Food Traditions That Win Easter in Italy

As is the case with most Italian holidays, Easter, too, is celebrated with a mix of religious and gastronomic traditions.  You won’t hear much talk of life-size bunnies, bonnets, or egg hunts – in fact, during Easter in Italy, the most important place for an egg to be is perfectly perched atop nonna’s homemade casatiello.

casatiello-napoletano

If you’ve never experienced casatiello, you must get ahold of some asap.  This is a bomba atomica of the Neopolitan tradition that will leave you busting at the seams and begging for more.  Packed with cubes of cheese and ham then topped with boiled eggs, this savory bread-bake could easily replace a day’s worth of calories.  There isn’t a table in Campania that isn’t home to the legendary casatiello at Easter – and in very rare Italian food form, it apparently transcends all routinely-followed rules by not having a fixed position on the menu.  That’s right, this bestia is badass enough to exist as a standalone food item to be eaten before, during, and after the main meal – or maybe even as a midnight snack (the audacity!).  I suppose that kind of treatment is merited for a tradition that’s been documented all the way back to the 600’s.

Then, of course, there’s La Pastiera Napoletana

pastiera-napoletana-ricetta

Although the pastiera originated in the South, its popularity has spread across Italy and can be found almost everywhere at Easter time and, in some pasticcerie, even throughout the rest of the year.  It is a type of pie, made with a sweet pastry dough that is meant to be crunchier around the edges and softer in the middle.  The filling is made from a base of sugar, eggs, wheat boiled in milk, and ricotta cheese.  The interesting thing about this seasonal delight is the way its taste can vary, depending on the types of spices and aromas used in the recipe.  The classic recipe calls for cinnamon, vanilla, orange peel, and candied fruit.  Modern versions, however, may see some custard cream or white chocolate thrown in.  Then there are the regional variations – such as in Salerno where they use rice in place of wheat, or in Caserta, where they substitute the ricotta for homemade tagliolini pasta.

The best thing about these traditional food items is the diversity in their preparation, not only from town to town, but even from family to family.  I have spent many an Easter at my in-laws’ house (who incidentally each have eight brothers and sisters) – and have been forced to try each and every version of both the casatiello and pastiera of each and every nonna and zia.  And I’ve been stared at, expecting a response to the question of whose was the best.  Awkwaaaard.

In all honesty, I can barely look at either of these anymore because I’ve eaten so much of them both.  It’s obscene.  I think I’ll be taking a respite for the next decade or so.

Nah… who am I kidding?  Easter’s around the corner, so I better start dieting now.  Buona Pasqua a tutti!

Check out the other COSI’ members’ insider takes on Easter in Italy:

Rick’s Rome: Favorite Spring Destinations in Italy

Girl in Florence: 3 Favorite Spring Destinations Outside Florence

Sicily Inside & Out: An Early Easter in Sicily

Surviving in Italy: https://survivinginitaly.com/2016/03/03/spring-break-italy-agriturismo-eco-travel-edition/

Pecora Nera: Spring is in the Air

Italy Magazine Blogger Awards 2015

The nominees are in, and I’m so proud to say that after winning the Best Individual Post post of 2014 – SL&N is on the list again this year!

Please click this link to vote for Sex, Lies, & Nutella in the “Best Living in Italy” category.

Grazie mille to all my readers for their continued support, and a big in bocca al lupo to all the wonderful bloggers who are nominated this year.  It certainly feels good to be recognized for something I love to do.

Baci,

SL&N

 

Surviving the Italian Winter

Winter in Italy

Have you ever worn a hat to bed?  I mean, you may have read stories or seen illustrations of people in days of yore, sleeping in night caps (as they were apparently called) – but have YOU ever physically slept with one on because it was that damn cold?  I have – and it wasn’t in the snow-blown, blizzard barren land I call home (Ohio), either.  Believe it or not, it was in Southern Italy, of all places.

