Recommended Reading – Italian Neighbors by Tim Parks

Italian Neighbors, Tim Parks

I am always looking for books about Italy that help me to better understand the idiosyncrasies of modern Italian culture.  This easy to read book with short chapters chronicles the life of Tim Parks and his Italian wife Rita as they insert themselves into the city of Verona.

For anyone who has visited or lived in Italy for either a short time or a longer stay this book will undoubtedly bring back memories, more than a few laughs, and validate your own experiences.

The first in a series of books that I highly recommend, Italian Neighbors (1992), An Italian Education (1996), Italian Ways, On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo (2013), in addition to Tim’s numerous other books, both fiction and non-fiction, about Italian history and culture.

“his eye for the illuminating moments in the miniature worlds he describes—condominium meetings, beaches, nursery scenes, and elementary-school parents’ groups, to name just a few—is so sharp that the ordinary gains a kind of magical lustre, and the particular becomes universal.” – The New Yorker, June 6, 2013

Italy – A Photographer’s Dream

Italy is many things – food, history, color, texture.

One of the special qualities about Italy is the endless juxtaposition of scenery, color, the old and the new.  Every time I arrive in this country, face pressed against the window of the plane, I look forward to the opportunity to capture some of these beautiful juxtapositions with my camera.

Whether you are using an iPhone, a small digital point and shoot, or a sophisticated professional camera take the time and opportunity to “see” Italy through photography.  Often I get up early in the morning and go for a walk with my camera photographing whatever interests me.   Going alone affords you the space and time to focus and enjoy the creative experience.

Below are some of my photographs which remind me of the many wonderful friends and experiences that are Italy.

Rome, 2012
Detail, Santi Luca e Martina, Forum, Rome, 2012
Rome, 2012
Rowing on the Tiber, Early Morning, Rome, 2012
Detail, Il Vittoriano Monument
Detail, Il Vittoriano Monument, Rome, 2012

I love looking through vintage photographs and books about photography related to Italy. Below are links to some of my favorite books and photographers I admire.

Day Tripping – Rome to Frascati

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAView of Frascati from belevedere at Villa Aldobrandini, Frascati, Italy, 2012

Just south of Rome, in the Alban Hills, lies a string of hilltowns, villages, and vineyards called the Castelli Romani.  One of my favorites is Frascati the largest and best known for it’s wines and beautiful villas.   Amazingly many of these towns survived the heavy bombing of World War ll.  More than 50% of Frascati was destroyed in the war.

Located a short 12 miles (20km) southeast of Rome, Frascati is easily reached by train, car, or taxi.  I recommend taking the train from Roma Termini station.  Depending on the specific train It takes between 30 and 40 minutes. The regional trains cost about 2 euros one way and it is best to buy a round trip ticket at Termini as sometimes the ticket counter in Frascati is closed for lunch or coffee breaks and you don’t want to miss a train or get on a train without a ticket.

Home to many well preserved villas including Villa Aldobrandini, Villa Falconieri, Villa Parisi, Villa Grazioli, Villa Lancellotti, Villa Muti built by Popes, cardinals, and roman nobles, Frascati is easy on the eyes.  Not all the villas are open to the public but many allow access to the gardens.

We were fortunate to visit in the Fall and the weather was beautiful.  The day was as crisp as a bottle of the well known wine.   I will tell you that you do a lot of walking and stair climbing in this town.  I am not telling you this to discourage you but to ensure that you are mentally prepared.  The effort is worth the amazing views of Rome and surrounding area which you will have many opportunities to photograph.  The city center is easily walked and there are many good restaurants to choose from.

If you have unlimited energy I would recommend a walk up past Villa Aldobrandini along Via Cardinale Guglielmo Massaia to the church of San Francesco d’Assisi part of the Monastery of the Cappuccini.  It is a beautiful walk and the monastery and church at the summit are charming.

Convent of Saint Francesco, Frascati, Italy, 2012Entrance to the small church of San Francesco d’Assisi (1575), Frascati, Italy, 2012

After exerting yourself enjoy lunch and of course some Frascati wine at one of the many cantinas, osterias, and trattorias in the town.  Make sure you bring your camera and your appetite.  Buon Viaggio!!

Tree Covered Trail, Frascati, Italy, 2012Tree lined walk, Frascati, Italy, 2012  

Other Recommended Day Trips

Fall in Rome – Chestnuts “Castagne”

Piazza Navona, Chestnuts, Rome, 2012Piazza Navona, Roasted Chestnuts, Rome, Fall 2012

Fall is one of my favorite times in Rome.  Cooler weather, less crowded, amazing colors, and seasonal specialties including Ricotta Romana, newly pressed olive oil, and chestnuts!!

Strolling through the city on a cold day with a thick scarf around my neck and a warm paper cup full of roasted chestnuts certainly made me feel Roman.

