Sunday, January 13, 2013

Eternal Veggies

Il Geco Biondo ("The Blond Gecko") is an organic vegetarian eatery that specializes in pasta dishes.
By Eleonora Baldwin
Published: 2013-01-13
he average Italian is a carnivore, Romans in particular. Veal and beef are the norm as main courses and in pasta sauces. But the city also has plenty of vegetarian options, mainly because mainstream Italian cuisine, which hasn't changed much since the 19th century, leans heavily on vegetable, pasta and dairy products.
Driven more by poverty and availability than conscious choice, traditional regional recipes depended more on what the land produced than what animal pens had to offer. Meat and fish were costly items, usually reserved for nobility or higher social status, and often downright rare for non-hunters. Hence the birth of polenta, pizza, gnocchi, vegetable pies, the vivid selection of cheeses, hearty soups and affordable preparations that relied on leftover bread, beans and potatoes: basic sustenance that has trickled down in history into our every-day meals.
So vegetarians visiting Rome don't need to worry. Here's a shortlist of reliable vegetarian, vegan and ovo-lacto friendly havens I've dined in lately.
Arancia Blu, among Rome's pioneer vegetarian destinations, has moved from its original San Lorenzo location to a larger, more comfortable venue in the Prenestina suburbs. Equipped with a lovely outdoor patio that welcomes pets and kids, the nifty à la carte vegetarian menu is also very popular with meat people, helped by a 600-bottle wine list, homemade stuffed pasta dishes, soups, salads and a mile-long cheese menu.

Natural foods on The Beehive blackboard.
I pretend to be vegetarian for their leek and almond quiche, the mouthwatering tortelli with Parmigiano filling, dressed with watercress pesto and topinambur (Jerusalem artichoke) chips. Leave room for dessert. ¶ Arancia Blue. Open daily from 5 p.m. (high tea); aperitivo and cheese/champagne tastings at 7 p.m.; dinner at 8 p.m. On weekends open for lunch only. Via Prenestina, 396e. Tel. +
The Beehive Café is a dreamy corner of peace which makes you forget you're two blocks from zoo that is the Termini train station. It's part of the eco-conscious and welcoming Beehive Hotel, a sustainable mix of budget hotel and upscale hostel. Owned by a lovely American couple, the hotel's kitchen offers daily breakfast graced by organic coffee and homemade bread, pancakes, omelets and bagels; plus weekend brunches, and evening vegan buffets three nights a week, all with healthy, organic food. You can come for that, or simply choose to sit in the garden, sipping herbal tea and surf the web thanks to the free Wi-Fi. ¶ The Beehive. Open daily 7:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Via Marghera, 8. Tel. +39.06.4470.4553.
Bibliothé is a peaceful vegetarian hub that draws indophile yogis, artists, poets, and travelers wishing to find a quiet space for reading at teatime. It serves 100 percent organic Ayurvedic cuisine (a holistic Indian approach to dietary needs). Guests are treated to candied ginger and caffeine-free tisanes; and the menu showcases dishes made with all manner of cereals, legumes, and fresh seasonal produce. I come for the tasty spelt crepes, the wonderful chutneys, homemade yogurts, and vegan desserts. ¶ Bibliothé. Closed Sunday. Via Celsa, 4 (Pantheon). Tel. +39.06.678.1427.
Il Geco Biondo ("The Blond Gecko") is an organic vegetarian eatery not far from Ponte Marconi that specializes in pasta dishes, salads and vegan desserts. It offers a wide selection of handmade gnocchi, lasagna, strozzapretiand stuffed ravioli, dressed with original sauces and condiments. Between the opening salad and the main dish, there's always a surprise, whether a protein dish, a veggie pâté, a bowl of soup, a mini cereal salad, or a side dish sampler. ¶ Il Geco Biondo. Open for dinner only, closed Sunday. Via G. Cardano, 105 (Marconi/San Paolo). Tel. +39.06.557.1048.
Margutta RistorArte is a very posh vegetarian restaurant with outdoor seating a stone's throw from Piazza del Popolo and the Spanish Steps. All is homemade here (including bread, desserts and pasta) and popular menu items include a veggie tart with smoked provola cheese and zucchini in mint marinade; risotto with strawberries and Gorgonzola; and springtime asparagus and hard-boiled egg cous cous salad. There's a four-course vegan menu, affordable buffet lunch and three brunch options, according to calendar. ¶ Margutta RistorArte. Open lunch and dinner, seven days a week, year-round (except Christmas Day). Via Margutta, 118. Tel. +39.06.3265.0577.

