensured that the debauched practice remained dead. It was only in 1979 that the festival was revived.

The Venetians have picked up just where they left off two hundred years ago (minus the live animals flying from cannons). Revelers don the regalia of their Victorian forebears, as opposed to the teeny-weeny bikinis that yo might see in Brazil, for example. Most of the masks are stock characters from comedia dell'arte, the theatrical comedy of 16th and 17th-century Italy. Revelers put on their most ostentatious, over-the-top outfits, parade for pictures on Piazza San Marco, then proceed to private parties and masquerade balls.

By contrast, in Brazil, the focus of Carnaval is the bloquo, or block parties - locally organized celebrations with friends, family or co-workers. In New Orleans, the highlight of Mardi Gras is the parades, where participant floats are built by social clubs and other local organizations. The Venetian Carnevale has yet to develop this grassroots momentum. (Indeed, the fanciest costumes seemed to be worn by British and French enthusiasts, not by locals.)

But it won't be long. Stages were set up in streets and squares all around Venice, and young people came out to celebrate in droves (staying out long after their better-dressed counterparts had moved on to fancy balls). The city took on the atmosphere of Halloween, with the baroque element supplemented by oversized animals, super heroes and cartoon characters, as well as witches, ghosts and goblins.

I opted for one of the traditional masks, civetta, the flirtatious, cat-like character from comedia dell'arte. The little shop was crammed with papier mache designs, all of them handmade and hand-painted by a mother-daughter team. "People rarely tell the truth," said a sign posted in the shop "unless they are wearing a mask."