Italy’s Magic Touch

An American: Will say ‘hello”.
An Italian: Will give you a big hug and a kiss and pat you on the back

hugsI am never happier than when I am in Italy. The food, the wine, the art and design, the landscape and sounds . . . the touch.

As you might have noticed Italians like to touch. They are a tactile society. Everything around them invites them “to feel” both physically and metaphorically. Italy is filled with emotions that cannot be denied. The fabric of history demands it.

Italians in general are a welcoming people with a culture of hospitality. They still shake hands and may touch your shoulder as they escort you through their country. Acquaintances often hug and kiss when they meet. Our Italian family greets us with many baci e abbracci.

As we become more distanced from traditional customs and families become divided we are less likely to experience the emotional power of touch. The spontaneity of touching has become downsized. Touching someone has become a negative action, an intrusion on one’s space, a danger signal. Stranger danger is real but are we overcompensating as a society when we teach our kids not to let anyone including aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents touch them without asking first. We teach are kids not to hug too tightly and that many people don’t want to be hugged. A published study in the Journal of Early Child Development and Care reported that preschoolers in America are more aggressive than their peers in France (another demonstrable country). They’re also touched less. Coincidence? It could be, but research would suggest otherwise.

The risk of loosing the connection of touch, once thought to be unbreakable, is crumbling before our very eyes. A friendly touch has appreciable affirming benefits and it is no more magical than when felt in Italy.

Accustomed to Build With Their Ruins

“The Venetians, exiles from ancient and beautiful cities and used to fabricate with ruins of ancient monuments, not least for affection  that for admiration, had become familiar with the practice of the oldest insert snippets in their buildings . . . and each fragment in their loved one that they added . . . helped them transform their refuge into their homeland ” John Ruskin


Asin Erminio – Venetian Floor Restoration

Much of the beauty of Italy lies in its ruins. Even for the first time traveler there is a sentimental pleasure in experiencing the ancient architecture and art found in almost every corner, viale, staircase, field, forest or floor in Italy.  In Venice “pavimento alla veneziana“, ornamental Venetian terrazzo floors have roots that lie deep in history, in ancient Greece, where floors made from stream stones were arranged and mixed with lime or clay.

Historical inspiration for art and practicality is nothing new in Italy. The cobblestone pavements and streets of Rome were made by trimming large blocks of stone that had been used to build ancient Roman roads. Italians literally live among the ruins and many chic boutique hotels have been build from the crumbling walls of medieval villages.Wood and stone cottages have been restyled as suites, castle kitchens serve as banquet halls and former dungeons now host business meetings. Recusing ancient villages with wifi in a UNESCO World Heritage Site can rescue the past with an affection for the ruins upon which a new heritage is built.

Cultural repurposing of old or found materials is a valuable way to remember the past, a “sympathetic” way to use historical structures and discarded remnants. An evocative treasure of old materials and colors, sights and sounds that reminds us that there is a historical reference point to who we are and in turn what we do.

Whether we use past ruins a source of materials to enhance our current projects or look at ruins as a nostalgic window to another time and place restoration is a language built of momentoes looking for improvement.

Books about Italian Ruins and Restoration

In Ruins by Christopher Woodward

Italian Hours by Henry James

The Stones of Venice by John Ruskin

Pavimenti a Venezia – The Floors of Venice by Tudy Sammartini, Antonio Crovato and Gabriele Crozzoli














La Macchina

enzo ferrariDriving a Ferrari on the streets of Maranello was a definite alpha Italy experience so when launched in March with information and locations of Italian automobile museums, a calendar of racing and car show events and discounts on car driving experiences we were all over it.

The revved up Emilia Romagna tourism website also lists day tours of factories and showrooms and some great offers to immerse you into the “land of taste and motors”.  The province of Emilia Romagna in northeastern Italy is home to Ferrari, Maserati, Lamborghini, Pagani and De Tomaso luxury car manufacturers as well as Ducati motorcycles and the taste towns of Bologna and Modena. You can sample the regions’s iconic  Aceto Balsamico, Lambrusco wine and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and satisfy your inner racer along the way.

The site also has an interesting section about the stories and characters significant to Italian motor racing and car manufacturing.

eric ferrari

Our travel group at the Hotel Arthur close to the Ferrari factory (Modena area)


Italy’s Bigfoot Is a Maker of Cheese

wildmanThe Italian version of Bigfoot is more akin to a wilderness cook than a cryptozoological monster.  More rational and reasonable, a teacher of sorts. Legends about a wild man living in the forests along the Alps and the Apennines describe him as a master of the cheese trade. At an ancient encounter near Lucca it is said that the wild man, having taught men to make butter, was about to leave, but the men insisted so much that he stopped to teach them how to make cheese. He started to leave, but once again was pressed to continue and so explained how to produce ricotta. He would often appear unexpectedly to help and correct the local cheese makers yet gained little respect for his efforts.

