Thursday, April 29, 2010


As the train pulled into the Parma station, my train of thought went like this: Parma - Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese -  Prosciutto di Parma - pasta with prosciutto and Parmesan cheese - sandwiches with prosciutto and ripe, red, middle-of-summer New Jersey tomatoes - Grandma's risotto made with alternating ladles of homemade red sauce and chicken broth, stirred constantly and finished with sauteed chicken livers and lots of fresh-grated Parmesan cheese. Food and Parma just seem to go together.

As soon as we arrived on a recent visit, it was clear that Parma is a food town. Tempting-looking restaurants are everywhere, serving Parma's signature pasta dish Tortelli d'Erbetta. Incredible markets line the elegant streets, all of them packed to the rafters with prosciutto,  parmesan and culatello. And where else can you find Musei  del Cibo - The Food Museums, three of them, devoted to tomatoes, prosciutto and cured meats, and parmesan cheese? 

It turns out, however, that there's a lot more to Parma than just ham and cheese. 

Its 12th-century cathedral is decorated with frescoes by Correggio, a 16th-century master of light, color and perspective. You have to strain your neck a bit to see the assumption of the Madonna into heaven that adorns the dome, but it is well worth the effort. This is no solemn-faced Madonna with clasped hands, but rather a joyful one with bare feet and raised arms, whose bright, white garments are blowing in the soft heavenly wind.  

Next door is the majestic Romanesque baptistry, built entirely of rose-colored Veronese marble. Octagonal in shape, it is one of the most remarkable baptistries in Italy. Its interior has a high, fan-shaped ceiling and is covered with frescoes, and sculptures by Benedetto Antelami, the 12th-century master who designed the baptistry. (Take along a small pair of binoculars. They are indispensable for seeing details on works of art far above your head.)

From the 1500s to the 1800s, Parma was ruled first by the Farnese dynasty and then by the French Bourbons. They gave Parma a lasting culture of literature, art, theater and music. Verdi operas were performed in its Ducal Theatre; conductor Arturo Toscanini  was born in Parma and the town is home to the Farnese Theatre and the Regio Theatre. Music festivals are held throughout the year and there are two interesting music museums. The National Gallery, housed in the enormous Palazzo della Pilotta, has works by Parmigianino, Canova, Teipolo and Leonardo da Vinci.

Many Italian cities, including Pisa, have a faded, albeit charming elegance. (Recently, with Italy in dire financial straits, faded is the predominant word as the lack of care for all but the major monuments is becoming more and more evident.) Parma, on the other hand, shows no sign of this fading glory and could very easily be the film set for a 18th-century period drama. The obligatory duel could take place in the long, straight walkways of the Ducal Gardens. A carriage ride out to the palaces in the nearby hills (today accessible by bike paths) would be a perfect place for a love scene. 

And even though it's not all about the food, I'm sure our film would include a romantic tete-a-tete across a candlelit table in an elegant Parma dining room. Our couple would gaze lovingly into each other's eyes. And then, perhaps, they would be happily distracted - just as we were - by the arrival of the first course of a wonderful dinner: succulent Tortelli, filled with soft ricotta cheese and wild field greens, bathed in sweet butter and generously adorned with Parmesan cheese.  

(Click here for the recipe. For photos from la Repubblica, click here. Even if you don't understand Italian, the photos are very instructive.)

Click here for more photos of Parma.

Buon appetito,

Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


I met Marco some years ago in Lesson 1 of my "Italian for Beginners on CD."  We were destined to spend a lot of time together and although, eventually, we both went our separate ways, I learned a lot from Marco. For instance, in that first lesson, we took a train trip together and Marco taught me the word sciopero meaning strike - as in, the train workers are on strike. In Lesson 2, (with the strike over) Marco and I were on our way to Genova. We should have arrived at mezzogiorno, just in time for lunch, but a friendly fellow passenger informed us that questo treno è sempre in ritardo - this train is always late.  

Italian friends tell us that Trenitalia has gone decidedly  downhill from its high point in the 1970s when it was a leader in efficiency, technology and service. However, being from Michigan -  where train travel outside the main Detroit to Chicago line is nearly non-existent -  train service in Italy looks pretty good to me. Tickets can be purchased online on a well-organized web site. Trains are reasonably priced, on time more often than not and take you to every part of Italy. You can step out of a train beside the canals of Venice, the Renaissance walls of Lucca or just a stone's throw from the Ducal Gardens of Parma. (To read the Travel Oyster post on Parma, click here.) 

The scenery on the line between Pisa and Parma is beautiful. The first train runs up the coast to La Spezia, with the sea on one side and the marble-rich Apuane Mountains on the other. The train from La Spezia to Parma, just two cars long, is modern and comfortable. It goes up the Taro River valley with views of ancient towns and castles, gently rolling hills and the majestic Apennine Mountains.