One note fall is the time to eat chestnuts not spring or summer.  They seem to roast chestnuts 12 months of the year at the more popular tourist destinations in Rome.  Do yourself a favor and save the 2 to 5 euros in spring and summer as the chestnuts will not be enjoyable.

Dome of St. Peter's, Rome, 2012Dome of St. Peter’s from Ponte Sisto, Rome, 2012

Chestnuts in season are used to make some incredible seasonal foods including gelato, castagnaccio – a dense flat cake, and candied chestnuts.   Additionally throughout the region there are many chestnut festivals which offer a great excuse to take the train to the surrounding countryside.

Cooking Roman Style – Papacelle Ripene di Carne (Stuffed Peppers with Meat)

Cooking Classes in Rome, 2013Chef Andrea, Cooking Classes in Rome, Trestevere, 2013

One of the most rewarding experiences you can have in Rome is takeing a cooking class.   Meeting liked minded foodies from around the globe and preparing and sharing a meal is enormous fun and hopefully an adventure that you will bring home and share with your friends.   WARNING: It can be addictive!

On my fourth class with Chef Andrea we prepared a menu of stuffed figs, homemade cavatelli with pesto, stuffed peppers, sauteed cauliflower, and a pear torte.   My favorite recipe from this particular class is below and fairly easy to make.

Cooking Classes in Rome, 2013
Papacelle ripene di carne (Stuffed peppers with meat)

Ingredients to serve four people:
  • 1 lb ground meat (70% beef and 30% pork, ground and minced) Use prosciutto sausages if you can find them, if not use plain unseasoned sausages (casings removed)
  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup/100g parmesan cheese grated
  • 1/2 cup/50g edamer cheese grated
  • freshly chopped parsley
  • 3oz leftover bread soaked in milk (crusts removed)
  • 1 tbsp salt
  • 4 to 6 peppers depending on size (in class we used papacelle which are smaller and flatter than the bell peppers we most often use in the states.  Try to use peppers such as this or other peppers that are in season where you live – Note: smaller sized peppers are better)
  • Heat oven to 350°F / 180°C
  • To prepare the filling mix sausage, parmesan cheese, eggs, grated cheese, leftover bread soaked into milk, salt and pepper.  Mix all the ingredients well and set aside for a good half an hour to let the flavors meld.
  • Wash the peppers and cut a small hole in the top around the stem, saving the piece you cut out.  Clean out the seeds, rinse and set aside
  • Stuff the peppers one by one and place onto a baking dish, replacing the small piece you cut from each pepper on top.  Add a little bit of water and extra virgin olive oil to the bottom of the pan to avoid burning the peppers.
  • Cook for about 15 to 20 minutes depending on the size of the peppers, until cooked all the way through.  Turn the pan carefully in the oven once or twice to ensure even cooking all the way through the peppers.  Serve hot.   Buon Appetito!

Stuffed Peppers, Cooking Classes in Rome, 2013 

Car Spotting – Rome, The Quintessential FIAT Cinquecento

The Fiat 500, Cinquecento, is a city car designed by Dante Giacosa and produced by the Italian manufacturer Fiat (Fabbrica Italiano Automobili Torino) between 1957 and 1975.

Launched as the Nuova (new) 500 in July 1957,it was a cheap and practical town car. Measuring only 2.97 metres (9 feet 9 inches) long, and originally powered by an appropriately sized 479 cc two-cylinder, air-cooled engine, the 500 redefined the term “small car” and is considered one of the first city cars.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFiat Cinquecento, Rada in Chianti, 2009

Like all tourists I can’t ever get enough of looking at or remarking on these cars as they go whizzing through Rome and all of Italy for that matter.  Weekends seem to be the best time to spot these beauties especially those that have been restored and are in perfect condition.

Cinquecento, Trestevere, Rome, 2012Fiat Cinquecento, Trestevere, Rome, 2013

I often think about what it would be like to bring one of these original beauties home to Baltimore.   In 2007 similar to Mini Cooper, Fiat reintroduced the Cinquecento with strong styling cues from the original ’57 and sales have skyrocketed.  FiatUSA

Cinquecento, Rome, 2012Near Perfect Condition Fiat Cinquecento, Viale della Trinita del Monti, Rome, 2012

How Many Caravaggio’s Are There in Rome? – Creating Your Own Walking Tour

Caravaggio, San Giovanni Battista, Galleria BorgheseSan Giovanni Battista (1609-1610 ca.), Caravaggio, Galleria Borghese, Rome

I am not sure there is an exact answer to this question.  Art being what it is there are always new discoveries and works that for years have been debated as being attributable to one artist or another.  However if we take Wikipedia as our authority the answer is 27.  Two of these are in private collections leaving 25 to be visited.

There are many many more of Caravaggio’s works in Italy proper including Cremona, Florence, Genoa, Messina, Milan, Naples, Palermo, Prato, Syracuse and Vatican City.   Additionally many of the worlds renown museums have a Caravaggio within their collections.

