Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

My bus ride to Sauris was one of the more hair-raising I have endured. After changing buses two times—and squeezing myself into a seat amid a sizeable group of motion-sick school kids—the final leg of the journey traveled through dark mountainside tunnels and across a precipitous bridge suspended over the turquoise Lago di Sauris. I arrived on a breezy, overcast July day—a welcome respite from the heat wave that was blanketing the rest of Italy. The scent of rain hung in the humid air, threatening to dampen the upcoming weekend’s prosciutto festival.

More so than any other Carnian village, Sauris has retained a sense of otherworldly charm, its characteristic multi-story homes—white masonry below and wooden framework above—hinting at the region’s Austrian past. Intricate patterns cut into the woodwork adorn railings and balconies, along with a rainbow of potted flowers. Throughout the town, chickens crowd backyard pens, while hay, deftly woven into the latticework, dries on the upper floors of Alpine farmhouses. Above it all towers the onion-domed steeple of Chiesa di Sant’Osvaldo.

Sauris actually consists of two towns: the upper Sauris di Sopra and lower Sauris di Sotto. I was staying in the lower village, the location of not only the Festa del Prosciutto but also the Prosciuttificio Wolf Sauris. During the free days before the festival, my primary objective was to explore the inner workings of this prosciutto factory—but upon inquiry, I learned they couldn’t give a tour to someone traveling da sola (alone). I could, however, tag along with their next busload of Austrian tourists, which was expected the next afternoon.

Nestled in the hills above Sauris di Sotto, the barnlike Wolf Sauris factory produces a prosciutto that may not be as famous as Friuli’s other ham, prosciutto di San Daniele, but is deservedly celebrated in its own right. As I followed the Italian-speaking guide through the sterile rooms of white tile and stainless steel, the salty, smoky aromas were pleasantly overpowering. The curing room, where endless rows of prosciutti hung from floor to ceiling, left me craving a nibble or two. Happily, the tour ended with the guide handing out breadsticks draped with gauze-thin slices of the rosy, pink meat.

On the morning of the festival, I was awakened by a rooster’s crow and the patter of raindrops on my window. I stayed indoors until lunchtime, when the rain began to taper off and masses of visitors emerged onto the streets. After spotting a sign that advertised frico con polenta, I immediately jumped in the long line to order a plate. This frico was the version made with potatoes, but having been pre-cooked, packaged in zippered bags, and then reheated in a microwave oven, mine was still cold inside. The polenta, on the other hand, was freshly prepared. Large cauldrons bubbled with hot cornmeal as cooks stood watch, stirring the mixture with long, wooden paddles. When ready, the polenta was poured onto a board, quickly cooling into a two-foot-wide mass, and sliced with a long piece of string. Given my disappointing, microwaved frico, I might have fared better with one of the other selections, such as ricotta (both fresh and smoked) or formaggio di malga (cheese made during the summer in a mountaintop dairy called a malga).

After I had finished eating, I spent the next couple hours exploring the various booths and food stands. Naturally, there was plenty of prosciutto di Sauris to sample, as well as many other types of salumi produced at Prosciuttificio Wolf Sauris. Then there were the cheese vendors. One in particular specialized in formadi frant, a cheese made by mixing other cheeses in various stages of maturation. I tasted two varieties, which were white in color, with a tangy flavor reminiscent of sharp cheddar.

All sorts of artisanal products were for sale, vendors having driven from the far corners of Carnia to display their goods. Stacked high on tables were jars of homemade salsa piccante, a spicy purée of carrots and other vegetables; honey flavored by acacia, chestnut, and rhododendron; preserves made from apples and berries; and fruit syrups in such tantalizing flavors as dandelion, elderberry, and red currant. Bins overflowed with mushrooms, including fresh chanterelles and dried porcini, while pint-sized baskets were brimming with wild strawberries, blackberries, and blueberries. Of course, there was also Zahre Beer, a local brand produced right there in Sauris.

As popular as beer seemed to be at the festival, grappa was a close second. Throughout the region, fruits such as apples, plums, and berries are used to make distilled wines and liqueurs. One such vendor offered me a taste of something in a Dixie cup, but his accent was so thick that I couldn’t understand exactly what it was. Bottles of Elisir di Mora and Elisir di Lampone (blackberry and raspberry liqueurs) stood on display, so I guessed it was one of those. Knowing the alcohol would be too strong for my liking (wine is more my speed), I tried to decline, but the gentleman was very insistent. I politely took a sip and then discreetly threw it in the trash once I was out of sight.