Everything went like clockwork until the last leg of our journey at LaSpezia, where we were catching the InterCity train from Genoa to Rome, with a stop in Pisa Centrale.  

As I went to check the schedule board, I overheard someone say - like an echo of my early Italian lessons - "questo treno è sempre in ritardo."  And, sure enough, the board said the train would be late - first by five, then 10, then 20, then 30 minutes. We knew, however, that there was a ordinarily slower regional train that would get us back earlier than the delayed InterCity, especially since it stopped at Pisa San Rossore, a station closer to home. 

What happened next shows that even experienced travelers can make mistakes. In the dark, it was difficult to see all the station names, but we thought San Rossore was the stop after Viareggio. We should have checked more closely because the train makes an additional stop at Torre del Lago -- and that is where we, mistakenly, got off at 9:30 on a Sunday night. Luckily for us, there was one more train to Pisa. Unluckily for us, it wasn't until 11:14 p.m. 

Since we had almost two hours to wait, a nice bowl of pasta in a quaint trattoria sounded like a good idea. Torre del Lago is the home of the Puccini Festival in summer, but on a Sunday night in April, it was deserted. A tour of the downtown yielded only a take-out pizza joint with one wobbly plastic table. We sat down, clinked our plastic cups and ate a slightly-undercooked pizza.  

When we got back to the station, it was locked and dark. A railroad employee arrived, went into the station and managed to set off an alarm. He fiddled for a while to turn it off, gave up and left with the alarm still ringing. An automatic announcement told us that the train was approaching and that the arrival track had been changed from Track 1 to Track 2. (This is something, I must admit, that Trenitalia seems to do regularly and always at the last minute). A second announcement then reminded us that it was forbidden to walk across the tracks. We would have had to leave the station, walk down some steps, cross the street, walk up some steps and reenter the station. 

Obey the regulation or miss the train? I'm not sure what Marco would have done, but we picked up our bags, looked both ways and then ran across the tracks. Right on time at 11:14 p.m, the last train to Pisa pulled into the station. We got on and took it to the next stop: Pisa San Rossore.

To see more photos, click here.


Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


"Carciofi - grandi, piccoli, verdi, viola - tutti belli." It's April so it's only natural that the  vendors in the markets of Pisa are hawking artichokes  - "big ones, small ones, green ones, purple ones,  all of them beautiful."

Just outside of town, bordered by the 16th-century Medici aqueduct and with the Pisan hills as a backdrop, the fields are bursting with the verdant abundant carciofi plants. On the Borgo Stretto, the little three-wheeled truck, incongruously named the Euro-Star, is full to the top with the flower of the gods -- so named because the Greek god Zeus is said to have created the artichoke.

A plant resembling the artichoke, possibly from the cardoon family, is mentioned in Greek and Latin writings. The Italian word carciofo, however,  comes from the Arab, al kharshuf, and it was the Arabs who brought the modern-day plant to Italy sometime in the 15th century. Since then, the Italians have made the artichoke their own, just as they did with the tomato which was brought to  Italy from the Americas in the 17th century. The artichoke made the reverse journey, arriving in California with Italian immigrants, who found there, on the coast of the Pacific, the cool, moist climate that artichokes love.  

Artichokes have many health benefits and, supposedly, regular consumption of artichokes is linked to healthier skin and improved skin luminosity. In 1947, Marilyn Monroe was named the first Miss California Artichoke Queen, and we all know how luminous her skin was.  Could it have been the artichokes?

The artichoke itself is the unopened flower of the plant. Baby artichokes are not simply small artichokes, but are secondary flowers that grow near the base of the stem, where they are protected by the dense foliage of the plant. No matter what the size, however, when the petals begin to open, the artichoke is overripe. So be sure to look for tightly closed ones.

There are approximately 90 different varieties of artichokes in Italy, but most never leave the area where they are grown. Every region has its special recipes. However, in the spring when artichokes are young and fresh, all they need is a little salt, some olive oil and perhaps a bit of garlic. Two Tuscan friends, who are very good cooks, suggested these simple recipes. I've named them in their honor.

Carciofi alla Fabrizio

Ingredients: artichokes, olive oil, salt, water.

  1. Wash the artichokes in cold water.
  2. Remove the small leaves at the base and all the exterior leaves until the very light green/yellow leaves appear. Cut off the pointy ends of the leaves. Don't be stingy here.  Much more of the artichokes goes into  the compost heap than in the pot. If you have the artichoke stems, peel, slice and cook them as well.  They are almost as good as the heart.
  3. Cut the artichokes in half or quarters depending on the size. Unless you have a variety of Italian artichoke that is spineless, remove the spiny choke with a knife.
  4. Wash again to remove any errant spines.
  5. Lightly cover the bottom of a frying pan with olive oil. Heat oil to medium, put in artichokes and sprinkle with sea salt
  6. Cook over medium heat. After a few minutes, add some water and cover the pan. When water evaporates, add more.
  7. Continue cooking in this manner until artichokes are very soft - 20 to 30 minutes.

