Fur Coats (or how New York is [and is not] like Florence)

Ciao Readers!

In my last post I mentioned a trip to New York we took in January.  Part of the reason I love going to New York is because (in some ways) it reminds me of Italy (most importantly the food!).   Which got me thinking, as I often do, about the similarities and difference between places I have been (I have even compared Japan to Italy, which on its face seems absurd, but I’ll explain in some future post).  My observations are completely random and superficial, but here are some similarities and differences I couldn’t help notice while wandering the streets of New York:

Similarities:

– The sidewalks are packed with people who seem to be oblivious to anyone but themselves, their companions and/or their cells phones; stop paying attention and you will surely be mowed down!!! (though you may find it more endearing when it’s by an Italian nonna and not a man in a $10K suit….or not)

– Fur coats!  That’s right, there are at least two places left on earth where wearing full-length mink coats is not only acceptable but apparently very fashionable.  Funny, I remember thinking in Florence during the winter “parade of pelts” that you could never get away with that in the U.S. as your coat would be unceremoniously doused with red paint (or worse) immediately upon exiting your home.  Was I wrong!  I had no idea that in New York fur coats are as common and as fashionable as in Italy – who knew?!?

– Delicious Italian food (of course I have to talk about food!).  Is it wrong to travel across the country for a really good pizza? Okay, before you answer that, have you ever had a John’s pizza in New York?  Seriously, I have no idea why, but only New Yorkers and Italians know how to make really good pizza (I’ve been trying like crazy, complete with a pizza stone and “peel,” but without the 800 degree stone oven I think it’s hopeless).  And then of course are the salumerias, the lovely little places with cheeses and meats and wine (while we did enjoy a fabulous meal at Salumeria Rosi in NY [and previously at Eataly], Italy wins hands down in the availability and affordability categories).   By the way, did you know that Italy also has several “Eatalies”?  Strikes me as weird to have a specialty food shop specializing in the food of the country you are in (at thrice the price of the salumeria down the street)!!!

Differences:

– Food choices.  In Florence you can get Italian food, between the hours of 1:00p.m. and 2:30p.m. and 8:00p.m. and 11:30p.m.  Monday through Saturday.  Period.  Okay, you could also get some really sad Chinese food or a hamburger if you hunt them down (see my old “foreign food” post).  Even if you are craving a pizza, in Italy, you will likely have to hold tight till 7:30 p.m. when the pizza shop begins to come back to life (this was a regular ritual for us in Florence).  In contrast, in New York you can get whatever you want whenever you want it.  AND, you can have it delivered to you!   When we were in New York, one morning it was just too darn cold to venture out (recall it was 8 degrees), but I was craving a good old-fashioned egg bagel with cream cheese and lox.  Googling my options for close places to bundle up and run out to, a revelation hit me – these places deliver!  And viola – about 20 minutes later I had exactly what I wanted brought right to the comforts of my hotel room.  (I am fairly confident if my craving was more exotic – tom yum soup or lamb curry, that would also have arrived at my hotel room with very little fuss.)

– People choices (“diversity” as they say).  New York is truly a melting pot; people come in every shape and size and color and background and financial status…and any other category you can think of.  Walking through NY is like walking around the world, all within several city blocks.  It’s what makes New York, New York.  And – and maybe I’m being naive here – New Yorkers like it that way (technically I am a native New Yorker and I like it that way).  In contrast, Italy is populated mostly with Italians (not counting the tourists of course) and Italy would be just fine (and likely more happy) peopled with nothing but Italians (this is actually one of the ways Japan and Italy struck me as similar).

There are many more similarities and differences, but I’ll leave those for you to discover and debate.  We need to get on to the photos afterall!

I never had the chutzpah to walk around talking pictures of people in their fur coats (either in NY or Florence), though I wanted to many times.  So, instead, I thought I’d give you some more food photos (I do that a lot huh?) and let you guess which ones were taken in New York and which ones where taken in Italy (answers at the bottom).  Man, I always end up making myself hungry….

Okay, so here’s how it goes…I did a NY/Italy comparison for the first 10 photos (NY, then Italy) (btw, the Grom hot chocolate in NY is not even a close cousin to the ridiculously yummy and thick Italian cioccolata calda); the next 3 photos are all Italy (how did I not take ANY pictures of our John’s pizza in NY, especially since we ate it more than once?!); the last one is a trick question – that was our dinner in the middle of nowhere Croatia – a roasting pig….and a mystery animal….

