An Ancient Italian City of Well-Being

veleiaTraveling in Italy over the last several years, I’ve visited my share of Roman ruins but perhaps one of the most interesting and remote sites are the Roman ruins in Veleia (Veleja Romana) not far from the town of Castell’Arquato near Parma.

Described as a landscape out of time, Veleia is considered to be one of the most important archaeological sites in northern Italy. The forum at Veleia is one of the best preserved in Italy, with its pavement of sandstone almost wholly intact and its drainage system still complete. A site where the splendor attained by a city in Imperial Roman times is still evidenced in its ruins. The ancient ruins of Veleia were discovered by chance in 1747 and I don’t think many visitors have been by since. This place is off the radar. Without a GPS you won’t have a chance of finding it but if you do it will be worth your while.

Tabula

Trajan “tabula alimentaria” , found at Veleia . Still remains the biggest bronze Roman inscription found.

The city dates to 158 BC and must have been impressive for its time with a forum, Roman basilica, a monumental columned entrance, a thermal spa and ampitheater.  There is a well-curated museum with artifacts of public monuments, furniture from private houses (domus) and objects of everyday life that give insight into what life must have been like during that time in the hinterlands of Rome.  A Roman census of Veleia is notable for an astonishing fact on the age of its citizens. Six were stated to have reached the age of 110 years, four 120 years and one an impressive 140 years of age.

Marble statues of the Julius-Claudian cycle from the Basilica of Veleia.

Luni marble statues of the Julius-Claudian family from the basilica of Veleia.

The thermal waters and a healthy diet may have contributed to the above average longevity in Italy’s valley of Shangri-la. Is it coincidental that restaurants in the region all seem to rate 4-5 star reviews? I don’t think so. This area is near the epicenter of Italian gastronomy, 35 miles from Piacenza in the locality of Parma, well-known for its culinary history.

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Caring for the Chianina

chianina standingThe white cattle (Vacca Chianina -kya-NEE-na) of the Val di Chiana may be one of the oldest breeds of cattle. They were used as models for Roman sculptures. I have  seen them grazing in pastures outside the town of Citta’ di Castello in Umbria and the hillsides of Tuscany near Abazzia San’Antimo.

They are very impressive for their stature (over 6 feet tall) and light pale color. The young animals can weigh up to 1540 pounds and provide the large cuts of meat needed for the legendary bistecca alla fiorentina. 

Italy’s bistecca may be one of the truest interpretations of wood-grilled meats and the rustic cuisine of the region. The notoriety of the Florentine steak dates back to the 1200’s, when the appetites of  English merchants visiting Florence were whetted by the meat being cooked in the town squares. Anointed with extra virgin olive oil, sprinkled with salt and coarsely ground pepper and grilled rare, it is a rite of passage for the taste traveler in Italy and should not be missed.bistecca Fondly referred to as the Tuscan T-bone, a bistecca fiorentina will be cut 1-3 inches thick (3 fingers wide) so when grilled a nice crust forms on the outside of the steak while the inside remains succulently rare or as they say in Italy sanguinoso. The meat is then thinly sliced, tagliata style, and as the steak is large (over 2 lbs.) and costly, meant to be shared.

chianina pastureThe strength, size and prized meat of the Vacca Chianina had me wondering how they are raised and cared for. As I mentioned I have seen the porcelain white cattle grazing in the fields of Italy and their visual presence is astonishing. Formerly a draught breed their growth rate can exceed 4 lbs. a day. So how are Italy’s animal version of Japan’s Sumo wrestlers nurtured and cared for to produce such memorable meat?  Meat that is was so valued that the Etruscans sacrificed the Chianina’s ancestors to their gods and the Romans immortalized the breed in monumental sculptures. Like much of what Italians eat and drink the explanation for the goodness and flavor of the Chianina relates to local history and culture. With generational producers and a pastured landscape that allows the cattle to graze and create the great muscles needed to produce this quality of meat. The philosophies that hold true to the Italian way of valuing the food they eat are translated into the way they raise and source their food. For no country is more perfectly constructed for the enjoyment of food than Italy.

The Bridge at Bassano

BassanoAfter we left Padua my cousin Lidia and her husband Roberto wanted to drive to the town of Bassano del Grappa at the foot of the Italian Alps. Bassano del Grappa is 27 miles north of Padua, north of Vicenza. Described as an “authentic Italian river town”, Bassano del Grappa has a spirit and history that is both touching and unique. The historical center (centro storico), with its cobblestone streets, is split in half by the Brenta River and a covered wooden bridge designed by Palladio. The views of the town from the bridge are postcard perfect with wine bars and grappa shops on either side. The Nardini grapperia and the Poli Grappa Museum on Via Gamba are a must for grappa afficiandos and interesting stops for those who would like to learn more about Italy’s most famous distillate.

