God sometimes gives us unexpected gifts. Our gift has been a grandson who enlivens our lives and makes retirement very different than the one we anticipated. He is a special joy. And that's "Casey." In 2006 we fulfilled our dream of living in Italy for a year. It was every bit as wonderful as anticipated. This blog begins in 2005 as we prepared for that experience. Since then we have explored many places together. That's the "Travel." And finally, I am a person of opinions--spiritually, politically, on just about anything and that's the "Other Stuff." Welcome to my blog.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

A New Recipe for Diva Cucina

Sometimes things come together at just the right moment. Having just posted two entries about stuffed chicken necks and heads at Cibrèo, I have had two interesting related experiences.

Saturday night we went to dinner with Italian friends. In the process of conversation, I mentioned that we had been to Cibrèo last week and the menu item I had chosen. Alessandro explained that the restaurant is known and appreciated for serving traditional peasant food that grew out of poverty and meager available food. He then reminisced about his grandmother making stuffed chicken necks. This lead to a great discussion of the serfdom that existed for many centuries here--actually, still in place up until WWII.

So, I have a new appreciation for Cibrèo and we will definitely go back and acquaint ourselves more with history. Someone left a comment on an earlier entry that this was a restaurant--not a museum-a comment I did not understand-but, whatever was meant, the comment was wrong as museums connect us with our past and this is what Cibrèo does--as well as prepare interesting food.

But--the true impetus for this entry is that I am currently reading Catherine di Medici by Leonie Frieda and came across a passage that was serendipity. And--just too good not to share.

Throughout her life she (Catherine) was prey to...gastric attacks...largely self inflicted due to simple greed. On one occasion she nearly died from eating too much cibreo, one of her favorite Florentine dishes, an irresistible concoction made from gizzards, testicles, offal and cockerels' coxcombs. Diva Cucina, Mia Amica, can you find these ingredients in the Mercato Centrale?

With that recipe being served, a stuffed chicken head seems pretty tame. Now, I wonder if when we return to Cibrèo, cibreo will be on the menu. I'll let you know. Although--this time I am not taste testing!

Friday, March 23, 2007

Chicken Neck Sequel

I should have known not to make light of Collo di Pollo Ripieno--that I would be highlighting my cultural ignorance--something I often get upset about when other people discuss seemingly peculiar aspects of Italy or make generalizations that should not be generalizations. So-of course, I sometimes fall into my own trap. That old "pride cometh before a fall" thing!

This morning in talking with Sara, Nicoletta and Beatrice, I mentioned the chicken head on my plate yesterday. This apparition didn't seem at all strange to them; in fact, they laughed at my reaction and explained that: Collo di Pollo Ripieno is a typical Tuscan dish and is considered quite good. Naturally, the stuffing has many variations, which makes much sense.

The history of this creation comes from centuries of the contindina and master/farmer relationship. Food was usually scarce for farmers as the landlord would take possession of most of the meager crops and livestock. From this grew the need to make use of everything that was edible or could be made edible. Nothing was wasted or thrown out if it could be used for sustenance--including chicken necks.

Now in the 21st century, the subsistence food of stuffed chicken necks is relegated to a prized menu item. Giving one more example of how history has a way of twisting nostalgia into strange shapes--such as the contindinas' old farm houses which are being resurrected into beautifully exquisite Tuscan homes.

So--next time you see Collo di Pollo Ripieno on the menu, give it a try and know you are connecting with history.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

?Stuffed Chicken Necks?!

Cibrèo-a very well regarded restaurant in Firenze.

In fact it has three parts--Cibrèo the ristorante for which, I am told, reservations are a must; Cibrèo the trattoria which is next door and has a menu which is made up of parts of the ristorante menu and is less expensive and Cibrèo the cafe which serves most of same foods at a cost somewhere between the ristorante and the trattoria --distinquishing itself by having table clothes and a more upscale atmosphere than the rustic trattoria and a coffee making machine.

Today after dropping into the Uffizi for two hours, we decided to find Trattoria Cibrèo--this trio being located near the San Ambrogio Market. On the way we stopped twice to ask directions--the last time being immediatly across the street from the trattoria door with the newstand lady giving me a rather "that's OK, you're a tourist" look as she pointed. I didn't dare tell her we live here.

