Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Two Months in Italy... WOW

Starting Our Adventure
We left San Francisco on 1 Sept. 2011. Using our airline miles to fly first class is a great way to start a trip. Amazing food and service, seats that recline into beds (they even give you pajamas) and very friendly people. Can't wait to set foot in Italy and start our adventure...

Our second flight from Munich was on time and only 55 minutes. The Milan (in Italy it is Milano) airport is quite a distance from the city center, so we took a 45 minute train. On the train, we met a man who lives in Milan very close to our hotel. He offered to have us share a taxi with him, and then he wouldn't let us pay. Italy is starting off lucky for us.

[note: You can click on a photo to enlarge it, and then click on the X in the top right to collapse it.]

Lunch with Pesaros
We're off to lunch with our old friends, the Pesaros, who live in Milan. Andrea and Valeria picked us up and took us to a restaurant for lunch where we met their daughter Giulia. The lunch was exactly why we love Italy so much... very fresh and simple food that tastes awesome. My pasta with just olive oil (and seafood) melted in my mouth. The tomatoes (looked like cherry tomatoes) brought back the memories of Italian tomatoes that you can't explain, only experience. Dry white wine that seemed to be made for the meal and conversation with friends we haven't seen in 5 years was a setting for a movie. Of course dolce and espresso topped off the meal. Just to give one small example of how wonderful the Pesaros are, they offered us the loan of one of their cars for the 3 weeks we'll be in Chiavari (Ligurian Coast); we decided not to borrow it, but the offer was quite exceptional and appreciated. Tonight we will visit with their other daughter and grandson. Grazie mille Andrea and Valeria!

Arrive in Chiavari
Milan was a short stopover to see our friends. Now it's on to our first real stop. We took a train from Milan to Chiavari this afternoon. Here is a map of our trip. The owners of our apartment met us at the station and drove us up the hill to our home for the next 3 weeks. It's Sunday so in this small town the markets are not open; we'll have to wait until tomorrow to do some shopping.

Our first impression was wet. Tonight it poured (really poured) and we were caught in town after dinner. Our apartment is a 15 minute walk from town center, but in the storm it would have seemed like an hour and we would have probably drowned. The happy ending is we borrowed a cell phone from an Italian, called a taxi, and it came in 2 minutes. Today (Monday) we bought an Italian cell phone and now feel connected.

Here's a link showing the place we are staying. We are in Apartment #3.

We're beginning to learn our way around Chiavari although with its 3 km of porticoed covered streets in the downtown area, we still use a map. The town has a bit of anything you might want. A relatively large downtown with hundreds of shops, restaurants and of course cafes. Whenever you want to eat or get gelato or a caffe, just walk a few minutes and you'll find one.

Cross the train tracks towards the sea and you find yourself walking along the promenade with a very long beautiful beach and stunningly blue sea (sort of like a clean, new version of the Atlantic City boardwalk). We found a great cafe to sit and have a prosecco and watch the sunset... wow! There are fewer tourists here than other nearby towns, so Marcia's Italian comes in handy frequently. As we wanted to be more like a local than a tourist, we enjoy the challenges of communications.

Did I mention the food? Every meal, lunch or dinner, has been wonderful. I'm sold on pasta with just olive oil and perhaps tomatoes while Marcia is eating all the fresh fish she can handle. There's no such thing as "fast food" here, so everything is homemade, fresh and surprisingly not expensive. Chiavari is famous for its farinata. Food is about the same price as in San Francisco (comparing dollars to dollars) and the espresso is cheaper here! And the gelato is heavenly. 

Chiavari is also famous for its Chiavari chairs.

Chiavari has a market every morning with fresh vegetables, fruit, cheese and more. On Friday it is bigger and includes rotisserie chicken, etc. Once a month it expands to include a huge antique market that covers every street downtown. We are enjoying the Italian way of buying our fresh food during the day and making a great dinner (well Marcia makes the great dinner) whenever we are not eating in one of the great restaurants.
Learning About Pandolce from Valeria
Our friends, Andrea and Valeria Pesaro, from Milan, have a house in Zoagli near Chiavari that they often use on weekends to come to the sea. Saturday evening they picked us up at our apartment in Chiavari for a stroll around downtown. We learned the buildings were built in the 13th century, where to buy the best pandolce, where the best wine restaurant was (Enoteca), the freshest vegetable/fruit market (of the many markets in town), and much more about Chiavari giving us a deeper appreciation of the town. The Pesaros are friends we met in 1982 and have never failed to be wonderful hosts whenever we visit Italy. They can trace their Jewish family back 2,000 years in Italy.

Dinner at L'Ulivo
We all then drove up into the hills north of Lavagna (town next to Chiavari separated by the Entella river) to an amazing family run restaurant built on what seemed like a ledge in the very small town of Barassi overlooking the entire coast (Ristorante L'Ulivo). Appetizers came fast of local cheese, potato fritatta, farinata, prosciutto, salami, and chic peas. We didn't have to order anything for 30 minutes as it all just got put on the table. Oh did I mention, all this was happening while looking out the restaurant windows at the sea from a few hundred meters up the hill. The first and second courses included porcini pasta, ravioli, rabbit, beef and I forget the rest. Dessert of course with sorbet laced with vodka. [Note: The Pesaro's 7 year old grandson, Allesandro, was with us all night, and he couldn't have been better behaved (in part because it was obvious how much he loves his nonno and nonna). When he began to get tired at the end of the meal, Marcia showed him some games on her iPhone and he was never heard from again, except for a few laughs.]

Lunch with Pesaros

But the Pesaros weren't finished with the Seidlers yet. Sunday we took a bus to their house in Zoagli and walked down to the beach where their daughter, son-in-law and grandson were already sunning and swimming. It was a very small beach with a very good restaurant with a breathtaking view of the sea and Santa Margherita in the distance (Marina di Bardi). Again aperitifs and appetizers came while Andrea talked with the owner who he knows well. I had a great pasta con vongole while Marcia and the others mostly had fresh fish. Dolce and caffe and then a lot of relaxing and talking.

