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insights on art, culture, lifestyle, spirituality, travel, music, society and much much more from a jet-setter currently on "furlough"…

Panettone: a MUST-HAVE

It would not be Christmas in Italy (or Christmas at all, in my opinion!) without including panettone, the official Italian Christmas cake consisting of a yeasted brioche bread, raisins and candied fruit. This special cake, eaten during the season of Advent, originated from Milan in the north of Italy. These days, if you live in a major metropolis outside of Italy with a large Italian population, it is easy to get panettone at your local Italian grocery store, gourmet food store or bakery. Many American supermarkets, such as Trader Joe’s (aka. Trader Giotto’s) and Whole Foods, also carry their own version of panettone, usually made following an “authentic Italian recipe”. In Italy, it is common to bring panettone to various holiday celebrations to be eaten as a dessert, or given to a friend/loved one as a gift.

These days, one can purchase panettone in many different flavors and varieties. Some of my favorite brands of panettone include Bauli, Albertengo, Loison and Perugina. If the traditional raisin meets candied fruit variety of panettone doesn’t strike your fancy, feel free to indulge on other flavors, such as chocolate chips, chocolate hazelnut, limoncello creme, pistachio creme… even moscato and prosecco! Eat it for breakfast, as a snack or for dessert… it is delightful with tea, coffee or vino!

One year, my friend from Milan sent me a homemade panettone for Christmas, made by the company Loison. We ate that with mascarpone and really, it was the taste of heaven. See how beautiful it is, all wrapped up? It’s the best Christmas gift ever.

Simply put, unlike the North American fruitcake (hard to eat and often re-gifted), panettone is a delicious Italian dessert that you’d want to eat over and over again! Buon Appetito e Buon Natale!

Natale con i tuoi…

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The Italians have a famous saying: “Natale con i tuoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi…” (Christmas with your family, Easter with whomever you want) This was a phrase I heard countless number of times during my Christmas vacation to Italy last year.

What do you think about this phrase? I hope to get responses from native Italians, Italo-philes and non-Italians as well. Do you agree or disagree, and why? I will reveal my thoughts in a later post…

Umbria Jazz & More Sparkly Lights in Orvieto

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If you are in the charming, medieval city of Orvieto, Italy for the holidays, be sure to check out the annual Umbria Jazz Winter festival. The dates of the 2011 festival run from 28 December 2011 to New Years’ Day 1 January 2012. This festival features the best in Italian and international jazz, from a variety of genres/musical traditions. It is a great way to take in a concert inside Orvieto’s spectacular Gothic-Romanesque duomo (cathedral) and spend the last few days of each year in the the green heart of Italy: the region of Umbria. Many of the concerts are free and worth listening to. For those who want to enjoy the town’s vibrant social life and mouth-watering cuisine, feel free to indulge in the many Umbria Jazz sponsored events, such as Jazz lunch and dinner specials in many of the local trattorias, happy hours and the famous Umbria Jazz wine and gourmet sessions.

While you are at it, don’t forget to take some time just to walk around the city and take in the dazzling Christmas lights and many nativity scenes (presepe) that randomly pop up around town during this joyous time of year. Orvieto is certainly the place to be for a more rustic and peaceful Italian holiday celebration.

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Holiday Lights (Less is More)

My favorite part about the holidays is definitely the winter lights showcase. In fact, I am someone that keeps holiday lights and Christmas decorations up until well into February; simply because they make me happy and it’s hard to survive winter without some LIGHT. Winter (or l’inverno, in Italiano) can be a hard month for many people, so what better way to kick off those assiduous {winter} blues than to hang some festive lights around town to induce festive joy and tranquility?

Those of us who live in the United States know that we Americans tend to go overboard with the lights (and everything else!) during the holiday season: parks decked out in colorful holiday lights, parades with inflatable Santa Claus and Frosty the Snowman figures, giant gingerbread houses and ornate wreaths decorating famous mansions (just to name a few). These lights can be a spectacle for locals and tourists alike, but can also create an uncomfortable sense of visual overload. Many times, displays can be kitschy — check out this house I have driven by many times in Burtonsville, MD — and down right expensive. Is there a way out?

