Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Lick Your Lips in New York

What should be the absolute best place to find fine Italian food products is opening today!

It's called Eataly,part of a chain that first opened in Turin, expanded to Tokyo and now is opening its doors in the Big Apple. Visit it at 200 5th Avenue, at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and Broadway.

You'll be able to eat in one of 8 ristoranti, choose from a coffee in the Grande Caffè Lavazza, a delicious scoop or two at the agrigelateria, chew on a quick sandwich at the paninoteca or go for the rosticceria and/or pizzeria sections of the 7000 square meter extravaganza.

The signage will all be bilingual, with explanations about all products in English and italiano. The founders believe in the Slow Food approach which will be appreciated in the fast pace of Manhattan, I hope.

The owner, Oscar Farinetti, boasts that this location will be the Harrods of Italian food in NY. Go and see for yourself. Let me know how the mozzarella tastes: with American milk and Italian savior-faire.

For the video preview of Eataly presented by the news journal La Stampa and dated 28 June, click here. Language: Italian.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

From Benetton to Wines and Olive Oil

Only in Italy do you become famous, get rich and then create your own line of wines and olive oil. Oliviero Toscani has done just that.

He is best known for his controversial work for Benetton, a Veneto company from the Treviso area near Padua, including over 20 years of photos as part of the clothing manufacturer's advertising campaign. Some particularly memorable images for me growing up were a nun kissing a priest and close-ups of bloody death and slimy birth, featuring a newborn still attached to the umbilical cord. The billboards, magazine ads and COLORS magazine, which develops a journalistic aspect to the research, all ruffled many feathers and got millions of people talking about society's contemporary issues and problems.

Toscani was even responsible for founding Benetton's creative think-tank of young designers and artists from around the world who win residencies to work on-site at the company's compound space called Fabrica. The work produced there receives accolades across the art and design spheres as well as helping continue making innovative shop displays and ad campaigns for the mother company, United Colors of Benetton.

In recent years, Toscani has slowed down on his direct contributions to all-things Benetton. He's got a new project: he has chosen to produce and promote his own wine and olive oil collections named OT. As for the wine, it is colorfully labeled in separately yellow, cyan and magenta. By the way, those are the three colors used to create all printed material, of course with the addition of a fourth component, black. He may be making wine, but he's still a graphic designer and photographer at heart! And in fact, he is still doing his trade, but not with the big B. Go to La Sterpaia for that.

Another noted (clothing) designer who has a winery is Diesel brand apparel's founder Renzo Rosso. For my post about those wine and olive oil lines, click here. But that stuff's got the company's brand name on the label.

I have to admit I have never casually found either of these wines or olive oils in my giri around town, the region or Italy, but maybe one day I will actually get to taste them and see how they stack up to their founders' reputations. If you do first, let me know what you think. Grazie.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Local Headlines

Marijuana nell'orto della scuola
Marijuana in the school garden

Saturday August 21, 2010 Il Gazzettino, Belluno edition, p. 9

A dozen marijuana plants of various sizes were found in the little botantical garden at the "Anna Frank" elementary school in Spinea (Venice). The school's director spotted the "Cannabis sativa" and promptly called police.

The plants were dispersed among the many others being used for educational purposes by the students, faculty and parents.

So how is the next Parents' Board meeting going to go at that school, might I ask?

Friday, August 20, 2010

A Special Birthday Gift

I wish I had a birthday gift like hers when I was her age. I am talking about a 13-year-old whose father finances a trip to any country in the world for each of his children on that special birthday.

I met this father-daughter duo from North Carolina at the Rifugio Città di Fiume on Mount Pelmo last week.

I rarely hear American accents while hiking in the Dolomites, so I usually introduce myself out of curiosity. In this manner, I was told the reason for this American couple's visit to Italy. The father's pact is on condition that there is some sort of "adventure" involved in the trip to the child's country of choice. The young blond teenager chose Italy and I was meeting them on the adventure leg of the journey. They had started in Venice for 3 days, followed by 6 days of continuous hiking in alta quota and would finish with 5 days in Rome, possibly hitting Pompei before returning back to the US.

I was amazed at the magnitude of this amazing birthday present. Of course, the father got some fun out of the deal, too.