Cheers!

A Photo-Filled Foodie Farewell to Florence!

Ciao Readers!

Well it has been quite some time!  I didn’t think I could leave Florence without one “farewell” post to say goodbye to all of things we have enjoyed about our temporary home.  And what better way to end our stay (and my blog) than with a cooking class!  Specifically, a hand-made ravioli-making class!

But before we start cooking, a quick update and “goodbye”…  Over this past month, we have been trying to enjoy all of the things that drew us here to begin with (in between trips to the post office, the vet, etc.).  As the weather has been way too sweat-inducing (much like Hell, it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity) to enjoy the (non-air-conditioned) museums or the gardens, this basically leaves us with…FOOD!   We have been going back to all our favorite spots and eating WAY too much – in the form of pizzas and pastas and pastries and bruschetta with fagioli & lardo, and…well, you get the picture!  It has also been a time to say “goodbye” to folks we were just getting to know, and to thank those who have helped us during our stay (you know who you are).   In an effort to go out on a positive (and delicious) note, we indulged in a one-day cooking class….

We took this class from Food for Friends, which provides small in-home cooking classes (our class was us and two friends from Oslo and London).  The “home” is part of a magnificent Palazzo owned by the Chef, Francesca (pictured with Steve, below) and the course is run/translated by her friend Jacqui (originally from England).  For our course we made two too-yummy to describe ravioli – a traditional spinach and ricotta with butter and sage sauce and a more modern radicchio and burrata.  The class was great fun, especially because Steve put me to shame.  After all my boasting to the chef (in Italian, no less) about all of the cooking courses I have taken, my first batch of dough was so rock-like I had to start over!  In contrast, Steve’s dough and ravioli were so perfect that Francesca actually put some of his away for herself for dinner!  (Lucky for all of us there were only a few of my dense ravioli in the mix).  Throughout our cooking session Francesca would whip up little snacks, and there was plenty of prosecco to boot.  Overall, a good (and scrumptious) time was had by all!   Since there still is no smell or taste-o-vision, you’ll have to make do with the photos (which walk you through both pastas as well as the snacks)…

With these yummy photos from our class, I leave you, Dear Readers, as the Italy chapter of our life comes to a close and the next chapter begins….  It has been a pleasure.  Enjoy:

A “Secret” Garden!

Ciao Readers!

Today I am taking you on a outing to the most peaceful place in Florence (which ironically enough is mere yards away from one of the more touristy) – The Rose Garden!

Now a friend of mine who I met here last summer told me about this wonderful place and I am sorry that I waited this long to follow her recommendation.  I guess part of me wondered how great can a garden right below the famous Piazzale Michelangelo lookout point be?  I mean the view from the piazza is great, but it’s also covered in tourists and hawkers (boxers depicting the bottom half of David anyone?).  Well, was I wrong!  Just by walking down some stairs off the piazza, you make your way into a beautiful and peaceful (and free!) garden.  It seems that from the lack of tourists and tranquil atmosphere that this garden must not be touted in/by many tour guides…

The garden was created in 1865 by Giuseppe Poggi, who also designed the piazzale.  In 1998 a small Japanese garden was added through a gift from Florence’s sister-city, Kyoto.  I’ve read that there are about 350 varieties of roses in the garden!  Unfortunately, the roses at this time are mere buds, so I’ll have to return in a month or so to see/photograph those (all of the green flowerless bushes you see in the photos are full of buds).  However, there were plenty of other wonderful plants in full bloom, including the pictured wisteria, as well as many varieties of fruit trees and more.  There are also 11 modern art statues by Belgian artist Jean-Michel Folon.  And, maybe the best part of all is all of the benches scattered throughout so that you can sit and relax and take in the beautiful scenery and quiet from a variety of vantage points (or, as the man pictured, read a book).   Even the neighbors seem to be in the spirit – notice the house literally bathed in flowers you can see from the garden (below).  Overall, this garden is a wonderful oasis in a usually chaotic city!  Enjoy…  (sorry, I always seem to take photos when it’s overcast, and this past week it was actually mostly sunny for a change!)

A “Dear John” Letter to Italy

Hello Readers!  And Happy Spring!

Well, you’ve probably noticed that I haven’t blogged in a bit.  That’s because I’ve been composing this “Dear John” letter to Italy (okay, in all honesty I wrote it in about 10 minutes and have been mulling it over).  I was trying to remember if I’d ever actually written a “Dear John” letter before and I don’t think I have.  I prefer face-to-face when it comes to serious subjects.  However, in this case, this is as close as I think I can get.

