Saturday, December 22, 2018

A Florence Chocolate Christmas

This jolly man looks like one of Santa's helpers, and he actually is.

He is Leonardo Vestri, member of the third generation of premier chocolate makers in Tuscany,
While his family works in Arezzo, Leonardo has a shop in Florence on Borgo degli Albizi. 
He is holding one of his signature holiday specialties:  a panettone, an Italian Christmas bread which normally contains candied fruit and raisins.  This, however, is not
your average panettone: it is made with natural starter, and once hot out of the oven behind the shop's counter and cooled, is hand-glazed with dark chocolate and chopped hazelnuts.

As faithful Beautiful Florence blog photographer Kayla Smith and I were to the discover,
one can personalized a gift panettone by selecting it according to glaze: milk or dark chocolate with hazelnuts, milk chocolate with pistachios, dark or milk chocolate topped by almond slivers.

The same choice is offered for pandoro (pictured top left in the above photo), a tall, spongy yeast Italian Christmas cake with origins in Verona, the town of Romeo and Juliet.
One of the reasons the chocolate is so good is that Leonardo and his father Daniele are
chocolate connoisseurs.  Daniele, based in a city, Arezzo, known for frescoes by Piero della Francesca, owns and oversees a cocoa plantation in San Domingo which furnishes
the basic ingredient,
going there at least twice a year.

Aren't these Vestri chocolate truffles to die for?  You are right:  they come in gianduia (a chocolate hazelnut base) instead of the normal dark chocolate; additionally, are coated in
chopped hazelnuts.

Fans of supermarket Nutella (commercial chocolate-hazelnut spread), I dare you to try one 
and taste the difference.

Does Leonardo ever get tired of chocolate?  
"I always eat it - who doesn't not like chocolate?." he answered.
"Besides, I have to taste, taste, taste...the palate is part of the recipe."

I inquired what are the most popular Christmas gifts items in his chocolate shop.
It turns out to be boxed chocolates, which come in endless choices 
featuring 100% natural ingredients.
I admit, Italians know how to gift wrap better than anyone else.
I learned this at my own Italian mother's knee 
in the United States.
Of course she could cook ... and her gifts under the tree were packaged
as they were works of art.

Just look at these chocolate confections in gold foil 
or in boxes that look like modern paintings...

But Vestri's delights don't end there.
This is the place for the best hot chocolate in Florence:
thick, pure melted chocolate -- nothing else -- with an optional
sprinkling of crushed hot pepper flakes or cinnamon.

What is the secret behind its sheer chocolatey goodness?

This state-of-the-art hot chocolate is keep warm and stirred continuously in
a brass container with a thermostat and a sprout to measure out the just right amount.

"I don't have to have to add potato starch or other thickeners," says Leonardo, "because the mixture is continuously amalgamated, bringing it to 
and keeping it at 
the perfect denseness."

And even better, Vestri sells his own packaged hot chocolate.
The perfect gift, along with everything else in the shop
(to the left in the below photo, which was taken on a table
in the patio just outside Leonardo's intimate chocolate paradise).

Just add hot milk and stir to make a
fabulous cup
of Italian artisanal hot chocolate.

So, have yourself a merry, chocolate Christmas!

                                                         -- Rosanna 
                                                               & Kayla Grant
                                                                      reporting live from
                                                                      Beautiful Florence

Sunday, December 24, 2017

A Florence 2017 Christmas Card

What is this in the photo below? the gentle reader may ask.  
It is risotto which was made before our eyes -- intern Deanna Carbone and mine -- at the launch of a Florence hotel this past November and served to guests.  As the event was titled
"Gold," (in English, no less), 
the risotto came topped with edible gold leaf, which marked the first time I had heard of such a thing.
Well, in the spirit of the Christmas season, I would like to share what the Dalai Lama said at a meeting of Florence's Festival of Religions at the Mandela Forum earlier this year.

Much to my relief (due to someone I know who constantly parrots the phrase), the Dalai Lama did not say "Tibetan Buddhism," even once.  His Holiness spoke exclusively of
all-inclusive values.

"We must transmit forgiveness and tolerance," he said.
"Although everyone has a right to a happy life and self realization,
I have seen so much suffering and violence.
It would be helpful to remember that we are all human beings in order to maintain peace.
War is only mobilized violence.
There is no freedom without peace."

"God gave us different religions to take into account different types of people.
There are no Muslim terrorists -- there are only terrorists.
Terrorists do no adhere to any religion."

"Can people of all religions live together and happily?
A 1,000 times yes!"

"To stop suffering, we need to go deeper.  We are all the same.
Peace comes from within.
We must work towards universal love."

Now, that's true gold.

                  Buon Natale from
                    Beautiful Florence
                                -- Rosanna


Sunday, August 20, 2017

Florence Summer Sales & Armani

Well, summer sales in Florence continue through September 8, and it is clear that this pigeon is window shopping at the Armani boutique near Piazza della Repubblica.

He (I assume the bird is male given that the point of attraction is a pair of men's shoes)
shares my taste.
I really can't afford designer clothes but if I could I would choose Armani.

I am the lucky owner of two Armani pillows given as gift to
journalists when one of his boutiques opened on or close to via Tornabuoni.
I saw Giorgio at the inauguration and remembered feeling worried about his
excessive tan -- his face was beginning to resemble leather.

love Armani fashion.

I also purchased a pair of gorgeous cream colored linen Emporio Armani pants 
in the Galluzzo market.  As my heart sister, Mary Louise, would say,
"the hand" (I am the daughter of an Italian tailor) reached out and touched
the fabric of items on a rack.  "The hand" felt a find and began to shake. Voilà! 
I became the proud owner of another Armani for only €30!
Back in downtown Florence, after a few minutes, the bird's attention towards the shoes began to wane.  Maybe even the sales prices was too steep, or that he simply realized, being pigeon-toed,
the pair wouldn't fit.

But there still is plenty of sales shopping for visitors and residents alike throughout Florence.
Not nearly as elegant as Armani, but available.
Handy if you are heading to the beach, as I am tomorrow.
But I am not a size 6.
But this is a sales shoe story.  One of my interns purchased a pair of sandals at a shop between
Piazza della Repubblica and Ponte Vecchio.
On the surface, the sandals appeared to be a good buy.
Nice, huh?
But always look beyond the surface.
And regarding sales in Florence, remember to keep your receipt.
Sales time (January-February, July - early September) is probably the only time that the
sales staff or proprietor will allow you to make a return.
Because sales periods in Italy are regulated by law.
After less than a week of wear, the soles of Natalia's shoes were cracked as the ancient Florentine pavement they are laying on.  Unwearable because they were falling apart, Natalia brought the sandals back to the store, which, in the absence of a sales receipt, refused
to reimburse her money or make an exchange.
Given the fact that the model was still in the window,
I would suggest calling the vigili urbani (the local city police squad) if you find yourself in a similar situation.

"Do you know a shoemaker?" Natalia asked me.  I accompanied her to
one located on via Matteo Palmieri, right behind our office on Borgo degli Albizi.
His look of disgust says it all.

What's to be done?
The shoemaker simply made the sign of the cross, as 
an Italian priest would at a funeral.
The shoes were as dead as the time-honored practice of asking for a discount 
("lo sconto") at his repair business, as stated by the notice behind him

End of story -- almost.

Discounts, at least during sales periods, are still alive and well in
Florence.  You simply need to know where to go.

The pigeon and I do.  Today it's only window shopping at Armani.
Tomorrow, who knows?

                                                 reporting live from Beautiful Florence

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

From A Journalist in Florence: A Mentor Tribute on International Women's Day

In just over an hour, it will be International Women's Day in Italy.
In honor of my mentor in a three-month stint in a news reporting class,
among the facts that I will report in this post is how blossoming mimosa
(pictured above) came to be the symbol of the Festa della Donna in Italy.
Today, everybody -- loves ones, even proprietors of cafés and stationary shops -- gift women with a sprig of soft-scented mimosa on March 8.