I remember that I was thrilled to get to go to the Rockies for a week, compliments of my Girl Scout troop when I was that age. My leader promised her girls a trip to anywhere (in the US) if they stayed in Girl Scouts beyond the age of 13. (At that point in teenage life, it becomes quite unpopular to be a Girl Scout.) Her family's company donated to help pay for the trip. We all thought we were the luckiest East Coast girls to see the mountains out West! But that must have been how things were 20 years ago in the US. Now it's Europe on the youngster's minds!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Day Trip to Bassano del Grappa

This town provides a wonderful day-trip solution from Padua or Venice. Located 70 km from Padua, Bassano del Grappa is most famous for its grappa production, ceramic traditions and wooden bridge over the River Brenta.

Currently the cultural life in Bassano del Grappa is percolating with the programming for Opera Estate 2010. From the end of June to early September, a series of international dance companies, theatre groups, readings and opera will be performed in the area. For more information, click here.

Take a walk through the town and visit the many museums, dedicated to ceramics, the artist Jacopo Bassano, the tower and the civic museum. Visit the tourist information point near the old city walls by the train station for more information about all of them and a map of the city.

Around the old bridge, several shops sell Bassano's famous ceramics and stoneware. They feature painted plates and bowls, elaborate white stoneware and delicate ceramic fruit compositions.

Piazza del Libertà during a summer shower

A café in Piazza Garibaldi with ceramic art on the outside walls

The lion with wings that marks all the towns that were once dominated by the Serenissima (Venetian Republic). After it's protection for a while in the 13th century by a Paduan, Ezzelino II, the Ventians took hold in the 15th century, followed by Napolean's reign. Eventually Bassano became officially part of the province of Vicenza, which it still maintains today.

The oldest building in town, built in the 13th century
A clock tower, the Torre Civica
Another clock (building)

Local specialties on display in the historic bread shop, here featuring ciamballone.
An antique shop in the city center
The large wooden bridge has many names: Ponte di Legno, Ponte degli Alpini (in honor of those who last rebuilt it) and Ponte Vecchio. Even Andrea Palladio was involved in designing and building this large bridge which crosses a rough river, the Brenta. A wood structure was thought to be able to withstand the river's force. Unfortunately that wasn't always true. The bridge has crumbled many times over the centuries, although the last demise came at the hands of the Nazi Germans. The bridge was bombarded during WWII. What you see now is the 1947 reconstruction, based on Palladio's original plans from 1569.

Ponte degli Alpini

A plaque on the bridge in honor of the fallen during WWII.

The most elegant outdoor ash tray I've ever seen.

When visiting the town, don't miss a trip to the bar Distilleria Nardini at the end of the Ponte degli Alpini. Have a shot of Italy's strongest spirit, grappa, and take home a bottle. I prefer the Acquavite stagionato (aged grappa) with its golden coloring. But beware, it is quite strong at 50% alcohol content. Drinking a shot in the old bar proves special since the decor envelopes you in heavy dark wood impregnated with the acquavite scent.

At the very least, Bassano del Grappa is a pleasant afternoon stroll with characteristic architecture and little local delicacies as wells as souvenirs to satisfy most touristy souls. Enjoy a day at the edge between the northern Italian plains and mountains. Witness how people can restore their splendor after the devastation of war. Make a jaunt to Bassano.

To get to Bassano, you can take the regional train or buses (SITA or FTV) from Padua. The trip takes about an hour. Or you can make Bassano your homebase by staying a couple of nights and exploring the nearby mountains and Padana plains. Bassano is strategic since it sits at the foot of the Prealpi (Pre-alps) of Vicenza.

Photo sources:
Overall bridge view: fulviatour.com
Ceramics store: Cippetta-Vicenza @ flickr.com

Thursday, August 5, 2010

How Much Do You Make?

First of all, this question doesn't get brought up very fast in Italian conversation. As an American, I was used to hearing this question asked much more often. We are internationally famous for how much we talk about money.

But when money matters do come up in Italy, the way to interpret them differs radically.

In the US, we talk about earnings in terms of yearly gross sums. For example, Jenny makes $45,000 a year. Meanwhile Italians cite their net monthly income. Giovanna might say,"I earn Euro 1200." That means she makes Euro 1200 a month net, after taxes and INPS (Italian Social Security).

