Botox is getting cheaper and so is travel to Italy. (Experts predict the euro may equal the dollar by mid-year.) While the former may smooth your furrowed brow, a dream trip to Rome, or Venice, or the Tuscan countryside can provide a lift like nothing else.
So may I suggest that instead of botox (or, if you’re able, in addition to) book a dream trip to Italy with Susan Van Allen. Susan and I have been friends since we met at a reception at the Belgian Embassy in Rome over eight years ago and together have drooled all over the wonders of Italy from Venice to Sicily. We both know how Italy (even more than those cosmetic injections) can transform, enhance, and refresh.
In my 23 years of touring, living, and loving Italy, I’ve been renewed many times over by the food, the artistic masterpieces, the landscape designed by both nature and man, by the sense of la dolce vita that permeates the culture. And each time I return home, I carry the dream back with me.
Susan knows how to bring that dream, that energizing experience, into your life. The worst that can happen is— just like botox— you might have to go back for touch-ups. It’s addictive.
OK, so I’m not in Italy this year for the Epiphany (that would be today, January 6, by the way), and I’m not a child. But if I were, I would be expecting something fun and exciting, because I think I’ve been a really good girl.
January 6 marks the end of the Christmas season for Italians and for their little bambine is the day good behavior is rewarded with presents left by La Befana. According to Italian legend, the Three Wise Men asked an old woman—famous for giving good directions—the way to Bethlehem and, if she would like to come along, that would be just fine with them. La Befana said, no, she didn’t think so, and then changed her mind and set out on her own. But alas! …her GPS let her down, and in spite of flying around in circles forever and ever, she was too late.
She never did find the Christ child and has been searching ever since. So now as a way of making up for her lost chance, she hops back on her broom and delivers toys and goodies to all the sleeping children of Italy on the eve of the Epiphany.
What she does the rest of the year has been a matter of speculation for some time in Italy. Some say she directs traffic at Piazza Venezia in Rome, others that she mans a gondola on the Venetian canals, but I have a friend who swears she has been employed by the Italian government to sweep away the mess in Parliament which takes up all her time every day of the year— except for one.
Capo D’Anno, top of the year in Italy, encompassing both December 31 and January 1, a celebration both sacred and profane.
Scratch the surface of any holiday in Italy and you’ll find traces of ancient Rome and early Christianity at the base. New Year’s Eve belongs to Saint Sylvester, and New Year’s Day and the month of January honor the Roman god Janus who with his two faces could see both the past and the coming years.
But what really counts is the food. (This is Italy, after all.) To insure a prosperous and healthy year, throughout most of Italy you must eat a bowl of lentil soup at midnight. For good reason: lentils are shaped like miniature Roman coins. So there you go!
Of course, this meal is no sacrifice since lentil soup is most delicious, especially when the lentils themselves are the soft-skinned and richly nutritious La Valletta Lenticchie from Gustiamo. Entering the code “FOR” gets you a discount, and since they’re from Roman territory, your chances for a financially rewarding 2015 is almost guaranteed.
I miss spending those long months in Italy no matter what time of year, but I have to admit to feeling safer here in Florida on New Year’s Eve. Harkening back to pagan superstitions is the Italian custom of smashing crockery, dishes, urns, and glassware (thus banishing bad spirits), and then tossing unwanted objects–anything from baskets to refrigerators–out the window, thereby making way for new and friendlier sprites.
It’s a good night to stay inside far away from flying projectiles as you slurp your lentil soup. Throw in some raisins and oranges (also edible good luck charms) into the mix, and you’ve got it covered.
A Simple Recipe for Lentil Soup from Gustiamo
Cook the lentils in cold water with chopped onion, carrot, and celery for approximately 20 minutes.
Add piennolo vine tomatoes. Saute a few cloves of garlic in a couple of spoons of extra virgin olive oil until garlic is brown, not burned. This should take about 10 minutes.
Cook the pasta al dente in abundant water, about 10 – 15 minutes. Taste every few minutes to make sure pasta still has a firm bite. We use tubetti farro grain pasta for this recipe but almost any small shape will work as well.
Mix all the prepared ingredients together. Add a few extra drops of extra virgin olive oil and serve warm.
NOTE: If you need detailed instructions for the recipe, please contact me at email@example.com. I’ll help you out.
Designing the menu for my cooking classes is part of the fun. Like selecting an outfit for the grand ball, it all has to go together, you don’t want to be too fussy or complicated, and at the end, you want to look spectacular.
And so for an antipasto, I go back to a simple recipe I learned from a chef and restaurant owner in Rome several years ago.
Praline di caprino e noci con miele (little goat cheese balls adorned with walnuts, honey, parmigiana-reggiano, and balsamico) have been the starter for many meals in my home since then.
The best part is how easy and foolproof they are to make, and how wonderfully they complement a glass of prosecco, an important part of the overall design.