The custom can be traced to WWII Italy when Fascist police executed two sisters at the forefront of the Resistance movement.  At their funeral, dozens of female supporters came and placed mimosa on their graves.  It was probably late February or early March when the shrub is in bloom.

Well, I mentioned that this post was about me learning to report hard news.
A strange topic as everyone knows I am a wimp -- I love culture, non-profits and poetic causes, although I can really write about anything except sports.  And violence, except for rare cases.

Although I attended college in Boston, I grew up on the banks of the
Hudson Valley north of New York.  The city, that is.
Idyllic. Very peaceful, although I was raised in Highland Falls, next to that bastion of militarism: West Point.  My late father was an Italian tailor at the military academy.

One year, while home I decided to cross-register and take the aforementioned news journalism course at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York.  My family was living in New Windsor at the time.

A tiny women, a professional journalist on maternity leave, taught the class.
I remember her bangs and eye makeup that made her vaguely resemble Cleopatra.
She wielded a red pen, which she used copiously on our assignments.

A chain smoker, she gave the impression of being in perpetual motion, of restlessness, even when she was still.  The trademark of a hard-bitten news writer.

Thirty-five years later I found her photo on Facebook.
Mimi Mcandrew has not changed all that much.

As one of her Facebook friends wrote, "a great picture of a great journalist."
I have already thanked her in a preface to one of my books for teaching me to write a lede,
that crucial first sentence or two which sums up the article, which, then,
also included incisiveness.  Now, the requirement -- a tall order -- is punch.
Bisogna spaccare, as the Italians would say.  Leave an indelible impression.
Like Mimi herself.

As a final assignment, Mimi had Marist College stage a mock disaster: students taken hostage, frightened parents (with weirdly-spelled names, Laurence instead of Lawrence,
I got it right), police, negotiations, the works.  The class was divided into teams, for coverage and live reporting and surprisingly I was asked to head one of them.  After all, I was from another school.  Even more surprisingly,my team came in second out of five,
with Marist's star reporter's group first.
As I had no ambition to continue in the field of hard news, I perceived it a great honor.

Fast forward to early 2016, when the Florence newsroom of La Repubblica asks me to write a story about the gruesome Ashley Olsen murder in Florence.  I thought the article would be posted in my (normally speaking) arts and leisure column in English called Day on the news site.

"I don't do this type of piece," was my mildly irritated response, "it was bad enough when I anchored the broadcast for BBC World Service after the bomb blast at the Uffizi."

But if you are a true journalist you know that obedience to the editor
(or in this case, as she was away for the week, the editor's standby) is a given.
The only question you can ask is:  "when do you need it by?"
And we all know, if we miss a deadline, it is because we are dead.

I finished that article in just under an hour and half, reading the facts in Italian
and expressing in English.
I briefly thought of Mimi when composing the lead.  "Don't ever, ever start with a question,
unless the event is exceptional," she taught us.
I took a deep breath and wrote:  "Who killed Ashley Olsen?" and begged forgiveness.
The rest came on automatic pilot also thanks to the lessons I had learned.
The article here.

With the beginnings of tremendous back pain, which lasted all week, I left the office
after sending the story.
I received a text message from the editor in chief on the bus thanking me.  When I arrived at my Florence home, the web editor's assistant in charge sent me a concise email:
"Rosanna, you are in national coverage."
Oh my God, directly in English, was the email I shot back.

The story was on the national web site of Repubblica along with the Italian articles on the murder.
A first.
And the way it was posted, it seemed I had written all the pieces, English and Italian.

This delirio (I can think of no other word in either language) continued for five days,
including coverage of the arrest
of the alleged murderer and the funeral.

Throughout, I felt I was walking a tightrope strung between two skyscrapers,
balancing two languages.
I had to remain perfectly calm although I could hear noise -- a roar -- below me.
On the third day of the case,
Repubblica's arch rival Corriere Fiorentino -- the local newsroom of the Corriere della Sera -- started running English translations.  The heat was on.  I began to sweat, not perspire
as ladies are alleged to do.

