Sotto Voce

1 Apr

What is there to say about Italy that hasn’t been said before?


Let’s be honest. Not much. Italy is a beautiful cliché. But, since saying, “I have nothing to say because it’s all been said before,” makes me a lazy writer, I’m going to give it a go.

The Forum

Italy is gorgeous. No, really it is. It takes your breath away. The sky. The earth. The trees. The buildings. The rocks and stones. The vegetables. The flowers. The puddles. The birds. The rain. The sun. The doorknobs. The ceilings. All of them. Breathtaking.


The Italians sure know how to celebrate Easter. We were in Florence, where they detonated an oxen cart packed full of fireworks in front of the Duomo. The detonations went off for 15 minutes, ricocheting and echoing off all the stone, until we felt like we were in a WWII battle. By the end our faces were covered in ash. It was very cool.

The Duomo, Florence

That said, never fly into Rome on Palm Sunday. You have been warned.


Italian cars are gorgeous and Italian drivers are insane. We rented a Smart ForFour. I loved it. It’s teeny tiny on the outside, but feels like a normal-sized car when you’re in it. Isaac said it handled well, it got great gas mileage and had pretty good giddyup. Regardless, it was no contest for nearly everything else on the Autostrade. Some of the cars that passed us were going so fast they produced doppler effects. They were usually Audis for some reason.


Archaeological sites are more interesting to the archaeologists. I studied Etruscan archeology in college. Unfortunately, it’s been a long time since my sophomore year; I’ve forgotten almost everything I once knew. This makes walking around an old Etruscan city little more than walking around and looking at a pile of rocks. But, stalking wild asparagus while glancing at those old rocks is really fun! So is stumbling on gaudy green lizards and breathtaking views of the sea while worrying about being charged by a wild boar and peeking into old graves cut into solid rock. I’m sure you will agree that it was all very Indiana Jones.

Run Away!

Pizza. The pizza I remember from my trip to Italy 15 or so years ago doesn’t seem to exist anymore. It was thick and doughy with a schmear of intense tomato sauce and a sprinkling of crispy cheese. I loved it. I could buy it on every street corner and I was happy. Alas, it has been supplanted by wurstel carts and paper thin, hyper-crispy pies.

Central Market, Florence

The absolute best I had was in San Gemini, the speck of a hill town in Umbria where we spent our first week. I can’t tell you the name of the place (I don’t think it had one), but I can tell you it wasn’t Happy Pizza and that it’s on the main drag. Seriously, it’s worth stopping if you have to drive past the town. It was extraordinary. The plain slice was covered in the thinnest whisper of milky fresh mozzarella and delicious sauce. Remembering the mushroom slice, with specks of sausage and a flurry of pecorino is enough to bring tears to my eyes.


Also worth mentioning: a slice Isaac got at the Antico Forno dei Serpenti, a bread and pastry shop near the intersection of the Via dei Serpenti and the Via Panisperna. The slice, a sliver of focaccia topped with olive oil, fresh basil and prefect, oozing, hopefully dioxin-free fresh buffalo mozzarella, was perfection. The one bite I got made me sing and hum with happiness. All pizza should do that.

Art, Florence

I found eating in Italy more difficult than I would have imagined; there are so many rules and different classes of restaurants, and it’s so easy to be duped by a nasty, tourist-trap trattoria masquerading as an honest, delicious, seasonally-driven neighborhood osteria, and it soon became obvious that I’m not quite as familiar with Italian food terms as I had thought I was. But, don’t cry for me just yet. Because despite all these roadblocks, we managed to eat very well.


In Umbria, my step-dad decided to hire the cook offered with the house so there would be no arguing about where to go for dinner or who should cook each night. This was a very wise choice. Daniella’s cooking is extraordinary. I’ve never eaten so well, so consistently, in my entire life (sorry Mom!). On fresh cheese crostini arugula leaves were pushed into the cheese like the design on a filigree brooch. It was beautiful and tasty, as was the lamb stew with olives, gnocchi con salvia e burro, fresh local catfish in puttanesca sauce, fried squash blossoms, local cheese with truffle honey and oh, the homemade tiramisu. All of them, delicious.

