Warm Up This Winter With an Italian Hot Chocolate


hot chocolate

Significantly known to raise my endorphin levels and put me in a very happy place, Italian style drinking chocolate is NOT to be confused with hot cocoa. Drinking chocolate is as thick as a soft pudding and not too sweet. Decadently drinkable it is served in cafes and bars throughout Italy as cioccolata calda . Frothy yet dense with a deep chocolate flavor, Italian hot chocolate is often served con panna, with whipped cream, and is meant to be sipped and savored.

You can whisk a cup up (recipe follows) or you can benefit from the experience of Italian chocolatiers like Venchi, Slitti and Eraclea, a historic Italian brand from Milan, who has been making chocolate in a cup for nearly half a century. Using proprietary blends, sachets of chocolate powder and milk are mixed together and therein lies the secret to this iconic drink. You can make Italian style drinking chocolate on the stove top by slowly stirring the chocolate into a measured amount of milk or you can invest in a European style hot chocolate maker. These cafe quality machines stir and temper your heated chocolate beverage to perfection.

Recipe for Cioccolata Calda                                     

1 cup whole milk, divided

1 cup heavy whipping cream

4 tablespoons granulated sugar

1½ teaspoons cornstarch

4½ ounce bar of dark chocolate (at least 55% cocoa and up to 75% is recommended)  finely chopped

Whipped cream and chocolate shavings, optional for garnish


  1. In a medium, heavy bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat, whisk together ¾ cup of the milk, cream and sugar. Heat, whisking occasionally, until the mixture starts to bubble around the edges.
  2. Meanwhile, in a small bowl or liquid measuring cup with a spout, whisk together the remaining ¼ cup milk and cornstarch until well combined. As soon as the milk mixture bubbles around the edges, add in the milk and cornstarch mixture and whisk until heated through, about 1 minute.
  3. Reduce heat to medium-low, then add in the chocolate and whisk until completely dissolved into the milk mixture, and is thick enough to coat a spoon, about 5 minutes.
  4. Remove from heat and pour into cup. Serve  immediately with a dollop of whipped cream and top with chocolate shavings if desired.




Take the Stairs in Italy

According to What National Day Is It? tomorrow, January 10th, is National Take the Stairs Day. So this post is about some of the best stairs in Italy.

rooftop milan


  •  Milan’s Duomo Terraces , the cathedral’s spire-laden roof tops with its 135 ethereal stone statues and the Madonnina (Little Madonna)  symbol of Milan at the very top -an amazing sight worth the climb. 919 steps but you can take an elevator part way and climb the final 50 steps to reach the highest terrace
  • Brunelleschi’s dome atop Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence is a breath-taking experience, but you have to climb 463 stairs to get there!
  • Giotto’s Campanile (bell tower) of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, 414 steps to reach the top but you can stop every couple of stories to see t a bird’s eye view of the remarkable beauty of the city
  • the dome (cupola) of St, Peter’s in Rome, climb all the way by foot (551 steps) or take the lift and then climb the rest on foot (320 steps), a beacon of Rome created  by Michelangelo during the papacy of Paul III, but it was interrupted by Michelangelo’s death, at the height of the work.
  • the monumental Spanish Steps in Rome, stairway of 174 steps, a steep climb from Piazza di Spagna at the base to Trinità dei Monti church at the top but an iconic site in Rome

    stairs rome

    Spanish Steps – Rome

  • spiral staircases at the Vatican Museum in Rome
  • the towers of Tuscany, one of our favorites is the Torre del Mangia on Siena’s Piazza del Campo (main square) 500 steps for a legendary view of the Tuscan landscape
stairs siena

Torre del Mangia – Siena

  • lots of walking uphill in Assisi but the Basilica, old paved streets, stone houses and archways and the aura of St Francis in this Umbrian hill town leave you with a sense of peace that your hardly notice the climb
  • the Bovolo Staircase in Saint Mark’s District in Venice, named bovolo, the Venetian word for snail, referring to its original spiral shape.
    stairs venice

    Bovolo Staircase – Venice


Light My Fire Italian Style

fireworks Festa-del-Redentorefireworks in italy

As we prepare to start the 4th of July with a bang, I’m reminded of some of Italy’s most famous “fuochi d’artifico” (artificial fire) displays. Although the Chinese are credited with the invention of fireworks, the Italians are known for fireworks both in Italy and abroad. In the late 1800’s Italian immigrants brought firework spectacles to the US with the pyrotechnic skills of families like the Grucci and Zambelli  know for skyline fireworks in some of America’s most famous cities and monuments, gala events and national July 4th celebrations.

