Saturday, August 24, 2013


A lot of people have asked me about the food in Italy.  “Was the food great?”  Speaking from my own experience I’d have to say: not really.

What I ate the most of were ham and cheese sandwiches – un panino al fromaggio e proscutto – the best I could do in the way of portable snacks for when hunger struck at inconvenient times.  But these were not on our kind of bread; the ham and cheese (and sometimes lettuce) are in a kind of pocket, long and narrow, and crispy, especially if the vendors pop it into some kind of a toasting machine, which they usually do unless you stop them.  Really not bad.

I’ve already mentioned the excellent dinner several of us had at Anima Bella, our first night in Venice (See Note of June 2, 2013), and the mediocre meal we had our second night, at Al Giglio, in the Campo Santa Maria Zobenigo (Note of June 17, 2013).  And by the way, I didn’t stay for the main course, as I slipped out and went to the concert, but Pat told me the beef steaks that most people ordered – rather than the fried calamari – were tough.  The place gets mixed reviews on TripAdvisor.  But the lunch Pat and I had in Florence, when we were all set loose for an hour and a half, after visiting the outside of the Duomo and the Baptistry, was one of the best, and most Italian  meals I had while in Italy.

This was in one of several small restaurants (and many small shops) that rim the large Piazza di Santa Croce, at the far end of which is another beautiful church, the Basilica of Saint Croce, which we were to visit later.  But right now—after pointing us in the direction of a large leather and gold goods market (like the glassblower’s shop in Venice, and the souvenir shop we were steered to after visiting the Vatican, there was always someplace that you suspected had an “arrangement” with Perillo Tours) – Gianni encouraged us to have lunch somewhere around the square.  Pat and I settled on the Ristorante Boccadama, a rustic looking little place with a long narrow front room, that held a few tables for one person, a bar at the back, and around the corner a long, narrow dining area, with two small tables pushed together on either side of a central aisle.  We were seated at a table with two men next to us – whom I fairly quickly ascertained were a middle-aged American, trying to both get to know and charm his younger – though not young – potential playmate.  But as in all such seating situations, the two sets of strangers maintained an invisible curtain between them, so as to preserve a sense of privacy.  And next to us was a whole wall of bottles of wine.

What I ordered was the Tuscan sausage dish, and it was out of this world delicious.  A huge coiled rope of sausage on top of beans in a tomato sauce.  There was so much, I offered some to Arthur, one of our fellow Perillo Tourists, who was sitting across the aisle with his wife Madelyn and his sister-in-law.  These three had become to a certain extent Pat’s best friends – she always tended to sit with them, in dining situations (whereas I tried to mix more, sitting with different groups each time), and to walk with them as we were “touring” especially when I had done one of my disappearing acts.  Arthur and Madelyn sort of fascinated me because they were both retired from the IRS.  I mean, how often do you meet someone who has worked for the IRS, never mind a married couple that has worked for the IRS?

Anyway, Arthur had ordered pasta, and as usual it was this huge mound, with nothing but tomato sauce, so he was delighted to be able to add some sausage to it.  And after I got back home, and checked TripAdvisor, I found that this little restaurant that Pat and I just wandered into, gets universal rave reviews, with many people saying what I did: best meal I had in Italy.

We also had dinner at two of the hotels where we stayed.  At the Grand Hotel Villa Medici, there in Florence, the antipasto (what we would call the appetizer) was this very tasty, unusual little pale green mound of who knows what. It looked like it should be sweet but was actually delicately herbed. Then came the pasta dish – lovely little squares of ravioli, stuffed with ricotta cheese, and covered with a fine, thin sauce.  My idea of of a manageable pasta course.  But then came the main course (which Rick Steves, in his travel guide, says is almost always a disappointment), and while they called it veal, it neither looked nor tasted like veal, nor was it as tender as you expect veal to be.  What it looked like was a thick slice of rare roast beef. The little joke I made (that did get a little laugh) was that I suspected this wasn’t young calf, but adolescent cow.  It reminded me of ordering veal in Greece, where it always looks more like pot roast.

The final blow was that dessert was vanilla ice cream.  Vanilla ice cream!  How pedestrian.

Our dinner at the Rose Garden Palace Hotel in Rome was of a similar caliber.  My main course of fish was quite tasty, but not noticeably Italian.  And there was the usual impossible pile of pasta.  Perhaps the best aspect of both of these meals were the plentiful bottles of red and white wine, and carafes of water, on all the tables

Of course, it could be argued that one rarely gets really spectacular meals at hotels, even first class ones (Pat and I stayed at the very expensive Boston Harbor Hotel, the night before we flew to Italy, and were quite disappointed in our dinner).  We did have a very good dinner our last night in Rome, when we were taken to a small restaurant, called all Arco di S. Calisto, deep in an area of very narrow lanes full of restaurants and artsy-craftsy shops, the Trastevere.  Another long, narrow room, where tables were pushed together to accommodate us all.  One thing I really liked was that they put a huge bowl of excellent salad – all kinds of good stuff in it – at the end of each table, for us to “pass down” as needed.  Once again there was too much pasta – if you don’t like spaghetti with tomato sauce you should probably steer clear of Italy – but the fish I ordered was quite good.  Again, not noticeably Italian.  But perhaps I just don’t know what to expect in Italian cooking.  Except, now that I’ve been there…pasta.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The place with the big red dome