Picking Lemons w/Andrea
After walking back up to their house, we picked lemons and tomatoes from their trees/garden and sat on the patio and chatted with our good friends... all the while drinking in the view of Portofino, Santa Margherita, Rapallo, and the amazing coast line. It's hard to put in words how wonderful these two days were! A week later, we are still enjoying our friends every time we eat one of their tomatoes or lemons...

Dinner in Our Apartment w/Anna & Bart
One of the apartments in Chiavari we researched before coming that was not available had an agent who advertised Italian cooking classes. So we called her and met for a drink. Anna was very nice and helpful in giving us some background about Chiavari. Our friendship led to the only time we hosted someone in our apartment, which was quite an accomplishment in our opinion. Truth be told, Anna cooked the pasta we had for dinner showing Marcia "the Ligurian way" of preparing pasta. Anna's friend, Bart, also joined us. I was able to give Anna some advice about her website including how to set up a blog... can I now deduct the trip from my taxes?

Corzetti Pasta Wooden Stamp
Our good friend Toni (she's the one who started our love affair with Italy 12 years ago... but that's another story) does great research when she travels and enjoys making homemade pasta. So she suggested we look up Franco Casoni in Chiavari, the renown and one of the very few remaining corzetti makers (he is also a master woodcarver). Corzetti is a wooden tool used to make a classic Ligurian pasta. First you make fresh pasta dough, then you use the corzetti to press a thin round of dough between the stamps, leaving an imprint on both sides. Ligurian families used to have their coat of arms carved on their stamp, and symbols on the other side. 

Franco Casoni - the Pasta Stamp Maker
So we went looking for his shop to find the door open and someone chipping away at a wooden sculpture in a tiny studio. Marcia's buon giorno brought the chipping to a halt and a man with both a huge smile and mustache looked up to greet us... that's how we met Franco. Within seconds he and Marcia were speaking Italian faster than I could understand. We really did not know what a "pasta stamp" was, but he demonstrated it and showed us many sample designs he had lying around. We were hooked and ordered one... which means we had to decide on what design to have him carve into the stamp (corzetti). After a few ideas and his quick drawings of examples, we decided on our initials with the year 2011 to remind us of our trip. 

We returned the next day to collect our newly made corzetti (35 euro) and again Marcia and Franco spent 15-20 minutes chatting as if they were old friends. Then he asked if we could have drinks with him and his wife that evening because they are going on a vacation to the US including San Francisco soon and wanted some suggestions (funny that they will be in San Francisco while we are still in Italy). We immediately said okay of course. 

Fun with Franco and Family
When we entered the square where he said to meet them, he, his wife and their friend were sitting around a table outside a cafe; the warm day had turned into a beautiful night. Franco's big smile immediately greeted us and before you knew it, the table was full of glasses of prosecco and hors d'oeuvres which were replenished often. They explained what they were planning for their trip to California and we offered our advice. But soon there were Italian and English conversations going on around the table and we didn't say arrivederci until two hours later. But our new friendship is not quite over, as they invited us to go with them to their friend's house a few days later. So we will see Franco and his family and friends again.

As promised, Franco drove us to his friend's villa (not far from our apartment it turns out). There Didi and Adriana Coppola hosted us, Franco and his wife and their friend Princi. We enjoyed wine and snacks sitting on the patio in front of their beautiful villa that has been in their family since c1750. Didi is a famous (renown) illustrator whose drawings have been in many books, comic books and even Playboy. He and Franco share being well known artisans in Chiavari as well as an old close friendship. Adriana rents luxury apartments on their villa grounds.

We are invited to Franco's house Friday evening where his wife will show us how to make the corzetti pasta and use our new pasta stamp. We can't wait for our yummy meal...

Toni Gets Her Pasta Stamp
Our friend Toni (who started all this about Franco and corzetti) also wanted a pasta stamp. So Marcia and Toni emailed about what design Toni wanted. Marcia then discussed them with Franco who gave his suggestions, and Marcia would email and Skype back with Toni to show her. Toni decided on her final designs and Franco made her corzetti. He will present it to us at the dinner at his house in a few days. It turns out Toni is also going to be vacationing in Italy in October. So on Oct. 21 she took the train from Rome to Orvieto to meet with us for the day, and Marcia presented her with her corzetti. It's the end of a great story for us that I'm sure we will be talking about and remembering for a long time.

How's That for a Narrow Street
We took the train into Genoa (called Genova in Italia) and spent the afternoon touring. It was our first time in Genoa so it was all new to us. The Historical Center was where the city was founded in the 11th century (I think... I wasn't there then). The very narrow streets with shops, cafes, restaurants and whore houses (yes, we were surprised too) were fun to walk through (the streets, not the whore houses!). To try to learn more about the city, we took the Hop-On-Hop-Off Tour Bus, but we were disappointed how boring it was (and it was hot); the only thing I remember learning was that jeans were invented in Genoa 500 years ago (silly me thought jeans were invented by Levi Strauss during the Gold Rush in California). We hope one day to go back and spend time in the museums which are some of the best in Italy (we're told).

Genoa Fountain in de Ferrari Square
We learned a lesson from the very beginning of this day trip. The train ticket to Genoa said the destination was the Main Train Station west of downtown. But when the train stopped in the eastern station that comes first, everyone got off. We discovered after some confusion that because today was Saturday, this train ended in the eastern train station. Fortunately, either station is an easy walk to the Historical Center... but always be prepared for surprises!

Ten years ago when we spent a wonderful and memorable week in Santa Margherita on the Ligurian Coast, we walked the road to Portofino (we didn't know there were hiking trails) which took about 30 minutes and required dodging the cars. Portofino used to be where the 'jet setters' went and you still see many beautiful yachts in its harbor. The tiny town had a few restaurants and gelato stands to service the tourists and we took the ferry back to Santa Margherita. Of note in Portofino are the faux walls on the buildings representing the 'real Italy' of long ago.

View of the Sea from Our Hike
This time we wanted to hike from Santa Margherita to Portofino going over Mt. Portofino Park where there are many hiking trails. So we took the train to Santa Margherita and the hike took about two hours on stone and brick paths (we wish we knew when the paths were created, but they are very old for sure). But Portofino is now even more crowded with tourists and restaurants trying to take advantage of them. We had hoped to take the boat from Portofino to San Fruttuoso (a small town not accessible by train or car), but the ferry stopped running at 2:30pm and we got to Portofino at 3:00pm. So we took the next boat back to Santa Margherita. The views from the hike were great, but our short time in Portofino convinced us it is not our type of Italian town.

