While Italian mushrooms like porcini and cardoncelli garner acclaim for their distinct characteristics, the hill town of Offida has another variety of mushroom that satisfies the sweet tooth rather than the savory palate. Funghetti (little mushrooms) are sugary white mushroom-shaped treats traditional to this hilltop hamlet in Le Marche.
The puffy anise-scented sweets are crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside. They are created from simple ingredients: flour, sugar, egg white and anise seed (or locally-produced anisette liqueur) mixed into a paste then formed into balls and left to dry for a few days. They are crowded into a cast-iron pan and baked. While they cook, they puff up on top and remain white, like button mushroom caps. The bottoms, all huddled up in the pan, stay slimmer and take on a brownish hue from the iron. When removed to a plate, they look like a spread of forest mushrooms just sprouted from the earth.
Photo courtesy MuseiPiceni.it
Tradition says the history of these localized sweets dates back to the late 1400s, about the time the town’s guardian fortezza and crenellated Palazzo Comunale were constructed. Funghetti were born of the cucina povera (peasant cuisine). Once found only in private kitchens, they are now sold in pastry shops and at the weekly markets around the area. There is not a festa or holiday that is celebrated without them. They are usually served with a healthy shot of anisetta or mistra’, a regional anise-flavored moonshine. The anise seeds for both the liqueurs and the funghetti come from farms just outside the village.
Acerenza is a pretty place. Set up on a massif high at the end of a squiggly road, its position above the Bradano River has been enviable and strategic since before the Roman age. Like many towns in this area, it was the Middle Ages that left the most lasting features on Acerenza, endowing it with narrow pedestrian lanes and petite but appealing palazzi. Parts of the protective walls, punctuated with guardly gates, still cradle the compact centro storico. Captivating vistas are revealed from every overlook.
During the Renaissance period Acerenza was passed around as a baron’s trophy, handed off from one noble family to another. Naturally, aristocrats ran in the same circles and entertained dignitaries and luminaries from other regions.
So what, you say? Well, a particular noble family who transferred to Acerenza from Florence had a famous friend, Leonardo da Vinci. It was already known that the Segni family had been in possession of a Leonardo drawing of Neptune, a token from their artist-friend to Antonio Segni as a parting gift.
In 2008, when a historian named Barbitelli was conducting research in Acerenza and came across a painting that the current owners had always believed was a portrait of Galileo, he saw a striking similarity to a portrait of Leonardo in the Uffizi as well as what is believed to be a self-portrait in Torino, and remembered the family’s friendship with the artist. When he saw an inscription on the back written upside-down and backwards as Leonardo preferred to sign his works, he was convinced this was a lost Leonardo – not a mere portrait by the legendary man, but one created by his own hand, of his own likeness.
Leonardo DaVinci self portrait
Experts from the art world as well as the authorities at the Leonardo museum in Vinci authenticated the painting, which was put on display in a museum in nearby Vaglio. Other portraits, prints, and documents from various sources, including the Leonardo museum, build a strong case to convince the viewer that this painting is the real deal. Recent forensic fingerprint analysis undertaken by the Carabinieri and the University of Chieti are said to further validate the claims of authenticity.
The image of a middle-aged man with flowing auburn hair and a billowy beard was painted on wood, and was scratched and pocked. Blueberry eyes peer out and follow your movements.
The portrait will be summering in Sorrento, as part of a special exhibition, “Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance,” where it will stand in good company among works by Donatello, Tintoretto and Lorenzo Lotto from June 5 until September 26. It will then be returned to its permanent home at the Museo delle Antiche Genti Lucane in Vaglio, near Potenza.
Italy Magazine article about Leonardo’s fingerprints.
Touted as the birthplace of confetti- the pastel, sugary almond confections whimsically arranged into bouquets and handed out at weddings- Sulmona is a sweet-faced city. But it offers much more than a quick glance in the candy shop windows.
Surprisingly upscale, its long main drag boasts trendy shops, pretty palazzi and coffee bars aplenty. The evening passeggiata brings out most of the town, the streets teeming with an endless parade of stylishly-dressed residents laughing and walking, eating gelato, meeting and greeting.
One of the few medieval towns in Abruzzo that is placed in the valley, its level streets, unlike so many hill towns of this period, aren’t so leg-fatiguingly steep they leave you breathless; it has marvelous views of the surrounding mountains for that.
Statue of Ovida
Though several notorious Romans had a hand in Sulmona’s history – Hannibal, Pompey and Marc Antony among them – it is home-town boy turned famous poet, Ovid, who the Sulmonesi revere the most. He is known as the “love poet,” his popularity perhaps proves that Italians prefer lovers to fighters!