When many think of “Sunny Italy,” thoughts of perpetual sun and sea come to mind.  This perception is greatly supported by the fact that most tourists visit the country in the summer months, so it makes sense.  What people don’t associate with Itay though, are those bone-chilling moments when you think, “Where am I?” It can actually get much more than merely freschetto (chilly) – in the winter months it’s downright freddo cane (literally, a dog’s cold – don’t ask me about the analogy).

The transition from the fall to winter months seems to be a genuinely tragic event for most Italians.  Although clearly experienced before, they tend to complain about it as if it was the first time it has ever happened.  They will whine and moan for weeks about the changing temperatures – and don’t get them started on the dreaded cambio di stagione at home.  Che palle!  That is the worst.  Since the majority of Italian homes are small apartments, the closets don’t have the space to house all four seasons’ worth of clothes at once.  Cue the cambio di stagione: the annoyingly necessary evil of switching out your spring/summer clothes with your stored fall/winter ones (often under their modernly functional beds, which lift up to reveal a mecca of storage space often crucial to existence).  What really burns about the cambio di stagione is you never think to do it until the weather’s already turned and you’ve already gotten sick from your lack of layers, which really adds to the likability factor of the whole process.

Then, there are the Italian homes themselves: structurally sound, no doubt – but built with materials one would classify as the opposite of cozy.  Constructed purely of cement and laid over concrete slabs, the builders are clearly convinced they live in the tropics rather than Western Europe.  The flooring is traditionally marble or tile (never have I seen a carpeted living area), and Italians are just not into textiles, meaning their homes can best be described as bare in respect to their American counterparts.  While I’m definitely into the modern minimalist thing and have been swayed by European style quite a bit, to me, a home still needs to be comfortable and inviting.  And being the americana I am, I was keen on adding wood flooring, multiple area rugs, hefty curtains, the oversize couch and an exorbitant amount of pillows to our apartment.  But I was well aware that my home decorating tendencies put me in a very small minority.  Style is subjective, but one thing is certain: when winter arrives in Italy, those undressed households surrounded by concrete walls become literal ice boxes, sealing in the cold, damp air and sending it straight down your spine and through your bones.

Of course, the remedy for this is one, simple gesture: turning the heat on!  Only problem is, most of the older homes don’t have central heating/air installed (like the one I wore a hat to sleep in), and their inhabitants are convinced it’s not that cold (all those years of freezing their culetti off has rendered them numb).  Alternatively, those who do have central heat don’t use it as much as they should.  I’ve walked into homes in the dead of winter that had their balcony doors open.  Don’t ask me why.  Better to stay freschi (fresh), they say.  As for me, better to shiver in silence.  Otherwise, not only am I the spoiled, exaggerating American – I’m the spoiled, exaggerating American who complains a lot.

Another important note: if you travel to Italy during the winter months, be prepared to witness the state of the country’s infrastructure literally crumbling around you.  Winter is the rainy season, and any significant rainfall is pretty much synonymous with the apocalypse.  Italy’s lack of emergency preparedness becomes painfully clear as inclement weather cripples cities and towns.  In the Northern areas, there are mudslides, lives lost, the whole shebang.  And in Rome, forget it: even a normal amount of rain wreaks total havoc on that city, flooding streets (and the Tiber river), and closing bus stops and the metro.  And god forbid it snows – in 2011 there was a freak snowstorm in Rome, and it was as close to a state of emergency as I’d ever lived through.  The day the storm hit, my usual commute of twenty minutes or so turned into four hours of treacherous driving, and when I finally arrived at our town one of the main roads was completely unpassable, leaving me no choice but to abandon my vehicle at a certain point and walk about a mile uphill to my house.  For the following three days, we were stranded at home (with my car still at the bottom of the hill), forced to walk another half mile or so hoping to find a store open with food and supplies.

Moral of the story: plan your trip to the Bel Paese in the spring/summer/early fall.  The rest of the world may have the same idea, but you’ll be better off and much happier with the experience.  Winter in Italy can be hazardous to your health, in more ways than one.