In addition to the food, there were dozens of craft tables at the festival—the same ones that I would start to recognize at each of the festivals I attended that summer—selling everything from soap and candles to dried flowers and woodcrafts.

Ready for dessert, I patrolled the remaining food stalls to the tunes of two competing oom-pah bands. Ultimately, I found myself at the bottom of the hill in a tent filled with scrumptious-looking pastries. There had been other desserts available elsewhere—the ubiquitous gelato and some cups of fruit salad—but I knew immediately that I would have to buy something here. While I felt tempted by the apple strudel, what ultimately drew me in was the selection of crostate ai piccoli frutti. Topped with jam and a neatly woven lattice crust, these extra-large rectangles typified Carnia in a dessert: rustic, sweet but not overly sugary, and full of the wild berries so abundant in the area. While some were made with a cornmeal crust, I chose a regular one with crust much like a spiced shortbread cookie and topped with blackberry-blueberry jam.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

The Festa dell’Asparago di Bosco, del Radicchio di Montagna, e dei Funghi di Primavera—celebrating wild asparagus, mountain radicchio, and spring mushrooms—is held every May in Piano d’Arta, a hilltop hamlet just up the road from the town of Arta Terme. I arrived a day prior to the street fair’s scheduled opening, but there was plenty to keep me busy.

Several hotels were offering special tasting-menus for the entire weekend. For lunch at Albergo Ristorante Salon, I was treated to a series of small plates that showcased local wild edibles: herb fritters, marinated trout with wild fennel and greens, dandelion soup with delicate Montasio cheese puffs, orzotto (barley cooked “risotto-style”) with morel mushrooms, lasagne with hop shoots and wild asparagus, pheasant breast with marjoram and potatoes, and a wild strawberry spumone for dessert.

Fully sated, I spent the afternoon exploring the environs. Down the hill and across the Bût River, a Japanese pagoda housed the Terme di Arta thermal baths and spa. A ten minute walk further along the highway landed me in nearby Zuglio, where I could investigate the ruins of an ancient Roman settlement right in the center of town.

That evening at Hotel Gardel, I splurged on yet another tasting menu, only this time I barely made it halfway through the feast before I admitted defeat. After courses of breaded asparagus, pear and cheese salad, asparagus and potato tortino (layered into a “little cake”), asparagus gratinati (baked with melted cheese), and bleons (buckwheat pasta) with mushroom sauce, I had no room for soup, another mushroom orzotto, stuffed rabbit, or dessert. The banquet hall was packed, and the air buzzed with the hum of foreign conversation and the electric tunes of a live pianist—so I knew I would not be missed when I ducked out to pay my bill.

The next morning, I left my hotel to find the festival gearing up bright and early. In both directions along the wisteria-lined road, tables were being set up to display all sorts of traditional arts and crafts. Wildflowers seemed to be a common theme, appearing on hand-painted ceramic plates, beaded ornaments, and decorative wooden plaques for the home.

Tucked away in a corner near Albergo Salon, a couple of mycologists had arranged a display of local wild mushrooms. It was well known that the elderly owner of the hotel, Bepi Salon (who passed away several years after my visit, in 2010), was an avid mycologist himself and made daily excursions into the forests to collect mushrooms, herbs, and berries for his wife, Fides, to serve in the hotel’s restaurant.

Around noon, as the sun peeked out from behind a patch of ominous rain clouds and a big band struck up the tune “New York, New York,” I embarked on a self-guided tasting spree. Bypassing a grill station loaded with ribs and sausages, I headed first for the frico (fried cheese) cart. Frico was one of the first Friulian dishes I had tried many years earlier and may be given credit for sparking my interest in this region’s cuisine. There are two main varieties—crispy fried wafers (frico croccante), often served in the shape of a bowl, and pancakes prepared with cheese and potatoes (frico con patate)—but here in Piano d’Arta, I was introduced to yet another type called frico friabile. Instead of cooking the cheese in a skillet, the signora was dropping handfuls of grated cheese into a pot of boiling oil. After only a few minutes, she removed what looked like a porous sea sponge and draped it over a small rack of copper rods, where it quickly crisped up in the shape of a taco shell. Now while I simply adore frico made with potatoes, this disappointing version dripped with grease and tasted strongly of cooking oil.