There are just a handful of tables in the trattoria--rustically wooden with matching accouterments. The menu is undecipherably handwritten in italiano so we asked for translation--not something we frequently need to do these days while staying within Toscana.

The first secondi was one I have seen on other menues and wondered about--Collo di Pollo Ripieno or Stuffed Chicken Neck. Now, I wondered, "How does one stuff a chicken neck?" Can it be deboned? Is whatever squeezed between the flesh and the little rib like bone structure? Is that whatever shoved under the skin? But then--how would you eat it? As far as I know, the only place one can comfortably eat the meat on a chicken neck is in the privacy of the home kitchen.

So, following last week's adventure with carpaccio di cavallo, I decided "Why not? Go for it."

It wasn't too long until the questions were answered in a most unexpected way. When the plate arrived, there staring at me was an uncooked, marinated chicken head with comb and all. Where it had been separated from its body, it was stuffed with something resembling pate. To complete the effect, some of this delicacy dribbled out its open mouth. The rest of the plate was arranged with slices of this pate and some type of mayonnaise.

I acknowledge that this is not the most appetizing food picture but it's all too good to resist. Unfortunately I didn't think of taking the picture when the head first arrived which I am sure would have given the delicacy more justice.

After eating, we asked for caffe--but they don't have a machine so don't serve it. Quite surprising. We did see later that if you dine in the ristorante, caffe is delivered from the Cafe.

We did discover another excellent but out of the way gelatieri--far better than Perche No or Grom's or Vivaldi in my opinion. It's Il Procopio--Via Pietrapiana 60/62R. Their flavors are very unique, freshly made and memorable. Il Procopio is in the same general area as Cibrèo but closer to the center.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Perfect Parma

We have fallen in love with Parma--for a few days anyway. What a delightful town to visit and explore--not too big, not too small, quiet, no motorcycles, sophisticated, confident--not to mention phenomenal food, the best gelato ever and a wonderful masseuse.

We were there last week for too brief of time and so have every intention of returning. Why?

Palazzo della Rosa Prati: Thanks to a friend on Slow Travel, we stayed at this perfect place in its perfect location. The palazzo
is situated on the Piazza Duomo with wonderful views of the Duomo and Baptistry; it has been the Rosa Prati's family home since the 15th century. Vittorio Rosa Prati, who fortunately is quite bilingual for those of us who are linguistically impaired, provides gracious and warm assistance beginning with the first e-mail.

The room we were in was Ortensia which is beautiful with a wonderful view of the piazza . The other rooms I saw were quite nice, but Ortensia is the prize--if you can get it. The Palazzo does not serve breakfast but there is a bar two doors down.

The Baptistery, which is said to be "the most important and advanced monument of the middle ages in Italy," sits right next to Palazzo Rosa Prati. It is breathtaking to see this space as you step through the door. Incredibly well-preserved, beautiful tempera paintings from the 13th century seem to cover every inch of its walls and vault.

Adjacent to the Baptistery is the cathedral which we entered when there were only 15 minutes until lunch closure. One look and we knew that it would take much longer than a quarter hour to try to appreciate the richness of the art and architecture. So--off we went to our first meal in Parma at Osteria della Zingaro across from San Giovanni Evangelista. As in all good places, it was fortunate that we arrived early because 10 minutes later, there were no empty tables--filled by locals, not tourists

Having been told by Vittorio that horse meat is a common and appreciated food in Parma, I decided to have--carpaccio of cavallo. It was sweet, good and I would not have guessed what it was had I not known. After lunch we returned to the cathedral. And--we had been right; it took focused, concentrated time to be amazed by all that is there including a cupola frescoed by Correggio.

In back of the cathedral's apse is the Church and Monastery of San Giovanni Evangelista--another place with frescoes and art which you will not want to miss. And--across from the church is K2 gelateria--arguably the best gelato I've had (in close competition with Gianni's in Bologna.) Truth be told, gelato in Parma is good--we tried 3 places but K2 wins hands down. If you like gelato, be sure to find this place.