Plus, what slowed down me down was the legal terminology -- in both Italian and in English.
A procuratore?  Who the hell is that?  A district attorney?  What is a district attorney? And so on.

I had never ever studied or done the courthouse beat.   And I couldn't make a mistake.
I would fall off the tightrope, although I knew that Repubblica journalists
would launch a safety net.

I didn't need it.

Thank you, Mimi.

Happy Women's Day.

                                               reporting live from Beautiful Florence


Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Norcia Earthquake & Siena: Goodby to 2016

This gilded wooden Madonna, originally found in the Cathedral of Santa Maria Argentea in Norcia, is currently on display in a art show divided between Siena's Cathedral crypt and Santa Maria della Scala.  The statue is part of the Bellezza Ferita (Wounded Beauty) exhibition of artworks rescued in the October 30, 2016 earthquake that devastated
a town in Umbria.

Originally part of an Assumption, in this setting she is raising her eyes upward, not to heaven, but to the semi-destroyed church from she was rescued.  Arms flung outwards, Mary seems to be supplicating help and mercy for Norcia.

The Cathedral of Santa Maria Argentea in Norcia,
(above), was originally built in the 3rd century A.D. on the site of a Rome temple dedicated to Athena in her guise of the goddess of good fortune, with the "argentea" denoting one of her attributes:
a "shining" goddess.  The ancient church, which embraced Christianity but preserved the memory of Athena in its official name, was restructured in the 11th century in the Romanesque style, torn down in the 16th century and was rebuilt between the 16th and 18th centuries in what is been variously described as Renaissance (mirroring when it was begun) and
Neoclassical (reflecting when it was finished).

One can only hope that, seeing what is left of Santa Maria Argentea, that it will rise again from the rubble, along with rest of Norcia.

I covered the 1993 Uffizi bomb blast for BBC World Service, the result of an explosive set off in by the Mafia, killing six people, including an infant carried out lifeless by a fireman.  Looking at this image at the exhibition, which shows another fireman carrying out a Christ child sculpture from the church of San Pellegrino in Norcia, I couldn't help being reminded of another tragedy,
which damaged downtown Florence.

The panels already brought to safety and leaning on wall depict St. Benedict and his sister, St. Scholastica.

Both are exhibited, so that visitors can figuratively touch the cultural identity of the
earthquake area, and contribute to its rebirth, along with that of Siena.  The Tuscan city is financially troubled due to the near collapse of its signature bank, the Monte dei Paschi di Siena, founded before Colombus discovered America, in 1472!

For centuries, Santa Maria della Scala, located directly across from the steps of Siena's Cathedral, gave rest and shelter to pilgrims walking the via Francigena to Rome.  It is a fitting place to host Bellezza Ferita.

It is the wish of Beautiful Florence's less than faithful blogger on this New Year's Eve,
that humanity absorb the heartbreaking scenarios that 2016 unfolded and
commence 2017 with hope, looking forward to
rejuvenation and reconstruction,
 built on the
cornerstone of true
fraternity & sisterhood.

Buon Anno from
Beautiful Florence
                                           -- Rosanna

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Scaperia's 'Infiorata' Flower Festival

A well-known Italian song has as its theme, "to make anything, you only need a flower"
(per fare tutto ci vuole un fiore).

The lyrics of this children's song comes alive every year in Scarperia, a village north of Florence in the Mugello valley, which hosts a flower-painting festival, the "Infiorata," the last weekend in May.
At the base of the mountain pass leading to Romagna, Scaperia is one of the last towns in the province of Florence.
Here, residents color up the main streets and celebrate their community.

Frugal Tuscans are known for not throwing away anything, and reutilizing whenever possible. This includes stale bread which is the basis of their signature soups pappa al pomodoro and ribollita.  Here we are at the end of May, where flowers in a number of small town festivals are separated into petals, stems and buds, destined to be
re-used in the flower paintings.