Varying accounts note that the Crusaders or Marco Polo introduced fireworks to Europe via Italy and if that be the case then the legacy of Italy’s “fire masters” is most brilliantly displayed in Venice’s Redentore. Between the third Saturday of July and the Sunday after, La Serenissima celebrates with a festival of spectacular fireworks, gondola races and parties that commemorate the city’s redemption (redentore) from a terrible plague. During the festival a religious procession to the Church of the Redentore on the island of Giudecca is made by pilgrims crossing a 330 meter long pontoon bridge. The canals are glittering with boats decorated with branches, lanterns and balloons as hundreds of Venetians and tourists gather to celebrate the famous night of fireworks.

Watch this video to see a fireworks factory in Italy.

How Knowing the Form, Meaning and Use of a Word Can Improve Your Study of Italian


languageIt has been said that there are as many ways of learning a language as there are language learners meaning that to master the language you must master the method that works for you.

One of the most popular ways to learn a language is by learning the vocabulary, the words or groups of word units that covey a particular meaning. Even without grammar, with some useful words and expressions, you can manage to communicate. Not very well but in “see Jane run” language at the most elemental level you can get someone’s attention. By associating words with pictures or the objects they represent and with memorization and consistent repetition, the vocabulary based approach allows for a rapid introduction into a language.     You’ve probably seen this type of method all over the internet. However the method can lead to a false sense of security because words alone can’t covey a complete thought.

A second approach to learning a language is the grammar based method. That usually involves workbooks on or off line that combine a small dose of vocabulary at the beginning of the lesson with a face slamming dose of grammar rules. The vocabulary is recombined in several different ways to highlight the finer points of the grammar and subsequent lessons build on the vocabulary learned in previous lessons and introduce new grammar. This goes on ad infinitum and at some point you feel like putting up the cross symbol to drive away the grammar vampire that is sucking the life out of your once enthusiastic new language learning self. However grammar is essential and you can’t learn to speak or write a language without it. So embrace conjugation. After a while you will learn to love it.

In an attempt to combine vocabulary and grammar and give a sense of authenticity to the learning experience language programs offer what at first seems like a the ideal way to learn “la bella lingua”, the communicative conversational approach.  Focusing on “real life” situations students learn the vocabulary and grammar specific to certain situations they are “likely” to encounter when traveling on a train, ordering food, shopping in the department store of farmacia or meeting your friends on the piazza etc.  Lessons are generally divided into units that stress a certain skill supported by grammar and theme-based vocabulary that target using the language in various everyday situations. Although this approach is promoted as conversational, students have a tendency to learn by memorizing scripted encounters and if the conversation goes “off script” are unable to communicate. 

Then there is the immersion approach. No studying necessary. Simply go to Italy. Try to communicate with the locals. Gesture. Point. Draw pictures. Get into awkward situations. Learn by doing.  Sometimes you can pick up enough basic vocabulary, present tense grammar and colloquial idioms to get by.

The final approach is the bilingual dictionary translation approach or more recently the translation technology method. A method that is totally dependent on something or someone other than you. Today tech savvy travelers use their Smartphone or Smartphone camera with apps and internet sites that allow you to speak directly into your phone and the phone speaks back in the language you want or types a visual response.  You can point your camera at some foreign words and watch them change right in front of you into words you can understand. Are you learning a language? I don’t think so. Are you socially interacting with the culture of the country? I’m not so sure. Does the means justify your ability to communicate with the least amount of effort and expedite your encounter? Only you can answer that.

For those of you who would like to try a different approach or incorporate a new technique into your language learning routine ask yourself what it means to know a word.  All words have form, meaning and use.  

  • Form involves pronunciation (spoken form), spelling (written form), and any word parts, linguistic elements like word roots that give meaning to a word and suffixes and prefixes that modify the meaning,
  • Meaning is the concept of the word and what it refers to and the associations that come to mind when people think about a specific word or expression.
  • Use involves the grammatical functions of the word. 

Studying the language using these 3 components has been shown to reinforce and expand on vocabulary, grammar, sentence construction and common usage all at the same time in the most productive and meaningful way using a grid based system and a fundamental set of questions.


What does the word sound like?

What does the word look like?

What parts are recognizable in this word?

How is the word pronounced?

How is the word written and spelled?

What word parts are needed to express the meaning?


What meaning does this word form signal?

What is included in this concept?

What other words does this make people think of?

What word form can be used to express this meaning?

What items can the concept refer to?

What other words could people use instead of this one?