Lunch with a View!
Cinque Terre means "5 lands" in Italian which in this case refers to the 5 towns close to each other all along the eastern Ligurian Coast. Between three of the towns are two great (and not so easy) hikes along the beautiful coast. We've done these hikes before 10 years ago and wanted to do one again. So we took the train to Vernazza where we sought out the restaurant we found 10 years ago that overlooked the sea and had great pasta. To our pleasant surprise, it was still there under the same ownership (we know that because Marcia walked back into the kitchen area and spoke Italian with the owner). After a nice lunch watching the crowded boats sail the bluest water you can imagine, we walked down into the town where the hike to Monterosso starts.

Looking Back on Vernazza
The hike starts up, and up, and up... mostly stone steps. It seemed harder than I remember (hmm, it couldn't have anything to do with being 10 years older could it?) The reward for all that huffing and puffing is a one hour walk along the coastline; I don't think there is anything to rival the views. A new addition since our last Cinque Terre hike was a man in a small hut collecting a 5e fee to walk the path. We hope the money goes to maintaining the path which would make it well worth it. With the large number of tourists visiting the area, we often had to wait for people going the other way when the path became very narrow.

Hike from Vernazza to Monterosso
During the hike, we stopped in a shaded area and found an artist drawing Vernazza, so Marcia got into an Italian conversation which lasted a few minutes. As you approach Monterosso, you begin steep steps down and then a stroll into the town. The hike took about 1.5 hours. We rewarded ourselves with gelato and took the train back to Chiavari. Cinque Terre has become so popular, there were very large numbers of people on the train including groups from Germany, Japan and all points of the globe. Compared to Chiavari where we only hear Italian spoken, in Cinque Terre we heard English and German often.

[Note: In late October 2011 a freak mudslide above Vernazza and Monterosso created the worst flooding and damage in those cities in recorded history. Our hearts go out to the people who live there. Click here for more information and a remarkable video clip.]

Piazza Mazzini
We thought our day was over except for a small late dinner in the apartment, but when we stopped into Franco's (the pasta stamp maker) studio to say hi, Franco suggested we all go for an aperitif. So out of his shop we go leaving the door wide open (Chiavari crime must be non-existent) and into Piazza Mazzini to his favorite cafe. They bring almost a full meal worth of snacks with the prosecco, so we enjoyed both Franco's stories and history of Italy as well as the food. Franco's grandfather went to America in the early 20th century and then returned home to Italy where the family has been ever since.

Franco & Alessandra's Home
It's time for our first meal at a local's home, and what a meal it turned out to be. I'm not sure I can do justice explaining our wonderful evening at the home of Franco Casoni and his wife Alessandra. We were invited to dinner along with their son Jacopo and four of their friends. When we received their invitation for dinner, we hoped we might learn a bit about how to make corzetti pasta... and wow, were we not disappointed. They live in a beautiful building on a large piazza in Chiavari built by Alessandra's grandfather. We were warmly welcomed and felt at home immediately.

Making Corzetti
Franco ushered us into their kitchen promising a surprise. Under a cloth was a mound of fresh pasta. Alessandra and her friend Marisa quickly began rolling the pasta flat and then using the corzetti stamp cutting out the round pasta pieces. It's a labor intensive process but everyone in the kitchen was talking so much the time flashed by. They explained that they had prepared other food for dinner, but we could take home the corzetti pasta to cook and eat the next day. While all of the corzetti stamping was going on, we all were eating from the plates of homemade focaccia bread (both plain and with onions), Princi's homemake walnut bread, sun dried tomatoes with olive oil and garlic, and oven roasted peppers with capers, olives and a few anchovies. Our new web video gallery includes a clip on how to use the corzetti.

Skyping with my parents
The next thing we did was very unexpected including our host's responses. They have WiFi in their house and Marcia brought her iPhone. So we Skyped with my parents, Aaron and Pearl. My parents began waving and everyone in the kitchen (a bit crowded by now as more of the Casoni friends had arrived) began waving and creating a total party atmosphere. Franco even pulled out his mandolin and I'm sure he and my father are now best friends. I don't think we will ever forget the Casoni kitchen and the tremendous warmth it created.

Franco's Family & Friends at Dinner
We said goodbye to my parents and moved to the dining room. Water and wine was served and the 'Italian feast' prepared by Alessandra and her friends Princi and Marisa started. First came the meat appetizer including prosciuttocoppa, and mortadella together with the sun dried tomatoes and peppers. This was followed by pasta with homemade pesto which was simple and awesome. As Italians always have a secondi after the first course, homemade meatballs with fresh tomato sauce was then served that melted in your mouth (really). By now, we were totally engrossed and felt part of their group of close friends. I sat next to Princi's son who speaks English, so I had a wonderful time learning about Italian history and more good restaurants. Dolce of course came soon with gelato and fruit, and finally cafe. We were offered a liqueur, but we were too full to accept. The fun, conversation, and sharing continued all night.

Franco and His Son's Book
Franco shared two books with me he and his son Jacopo created. One showed the history of Franco's family from 1906 - 2006. It was a collection of amazing photos, school report cards, work related items and more from his grandfather and father. Then he brought out a large, thick 'coffee table' style book on the history of the Chiavari Chair and the artisans who make them. Franco and his son are trying to document the furniture traditions from their city (Segno Italiano) that may soon be lost as the older generation disappears. It is similar to the 'Slow Food' movement except for furniture. I was very impressed and hope I can help them promote their project in the US. Our walk home was fairly quiet. I think Marcia and I were struggling to absorb the evening. I think we still are...

Time to Leave Chiavari and See What Bologna is Like:

The train ride with two connections took about 3.5 hours. Every train was on time with no hassles. But the difference in life style from Chiavari to Bologna is big. We left a small town with few large streets and a  downtown you could completely walk in less than an hour and arrived in a fairly large city (a population of about 400,000) with many large streets, buses everywhere and a bustling people. In Chiavari people strolled; in Bologna people walk, sometimes fast, like in any large city.