For a day, Scarperia forgets its medieval origins mirrored in austere medieval architecture, and the streets and squares bloom.  Drawings by local elementary school children (Piazza Clasio), middle school students (Piazza dei Vicari) and shop owners who access their inner child (via Roma) on a theme are chosen, faithfully recreated as patterns and
outlined by the teachers or the artistically talented
directly on the cobblestone pavement.

The locations come alive with people -- children, parent and residents -- decorating the designs, which come alive in 2D and sometimes 3D thanks to papier maché and flower installations.

Petals lend the vividness, and with the mixture of colors and texture, the participant can create almost any shade he or she wants to see in the picture.  Dark colors such as brown and black
are applied with seeds and soil.

The 2016 theme was animals in literature.

An eagerly-awaited moment of the event is the climb to the top of Palazzo dei Vicari.
This is no Disney recreation, the building was the originally the headquarters of the military rulers, later turned into the bishop's palace in the late 16th century.
Great place for putting things into perspective: here is an overall view of the 
fox petal painting.

The eye-catching designs are a heart-warming manifestation of the local community.
When the sun goes down, everyone, including the children, pitches in to dissemble their creations.

Beauty is fleeting -- here it lasts the space of a day.

But the "T" in Tuscany also stands for tradition, and next year
the "Infiorata" will once again blossom
and grace the streets and squares of Scarperia.

Per fare tutto ci vuole un fiore -
To make anything, you only need a flower.
               reporting live for Beautiful Florence
                              -- Rosanna 
                                                       & Greta Szabó 

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Poli & Teatro Niccolini: Death & Resurrection

Life, death and rebirth: the Easter story in three words.
Easter 2016 in Florence was no exception.

All the world's a stage," wrote William Shakespeare in "As You Like It."
Florence in 2016 saw the rebirth of its oldest stage, the Teatro Niccolini in early January, and right before Easter, the death of the actor who was invited to perform on opening night:
 Paolo Poli.

The origins of the theatre date back to the 1600s.  Amplified to its current size between 1711 and 1764, its original name "Teatro del Cocomero" (Watermelon Theatre") merely mirrored its location on via del Cocomero" (Watermelon Street).  In 1860, it was re-christened in honor of Giovanni Battisti Niccolini, a playwright from the Tuscan town of Livorno who had the honor of seeing his works on stage there. The road, now the present-day via dei Ricasoli leading from Florence's Cathedral to San Marco, was renamed for the second Prime Minister of a united Italian kingdom, Bettino Ricasoli.  The statesman was a Florentine.

Florence was also the birthplace of the acclaimed stage actor Paolo Poli.  He starred in 12 plays at the Niccolini in the 1980s until the early 1990s, when the theatre was closed.  Graciously coming out of retirement at age 86 just for the occasion, his performance re-inaugurated the space after  restoration and renovation which lasted exactly 10 years, from 2006 to 2016.

I met Poli at the event's press conference on January 9.  He praised local publisher and entrepreneur Mauro Pagliai who purchased the building.  Pagliai found financing to so the theatre could maintain its 18th century architecture with modern wiring, lighting and security and Poli thanked him
"for giving the Niccolini back to the city."

Then he unexpectedly expressed his desire "to die in exile, like Dante."
"Florence is a city of merchants with closed hearts, who as described in his 'Divine Comedy' are
ungenerous and miserly, prideful and envious," he added.
Poli's wish was granted: he passed away in Rome.  Dapper and elegant, I was not surprised to discover that he had a degree in French literature.  Since I studied French and French literature for a number of years, even acting in a college production of "The Bourgeois Gentleman" by Molière (who knew I would move to Italy?), his style brought to mind the attitude of my teachers.
Although they were "Québécois" (French-Canadians), they were careful
to instill in us a Parisian accent and knowledge
of France and French manners.