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Reflections on Italy (through an edible lens)

Ciao Readers!

I have begun to crystallize my thoughts from our recent road trip.  And, while I could just share those thoughts directly, I believe I can best illustrate them though my favorite medium – food.   Every time we traveled to Europe in the past we were always in search of the local specialties – pasta and pizza in Italy, cheese and croissants in France, and so on.  So we really paid no attention to what other types of food were available or what the eating habits of the locals were like.  This trip changed all that.

As you may recall, I have gone on many wild goose chases trying to source ingredients to prepare non-Italian foods and have tried the few foreign food places we have found here.   However, the conclusion I have come to (which has been validated by numerous Italians) is that Italians like Italian food.  Not only do Italians like Italian food, but they like all things Italian (apparently even their felony-convicted former Prime Minister).  Not only do they like Italian things, but they like them pretty much to the exclusion of non-Italian things.  That is why (in a direct way) it’s so hard to find variety in food here, and (in a more subtle way) why I feel such a strong sense of being a “stranieri.”  As the Italians I have discussed this with put it simply, Italians, especially Florentines, are “chiuso” (closed).  (Interestingly enough, these Italians usually take the form of folks who don’t feel that way – the man that owns the little Korean grocery and is married to a Korean woman; my language exchange partner who has traveled the world).   To be honest, until this trip to Paris and Amsterdam I didn’t realize the rest of Europe wasn’t the same way….

My first clue that things are not the same throughout Europe came while walking down our street in Paris.  While of course there were amazing French bakeries and bistros (more in a later post), there were tons of foreign food places.  Not one or two – tons!  The next clue came when we decided to try out a Japanese place we saw (we had to choose which of several we saw within a block).  We went during lunch and the place quickly filled up – with Parisians – businessmen and older women and everyone in-between.  Other than ourselves, we only heard French spoken.  And, much to my surprise, almost everyone was eating with chopsticks!  (As background, I have only ever seen two Italians eat with chopsticks – one being my language exchange partner who lived in Korea for 6 months and the other being a woman at PinGusto who was unsuccessfully trying to stab her sushi with one.)   This was not some exotic experience to these folks…it was lunch.  (For us it was our first unagi [eel] and non-salmon sashimi in 6 months.)

We had pretty much similar experiences throughout Paris.  Even at the upscale Lafayette Gourmet market, in addition to French foie gras (again, more in a later post), there was an entire stall for Chinese delicacies.  The regular grocery stores had things we thought didn’t exist in Europe – cheddar cheese and Oreos and Asian sauces and more.  And, while I have to say the hot sauce was nowhere near hot enough for my taste, the chips we got at the Mexican restaurant “Fajitas” were those fabulous thin-crispy ones I miss so much.   There was at least as much variety in Amsterdam (as well as the ability to eat before 8 p.m.).  And, while we enjoyed the local specialties there as well (stay tuned), we had what I could consider the best Thai green curry I’ve ever had.  Now, no offense to my favorite Thai place back in Albuquerque, but instead of 80% bamboo shoots (as I’m used to), my curry was filled with every vegetable on the planet.  Thinking the curry was going to be tamed-down for European taste buds (as was the Paris hot sauce), I made the mistake of asking for it “hot” and got what I asked for (anyone whose ever eaten authentic Thai understands what Thai hot means).  I loved every last mouth-searing second of it!!!   (Sadly enough, the hot sauce at the Amsterdam Mexican place we tried, while billed as “habenero,” was only about medium-Pace level hot.)

Now, I know you may be thinking it was weird of us to be eating all these non-French, non-Dutch foods on our trip… As my Lonely Planet “Amsterdam Encounter” put it (under a review of a Mexican place): “[Mexican food] is probably not why you came to Amsterdam.”  However, for us it was just the culinary (and thus cultural) relief we needed.  (Amsterdam also gave us our first peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and first bagel in the past 6 months.)  We also came across an American grocery store – one with real American groceries (not the fake Filipino graham crackers or Swedish tortillas of Vivi Market).  Now, before you get too excited for us (especially after you see the picture of the front window, below), know that the prices were insanely high.  I have to admit, we did each treat ourselves to one thing, but pretty much just “ooooo’d”  and “ahhhhhh’d” (just as an example, one thing we did not splurge on was a normal sized Reese’s candy bar – 2.10 euros, or about $2.80).   We chatted with the proprietor and he said he has many customers from Florence, including a professor who comes 4 times a year and fills up an empty suitcase!   Interesting.