Prosecco in Piazza Maggiore
The walk from the train station to our apartment was about 10 minutes, and our rental contact met us outside our apartment building right on time. We unpacked a bit and then began strolling to see if we could find the center, Piazza Maggiore. To our surprise, after winding through some small streets, we popped out right in the piazza. It was large and full of people, mostly young, probably in college. A cafe with many tables right in the piazza looked very inviting, and as is our tradition, we ordered prosecco as our first introduction to a new city. Bologna was very kind to us right from the start; after Marcia told the waiter it was my birthday and her's was tomorrow, he surprised us with another two prosecci "on the house".

Joe's Birthday Dinner
The tourist center was also in the piazza so we accumulated some info. The tourist center also has free WiFi so we emailed family and friends with a photo from our new city. On the walk back to our apartment, Marcia went into a 5-star hotel looking for a recommendation of a typical local restaurant. She walked out with reservations (no surprise). Our dinner was wonderful, sitting outside in perfect night weather. Bologna is no where near the tourist city that Florence, Venice, etc. are, but sitting next to us were Americans and Germans. Hopefully we'll get more Italians the rest of the trip...

Note: Our travel day was my birthday, and I'll bet I was in more cities than most people on their birthday as we changed trains twice: Chiavari, Pisa, Florence and Bologna!

Bologna is very different from Chiavari in size and activity, but it is similar in its small number of tourists. Except for our first dinner here where we sat next to Americans, we have not heard English spoken... and that's how we hoped it would be. Marcia gets to improve her Italian and I enjoy trying to pick up bits and pieces of the conversation (and Marcia always translates whatever is important). Our early impression - we love Bologna.

Piazza Maggiore
Bologna is a city within a city. The metropolitan area is about the size of San Francisco, but if you looked at a map you would see a big circle right in the middle of the city that is perhaps 1.8-2.0 miles in diameter which is called the Centro (every Italian town has a 'center'). Within that is the Historical Center which is about 0.8 mile in diameter (although the Historical Center seems to just blend into the Centro and some people now refer to the entire Centro as the Historical Center). The Centro contains the hundreds of narrow streets, beautiful piazzas (squares) and history of the city; our apartment is just inside the centro (in the NW). My guess is that we probably will never leave the centro except for our planned day trips to surrounding areas including our walk up the steep climb to the Church of Madonna di San Luca about 2 miles from our apartment.

It's hard to detect, but right in the middle of the Historical Center is a small area that was the original Roman city. The only way to tell is to get a view from above and see where the streets are perfectly perpendicular to each other (the Romans were very organized). But after the city began to grow, the streets took on a more 'star' shape emanating from the middle where the Two Towers are.

Dinner at Da Bertino
The tourist maps make it fairly easy to find your way around especially with the landmarks of the Piazza Maggiore at the very center and the Two Towers of Asinelli a few blocks east. Tuesday night we celebrated Marcia's birthday in a nearby restaurant trying the local specialty of bollito (boiled meats), and Wednesday we continued our strolling around enjoying the cafes and gelaterias.

Wednesday evening we attended Rosh Hashanah services at the Synagogue; they were all in Hebrew and Orthodox so Marcia sat upstairs with the women. After the service was the fun part; we attended the community dinner with about 60 people. The Jewish traditions here are different than in the US. They call the dinner a seder and celebrate 9 different foods (somewhat like the Passover plate we are used to in the spring). After the seder plate food as the appetizer, we had soup with pasta, then lasagna bolognese and we thought the dinner was over. But then came the boiled meat, veal cutlet, peas and a grilled vegetable dish... oy, what a full stomach. Of course dolce was still to come with fruit and small cakes. On the walk home we decided not to eat for two days.

Everyday Fresh Fruit/Veggie Market
The next day we planned to attend morning services, but by the time we got there services were letting out. We asked the rabbi's wife for a restaurant suggestion for lunch, but since she keeps kosher, she couldn't help. An older lady standing nearby called to us as we were walking away. She said "may I help you find a restaurant?" And that started our first new relationship in Bologna.

Cafe & Dolce with Lea
Lea has lived in Bologna most of her life including in her current apartment for 40 years (in a building 700 years old). When she started walking to show us her suggested restaurant, we assumed it would be close given her age, but after 25 minutes winding through the narrow streets, past shops and restaurants with their wares and tables outside, she finally stopped and said this was a good restaurant. During the walk she recounted the story of her parents during WWII. Her father was a doctor and her parents escaped to France, were captured, and then were able to return to a small town in northern Italy (while Lea was with family in Trieste). There is a city plaque in honor of her father for tending to the sick during the end of the war who were hiding in small towns near his. She accepted our offer to join us for lunch and the conversation continued as we learned more about her and she learned about us. When we finished lunch, she said let's go get a cafe (which I never turn down since I love Italian espresso). So off on another walk to her favorite pasticceria for cafe and dolce (our web photo gallery shows the sweets in the window).

Lea's Beautiful Dinner Table
As we were parting, Lea invited us to her home for dinner the next evening after Shabbat services (she attends every Shabbat and holiday service which is about a mile walk each way for her)... needless to say we accepted. We met at the Synagogue and walked to her apartment Friday night. Her home was big by Bologna standards with a den, living room, kitchen, dinning room, and two bedrooms filled to capacity with antiques, chairs, tables and paper piled everywhere. We sat at her beautifully set dining table with china, crystal and silver, and she served white wine and olives immediately. Dinner started with a fish pasta followed by a big plate of fish and lemons, baked tomatoes and potatoes... and a second bottle of white wine. After dinner we moved to the living room where we ate the sweets we had bought on the walk to her house. It was a great evening and we are sure we will see Lea again while we are here (she already invited to tour us around Bologna).

Bologna Tortellini
Bologna is well known for many things including having the first university in Europe and its many 13th century churches. But if you are a bit of a foodie, two things that the people here are proud of are their tortellini pasta and ragu (meat sauce) that has come to be called pasta bolognese. Tortellini are handmade small pieces of stuffed pasta formed into a shape somewhat like a 3-pointed hat. It can be stuffed with meat or cheese and people make a profession out of preparing tortellini they sell to restaurants and customers. Tortelloni are larger versions of tortellini, and tortellacci are larger still.

