Monday, December 13, 2010

If you are lucky enough to visit the city of Firenze this month you'll be there at a time when the city is festive and decorated, which is to be expected, but what you might not know in advance is that a surprise awaits: on the Sundays leading up to Christmas, all the department stores and many smaller shops and boutiques are open for business! Florence, and Italy, and indeed many places in Europe, are not open 24/7, which I admire; but I also admit that if you only have a few days in one place, you could literally never set foot in a retail shop you may have really wanted to visit (some shops close at lunchtime on Saturday, are closed all day on Sunday, and again on Monday morning or all day on Monday). But these Sunday openings provide more opportunities for visitors -- and locals, who typically spend much of the first Sunday taking notes and comparing prices -- to shop for souvenirs and gifts. Note that you should expect public transportation and streets to be more crowded, so allow more time to get around.

And as this is the time of year when gift giving, for lots of reasons, is on many of our minds, I am devoting this post to some great gifts that are perfect for anyone who loves Italy, including, I presume, you! These are all books, yes, hardcover books with real paper, because it's the best format for them. I didn't know about them when I was working on my Tuscany and Umbria book, so they're not included, but I'm happy to now have the opportunity to enthuse about them here on my blog. These books are each nearly impossible to resist if you are an Italophile:

Italian Joy by Carla Coulson (Lantern, an imprint of Penguin, 2005). It was Christmas time exactly ten years ago that Coulson, originally from Australia, had her wake-up moment in life. As everyone around her was happy and joyful, she was becoming increasingly depressed. Another Christmas alone and a New Year "that looked like being the same as the one that was almost over were just painful reminders of what my life hadn't become." So when she opened her Thai takeaway on Christmas Eve and noticed she'd been given a gift -- a silver jewelry box and a 2001 laminated takeaway menu for the fridge -- she was mortified, and that silver jewelry box was the reminder that life was passing her by. Though she had a great apartment, nice and exotic furnishings, and a successful business that took her all over the world, her friends cheered her on when she sold her business, packed some suitcases, rented her apartment, and left for Italy with her Nikon camera. Coulson enrolled in a photography course, bought a bicycle, and paid two weeks' rent in advance, but stayed for two years in a group house. She then found a small apartment in the Oltrarno, and has been "filled with an indescribable happiness for what my life had become." In chapters covering A tavola, Al bar, Il mercato, La lavanderia, La vespa, Il viaggio, La Madonna, ha famiglia e gli amici, gli Italiani, L'estate, and buon appetito, Coulson has put together a love letter to Italy in general and Florence in particular. She fell in love with photography -- "it allowed me to reflect on my world and the small things in it that give me great pleasure" -- and her photos in this book are terrific and they ooze with her enthusiasm and passion for her adopted home. More than most other photography books of this type, this one is filled with so many of the details that make Florence such a beautiful place. Plus, you learn lots of wonderful Italian phrases, like Non c'e fretta (there is no hurry), Tacchi, tacchi e solo tacchi (heels, heels and only heels, as in women's footwear) and buone cose (good things), and the fact that Florentines pronounce the letter 'c' as 'h,' which I'd read about before but Coulson gives a number of specific examples, including that her first name is often pronounced Harla. Coulson also shares some recommendations for her favorite places in Firenze, like Caffe degli Artigiani in piazza della Passera; the market in piazza Santo Spirito; Pasquale's bar on Borgo Pinti; and Cibreo Caffe (one of my faves too!). And, she shares details of her trips to Puglia, Venice, Bologna, and Positano, one of my most favorite places on earth -- like me and my friend Amy H., Coulson also took the little wooden boat over to the little beach of Laurito. I can taste the grilled packages of mozzarella wrapped in lemon leaves like I had it yesterday, and Amy and I did not take for granted that we spent an afternoon in paradiso (note to self: I must get back there as soon as I can!). I could ramble on about this special book....but perhaps this is sufficient! I ordered my copy from amazon, but note that a new book, French Essence: Ambience, Beauty, and Style in Provence, by Vicki Archer, features Coulson's photographs and is stocked in many stores. You can also keep up with Coulson via her blog, at

