Some Thoughts on Pisa

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Pisa. Peeza.  The very word conjures up images of this tall, white marble, Romanesque building that leans- famous Torre Pendante-Leaning Tower.  This iconic structure was certainly on my bucket list.  Although, the reason was simply because of its notoriety.  I never really understood why the tower leaned nor the importance of this once powerful Tuscan city.  So, before visiting this tower, I decided to educate myself.

The first thing I learned was that Pisa wasn’t just this famous leaning tower.  Pisa is believed to have been settled by the Etruscans (although I was never fortunate enough to have seen any ruins) and then later was a Roman colony.  Pisa was a thriving metropolis and powerful port city with trading links with Spain and North Africa during the 11th to 13th centuries.  After many wars and once the Arno River began to silt up, Pisa lost its navy edge and, thus, much of its power.  Pisa is home to a top rated University that found its beginning in 1343 and several other colleges, making it a young and energetic city.Pisa, Italy (more…)

Dinner with a Warm and Welcoming French Family

Last night we had the honor of being guests for dinner in my husband’s friends’ home in the South of France.  Simply delightful.   I was politely introduced to three generations of family and was warmly welcomed with many bises-kisses.

We moved into the parlor where there was a large round table adorned with a Provence styled tablecloth in blues and whites and gold rimmed place settings.  A richly colored tapestry hung above a beautiful buffet and the armoire and hutch situated near the dining table was complete with more china and stemware.  The two over sized windows with antique looking shiny gold handles were slightly opened to offer a touch of fresh air.   Aperitifs were offered to all.  Cloudy yellow anise flavored Ricards and bubbly champagne flowed freely.  Small squares (amuse-bouche) of pissaladiere – a French pizza made with caramelized onions, black olives and anchovies- were passed around the table, as were bowls of tiny black olives. pissaladiere

The family was so welcoming and so eager to speak English, while I, on the other hand, was eager to use my pathetic conversational French.  French won out through the night and I remained rather silent, but comprehended much more than I had a few years ago.  Smiling and nodding goes a long way when you’re not fully understanding, yet want to be a part of a conversation!

Each member of the family took part in preparing different aspects of our five hour epic feast.   The evening had a beautiful rhythm to it. The table was cleared by various family members in a rotating fashion which made way for each delicious course.

The next arrival was a plate with a large rectangle piece of foie gras.. Little jars of fig confiture and baskets of sliced baguette were passed around.  The duck liver with the fig melted in my mouth.  My wine glass was suddenly filled with a sweet white wine.  Mmmmm.

Sitting among this happy family gathering, I listened to my husband speak in his beautiful native tongue and smiled.  He was happy.  He looked so handsome laughing and cutting his garlic and parsley sautéed mushrooms that were the size of my palm.  Yes, that was the next course.  These incredible mushrooms, prepared by Monsieur D, our host, were accompanied by a watercress salad in a light vinaigrette.  And crusty bread.  My wine glass was suddenly filled with a full bodied burgundy wine.

french dinner bread

Several glasses of wine led to a lively discussion of politics.  I was mesmerized by this passionate conversation, not understanding anything at this point, when two large platefuls of meat stuffed ravioli in a red sauce were placed on the table.  Our entrée had arrived.  I didn’t think I could eat another bite, but somehow managed to finish my tasty portion.  And more bread.  And more wine.  I thought I was going to explode.  But when in Rome (or Cannes)…

Cannes, France

Le dessert was next with a plate of REAL vanilla ice cream, fresh strawberries and some little crunchy chocolate wafers.  Now one might think that this would be the end of this evening.  Mais, non- but, no. This evening continued with hot tea served in delicate china teacups.   The stimulating conversation continued and the hand motions along with the annunciations of each French word made me feel like I was at a symphony-very soothing and romantic sounds.

As we walked back to our apartment, I reflected on my own family and yearned for them.  We, too, eat delicious and thoughtfully prepared meals, help in the preparation and clean-up together.  We have political discussions that are very dividing and we certainly have our fair share of wine.  I am so blessed to have my family and now to have shared in this same tradition with another family across the globe.


Pizza, Pasta and Wine: A Diary Entry from a Recovering Carb Addict

It was pure carbohydrate overload for three days.  I promised myself I would keep the pasta to a minimum.   After all, I rarely eat pasta at home anymore.  Walking down the streets of Florence, I felt very much in control.   Beautiful pastas adorned the streets-dried, handmade and freshly made, smelling of garlic and basil.  Then it hit me that I’m in Italy and it is my birthright to eat pasta while in Italy (no, I’m not Italian, but it’s still mandatory, right?).   One plate should do it.  With a glass of Chianti or Brunello di Montalcino.  Then I’ll be fine and can move on to some of the beautiful fresh veggies and espresso.  italian pasta

My plate of ravioli stuffed with potatoes and a porcini mushroom sauce was over the top delicious.  The ruby red Chianti Classico Riserva with its earthy and cherry flavors added to this ethereal experience.  I savored every bit, even soaking up the sauce with the rustic Italian bread.  I watched my husband conservatively consume his swordfish WITHOUT pasta.  After days of watching him eat salads since we’ve arrived in Europe, I was getting slightly irritated.   At least he didn’t order another salad, I thought to myself.