Back to Poli, he entered a new life on March 25.  The date also happens to be Florentine New Year, the Feast of the Annunciation (Gabriel appearing to Mary). It was the first day on the calendar up to 1750 in Florence, where it is still  celebrated with traditional events.  Like it or not,
Florence was Poli's final resting place.

In true Florentine style, the actual birth of of Teatro Niccolini had its roots in conflict.  Members of the theatre company founded the "Accademia degli Immobili" on the premises of the present-day Niccolini in 1650.  A year later, the group split:  half went to establish the Teatro della Pergola, and those who remained renamed their company "Accademia degli Infuocati" (The Ardent Actors Academy).  Their coat-of-arms, visible in the newly renovated theatre (right), is of a fiery time bomb beginning to explode.

A speaker at the event said that Pagliai (which means haystacks in Italian, notably combustible) was the right person to to reopen the Niccolini!

The Niccolini's fiery beginning was to continue throughout its history.  After hosting notable productions and actors such as Poli and Vittorio Gassman, it closed in 1995.  The theatre suffered abandonment, the ravages of time, even severe damage caused
by a student sit-in which happened in 2002.
At the press preview, I was sitting one seat over from another extremely famous Italian stage actor, Gabriele Lavia.  I  surreptitiously aimed my Iphone camera towards him, and luckily, he didn't notice.
I did, however, hear him comment that Pagliai's gamble was one of "incosciente follia" (pure madness, not taking risks into account).

In his "fool's paradise" Mauro Pagliai (above), found a bank foundation, the Ente Cassa di Risparmio, as a partial sponsor in the rebirth of the Niccolini.  Knowing that the box office receipts from 406 seats plus boxes of a theatre prose season would probably not cover costs, he decided to turn the
Niccolini into a "multipurpose cultural space."
Sounds like a man with vision.

In the 2 1/2 months of its newfound existence, the Teatro Niccolini has hosted a designer's event during Florence Fashion Week, a concert, and a performance of traditional and contemporary dance marking the close of the Korea Film Festival.  Sunday evening chamber concerts, regularly held in 
Teatro della Pergola's intimate Saloncino, have found a new home.  Starting in May, to avoid waiting in lines, from 9 am - 5 pm, visitors to the Cathedral complex and museum have the option of viewing a video that provides background information on the landmarks.  A bookshop and a café have been added to the ground floor.

Next door is a modest trattoria/pizzeria, which has been there for many years.  The "Buca," in the title means that it is underground, probably in a former wine cellar.  During my first year in Florence, in the '80s, I had a pizza there with my friend Marjorie Coeyman, who was working towards her masters at Florence's Middlebury College study center.
I remember Marjorie and I discovering pizza "capricciosa" (capricious pizza, a tomato base topped with a mixture of mozzarella, artichoke hearts, baked ham and mushrooms as well as the "quattro stagioni," which had the same ingredients neatly divided neatly into four sections.  I believe that I ordered the former and  Marjorie the latter, which surely reflected our personalities.
We did not go downstairs, but dined on the streetfront patio.

Although I enjoyed the pizza, for now I never managed to go back.  There will surely be an opportunity given the upcoming program at the Teatro Niccolini.

I initially meant to post this blog entry the weekend immediately following the re-opening, specifically after a Saturday afternoon meeting at Florence's La Repubblica.  When I arrived at 5 pm, the meeting was postponed.  "We are in the midst of covering a murder of an American --
 do you know her?" I was asked.

I did not personally know Ashley Olsen, although she was to change my life.  Two days later I was asked to write a story on the case that was posted on the homepage of the national Repubblica web site  -- a first for a piece in English, by a American no less.
This led to five days of coverage on my part, relaunching my international career.

And the Niccolini?  When would I write about the Niccolini?

You see, I had a second chance, during a weekend highlighting death and resurrection.

Below is a perspective from the seat where Paolo Poli sat on opening night, representing 3 1/2 centuries of passionate "theatre," reborn and destined to live on, portraying the dramas and comedies of life.

Happy Easter/ Buona Pasqua!

--reporting live from Beautiful Florence
                                                                 -- Rosanna