I discreetly disposed of my plate and proceeded to the next food stall, where a young boy was handing out samples of frittelle (fritters) made with wild herbs and greens such as sage, acacia, melissa (lemon balm), sambuco (elderberry), radicchio di montagna (blue sow thistle), and sclopit (silene). I then spotted an array of frittatas and politely jostled my way into the line. When the woman ahead of me reached the table, she requested a piatto misto so that she could sample all three varieties: mushroom, asparagus, and sclopit. The server refused, explaining that it could not be done for just one customer. Eavesdropping on the exchange, I immediately piped in to express my similar wish, and we were each subsequently granted half a frittata sampler plate. Each slice was as thin as a pancake but loaded with savory flavor.

Finally, I ordered a plate of cjalsòns. There are dozens of recipes for cjalsòns (alternately spelled cjarzòns or cjalcions) in Carnia, and most contain some element of sweetness. These particular ones were half-moon-shaped ravioli filled with herbs, raisins, and chocolate and served with melted butter, smoked ricotta cheese, sugar, and cinnamon. After sampling nearly twenty versions over the years, my absolute favorite turned out to be the ones I later ordered at Ristorante Salon. Filled with a sublime combination of apple, pear, and herbs, they were the perfect balance of sweet, savory, salty and smoky.

Read Full Post »

Tucked away in Italy’s northeast corner, Friuli–Venezia Giulia stretches from the Adriatic Sea to the boundaries of Austria and Slovenia. It is along the region’s Austrian border that the flat plains of central Friuli ascend into forested hills and snow-capped peaks. With the Carnian Alps (Carnia) in the west and the Giulian Alps (Tarvisiano) to the east, this mountainous area is sprinkled with onion-domed church steeples, gabled chalets, and Alpine farmhouses. Isolated from the rest of the region by rugged mountains and long, treacherous roads, Carnia embodies everything I long for in nature—wildflowers, birdsong, open meadows where I can twirl like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music.

On several trips to Friuli in 2004 and 2005, I planned my itinerary around a few of the region’s numerous food festivals, all in either Carnia proper or the area at the base of the Alps known as Alto Friuli. While there was always a trade-off—tranquil, tourist-free villages inevitably became overwhelmed by flocks of visitors—I found these festivals to be an invaluable opportunity to learn about Friulian culture and interact with the local people.

Over the following month, I’ll take you on a tour of the following five food festivals:

  • Festa dell’Asparago di Bosco, del Radicchio di Montagna, e dei Funghi di Primavera—Arta Terme
  • Festa del Prosciutto—Sauris
  • Mondo delle Malghe—Ovaro
  • Festa dei Frutti di Bosco—Forni Avoltri
  • Festa della Zucca—Venzone

Read Full Post »

This piece was originally published in the May 2011 issue of Dream of Italy.

When asked to recall my most perfect memory of absolute bliss, I immediately picture myself floating on my back in the tranquil sea off Baia Santa Lucia, the sun beating down on my face and limbs, the buoyant water sending my thoughts drifting into oblivion. Several years prior, I had spent two months as a student at the dance festival Pro Danza Italia, and I had now returned to Castiglioncello—located on the Tuscan coast just south of Livorno—to teach a Pilates workshop at the same festival.

 

All the teachers were given lodging at Villa Santa Lucia, a spacious home perched high on a cliff, with thatched-roof gazebos spilling down the hillside to a sandy cove below. Like an unwanted stepchild banished to a fairytale tower, I was given the closet-sized room on the roof. Although it had no bathroom (I had to go down the outside stairway to get into the main house), my roof-tower room was truly paradise. The door opened directly onto the roof, an open terrace with panoramic views of the sea. I remember watching sunsets fill the sky with shades of fuchsia, periwinkle, and crimson, and I often woke during the night just to see the moonlight sparkle over the horizon.

During my free afternoons, I would spend hours at Bagni Italia—a beach club on the town’s largest bay, Baia del Quercetano—lunching on fresh marinated anchovies and tender fried calamari, then relaxing in the sun on a rented lounge chair. When the summer’s heat became too intense, I could cool off in the gentle waves. On the way back to the villa, I would pause for a late afternoon snack, which always entailed at least three flavors of gelato at nearby Gelateria Bocelli (owned by singer Andrea Bocelli’s second cousin Rossano).