The ragu sauce can be traced back to the 5th century and the city even registered the official recipe for Bolognese sauce in 1982. If you have eaten pasta bolognese in the US, you have not experienced it Bologna style. Here the dish has a very delicate, almost invisible, sauce (with very little tomato) and minced pieces of beef or pork (sausage). It can be served with three types of pasta including the city's famous tortellini or tagliatelle or with lasagna (but only these 3 types). The primary flavor that comes through is the meat rather than the sauce that dominates in the US style. The result tastes a bit bland at first, but after a few meals of it, I have begun to like it. I suspect when I return home, the pasta with meat dishes may taste too saucy and heavy.

When I said "only those 3 types of pasta," I really meant it. In Bologna there is no such thing as spaghetti bolognese because it is not allowed to use any type of pasta other than the three I mentioned above. So when you see spaghetti bolognese on a menu, or on the Internet, you know it is not the original Bologna style. There are other versions of the dish around Italy including using liver for the meat which you can find in Florence (only 40 miles away, but thousands of years in food distance).

Anyone living in Bologna over 70 years old probably only makes their bolognese sauce in a terra cotta pot with a metal plate under it to protect it from the open flame while the meat sauce is cooking (a process that typically takes 3-4 hours). Today however, most cooks use a normal metal pot... a rare time the 'rules' of cooking have been broken in Bologna.

Aperitif with Laila & Vittorio
Our San Francisco friend, Giorgia, who was born in Bologna, sent emails before we left introducing us to her friends and parents here in Bologna. To our great benefit, this is paying off in spades. Monday we met her parents for an aperitif in the center of Bologna (they live about 10km outside Bologna in the town famous for the mortadella meat), and no sooner had we sat down with them then they invited us to their home for dinner the next evening. Tuesday was also the day we were going to meet Giorgia's friends Diego and Gabriella for lunch; so we were excited about our now full social calendar the next day. In fact, it turned out to exceed our expectations.

Lunch with Gabriella & Diego
We met Diego and Gabriella at the church where the tombs of the first two professors of the Bologna University in the 12th century are buried. The professors taught Roman law to people who came from all over Europe to learn. We were hungry so our first stop was to one of their favorite restaurants nearby; and boy was it good. Marcia and I split a porcini mushroom pizza and salad (we love that this is porcini season). Diego and Gabriella spent 10 years in London, so they speak English which made it fun for me. We learned more about Italy and Bologna in particular including where the two circles of walls and gates were built over the early centuries as the city grew. The walls protected the city from roaming bands of thieves and wars with emperors wanting to capture the town. After lunch came gelato (of course), and their favorite gelateria is now ours. The pear gelato was liking biting into a fresh pear. Marcia even got a tour of the back of the store where they handmake the gelato every day. We said our goodbyes, but to our surprise it wasn't for long.

Mortadella in Zola Predosa
At 4:30pm Giorgia's father picked us up at our apartment and drove us to their home about 20 minutes west of Bologna. It was suburban living with a large house (especially by Italian standards), a view of the hills and very quiet. Eventhough they speak no English, we had no trouble communicating because Marcia would translate whatever I needed to know. We took a passeggiata (an evening stroll) to their small town and Vittorio bought a large piece of mortadella meat (their town, Zola Predosa, is famous for its mortadella). They surprised us by also inviting Diego and Gabriella for dinner, and when they arrived around 8:00pm, dinner began. First came the mortadella we bought during our walk. Then tagliatelle bolognese (including a lot of discussion about how she made it). Then thinly sliced roast beef and stuffed tomatoes followed by grapes. The dessert was quite unique for us; it was panna cotta with an amaretto crust on the bottom... I cannot do justice to describing how amazing the flavor was. The evening was just great and Laila gave us a large doggie bag of all of the left-overs (which we ate the next night for dinner). We feel extremely fortunate to have now been treated as honored guests in two Italian homes.

P.S. To our friends who challenged us to bring home the true, traditional bolognese sauce recipe, get your kitchen ready!

The history of Bologna goes back a very long way. Around 200 B.C. a town began taking form which grew and became somewhat prosperous. Then in 89 A.D. it became an official Roman city called Bononia. Walls were built sometime between 300-700 around some of the city to protect it from barbarians. Then in 729 the city was completely encircled with a high wall that enclosed about 45 acres. These walls are no longer standing. A second set of walls were completed in 1192 that had 16 gates allowing the inhabitants in and out, but keeping the waring emperors out. The 2.5 miles of wall was made of brick about 26 feet high encircling about 247 acres (about 0.8 mile in diameter). Some of these gates are still standing. And finally in 1226 a third set of walls in wood with gates was constructed. These were replaced with over 4 miles of brick wall (about 1.8-2.0 miles in diameter) and 12 gates (10 are still standing) in 1337 which make up the current Centro.

The 11th-12th centuries were very good ones for Bologna. Its University (the first in the world - it taught law) was taking shape and all of Europe was sending its most prized, and rich, young to study law here. The city gained favor with both the Church and the Italian Kingdom (mostly just what is now northern Italy), and it was allowed to become an independent commune although strife and war between the church and German emperors continued almost constantly.

Basilica of San Petronio
To understand Bologna history you have to know how independent the Bolognese people have always been. They have never wanted to be ruled by either the Church or other nations, and they have many examples of how far they went to thumb their nose at those who ruled them by force. One example is the huge basilica in Piazza Maggiore, the major town square. The Basilica of San Petronio was built in the 15th century and was used as both a civic meeting location and for church services; however, in order to make sure the building was not turned into a cathedral by the Church, they built it in a north-south direction since all cathedrals must be in an east-west direction.

Bologna 17th Century Anatomy Classroom
Bologna had the first University in the world as noted above. They had the second Medical School in the world (Padua Italy is credited with having the first started about 30 years before Bologna's). We learned from our tour guide that the first doctor to perform surgery on facial parts (the 1st nose job) was a Jewish professor in the Bologna Medical School (I'll bet his mother was proud). There was also a 'real life' Yentl in 17th century Bologna. The daughter of a wealthy Jewish merchant dressed as a boy (women were not allowed to go to university until the 19th century) and attended the Medical School for 5 years and graduated. She was such a great doctor that the school allowed her to become a professor although she had to teach behind a curtain so her sex would not distract the male students.