Ten Things NOT to Do in Italy

Ten Things NOT to Do in Italy

Posted by Fodor's Guest Blogger on January 07, 2013 at 12:55:32 PM EST
By Eva Sandoval
The more time you spend in Italy, the more you'll notice that Italians love telling you what to do...whether you ask them for advice or not. Try this wine. Try it again. Pass that semi truck—you can do it! Wear different shoes. Change your hair; you're not eighty. Loosen up. Mangia, mangia! For a change of pace, here's a list of things NOT to do in Italy—a country as beloved for its passionate people as its natural beauty and delicious cuisine.



Head to Vatican City in a tube top

We know the desire to charm the Italians with your spaghetti strap sundress might be overwhelming, but visitors in skimpy clothing are forbidden to enter holy sights. If you can't bring yourself to wear a top that covers your shoulders, tuck a scarf or cardigan into your bag, and use it to make yourself presentable when you're on holy ground.

Park inside the yellow lines

Or the pink ones, if you're eating for one. Or the blue ones, if you want to save a few euro. Few things are as gutting as heading back to the parking lot and finding a parking ticket on your rental car, or worse, a stark gap where your car used to be. In an Italian parking lot, the white-lined parking spaces are free, the blue-lined are paid, the yellow-lined spots are for disabled motorists, and the pink spots are for expectant mothers. As for potential parking spots that have no lines at all, be sure to look for Zona di Rimozione (Tow Zone) or Divieto di Sosta (No Parking) signs. Or just do as the Italians: cross your fingers and park on the sidewalk. Sideways.

Expect things to happen according to schedule

One of the first things any visitor to Italy will learn is that there's time...and then there's Italian time. Italian time is elastic (don't be surprised when your 4 p.m. Colosseum tour starts at 4:30) and so are business hours. Many businesses—even, bafflingly, restaurants—shut down for lunch and will also be closed two days a week, days which vary from business to business. Double-checking business hours is crucial unless you enjoy making empty treks. Public transportation is also often "out of order" or delayed, so give yourself ample padding between travel connections.

Get fleeced by a gondolier

Taking a gondola cruise in Venice might seem like the most romantic thing on earth until you get the bill. Surprise: a gondola ride can cost upwards of $65 per person (!), and even more if you have a shady gondolier. If a $65-$130 boat ride isn't in your budget, but you still have your heart set on floating along Venice's canals, consider hopping aboard a traghetto—one of the water taxis used by Venetian locals when they want to cross the Grand Canal. The ride will be much shorter, but the traghetto boats are exactly the same as the tourist gondolas and tickets will cost around $5.

Take that Google Maps shortcut

Should you be renting a car to explore the country, you'll probably be using a GPS or Google Maps. You might be tempted to save on autostrade tolls by taking one of the outlined shortcuts. But the farther south in Italy you go, the worse-kept the roads tend to be. Razor-narrow passages, huge potholes and an absence of streetlights can make navigation difficult for a traveler unfamiliar with Italian motorways; the SS7 (Via Appia)—a mostly-unlit winding coastside path running from Rome to Brindisi—is particularly perilous. You might have to pay a bit extra to take the autostrade, but at least they're well-kept.

Get yourself psyched for authentic spaghetti alla bolognese in Naples

In Italian restaurants outside of Italy, all of the boot's many regional cuisines are slapped with the giant umbrella title—ITALIAN FOOD—so you'd be forgiven for not knowing that pesto was invented in Genoa and Limoncello is from Sorrento. But you wouldn't head to Los Angeles hoping for the best barbecue of your life, would you? Do yourself a favor and stick to local foods on your Italian trip. A (very) quick cheat sheet: Genoa for pesto; Naples for pizza; Bologna for bolognese sauce and filled pastas like ravioli, tortellini and lasagne; Milan for risotto alla milanese and ossobucco alla milanese; Rome for spaghetti alla carbonara, spaghetti all'amatriciana and lamb. Gnocchi, bresaola, polenta dishes, and the ultra-popular Italian dessert tiramisù are found all over the country, but are native to the northern Italian regions like Lombardy and Veneto. Prosciutto—or Parma ham—is most commonly associated with central and northern Italy.