European urbanization drove these bands of wild men (in some cases women) to extinction. They survive in regional paintings, carvings and iconographic representations and a subjects of inspiration at local trattorie. trattoriaAncient legends kept the story of l’uomo selvantico alive and the lore of the wild men of the forests created a whimsical mythology.

When Alfonso d’Este married Lucrezia Borgia, a dance was staged at the wedding banquet with performers as wild men carrying horns of plenty. The wild man so captured Leonardo da Vinci‘s imagination that in the planning of a nuptial pageant for the Sforza he mentions putting footman in their costumes as ‘salvatichi’ or wild men.

Yet some say the hypertrichotic selvani still exist. Periodic sightings describe footprints similar in shape to those of humans that sank into the ground to fifteen centimeters. And in December 1996 a Swiss music producer would tell that he saw in the woods of Ventimiglia in Northern Italy “a  gigantic creature that looked like a cross between a primitive man and a gorilla covered with hair with the face of an elderly person”. Hopefully on his way to make cheese.

Parm Tools

cheese tester

Implements of cultivation and design have always been held in high esteem by artisan producers for they are an extension of the vision and process of creating a unique product, something that goes beyond the mundane. The tools used are often specially designed and often handed down from one generation to another. Artisan producers use their tools to practice their craft and consider them to be of great importance. Nowhere is this more evident than in Italy.  For example, tools and equipment used in the mixing, kneading, rolling, cutting (bronze dies) and drying of artisan pasta are specially designed to produce shapes and rough textures that allow the sauce to adhere to every delectable bite.

Whether making shoes, blowing glass, weaving textiles or painting ceramics the tools of the Italian artisan are essential to the outcome of the product. Violin makers, bookbinders, gilders, ironworkers, sculptors and cheese makers have their own set of tools.spinoIn the artisan making of Parmigiano Reggiano  there is the “spino”, a balloon-like whisk used to mix the cheese and break down the curd. The cheese maker uses a percussion or tapping hammer to tap the outside of the cheese listening carefully to the way the crust takes the blows. parm toolsThe screw-needle pierces the cheese to extract a small sample of the contents and check the internal consistency while the sampling dowel or trier is used when a wheel needs to be cored and tested. And the famous bulb-handled knife; a short, pointed, almond-shaped knife used to break the wheel open, with one side thinner to aid penetration while the other is thicker and to act as a wedge. parm knife

Botticelli’s Mother

primavera 2The famous Renaissance artist known as Botticelli was born in Florence when his mother was 40 years old. He was nicknamed Botticelli which means “little barrels” by his family. A special fondness for his mother must have inspired him to create many of the paintings of women and mothers for which he is well known. In Botticelli’s eyes, women are filled with grace, beauty and strength.

madonna botticelli

Madonna and the Child (1480-1481) Sandro Botticelli

In the Uffizi Gallery in Florence hang two of Botticelli’s best known works of art, Primavera and the Birth of Venus. Both remind me of the exceptional role women have in Italy. In a culture surrounded by art and beauty, women are valued as a natural resource. The historical influence of women on Italian society and family values goes back to the ancient Etruscans where women were described as dignified, charming and free, caring for their families with great attention. Cultivating and preparing wholesome foods, Etruscan families enjoyed a well laid table and that heritage can still be seen on the tables of Italy today.

The maternal muses of Italy are a significant part of Italian culture and living where Mothers are still the center of the universe and Italian children and husbands happily orbit around them enjoying the attention and unconditional love of la mamma.

An Oenophilic Uffizi

What would you curate at an Italian oenophilic museum? I’m sure your choices would be varied and different than mine.The wines listed are from our personal tasting experiences eating and drinking at the tables of our Italian family and friends and at trattorie, restaurants, wine bars, vineyards and farms throughout Northern Italy, Tuscany and Umbria.


Vino Nobile di Montepulciano

Tuscany in a glass. Sangiovese wine produced in or around the town of Montepulciano. Evidence suggests it dates as far back as the Etruscan period, several centuries BC. Not to be confused with Montelpulciano di Abruzzo. A good general rule of thumb to avoid this confusion is if you see Montepulciano at the end of a wine name, it’s the place. In the beginning, it’s the grape.