I’m often asked about Halloween in Italy. Do they celebrate it? Well, sort of. Do the kids dress up? Many do in mostly sweet costumes -not many ghosts and ghoulies walking around. Do adults dress up like the walking dead and decorate their homes with cobwebs? Not as far as I know.
Italy has its own customs though going back long before anyone ever took a knife to carve a pumpkin face, and, not surprisingly, many involve food.
Click below for the story.
It’s a problem. You go to Italy and fall in love with the food. Then you come back home, and you don’t know where to start. That’s when you have to think like an Italian: ingredients and simplicity.
Recipes are easy to find on the internet, on TV, or in cookbooks. But mine are all from chefs and home cooks, those mentors in Italy who opened up their homes and kitchens to me and changed my life through food, one dish at a time. Now that I’m more often at home in the US rather than in Rome, I like to pay it forward by bringing what I’ve learned over the past 25 years of eating my way through Italy—with unabashed gusto and shameless greed!—to others.
Flavors of Rome’s first in a series of cooking classes and presentations featuring the products of Gustiamo is scheduled for November 12 here in South Florida. In deference to the millions of you who won’t be able to attend, I offer one of the recipes we’ll use in the class, and my favorite of all the classic Roman pasta dishes—Rigatoni All’Amatriciana. Read more >>
Romans love their pasta e ceci so much they’ve figured out a way to make this cold weather comfort food work for them in the heat of the summer. They call it pasta e ceci freddo, the same dish served, well, not exactly cold, but at room temperature.
With that in mind, one 90-plus degree day here in Florida, I decided to cook up a pot of this classic Roman soup using the bag of Umbrian chickpeas I had just ordered from Gustiamo, my go-to purveyor of Italian imported foods.
At the end though I couldn’t wait for the cool down and ate it steaming hot.
Like many soups, pasta e ceci gets better as it sits, and so the next day I just took the chill off in the microwave, topped with a dollop of EVOO and grated parmigiano-reggiano and went at it like a Roman. The flavors were even more intense and satisfying in this “cold” state.
Call them ceci, chickpeas, or garbanzos, if you look at these little legumes (or pulses) closely, you’ll see that they resemble little ram heads which is how they got their Latin name, cicer arietinum, from aries, meaning ram.
Sixteenth century seafarers brought the tomato seeds from South America to the shores of Italy. Italians thought they made lovely ornamentals on their verandas, but it took another 200 years before they had the nerve to eat them. Those early tomatoes were not the big red plump variety of today but were cherry sized and yellow. In fact, the Italian word pomodoro translates to yellow apple in early Italian.
Fast forward to modern times and no food is linked to Italian food more than the tomato. And no part of Italy grows better tomatoes than the Amalfi Coast where the tragic and terrifying eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD laid a carpet of lava rich soil on the land.Mamma Agata grows tomatoes in Ravello on the Amalfi Coast If you’ve been to one of her cooking classes, you’ve surely eaten them, you may even have picked them off the vines – and so you know. If not, allow yourself to remember how tomatoes tasted right from the garden – if you’re old enough to complain that nothing tastes like it used to – or imagine the most intensely flavorful tomato you’ve ever had at some point in your life. Now…you can have that taste in a jar, direct from Mamma Agata’s garden to your door.
To order – or simply to look at the mouth-watering photos- go to http://bit.ly/1iNZKjr.
When ordering, please mention Flavors of Rome.
They’re the most Roman of all vegetables – the seductive carciofi romani – those round purple tinged, delicious down to the stem Roman artichokes that take center stage in the outdoor markets and pride of place on menus throughout the Eternal City this time of year.
And these artichokes are the reason, to sate the lust in my soul, I go to Rome every March.
Except for this year
It’s not easy to break a 20 year-old habit. There is no patch, no 12-step program, no Dr. Drew to take away the pain and longing.
It does helps to flip through old photos, remembering how the woman who went to Italy for the first time in 1991 in pursuit of Botticelli and Piero della Francesca was hit by a colpo di fulmine (a lightning strike, Italian style) in Rome’s Piazza Navona within minutes of entering the gates of that city. There began my obsesssion with Rome and with the food of the country of my ancestors, an obsession that provided the balm I ultimately needed while adjusting to Life After Long Marriage.
Back then I hooked onto my relationship with Italian food like a starving wolf. So many wonderful things to taste, to learn, not only at the table, but about myself.
PLINY THE ELDER wrote about the sacred fig tree in the Roman Forum in early AD, and the Romans have been loving those blessed figs ever since.
Squash one of the luscious end of season figs called settembrini inside a warm slightly salty pizza bianca from the famed Forno Campo de Fiori and you have pizza fichi, food for the gods as well as the rest of us.
Figs come and figs go, but in Italy there’s always a seasonal food to get all worked up about. More on this and other bits and bites of Italian food info in How To Eat in Italy…If Chicken Parm is Your Favorite Italian Dish.