Monday, December 23, 2013

Hand-made Panettone and other Italian Christmas Treats

Roscioli bakery, all decked up for Christmas and ready to make some deliveries. Photo by author.

It's almost Christmas and here in Italy that means one thing: time to stock up on panettone, pan d'oro, torrone, and all the other ubiquitous holiday sweets. And it isn't hard: everywhere you turn, from supermarkets to bakeries to pastry shops, stacks and stacks of these traditional Christmas desserts are just waiting to be snapped up by hungry, sweet-toothed shoppers. Some are becoming so famous that you can find them not just in Italy but around the world.

Here's a guide to Italian Christmas treats.


A baker at Roscioli taking freshly-baked panettoni out of the oven to cool. Photo by author.

The most famous of the bunch, panettone (which translates roughly to "little big bread") originally comes from Milan. It has a dry cakey consistency and is dotted (unfortunately) with raisins and other bits of candied fruit. Despite being the most commonly found and supposedly popular Italian Christmas treat, I've never actually met someone who likes it (although the mini-version is undeniably adorable). These days, you can find versions without raisins, or better yet, with chocolate chips instead, and this is a vast improvement.


Pan d'Oro


Pan d'oro ("bread of gold") is only slightly less popular than its raisin-filled friend. This star-shaped cake originally from Verona is a bit lighter, somewhere between the texture of a plain muffin and angel's food cake. Luckily, it has no raisins or other dried fruits lurking inside. The best part about eating pan d'oro is adding a liberal dusting of powdered sugar. You toss the entire cake into the big plastic bag it comes in, dump in the included packet of powdered sugar, and shake vigorously.  My suocero (father-in-law) performs this task with particular gusto.



Of the "big three," torrone is definitely my favorite. It is not a cake, but a candy, and it hails from the northern city of Cremona, where it was supposedly named after the famous medieval tower of that city (torrone means "big tower.") It's a long, rectangular candy bar made of egg whites, honey, sugar, and various kinds of nuts. Depending on the variety, it can be rock-hard or chewy and sticky. My personal favorites are the ones made with almonds and pistachios, and coated with chocolate. This chocolate coating is not strictly traditional, but the way I see it, when was the last time a dessert suffered from being coated in chocolate? Never, amirite?? They also sell torroni made entirely of chocolate and nuts, but as much as I enjoyed eating them, you can't really call them torroni.



Now, if torrone and panettone got together late one night after closing time in the bakery window and reproduced, the result would be panforte, although in this case I don't think that coupling was wise. This "strong bread" from Siena is the closest thing to a true fruitcake that you can find in Italy, and the best part about it is that it's relatively small. Because, honestly, does anyone actually like fruitcake? Chewy, nutty panforte's only saving grace is that it is spicy (it used be called panpepato, "peppered bread").



Now we're getting to the good stuff. Ricciarelli, named after the famous opera singer Katia Ricciarelli (not really), are little lozenge-shaped cookies that date back to 14th-century Siena. Like all the best Italian cookies, their main ingredient is almond paste and they are covered with powdered sugar. They are simple, delicate, and delicious, and like a good Italian transplant, I happily had several this morning for breakfast.



From the southern regions of Puglia and Basilicata come cartellate. These seriously sinful sweets are made from cooked wine, cinnamon, honey, and sugar, and deep-fried to a golden brown. I have never tried these southern Christmas treats, but after reading about them (and how to make them) on Ciao Chow Linda's blog, I'm tempted to brave the mad two-shopping-days-left city just to try and find some!



This wouldn't be an Italian dessert round-up without a nod from Sicily, island that, quite frankly, I wouldn't be surprised to discover was made entirely of sugar. Their signature Christmas treat is buccellato, a ring-shaped cake made of pasta frolla (a light and exquisite pastry dough) and filled with dried figs, orange peel, and chocolate chips. A second version is filled instead with almond paste and dried pumpkin.


And last, but certainly not least, the unbeatable Christmas treat from Naples. My suocera (mother-in-law) is from Naples, and she makes struffoli every year, so I'll be consuming it in large quantities starting tomorrow. Struffoli are basically tiny balls of sweet dough, deep-fried and coated in honey, and then covered with colored sprinkles and bits of candied fruit. All I can say is, it's incredibly addicting and I can't wait for tomorrow.