The Pantheon

One night she also made me artichokes in the Roman-Jewish style, because, yes, that’s right, March is carciofi season in Italy. I ate as many of them as I could everywhere we went. I had them raw, sliced paper-thin over a salad of arugula and parmigiano cheese at a wonderful neighborhood trattoria in the Oltrarno in Florence, where I also had them tossed with a delicious, flaky white fish and farfalle. I had them poached and served with a tangy, zippy salsa verde with tarragon at Florence’s central market from the trippa stand. I had them on pizza and as an antipasti more time than I can count. In short, I ate so many carciofi in 12 days that I think I may be turning a little bit green. It was heaven.


I didn’t have any in Rome though. Rome was the toughest city to eat in. We couldn’t find any restaurants with daily specials (this is my new rule of thumb to ensure that the restaurant is buying produce based on the season), but we did stumble upon a Sardinian ristorante who’s menu had a notation that I wish every restaurant in the world should be forced to adopt. They used an asterisk to let you know which proteins were being cooked from the freezer. For example: Scampi* ai Ferri o a Piacare? *Frozen. Scallopine al Vino o al Limone? Not frozen (and in case you were wondering, crazy delicious).

The Coliseum

The restaurant also happened to be next door to the only place in Italy where we got good bread, Panella. Wait, what? Bad bread? In Italy? Oh yes my friends. I always thought that Italian bread would be amazing, but at least in the parts of Umbria and Tuscany that we travelled through, the bread is not so bene. Apparently some folk way back in the 15th century got into a fight with a Pope about salt taxes, and ever since, no salt goes into the bread.

Central Market, Florence

Can you imagine? 600 years of unsalted bread? One of our guidebooks tried to make the claim that the lack of salt makes the bread bland and unassuming, the perfect foil to all of the regions’ spectacular culinary specialties; the cured meats, the cheeses, the truffles, the olive oils! Good try guys, but no salt in bread just makes it boring with bad crust. I’m all for traditions, but people, you’re only hurting yourselves!

Tuckered, Orvieto

And finally, walking. We did a lot of this. Going to the hilltowns of Italy with a man obsessed with climbing hills is an amazing way to lose five pounds while eating every ort of each multi-course dinner for 12 nights. We climbed every damn hill we could set foot on. We climbed to the top of Assisi, and Perugia, and Orte, and Narni (yes, it used to be named Narnia), and Orvieto, and San Gemini, and Montelpuciano, and Piombino, and Populonia, and Florence, and Rome.

Rainbow, Tuscany

Assisi and Narni were the most difficult, and therefore most rewarding, but it was our first day in Rome that nearly broke me. I’m pretty good at getting a bead on a city, but Rome still eludes me. Rome felt very much to me like New York must feel to thousands of people; dazzling, dizzying, confusing, loud, dirty, grey, cold, exhilarating, spectacular and heavenly all at once. Two days were not enough. We saw all the greatest hits, but kept getting lost (in a bad way) which made it difficult to really get a feel for the town. I must go back.


Since I’ve been back, everyone I know has asked, rather logically, “So, how was Italy?” It seems like a simple question with a predictable answer, but I can tell from the way their faces fall that there’s something amiss when I answer, “Not bad.”


I’m torn about our trip to Italy. Obviously, I loved it, I mean, I’ve already prattled on for over 1,400 words about it, but at the same time, I didn’t come back as relaxed and annoyingly enthusiastic as I did from our trip to Croatia. I’d go back in a heartbeat, of course, but like so many others before me, I didn’t leave my heart there.

My heart’s still on Hvar.


19 Responses to “Sotto Voce”

  1. 47project April 2, 2008 at 10:02 am #

    These are great photos. I’ve never been to Italy but it’s one of those places on my photography trip list that I can’t wait to visit. Thanks for sharing these.


  2. Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) April 2, 2008 at 9:47 am #

    Italy may be a cliche, but it’s never looked more beautiful than through the lens of your camera.

  3. Lisa (Homesick Texan) April 2, 2008 at 11:03 am #

    Was it the unsalted bread??? I just can’t fathom not falling in love with Italy. Your photos, however, are marvelous and despite what you may say, it looks like love to me!

  4. bistro613 April 2, 2008 at 12:47 pm #

    You certainly came back with some gorgeous photos, although when you said:
    “No, really it takes your breath away. The….” I read puddles as poodles, and for the life of me, couldn’t recall seeing Italian poodles during my time there. ;)

    I know what you mean about coming off a big trip that didn’t quite do it for you. Dave had the same sort of experience in Holland, which seriously bummed him out.

