Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Carnival Time & Viareggio

Carnival, the period preceding Lent in European Catholic countries such as Italy, is a time to reflect on last year's events.  In Tuscany, this reflection manifests itself in the form of a parade of satirical papier-mache carri (floats) at the Viareggio Carnival.  Taking hundreds of hours to assemble, the building-size floats proceed a seaside boulevard in competition, according to size, 
for a grand prize.

Although Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, took place last week, the Viareggio Carnival continues this weekend (Sat. March 3 at 7 pm and Sun. 4 at 2:30 pm) with the final parades, awards ceremony and fireworks.  
Where else but Italy can you bend the rules?

Last Tuesday, on Martedi Gras, I had fully intended to see the Carnival from the press platform along with Allison Clark, the Beautiful Florence's current official blog photographer.  Then I was called suddenly to a meeting at the U.S. Consulate in Florence regarding our Amerigo & America project, so I sent Vista writer Rita Kungel instead.  The following blog post is a melange of impressions of the three of us (I am familiar with the Carnival, having reported on it for Vista.  Be patient, 
our new web site is in progress).

I realized it was Martedi Gras when I walked past this butcher on via Senese near my home.
Next to his advertising "First Quality Meat," he posted a sign which communicated
"CLOSED on Feb. 22, Ash Wednesday."  In the Catholic faith, Ash Wednesday is a "fast day," i.e. no eating between meals and above all no meat.  
So Italian butchers took the day off.  Not bending the rules worked in their favor.

Back to the Viareggio Carnival, during which the Tuscans use their famous biting wit to comment on contemporary culture and politics.  I pass the pen to Rita.

"After an hour and a half train ride from Florence, Allison and I walked from the Viareggio station to the press office.  In my hand I had a letter, in Italian, to the Carnival contact who had granted us accreditation to the prestigious press stand.  The door to the official Carnival Foundation had a sign on it saying the office was closed until 3:45, an hour after the parade was to begin.  Having living in Italy for several years, I shrugged my shoulders and inquired a proprietor of a gift shop next door who told me that no press passes were necessary or admission charged today because it was Martedi Gras.  
Signora, tutto OK, she assured.

"A few minutes later there were still plenty of seats in the press stands, Allison and I went as high up as we could to get the best view.  The stands face the sea and the bright sunlight reflected off the water added to the festive atmosphere and the sense of anticipation in the air.  Within the next half hour, the crowds magically appeared, the stands filled up and the streets were crowded with people in elegant or absurd costumes, families of five all dressed as leopards, stilt walkers and a nearly nude Neptune--all throwing confetti in the air with abandon.  We could see down the street the massive papier mache floats 
waiting for the parade to begin.

"The enormous floats began to move slowly past the VIP and press stands.  They were all numbered, but in true Italian style appeared in random order, number 4 before number 1.  
I was never to find out why.

Allison and I agreed that our favorite was Ma dov'e questo crisis (But Where is This Crisis?).  A towering sea captain appeared, whom we first mistook for Francesco Schettino, the captain of the ill-fated, shipwrecked cruise liner Costa Concordia.  'Boy, they sure worked fast,' said Allison, given the disaster happened on January 13.  But in actual fact the captain represented was Mario Draghi, President of the European Central Bank.  His menacing figure and rolling eyes with a vulture on his shoulder emerged out of a listing Titanic.

"The heads of Portugal, Spain, Italy and France were perched on the edge of the deck, while an austere Angela Merkel--wearing a dirndl--held her hands out in a gesture of frustration.  Already over board was the Greek prime minister, an anchor dangling between his legs.  Heading the float was Silvio Berlusconi, grinning broadly, entangled between sea serpents and and sirens.  The view from the rear revealed that 'the emperors had no pants on."

Allison wrote, "The floats were decorated with smart political satire on a massive scale, proof that in Italy, even the ability to laugh at one's flaws can be reason for celebration."

The writings of Dante inspired the float Lasciate ogni speranza voi che entrate qui....all'agenzia
(Abandon All Hope You Who Enter Here...at the Agency, aka the Italian IRS), thanks to incessant requests for money from taxpayers.   Below is a detail of the float.

The sentence above is from my own preview of the event for Month by Month.  
I pass the pen again to Rita.
"The elaborate and beautifully painted floats involve artists and designers who work on them all year and hundreds of costumed people ride on them to sing, dance and interpret this theatre on wheels."

Again, from Month by Month:  in the float 2012:  Un solo futuro, il passato (2102, Our only Future is the Past), all of contemporary society's ills--armed conflicts, terrorism and environmental rape--are symbolized by the Tyrannosaurus, a tyrannical beast responsible for the extinction of his fellow dinosaurs.

See the waving palm tree?  This is the seaside boulevard in Viareggio.

The worst case scenario of this float is offset by the another float depicting a beautiful, multicolored Phoenix in flight rising from its own ashes.  Rita commented, "After depictions of environmental destruction, the ever-expanding Italian bureaucracy and other doom and gloom subjects, the mood suddenly changed, thanks to this float, the mood suddenly changed.  Queen's "We're the Princes of the Universe" blasted out and the crowd went wild.

Above is a beautiful detail of a beautiful float.  
Back to Rita.  "The floats compete for prizes and spectators can vote by calling or texting the number on the back of each.  An amusing twist is that the numbers on them are not consecutive, so the second float, our favorite, was actually number 7.  E' Italia!"

The final word to Allison:  "There were no barriers lining the road.  Crowds filled the street, parting only when the floats approached, threatening to run them over.  By late afternoon, the sunlight from the beach touched everything.  It was truly an amazing spectacle, between the colors, the costumes, the music and the confetti that clung to everything it touched, layering the street."

Friday, February 17, 2012

A Treat--Florence's Chocolate Fair

An unusual sight greeted my eyes in Florence's centrally located Piazza della Repubblica one morning this week.  Stands mounted by white tents are overflowing with every chocolate specialty known to man, and a few new ones as well.   I suddenly remembered
this is the first time that the Handmade Chocolate Fair 
(Fiera di Cioccolato Artigianale) was being held in the square.

Florence's Chocolate Fair, which will run until Sunday, February 19 (hours 10 - 10 pm) is an annual affair which started a few years ago on the city's outskirts in the ex-Teatro Tenda, before finding a home--up until last year--in Piazza Santa Croce.  I know that residents around Santa Croce are protesting the use of the square as a venue for concerts and fairs, and but the chocolate artisans could not be more thrilled than to set up in Piazza Repubblica, where everyone walks by.

This is so true, that it was the first time that I had ever actually seen the Chocolate Fair (although I had sent ecstatic interns to cover it).   The affair in the ex-Teatro Tenda had an admission fee--which was soon abolished.  I didn't like the sounds of that---although when we report on an event, we get in for free.
I, personally, am not fond of events staged in Piazza Santa Croce.  Plus, years ago, I had attended Tuscany's firstartisanal chocolate fair, CioccolositĂ , 
in hard-to-reach Monsumanno Terme near Montecatini.
There, I had the privilege of meeting Tuscan chocolate masters such
as Roberto Catinari and Andrea Slitti.

"What is this Chocolate Fair like?," I thought as I entered the square.  Almost like reading my thoughts, a piece of chocolate appeared in the air a few inches from my nose.

There appeared little choice than to take it and pop it in my mouth.
It was gooooood.
After it had melted, I reverted to being a journalist.  "Hey, where are you from?" I asked.

"Where do you think I am from?" said the chocolate master, all dressed for Carnival.  
"I am Venetian--my firm is called Cioccolateria di Venezia."

"What is your specialty?," I asked.  He pointed to a chocolate loaf which he called cremino,
milk chocolate layered with torroncino (almond crunch).
Slices can be purchased.

Behind the cremino are chocolate lollipops.  I realized what I had stumbled upon--
chocolate heaven.

My eye went next to a display of chocolate "Gucci" shoes.

They were selling for 15 euro a piece, not per pair.

Part of the justification appeared to come from the fact they were labeled "Gucci."  The name, however, only represented a flight of fantasy on the part of the chocolate master.  She admitted this to me in hushed tones.

At the next stand, my eye was drawn to what was a white chocolate dessert covered in what Italians call frutti di bosco or "woodland fruits" (strawberries, raspberries etc.)

The kind proprietor pulled out a healthier alternative--milk or dark chocolate filled with puffed farro, a Tuscan-type barley or spelt.  "Using farro, the treat has less fat and no extra sugar,"
she explained.

She is one of the Perugino chocolate artisans from Perugia (Umbria).

OOOH--I next stumbled upon the chocolate master behind one of the most famous chocolate cakes in Florence--Claudio Pistocchi.  At many a dinner, I have been served his no-flour, no gluten, no sugar chocolate cake, which represents guilt-free chocolate nirvana.

"I was a chef in a restaurant in Piazza Repubblica 22 years ago when I invented this cake," he said.  "I then sold it at my small food store near Ponte al Pino, which I closed six years ago to move to Ponte di Mezzo and devote myself entirely to chocolate."

"What does chocolate mean to you?" I asked this kind teddy bear of a man.  E la mia vita, he answered.  "I met my wife this way.  The first year in business, I made 600 chocolate cakes--now we make 100,000 in 12 months--all entirely by hand."

"Pure chocolate--we have been using pure chocolate and nothing else for 20 years.  We are passionate artisans."  I noticed the cake carries his signature--TortaPistocchi (literally:  Pistocchi's cake).

Well, there was nothing else to do but taste other gourmet treats at the Chocolate Fair...

 which was the free advertising for buying something on the spot.  My face probably resembled
that of another (very) satisfied customer---her expression said it all.