Brunello di Montalcino

One Italy’s most famous and prestigious wines. Made exclusively from Sangiovese grapes grown on the slopes around the Tuscan hill town of Montalcino. Our tasting at Tenuta Vitanza was wonderful.


The third most planted grape in Italy, popular because of its low tannins and high acidity making it a perfect pairing for tomato sauced pasta.


The grape grows in the foggy mist of the Langhe region of Piedmonte (nebbia is the Italian word for fog) used in the making of two of the classic bold wines of Italy, Barolo and Barberesco, the king and queen of Italian wines.

Chianti Classico

The iconic Chianti Classico. The oldest and most genuine expression of the wines in the Chianti region. Follow the Trail of the Black Rooster (Gallo Nero) for memorable tastings in Tuscany.

Chianti Colle Senesi

From the crete senesi the hills surrounding Siena in the southern part of the Chianti region. A masterful landscape that affords a slightly lighter, less expensive taste of rustic Tuscany.

Albana di Romagna

From Emilia Romagna a rich, sweet passito wine made from partly dried grapes. I first had this wine after dinner at Trattoria La Romantica in Ferrara for an out-of-body wine experience.

Vin Santo

Wine of the Saints. Grapes are held in baskets then strung together on cane stands where they are dried for several months in a large ventilated room (vinsantaie) then fermented and matured for over 4 years in caratelli (small chestnut barrels). Recommended – Vin Santo di Carmignano (Prato) from Capezzana. Vin Santo from Avignonesi in Montepulciano including Occhio di Pernice (the Eye of the Partridge).


We first tasted this wine in March 07 on a trip to the Trentino Alto Adige region of Northern Italy. After many trips to Italy, my Italian cousins decided that it was about time for me to venture into the Sudtirol. They wanted me to see the Dolomites, visit the Ice Man, eat some Italian/German food and taste Tyrolean Gold . The urban legend surrounding the wine says that its name is the German dialect for gold of Tirol.Grown primarily in the northeastern region of Trentino-Alto Adige.


The main red grape of Umbria used to make the most excellent DOCG Sagrantino di Montefalco; “la dolce vita” squared (to the highest degree); high regard for the wine of this grape begins with an afternoon spent in a wine bar in Umbria with my friends, Luca and Luigi over a bottle of Montefalco Sagrantino

Brachetto d’Aqui

I first tasted this wine at an afternoon reception in the Milanese apartment of my friends Laura and Luccio and I have loved it ever since. The color of rose petals, it has been described as soft and creamy with hints of wild strawberries and raspberries. Brachetto d’Aqui is from the Piedmonte region of Northern Italy in an area known for its effervescence. Asti Spumanti comes from this region.


Another Piedmontese grape; dark, purple skinned; the everyday wine of the region.


From the vineyards of Valdobbiadene, north of Venice, the Colli Trevigiani and Brenta Canal.One of the most memorable glass of Prosecco was part of an afternoon meal I had with my Italian cousins in a restaurant along the Brenta Canal in a town called Mira. We had a spectacular feast of scampi giganti alla griglia (giant grilled shrimp) and other assorted fresh seafood. Our cousin Roberto suggested we begin our meal with a glass of Prosecco which we did. His suggestion was perfect.

The Wines of Carmignano

Tuscan wine is more than Chianti. So I traveled outside the belt way, NW of Florence to Tenuta di Capezzana near Carmignano outside of Prato. Here I spent a wonderful afternoon experiencing the warm hospitality of the Contini Bonacossi family at the table in the dining room of their villa eating a Tuscan meal fit for a Medici and tasting their signature wines. In 1716, Grand Duke Cosimo III de’ Medici issued an edict identifying the region as producing one of the highest quality wines.

The Wines from the Hills of Piacenza

The wines from the hills of Piacenza have been appreciated by popes and kings and those who would be including Napoleon and Michelangelo. Colli Piacentini Mont’Arquato Duca di Ferro Gutturnio Riserva is made from two of my cousin Roberto’s favorite grapes, Barbera (70%) and Bonarda (30%). It has a brilliant ruby red color with shades of purple red and an aroma of dried cherries and spice. Paired with the illustrious pecorino formaggi of Piacenza.


The vine was introduced to the area by Venetian merchants who brought cuttings from Greece; my favorite is the sweet Arquatum-Passito di Malvasia that I have had at the Leon D’Oro Castell’Arquato Hotel de Charme Ristorante Don Ferdinando in Castell’Arquato with my friend Rita.