Tip everything that matter what they tell you

Tipping is not obligatory or common in Italy. However, tourist-savvy service people may have heard that Americans are genetically programmed to tip everything from waiters to performing rabbits, so the cheekier ones might try to work you for some spare change. Unless they gave you the best service in the history of the planet, resist. They're getting a living wage.

Ask your waiter for parmesan cheese to put on your seafood pasta

Unless you want to see a grown adult cry, that is. One of the holiest commandments of traditional Italian culinary etiquette is that cheese and seafood never, ever mix. Only very recently have certain cheese/seafood pairings cropped up—i.e., ricotta with sea bass, gorgonzola with clams—but this is considered very avant garde (the elder generation won't touch such dishes). Regardless of your age or level of sophistication, mixing parmesan cheese with seafood remains a cardinal sin, so don't even ask. And for the love of Saint Peter, don't let an Italian see you cutting your spaghetti with a fork and knife.

Kill yourself trying to fit Rome into a crowded itinerary

Twenty regions, so much to see! Most visitors enter Italy through Rome, but if you plan to enter via Sicily or Milan and can't bear the thought of missing out on Roman ruins during your trip, take heart: the Romans were a busy bunch. Spectacular Roman ruins can be found throughout the peninsula, namely Volterra in Tuscany, Villa Jovis on the Isle of Capri, Pompeii and Oplontis in Campania, Piazza Armerina in Sicily, Verona in Veneto, and Mediolanum in Milan. Use the money you'll have saved on extra flights to fill up on wine.

Plan on conducting your entire trip to Italy in English

Yes, the movies would have you believe that any time you travel, your host country will be chock-full of citizens who speak your language perfectly, albeit with a charming accent. But Italy consistently earns moderate to low proficiency rankings on English proficiency indexes—among the lowest-rated in Europe. You'll do all right at hotels, historical sites, and restaurants in heavily-touristed cities like Rome and Naples, but set foot outside of those perimeters and, well, in bocca al lupo.
P.S. That means "good luck" in Italian.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Italian Sign Language...

Old Neapolitan gestures, from left to right: money, past times, affirmation, stupid, good, wait a moment, to walk backward, to steal, horns, to ask for.

From: "Speak Italian: The Fine Art of the Gesture" by Bruno Munari (originally published in 1958)

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

How to Make an Italian Pizza: The Simple, Step-by-Step Guide

Yes, we ate this pizza in Naples. But if you follow our recipe, you can make pizza like this at home!

Want to know how to make a real Italian pizza? The most important part is getting the Italian pizza dough right! More than just the base of the pizza, the dough is what gives the pizza its texture, holds together the flavors, and—if done right—can make you feel like you’ve been transported right back to Italy.

But first:
Just a bit about pizza in Italy…

A traditional pizza margherita of Naples, complete with the thick crust

Even though it’s become the most popular Italian food abroad, pizza and Italy didn’t always go together like, well, pizza and Italy. In fact, pizza wasn’t even invented until the 19th century, when it started out as a fast food on the streets of Naples. In the beginning (and, we’d argue, even today), the simpler the pizza, the better: The classic pizza napoletana was just dough with a tomato sauce of Marzano tomatoes, oregano or basil, a little garlic, salt, and olive oil.
It’s another pizza from Naples, though, that has the neatest pedigree. When Queen Margherita came to visit Naples in 1889, she was charmed by a local pizza baker who had made, in her honor, a pizza with the colors of the new flag of the just-unified Italy—red tomatoes, white mozzarella, and green basil. Yep, you guessed it. It’s now called the pizza margherita (or margarita, on some menus).
Roman pizza
Traditional Roman pizza (check out that thin crust!)
Of course, Italian food is very regional, and so are Italian pizzas. (Although any real Italian pizza should always be cooked in a wood-fired oven; in fact, a pizzeria without one can’t even, legally, call itself a pizzeria!). That world-famous pizza in Naples is known as“pizza alta” (thick crust), while pizza in Rome is traditionally thin-crust and crisp.
Like the rest of Italian food, Italian pizza is best—and most authentic—when it’s made with fresh, delicious ingredients. We’re not talking the microwaved dough and synthetic cheese that you see now both in Italy and abroad, but something completely different.
The best way to try it, short of going to an authentic pizzeria with great ingredients and a wood-fired oven? Make it at home!