Fountain of Neptune
The Fountain of Neptune in Piazza Maggiore is another example of the Bolognese people having their own values which often were at odds with the Church. The huge Neptune is nude and water flows from women's breasts at the base of the fountain. When the Pope's representative saw the fountain, he required a fig leaf cover Neptune's private parts and the water be turned off. His edicts were reversed as soon as Napoleon conquered northern Italy and the people got their original fountain back. A tourist might wonder what Neptune was doing in Bologna anyway... where is the water? The city actually has a river flowing through it that today is covered over by streets. In the 15th century, a large port was built so that boats could travel to the large Po river in Ferrara, and from there to Venice. This connected Bologna to the prosperous sea trade in Venice and hence the need for Neptune to keep the waters calm. Note: the trident Neptune is holding became the logo for Maserati cars as the Maserati brothers were from Bologna. Within 50 km of Bologna, Ferraris and Lamborghinis are also assembled.

Ferrara is a city NE of Bologna with a rich Italian and Jewish history, and we have been wanting to visit it ever since our friend Andrea told us about it 10 years ago. Andrea is our friend who lives in Milan, but he is from Ferrara. He and his daughter and grandson met us there Saturday afternoon (he drove from Milan and we took the 30 min. train ride from Bologna). He took us to the Yom Kippur service at the surviving synagogue, included us in the break-the-fast dinner he was going to, invited us to sleep in his family Ferrara house, and toured us around Ferrara for 6 hours (including a great lunch) on Sunday. So this is the second time during this trip to Italy that Andrea and his family have shown us great love and friendship and shared their lives and knowledge of Italy with us.

Andrea's Ferrara Family Home
The reasons he knows so much about Ferrara are:
1. He was born there.
2. His mother was born in the Ferrara house he still owns.
3. His grandparents lived in the same house.
4. His great grandparents bought the house in 1883. 
5. He can trace his mother's family back to about 1650 in Ferrara.
6. His house in Ferrara was built in about 1550 (the one we slept in). Like most homes in the 'newer' part of the city, it is large with a large courtyard in the middle of the structure and a large garden in the back on a total of almost one acre. The photo to the right only shows about one-third of the front of the house. They converted the house into rental apartments some years ago keeping one for their family to use when they visit Ferrara.

Ferrara Ghetto 1627-1861
A little Jewish history in Ferrara:
The origins of the Jewish community in Ferrara are very ancient and the city boasts a tradition of religious diversity. Many groups of Jews, driven out of their native countries - Spain (1492), Portugal (1498) and Germany (1530) - were welcomed by the Este family. They settled in Ferrara and created a strong and well-organised community. The ghetto was set up in 1627 by the papal government which ended the previously liberal policy. At No. 95 on Via Mazzini the building with the Synagogue still stands, donated to the Jewish community in 1485. The ghetto was finally abolished with the unification of Italy in 1861.

Saturday evening we attended Yom Kippur services in the Synagogue at Via Mazzini 95. It was hard to accept I was praying in the same room where Jews 525 years ago were doing the same. The Jewish Museum in Ferrara has the original keys to the ghetto from 1627 (see photo in our web gallery) which are on loan from the Church (who created the ghetto that Jews had to live in)... seems a bit ironic.

Touring in Ferrara
Sunday morning we toured the medieval part of Ferrara which includes the old ghetto. Three story brick houses from the 11th-12th century and very narrow cobble stone streets surround you blocking out the sun. Andrea explained that the Po River used to run along the edge of this part of the city and the cargo was unloaded, brought into warehouses and then distributed throughout the city. Walking along the same streets that were bustling thoroughfares over 800 years ago was somehow quieting. It was like I was trying to hear the sounds from long ago.

Lunch w/ Andrea, Laura & Alessandro
Our next stop was lunch in the medieval part of the city. The owner knew Andrea and Andrea's father. Here generations have known each other unlike the quick come-and-go of restaurants and stores in America. Marcia had tortellacci which is a larger version of tortellini and tortelloni. It was fun having a meal with Andrea's daughter, Laura, and her son Alissandro. And Marcia's iPhone game was his dessert.

Ferrara Duomo
Now it was time to tour the renaissance part of the city that started around 1450 and was mostly completed by 1600 within the high city walls that circled the city to protect it (some of which still exists). Large streets with heavy car traffic mark the dividing line between the old and new parts of the city. Here they think of the renaissance area as the 'modern' part; it took some getting used to thinking of houses built from 1450-1600 as 'new'. The duomo marks the center of town (even though it is within the medieval part of the city) with a large beautiful piazza (click on the duomo photo to enlarge and get a sense of its size).

I think the most overpowering feeling from our weekend in Ferrara was the intensity of history we felt. This was undoubtedly due to Andrea's wealth of knowledge he was imparting almost minute by minute. But when you are walking among, and seeing, the buildings and streets as the history is being poured into you, the combination becomes very intense and will probably take time to sink in. The train back to Bologna was on time and quick.

We are leaving Bologna tomorrow (17 Oct.) after 3 weeks of a lot of walking around the Centro seeing and experiencing the medieval and beautiful sites, eating great food and meeting new friends. We want to thank all of the wonderful new friends we met. Since we were introduced to most of these new friends by our San Francisco friend, Giorgia, first grazie mille Giorgia!

Gabriella and Diego
Diego and Gabriella - We met Diego and Gabriella near their home in Bologna. Diego was Giorgia's elementary school teacher and they reconnected in London almost 20 years later. Gabriella and Diego treated us to lunch at a great restaurant and introduced us to their local gelateria where we had the best pear gelato ever. The following week we had a wonderful home cooked meal at their home (you wouldn't believe the view from their balconies... yes they have two). We also had the opportunity to tour Diego's elementary school where he teaches. When he opened the door to his class (he teaches in the morning and another teacher takes over in the afternoon), a few kids got up and hugged him. Thank you Diego and Gabriella. P.S. Diego surprised us by meeting at the Bologna train station Monday morning to say goodbye. We were very appreciative to have found such a good friend.