Vittorio arranged a visit for us to a Parmigiano Reggiano producer which is an excursion I highly recommend. Although it may not sound like something particularly special, it actually is. Did you know that the master cheese maker works 7 days a week, 365 days a year, year after year after year--on his wedding day, Christmas, the days his children are born--always. Why? Take the tour and you'll know this and other fascinating tidbits. Learn about one of Parma's culinary contributions to the world!

The Farnese Theater provides a fascinating architectural glimpse into theater construction in the 15th century. It was built in short order for a visit to Parma by Cosimo d'Medici--who never showed up. In WWII it was destroyed by Allied bombs but has since been restored according to original plans and photographs. It is inside the Palace of the Pilotta along with the Archeological Museum, National Gallery and Palatina Library.

Of course, there is much more in Parma--some of which we did see and some that we will see--next time. Parma is a walking place--window shopping is delightful and beckons one through the doors. I could shop here very easily--much more so than in Firenze which I find confusing and overwhelming.

Oh--Margherita, the incredibly good masseuse! The New Beauty Center Due is located in the Rosa Prati courtyard --0521-23-46-28. And--if you are staying at the Palazzo there is a 20% discount. Having had massages many places, many times, I can say this was just about the best ever.

Two other places we ate and can recommend are:
Trattoria del Tribunale and Trattoria Correieri

I look forward to all that is left to see and do in Parma. It enchants me.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

A Day to Wander

This morning Ken said "What should we do today?" It didn't take long--one look out the window--to know that this was a day meant to spend exploring. With a quick look at the map, Ken found a back route from here to Radda in Chianti that had mysteries yet to be discovered. So, grabbing the camera and simple light weight vests, off we went.

We took the mountain road leading to Figline, but, once through the roadside hamlet of Dudda, we took the almost dirt road turn off to Lucalena, which we found to be a small village with one little, little store and a scattering of homes. I was puzzled because I knew there was a highly regarded restaurant in Lucalena but it clearly was not in the village. A little further along the road, we found it in a typical, intriguing borgo with crumbling old stone farm structures -- Locanda Antica Borgo. But, it is closed right now except for weekends. I suspect that sometime after Easter it will come alive again as tourists return and the "season" begins and we no longer wander alone. The crowds we are beginning to see in Firenze have not yet reached the countryside.

After looking in the windows of the Locanda and walking around the borgo, we hopped back in the car and continued down the road. Before long we saw a little turn off to a place called Badia A Montemuro--surely worth a look as Badia means Abbey which usually translates into interesting.

Badia A Montemuro is quaint and intriguing with lovely views, trees with beautiful pink blossoms and picturesque corners and turns but with few vestiges left of an abbey or monastery. There was one small church with a stark but haunting crucifix on the stone wall by the closed door and then there are what perhaps are remains of another structure and some grass covered foundations. Obviously, whatever it was in time past has been decimated at some point in history--bombing, morter shells in WWII? battles between Siena and Firenze? Guelphs and Ghibbelines? Or maybe just too many churches and abbeys in too many small villages. If I could read Italian, I would spend time researching this little out of the way place.

After Badia, on the road to Radda, we saw a sign to a Parco Naturale--so, off we went to explore it and what a find it was.

It is a wonderful place for families and organizations to spend a special day in the summer--which I guess is the only time it is really open as the sign seemed to say July-August, but, maybe I missed something in the translation--quite possible. There is a lake with ducks and geese (?), animals of several ilk, a rifugio, albergo, restaurant, barbecues, swings, and more. It is very large and perfect for a hot day. We will bring Casey and maybe his friend Tommy here someday.

When we entered the parco, we had noticed a very rough memorial which simply in its appearance was moving. On the way out, we stopped to read it and found that it is a memorial to partisans who were martyred as they fought the Germans in WWII.

From here we enjoyed twisty, turning roads through forests not yet green with new leaves. It is amazing the things we see now which will be so well hidden once foliage returns.

In a few weeks, this empty, desirable stone house will hide behind the trees. I remember last December when suddenly we became aware of many things that had eluded us for months.

Eventually, we saw a sign to a restaurant that's been on our "must go to" list for months. So off we headed for Ristorante Badia a Coltibuono (Badia of the Good Harvest.)