How do the rest of the COSI’ members take on winter in Italy?

Rick’s Rome: http://rickzullo.com/how-to-enjoy-winter-in-italy

Girl in Florence: http://girlinflorence.com/2015/11/16/what-to-expect-when-you-visit-florence-in-winter/

Surviving in Italy: http://survivinginitaly.com/2015/11/16/baby-its-cold-outside-and-inside-im-basically-dying-of-hypothermia-in-florence/

Unwilling Expat: https://unwillingexpat.wordpress.com/2015/11/16/winter-in-sicily/

The Florence Diaries: http://theflorencediaries.com/

Englishman in Italy: http://englishmaninitaly.org/

Married to Italy: http://marriedtoitaly.com/

Italy’s Biggest Problem

The COSI’ group is getting courageous this month, venturing into a theme that hits close to home for not only expats, but also native Italians: the desperate search for a job in Italy.

I wrote this post more than three years ago, but alas, in true Italian style the situation has remained practically identical.

Read on for my thoughts on the Italian job crisis, and what I believe is the only reason why Italy isn’t crowned king of the world…

——————-

Italians are realists.  I don’t think I’ve met one who isn’t willing to recognize and/or openly criticize the current state of this country.  At the moment, many people around here have a tendency to concentrate on the negative, and for the sake of this post, so will I.

Italy is suffering from a terrible case of low self-esteem, and not without reason.  Reeling after the twenty-year reign of a tyrannical, pseudo-Roman emperor wannabe, the state of affairs in today’s Italy can only be described as molto triste (very sad).  This country, which has so much going for it, is in total and utter shambles.  Premier Monti’s recent efforts may have been baby steps in the right direction, but I’m afraid this black hole has been dug too deep and too dark.

On a macro level, Italy is teetering on the risk of a financial breakdown not far from that of its Mediterranean neighbors in Greece.  Overall, the global economic crisis has taken its toll, and things are tight for the working class (although this was the case even before the crisis).  Cost of living in the metropolitan areas is comparable to that of New York City.  Combine that with some of the lowest salaries and highest gas prices in Europe, and you’ve got tombola (bingo).

After countless brutte figure (bad impressions, oftentimes aptly dubbed, “The Berlusconi Show”), this country’s name has been dragged through the mud while its population has been brutally represented by a lackluster group of ego-centric politicians, each with their own variety of complexes, corruptions, and/or sexual disorders.  Gaffe after despicable gaffe from these pagliacci (clowns) has made Italy the laughing stock of the European Union and the entire Western world, time and time again.

Just to play devil’s advocate for a moment though: some members of the EU are quick to depict Italy as the black sheep of the group, criticizing its politics and dismissing it as an unorganized mess of a country – but then when it comes time to sip Chianti overlooking the olive groves in Tuscany, they’re all first in line.  Anyway, back to the topic at hand…

What I consider to be the most pressing, serious issue – which the same pagliacci I mentioned earlier still haven’t seemed to prioritize as urgent – is that the young, talented college graduates are fleeing the country at an alarming rate.  And with each of them goes a small piece of Italy’s bright future.  The most talented Italian youth is going, going, gone – in the hands of countries that can offer them something more, something better.

The worst part is, that something better doesn’t refer to anything so grandiose, like a better job or more money: all they’re looking for is a job (any job at all).  With the youth unemployment rate at around 30%, at this point they’d be satisfied to just be able to build a decent (albeit, humble) future.  This is hardly a standard the world’s most beloved country should have for its youth.  Since their own homeland isn’t even capable of offering them employment and a place in society, young people are forced to abandon it.  And who could blame them?

As for those who choose to stay and stick it out, well…  They win the chance to have their egos destroyed by interviewing for jobs as waiters and cashiers, with law/business/engineering degree in hand.  The youth of today’s Italy have been so beaten and battered down that they’ve lost all sense of enthusiasm before even getting out of the gate.  That’s because they know exactly what’s waiting for them once they finally finish their degree (after all, these are some very highly educated do-nothings).

