TWO FAVORITE ITALIAN CITIES AND TWO FAVORITE DISHES
BY CAROLE BUMPUS
Leaving the coastal dunes of the Tyrrhenian Sea to the west and heading east through Tuscany, your eyes widen at the pastoral beauty of the verdant rolling hills. Towering cypress trees march along roadways and over hillsides, as vineyards, sunflowers and olive orchards carpet the plains. Upon entering the Arno River Valley, you are surrounded by mountain ranges to the north, east and south, where you will discover the wonderous Renaissance city of Firenze. Florence, Italy.
Whether arriving by train, plane or car, the excitement for me has always been the same. It’s almost a physical assault of the senses: the wonderous scent of grilled meats like Bistecca alla Fiorentina or spiedini, skewered cuts of meat, sausage, and vegetables, or the savory aromas of rosemary-infused breads like pan di romarino, pizzas-by-the-pound, or herb-enhanced pasta sauces. Beautiful pasticcieria (pastry shop) windows feature pyramids of dolci (sweets) piled high in colorful arrays. Buttery tarts, bursting with custard-cream fillings, such as gianduja (hazelnut) or chocolate with orange zest, call out suggestively. And, then there are the robust wines from the nearby hills of Chianti. What to sample first?
Yes, Florence contains all of my much-loved passions: sumptuous foods, delectable wines, incredible history, art, architecture, and literature. Oh, my! Did I mention that Michelangelo walked these same streets? Or Leonardo da Vinci, Donatello, or Botticelli? Did you realized their exemplary works of art helped to lift the pall of the Dark Ages to create the Age of the Renaissance? You can see many of their sculptures, paintings, and frescoes throughout the City, but especially in churches, cathedrals, and the Uffizi Art Museum. And don’t forget writers such as Dante, Petrarch, and Machiavelli also called this city home. Walking along the same streets as these historical figures makes history come alive. Come for the beauty and the sentient qualities of place. You will love it too.
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My favorite foods from Florence are: Bistecca alla Fiorentina, a succulent two-inch thick cut of beef steak or the delectable tagliarini al limone - pasta with a light yet piquant lemon sauce rises to a place with the gods.
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Another favorite Italian city is Amalfi, which is tucked along the rocky coastline of the Salerno Peninsula facing exquisite azure waters. Although the drive to Amalfi is definitely an exercise in girding one’s loins, it is a drive worth experiencing. Yes, the narrow, circuitous road which climbs up, up and over craggy rocks and cliffs, then catapults you down and around a hundred hairpin turns and can suck the breath from your body as you peer over a sheer precipice to the sea a thousand feet below can give you pause . . . What was the question? Yes, driving is the only way to get there, unless you charter a boat.
Upon arrival, you can see you’ve arrived in Paradise. The entire city of Amalfi begins at the sea but immediately clambers up those same sheer cliffs where the residents live. There are wonderful, historical explanations for why locals enjoy living while clinging to hillsides, but the easiest explanation is to say it’s to avoid pirates! Yes, from the time of the Phoenicians, two thousand years of marauding pirates and traders have tried to force their way into the fortress of Amalfi.
Lower Amalfi is a gorgeous seaside resort, with clean sandy beaches festooned with colorful beach chairs, umbrellas, and bar service. A smattering of waterfront restaurants caters to the many tourists who pile off buses or boats in order to sip a glass of wine, dine on supremely scrumptious seafood, or relax as they gaze out over the crystalline blue sea. Breathe!
As one heads up the steep streets into the walled city, a confluence of brightly decorated shops catches your attention. Here, the artistic flair can be seen everywhere, painted on walls, plates, dishes, cups, and across individual bottles of—oh, the town’s most famous drink, the glistening golden goodness called sfusato amalfitano or limoncello. You look around yourself, but you are surrounded by walls. “So where do the lemons grow?” you wonder.
You are standing in a tightly compacted city where many of the streets, known as alleys, are no more than one person wide and weave around and about like the inside of a pinecone. (Again, to ward off pirate attacks.) At the center of town is the Piazza Duomo, where one can stop for a bite to eat or drink. You are at the bottom of the stairs of a stunning black and white cathedral, the Duomo of Saint Andrew, which rises sixty-two steps above you. The Duomo appears to be a riot of stripes, arches, and mosaics with architectural touches gifted to Amalfi by conquering influences: The Moors, the Byzantines, and the Normans. Oh, plus a splash of Baroque.
From the Piazza, all hotels, restaurants, homes, and shops wend up the steeply terraced hills and continue along the narrow Mulini Valley where monumental cliffs rise 4,300 feet. Ah, there they are! In addition to homes and hotels perched precariously along terraces, are the lemon trees—a thousand lemon trees with their luminous and brilliantly verdant leaves and sunny yellow fruit catching the light from a scintillating sun.
Making your way past the Piazza, you may discover stalls offering a profusion of ripe purple plums, dark figs, and enormous peaches, plus garlands of garlic, and string upon string of bright firecracker-red dried peppers. You will gasp at the size of the bright yellow lemons—definitely as large as grapefruits. You are offered a slice to taste and cower at the thought of sinking your teeth into an acidic nightmare. But, no, they are sweet! Who knew? And then, of course, you find yourself in a queue at a boutique filled with shelves of this world-famous limoncello. You’ve waited long enough! It’s time. Buy one, or two! They’re small and oh my goodness, there is nothing better as an after-dinner drink than icy cold limoncello. And your tour in paradise has begun.
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In addition to limoncello, one of my favorite dishes from Amalfi is a marvelous seafood dish called Risotto alla Pescatore -- risotto made with homemade seafood broth then piled high with plenty of cooked shellfish, such as shrimp, clams, mussels, and calamari. Oh, my! So delectable!