Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Modica, Sicily: Chocolate!

Modica Chocolate Photo: Italia Io Ci Sono

– To those of us addicted to this elixir of life, the word alone makes us salivate. To others, it’s a word that conjures up thoughts of a delicate sweetness. To Sicilians in the Baroque town of Modica, chocolate is their heritage and a tradition that dates back to the 15th century.

Modica, Sicily

Modica chocolate, Cioccolato Modicano, is not like any chocolate you’ve tasted before. It has a bitter-sweet flavor with a distinct grittiness on your tongue. Chocolates we're used to eating usually have a long list of ingredients, but...the traditional Modica chocolate has only two ingredients – cocoa and sugar. There’s no added soy lecithin, cocoa butter or other fats. Modica chocolate originated with the ancient Aztecs original recipe called “Xocaoatl.”  Evidently, the Spaniards loved the treat so much that they brought the recipe back to Europe with them. 

Modica Chocolate Photo: Fine Dining Lovers

Modica’s artisan chocolate has been made the same way since the technique was brought in by the Spaniards during their 15th - 16th century rule. The cocoa beans are ground on a stone slab and processed at low temperatures. For this reason, the added sugar never melts giving the chocolate its distinct gritty texture. This grainy, aromatic chocolate is one of the most famous products of the Ragusa area and has earned international prestige. The chocolate is used in not only sweet but savory dishes. It can be eaten is squares or melted in a cup.

There are chocolate shops are all over Modica, however one of the most famous producers of Cioccolato Modicano is Bonajuto family. Their Antica Dolceria Bonajuto is the oldest chocolate factory in Sicily and has been in the same spot in the heart of Modica since 1880. The Bonajutos still produce the original two-ingredient Modica chocolate but have also added a variety of flavors like cinnamon, chili, pistachio, citrus, vanilla and others. 

Cousin Peppino was nice enough to drive us through the narrow streets of Modica so we could experience this Sicilian treat firsthand. We stepped into the chocolate wonderland of Antica Dolceria Bonajuto and were immediately greeted by the delicate aroma of... CHOCOLATE. Samples dishes of the Cioccolato Modicano flavors were on the counter waiting to be tasted. Many other chocolate lovers also wanted theirs tastes so the line was long. I finally made my way up to  the variety of tasting bowls.

I tasted this one - I tasted that one. I tasted all of them. Which was best? There's no way to decide unless you keep tasting and tasting and then go back and taste again. For me, the final decision was the chili pepper: bitter-sweet with a little bite of pepper and, of course, the traditional grittiness. Yum! Chocolate Heaven!

But - Don't stop with the Cioccolato Modicano at Bonajuto's! Over the years the family has expanded to other chocolate candy treats and a variety of cookies as well. 

Modica chocolate has never been produced industrially. The making of this chocolate is an art and naturally BEST experienced in Modica. SO the next time you just happen to be in Sicily, be sure to make your way to the Baroque town of Modica for your own taste-test of the Cioccolato Modicano. AND, don't forget to bring back a bar or two for me!

Read more about Modica chocolate.
Click here for a video of Modica chocolate by Gypsey Nesters.

- Nina Spitzer

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Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Holiday Season in Italy: Feast of the Immaculate Conception

The season of holiday shopping in Italy may begin as early as the end of November, but the true kick-off of the the Christmas season for Christians in Italy begins on December 8th with The Feast of the Immaculate Conception. 

                                 credit: Swide

                                                                                                            credit: Swide

For Catholics, the day celebrates the Virgin Mary being born free of the original sin that has afflicted mankind.

The feast day is a national holiday and a holy day of obligation in Italy. Government offices, banks, schools and post offices are closed and Catholics celebrate the Virgin Mary by attending Holy Mass at their favorite church.

                        credit: Italian Language blog

But, it doesn't stop there; it's also the day for setting up the nativity scene, putting up the Christmas tree and stringing up the holiday lights. And, let's not forget shopping! Many shops are open, decorated and welcoming in holiday shoppers.

The day is also celebrated by emotional processions, parades, fireworks, lighting of the traditional bonfire foods.

                                 credit: Swide
                                                                                                         credit: Abruzzo4foodies

December 8th, The Feast of the Immaculate Conception, is a day of celebrating the blessed Virgin Mary, but is especially a day for being with family and enjoying the love and joy of the holiday together.

What a wonderful and special day to be in Italy!

Watch this beautiful video of The Feast of the Immaculate Conception in Naples, Italy!

And...A musical Christmas in Italy video.  