And with that, dearest bloglings, I leave you with your mouths watering while I rush out to do my Christmas shopping (procrastinate much?). Which of these treats is your favorite, and did I leave anything out?

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Thursday, October 10, 2013

200 Years of Giuseppe Verdi

Detail of Giuseppe Verdi portrait, Giovanni Boldini, 1886. National Gallery of Modern Art, Rome. [Source]

Today is an important day for all Italians, as opera composer Giuseppe Verdi, one of Italy’s best-loved national heroes, was born 200 years ago today, on 10 October 1813.

For Italians, Verdi is much more than just an opera composer. He is the man who wrote the soundtrack of the Risorgimento, the decades-long struggle for Italian unification and independence.

As someone who prefers the music of Puccini to Verdi hands down (I’ve received a lot of flack for this from Italians over the years), I didn’t always get the connection between Verdi and Italy. When I first arrived in Rome, still plenty wet behind the ears, someone explained to me that every true Italian prefers Verdi’s operas to Puccini’s. While I adore Verdi as well, Puccini, with his passionate, flowering, uber-Romantic melodies, was to my mind much more the embodiment of the Italian soul. Verdi was Grand Opera with a capital G. His operas tell the stories of kings and queens, grand passions and grand ideals, with massive choruses and formidable heroines. It’s all a trifle distant from the real world of Italian experience. Clearly, I didn’t get it.

Portrait of Giuseppe Verdi. [Source]

As heavenly as Verdi’s music is (La Traviata’s “Addio al Passato” is, in my opinion, his most beautiful and heart-wrenching piece), Italians’ love for Verdi isn’t really about his music at all. It’s about his role as a patriot, someone who, through his music and through his political actions, fought to bring Italy together. Even the letters of his name became an acronym for the dream of the unification of Italy, as revolutionaries scrawled “Viva VERDI!” on walls, secretly expressing their support for the man who would go on to become united Italy’s first king, Victor Emanuel Re D’Italia (V-E-R-D-I)

Verdi’s slave chorus “Va’Pensiero” from Nabucco is the unofficial Italian national anthem, a hymn almost any Italian alive could sing on the drop of a hat if asked, a song that represented to Italians in the mid-1800s their own loss of freedom to the Austrians who ruled northern Italy at that time. I'll never forget the night, back in March of 2011, when I attended Nabucco in Rome on the 150th anniversary of the Unification of Italy, when Maestro Muti asked the audience to sing along with "Va' Pensiero." I wrote about it here.

Earlier this year, I had the honor of interviewing the greatest Verdi conductor alive today, Maestro Riccardo Muti. For those of you who know my operatic past, this was a very, very big deal for me. I chatted with the Maestro about the importance of Verdi to Italians, the future of opera in Italy, a country that has been de-funding its cultural institutions, and the Maestro’s plans for the Rome Opera, of which he has recently become the Honorary Conductor for Life.

The interview appeared in the March 2013 issue of WHERE Rome magazine, but I’ve posted an excerpt of it here in honor of Verdi’s 200th birthday. (You can see the PDF version of the full interview here.)

T.P.: Who is Verdi to you? Do you consider him a musician or a national hero?

R.M.: Verdi is one of the greatest pillars of operatic music. He represents the soul, not just of Italy, but of all humanity. People in every corner of the world, from Australia to America, Canada, or Africa, can find elements in Verdi’s music that speak to their very heart and soul. In this sense, he is one of the most universal composers in the history of music. As a national hero, Verdi was a man who, through his music and his ideals of democracy, freedom, and equality, helped to ignite the hearts of Italian revolutionaries during the Risorgimento, undoubtedly contributing to the unification of Italy.

T.P.: Historically, opera in Rome has developed less rapidly than in other Italian cites, such as Milan and Venice. Since you have come to the helm of the Rome Opera, however, it has begun receiving wider acclaim, for example, the extraordinary triumph of this season’s opener, Simon Boccanegra. What is your plan for bringing Rome to the highest possible level of operatic greatness?