Reporting live from Beautiful Florence - Rosanna

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Warm Doings in Icy Florence

 As I'm sure you have heard by now, Italy is in the grip of the worst winter since the 1950s.  Icy winds from Siberia have swept the peninsula, bringing below 0° degree Centigrade temperatures.  Being used to the weather of the northeastern U.S.A., I am faring better than most, although the fact that Florence is currently colder than Boston--where I went to school--would be unbelievable if I were not out and about
in the city.

Last week, Florence had several inches of snow.  I had to clean off my car--the ice scraper that my heart sister Mary Louise sent me from the Hudson valley came in handy.

Florence, however, was and continues to be lucky.  At present, the city is located in a no-snow-zone-bubble:  everywhere just outside, to the west in Empoli, to the south towards Siena, to the east near Arezzo and to the north in the Mugello valley, all of which are located our region of Tuscany--circulation is blocked by mounds of snow.  Further afield, Rome, and Lazio, Abruzzo, the Marche and Emilia Romagna are buried in snow.

"Rome in Chains," the above headline reads.
Electricity is out for thousands of Italians, ditto for heat.  Trains and roads are blocked.
The Italian army and the police are digging out the affected areas and bringing aid.
In this scenario Italy can be likened to a beautiful and fragile lady requiring high maintenance.
After all, we are talking about from six inches to a foot,
foot-and-a-half of snow.
Although, from Rome, my zia Tilde told me "non siamo abituati"  ("we are not used to this.")

Here in Florence, there are fewer people out on the street and some of the stores had closed because people could not get in from outlying areas.  I took this picture with my I phone on via del Corso, close to my office, where the friendly neighbors of the shoe shop Sabatini hung this sign "closed because of snow," because the proprietor could not get to Florence from San Donato in Poggio.
San Donato is in the Chianti area of Tuscany, known for its wine.  Its vineyards lie buried under
 a foot of snow.

The down jacket I bought during my student days in Cambridge, Mass. has come in handy.  I braved the cold to attend a performance of "Swan Lake" at the Teatro Comunale.

Feels cold just looking at this, right?

The performance, however,  (also on tonight and tomorrow
at 8:30 pm) was so beautiful
that it warmed the heart.

An updated choreography by Paul Chalmer breathed new life into an old classic.  The dancers, in their fluid and lithe movements, seemed to be a physical extension of Tchaikovsky's music.
Gone is the day that  this resident company, MaggioDanza,
 could be referred to by their ancient nickname "the flying bricks" (mattoni volanti).

At the end of my last post, I promised to write about food.  Of course, after the performance, we headed for some warm food.  What better than a hot pizza?

This pizza Margherita (tomato, mozzarella and fresh basil) just came out of a brick oven at a Florence favorite "I Tarocchi."  Although pizza is a Neapolitan art form. "I Tarocchi" has been famous for its delicious and
moderately priced pizzas since the 1980s.

Located on via de' Renai in the San Niccolò neighborhood, "I Tarocchi" has always been a family affair, in this case
 the Materassi family.

The late Marino Materassi decided to open the first place in Florence with an exclusively pizza or pasta menu (which has since expanded).  He designed the wooden booths, unusual for Florence.  Daughter-in-law Laura  painted the artwork, giant framed Tarot cards ("I Tarocchi" in Italian) which gave the restaurant its name.

Like the Tarot card above, beside food and art, isn't the sun
 what Italy is all about?

Despite the icy temperatures, that evening "I Tarocchi" slowly filled up with friends, families and couples chatting convivially.  In the next booth I heard someone say "some loves are like songs, they don't end but make a few turns and return" (certi amori sono come la canzone, non finiscono mai ma fanno certi giri e ritornono.)

I dutifully wrote this down in my "Beautiful Florence" notebook only after devouring part of my steaming hot sausage and friarielli (a type of broccoli rabe) pizza.  See the notebook in the corner?

The pizza maker is I Tarocchi's only non-family member, a Florentine named Giulio who lives across the street.  The base was light and crusty, the topping a medley of warming winter flavors.
The restaurant is no Olive Garden, but the real deal.

Stefano Materassi, Marino's son and Laura's husband, is in the kitchen to prepare pasta and a few main courses to order, while sons Dario, Silvestro and Marco are the wait staff.

"They are happy to be here, but I wish for them another job," says Stefano, a true Italian father.

His mother Maria Grazia (with him above), who is at the cash register, also creates most of the desserts:  tiramisu, dark chocolate cake and cheese cake.  That evening there was a millefoglie cake -- a sort of giant napoleon its flakey layers filled with a blend of pastry cream and whipped cream studded
 with chunks of dark chocolate.

"My other son Giovanni, Stefano's brother, made this--I don't have his patience," she told me.  Giovanni is is found at "I Tarocchi" at lunchtime (12 noon to 3 pm).  I was surprised to learn that the restaurant is open also every evening except Monday from 7 pm to midnight,
 even on Christmas and Easter.
What better place on an icy Florentine night, with howling tramontana (cold north wind)
to warm the heart and
visit with family?

Otherwise, the Florentines are doing what my cat Puff (Luce's companion) is doing these frosty evenings --curling up at home.