In what patterns does the word occur?

What words or types of words occur with this one?

Where, when, and how often would people expect to meet this word?

In what patterns must people use this word?

What words or types of words must people use with this one?

Where, when, and how often can people use this word?

The following FMU (form, meaning ,use) grid uses the Italian word velocemente to show how this works.

 Velocemente Velocemente




Sound Alike   Velocity

Written Form   Velocemente

Recognizble Parts  

  veloce                    – mente

Pronounced           vay loh cheh men tay

Spelling  velocemente


Significant Word Part(s)

– ly or – ally




Definition   Quickly

Concept      Speed

What other word(s) does this word make people think of? Rapid

Grammar    Adverb

What other English word(s) can be used to define this word?

Fast – Quick




What Italian  word(s) mean the same as this one?

Rapidamente, Subito

Use in the present tense.

What Italian word(s) are the opposite of this one?

Tranquillamente Lentamente Adagio

Use in the past tense.

 PRACTICE Make these adjectives into adverbs.





Italian Addendums

things to do

First written in 2013 as Alpha Italy and decided it was time to update. So look for the current addendum at the end.

There are some things in Italy that are over the top, the star of the group, the best investment, the cherry on the sundae, the Alpha experience of your travels. Counting backwards to 1999 when we made our first trip to Italy to reconnect with our family in Milano, we have through effort and osmosis acquired a lot of information and experience traveling down Roman roads, past castles with Celtic altars and Etruscan ruins, through medieval walled cities and alpine lakes, visiting Renaissance chapels and Gothic cathedrals into family trattorie, vineyards and orchards to see and savor Italy and wanting more.

I’m often asked ‘What is your favorite thing to do in Italy?” and I tend to want to say everything because for the most part it’s true. Italy is the gastronomic epicenter of the world. 60% of the world’s most important works of art are in Italy with almost half of those in the city of Florence. It’s hard not to have the best time seeing and savoring Italy but it can happen. Many Americans have a narrowly defined view of the people, places and food of Italy and pre-packaged tours often result in a show and tell version when there’s so much more. If you’re planning a trip to Italy, take some time to “get off the bus” and experience the culinary and cultural history of a land perfectly constructed for the enjoyment of man. There should be no excuse to come back from your trip boasting about the most wonderful food you ate, wine you drank and what you saw.

Here are some of our favorite alpha experiences traveling in Northern Italy, Tuscany and Umbria. Some are on and some are off the tourist flow. They are in no particular order and even after almost 19 years and 19,000+ miles seeing and savoring Italy I find myself wanting more.

Driving le strade dei vini  e sapori, the wine and food routes of Italy

Seeing 1800 statutes up on the roof of the Milan Duomo and the baptismal pools of the paleo-Christian archeological site hidden below

Stopping at an aperitivo bar in Milan for a struzzichini (nibble) and Campari and Soda

The Obika Mozzarella bar in La Rinascente  and window shopping on Via Monte Napoleone in Milan

An afternoon spent at Castello Sforza in Milan

The luminous crystal roof of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan centro

The Navigli canal district of Milan

Michelangelo Caprese

A dinner of costoletta alla Milanese and an authentic Milanese risotto

A plate of Milanese Osso bucco

An authentic Margherita pizza

Eating panforte in Siena

Panoramic landscape of The Chapel of the Madonna di Vitaleta near San Quirico d’Orcia in Tuscany

A bowl of Tuscan ribollita

A panzanella salad

A summer afternoon spent at the lake side resort town of Sirmione near Lake Garda stopping at every gelateria

Walking the promenade of Bellagio

Eating lavarello, a type of whitefish, on the shores of Lake Como

Off the tourist radar to see the Roman ruins of Veleia near Castell’d’Arquato near Parma

Tuscan crostini di fegato and fettunta

A panzerroti, a pocket of soft billowy dough that tastes like a closed pizza, down the street from Milan’s Duomo at Luini’s panificio

Milan’s Ambrosiana gallery and library to see Caravaggio’s Basket of Fruit and Leonardo’s Codex Atlanticus

Leonardo’s Last Supper in the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria della Grazie, Milan

A taste of gelato at any Riva Reno Gelateria or Gelateria di Piazza in San Gimignano

The funicular to Bergamo Alta, (the upper part of the city), the capital of polenta for a taste of polenta e osei, tiny little bird cakes gilded a yellow gold to imitate polenta and stuffed with almond paste and chocolate mousse

A stay at Le Ginestre , a two-storied Tuscan farmhouse, on the grounds of Castello Bibbione, Machiavelli’s Hunting Lodge, San Casciano in Val di Pesa near Florence