Graziella - We met Giorgia's friend in the center of Bologna where she started her tour of the city centro and the Accademia Belle Arti Bologna where she teaches wood restoration (antique frames, etc.) We learned a lot and became friends. A week later she picked us up and drove around the hills south of Bologna showing us views and scenery we would never have seen without her including a tour of the Rizzoli Orthopedic Hospital within the monastery of San Michele in Bosco. The evening ended in one of her favorite restaurants, Trattoria Trebbi, with a buffet of grilled vegetables and great food. Thank you Graziella.

Vittorio and Laila
Laila and Vittorio - We met Giorgia's parents when they drove into Bologna from their home about 10km west of town. We hit if off right away while drinking a bottle of prosecco and learning about each other (speaking only in Italian). They picked us up the next night and drove us to their home where we enjoyed a walk through their town and an amazing home cooked meal of many courses of typical Bolognese cuisine including mortadella from Zola Predosa and the famous tagliatelle bolognese. We also got to see some of Giorgia's trophies from her athletic days. Thank you Laila and Vittorio.

Andrea - We first met Andrea about a year ago in San Francisco while he was visiting Giorgia. This past week he was doing some work on his rental apartment in Bologna (he lives in Ravenna) and took us to one of his favorite restaurants for dinner Trattoria Anna Maria. We had the best tortellini, tortelloni and tortellacci we've had during our time in Bologna as well as a night of great conversation. Thank you Andrea.

Lea - We met Lea after Rosh Hashanah services when she offered to help us find a restaurant for lunch. Little did we know that would lead to a long talk over lunch, dinner at her home and a farewell coffee and sweets at her, and now our, favorite bakery. Thank you Lea.

We leave Bologna with fond memories, new friends and very full bellies. We now understand the city's nickname 'La Grassa' (the fat one) a bit better :-)

Time to Leave Bologna and See What Orvieto is Like:

Wow, what a difference a 3 hour train ride makes. We left a big city and arrived in one of the most unique small towns in Italy. Orvieto sits on top of a 3,000 foot high volcanic tufa (similar to limestone) butte. We got off the train, walked across the street, and took the funicular up the butte into what looks and feels like 13th century Italy. The top of the butte is a rectangle/oval about 1 mile long by 0.75 mile wide. Our apartment is on the west end of town on the top floor where we overlook the roofs of buildings around us and the hills in the distance. We noticed one other sense - sound... it is almost completely quiet looking out our windows. Here is a link to some Orvieto photos.

View from Our Apartment
We learned that the building our apartment is in was probably built around the year 700. We are in the oldest part of Orvieto. Thinking about years this long ago is difficult for me, so I began trying to put these ancient dates in perspective. Below is a list of various European eras before and after Orvieto began.

Greeks: 800 BC - 146 BC
Etruscans in Italy: 700 BC - 200 BC
Roman Empire: 300 BC - 476
Medieval Period: 500 - 1300
Renaissance: 1350 - 1600

Orvieto Caves
Orvieto is honeycombed with 1,200 caves under every building in the city. When you live in a town with no ability to expand on land, and as the population grows, you either build up or your build down. The houses could not be made higher, so the people built caves from 50-75 feet down between approximately 1250-1750. The caves were used for many things including making olive oil (which needs fairly warm weather and the caves stay at 69 degrees F all year around). Donkeys were brought into the caves to turn the heavy pressing stones for the olive oil. Another use of the caves was raising pigeons for food. They built hundreds of holes in the cave walls for the pigeons to sit and sleep. Then they cut a hole to the outside in the cave so the pigeons could fly out in the morning and find food to eat, and then they would fly back into the caves in the evening. This made it very inexpensive to raise the pigeons since you didn't have to care for or feed them. This practice stopped around 1850, but you can still find pigeon on the menu in some Orvieto restaurants. Every building owner in Orvieto owns the cave(s) below their building, and some homes and restaurants have steps down to their cave. The tour we took was in the two public caves.

Etruscan Well in Orvieto
But way before the caves were built, the first people to inhabit this area of Italy, the Etruscans (before the Romans), lived in Orvieto and built wells 270 feet deep. When the city was under siege (like from Rome around 200 BC for two years), the people could not leave the high butte and needed water... hence the wells. When the caves were being built over 1,400 years later, they found over 30 wells all the exact same dimensions. It took Etruscans 3 months to cut out one well. The wells are about 4x3 feet and were dug by hand of course. The man would dig a bit, then put the dirt into a bucket that was pulled up by rope, and dig some more. The Etruscans were small; an adult male was the size of a boy today, so they could maneuver as they dug out the small well.

Etruscans were a peace loving agricultural peoples. Their relics and tombs have been used to understand how they lived. As power-hungary Emperors tried to expand their conquests over 2,000 years ago, they attacked the Etruscans often. I wonder if they died out due to broken hearts that their lives became dominated with defending themselves in war after war.

Orvieto sites
We've been in Orvieto for over 4 days now (it's Friday and we leave Sunday for Rome), and we're beginning to know our way around. That doesn't mean we know every street because that would takes weeks or months to learn every small street. But it turns out if we just keep walking, we wind up in a place we're familiar with. The city is out of a "story book." Almost nothing has changed in over 500 years (in some cases over 1,000 years), yet everything still works and looks amazing. Winding through the zigzag tiny streets always reveals interesting buildings and churches (over 20 of them I think), and it's all clean and relatively quiet. The only thing that probably disturbs the inhabitants from centuries ago are the many cars that zoom around the small streets. I heard a comment about the Orvietans that I think must be true... "they are very proud of their town, and it looks it."

Marcia, Chef Carlo & mom, Toni, Sue
We found a very small restaurant, Trattoria da Carlo, that we loved. The owner/chef and his mother were very friendly to us and the food was awesome. So when our friend Toni, and her friend Sue, took the train from Rome to Orvieto to spend the day with us, we took them there. The owner and chef, Carlo, immediately recognized us and began the Italian response we love so much, "Ciao, come stai..." with arms outstretched for a hug. You can't help but be in a good mood with a welcome like that. The food again was great including (to name only a few) taglolini with pumpkin and rosemary, grilled peppers and dessert of ricotta cheese, honey and ground coffee sifted over the top... it will definitely be added to our menu at home.

Toni Gets Her Pasta Stamp
While Toni was visiting us, we showed her our apartment and presented her with Franco's corzetti (pasta stamp) he made for her when we were in Chiavari. This closed our story of meeting Franco (at Toni's suggestion) and all of the wonderful times we then shared with Franco and his family and friends.