Carciofi alla Paola

Ingredients: artichokes, olive oil, garlic, salt, water.
  1. Wash and clean as above. Cut artichokes lengthwise into slices.  
  2. Put in a pan with olive oil, turn heat to high, add artichokes and chopped garlic Sprinkle with sea salt.
  3. Cook over high heat, stirring constantly and adding water as above until artichokes are very soft, approximately 20-30 minutes.
My friend Angela suggested a variation to this recipe :  Peel some potatoes, cut lengthwise into the same thickness as the artichoke slices and cook along with the artichokes as instructed above. The recipe is called Padellata di Carciofi e Patate.

    To see more photos, click here.

    Buon appetito,

    Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor

    Thursday, April 1, 2010


    "Let's go to Rome this weekend," said our friends. We were hardly settled in Pisa, but who would say no to Rome? Not us, especially when the object of the trip was the Caravaggio art exhibit at the Scuderie del Quirinale which runs until June 13. 

    La Freccia Bianca - the White Arrow train - pulled into the Pisa station only five minutes behind schedule and arrived in Rome three hours later. That gave us more than enough time to take the metro across town, deposit our bags at our hotel and walk back to the museum to pick up our tickets reserved for a 6 p.m. entry. (This exhibit  is the hottest art ticket in town so unless you are willing to spend three to four hours waiting in line, reserve your tickets in advance.)  

    Caravaggio, born Michelangelo Merisi in Milan in 1571, created a new naturalistic style of painting. Whether saints or sinners, his subjects were shown with all their imperfections -- scars, wrinkles and even dirty feet and nails. His sometimes shocked audience, nonetheless, were dazzled by his realistic style. His masterful use of chiaroscuro continues to influence art today, 400 years after his untimely death at the age of 39. 

    The show at the Scuderie features 24 masterpieces of Caravaggio. It seems like a small number, but it took us more than two hours to take in the beauty of it all. The crowds were manageable since by 6 p.m., many tourists are already back at their hotels thinking about dinner.  

    Our dinner reservation at Trattoria der Pallaro, on the via del Pallaro not far from the Piazza Navona, was for 9:30 p.m., an hour when things are just getting going in most Rome restaurants. Chef-owner Paola Fazi welcomed us, posed for a photo in her kitchen and kissed us goodbye when we left. The menu costs 25 euros and there are no choices to be made. Paola brings you what she has cooked that day: first a selection of antipasti, then homemade succulent pasta, fish, meat, salads, dessert and even a carafe of the house wine. After such a dinner, we were glad to have a long walk back to the hotel. 

    The next morning we visited three churches that have works by Caravaggio  - Santa Maria del Popolo, San Luigi dei Francesi and San Agostino. We couldn't get reservations for the Galleria Borghese, which has a Caravaggio room, so that will have to wait until next time.  

    Lunch was a great big ice cream cone from the fabulous Giolitti, Rome's best gelateria. Afterwards, we trekked over to the Vatican Museum to see the Sistine Chapel.  The crowds were enormous, but the museum is very efficient in getting people in quickly. It was our first look at the chapel since restoration was completed in 1999. The restoration of the walls and ceilings lasted 20 years - twice as long as it took Michelangelo and other famous painters of the day to paint them.  

    For our second dinner in Rome, we chose Grano, a sophisticated restaurant with good jazz and great food and wine that is located on a small square not far from the Pantheon.

    Sunday noon found us at a piano concert in the 17th-century Capella Paolina in the Quirinale Palace. The Paolina Chapel has exactly the same dimensions as the Sistine Chapel. Instead of frescoes, however, its ceiling is decorated with gilded stucco angels. The concerts are free, but you do have to pay five euros to get into the Palace, which you can tour before the concert starts.

    Many of the restaurants in Rome that are open on Sunday offer lunchtime buffets. We chose Babette, located on via Margutta, traditionally known as Rome's "artist street." Works by local artists hang on the walls and give the place a cozy feeling. Their buffet offers everything from soup to nuts and, of course, pasta and risotto.  It was a long, leisurely lunch and we tried a bit of everything.

    Early that evening, we boarded the train, closed our eyes and slept as La Freccia Bianca sped along - in the darkness between the sea and the mountains - back toward Pisa.

    (Photography was not allowed in the exhibit, but to see the works on display, click here to go to the museum's website.)

    To see my photos of Rome, click here.

    A presto,

    Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor