October 10, 2016

A Visit to Matera

img_510bKnown as a subterranean city, Matera is renowned for its dwellings carved out of calcareous rock. Matera is said to be one of the world’s oldest towns, dating back to the Palaeolithic Age and inhabited continuously for around 7000 years. The simple natural grottoes that dotted this regions steep-sided Gravina gorge became an urban landscape…with an ingenious system of canals that regulated the flow of water and sewage for the inhabitants of the caves, or “sassi”.
Matera became prosperous and was the capital of Basilicata from 1663 to 1806. Eventually the increase in population became unsustainable. By the 1950’s more than half of Matera’s population still lived in the sassi (cave homes)but inadequate health conditions and overcrowding eventually forced authorities to relocate the 15,000 sassi inhabitants into new government housing. Today many of the caves in the Sassi district are restaurants, shops and boutique hotels, making Matera a truly unique place.
I choose Sextantio Le Grotte della Civita, which consists of 18 Sassi or Cave rooms with a restaurant in a former Rock church cave. Our suite, Cave 14 was an impressive example of how a typical dwelling of the Sassi neighborhood can be restored. The bathtub is positioned next to the king size bed, while an adjacent cave (a former stable) houses the lavatories and a stone sink.



September 2, 2016

Experience Italy in New York City


The real Little Italy of New York?

For decades, the Little Italy of the Bronx has remained somewhat hidden, obscured by the popularity of Little Italy in Manhattan; in recent years, however, it has started to claim a spot on the list of New York’s most interesting locations. Even though many of the original residents left the neighborhood in the 1970s and 80s, the Italian character of the streets and shops has stayed authentic, perhaps right thanks to its isolation. The food products, from the cheese to the cold cuts to the olive oil, are often imported from Italy, and the business owners are proud Italian Americans.

Bronx Little Italy is dubbed by many as the ‘real little Italy’ simply because of its authenticity.  Many of the businesses here have been around for nearly 100 years or more and are still owned by descendants of their original founders. The bakeries, pastry shops and cheese shops make their fresh homemade products daily as it has always been done. Customers and visitors enjoy the friendly small town atmosphere compared to the Manhattan publicity spotlight.


Walk a few blocks around the intersection of Arthur Avenue and East 187th Street in the Belmont section of New York’s Bronx and you are likely to hear Italian spoken, smell the tantalizing aromas of freshly cooked Italian food, and see people going about their grocery shopping at the many specialty stores: the bakery, the cheese and salumi shop, the seafood market, the fresh pasta store. Just like what you would see in an Italian neighborhood. And that is the pride of the Bronx’s  Little Italy; many locals say this is the ‘real’ Little Italy of New York, as compared to Manhattan’s Mulberry Street, which many say has lost its authenticity, especially after the Italians moved out, to become merely a tourist attraction.


Arthur Avenue is always on my list when visiting New York.  A big plus is that I can board a domestic flight home with all my favorite goodies that are not available in Portland.
May 23, 2016

Driving in Italy

Driving in Italy can be terrific fun, but here are some tips to ensure less worry and stress that can come with driving in a foreign country and some rules of the Italian road to be aware of.

In Italy, many cities have instituted congestion zones in the city centers where you are not allowed to drive without a permit. These are called ZTL zones and are indicated by a white sign with a red circle. If caught (electronic detectors are used), drivers face stiff fines.

1.  Have the right international driving permit. The application is available online from a number of reliable sources and are valid for a year.

2.  Getting gas. Many stations close for daily siesta from 1 to 3 pm and on Sunday afternoons. There are, however, self-service stations operated by inserting cash into a machine. Be careful to choose the correct type for your car: benzina (petrol) or gasolio (diesel).

3.  Expect to drive a stick shift. Renting an automatic shift generally costs more and has limited availability.

4.  Right on red is illegal. Don’t do it.

5.  Speed limits are indicated with a white sign and red circle with the number in the center. The number is in kilometers.

6.  Speeding tickets are determined via cameras, not by police officers. These boxes also measure point to point and issue a ticket if you’ve arrived at the next box too quickly. The ticket will go to the car rental agency and they will charge your credit card, so there is no disputing the ticket. The car rental agency will also likely tack on an administrative fee.

7.  The left lane on a highway is for passing, not driving. Leave your left blinker on as you are passing, and turn it off when you return to the right lane. Don’t pass on the right.