As many times as I have been to the eternal city I have never seen all twenty five paintings by Caravaggio but I have certainly made an effort to see many of them.   If you are looking for an adventure for yourself, for visitors, or for your family,  setting out to see all of Caravaggio’s works is one of the best.  There are many adjectives to describe his work as well as the painter himself.  Neither Caravaggio or his paintings are polite but both are intensely moving and leave you thinking.

Many times on visits to Rome I think about something I am interested in: Bernini statues, oblesiks, fountains, remnants of the ancient aqueducts, places in Rome featured in movies – and then I set off to see as many of them as I can.  This is a great way to learn about the history of the city, become more familiar with the city, and discover all sorts of new favorite destinations.

Be adventurous and create your own walking tour!!

Capers – One of My Favorite Ingredients

Wild Caper Plant, Vatican City, 2013Wild Caper Plant, Vatican City Walls, 2013

I suppose I never gave much though to where capers came from except to say off the shelf of my local Italian Grocer.   In the back of my mind I thought in some way they were related to olives and must be cultivated in the same way.  Well, I have certainly been learning a lot on this trip to Rome!

The discoveries that await you in Rome are multi-layered to say the least.  On a recent walk around the walls of Vatican City I was amazed to discover that one of my favorite ingredients for cooking, capers, grows willy-nilly in the cracks and crevices of just about every surface in this city.  Just look up as you walk pass by a stone wall, under an arch, or as you visit some of the most famous landmarks in the Eternal City.  You will undoubtedly see a caper plant.  All these wild capers are not looked upon with favor as they wreak havoc on the surfaces in which they grow, however I certainly find them intriguing!

Off The Beaten Path – Rome, Cinecittá – “The City of Cinema”

Cinecitta', Set of HBO Series Rome, 2013Set of HBO Series Rome, Cinecittá, Rome, 2013

A short Metro ride (Linea A) from the center of Rome brings you to the legendary Cinecittá Studios, literally “The City of Cinema”.   Founded in 1927 and inaugurated by Benito Mussolini the studios are the birthplace of thousands of films including more than 50 Academy Award winners such as Roman Holiday (1953), Ben-Hur (1959),  La Dolce Vita (1960) ,Cleopatra (1963), Gladiator (2000), Gangs of New York (2002), and well known series such as HBO’s Rome (2005-2007).   The entire complex comprises an area south of Rome larger than Vatican City.

Since its founding Cinecittá has been home to well known directors such as Federico Fellini, Marcello Mastroianni, Francis Ford Copolla, Martin Scorsese, and Roberto Benigni.

Stage 5, Cinecitta', Rome, 2013Famous Stage 5, Cinecittá Studios, Rome, 2013

The tour of the studio is both self guided and then in small groups with an english speaking staff member who will take you to the back lot.   I recommend scheduling 3 hours to enjoy the exhibitions, the back lot tour, and the book shop.  You are encouraged to take pictures and the guides are happy to answer your questions.   A very special “off the beaten path” glimpse of the Italian movie and television industry!!

Statue from Movie Gladiator, Cinecitta', Rome 2013Prop from Academy Award winning film Gladiator (2002), Cinecittá Studios, Rome, 2013

The Vatican Gardens, An Urban Oasis – Rome

Vatican Gardens, Rome, 2013 Upper Terrace, Vatican Gardens, Rome, 2013

Balancing the desire to visit “must see sights” and to relax can be hard at times.  Especially if you have a limited number of days in Rome.  Visiting the Giordini Vaticani will allow you to do both in spectacular style!  The views from the “backyard” of St. Peters along the upper terraces of the garden are nothing short of breathtaking.  Open daily except Wednesdays and Sundays, from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm.  The guided tour, in small groups of 20 to 25, which lasts approximately two hours winds leisurely through the lush gardens, fountains, statuary, and architectural gems of Vatican City.  The tour guides are friendly and knowledgable and provide you with a historical overview of this special place.

Vatican Gardens, Rome, 2013 Stone Pines Along the Northern Walls, Vatican Gardens, Rome, 2013

The Vatican Gardens have been a place of quiet and meditation for the popes since 1279 when Nicholas III (Giovanni Gaetano Orsini, 1277-1280) moved his residence back to the Vatican from the Lateran Palace.

Within the walls of Vatican City these urban gardens and parks cover more than half of the 109 total acres of Vatican territory to the South and Northeast. The papal heliport, Radio Vatican, and the Vatican Train Station (no longer used) are just a few of the interesting buildings you will see.

Italianate Garden, Vatican Garden, Rome 2013Italianate Garden, Vatican Gardens, Rome, 2013

After your tour you may visit the Vatican Museums or you may want to avoid the crowds in the “front of the house” and continue to relax along the streets of rione Prati.    One of my favorite places to have a panino is DUECENTOGRADI “200 Degrees”.  Located a short five minute walk from the entrance to the Vatican Museums at Piazza Risorgimento, 3.