They can already picture themselves hitting thirty, unable to find work in their field, stuck at home cooking carbonara with their parents because they can’t even afford to get their own place.  Forget about visualizing an illustrious career; they can’t even get past the hurdle of moving out on their own and entering the workforce.

In the States, anyone who still lives with their parents at that age is generally shunned.  They’re labeled as failures – lazy, pathetic losers who couldn’t get their act together long enough to afford rent.  In Italy, however, this is the norm.  And before you start with the insults, consider the following:

1. The university system is completely different from the American system.

And by different, I mean unstructured and non-sensical.  There seems to be no set amount of time to receive a degree.  Some finish in three years, others in eight or more.  In theory, university should last a maximum of either three or five years depending on your major, but because of the complicated course structure, it’s often longer.  And even after having had it explained to me numerous times, I still can’t really wrap my mind around it (don’t think the Italians really can either – they mostly seem disgusted whenever they’re forced to explain it).

What I have been able to understand is that rather than a standard course semester, where your overall grade is comprised of multiple tests, projects, mid-terms, and a final – as well as class participation – each course here consists of just one, overwhelming final exam that determines whether you can move forward to the next course.  You technically don’t even have to show up for class the entire semester, as long as you pass the exam on crack (which would be practically impossible, but nonetheless, some do try).  There is minimal interaction between professors and peers, and word on the street is some professors are actually instructed to hold a certain number of people back on purpose to keep the course fees coming.

2.  Salaries are not commensurate with the cost of living in most cities.

If they’re lucky enough to find a job, university grads are barely scraping by with €1000-1500 per month (take home pay).  Yes, you read that correctly.  And sadly, that’s not just a starting salary – many can expect to earn that sum for years, perhaps decades.  It’s so pathetic I can barely even stand to write it.

But don’t feel sorry for them just yet, or think you necessarily have it so much better – because many of them are driving the newest Audi, regularly buying pairs of €500 shoes, or perhaps just returning from a 5-star resort in some exotic location.  No joke.  All of that is easy to do when you don’t have to calculate a mortgage, rent, food, or utilities into the equation.  Without all those pesky, inconvenient… wait, what are they called?  Oh, yeah – living expenses – there’s plenty of liquidity to be spent on, well, pretty much anything you want.

After all, what’s the point of putting away that measly salary?  At that rate, you could work for forty years and still not have enough for a down payment on a half-million euro apartment in the center of Rome (and for that price it’d be about the size of a large American garage).

3.  The mammoni (mama’s boy/girl) stereotype still rings true, but only to an extent.

It’s true that deep down many people in their late twenties and early thirties love the fact that mamma still does their laundry and irons their shirts.  She even prepares lunches for work, and who wouldn’t love that?  Mamma makes it extremely difficult to face the cold, cruel world alone, and she knows it.

Italian mothers certainly do find joy in the fact they’re still needed by their adult children, so they don’t push for any changes.  Children know the world outside is expensive and not worth their effort, so the option of living within the comforts of the home they grew up in looks more and more appealing.  From the point of view of American culture it’s a strange phenomenon, but also an understandable one, given the economic conditions as well as the strong familial cultural tendencies.

The reality of this “failure to launch” stage is that it’s incredibly frustrating for most young people, and it’s stifling to their growth and development as adults.  In the US, we pride ourselves on being entirely self-sufficient very early on, but the Italians simply don’t have that opportunity.  And if they do, they’re either: a. very lucky; b. being bankrolled by someone; or c. have to make some immense personal sacrifices.

The million-dollar question to the politicians is: WHY can’t they get it together?  Do they actually want this country to go to hell?  From the outside it would seem like it, although it seems ludicrous since their children live in this country, too.  Or, do they?  There’s such a great divide between rich and poor here, that sometimes the elite seem immune to this society’s problems; it’s literally as if they’re living in a completely different country, within the same borders.