This really small amount shocks Americans. But although it is true that the average Italian makes much less than her comparable American colleague in the same job and position, some pieces of the puzzle are missing in this statement of earnings.

What the American needs to realize is that the Italian, if she has a full-time contract, gets paid in 13 or 14 "monthly" installments within the 12-month year. You might be asking how this is possible now. Well, she gets paid a double salary in December (13th month) and even August (14th), depending on the contract. Essentially she gets big lump sums just in time for the major holidays. It helps pay for Christmas gifts and August rent at the beach. Those extra 2 months salary add 20-30% to annual income overall.

How can Italian employers get away with paying their people so little? Partially this is due to the huge taxes paid for each official employee. To pay someone Euro 1200/month, the company may be paying the government an additional Euro 800-1000 in income tax and INPS contributions. The country's heavy tax burden almost entirely lies on the shoulders of employees who declare their salary. Their earnings get mightily taxed because so many other Italians are not declaring their income and subsequently avoid paying taxes on it. There are plenty of examples of doctors, plumbers, gondoliers and shop owners who declare Euro 18000 annual gross income while they are actually pocketing over Euro 100,000. This feeds Italy's continual frustration with the tax burden of honest citizens and the idea of fairness for everyone in the Repubblica.

It's true that Italians can survive on less because so many do not have a mortgage to pay. They are living in family homes, perhaps left by a deceased grandmother, or one purchased by their parents with a lifetime of savings. Since Italians don't have to spend very much on putting their children through college, funded publicly, they squirrel away savings to put toward real estate. If one family cannot give their child an entire house, sometimes they split the expense 50/50 with the future son-in-law's family. Italy has the largest per capita home ownership statistics in all of Europe. They avoid paying rent as much as possible by living with mamma and papà until they get married and then they buy many properties cash-in-hand, maybe with their parents' money.

On the flip side, this tradition makes life more complicated when you ask for a mortgage, like I did recently. The banks are extremely cautious, especially in light of the American fall-out.

This is a classic example of how everything gets interpreted uniquely based on the culture. Society colors how we think about money and spend it. There are several layers to every question and answer, based on where we come from.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Just Sign at the Top

Well, I have moved to mountains for 3 weeks in August to escape the heat, enjoy some fresh air and get my heart rate up while hiking and climbing. This is the famous Ferragosto in Italy--lots and lots of vacation time.

Shifting to mountain topics, today I'll talk about a dear tradition surrounding the libro di vetta (Book of the Peak). Many mountains feature a book where you can sign and comment on your feelings and experience. It is especially satisfying to fill in when your hike was long and challenging. A record remains for posterity that you were there. You typically include a comment, the date, your name and can mention where you are from. By reading others' entries, you can see just how far some people came to climb that mountain and make that comment.

Here is a picture from Monte Fertazza, which is not a difficult walk but you get the idea. The peaks in the Dolomites always have a metal cross to indicate the tallest point. It is a wonderful sight to see, especially after 6-9 hours of a steep climb. You know you are almost there!

This cross has a compartment that houses the libro.
Once you write your entry, you can tuck it back into its nook on the cross, which usually also includes a pen.

These are the entries from July 31. Italians can be so poetic and emotional about nature.

Trascribed entries:

1. Oggi una bella giornata di sole che brilla come le stelle. Qui il nome Fertazza molto bello da visione comunque bello.

2. Ho veramente toccato il cielo con le dita.

3. Questo posto è un paradiso terrestre, gli angeli dominano tutto, è una bella giornata


1. Today is a beautiful day where the sun shines like the stars. Here the very nice name Fertazza gives way to a lovely sight.

2. I really touched the sky with my fingers.

3. This place is heaven on earth, the angels preside over everything, it's a wonderful day

There can also be a very pratical aspect to this tradition. A record remains of your presence. In fact, this was important in reconstructing the series of events involved in the death of a noted priest in the area this past winter, Claudio Sacco. This man of God was also an avid alpine skier and had opened some new routes in the Dolomites over the years. He was killed during an avalanche on Monte Pore in December during a solo night ascent. The rescuers were able to establish that he was killed on the way down, and not while going up, because he had signed the libro di vetta at 11: 30 p.m.

Don Sacco, may you rest in peace.

For article from the Corriere del Veneto in italiano, click here.