Ciao e Buon Natale!
- Nina Spitzer

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Monday, December 7, 2015

Holiday Season in Italy: "Oh Bej! Oh Bej!" in Milan

(credit: Vita da Mamma)

Natale or Christmas season is a busy, festive time in Italy. It's a time of celebrations, decorations, religious services, gifts, and food. Each region and town has its own special way of celebrating Natale and enjoying the season. What a wonderful time of year to visit Italy and buy some beautiful and unique gifts while there!

In Milan, December 7th is the annual celebration of the city's patron saint, Sant'Ambrogio. Religious celebrations in honor of the saint take place all over the city, but especially at the Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio. 

(credit: Panoramio)

AND - The most important fair of the year, "Oh bej! Oh bej!" ("Oh beautiful! Oh beautiful!" - pronounced "O-bay! O-bay!"), coincides with the celebration of the saint's day. 

(credit: Milan Today)

The festival takes place in and around the Sforza Castle and where you will find over 400 merchant stalls just begging for a look.  

(credit: Girando il Mondo)

Happy holiday shoppers stroll the stalls eyeing the many handmade crafts, flowers, toys, ornaments, bric-a-brac, antiques, clothes and (of course) a variety of FOODS - cured meats, cheeses, sweets, wines and more. Music and the aroma of roasting chestnuts fill the air.

Watch a video of "Oh bej! Oh bej!"

What a wonderful way to start out the holiday season!

- Nina Spitzer

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Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Picci Family Carousel in Florence

There’s something magical about a carousel. Maybe it’s because, no matter how old we are, we become a kid again when the music is playing and the horses are going round and round. When it comes to carousels, none is more beautiful than the Picci Family Carousel in Florence, Italy.

The beautifully restored carousel, located in the Piazza della Republica, dates back to the early twentieth century. The carousel was built on the site of the Mercato Vecchio, the old Roman Forum and center of the Roman city. It’s been run by four generations of Picci’s and is currently run by Carlo Picci and his wife.

Photo Credit: Wintibaugh

It’s small for a carousel with only twenty plumed horses with plenty of space in between. This, according to Carlo Picci, allows plenty of room between horses for mothers to stand beside their bambini while the horses go up and down and sway back and forth. The carousel also has two gilded “king’s carriages” one of which is under a gilded crown with red and green gems.

The colors of the carousel are mostly bright reds and blues, and the beautifully painted horses stand proudly with tall, elegant plumes upon their heads.  The inside columns have paintings of Roman gods and flirting cherubs float on the ceiling. On top of the ride are painted panels of different Italian cities like Pisa, Rome, Bologna, Parma, and Venice. And…the carousel also has two flowerpots filled with fresh plants.

The antique carousel is definitely a site to see. It’s beautiful during the daytime and splendid all lit up at night. 

The Picci Family Carousel is in operation daily from about 10 in the morning until about 8 at night November through May. It only takes a couple of euros to hop on a horse and, for a few wonderful moments in Italy, become a kid again!

- Nina Spitzer

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Friday, October 2, 2015

Lodging in Italy

You've chosen your travel dates and airline tickets have been purchased. What next?
Lodging! And...What's usually the first type of lodging that comes to mind? Hotels.

          For us, hotels are one type of lodging we rarely consider on our travels. Not to say they're bad...It's just that we like more “stretch” space and also enjoy being embedded into the local community. 

          I'll be the first to admit I like all the comforts of home when I travel, and that's exactly what you get with a vacation home rental. You can fine-tune your rental to your liking and needs - multiple bedrooms and bathrooms, a living room, balconies and patios, washer and drier, a kitchen and bbq! The personal attention of the owners makes the experience even more special. can chit chat with the locals rather than fellow American travelers. 
          For these reasons, renting a vacation home is what works best for us. They offer amenities that make you feel at home while you’re away.

Here are some of the advantages of vacation home rental:
  •         More space > Instead of one small hotel room, you have an entire apartment or house.
One of our smaller rental places. This was a small studio in Castellammare del Golfo, Sicily. It was spotless and with an amazing port view off the balcony. Other places have multiple bedrooms and bathrooms.
The other side of the studio with the balcony and port view.
  •      Cooking facilities > It’s fun to buy local meats and produce and cook in like an Italian. 
It was a wonderful cioppino cooked with clams, mussels, and shrimp
all bought at the local fish market.
  •      Cheaper > It can be far less expensive than a hotel, especially if you are sharing the cost with other travelers.
Here we are, old friends sharing a farmhouse in Tuscanny.
  •       Unique Style > There are so many unique apartments and homes to choose from.
This was a trullo style home in the Puglia section of Italy.
Inside the trullo

A lovely farmhouse we enjoyed in Umbria. 
  •       Unique locations
One year we rented a vacation farmhouse apartment in this small hamlet of Adine in Tuscany. Population: 50!