Wake up, and smell the espresso, Italia…  The future of this country should not be in the hands of those who only want to exploit it and suck it dry.  If the Italians don’t take back their cherished paese soon, Italy’s best and brightest are all going to end up with British and German accents.

What are your experiences working in Italy?  Join the conversation with #COSItaly.  Here are some links to other expat points of view on the subject:

Unwilling Expat – “Working for Free and the Arte di Arrangiarsi”

Rick’s Rome – “Finding a Job in Italy”

Girl in Florence – “FAQ on Working and Salaries in Italy”

Others to come…

Tourists Beware: Fighting Furbizia in Italy

Since this month’s COSI’ theme is Italian furbizia (cleverness), I want to share a real-life tale from a couple years ago depicting what happens when my husband and father are together for too long, combining forces to create the perfect storm against i furbacchioni (clever tricksters) in Italy: a seemingly clueless tourist with military authority (or something my mother and I like to refer to as, “The Adventures of Tommy and Gimmi”).  It’s a great example of why tourists need to be on the lookout for scams in Italy:

Over the years, my father has developed a solid bromance with my husband, as well as a semi-unhealthy obsession with the fact that he has a certain position in Italy that makes anyone who may have something to hide immediately squirm.  This has become a somewhat dangerous situation while my parents are visiting us in Rome.  Tommy has become quite accustomed to preferred treatment such as the occasional discount, free tickets, and well, the general respect that comes with my husband’s title – so much so, that he now seems to be on a one-man vigilante mission to correct all the wrong-doings he encounters in this city.  Of course, he only attempts these antics when his cohort is close by for moral support; otherwise, he would likely risk being picchiato (beat down) Italian-style, and he knows it.

This is dangerous for my husband because he really doesn’t identify himself much with his position, since his daily work is in a specialist health clinic.  He is a Maresciallo of the Carabinieri (Italian military police), but he’s never actually worked on the street fighting crime or restoring order.  Therefore, he tends to keep a low profile and play that card only when absolutely necessary.

Tommy, on the other hand, will mention it in any and all situations, and with a very bad Italian accent, causing a certain reaction of disbelief/amazement/confusion in anyone he encounters.  Want to get to the front of the ticket line at the Forum?  ”My son is a Mariscial!” he’ll proudly state, waiting to be escorted to the front.  The person will then look at my husband, who at that point slinking back in embarrassment, is forced to own up and try to diffuse the situation with humor and charm, as only he knows how.

But there’s never been a scene like the one they put on this weekend: Tommy had been venturing off into the city on his own during the day, when my mom didn’t feel like putting up with the oppressive heat.  On Thursday, he found himself at a bar for breakfast directly in front of the Colosseum, just past the exit of the metro.  Using the most decent Italian he could muster, he ordered a cornetto and cappuccino.  Only problem was they charged him €5.00, when it really should have only cost €1.80.  Not having been his first breakfast standing in an Italian bar, he knew the price was excessive – especially since the man in front of him had ordered the same thing and paid €1.80.

Tommy leaves the bar immediately and calls Gimmi, who of course quickly realizes the cashier had taken him for a ride.  Yes, Tommy had just become Rome’s most recent victim of tourist price gouging, which essentially means once you open your mouth (as an obvious tourist), you risk paying double or triple the price at some places.  That’s discrimination, and Gimmi and Tommy weren’t going to stand for it.  Besides, Tommy’s no tourist at this point; he spends six weeks a year here and has an Italian passport, for God’s sake!

So, they scheme up a plan to return to the same bar on Saturday morning, but this time, together.  Tommy walks in and nonchalantly orders the usual cornetto and cappuccino, with Gimmi a few places back in line.  This time, for some reason, the cashier has some mercy on him and charges €3.50.  Gimmi follows with the exact same order, pays €1.80, then proceeds to the counter and asks the waitress (actually, demands) to see Tommy’s receipt, which she had just collected.