I spent 7 of the 9 days of my trip in Rome, the capital of Catholicism and home of the best display of holiday lights (according to most of my Italian friends). During those days, I saw my fair share of Italian holiday lights and displays while walking around the center of town (Piazza di Popolo, Trastevere, Piazza di Spagna) In contrast to the gaudy, flashing red, gold and green lights that we are familiar with, the Romans chose a simpler way of decorating their streets: still equally festive, soothing and oh so beautiful.

Instead of a kaleidoscope of tacky Christmas colors, the Romans fared well with their simple blue, yellow and white lights. These lights were draped on the branches of trees, dangling from the top of churches and also strung in between the buildings (cobble stone beneath). Popular designs included snowflakes, vertical strings, the occasional pine tree (or maybe it’s a cypress tree in this case) and, of course, stars. The Italians LOVE their stars (a reoccurring symbol that appears everywhere), as well as song titles such as Quante stelle in cielo con la luna. Some lights dazzled while others remained still…

All in all, the lights brightened up each pedestrian street with never-ending holiday spirit. The holidays can get so stressful sometimes that surely seeing these simple, bright and beautiful lights will bring people peace instead of insanity. Indeed, less is more and the way it should be.

For more information about Christmas traditions in Italy, check out Rick Steves’ Christmas in Europe: Italy series here.

An Unexpected Holiday Surprise (Orvieto)

The first post in my Natale in Italia 2010 series is dedicated to Suor Giovanna Galli and Staff at Istituto San Lodovico in Orvieto, Italy. Why hasn’t Rick Steves featured this charming Bed & Breakfast in his guidebooks yet?

It was a frigid, cold and cloudy morning in Orvieto, Italy; the temperature barely reaching 40 degrees. It was the 29th of December, 2010, the last day of my Italian holiday. I was happy to be spending my final day in the charming medieval town of Orvieto, where I studied 7 years ago. I arrived the day before, in the afternoon and had to catch the train back to Rome that night so that I could fly home the next day. As I shivered my way down the Corso Cavour, I tried to take in all the sights: strings of holiday lights hung between buildings, the hustle and bustle of locals and tourists alike and of course, the church bells: echoing its majestic presence in the town’s main piazzas. The holiday season has never looked so beautiful.

My destination this morning was my former “stomping grounds” (if you will): the convent of Istituto San Lodovico. Our study abroad program was housed in San Lodovico back in 2004, and many of us students became good friends with the sisters that serve(d) here. There is something about (Italian) nuns that make me smile. Perhaps, it’s because they have broken all the stereotypes we claim to have about people of the cloth. Since 2007, the convent is also a Bed & Breakfast (with rave reviews on TripAdvisor, I might add). I have stayed here every time I came back to Orvieto to visit, except this time. Since it was December, the San Lodovico was fully booked due to the Umbria Jazz Festival and other Christmas-related festivities. I stayed at a nearby hotel instead.

I had a 9:30AM appointment with the La Madre Superiora, also known as Suor Giovanna and wanted to look my best, despite the frigid temperatures outside and a dwindling traveler’s wardrobe. It had been 3 years since I’ve last seen the sisters and in Italy, it’s all about La Bella Figura. I even stopped by a local clothing boutique to purchase a blended light-dark purple scarf, as my other one reeked of cigarette smoke from my previous engagement the night before (I was NOT the one smoking, by the way).

The eggshell yellow walls of the convent’s main entrance (Piazza Ranieri, 5) loomed before me, and before I knew it, I reached up to the keypad to ring the bell. The door was unlocked for me almost immediately and I walked into the courtyard without a problem. Though it was a chilly and somewhat gloomy day, you could still hear the birds chirping, even in the dead of winter! I wanted to pull the Nikon out and take a wide angle shot, but instead reminded myself to stay in the moment and enjoy it for what it’s worth. No running tour of the convent this time, just a quick trip upstairs to see my old bedroom (Camera #8).