The charming centro storico is bedecked with beautiful architecture. The town’s lively Piazza Garibaldi is flanked by a stately gothic-arched acqueduct bestowed on the town by Frederick II in the 1250s. Charming churches, like the Romanesque San Francesco della Scarpa, the Renaissance Chiesa Annunziata, and the Gothic-turned-Baroque Cathedral of San Panfilo, endow the town with differing architectural styles and lovely artwork. Other piazzas and palazzi stitch the town together into a pretty package.
The appeal of Sulmona is complemented by its backdrop of dramatic mountains. Two national parks cradle the town in its valley, the Parco Nazionale della Majella and the larger, more famous Parco Nazionale del Gran Sasso, whose towering peaks are like an alpine skyline.
With all the bustling streets festooned with candy shops and caffes, amazing architecture and scenic beauty, Sulmona is a sweet city indeed.
All along the Campania coast there are places that harken back to Greek legends- and legendary writers. One example is the pretty lighthouse near San Marco di Castellabate, which sits on a tiny island just off the rocky shore. Its mythical origin dates back to about 800 BC but is recounted by locals like a more modern historical happening. Punta Licosa derives its name from the Greek ‘Leucosia’, who is said to have been one of the three sirens (or mermaids) mentioned by Homer in his epic Odyssey, whose songs lured sailors to shipwreck on the rocks. Odysseus had to be tied to the mast to keep from succumbing to their melodic allures. The mythical Leucosia, after failing to bring destruction to Odysseus, was thrown into the abyss of the sea and washed up on an island, which was named after her…hence, Punta Licosa.
Today the lighthouse stands guard and keeps sailors from shipwrecks- by sirens or storms- and to remind visitors that Greece left many distinctive marks on southern Italy.
Ask a sampling of Calabrians what one food item they are most proud of and chances are you’ll hear the word ‘nduja more than once. It’s true. No culinary tour of Calabria would be complete without taste-testing this intense treat at least once … but it’s not for the faint of heart-or stomach.
‘Nduja, pronounced, ndoooya, is a soft, super spicy spreadable sausage from Spilinga, a small mountain village of around 1500 people located near Tropea in southern Calabria.
Originally thought to have been introduced to the region in the 16th Century by the Spaniards, it is more likely ‘nduja, closely resembling the French andouille, was imported during the Napoleonic period in the early 1800s.
The sausage is made with pork fat and mixed with potent amounts of red chile pepper and is then bagged, smoked and cured and sold in stores throughout the country. Many Calabrians keep it in their homes so they can whip up a last-minute bruschetta , smear a little across their panino or add a spoon-or two!-to their pasta dishes.
In restaurants, you’ll find ‘nduja mixed into Sicilian arancini rice balls, dropped on pizza or tossed with homemade pasta or gnocchi potato dumplings.
It’s quite possible southern Italians are so infamously loud when they talk because the nerves reaching from the back of their tongues upward to their ears are scorched, from years of inflicting this sausage on their senses.
Still, they can’t get enough of it.
Every summer the villagers of Spilinga gather for the Sagra della ‘Nduja to celebrate their now world-famous creation. One of the most interesting events is the “camejuzzu i focu,” literally meaning “fire camel,” where their symbol, the camel, is propped onto a stick and led through a tarantella dance as fireworks shoot upward from his burning body … much like many non-Calabrians feel after having a go with this flaming sausage.
In the shadow of the ancient Greek ruins of Paestum is a buffalo ranch that some days garners more visits than the historic site on their doorstep. The popular draw at Tenuta Vannulo is the lusciously creamy mozzarella di bufala, a decadence worthy of the gods that were once worshipped in the temples nearby.
Temple at Paestum
Vannulo is the southern-most stop along the mozzarella trail, and one of the finest producers in the DOP-designated mozzarella di bufala industry. A hedge-lined lane leads to the tidy but sprawling farm, which became certified organic in 1996. Lazy water buffaloes lounge in the fertile flatlands, content to wallow in the mud and make eyes at visitors in exchange for their prized milk. The animals were introduced in Italy in the 7th century as beasts of burden, but cheese making from the delicately-flavored milk started in the 12th century.
The majority of mozzarella di bufala producers are centered in the region of Campania in several production zones, though many connoisseurs insist that the cheese made by the caseifici south of Salerno is the best. The fertile plains produce excellent grains and herbs that uniquely influence the milk’s flavor. At Vannulo, much of their 200-hectare farm (nearly 500 acres) is devoted to growing the feed that nourish their 600 buffaloes, using organic methods.