The dramatic Camera degli Sposi  in Palazzo Ducale, Mantua, one of 500 rooms of Renaissance glory in the renowned court of the Gonzaga

The Great Fresco Cycle of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua

Eating a bistecca alla fiorentina (Tuscan T-bone) in the Val d’ Chiana

Radda in Chianti to visit the Chianti Cashmere Goat Company

A stay at the Hotel Tiferno in Citta’ di Castello in Umbria

Driving a Ferrari through the streets of Maranello

The Eugubine Tablets in Gubbio

Baci and chocolate at the Perugina Chocolate Factory in Perugia

Fidenza Village Outlet Shopping Center near Parma

Siena’s Campo and Lorenzetti’s allegorical frescoes of Good and Bad Government in Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico

Eating a plate of cappellacci  di zucca (big hat pasta) with a butter and sage sauce in Ferrara

The Vatican 


The Franciscan Santuario of La Verna

A glass of Montefalco Sagrantino in Orvieto

The drive to Volterra

The hot springs of Bagno Vignoni

The fish market of Treviso

A drive through Tuscany’s Chocolate Valley

Eating Tagliatelle al ragù Bolognese near Bologna

Tasting authentic Parmigiano Reggiano in Parma

The aroma of the grass, herbs and wildflowers of Italy

An insalata caprese made with authentic mozzarella di bufala, from Campania

The Luigi Fantini Celtic-Etruscan Archeological Museum near Monterenzio in the Bolognese Hills

The tri-lingual experience of the Northern Italian Trentino-Alto Adige (Sud-Tirol) and the towns and villages of the Dolomiti drinking Bozen beer, eating the local food  at Hopfen and Company  and seeing the Ice Man in Bolzano

The chimneys and Leaning Tower of Portogruaro near Venice

The seaside resort town of Carole on the northern Adriatic coast with beautiful winding streets, colorful houses and dinner at La Ritrovata Ristorante

La Rotonda; the Palladian Villas and the whimsical Villa of the Dwarfs along the Brenta Canal near Vicenza

A picnic lunch along Lake Trasimeno driving from Tuscany to Umbria

The medieval town of Castell Arquato near Parma with dinner at at Ristorante Don Ferdinando and the night at Hotel Leon d’Oro

A visit to a caseficio (cheese factory/dairy) to see the art of Italian cheese making

The Charlemagne Castello di Gropparello and “Parco delle Fiabe” for the fairies and elves of Vezzeno Gorge and the  Leggenda of the Ghost of Rosania Fulgosio

Driving through the Val d’Orcia in Tuscany

The city of Pienza for pecorino cheese and a visit to Palazzo Piccolomini

The hot springs at Terme Antica Querciolaia near the town of Rapolano Terme in Tuscany

A tasting of artisan crafted Italian beer at Birra Toccalmato near Parma

Stay at the Prisciana Suites in Ferrara and dinner at La Romantica with a visit to Castello Estense and Palazzo Schifanoia,

Museo di Tartufo in San Giovanni d’Asso for an addictive truffle experience

Abazzia Sant’Antimo only 9 km away from the Brunellos of Montalcino

Gregorian chants and the Great Cloister at Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore near Siena  

Driving the iconic landscape of Tuscany’s Crete Senesi

The authentic Northern Italian river town of Bassano del Grappa,  to drink grappa, eat white asparagus and walk across the Ponte degli Alpini (Bridge of the Alpini), a covered bridge designed by Palladio that commemorates fallen soldiers from WWII

A stay at the Lodole Country House in the Bolognese Hills near Monzuno

A visit to Tenuta di Capezzana for estate bottle extra virgin olive oil, world renown Vin Santo and Tuscan wine

Verona; the Arena, Casa Giulietta and dinner at La Greppia

The wines and cellars of Tenuta Vitanza Montalcino in Tuscany

A stop at the town of Valeggio sul Mincio with lunch or dinner at Ristorante Lepre, a Buon Ricordo member restaurant to eat papparadelle con lepre (papparadelle with hare) and a plate of tortelloni

Anything in Florence including Santa Maria del Fiore, the Baptistery, Giotto’s Tower, the Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens and the view  at sunset from Piazza Michelangelo

The Medici Chapels and Church of San Lorenzo in Florence

An incensual slice of Lardo di Colonnata over warm toasted bread

A taste of coppa ferrarese bread

An order of Olive all’Ascolana, stuffed olives ascolana style a specialty of the Marche

The mosaics of Ravenna and the starry blue ceiling of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia

UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Titian’s altarpiece masterpiece in Venice’s Franciscan Basilica of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari

A stop at a cicchetti bar in Venice for a nibble and nip

A Venetian sgroppino, a refreshing prosecco lemon sorbet combination served in a flute

Venice period

And more  . . .