    Perhaps you should have stayed in the smaller cities, and away from Rome?

  5. Lucy April 2, 2008 at 2:36 pm #

    So that explains why the bread in Umbria was/is so very bad.

    I’m sorry that Rome didn’t grab you immediately – a few extra days and it would have grown on you, I’m sure. After a disappointing week in Umbria, Assisi aside, Rome was bliss.

    Such arresting images. Lovely.

  6. ann April 2, 2008 at 4:56 pm #

    Okay, so on re-reading this, I’ve come to realize that the top of the story comes off a little whiny/bitchy, when I really meant it to sound breezy and fun. Oy vey! The written word is such a tough mistress! I just want to say that seriously, we had an amazing time in Italy, I was simply trying to explain some of the more surprising things about the trip. I hope you all understand!

    Lydia — Thank you so much for the compliment. Seeing the pictures in this context really make them pop for me too. I can’t believe I took some of them!

    Rich — You should go! I’d love to see Italy through your lens. Your pictures are really wonderful.

    Lisa — I did love it, just not as much as I loved Croatia. Italy to me is like that one ex-boyfriend that was almost perfect, but well, it just wasn’t meant to be, while our trip to Croatia was “The One.” I’m not sure I’ll ever have such a perfect trip ever again!

    S’kat — POODLES! Hilarious! You know, it is funny you bring up dogs though because I was shocked by how many American breeds people had. So many Labs and Goldens. And a ton of Dachshunds and, yes, Poodles too (and yes I know they’re European breeds ;-)

    We actually were only in Rome for two days. Most of the time we were off in the countryside, in the hilltowns and in Maremma. I wish I knew more Italian because we really couldn’t sit down and have a nice chat with anyone there. The people we tried to talk to so often spoke about as much English as we spoke Italian. I think that might have been a bit of the problem, people are very important to me when I travel. I love sitting down with random people over a bottle of wine and just getting to know the country through them. There was none of that this time, but hopefully next time!!

    Lucy — Somehow, it always comes back to the Pope in Italy ;-) Assisi really is amazing isn’t it?

  7. Christina April 2, 2008 at 6:23 pm #

    I remember the first time I tried Tuscan bread–I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with it! I’m glad you enjoyed carciofi season. There are some cities that improve the second time around; believe it or not, I didn’t enjoy Florence until the second time I went there and got to know it a bit better. You photos are wonderful.

  8. Will B April 2, 2008 at 7:49 pm #

    Welcome back! We missed you! Great pix and stories. That does it – pizza tomorrow! Gotta go get some fresh cheese… (btw – have you ever tried pizza on your grill?)

  9. Julie April 3, 2008 at 9:47 am #

    Wow, it all looks pretty dazzling to me. Great photos. Those landscape shots like the fields on the side of the hill particularly convey the beauty of the place. And the vegetables!! Soooo gorgeous. And fresh artichokes every day? Did you pick the right season or what?

    Looking at your pictures and reading this I’d say the worst thing about going to Italy would be leaving it.

  10. Virginia April 3, 2008 at 7:57 pm #

    My two Russians are eating half their body weight in artichokes these days, but I wish, I WISH, that they could taste artichokes the way they are prepared in Italy. I have a huge taste memory of a shaved artichoke salad served by friends in Rome, and I would never imagine trying that here. The artichokes aren’t the same.

    Your photo of the forum is stunning.

  11. Laren April 4, 2008 at 6:20 am #

    I spent a week in San Gemini last October. Fell in love with the place. I don’t think I had any pizza though . . .

  12. Mary Coleman April 4, 2008 at 7:02 am #

    Amazing pictures! I can totally understand how you feel. Sometimes I feel the anticipation of a trip can overwhelm you and then when you get home, you have a nagging little feeling that it wasn’t what you thought it would be. But then again when you look back at pictures, or talk about it with your family and Isaac, you’ll realize what a great time you had.
    The second picture you posted looks like a painting. Unbelievable!!

  13. K April 4, 2008 at 7:55 am #

    I know exactly what you mean about leaving your heart somewhere… We just came back from England and Spain. Spain made me feel the same way that you do about Italy: nice, but not overly enthusiastic. Leaving England, however, made me almost sick. I totally left my heart there. How can you feel homesickness over a place that you’ve never called hom?