The next morning began with some healthy protein:  a hardboiled egg, a bit of cheese and a piece of wonderfully moist and fresh apple coffee cake sort of thing that the hotel proprietor’s wife made.  Oh, and some coffee.  Caffe Macchiato.  Coffee with milk.  I was ready for the day.  Veggies were in my future for lunch.

Today the streets seemed to be lined with all sorts of hams and sausages.  And pizzas.  We even saw a pizza made from French fries.   I’m not so sure about that one. italian hams

french fries pizza

Four Gothic churches, a couple of leather purses and some Renaissance art really seemed to stimulate the appetite.  We were ready for some lunch.  Our ristorante was in the Piazza de San Lorenzo and directly across from the parish church of the Medici family and where Michelangelo created the tombs for the Medici dynasty.  Tony, the owner and chef is from Naples, but has lived in California off and on for the past 23 years and is a chef at the Beverly Hills Hilton.  He was smitten by the fact that my husband hails from Southern California and the two hit it off immediately.  Tony brought us two glasses of free champagne and quickly took away our menus, telling us he knew what we wanted…did he not know my day was to be filled with vegetables?  He proceeded to bring us Chianti (can’t spend a day in Italy without a glass or two) and warm bread with olive oil and balsamic. florence restaurant

olive oil balsamic

After the first glass was emptied, another one appeared and so did our mystery meal.  Tony placed a large plate of tender gnocchi with a rich, burgundy mushroom, ham and Chianti sauce was put in front of me.  gnocchiMy husband received an equally large plate of ricotta stuffed ravioli with arugula, tomatoes and freshly shaved parmesan.  We must have been a bit too eager to eat, as Tony came over to remind us to eat lentamente-slowly.  ravioli

Several grazies later, we were ready to walk and work off some of these carbs.  Whew!  That lunch was so filling….there was no WAY we were going to need to eat dinner.  Not so fast.  Hours and hours of exploring- evening came rather quickly.  The smell of pizza wafted in the air and suddenly I needed pizza.   Need is a rather strong word…let’s just say, WANT.  The quattro formaggio –four cheese-Parmigiano-Reggiano, Gorgonzola, Asiago and Mozzarella- crispy thin crust pizza hit the spot perfect after the day’s adventures.  And the glass of Chianti went down rather smoothly. Chianti Classico Riserva

In the words of Scarlett O’Hara, “After all, tomorrow is another day.”  I do believe it should be a salad kind of day.

That “Take Your Breath Away” Sort of Day-Florence, Italy

You know that feeling of not knowing whether to giggle with excitement or to cry with full emotion? Kind of like when the roller coaster first climbs to the top of a steep drop or when you see your child take her first step.  These moments take your breath away.  Full on emotion.   That was today.

We arrived in Florence  after driving through what seemed like a hundred tunnels cut through the mountains.  The speeds of the autostrada combined with these lightly lit tunnels and the realization that the Italians believe that the car lane’s lines are just a mere “suggestion”, evident by their constant lane straddling, made for a rather non relaxing drive.  Thus, the reason for no pictures of our drive. Beauty, nonetheless.   Tiny villages with terra cotta and white colored houses and the obligatory church steeple were scattered about the steep, rugged mountainsides.  Mountains turned to green rolling hills and cypress trees and I knew we had finally reached Tuscany.

With a street map of Florence, handwritten directions that I retrieved off the internet and patient teamwork, we found our hotel.  This was the sort of teamwork that could have ended in a huge argument had we not found it by such luck!  My husband even had his “parking fairy” and he found a parking spot directly in front of the hotel.  Our hotel was on the second floor of an historic building (they’re all historic buildings here).  Hotel Giglio I was all prepared with my limited Italian-buongiorno and la stanza per due, per favore (a room for two, please)- only to find out that our proprietor spoke fluent English.  Marco was a delight.  He brought our bags to our room, poured us a glass of water, gave us a map of the city and we were off into this Italian city that I have read and dreamt about for years!

The narrow streets were filled with tall palazzos, buildings and the occasional marble statue.  One could only see the skies looking straight up.  We still weren’t completely certain of where we were, but we continued down this ancient, but pedestrian friendly street.   Then, in front of us we saw a colorful building- the Santa Maria del Fiore-the famous Duomo. This is the moment my breath was truly taken away.  The green, pink and white marbled cathedral (1436) with its large red tiled dome was truly incredible.  Hugues' Italy 123

Santa Maria del Fiore

Santa Maria del FioreThe dome was the largest of its time and built without scaffolding.  We climbed each and every one of the 463 steps to the top where we had a bird’s eye view of this medieval city-FirenzeStairs