A trip to Panzano in Chianti to visit Antica Macellaria Cecchini the Tuscan butcher shop of Dario Cecchini 

Overnight stay and dinner at Osteria del Garo in Castelvetro di Modena.

Illy Caffè in Porta Nuova Milano

2000 years of history at the Basilica of San Clemente in Rome

The roofless Abbey of Saint Galgano near Siena

A stop at Agrinascente  in Fidenza for Parmigiano Reggiano, salumi e prodotti tipici di Parma e dintorni



Italian Stripes

I just read a post on a popular fashion website that said if they held a contest for “warm weather’s official pattern” it would be stripes.

That got me thinking about the striped patterns I’ve seen all over Italy and how I’m drawn to them. Summertime stripes are especially appealing. Colorful and crisp shirting, swimwear and sun dresses, beach umbrellas and sun lounges are all dressed in stripes along the Italian seaside.

d and ggondolier

From the shirts of Venetian gondoliers whose stripes must be a certain width to the striped marble of Siena’s Duomo, the stripe plays an important visual symbol in Italy beginning with the Italian Tricolore.

As a pattern stripes have a long history in fashion, art and architecture with an uncomplimentary early beginning. In Northern Italy in the early 1300’s decrees and laws existed that prohibited clerics from wearing two colored clothes. Only outcasts and prostitutes wore striped clothing.

women stripes

Three young women condemned to prostitution, saved by Saint Nicolas. Painted mural, northern Italy, about 1340. Pastoureau, Michel. The Devil’s Cloth. A History of Stripes, 2003. 

Fortunately things began to change and stripes started taking on a bold, chic status. European aristocrats and designers realized the ability of the stripe to attract the eye and began using it as a fashion statement.  In Italy Gucci’s signature “blue-red-blue” and “green-red-green” stripe and Missoni’s graphic zigzag colored stripes immediately come to mind. Striped Italian beach and bistro umbrellas and the distinct striped architectural façades of Italy’s medieval churches (Siena, Oriveto, Prato). The stripes of Italy’s Club Soccer Jerseys and the ethereal beauty of Tessitura Pardi ambra stripe linen scarfs. These and many more make a statement of stripes in Italy. 


siena and duomo and interior

Duomo Siena

duomo orvieto

Duomo Orvieto

viareggio beach

 Umbrellas Viareggio Beach


Missoni Dress

scraf linen

Tessitura Pardi Ambra Stripe Linen Scarf

The Scarlet Letter of Italy


letter AFew letters may be as important as the letter A – the first letter of the alphabet, the first vowel, the alpha of omega, the grade we all strive for. Whether emblazoned in literary history as Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter or branded as Apple, Apollo or Abercrombie, the letter A stands out as something special. The evocative nature of the letter A in Italy’s gastro-history is most obvious and apparent when family cooks and chefs speak of aceto (vinegar). An incredible condiment that elevates the flavor of everything it touches.

As an ancient cooking ingredient, vinegar was appreciated for its ability to season and preserve food but nowadays it is most often underrated and misunderstood. There are people who consider vinegar simply ‘wine gone bad,’ buying generic off the shelf brands. However, an artisan produced wine vinegar is a culinary asset with a palate personality that can add a touch of originality to many dishes. Like wine, a proper wine vinegar reflects the terroir of the region. The best wine vinegar is made from grapes that are used to make wine. Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Riesling are all used for vinegar production. All are deeply flavored and well worth seeking.

Producing a quality wine vinegar requires respect, tenacity, talent and a strong passion for the product. . Competing with mass-produced industrialized vinegar for the hearts and minds of consumers, small artisan producers often make an artisanal vinegar using barrels made from wood produced on their own land.

modena balsamic vinegarLining the walls of acetaia* (ah-chay-tie-ah) barrel aging takes place over 12, 18 or 24 months. Using a traditional slow percolating process, without mechanical intervention, artisan vinegars develop a depth of flavor reminiscent of a fine wine. An aromatic and flavorful vinegar, is ideal for making better than bottled salad dressings, marinades for grilled meats and vegetables, deglazing roasts and adding a bright tone to cheese, cured meats or stews.

acetaia  ( a vinegar house) is a place where the vinegar is made and aged