The cheese is produced the old-fashioned way – by hand. The milk is heated and the curds are kneaded and stretched, then formed into balls or braids. It is soaked in brine, giving it a firm exterior while maintaining a creamy, almost liquid interior. Large glass windows give visitors a front-row view of the cheese-making process. Since no preservatives are added, mozzarella this fresh should be eaten within three days of its production.
Other cheeses available are rich ricotta and buttery smoked provola, but the majority of the energy and milk goes to the mozzarella, which is usually sold out by about 2:00 p.m. daily, despite the fact that each day’s production of about 400 kilos (nearly 900 pounds!) of cheese is proffered exclusively from their little farm shop.
But Vannulo has another draw as well – gelato di bufala! The yogurteria serves velvety rich gelato made from buffalo milk and cream, which can also be topped with bufala whipped cream! Their cozy café also crafts a fine cappuccino made with buffalo milk, and makes homemade yogurts and puddings, as well.
Any visit to Paestum is time well spent, but after touring the ancient temples be sure to pay homage to the keepers of the culinary flame and enjoy mozzarella fit for deity.
Throughout Italy March 8 is generally celebrated as girls’ night out- a chance to ditch the dinner chores, escape the kids, and spend a few unhindered hours in compagnia delle amiche (in the company of girlfriends). International Woman’s Day is heralded with puffy yellow mimosa blossoms and special dinners just for the ladies.
The customs are basic and sweet – at some point in the day mimosa blossoms are presented to every woman along with happy thoughts; women indulge in a leisurely dinner, an evening of unbridled “chick time”; and, at the end of the meal, the annual treat of Mimosa Cake.
It has been a yearly rite for many years in Italy. The closest approximation we have in the U.S. is Mother’s Day, but I say that while all mothers are women, not all women are mothers! This day’s celebrations include those of us who cannot or otherwise choose not to bear children. It celebrates everyone of the female persuasion highlighting our abilities, importance in society, but also our femininity.
Despite the merry atmosphere surrounding Italians’ celebrations of the day, it began with a darker history and a more somber goal.
What started on March 8, 1908 as a sort of grass-roots effort to protest poor women’s working conditions and low wages, International Women’s Day also became a day to march for peace and to demand voting rights. In 1911 there was a tragic fire at a garment factory in New York where more than 140 women, working in a sweat-shop environment, were killed because the factory doors were locked, keeping them captive. This tragedy served to proclaim the atrocious working conditions women- particularly underpaid immigrant women- were forced to endure, and became a focus of commemoration for International Women’s Day for many years.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that March 8 was also the day that Susan B. Anthony testified before the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives arguing for a Constitutional Amendment to grant women the right to vote.
So, oddly, while these two important occasions occurred in the United States, the day passes largely unobserved and unknown there. Of course, for all the festivities in Italy, few people really commemorate the reason for the day so much as the spirit of the thing. But hopefully while the mimosa blossoms are blazing forth their yellow puffs they will serve as a reminder to us to express solidarity with our worldwide sisters who are still struggling for freedom -personal, political or social- and who lack basic rights.
This International Women’s Day, let’s commemorate not only those women who came before us allowing us the freedoms we have, but also recognize our power to effect change and make a difference in other women’s lives.
If you happen upon the Piceno hill town of Castignano on Fat Tuesday you might think the perfectly preserved medieval hamlet is being sacked and burned. While that may have been a real threat several hundred years ago when Castignano was a regional center for the Knights Templar, nowadays the marauders bearing torches are paesani enjoying the last day of Carnevale with an age old tradition called Li Moccule.
Li Moccule floating in the night
Li Moccule, the dialect word for candles, derives from a Roman rite but was resurrected in this village during the Renaissance and is still carried on proudly. Candles are placed on bamboo sticks and covered with fancifully colored paper designs. Once lit the townspeople parade through the sinewy streets that spiral up to the main piazza at the highest point of the town, casting a festive, multi-hued effect along the way. In front of the church in the middle of the piazza all the moccule are tossed into a bonfire amid chants.
The bonfire of Li Moccule
The “funeral procession” lays to rest the madness of Carnevale to begin the penitent period of Lent, while the bonfire is symbolic of purification. Castignano’s last Carnevale hoorah is anything but somber with costumed residents blazing out the party all night.
Osteria Il Vicinato, Sasso Barisano, Matera (Basilicata)
This tiny osteria is not for everyone. If you like starched tablecloths, spiffed-up surroundings, and discreet service, then I guarantee you will not like this place. If, on the other hand, you go for homey, casual, and personal interaction with the owner, then book one of the meager six tables and settle in for an experience.