8. You can bring your own GPS programmed with a map of Italy, or rent one with your car (and set the language to English!). Also bring paper maps. Frankly,  I prefer maps as I love driving on the local back roads…it’s more fun !roadsign

9. Flashing lights from other drivers? It generally signals a warning that someone is coming through fast and you should get out of the way. If a car flashes its lights when approaching, it is a warning that there is a speed trap ahead.

Buon Viaggio !

March 26, 2016

Easter Pastry – “Buona Pasqua”

In Italy, traditional Easter desserts are usually egg-rich baked goods. Naples’ Easter sweet is pastiera, a ricotta and wheatberry cake scented with orange blossom and candied citron. In Sicily, it is cassata, a sponge cake layered with ricotta, chocolate and candied fruit. Tuscany’s simpler palate is evident in the Easter schiacciata di Pasqua, a fluffy, sweet, crumbly bread not unlike Milan’s panettone, scented with the unmistakeably Tuscan aroma of aniseed.

There are claims that the schiacciata di Pasqua originated in eighteenth-century Fucecchio, a small town along the Arno roughly equidistant from Florence, Pistoia, Lucca, San Gimignano and Pisa. Schiacciata di Pasqua is indeed found in Tuscan towns from Fucecchio to Pisa to Livorno, and even as far south as San Gimignano. Although often known by different names—sportellina in San Gimignano and stiacciata in Livorno and along the Etruscan coast, and even pizza in other areas from southern Tuscany into central Italy—the ingredients are essentially the same, with aniseed the constant in any Tuscan version, but the amounts and other little touches differ.

A long process, the baking of the Easter schiacciata was a tradition of nineteenth-century contadini, the country folks’ way of both using and preserving spring’s abundant eggs. The recipe, a version of which is offered in the link below, needs to be followed with patience and care, letting the bread rise slowly and adding the ingredients in at least two stages, sometimes more.

This recipe dates back to eighteenth-century Fucecchio. Traditionally, each family would make its own schiacciata di Pasqua, leaving the starter and the dough to rise in the warm spaces of the kitchen. The process would begin at night, after dinner, with family members taking turns checking on the dough throughout the night. Once the dough had risen completely, it would be taken in its copper or terracotta pan to the wood-fired oven of the baker on via delle Valle, together with an egg for brushing on top to get that deep, dark brown crust.  Buon Appetito.



March 25, 2016

Park Hyatt Aviara

Perfectly positioned on Southern California’s sun-drenched Pacific Coast just north of San Diego, Park Hyatt Aviara is a Forbes Five Star/AAA Five Diamond luxurious destination overlooking a beautiful wildlife sanctuary with stunning ocean views that inspire relaxation and indulgence.
The resort is secluded amid 200 acres of lush hillsides and rolling valleys and offers unparalleled service, spacious accommodations with full resort amenities including five tempting dining venues, bespoke Aviara Spa and the area’s only Arnold Palmer-designed golf course, home to the LPGA Kia Classic and rated #1 Golf Resort in San Diego by Condé Nast readers and ranked among the Top 30 Golf Courses in America by Golf Digest and Golf Magazine.


Enjoy a complimentary 4th night free at Aviara Resort currently valid for 2016. Book through Peak Travel for other extra amenities.

You’ll feel like you are vacationing in a spectacular botanical garden !

March 2, 2016

Basics Of Italian Food Culture

Italian Artistic Cappuccino
No one will argue with the fact that food in Italy is out of this world. Well-made, rich in taste and texture and guaranteed to leave you hungry for more, there’s nothing quite like Italian cuisine. There’s a detailed, fascinating tapestry of history, customs and trends for what you’re eating – so with that in mind, let’s explore some of the key aspects..
Italians by and large, breakfast in Italy is a refreshingly modest affair in comparison. The typical Italian breakfast runs along the lines of a coffee (such as caffe latte or cappuccino – although the latter is a no no after 10 am), bread rolls, cookies and pastries. Other popular choices include fruit salad, yoghurt and muesli. Breakfast tends to be on the lighter side is because Italians are saving their appetites for the main meal of the day: lunch!


Talking of fresh vegetables, there is a very definite pattern as to what you can eat throughout the year.