  •       Beautiful Views 

A vineyard view from a Tuscan farmhouse - Lovely!
  •       Personal touches > Frequently private owners will offer personal touches and information not available at a hotel.
          The uncle (white shirt - he really did smile) brought us a freshly made pot of pesto for dinner and his niece (back center) made me a gluten-free cake. The next day, a neighbor brought us two fresh eggs. The chicken had laid them 10 minutes before...REALLY fresh!
         A host in Tuscanny once invited us to her large family dinner under the patio.
The meal was delicious, the wine good, the company friendly and the sun setting on the vineyards amazing. 

  •       Welcome basket > Frequently a welcome basket of local jellies, meats, cheese and/or wines will greet your arrival.   
                                         Our host in Piedmont wine country left a bowl of grapes from her vineyard. 
                                                      She also left a bottle of wine and goodies in the fridge.
  •       In with the Locals!
Everyone has a balcony!
I enjoy hanging out over the balcony and chatting with the neighbors
- a fun advantage of speaking Italian.

  • Other Extras!

Happy Hour on your own personal hillside patio!

On the other hand, vacation home rentals require you have an open mind and the spirit of adventure. You never know what you'll find. The bathroom may be tiny as are bathrooms in many Italian homes. There may be no elevator. The lodging may be a bit off the beaten path. OR...

You may be surprised by interesting critters ...
Pimpinella, the host's pet goat, greeted us at the door of
our Umbrian farmhouse one morning.
She was very friendly.

A beautiful Sicilian lizard stopped in to say "Hello" in our Castellammare studio apartment.
I named him Luigi!


With careful preliminary research, you can learn about most of these things (though maybe not the critters) before you reserve. I recommend you read all the reviews of previous guests. They will tell you things not included on the site. We never take a chance at booking a vacation rental with no reviews. There are many online sites for finding vacation rentals.

Vacation home sites provide a description of the apartment/house, the location and the amenities. Their policies and procedures are all different, so read the details carefully (including the cancellation policy) before you reserve and send your deposit.

So, if you want something different from the usual hotel room that will provide a unique experience and fun memories, consider a vacation home rental. You can custom design it to your heart's desires.

- Nina Spitzer

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Thursday, September 17, 2015

Balconies in Italy

Balconies have been part of the Italian culture for centuries.

In Italy, balconies may be fancy... 

... or simple,  

but most everyone has one. 

Balconies are not just an architectural feature; they’re a part of the Italian lifestyle.
The origin of the word “balcony” is “balcone” the Italian word for “scaffold,” probably because it lifted you above the rest of the world.

Stone corbels or large stone or wooden brackets supported balconies of medieval and Renaissance times. 

More modern times brought supports of iron, reinforced concrete and other materials.

In days of old, balconies were a necessary architectural feature. They were the extended living space where women hung out clothes to dry and did much of their work. 

Up until not too long ago, colorful laundry flapped in the breeze of Italian windows and balconies. Our recent visits, however, have found laundry-free balconies, perhaps a result of laws banning the practice.

For centuries, balconies on public buildings have also been places from which speeches could be made. This tradition is continued by popes at St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican.

Balconies of the past made it convenient for women to purchase goods from traveling street vendors by lowering over the balcony's railing a basket tied to a cord.  Down would go the basket with money – up would be pulled the basket with goods. In some towns, this practice continues today as we discovered on a recent trip to Sicily. Baskets still go up and down with purchases, and bags of garbage as well may hang from balconies awaiting early morning sanitation trucks.

Whether balconies are shallow or deep, Italians enjoy how they expand the living space, bringing in light and air.

They are the place for a quick cigarette, coffee or glass of vino -

as well as a place to relax and enjoy the view, or chat with a neighbor at the end of the day.

And love - Let's not forget love!

Italians often decorate their balconies with plants and flowers making the space a delightful mini-garden for relaxing or from which to watch life below. 


Some balcony gardens are simple... 

.... and some lavish or quite lush ...

... but, all bring greenery or a colorful bit of outdoors to the space inside creating a postage stamp-sized patch for respite.

Balcony awnings shield interior living space from the heat of summer and...

...provide a small, secluded hideaway with a beautiful outdoor view.

When in Italy, I love noticing the different types of balconies and how they're decorated. For hubby and me, an empty balcony beckons to be used and enjoyed. 

It calls and says, "Come. Sit. Relax and enjoy a great view and all our beautiful country has to offer." 
And...we do!

- Nina Spitzer

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