My Italian Ghost

ghostI tend to avoid the paranormal and I’m not fascinated by things that go bump in the night but there is one apparition  I get excited about and of course it has to do with Italy, in the Italy of my Italian friends at Castello Gropparello.

A few years ago I was on a road trip in search of some material for a chapter in my book on cooking in Emilia  when I found myself at the door of a medivale tavern outside of the town of Gropparello. Gropparello is a commune in the province of Piacenza located about 130km northwest of Bologna. The taverna is part of an impressive and imposing castle-fortress built by Charlemagne in the 8th century. Built from bare rock the castle overlooks a deep gorge (Gole di Vezzeno) and a rock cliff with a view of a Celtic altar in the distance. It was here that I met Rita, one of my special friends in Italy, a cooking companion and current keeper of the castle. Rita and her family have transformed the castle and the surrounding wood into a site of gastronomic festivals, events and Italy’s first “emotional parc” (Parco dell Fiabe –Park of the Fairies), where children and their families are guided through a medieval forest to discover traces of fairies, gnomes, elves and witches entering into a fairy-tale like experience that leaves Disney far behind.  Castello Gropparello

Although the fairies of the woods may be fiction within the castle is a ghostly legend of belief and disbelief with apparently inexplicable events that have occurred and were explained to me by Rita and her husband Gianfranco, who has seen the ghost, as follows “trying to give rational explanations that there was and there could be the slow and gradual unfolding of a presence through clues, signs, posts more and more clear, unambiguous up to the revelation of something incredible”  . . . La Leggenda di Rosania Fulgosio.




Why I Write About Italy

family veneto

Picnic in the Veneto 1919.

Some of you ask why I write about Italy. There are many reasons but it all begins with a family picture. This is a picture of our Italian family with their friends taken in 1919 in the countryside near Vicenza. Someone drew arrows on the picture to our relatives including Gino, the one with the big hair. The arrows have faded away but I can image the pleasure our family found in the day. To me it represents the idyllic Italian lifestyle and the pleasures of villegiatura, leaving the life of the city for a villa in the countryside. Even though our Italian family was not traveling to their villa along the Brenta Canal, they still enjoyed picnics in the countryside and each other.

Traveling in Italy and staying with our Italian family and friends had led me to believe that they seem to know how to balance work and relaxation. They travel through the workday with a mid-day break, surrounding themselves with beauty and art, eating fresh and vibrant food at meals. Italians exist with fewer clothes, simpler food, smaller living accommodations and cars. They eat less, weigh less, buy less but better quality. They travel more and enjoy their friends and family more.

I want to imitate this but can I? Can Italy be duplicated? Unfortunately no. Italy is unique with a historical landscape that colors all that has come before and will come after. But for those of us who have visited this remarkable land, we yearn to bring a part of Italy home and I am no different.

Invoke an Italian Saint


St. Apollinaris of Ravenna (Swide Calendar of Saints)

The landscape of Italy has always been populated by saints, sinners, pilgrims and kings. There is an evocative backstory of the spiritual and profane that can be found in almost every village and town in Italy. Roman roads, Renaissance cathedrals, monasteries and medieval castles were once the way of the pilgrim whose fate was determined by popes and kings. Every monument, museum and chapel in Italy, whether in the cities or countryside, reminds you of the saints, sinners, pilgrims and kings who have traveled through its doors or eaten of its fields.

Since I’m no prince, pope, pilgrim or king, certainly no saint; I’m left to the remaining category that perhaps we all share in common and as a traveler I’ve visited many monasteries, abbeys, chapels and cathedrals in Italy that have left a lasting impression. Some have been spiritually moving like my visits to Byzantine Ravenna, Assisi and La Verna. Many have put me in touch with the humility and exceptional holiness of a group of people whose moral presence has influenced the lives of others in transforming ways.

Here are a group of Italian saints that through my travels have special meaning for me.

Francis of Assisi – seeing the 12th century cross of San Damiano in Assisi that inspired the young and restless Francis to a spiritual rebirth and the founding of the Franciscan order.

Clare of Assisi – the Basilica of Santa Chiara in Assisi and her cloister at San Damiano where she described her contemplation as
“the brightness of eternal light, a mirror without cloud”

Apollinaris of Ravenna– depicted in the awe-inspiring early Christian mosaics of St. Apollinaris Basilica in Classe, the seat of the Roman Empire in the 5th century and then of Byzantine Italy until the 8th century; now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


St. Catherine of Siena (Swide Calendar of Saints)

Catherine of Siena – a scholastic philosopher and Doctor of the Church, she is one of the  two patron saints of Italy together with Francis of Assisi. The medieval town of Siena in Tuscany with its black and white cathedral was home to Catherine whose active, intelligent and courageous life and intensity of prayer influenced popes and princes.

Constantius of Perugia – from Umbria’s terra santa, a land known for mysticism and saints. On this saint’s feast day a ring-shaped cake is made of pine nuts, raisins and dried fruit, a traditional cake of Perugia.

Ubaldo of Gubbio – a visit to see the Etruscan tablets ended in sight of Gubbio’s Mount Ingino, the end point for a procession known as La Corsa dei Ceri (Race of the Candles) where teams of runners carrying decorated wooden constructions (ceri), almost 20 feet high weighing up to 900 pounds displaying statues of St. Ubaldo, St, Giorgio and St. Antonio, climb a 2.5 mile course through the town and up Mount Ingino to the Basilica of St. Ubaldo.

Signore Pig

The Italian pig is revered. One of Italy’s most famous pig diagram 2 salumi comes in the form of seasoned, salt-cured, air-dried hams known as prosciutto crudo. The hams of San Daniele, Parma, Toscana and Norcia in Umbria are so valued for their flavor, aroma and method of preparation that they are given PDO/DPO (Protected Designation of Origin) status, the Italian government’s seal of approval that they are a product of a food tradition that can occur nowhere else.