This is a very well-known culinary destination which includes a prestigious cooking school. Having now eaten there, I know why. Pranzo (lunch) was outstanding. I had a simply prepared sea bass on a bed of spinach--outstanding and worth a trip back. Ken had cinghiale (boar) in a sweet and sour chocolate sauce which was excellent, regardless of what it sounds like. Service was excellent and the view spectacular. It was a wonderful way to top off our day of exploration.

We headed on back to Greve, arriving in time to pick up an 8 year old, having enjoyed our day of being nothing more than retired folk on excursion.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

No More Winter In Florence

In most places seasons are recognized by calendar dates or weather. Here in Tuscany the calendar says it's still winter; the weather--well it has been very confused this year and so winter has never come, but, by the yardstick of Florence, these things don't really matter anyway. Florence has its own seasonal yardstick-- tourists. And they are back.

We go into Florence often for any number of reasons but primarily because it is fun. And, the last couple of months have been very special. We have been alone in Piazza della Signoria, listened to our own echoing footsteps in silent museums, walked Ponte Vecchio while seeing from one end to the other, admired monumental art work in deserted churches and entered restaurants with empty tables. Of all our experiences in this great city, the opportunity to be a part of it while it slept was perhaps the most moving and special. We felt at one with its history and ghosts and solitude born from its unshared uniqueness and accomplishments. It was a time of quiet.

But--this changed in just the last week. It was a sudden metamorphose and not slow. It just happened--as if March opened a closed door and people rushed through. Yesterday groups of people moved through streets and alleys as one entity. Leaders, waving umbrellas and flags, shepherded followers in and out of museum doors, rushing through places that call for much longer periods of contemplation. Places of God were no longer silent--not out of disrespect but as a natural consequence of an infusion of people. Ponte Vecchio, while not like it will be in another month or so, was no longer ours alone.

This is the season for school groups to come and, hopefully, encourage students to begin a life-long desire to explore and experience life out of their comfort zones. There were many such groups listening to impassioned teachers explain the glories of what they were seeing, stretching necks to see all the way to the top of Palazzo Vecchio's magnificent tower and Giotto's Santa Maria del Fiore's many stepped bell tower--I wonder how many climbed it?

This seems to be the time of year when many people from Asian countries visit Italy--or, at least, Florence. I felt sorry for one couple as I watched them pour over their Japanese/Italian menu dictionary trying to decipher such things as peposo all'imprunetina and straccetti di manzo all'aceto balsamico. It's hard enough when doing so in English--a language with the same alphabet and similar foods; it must be close to impossible with a different alphabet and unfamiliar foods. I did notice that their dictionary included many visuals.

Tomorrow we go back in to "The City." We are meeting friends and will go to the just premiered Cézanne Exhibition at Palazzo Strozzi. Because high season has not hit yet, we will buy our tickets when we get there. But--on a weekend or in another couple of weeks, advanced reservations will certainly be as necessary there as they are elsewhere in the city.

I am certain that tomorrow we will find the city even more filled with tourists than it was yesterday. There will be more languages, more flags waving above chattering throngs of lookers. Residents will begin once again to cede their streets and city back to the people of the world and wait to reclaim it when cold sets in and snow falls and the people of the world stay home.

Sadly, our time as residents may be over when the next winter comes for Florence. We will be tourists again when we come back someday. But, this year, as residents, belonging to the place and time, is magical and quite wonderful. I don't want to leave.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Photo of the Week

Morning Mist from our Window

Today inaugurates a new weekly feature of Casey, Italy and Other Good Stuff, qualifying, I think, as Other Good Stuff.

Like anyone with a digital camera, I take many pictures--most being quite mundane and ordinary, owning entirely too much of my hard drive--but, sometimes there is one that I particularly enjoy--maybe because it reflects something of our life in Tuscany, maybe the photo captures something special, maybe because it is beautiful in my eyes or maybe because it shows something unique and endearing about people and places.

So, each week I will post one picture that captivates me for some reason. I hope that occasionally a picture will strike a chord in someone else. If you find one that speaks to you, feel free to enjoy it on your desktop.

Week of February 25.

Notice the sun spotlighting the two farmhouses as the fog settles in around the hills. I have this as my desktop right now and it is lovely. It was a beautiful moment here. Enjoy.