    Also, the pictures are — as usual — extraordinary. :)

  14. shelley April 4, 2008 at 7:26 pm #

    Ann, when we went to Europe, we traveled with another couple. The big thing for them was seeing ‘things’, while the big thing for us was seeing ‘folk’.

    Neither I, nor Dave, spoke Italian very well. Most Italians spoke great English in the bigger cities, even in Montopulciano, but in the college town of Bologna, surprisingly, no one did!

    It was really a fantastic day and a half of our trip, as we’d split temp from our friends, to check out the Ducati factory. English was at a minimum, but communicating just seemed to happen.

    I’ve been a lot of places where that seems to happen… or it doesn’t. We got lucky that time. Maybe you will next?

    (can you tell I am still rooting for your next adventure? lol.)

  15. ann April 5, 2008 at 8:35 am #

    Christina — Carciofi season was the best. I think going back to anywhere we were when it’s not Holy Week would change my impressions of the places greatly ;-)

    Will B — I’d have to have a grill to do that ;-) Nah, but seriously, that does sound awesome! I’ll have to commandeer someone’s grill and try it!

    Julie — I actually thought of you while I was shoveling the huge plate of ‘chokes down in the central market in Florence. I was like, wow, Julie would be such a good person to be sitting here eating this with! And then I moved onto my plate of asparagus risotto and my mind went blank with happiness ;-)

    Laren — Really? What brought you there? It’s such a small, lovely town. I adore it. If you ever get the chance to go back, do try the pizza. It was easily as good as Totonno’s.

    Mary — You’ve nailed it. In fact, it wasn’t even the anticipation, it was the insane amounts of work I had to do before leaving… I worked at least 60 hours in the week leading up to the trip, and by the time we made it to the house, all I wanted to do was sleep for 4 days. But that’s not allowed on vacation! No! Must see the sights. Aaaaaaah… Travel!! But you’re right, the more I talk about it and yes, look back at the photos, I realize, damn, that was pretty awesome :-)

    K — Now you know why I can’t go back to England. They’d have to drag me onto the plane with a herd of elephants. God I love it there. It sure does look from your posts like you had an excellent time!

    Shelley — Ducati factory? Now we’re talking ;-) Just kidding. After talking to some folk I’m beginning to realise that the root of some of the problems we had was being there during Holy Week. Apparently its just tourist overload and the Italians get a bit cranky. I think some people that said they didn’t speak English were just messing with us because they were tired of stupid Americans. Can’t say as I blame them, honestly ;-) Next time we’ll be sure not to go during any major holidays!

  16. Toni April 7, 2008 at 4:16 pm #

    I must say that if you had had more time in Rome, it would have worked it’s way into your heart. There are wonderful little restaurants there, with food to send shivers up your spine. (I was in Rome during carciofi season too!). As for the bread……….I couldn’t agree with you more! BORING!!!

    Your photos are drop-dead gorgeous! OMG……Makes me want to spend my time walking and taking photos. But then again, your posts always evoke that response in me.

  17. Robin April 7, 2008 at 8:40 pm #

    I remember being so scared of the cars in Italy. I’m glad you (mostly) enjoyed your vacation! Your photos are great.

    And since you know that I’m not from California now… we’ll have to plan going out for a walk or to get lunch in the city sometime!

  18. ann April 9, 2008 at 7:14 am #

    Toni — Yeah, I figured that! We never made it to Trastevere which I think we both would have loved a whole lot. We always leave a country saying, “next time,” and this trip was no different. Thanks for the nice compliments on the photos. Some of them knocked my socks off, too, and I took them! Humble, no? ;-)

    Robin — We should totally go for a walk (or a spot of tea or a cocktail)! Just drop me a line the next time you’re coming into the city with no real plan.

  19. eatingindallas April 20, 2008 at 10:36 am #

    We spent an entire 10 days in Rome and it wasn’t enough. I know what you mean about it’s hectic pace. I was just discussing that with my husband last night. Next time I want no rushing around. We’ve already seen a lot of the major stuff. I want to spend some time doing nothing and just stumbling across awesome things instead of marching through Rome in a frantic hurry to see something. I want to sit on patios and have wine and cheese and watch other people frantically passing by.

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