Nearly a decade later, I found myself dreaming of Castiglioncello’s rocky coves and sandy beaches, so I returned once again, seeking to relive some of those early, carefree memories. This time I stayed at the pink Hotel Baia del Sorriso, overlooking the bay where I had years ago spent so many afternoons sunning and bobbing in the waves. My old haunt Bagni Italia was no longer serving a full menu (or perhaps things were not yet in full swing, seeing as I had arrived just at the cusp of high season), and I was disappointed to find that Signor Bocelli had sold his gelateria (I’ve heard a rumor that he is now a butcher in nearby Rosignano). But I was consoled by the fact that, being a decade older, I could afford to treat myself to some spectacular restaurant meals…and I had planned my trip to coincide with the annual Festa del Pesce.

The “Festival of Fish” began forty years ago as a casual get-together between a few hungry friends and a pot of fried fish. As curious passers-by were invited to join the party, word spread throughout their tiny, coastal hamlet, and soon this innocuous meal had grown into a full-fledged bash. The event was repeated the following year…and the year after that, gradually evolving into what is today an enormous feast for tens of thousands of visitors. Held annually on the second Sunday in June, the Festa del Pesce celebrates the beginning of the summer season with music, street markets, and—most importantly—plenty of seafood.

The scene is Caletta, a peaceful town nestled between the comfortably trendy resort of Castiglioncello and the more industrial Rosignano Solvay. This charming slice of the Tuscan coast is lined with pine forests, turquoise bays, and a rainbow of umbrella-dotted beaches. Farther north, the winding coastline ascends to a stretch of rugged cliffs, while to the south lies the town of Vada and its vast Spiaggia Bianca, where the sand is implausibly white. A short distance inland, the hill town Rosignano Marittimo offers a sweeping view of the verdant countryside and endless shores.

On the menu at the Festa del Pesce, I found a number of local seafood dishes, including porpo bria’o (octopus cooked in red wine), cozze alla pescatora (mussel stew), risotto ai tre scogli (shellfish risotto), crespelle alla calettana (seafood-filled ravioli), penne alla bua de ‘orvi (seafood pasta named after the nearby bay Buca dei Corvi), spiedini di gamberoni (grilled shrimp kebabs), and cacciucco alla livornese (Livorno-style seafood stew). The main attraction, however, was the frittura, a mix of fried calamari and shrimp. The frittura was cooked in a massive frying pan that spanned 13 feet, held 160 gallons of oil, and fried 1000 portions an hour.

As the festival coincided with the year’s first heat wave, the beaches were packed with bronze sun-worshippers sporting miniscule bikinis and nearly naked toddlers learning to swim. Instead of joining the crowds, I decided to take a walk along the lungomare, the seaside promenade that winds around tiny coves from Caletta north to Castiglioncello’s promontory, Punta Righini.

As I approached Baia di Portovecchio, I was stunned to see a shipwrecked Lebanese vessel looming over the tufa rock beach. (The abandoned ship has since been demolished.) At Baia dei Tre Scogli, the promenade was briefly interrupted by the pineta, a cliff-side park lined with pine trees and home to a children’s playground, a movie theater, and tennis courts. At the north end of the park, I climbed down a set of stairs to Baia di Castiglioncello, arriving just in time to watch the embarkment of a festival-sponsored sailing regatta.

The final stretch of the lungomare circled halfway around the Punta Righini. Along the way, I passed La Baracchina where I had dined the night before. Located on a stretch of rocks jutting out into the sea, the restaurant gave the appearance of a casual beach shack. In the evening, however, the interior was enhanced by elegant yellow and white linens and the romantic glow of candlelight. Floor-to-ceiling windows encircled the dining area and let in a refreshing breeze. While tucking into a deliciously grilled sea bass, I had been mesmerized by the 180-degree view spanning the electric, pink-and-blue horizon and the darkening coastline punctuated by gleaming specks of light.