What you need to make an Italian pizza

(makes dough for 4 pizzas, each one about 12 inches in diameter):
  • 600 mL of warm water
  • 7 cups (1kg) flour, type “00″*
  • 2.25 teaspoons (25 grams) yeast
  • 6 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
  • 1.5 tablespoons salt
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
*A note on the flour: In Italy, “00″, or “doppio zero,” flour is the most highly-refined and finest-ground flour available. Not available where you are (or too expensive?). An all-purpose flour should work just as well!

How to make your pizza:

Kids can make their own pizzas, too!
Kids love making pizza, too!
1. Sprinkle the yeast into a medium bowl with the warm water. We don’t mean hot, and we don’t mean cold… we mean warm! That’s the kind the yeast likes best. Stir until the yeast dissolves.
2. Place almost all of the flour on the table in the shape of a volcano. (Think Mt. Vesuvius… appropriate since Naples is the king of all pizza cities!).
3. Pour the yeast-and-warm-water mix, along with the other ingredients, into the “crater” of the volcano.
4. Knead everything together for 10 to 15 minutes until the dough is smooth and elastic, keeping your surface floured.
5. Grease up a bowl with some olive oil and put the dough inside. Turn the dough around so the top is slightly oiled.
6. Cover the bowl and put the dough aside to let it rest for at least four or five hours.
7 (optional for those who want their pizza really authentic). Make a cross on top of the dough with a knife. An old Italian tradition, this is seen as a way of “blessing the bread.”
8. Preheat the oven to about 400°F, or about 200°C.
9. Dump the dough out of the bowl and back onto the floured surface. Punch it down, getting rid of any bubbles. (Note: Now’s the time to enlist a kid with more energy than they know what to do with!).
10. Divide the dough in half and let it rest for a few minutes.
11. Roll each section into a 12-inch disc. Now’s your chance to decide how thick you want your pizza to be! Do you want it pizza alta (Neapolitan-style) or pizza bassa (Roman-style)? Just remember, your crust will puff up a little bit as it’s baked!
12.  Transfer the dough onto an oiled pizza pan or baking sheet.
13. Add tomato sauce, if you want a pizza rossa (red pizza). Lots of pizzas in Italy are actually pizza bianca, without tomato sauce, so don’t feel like you have to! Brush the edges of the crust with a little bit of olive oil.
14. Bake each pizza for about 10 minutes, then add mozzarella cheese (sliced or grated) on top, as well as any other ingredients.
15. Let the pizzas bake until the crust is browned and the cheese is melted. By lifting up the pizza to peek underneath, you can make sure the bottom has browned, too.
16. Remove your pizzas from the oven and, for a real Italian touch, garnish with a few basil leaves. And enjoy!!
 Thanks to Walks of Italy’s Loredana of Le Marche, Italy for providing her tried-and-true, authentic Italian pizza recipe!

Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Vatican Museum's Spiral Staircase

 The Vatican Museums spiral staircase is one of the most photographed in the world, and certainly one of the most beautiful. Designed by Giuseppe Momo in 1932, the broad steps are somewhere between a ramp and a staircase. The stairs are actually two separate helixes, one leading up and the other leading down, that twist together in a double helix formation. Little did the Vatican Museum know in 1932 that this formation would come to represent life itself, with the discovery of the double helical DNA strand.

The Spanish Steps...

The Spanish Steps (Italian: Scalinata della Trinità dei Monti) are a set of steps in Rome, Italy, climbing a steep slope between the Piazza di Spagna at the base and Piazza Trinità dei Monti, dominated by the Trinità dei Monti church at the top. The Scalinata is the widest staircase in Europe. The monumental stairway of 138 steps was built with French diplomat Étienne Gueffier’s bequeathed funds of 20,000 scudi, in 1723–1725, linking the Bourbon Spanish Embassy, and the Trinità dei Monti church that was under the patronage of the Bourbon kings of France, both located above — to the Holy See in Palazzo Monaldeschi located below. The stairway was designed by architects Francesco de Sanctis and Alessandro Specchi.