Botticelli Blue Skies: An American in Florence by Merrill Joan Gerber (University of Wisconsin Press, 2002). I first learned of this memoir from Lisa McGarry, another American who lives in Florence and whose own book, The Piazzas of Florence: Mapping a Renaissance Spirit (Pier 9/Murdoch, 2008) I positively adore (see my interview with Lisa in my book) but at the time I was too busy to track down a copy. Happily, my friend and author Barbara Ohrbach (Dreaming of Florence, Dreaming of Tuscany, both published by Rizzoli) was culling her bookshelves and she gave a copy to me. Gerber was in the enviable position (thought she didn't immediately know it) of being offered a chance to live in Florence for a semester as her husband, a history professor, was leading a class of students there. She went with a little bit of foot dragging (her mother was not in the best of health, and she was, frankly, a little afraid of not knowing the language, etc.) but when she and Joe arrived at their "flat full of sun" at least a few of her doubts melted away. Anyone who's lived anywhere abroad will identify with Gerber's daily joys and tribulations; but for anyone about to depart for an extended spell in Firenze this is required reading! Occasionally, Gerber annoys me with her lack of patience and inability to be calm in certain situations, and I was downright disappointed when, near the very end of their sojourn she and Joe duck out of a holiday concert in a church to eat dinner at McDonald's; but it's impossible to be annoyed for very long: I feel an instant kinship with anyone who writes, "Being here [Fiesole] is the single overwhelming attraction of Italy -- to be able to say to oneself: I am in Italy. This is Italian grass, above us is Italian sky, the quality of light is Italian" and, after visiting a friend who lives in the country, "The most ordinary matters of Italian life seem to me, at times, the most desirable, the most perfect forms of existence. To think that Italians take these daily moments for granted, to know that such scenes and scents and tastes are their due, is an astonishment to me. Is heaven only heaven when you may not have it?" and, "In one way or another, joy has been inescapable here." Lastly, I am envious that she frequented the Harold Acton Library of the British Institute of Florence (I keep meaning to get there but just haven't done it yet) and I love when she relates that she notices a copy of Jane Eyre on one of the shelves. "How astonishing that this forgotten tale still lives in me like my own heart. I lean back and close my eyes, thinking of all the books that reside in me that I can enter at will, thinking of all the journeys I have taken between the covers of books."

Cooking with Italian Grandmothers: Recipes and Stories from Tuscany to Sicily by Jessica Theroux, introduction by Alice Waters (Welcome Books, 2010). "La cucina e per passione" (the kitchen is for passion) is just one of a number of memorable maxims in this definitive, authoritative book (another that I really like is "Ricotta non e formaggio. Ricotta e ricotta" (Ricotta is not cheese. Ricotta is ricotta). As the title indicates, this is much, much more than a cookbook -- Theroux's opening line in her Foreword reads, "This is a book about women and food and listening." She relates that her method for finding the twelve women she documents here was simply to fly to Italy with only a few personal contacts as well as some referred by Slow Food, and she trusted she would find what she needed once she arrived. As time passed and she was more confident, she rented rooms and asked around for the names of noted elderly females. "Directions were followed along dirt roads and to front doors, where I introduced myself and my work, and was then warmly welcomed in for the next big meal." Theroux was awarded an Arnold Fellowship by Brown University (where she graduated) to travel to Italy and document food traditions, and this book details the year she spent "cooking, foraging and eating with women in nine of Italy's regions." The regions featured include Lombardia, Piemonte, Liguria, Le Marche, Calabria, and Sicilia, and there are a nonna (grandmother) each from three towns in Toscana, Mary in Arezzo (one of my most favorite Tuscan towns), Bruna from San Casciano in Val di Pesa, and Armida from Fosdinovo in the Lunigiana (no grandmothers from Umbria are featured). As for the recipes, I'm still working my way through them, when I care tear myself away from the stories, but I made the Pappardelle con Sugo di Porcini (I didn't make my own pappardelle but the sauce was really delicious) and Ricotta al Caffe (this might not sound good -- ricotta mixed with caster sugar,, honey, and finely ground Turkish coffee spread on toast -- but it proved to be wildly good) and the Sticky Tomato Frittata, which came out great even with store-bought, out-of-season tasteless tomatoes (remarkable how roasting them actually gives them flavor) but my tomatoes weren't really very sticky. This book is a great gift, for yourself or another Italian enthusiast, and Theroux says her greatest hope is that the book "will encourage you to pay the utmost attention to your life, and in particular to your food and the people around you. What you discover could change your life."

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