The result of these culinary discoveries was that I realized Italy really is the fairly homogenous society I suspected it of being.  And it likes it that way.  The second discovery was that other parts of Europe are much more international and open to foreign influences.  I hate to say it, but I felt much more comfortable and welcomed in Paris and Amsterdam than I do here most of the time.  People seemed friendlier and less annoyed at the Italian/French/English mish-mosh I was speaking.  I have no idea why the French get a bad rap – this is the 3rd time we’ve been there and people have always been nice (saying “bonjour”  and “s’il vous plaît”  probably helped).

I have many more reflections that fit better in upcoming posts, so for now I’ll leave you with some of the non-local food we enjoyed (or admired) on our trip:

Happy Holidays from Florence

Ciao Readers!  And HAPPY HOLIDAYS!!!

The holiday season is upon us.  Here in Florence that means sparkling lights strung over all the main streets, Christmas markets, strolling musicians and Babbo Natales, and dogs decked out in their holiday attire.  Surprisingly, it doesn’t mean that shops are any more crowded than usual (if anything less so because the tourists have thinned out).  I have to say, it is a much less commercialized version than the one we’re used to back in the States.  It makes the season feel more festive and enjoyable (objectively, putting aside homesickness).  (Of course, you would have no idea it was also Hanukkah here, unless you ventured to the only synagogue in town [pictured in last row].)

The holiday season also means that here in Florence many things will be closed for the winter break (Steve gets 3 full weeks off – yay!), and that back in the States many of you will be away from work for a bit (though likely not 3 full weeks).  This also means that if I keep posting at my usual rate, your inbox will be flooded upon your return and some posts may go unseen.  So, in honor of everyone’s holidays and work breaks, I’ll be taking a short holiday hiatus and will return in January.  Since we have train tickets to Venice and Lucca over the break, rest assured there will be fun and photo-filled posts come the new year.

In the meantime, whatever your holidays and celebrations, I hope they are warm, peaceful and joy-filled!  HAPPY EVERYTHING!  Signing off with some festive scenes from around town, enjoy!:

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The “Gaudí” House

Ciao Readers!

Now, you may be wondering “what does Gaudí have to do with Florence?”  Or, you may be wondering “who the heck is Gaudí in the first place?”  In either case, I shall explain.   Today I am going to give you a peek at my favorite architecture in the world (which I discovered in Barcelona, Spain), through a house right down our very own street.

Since you can Wikipedia or Google him yourself, I’ll give you the short version – Antoni Gaudí was a Spanish/Catalan Architect (and visionary) who lived from 1852 – 1926 (when he was hit by a tram).  He is known for his outside-the-box style – Modernisme (which is, according to some sources, the origin of the word “gaudy”).  It’s hard to explain, but his buildings usually don’t have edges or corners – they look organic – all curvy and flowing and natural (and, in my opinion, surreal).  Both Steve and I fell in love with his work the first time we laid eyes on it (in Barcelona).  He has several amazing houses (Casa Batlló, pictured first, looks like some sort of a sea creature both inside and out), as well as the famous Sagrada Familia church (pictured next, with work continuing on it to this day).  He also designed an entire “gated community,” but it didn’t go over so well and ended up becoming an amazing park instead of a residential area for rich folks (Park Güell)(second/third row of photos).  There really are no words to do justice to how amazing and unique and awe-inspiring his works are – ya just gotta see ’em for yourself!

Now, you may still be wondering what this has to do with Florence.  I’ll tell you.  There is a house down the street which looks nothing like any other houses in the neighborhood (or any neighborhood in Italy); it looks, well, curvy and organic and a little surreal.  In a nutshell – it looks like the architect channeled Gaudí!  Steve and I both thought so the minute we saw it.  Now here’s a funny side note – we had dinner guests over one night and they started describing this amazing house they had seen on the walk over – we both immediately blurted out “the Gaudí house”!  They weren’t familiar with Gaudí, so we had the pleasure of filling them in and lending them a book about him.  (So, that is how we get to Gaudí from Florence).   The final row of pictures are of the house down the street – ending with a close-crop of one of the weird little webbed creatures that adorn the top (I’ve since learned the house is called Villino Broggi-Caraceni, built in 1910, not by Gaudí).  Enjoy!

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