Orvieto's Outer Wall
We finally had a chance to walk around the outer edge of Orvieto. There is a wide walking path that apparently very few locals or tourists use since it was empty while we were on it. It gave us a chance to see what the city looks like from the outside, close up, as we peered over the edge (click on photo on left to enlarge). We continue to be impressed how clean the city is.

Orvieto's Saturday Market
At the Saturday outdoor market you could buy fruits, vegetables, meat, cheese, clothes, shoes, kitchen linens and I'm sure more that I missed. Marcia was looking for a few things and found it easy to chat with the vendors who were very friendly to the point of giving us advice what to see at our next stop, Rome. [Note to Anh: Marcia got the tablecloth.]

One of the things that made our visit to Orvieto so pleasant was our apartment La Loggia. We found it through BBPlanet. It is everything as advertised with a warm feeling and amazing views. We would recommend it to anyone coming to Orvieto. Now it's off to Roma!

Time to Leave Orvieto and Experience Rome Again (after 5 years):

Sue, Marcia, Toni & Joe for Rooftop Prosecco
We arrived in Rome on Sunday afternoon, checked into our hotel (Boscolo Palace - Roma), and immediately walked to meet our friends Toni and Sue at their secret rooftop lounge for an evening view of the city and a drink before going to dinner. A bottle of prosecco later, we were all enjoying the mild night and views I've never seen before from 7 stories above the street.

Sue & Toni Marvel at Appetisers
Then we had a 20 minute walk led by Toni to where we had reservations for our vegetarian restaurant dinner at il Margutta. This restaurant is one of the only vegetarian restaurants in Rome and was started in 1979. The food was amazing and I would go back in a minute. On the walk home, we climbed the Spanish Steps... where else could you climb an 18th Century masterpiece on your stroll home after dinner? And Rome has surprises like that at almost turn.

Villa Borghese
This week has been wonderful. We've walked to Trevi Fountain, the Coliseum, the Pantheon, and many restaurants... oh, and don't forget the gelaterias. Marcia has logged even more miles to the Jewish area, Campo de' Fiori, and I'm sure more I don't know about. Our hotel is on Via Veneto in the fancy part of northern Rome near Villa Borghese, a 150 acre park (somewhat like NY Central Park) where no cars are allowed. We walked through the park one afternoon and forgot we were in a huge, bustling city. It was peaceful, beautiful and quiet.

Our Roman friends Smilja and Claudio have been treating us to meals and introducing us to their daughter and son. Seeing them again after 5 years has been great, and as all true friendships, the time between meetings disappears when you get together again.

Cafe Stop
Our last full day in Rome (and Italy after 2 months) could not have been better and sweeter. We spent all day with our Roman friends Smilja and Claudio (and Smilja's Serbian cousin) visiting beautiful small towns north of Rome around Lake Borsena. They picked us up in the morning and quickly stopped for a cafe and sweet (you gotta love Italians). We drove north and before getting to our first destination, we stopped for our second cafe (I really like Italians).

Towns Around Lake Bolsena
We then arrived in the town of Valentano which overlooks a beautiful valley with Lake Bolsena in the distance. We walked around the small town marveling at its age and checking out houses for sale. Lake Bolsena is a large crater lake dotted with small towns around it. It is a popular vacation area of Romans in the summer, and we can see why. The two small islands in the lake add to its beauty and mystique. When viewed from the surrounding towns, it becomes a magnet for your eyes.

Chef Roberto After Lunch
Next stop was lunch in the town of Grotte di Castro also near Lake Bolsena. Claudio and Smilja have been to La Locanda di Roberto many times before and when we entered, the chef and his wife gave them a big grin and a lot Italian was being spoken (Marcia probably knows what they were saying, but I don't... it was very friendly, that's for sure). Claudio ordered for everyone and dishes began coming non-stop. First 4 different appetizers were served; each better than the next. Together with the wine, we were all pretty full just with these. But then came the pasta and risotto... OMG, they were so good we kept eating (although I have no idea how). The chef is from a town on the sea and when he moved to Grotte di Castro, he continued to make dishes with seafood. I can still taste the flavors. So of course we were way too stuffed for dessert... not. Claudio and Smilja ordered a few different ones and guess what... right, we ate them. Limoncello and a cherry liqueur showed up, and I enjoyed the cold limon drink. Lunch ended with a lot of conversations and good times with Chef Roberto and his wife, and they were kind enough to give Marcia and me a gift of a bottle of their special after-dinner liqueur. Our lunch dishes were:
1. BaccalĂ  in umido con pane tostato.
2. Polipo con fagioli.
3. Sauté al pomodoro di cozze e vongole.
4. Linguine alla carbonara di pesce.
5. Risotto di seppie e spinaci.
6. Dolce di ricotta e pere.
7. Crostata di amarene.
8. Sorbetto al limone.
9. Limoncello.
10. Liquore all'amarena.

Lake Bolsena
But Claudio and Smilja were not finished showing us the countryside. After a walk around Grotte di Castro (which we needed after that meal), our next stop was Lake Bolsena. It is one of the largest lakes in central Italy and beautiful. We walked to the top of the town and saw a beautiful view of the lake and surrounding area. What struck us was how quiet it was. These small towns are missing the sirens and horns you get so used to in large cities.

Awesome Gelato
We drove back into Rome and finished the day right where we should have... eating gelato! Then the final ride to our hotel where we spent a long time hugging and saying goodbye and discussing how much we hope to see our friends next year in San Francisco. Smilja and Claudio went way beyond being perfect hosts this week. They showed how close our friendship has become. I wish I could think of the words to express Marcia's and my appreciation of their efforts this week to be with us and share their city and part of Italy.

Europe from 30,000 feet
Ending Like We Started
Before getting back to the San Francisco area, we have stops in Munich to see Adriano (our high school exchange student from 20 years ago), his wife Marzena and their daughter Julia... and then on the East Coast to visit with Marcia's sister and my parents in Baltimore.

We want to thank all of you who emailed and left comments. It meant a lot to hear how many people were following our trip and enjoying the blog and photos. Feel free to leave one last comment...

To see a video slideshow of our trip, click here.
If you are interested in our previous trips to Italy, click here.