The owner is a true Materano and a real character. His accent is as thick as the slabs of semolina bread he serves, a regional specialty that is baked in a wood-fired oven. He is hearty and warm and outspoken. “Hey, this is an osteria,” he told the occupants of the table next to us as they painstakingly tried to slice bruschetta topped with ripe tomatoes. “Pick it up and eat it with your hands! Osteria means down-home! You can eat with your hands here!”
There is a short and sweet written menu, along with a couple of daily specials that they will recite, and then the owner will weigh in on what he thinks you should eat. “I have a lamb stew, but it’s not very good today. All the good lamb is finito, being just after Easter,” he informed us.
You can choose either homemade fresh pastas or pasta asciutto (dry, packaged pasta) with a variety of sauces, which vary depending on season. The vegetable-based sauce I chose was like an early spring garden bursting with broccoli, chard, fresh fava beans, cherry tomato pieces, and asparagus. Everything is fresh; if it’s not made in his own kitchen it comes from a family member -the cheese and salami on the antipasto plate were made by his cousin.
The grigliata mista was a bowl brimming with fragrant, grilled meat…lots of it. When we were getting too full to finish, the owner came and pointed to the remaining sausage, “Mangia! Eat up! The salsiccia is the best part!”
The three Italian ladies at the corner table wanted a photo with him; turns out he is a celebrity of sorts, having had a colorful part in a movie that was filmed in Matera and won an award in Torino. He was happy to oblige while joking, “Yessss, I’m a big shot! Now back to washing dishes I go!”
If you are looking for good, honest food at a good price with very personal interactions, then rush on over to Osteria Il Vicinato. It’s easily accessible on via Fiorentini at the bottom of Sasso Barisano.
Aliano seems to bask in its infamy. Seventy years ago it had been a typical peasant village in remote southern Basilicata, scraping to survive, and ignored and derided by Italy’s central government. It would have remained hidden and forgotten in its lunar-like hills had it not been paid a visit by destiny.
When the Mussolini government wanted to silence the political writings and rabble-rousing of a Jewish doctor and anti-Fascist named Carlo Levi, it could think of no punishment more severe than banishment from his northern city of Torino to the hinterlands of Basilicata, in Italy’s southern instep. Modern communications and northern news filtered very slowly- if at all- from there, so Levi and his inflammatory activism would be safely out of their dictatorial hair.
Tribute to Levi
Levi arrived in Aliano to find an abject poverty in stark contrast of his prosperous home region, which seemed a world away. The remote locale was neglected and remained outside of time while resources were focused on northern industrial technologies and interests. Levi spent his year of political exile in Aliano under house arrest, acting as town physician while painting local scenes and characters, and taking detailed journalistic notes which he would use to write his well-known book, Christ Stopped at Eboli. From his stone house on the edge of the village, Levi observed, interacted with, tended to, painted, and chronicled the life, hardships, and contrasts of a place within his own country that was foreign to him.
When he was released from his house arrest, Levi penned his most famous work which shed light on the political, economic and social problems of the south, and would eventually bring attention and change to the region. And the town of Aliano could not have been more grateful.
Today, Aliano is still small and still remote, but the appearance, well-being and status of the town are very different thanks to Levi, whose writings and presence continue to live on there. Many of the buildings have been spruced up and restructured, with more work obviously underway. The place looks tended to and cared for, unlike the descriptions of squalor that Levi chronicled upon his arrival.
Inhabitants parade the streets, gather in the piazza and coffee bars, and smile their friendly greetings at visitors. Tourists from across Italy come on a sort of pilgrimage, clutching dog-eared copies of the book, and cars bearing license plates from other European countries are parked in the municipal lot. The hamlet pays homage to their famous guest with numerous namings in his honor – a street, piazza, coffee bar, restaurant are all dubbed Carlo Levi. A statue of him stands at the entrance to town.
Aliano has been designated a “literary park,” making it a sort of open-air museum. Plaques with quotes of Levi’s descriptions are affixed to buildings so visitors can tour the town and see it through his eyes and words.
The house of his interment has been preserved and turned into a museum containing documents and lithographs donated by Levi. Many of his paintings are on display in the Museo della Civilta` Contadina (Museum of Peasant Culture).
It was Carlo Levi’s request to be buried in Aliano and his grave lies in a panoramic spot in the cemetery up above the village. It is sprinkled with pebbles left by visitors to show how beloved he was.
Aliano is isolated on top of a hill with commanding views of the weirdly-eroded countryside and surrounding mountains. The town has come a long way since their illustrious guest came to stay, but the timelessness of their traditions and the splendor of their natural surroundings are unchanged. Nor is their affection for the man who served them so well and continues to impact their well-being.