Bassano’s grappa is what Roberto wanted us to taste but the bridge at Bassano is what Lidia wanted us to see. In 1569 Palladio was commissioned by the citizens of Bassano to design and replace the town bridge, destroyed by the flooding of the river Brenta. Palladio designs a stone bridge with three arches, inspired by the buildings of ancient Rome.

Marasco WWlThere is a heritage of heroism from both World Wars associated with the bridge at Bassano and the piviotal role of the bridge in the military history of the region is long standing. Our grandfather crossed this bridge during WWI as a young interpreter with the Italian Army.  alpini During WWII Italian resistance soldiers organized raids on the German army from the craggy slopes of nearby Monte Grappa. You can still see the machine gun bullet holes on the buildings next to the bridge. The bridge was destroyed by the retreating German army at the end of WWII and rebuilt in 1948 by the Alpini, Italy’s elite mountain military corps, and named Ponte degli Alpini (Bridge of the Alpini) as a memorial to their fallen comrades in arms.

Although Bassano is only about an hour’s drive  from Venice many travelers have yet to discover this quaint medieval town with a unique and touching heritage that holds a special place in our family’s history.

A Few of Our Favorite “faster slow food” Stops in Italy

panzerotti and luiniI hesitate to use the phrase “fast food” and Italy in the same sentence. To do so would border on the sacrilegious. Although there are American fast food restaurants in Italy  (most notably McDonalds and Burger King) Italians are not a Fast Food Nation. Even Italian restaurants that promote so called “fast food” are still making traditional Italian slow food – just a little faster.  Stuzzicando, an Italian food manufacturing company who franchizes and promotes high technology food services attests to doing this in a slow food way sharing traditional  Nonna-style recipes

So yes, there is the Italian version of American Fast Food but not at all like what we have here. The food is of a much higher quality with great attention to freshness and regional ingredients. Food served is often equal to or better than what you would find in white table restaurants in the States. Here are a few we seem to frequent.

The Autogrill – a cafeteria style restaurant and caffe’, located every 30-50km off the Autostrada, is the Italian equivalent of our fast food but the quality and assortment is far from any fast food restaurant in the US.  The restaurants at the Autogrill serve fresh pasta, grilled meats, fresh salads and chef inspired desserts.  Italians are very particular about their food no matter where it is being served.

Bauli Grills – similar to Autogrills and also have great pizza by the slice and cafeteria style food service as well.

Porchetta Food Trucks – roasted pork panini, succulently seasoned with salt, pepper, rosemary, garlic and wild fennel, cooked on a stainless steel pole in an oven until the skin is crispy and the meat is silky and tender.

Luini’s Panificio – Via S.Radegonda 16. City dwellers and in-the-know tourists line-up by the dozens for Luini’s famous doughnut-like pizza, the panzerotti.

Garbagnati – midway between Castello Sforza and Piazza Duomo in Milan, a famous bakery and a self-service style restaurant. Daily specials, lots of veggies.

Spizzico –  is a self-service fast food pizza chain owned by Autogrill that not only serves 13 different types of pizza but fresh fruit and pastries. The Spizzico I usually find myself at is the Spizzico in Milano by the Duomo and the Galleria on my way to and from shopping!

Piandina Stands – in Emilia Romagna for piandina, a classic Italian flat bread filled with local meats and cheese.

The Larger Than Life Personality of Florence

map of florenceIf the pater noster of Italy is Rome, than Florence in Tuscany is assuredly its beautiful and famous daughter. Listed by Travel and Leisure Magazine as one of the Best Cities in the World for the collective experience of travelers, Florence is definitely on the A-list of desirable world travel destinations. The paparazzi have been following Rome’s famous daughter around since the 1200’s when Florence became a leading economic city in Tuscany and never looked back. In the 15th century, the powerful and influential Medici created a dynasty that would define the history and culture of Florence for the next two and a half centuries. Their passion for the arts, literature and learning created an intellectual and economic rebirth with larger than life personalities. Florence and the Medici ate, drank and made merry and some would say led Italy into the Renaissance.
The larger than life personality of Florence attracts an entourage of followers. With a flood of information on the internet, TV and social media you won’t be at a loss for travel suggestions when visiting one of Italy’s most popular stars. Don’t let Florence’s larger than life personality distract you from taking the time to relish and enjoy the city.  It took me 5 trips to Florence before I began to understand, experience and appreciate the true beauty of this remarkable place. So choose to see what you can of Florence, then you will return to see more. After all Dante called Florence the “beautiful and famous daughter of Rome” and as you know Rome wasn’t built in a day.