When the paved promenade ended, I continued exploring further—walking over and between boulders, following a makeshift path to its ultimate end at a privately owned beach. When I could go no further, I backtracked through the town, stopping to admire two of Castiglioncello’s landmarks: the Torre Medicea, built by the Medici family during the 16th century as a guard against the raids of Saracen pirates, and the Castello Pasquini, built centuries later by art critic Diego Martelli to house his entourage of writers, poets, and Impressionist painters. In recent years, the castle has provided a stage for numerous dance and theater performances, including ones by Pro Danza Italia.

Still craving some beach time, I headed back to my hotel for a swim. While Hotel Baia del Sorriso does not have an actual beach, they do provide a concrete landing with a ladder for easy access into the crystal clear water. As I leisurely swam from one end of Baia del Quercetano to the other, I felt that sense of sun-drenched elation return. Although I will always miss my rooftop tower and private beach at Villa Santa Lucia, I discovered that bliss could still be found in Castiglioncello.

Read Full Post »

This piece was originally published in the April 2014 issue of Dream of Italy.

Legend says that when the goddess Venus emerged from the waves of the Tyrrhenian Sea, she dropped her necklace, and those gemstones became the seven islands of the Tuscan Archipelago. Many visitors would declare Capraia to be the most stunning of these islands, with its dramatic cliffs, pristine waters, and wild, uninhabited interior.

While the island is a popular summertime destination for Italians, it still has much to offer during all but perhaps the coldest winter months. I traveled to Capraia in mid-June, when the crowds had not yet peaked, but the weather was still warm enough to enjoy a refreshing dip in the sea.

I arrived by ferry, a three-hour journey from Livorno, accompanied partway by a pod of dolphins riding the bow wave. As we disembarked, an orange bus was waiting to shuttle many passengers to lodgings across the bay in Capraia’s only village, perched on a hilly promontory dominated by the imposing Forte San Giorgio. Others, including myself, were staying at Albergo Da Beppone, a modestly priced hotel located just footsteps from the quay.

Aside from these two areas, porto (port) and paese (village), the rest of the seven-square-mile island is uninhabited, a nature reserve split down the middle by a crest of mountains, the highest peak rising 1,460 feet above sea level. With a landscape swathed in Mediterranean macchia shrubs, Capraia’s backcountry offers a true escape from civilization. Its hiking trails traverse the island, leading to ancient watchtowers, panoramic vistas, and rocky coves at the water’s edge.

On my first day on Capraia, I embarked on a hike to the island’s only lake, a pool formed in the crater of an extinct volcano and referred to alternately as il laghetto (small lake) and lo stagnone (large pond). Beginning in the village’s Piazza Milano, to the left of the yellow Chiesa di San Nicola, the stone path initially ascended on a gentle incline but soon became steeper, narrower, and increasingly more strenuous. The low brush on either side rose every now and then, creating a tunnel-like canopy of branches overhead. Underfoot, the rocks were pointy and sharp, not having weathered enough traffic to smooth down their surfaces. Occasionally, I caught a glimpse of a lizard sunning itself on one of these stones, slithering into the shade to disappear upon my approach.

Coming to a crossroads, I turned onto a dirt path that wound up and down hills, climbing higher into the island’s desolate hinterland. Having encountered only a couple of other hikers along the way, the feeling here was of complete isolation—silent except for the sweet chirping of birds and faint rustle of hidden reptiles.

Eventually, the path flattened out, coarse macchia giving way to soft grass and wildflowers. At last, I reached the laghetto, which was camouflaged by a swampy carpet of rushes. This, as I later learned, was merely one of its many veils: in spring, the shallow lake may become blanketed with white aquatic buttercups, while other times, its limpid water reflects the ever-changing blues of the sky.

Already over two hours into my hike, I contemplated turning back, but the hill ahead promised views of a sapphire horizon. I climbed to the next vantage point, where a tiny triangle of sea appeared through the craggy ravine. In the distance, I could clearly see the outline of Corsica—Capraia, in fact, lies closer to this French island than to Italy’s mainland.

If I had had the stamina to continue north a little further, I would have found even more breathtaking views from the jagged summit of Monte Le Penne. To the south, the trail climbed another peak, Monte Arpagna—home to the Semaforo, a rusty iron structure that was once used as a lookout point by the Italian Navy—before coming to an end at the watchtower Torre dello Zenobito on Capraia’s southernmost promontory.

On my return hike from the lake, as the distant village came into view, I espied Forte San Giorgio directly ahead atop its massive fortification walls. Like three of the island’s four towers, the castle was built in the 16th century by the Genovese to defend against Saracen pirate raids.