R.M.: It’s important to note that Rome has had great opera houses, such as the Apollo, the Valle and the existing Teatro Argentina, which predate the current Teatro Costanzi, and also that Verdi had a strong and active relationship with Rome. Rome’s present opera house may have a shorter history than Italy’s historic theaters, like La Fenice or La Scala, but the Teatro Costanzi has a history of many important conductors as well as premieres, including Tosca and Cavalleria Rusticana. Then followed a period of decline, during which it attracted less public attention. It is now experiencing a strong revival because the orchestra, chorus, and technicians have enthusiastically reattained past levels of brilliance, although it has been an uphill battle. Of course, the credit does not go to only one person; it is all about teamwork. Everyone is contributing; for example the orchestra has been performing symphonic concerts with major conductors, doing some excellent work. All this raises the level of the company and gives the public new faith in the quality of the opera house, and the most important thing is that the public see the theatre as a house of culture, art, and music. Once that happens, progress becomes easier.

T.P.: No tourist would come to Rome without visiting the Sistine Chapel or the Colosseum. Would you suggest a tourist also attend an Italian opera, perhaps by Verdi, to get a complete picture of Italian culture and history?

R.M.: In recent years, opera has enjoyed an increasingly positive reputation at the international level. When tourists come to Rome, a city thousands of years old, it’s natural that the ancient sites and museums will immediately grasp their attention, but if people come to learn of the history of Rome’s opera house––for example, that it hosted the premiere of Puccini’s Tosca, one of the most performed operas of all time and known to all music lovers around the world––more tourists will visit our theater. However, I am confident that, little by little, this will occur.

T.P.: In light of heavy cuts to cultural funding in Italy, as well as the economic crisis in general, is there a risk that opera––an integral part of Italian culture––is increasingly becoming a privilege reserved for the elite?

R.M.: People were asking that even when I was a child. Of course, the arts have always been of greater interest to those who have the financial resources to attend universities or academies, and so in that sense there is a cultural elite. The solution then would be a cultural education that begins in primary school, in which all children, regardless of their financial situation, would have the privilege to learn about one of the most important and foundational pillars of our history and our country, namely, music. Italy's contribution to music is centuries old, and an understanding of it is essential to create a society in which classical music is available to everyone. Otherwise, it’s inevitable that this privilege will become reserved for a few devoted fans and those who have the financial means to attend the opera. It’s a matter of education, which is the duty of the state.

T.P.: What kind of non-classical music does Maestro Muti listen to?

R.M.: I have three children, so when they were young I listened to many different genres of music at home, although I didn’t have the time to really study them. Of course, when I was a kid I remember adoring the Platters, and now, when my five-year-old grandson is in the car, he always asks to hear their hit Only You. They were amazing. Over the years, I've been struck by other singers, for example the Beatles were a brilliant group. I've always been fascinated by a voices like Céline Dion and the late Whitney Houston, although less for the content of their music than for the beauty of their voices.

With Maestro Riccardo Muti after a performance of Verdi's I Due Foscari at the Teatro dell'Opera di Roma

**This interview has been translated from Italian.**
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Friday, October 4, 2013

Five Ways to Celebrate St. Francis’s Feast Day in Italy

The Day after Pope Francis's election, Piazza San Francesco a Ripa. ©Tiffany Parks

Since I live on a street dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi, and since I can see a church dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi right out my bedroom window, and since my darling Maritino and I were married by a Franciscan priest, and since our current ever more lovable Pope chose his papal name (many believe) to honor St. Francis of Assisi, I figured it would be a good idea to write a little post today on 4 October, on occasion of the feast day of one of Italy’s all-time best-loved saints.

Instead going into St. Francis’s life andworks, which I’m guessing most people are already familiar with, I thought I’d suggest five ways to celebrate his feast day, and five different Italian cities in which to do it.


Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi, Assisi. [source]

As the saint’s hometown, this is the obvious choice. In fact, this is where Pope Francis himself decided to celebrate St. Francis’s Day, so expect a lot of crowds if you choose this option. Besides the sheer majesty of the 13th-century basilica, one of the most important fresco cycles of the great Giotto di Bondone, and in fact one of the most celebrated works of art of that magical period when the buds of medieval art began to blossom into the Renaissance. 