It’s a seasonal thing, with certain vegetables being produced in prolific quantities for a specific spell and then making way for a different selection. So, with Summer coming up, for example, particular favorites include aubergines, beans, beetroot, cucumbers, courgettes, peas, radishes and tomatoes.

When Winter comes again, the colder months bring along the likes of artichokes, broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbages, cauliflowers, fennel, spinach and turnips.

However, there are still a select few vegetables to be grown throughout all of the year – and these include chicory, lettuce and carrots.


One of the great things about Italian food is its unique feel for the holiday seasons. Christmas and Easter alone bring a selection of specially made foods, both sweet and savory that will tempt the taste-buds.

A number of traditional goodies are laid on at Easter including Minestra di Pasqua. This is a soup that contains ingredients such as beef, pork, kale and herbs, and is a dish that is especially popular in Naples. Agnello – or lamb.

Desserts at Easter include Gubana Easter Bread (which is plated up in northern Friuli) and Ciambelone, which hovers somewhere between bread and cake. Its very distinctive flavour comes from the zest of lemons, and is a delicious dessert to enjoy during this season.

Christmas of course, brings a Santa’s sack full of festive favorites including perennial favorite, Panettone. Shaped like a dome, this sweet bread fruit loaf includes a healthy mix of ingredients such as raisins, candied orange and lemon zest. Another popular fruit cake is Panforte which also features nuts, honey, spices and almonds – not to mention a sneaky topping of icing sugar.

Common savory dishes include mixed meats such as beef, veal and Cotechino sausage (served with ingredients like onions, celery and carrots). Popular festive fish meals include calamari (squid), baccala (salted cod) and swordfish. Pasta dishes are also widely eaten at Christmas including Anolini, a stuffed pasta served in broth, vermicelli with clams or mussels (a speciality in Naples) and of course, all types of lasagne!


Gelato vs Ice Cream: It’s the age-old battle.

Before you know it, Summer will be here, and it’ll be that time of year when you can enjoy the delights of Gelato and Ice Cream. But Gelato (which means “frozen” or to “freeze”) does make for a healthier alternative, containing less sugar. Another difference between Gelato and Ice Cream is that the former involves a slower churning process.

As if that’s not enough with differences, there is also the difference between Gelato and Sorbetto. It’s a north-south divide as Gelato hails from Northern Italy while Sorbetto comes from the South. And of course, one key ingredient substitute difference between the two to add to the mix of fruit and sugar is that of milk for Gelato and water for Sorbetto. But whatever you choose, both make for very tasty Summer treats!



Fine dining. A common trend in today’s culinary world. But while the fancy arrangements, carefully selected ingredients and rather eye-popping prices may be for some tastes, let’s not forget that simple is sometimes the best. It’s like at the end of the month when the money’s run out and you’re looking to create what you can from what’s left in the larder. But many times, this can result in a truly delicious culinary creation: it’s food serendipity at it’s finest.

This has proved to be the case with a good number of dishes that have started out from more humble beginnings. Peasant dishes have stood the test of time and are still popular today. Ribollita is a soup that began with peasant origins – it is a simple but delicious soup that was created by using leftover minestrone or vegetable soup from the previous day.

Polenta comes from earlier types of grain-based meals that were popular in the Roman era – while it was common peasant food in Europe, it’s still immensely tasty and continues to be a popular choice at dinner tables today. Meanwhile, the simple pudding of Mantova’s Torta Sbrisobna comprises ingredients such as flour, butter, eggs, almonds and lemon peel to great effect.



Way back in the 18th century, pizza existed in a somewhat more basic form than is known today. Strictly speaking, it was just the base: No topping, just the flat, round base. But it was still a hit with the poorer side of Naples where street vendors would sell these at a very cheap price.

Come 1889, and the Italian queen, Margherita (Margherita of Savoy) had also sampled a pizza the action. While there were raised eyebrows in the Court Circle, Margherita had enjoyed the food enough to request a similar meal from chef Rafaelle Esposito.

However, Rafaelle produced something a little more elaborate for the queen. In addition to the base, there was mozzarella cheese, tomatoes and fresh basil. All of these ingredients were cleverly created to represent the red, white and green colours of the Italian flag.

Not only did the end result become Queen Margherita’s favourite pizza, it also became one of her favorite foods.  And so began the tradition of hte Margherita pizza !




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