Government certification sets up strict rules regarding the genetic make-up and breeding of the animals, their feeding, curing and processing. For  pigs that will be wearing the ducal crown (the trademark of Prosciutto di Parma) there are 10 Steps to Perfection beginning with healthy, rested pigs and that must have fasted for 15 hours before they are slaughtered. The resinous scents of the elegant Stradivarian violin-shaped prosciutto of San Daniele in Fruli are said to be due to the microclimate of the Alps and the Adriatic and the traditional making of the “cello” shaped prosciutto of Norcia goes back to Roman times.

Porchetta, a garlic and fennel scented spit-roasted (girarosto) wood-fired suckling pig, has a gastronomic reputation in Italy that is second to none. Just about every sagra or street fair in Italy will have a porchetta on the spit with a long line of Italians  waiting for packets of sliced pork (maiale) to eat on the spot or take home.

Signore Pig is treated very well in Italy. He is respected as a symbol of plenty.


Detail of horsemen and farmer with pig from Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Effects of Good Government in the City and the Country. Fresco. Siena c. 1337 or 1338-40.

The Cinta Senese or Sienese Belt Pig (named for the white belt around the chest) is pictured in a famous fresco by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in Siena’s Palazzo Comunale (town hall). The fresco titled L’Allegoria del Buon Governo reflects a good and wise government. In the contra fresco il Cattivo Governo (the bad government), the pig is missing.

The prosciutto of Tuscany is spicier, darker and more seasoned, often with pepper, garlic, rosemary, and juniper. When eaten as the quarryman’s cured lard of Colonnata (Lardo di Colonnata) thinly sliced and served on a piece of warm Tuscan bread, you can experience an intoxicating aroma and incensual flavor of spices and herbs that surely must have inspired Michelangelo as he searched the quarries of Carrara.

So when you’re seeing and savoring Italy make sure to arrange an introduction to Signore Pig at the local trattoria. He is dressed many ways (salumi, salame, prosciutto, arosto) and although he may be called Stinco (braised pork shank) in Bolzano he is most congenial and not to be missed.

Wine of the Saints

D.H. Lawrence, the English author, poet, playwright and literary critic referred to Tuscany as “the perfect center of man’s universe”, high praise for a region only a little larger than the state of Massachusetts. Lawrence first traveled to Italy in 1912 and wrote of his travels reflecting on the meaning of life. In his writings about Tuscany, Lawrence mused about “a country so perfectly constructed where half the produce of five acres of land will support ten human mouths, yet still has so much room for the wild flowers”. Lawrence’s musings and meditative state must surely have been induced by a glass of Vin Santo, an amber colored sweet wine with a unique taste and velvety texture that is meant for sipping at the end of a meal. Vin Santo is made from grapes that are left late on the vine to condense and develop their sugar content resulting in a vino dolce; a smooth, intensely flavored sweet wine with a high alcohol content, usually about 16 to 18 percent.

Vin Santo is Tuscany in a glass and reflects Tuscan life at its best, life that is to be savored with a holy devotion to the grapes of the vine. Because of its name, Vin Santo (wine of the saints), the wine was thought to have originated as a sacramental wine. However there are other accounts that link the name to historical references that are less ecclesiastical. In particular to a certain incident in the 15th century when a visiting Greek prelate upon drinking it exclaimed “This is the wine of Xanthos”! Xanthos was mistaken for the word “santos” naming the wine Vin Santo. Other reports link the name to a 14th century Franciscan friar from Siena who used it to cure the plague or was it a Carmelite monk who always carried a flask to ease the suffering of the of the sick. All I know is that Vin Santo has cured my overworked, overwrought psyche on more than one occasion and I continue to find it the end of a proper Tuscan meal.

Although I have enjoyed many a glass of Vin Santo both in Italy and at home I always look forward to tasting the Vin Santo from Tenuta di Capezzana, an estate farm northwest of Florence. The Vin Santo from Capezzana is highly sought after and considered to be among the best of its class. Vin Santo grapesSelected white grapes (mainly Trebbiano) are held in baskets then strung together on cane stands where they are dried for several months then fermented and matured for over 4 years in caratelli, small cherry-wood, oak and chestnut barrels. The yield is very low, from 1/4 to 1/5 of the original weight of the grapes. At the time of my visit to Capezzana, the Vin Santo had already been bottled and sold but we were able to walk through the cellars and vinsantaie, a large ventilated room with many windows where the grapes are hung to dry. The windows in the room are opened and closed to control the flow of air. Here the grapes are subjected to seasonal temperature changes which create a unique taste and texture to the wine. At Capezzana the windows of the vinsantaie are opened and closed daily according to the winds and weather.

Vin Santo is traditionally served with biscotti di Prato or cantucci from Siena. The cookies are dipped in the wine to soften, the Italian adult version of Oreos and milk. Tuscans have been drowning their cantucci in Vin Santo since the time of the Renaissance. Tuscan bakers refined the recipe for the unleavened biscuits used by Roman travelers and served them with the local sweet wine. A marriage of form and function, the dry, crunchy texture and narrow shape of the cantucci were perfect for dipping and soaking up the flavors of the wine. Biscotti cantucci are hard twice baked cookies made with almonds (the name cantucci means “little stones”). Many bakery products in Italy were twice baked as a method of preservation. So don’t expect a soft, chewy chip cookie to dunk in a glass of milk. Instead pour yourself a glass of the wine of the saints and meditate about the history and tradition of a cookie that was a staple of the Roman legions and a wine that has a place of honor at the Tuscan table.