At the porteniera, I was greeted by Suor Giovanna and San Lodovico’s administrative assistant, Barbara with huge kisses and hugs. Has it really been three years since we last saw each other? It was Suor Giovanna’s birthday the day before, and she had taken the day before off to take a road trip up north to visit her sister (blood-related). I’m sure she did something Ferrari or soccer related (yes, she is a BIG fan of both). I presented them with gifts of “fancy” Godiva chocolates, peppermint taffy from Trader Joe’s and Old Navy performance fleece scarves, as well as a bottle of Vin Santo (something special for the holidays, made in Orvieto) — all of which were received with immense enthusiasm and gratitude. I knew this was a busy season for San Lodovico, and was grateful for any time I would be able to spend with the Sisters. These women (with their dynamic personalities, and love for God, people and good vino) have made a huge difference in my life. After chatting up a storm (Italians talk a mile a minute, in Italian, nonetheless!), looking through the photo album I brought and asking me a zillion questions about what I’m doing in life, Suor Giovanna decided that I should join her and the staff for lunch. I agreed, and told them that I had to go back to the hotel to check out, and then return to mangiare…

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Just like it has always been, lunch (or pranzo) started promptly at 12:30PM. I arrived around 12:10PM to help the Sisters set the table and bring the plates to the table. I reunited with Ivana (the Cook) and Suor Franca (the other sister at San Lodovico), plus got a “Brava!” from Suor Giovanna regarding my setting the table (woohoo! She approves.) On the menu were the following mouth-watering dishes:

  • puff pastries topped with potato salad, peas and shrimp
  • local red wine (a smooth Umbrian merlot)
  • fioretti pasta with a cheese center, tossed with olive oil
  • sauted lamb slices, so juicy and tender
  • parmaggiano-reggiano cheese
  • our favorite, infamous, “convent bread” (rustic white bread, unsalted)
  • dessert: yellow-ish winter melon, tasted sweet and refreshing
  • Espresso caffe’ with WAY too much sugar (zucchero)
Man, they totally spoiled me! This meal was specially prepared by the sisters and the longstanding cook at San Lodovico, Ivana. They don’t eat like this every day, especially since the price of meat has increased in Italy, so this was indeed a very special luncheon for us all.
The conversation during lunch ranged from the latest Orvieto news to the kinds of Christmas presents received, more updates about my life and why it’s better to remain single instead of lovestruck. The door bell and telephone rang numerous times, as the townspeople and friends from afar came bid their holiday greetings to the sisters. At one point, we all had a moment of being “lost in translation” and my then well-spoken Italian went out of the window. Suor Giovanna took that opportunity to joke with me about coming back next summer for an intensive Italian course with her… secretly, I’d love that! And so, I stayed quiet during most of the meal, savoring each bite and giggling to myself about how many things haven’t changed since I was last here. I also put my “Food Stalker” abilities to the test, documenting each dish; preserving the memory of (good food) to last a lifetime. Simply put, it was so amazingly good to be home.
Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. Suor Giovanna offered to drive me to the train station after lunch, but I had to decline, telling her that I had to say goodbye to other friends before heading south to Rome. It was probably for the better, as my stomach was full and  probably could not handle a roller coaster ride in her little Silver Volkswagen sports car, bumping along down the cobblestone slopes of Orvieto. Before leaving, she presented me with a surprise, and undoubtly, the best gift ever: 3 lbs.  of authentic, straight from Parma, parmaggiano-reggiano cheese. I was instructed to eat it with honey, in pasta or simply, on its own.
I. was. estatic. Best. gift. ever. It’s not everyday that the Mother Superior of a famous convent which dates back a few centuries B.C.  presents you with a huge block of parmaggiano-reggiano cheese for you to enjoy back in your deprived home country. Though I lament the fact that there just wasn’t enough time to do everything I wanted to do in Orvieto, I am eternally grateful to the Sisters for organizing such a lovely lunch and making me feel so special. I could definitely feel the love that afternoon. And hey, I will be back… maybe for an intensive Italian course alla Suor G! As Suor Giovanna so aptly put it in our quick, yet bittersweet farewell: “Un altro l’anno, allora!”

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