The famous Duomo (cathedral), which we visited after we left the Accademia Gallery, is first of all huge.  We came upon it from the side, and looking down its length, it seemed to go on forever.  It is even more magnificent on the outside than pictures of it suggest.  (The inside is less so, but more about that in a moment).  Particularly the façade: the multicolored marble – did I mention that everything in Italy seems to be made of marble? – is so striking, so different from the grey stone I was accustomed to seeing in French cathedrals.  When you’re standing looking up at it, it seems to be striped, but that’s a trick of the eye, caused by the long white marble panels trimmed in green marble.  These panels running up the sides, the front of the building, one atop the other, form green and white stripes. And there is also some rose-colored marble mixed in there, especially in the tall, square camponile (bell tower) that stands next to the church.

At the same time that you’re marveling at all that color, you are almost blinded by the whiteness of the vast central entrance, the two smaller arched entrances to either side.  And there are white niches containing sculptured figures on each side of the arches, and just below the roof. The large round windows above the pointed side arches, and the even larger window above the central arch, give a wonderful symmetry to the whole.   

Interestingly, though the church was built over a 140 year period (1296-1436), the marble facing on the façade (which is so gorgeous) was re-done in the late 1800s.  Can't help wondering what it looked like all those years. 

So I was busy snapping pictures, like everyone else, but oh, those crowds.  Losing one’s group was a real fear, and a real possibility.  At one point, when our guide was going on and on, as he had about David, I took the opportunity to sit down on a step of the church and finish the sandwich I had started eating when we were at the Palazzo Davanzati (as I’ve said, my need to eat frequently was a constant pain).  I heard the guide switch from the Duomo to the Baptistry, which is a few steps from the church, and is the place where babies in days of old had to be baptized before they could enter the church.  The most famous feature of this small, octagonal-shaped building are the double doors carved by the artist Ghiberti, over a 27-year period (these artistic masterpieces took a long time to produce!)  The doors are made up of 10 gilded panels beautifully carved with stories from the Old Testament. Most of us who took art history in college have studied these doors, and it was nice to be able to see them in the flesh, so to speak.  But as a matter of fact it was difficult to see them because of…you guessed it… the crowds.  Every picture I tried to take was obscured by heads, bodies, some group leader holding up a sign with a number on it so his group would know where he was.

I would have loved to be able to patiently wait until those pressed up against the gold-painted bars
Ghiberti's famous doors, completed 1452
that protect the doors from the hordes (and possible vandalism) had moved away, so that I could inch my way up to that barrier, and actually study the panels for a few minutes.  But alas, I was losing the guide’s voice – it was fading in and out on my little headphones (which I now had, thanks to Gianni coming equipped with a couple of spare ones) – and looking around, I couldn’t see a single member of my group.  Yikes!  Had they gone into the Baptistry?  I circled the place, searching for the entrance; when I finally found it, saw that there was a 5 Euro entrance fee.  No, surely they hadn’t gone in there.  So I returned to where I had started and there, praise the lord, was Gianni, looking around for me, waving when he saw me (and not for the last time). 

But wait, the group was moving off down the street.  I ran up to Gianni and exclaimed (literally exclaimed) “Gianni, we aren’t going into the Duomo?!”  No, he said, “There isn’t time.”  This absolutely flumoxed me.  How could you take people to see one of the most famous churches in the world, and not take them inside.  When I said this to Gianni he agreed with me, and said that when I got the email from Perillo asking how I had liked the tour, I should mention this.  “Because they won’t listen to us,” he said, meaning the guides. 

Alas, I never received such an email, never got the chance to voice my dismay at this egregious omission.  Perhaps if the guide hadn’t spent so much time on David, there would have been time.  Listen up, Perillo Tours.

I later went back by myself.  I was pleasantly surprised at how minimal the crowds were, how non-existent the line to get inside, and not for the first time I wondered, “Why do all the tour groups descend on these famous sites at the same time?”  Instead of everybody showing up  9-11 a.m., why don’t some of them go 2-4 p.m.?

Facade of Duomo, Florence

Side of Duomo, dome & a chapel in bkgrd
 At any rate, once inside I admit to finding myself mildly disappointed, as I had been with San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice.  Here, too, the word ‘austere’ probably sums it up best.  What you mainly notice about the place is that it is vast, vast and empty, no pews or chairs, practically no decoration, just great blank walls reaching up and up.  The few narrow stained glass windows are so high on those walls, they make practically no impression at all.  The one thing that is truly impressive is the inside of the great dome, which is as spectacular as the outside.  It’s so very high it’s hard to see the figures, the scenes clearly, but it is a wonderful swirl of rich color.  Worth going into the church…as long as there’s no line.