A relic of somewhat more recent history was nestled in the hills northwest of the port: the Colonia Penale Agricola, closed since 1986. Reachable via a trail starting behind the Chiesa di Santa Maria Assunta, the former penal colony’s cells and other abandoned buildings stood in a haunting state of disrepair.

Having now explored Capraia by land, the following day I set out on a giro dell’isola to survey the island by sea. An absolute requisite for all visitors, this boat excursion lasted around two hours, circumnavigating the island for a spectacular view of its coastline.

We left the harbor heading south, the morning sun casting a warm glow along Capraia’s eastern coast, where rolling green and brown slopes tumbled down toward rugged sea cliffs. Directly below Forte San Giorgio, at the stone watchtower Torretta del Bagno, a group of sunbathers had already gathered on the flat rocks. Nearby, we passed some swimmers in Cala dello Zurletto, a cove marked by a tower-like outcropping of rock. (Each of these spots is accessible down a steep, narrow path from the village.)

As we cruised along, our captain pointed out numerous local and migratory marine birds, including ospreys, European shags, and several species of seagulls. Colonies of those gulls had made their nests on the small islets off the coast, as well as along the sheer cliffs pockmarked by erosion.

Along the southeastern coast, the landscape hinted at an impending change of hue—evidence of the volcanic eruptions that gave birth to Capraia nine million years ago. Here, the cliff face revealed striations of dark gray and rust red, with patches of green shrubbery and golden wildflowers dotting the stone ridges like Impressionist brush strokes.

Then, just after the Torre dello Zenobito came into view, we turned the corner into Capraia’s most magnificent natural landmark, the Cala Rossa. Cliffs of white granite and fire red rock joined along a starkly defined diagonal, plunging dramatically into the clear, turquoise waters below. Amid divers, kayakers, and a handful of other boats in the cove, we lingered awhile in awed silence.

Heading north along Capraia’s west coast, we passed several caves, including the dark, dank Grotta della Foca. After rounding the island’s northernmost point by the tiny islets called Le Formiche, we reached the ephemeral Cala della Mortola. Capraia’s only sandy beach, La Mortola typically emerges in June or July, cloaked in sand or pebbles, depending on the whim of the tide, only to vanish by summer’s end. No trails lead to this beach, though many people still come by boat. Ours anchored offshore, so that we could slip into the clear, buoyant water for a swim.

During the excursion, we spotted several Capraia Diving boats, whose recreational scuba diving trips cater to all levels of experience. As part of the Parco Nazionale Arcipelago Toscano, Europe’s largest marine sanctuary, the sea around Capraia is protected by environmental laws, which serve to preserve its rich, abundant marine life. Divers will encounter a variety of fish, including barracudas, scorpionfish, and John Dory. The reefs offshore provide shelter for moray eels and spiny spider crabs, and are home to plenty of colorful corals, sponges, and sea urchins.

As I toured the island’s perimeter, it became clear that land access to the sea is fairly limited. Some coves require a long trek down to sea level; others, like La Mortola, can be reached only by rented boat or barca taxi (both available in the port). Only one beach is easily accessible from the village: La Grotta. Located across from the harbor below the resort La Mandola, this rocky bathing area sits atop a wooden platform and is fully equipped with umbrellas, lounge chairs, and snack bar, its shallows protected by a short breakwater.

Of course, a day by the sea must conclude with a meal of freshly caught seafood, and there is no better place than Ristorante Al Vecchio Scorfano. Overlooking the harbor, this restaurant has been run by the same family for three generations. On my first evening, I ordered their signature dish, zuppa di pesce (fish soup). In a style unique to Capraia, it was served in two dishes: a bowl of savory tomato broth with toasted garlic bread and a platter containing mussels, clams, calamari, octopus, langoustines, and an assortment of fish that naturally included scorfano (scorpionfish). Other house specialties were bocconi di rana pescatrice (monkfish rolled in speck), risotto al nero di seppia (cuttlefish ink risotto), spaghetti con scampi e limone (spaghetti with langoustines and lemon), and garganelli al ragù di polpo rosso (pasta with octopus ragù).