The Woman's Confession, Giotto. Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi, Assisi. [source]

The Dream of the Palace, Giotto. Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi, Assisi. [source]

San Francis receives the Stigmata, Giotto. Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi, Assisi. [source]

The 28 frescoes that line the lower section of the nave of the Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi tell the story of the saint’s life and are believed to have been painted between 1296 and 1304. Bonus: an even earlier portrait of St. Francis, by late-medieval master Cimabue, can be seen on the transept wall. The fresco, Our Lady Enthroned with St. Francis, dates to 1280 and features one of the most well known depictions of the saint.

Our Lady Enthroned with St. Francis, Cimabue. Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi, Assisi. [source]

The basilica also contains the saint’s tomb.

Tomb of St. Francis of Assisi. Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi, Assisi. [source]


Basilica of Santa Trinità, Florence. [source]

If you prefer high Renaissance art to late medieval/early Renaissance crossover art, and you happen to be in Florence today, you’re in luck! Head to Santa Trinità church where you can visit the Sassetti Chapel, containing an exquisite fresco cycle by Domenico Ghirlandaio (who just happened to be Michelangelo’s first master, and one of the painters of the walls of the Sistine Chapel). The fresco, dating from 1482-1485, depict several scenes of St. Francis’s life, including the receiving of the stigmata, the confirmation of Franciscan rule, and the resurrection of a boy.

Confirmation of Franciscan Rule, Ghirlandaio. Church of Santa Trinità, Florence. [source]

St. Francis's Trial by Fire, Ghirlandaio. Church of Santa Trinità, Florence. [source]

Death of St. Francis of Assisi, Ghirlandaio. Church of Santa Trinità, Florence. [source]

Chiusi della Verna

Santuario della Verna, Chiusi della Verna. [source]

Not many tourists make it to this tiny little town in the province of Arezzo, but if you’re in the general area today, consider a visit to the Santuario della Verna, just a few miles outside of town. In addition to its evocative setting, perched on an outcropping of Mount Penna, the sanctuary is also renowned for being the site at which St. Francis received the stigmata, on 14 September 1224. You can also visit a small museum attached to the sanctuary where you can see St. Francis’ rough habit, slightly moth-eaten, but still intact.

Habit of St. Francis of Assisi, Santuario della Verna, Chiusi della Verna. [source]


St. Benedict's Monastery, Subiaco. [source]

This gorgeous hilltop town, famous for its medieval Benedictine monasteries, is not generally associated with St. Francis of Assisi, but there is one notable curiosity for those seeking to pay homage to the saint today. In St. Gregory’s Chapel in the Monastery of St. Benedict is only known portrait of St. Francis painted during his lifetime. The portrait shows neither halo nor stigmata, showing it was indeed painted before the saint’s death in 1226. If you want an idea of what he actually looked like, this is probably as close as you’ll come.

Portrait of St. Francis of Assisi, St. Gregory's Chapel, St. Benedict's Monastery, Subiaco. [source]


Church of San Francesco a Ripa, Rome. ©Tiffany Parks
If you’re in the Eternal City today, never fear! You don’t have to travel anywhere if you want to make a St. Francis pilgrimage of your own. The church of San Francesco a Ripa in Trastevere is attached to a convent that housed St. Francis when he was in Rome in 1209 seeking recognition of his order by Pope Innocent III. If you ask the custodian nicely (and if your shoulders and knees are modestly covered!) he’ll happily take you up to the very cell St. Francis slept in, complete with the very stone he used for a pillow, which visitors are allowed to touch.

The rock St. Francis used as a pillow, Cell of St. Francis of Assisi, Church of San Francesco a Ripa, Rome. [source]

While you visit the church (which by the way also contains Bernini’s late masterpiece The Ecstasy of the Beata Ludovica Albertoni), take a moment to wallow bitterly in the knowledge that this unassuming little trasteverina church once contained, along the walls of the nave, the prototype of the legendary Giotto cycle in Assisi. The frescoes depicting scenes from the life of St. Francis, attributed to Pietro Cavallini, are sadly now lost. “Now lost”: two words that inspire the wrenching of hearts and gnashing of teeth of many an art lover.
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