At first, she gives him attitude and refuses.  Then, given Gimmi’s clearly authoritative tone, she complies (this is before he has identified himself in any way).  She fumbles through the trash can, creating confusion and claiming to have lost the receipt.  Gimmi tells her if she can’t find it he’ll be happy to come behind the counter and find it for her.  She finally locates it, and he asks to speak to the owner immediately.  Meanwhile, Tommy’s sipping his cappuccino and enjoying the scene with a smirk, understanding only about ten percent of what is actually being said.

Out from the back of the bar apparently steps the tallest Italian on record, scowling and impatiently asking what the problem is.  The problem, Gimmi explains, is that his bar is charging different prices for the same orders.  ”That’s not true,” the owner responds, “we have a discount for Italians.”  ”Oh, really?” responds my husband.  ”Quit with the stronzate (bullshit), or I’ll have this place closed down in an hour.  You’re speaking to a Maresciallo of the Carabinieri.”  Those magic words are truly the only thing that will strike fear in the heart of any swindling Italian from Milan to Palermo.  And now was a great time to pull them out of the arsenal.

The bar turns silent, and the owner’s demeanor changes from bullying mafioso to profusely apologetic quicker than milk turns to froth.  Then Gimmi says, “You will now give my father-in-law the €1.70 you owe him for this morning’s breakfast.  And keep your eyes open, because you’re under surveillance from this moment on.”

And just like that, Gimmi the “Conquistador” (as Tommy calls him), and his trusty sidekick, “Sancho Panza” (as I’m calling Tommy and he’ll hate me for) ride off into the sunset together, continuing their crusade to fight injustice – one steaming hot cornetto and cappuccino at a time.

Read about some more expat experiences with furbizia:

Girl in Florence: Why Being Furbo in Italy is Anything but Cool

Rick Zullo: What does it mean to be Furbo?

Englishman in Italy: Furbizia

Surviving in Italy: The Italian Art of Being Sly

Unwilling Expat: The Complexity of Italy’s Cheating Heart

Married to Italy: Furbizia: Blessing or Burden?

The Florence Diaries: A Life Lesson in Con-Artistry

Tips for Happy Travel in Italy

So, some members of the COSI’ group got together and decided to share some words of wisdom on travel to Italy.  Who better to give the inside scoop than those who’ve been on the receiving side of the summer stranieri (foreigner) takeover year after year?

I kept it short and sweet with mine:

1. Cross the street with confidence: Roman drivers can smell fear.

2. Embrace the bidet (yes, you heard me).

3. Dress the part – but don’t overdo it, for god’s sake.

4. Take advantage of the free, fresh water flowing out of Roman fountains.

5. Good wine and great food makes it all even more beautiful – so eat and drink as much as possible!

Check out the details of these, plus more great advice from Rick’s Rome, Surviving in Italy, and Girl in Florence in the video below (it’s our first time, so cut us a break):

Buon viaggio!

SL&N

The Best Blogs & Websites for Italophiles

Adriatic Italian Food

We’ve selected a list of some great blogs and websites (in English) about Italian food and culture for you to enjoy!

Got your favourites? Do let us know in the comments section below. Here are some of ours, in no particular order…

ITALY Magazine
www.italymagazine.com
This website from ITALY Magazine covers everything from where to travel (with a focus on hidden gems), to property and lifestyle trends, to food and wine, to cultural events. Compiled by “an international community of people who love Italy and Italian culture”, the articles and blogs are well researched and always seek to highlight an authentic Italy experience. Foodies will enjoy the extensive recipes as well as the weekly Delicacies Series, which uncovers the provenance and techniques behind regional ingredients and delicacies; e.g find out about salt from Sicily or Turin’s famed Giandiuotto chocolates.

Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino
www.aglioolioepeperoncino.com
Eleonora Baldwin describes her…

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