My final day arrived with that sense of poignancy that often accompanies the end of a journey, the realization that no amount of time is ever adequate. From the wild inland terrain to the sea’s crystal depths, there was still plenty more to be discovered. As my ferry pulled out of port, on its way back to the mainland, I gazed longingly at Capraia’s retreating silhouette—and kept my eyes peeled for those dolphins.

Read Full Post »

This piece was originally published in the May 2011 issue of Dream of Italy.

Stunning beaches and glowing sunsets attract countless vacationing Italians to the island of Elba, located off the coast of southern Tuscany. While July and August are the busiest months—and perhaps the ones to avoid—there are plenty of spots to escape the crowds (and heat) during the less sweltering months of May and June. In fact, all the major sights are open from April to October, so consider an off-season trip for maximum tranquility. Feel free to spend your vacation in exile, enjoying il dolce far niente—but if you begin to yearn for a bit more exploration, here are ten terrific things for you to discover.

1. Mountain High

From the hill town of Marciana, take a cabinovia to the 3343-foot summit of Monte Capanne. Any fear of heights will be seriously challenged during the twenty-minute ride over steep granite cliffs. The yellow, open-air baskets are barely large enough for two people and sway precariously in the breeze. Once at the summit landing, climb the steps to the rocky peak for a panoramic view that will take your breath away. On a clear day, look for the isle of Corsica on the western horizon.

2. Tale of Two Villas

An exiled Napoleon called Elba home for a brief ten months before escaping back to France. His two villas are open to the public: Villa dei Mulini, perched between Forte Stella and Forte Falcone on Portoferraio’s hilly promontory, and Villa di San Martino, his slightly larger summer home in the nearby mountains. Faded trompe l’oeil rooms offer a glimpse into the ruler’s life, his ego (the letter “N” appears everywhere), and his solitude. If you prefer more solitude yourself, escape the tour-bus crowds and explore the ruins of the indomitable Fortezze Medicee, just steps from Villa dei Mulini. Built by Cosimo I de’ Medici in the 16th century, these bastions offer a bird’s-eye view of the harbor below.

3. Fish Food

Cacciucco, the fish soup made famous in the Tuscan province of Livorno, is a must for dinner. Some restaurants will require the dish to be pre-ordered when making reservations so that they can stock up on the requisite five types of seafood (one for each “c” in its name). Trattoria La Barca, in the old town of Portoferraio and one of the island’s best seafood restaurants, offers cacciucco daily on their regular menu. Bring a dining companion, or at least a hearty appetite, for the portions are plentiful.

4. Medicinal Mud

Nestled in a vast eucalyptus wood just outside busy Portoferraio, Terme San Giovanni is an oasis of relaxation, specializing in mud treatments and thermal baths. The rich mineral composition of the island provides a unique therapy said to cure many ailments, including rheumatoid arthritis, eczema, and bronchitis. Even if you don’t suffer from such maladies, the spa is a great place to pamper yourself with an algae facial mask or underwater massage.

5. Pebble Beach

Marina di Campo’s long crescent of white sand is perhaps the island’s best beach, but it can be overrun with hordes of vacationers during the summer months. While access to the beach is free, it will cost to rent an umbrella and lounge chair. Pebble beaches such as Le Ghiaie (in Portoferraio), Cavo, and Chiessi are often less crowded, and there is no need to reserve a spot. Better still, rent a boat or kayak to seek out a secluded cove of your own—the coastline is dotted with hidden slivers of paradise.

6. Underwater World

Though not on the world-class scale of such aquariums as Monterey Bay and the Great Barrier Reef, the Acquario dell’Elba is Italy’s second largest (Genoa is number one). Housed in a former discotheque in the hills outside Marina di Campo, the aquarium boasts a collection of 150 species of fish and crustaceans. The main draw is a walk-around, octagonal shark tank, below which lies a display of shark jaws, swordfish swords, and a stuffed blowfish. In another tank, moray eels play hide-and-seek in giant urns.

7. Mine for Iron

The island is famous for being one of the world’s richest sources of minerals—particularly iron—and several towns in eastern Elba offer activities for the gem enthusiast. In Porto Azzurro, ex-miner Emilio Giacomelli runs La Piccola Miniera, a Disneyland-style train ride through underground caverns that offer a glimpse into the authentic mining experience. For a less staged tour, visit the Parco Minerario. Small groups hike to nearby quarries to explore and learn about local minerals. If your passion for gemstones is still not sated, there are notable rock and mineral collections in the towns Rio Marina, Rio nell’Elba, Porto Azzurro, and Capoliveri.

8. Dance the Night Away

Situated on Elba’s southeastern peninsula, Capoliveri could easily be mistaken for any hill town in Tuscany, save for the clear view of the sea on both sides. Of Elba’s many sedate hill towns, Capoliveri offers the most action. During the daytime, browse the numerous shops for jewelry made from the island’s gems and minerals; then, after sundown, visit one of the town’s popular nightclubs for some disco fun. In the summertime, Capoliveri hosts many outdoor musical events in the spacious, terraced Piazza Matteotti, where you can enjoy jazz, rock, or blues overlooking terracotta rooftops and the distant horizon.

9. Drunken Cake

Sample some of Elba’s typical pastries, the most famous being schiaccia briaca, or “drunken cake.” Made with raisins, pine nuts, hazelnuts, and candied fruit, then soaked in the local dessert wine Aleatico, this crumbly confection can be found in nearly every pastry shop on the island. To try a wide variety of Elban specialties, including torta corona, sbrisolana elbana, and sospiri di Napoleone, visit Pasticceria Lambardi Giorgio in Marina di Campo.

10. Island Gems

Legend says that when Venus emerged from the waves of the Tyrrhenian Sea, she dropped her necklace, and those gemstones became the seven islands of the Tuscan Archipelago. As part of the Parco Nazionale Arcipelago Toscano, the largest marine sanctuary in Europe, these islands enjoy unspoiled coastlines, pristine waters, and a remarkable wildlife habitat. While Pianosa—a former prison site—is the only island directly accessible from Elba, ferries run to the other islands from the nearby mainland. Capraia is particularly stunning—at its southernmost point, Cala Rossa, red and white cliffs plunge dramatically into the turquoise sea.

Read Full Post »

This piece was originally published on BloggingAuthors.com.

For more than a decade of traveling throughout Italy, I had been captivated by the country’s many charms—its ancient art and architecture, breathtaking scenery, and irresistible cuisine. It may sound a bit cliché, given the overabundance of American Italophiles, but no place else in the world held the same allure in my eyes. It wasn’t, however, until my first trip to Friuli–Venezia Giulia—a tiny region in northeastern Italy—that my Italian affair truly began.

I had traveled to Udine, one of the region’s major cities, for a business meeting at the Ledragomma GymnastikBall factory. (I was, at the time, working as a Pilates instructor and writing a book of ball exercises, Balance on the Ball: Exercises Inspired by the Teachings of Joseph Pilates.) When the company’s owner, Steno Dondè, learned of my interest in cooking, he generously invited me to dinner. I was eager to try some of Friuli’s traditional cuisine, so he suggested Udine’s oldest restaurant, Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo. Converted from an old horse stable, the restaurant has been serving food for more than one hundred years. It was here that I was seduced—not by Steno, but by our meal.

First we ordered the cjalsòns, a type of filled pasta from the mountainous area in northern Friuli called Carnia. While there are countless recipes for cjalsòns, most are either sweet or a combination of sweet and savory. The version at Al Vecchio Stallo was on the savory side, filled with herbs and providing only a hint of sweetness from the cinnamon and butter. The pasta was topped with ricotta affumicata, a smoked cheese that is one of Friuli’s specialties.

This was followed by frico con patate, a potato and cheese pancake typically prepared with the local Montasio cheese. Served with a side of polenta, the wedge of frico was crispy on the outside and oozing with melted cheese and mashed potato goodness on the inside. That evening, I fell in love with both dishes—and the course of my life was forever altered.

After returning home to San Francisco, I couldn’t get that meal out of my mind. Fast-forward several years, and I was traveling in Friuli once again—this time having decided to write a cookbook, Flavors of Friuli: A Culinary Journey through Northeastern Italy. My research consisted of eating my way through the region, savoring as many of Friuli’s traditional dishes as possible, including gnocchi di susine (plum-filled gnocchi), orzotto (barley cooked “risotto-style”), jota (bean and sauerkraut soup), goulasch (Hungarian-style beef stew), brovada (pickled turnips), and gubana (dried fruit- and nut-filled spiral cake). I never expected that one meal could change my life, but that dinner at Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo opened a door for me to thoroughly explore and experience a culture, one that I have found to be utterly and seductively delicious.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: