Got Granita? Savoring A Summertime Sweet In Italy

granita con caffe
Chris, Flickr

It will officially be summer in just a few days, and who doesn’t associate long, hot days with ice cream? Or, depending upon your preferences, lactose-digesting capabilities, and what part of the world you’re in, gelato, sorbet, paletas, kulfi, faloodeh, bur bur cha cha or other sweet, frozen treats served around the world.

Gelato is obviously past its tipping point in the U.S, but the granita still isn’t a well-known part of the general populace’s culinary lexicon. In Italy, however, this grainy frozen dessert is a summertime staple. Granite (plural of granita) refers to a dessert that’s scraped at intervals as it freezes, in order to form larger crystals than a typical sorbetto. A true granita should have a coarse texture because it’s made by hand, rather than processed in a machine, which results in a slush.

Coffee or espresso with a bit of sugar is the most commonly used flavoring for granite. Known as granita di café or caffe freddo, this refreshing treat is best served con panna; with unsweetened whipped cream. The first time I ever had one was in Florence, on a freakishly hot October day. Like millions before me, I left crowded the Galleria dell’ Accademia after viewing Michelangelo’s David, thirsty, sweaty, and grumpy.

Several blocks down via Ricasoli, I happened upon a little shop called Gelato Carabé . I was drawn by the wafts of sugary, perfumed air, but it was the menu and hand-crafted appearance of the gelati (mass-produced stuff is often sold out of plastic tubs, but it also tends to look manufactured, and just a little too perfect) that sold me on the place.

eating gelato
minka6, Flickr

The customer in front of me turned away from the counter clutching a cup filled with a rough-looking iced concoction, topped with a soft mound of whipped cream. Its color suggested it contained caffeine. I asked, in crappy Italian, what it was. And then I ordered my first-ever granita di café con panna. Instant addiction. The melding of flavors and textures – bitter espresso, a hint of sugar, grainy ice, silky cream – was the ideal salve for my museum-and-crowd-addled soul.

I returned to the gelateria every day for the remainder of my trip. After I returned home, I learned that owners Antonio and Loredana Lisciandro are from Patti, on Sicily’s northern coast. Antonio’s grandfather was a gelatio, or gelato master, and Antonio became a leading authority on gelato, as well. FYI, gelato has less air incorporated into it than American ice cream, which results in a more dense, flavorful product. Depending upon the region in which it’s made, it may contain eggs, or use cream instead of milk.

The Lisciandro’s import seasonal ingredients from Sicily, including pistachios, hazelnuts and almonds, and the intensely flavored native lemons, which have a thick, bumpy skin. They produce rich, creamy gelati, cremolati (cremolata is similar to sherbet, but made with fresh fruit pulp instead of filtered juice; both are made with milk or cream, whereas sorbetto is dairy-free), and the aforementioned ethereal granite.

Today, Gelato Carabé has two locations in Florence. I’ve since had granita di café con panna all over Italy (I highly recommend enjoying it overlooking the Sant’ Angelo harbor on the island of Ischia, off the coast of Naples). Barring that, I suggest using this recipe. Get a copy of Laura Fraser’s delicious “An Italian Affair” (which is how I learned about Ischia in the first place). Spoon granita into a pint glass (let’s not kid ourselves with a foofy parfait-style). Find a relaxing place in the shade, and then savor summer, Italian-style.

SkyMall Monday: Super-Sized David Statue

gadling skymall monday super-size david fatI don’t profess to “get” art. Show me cherubs and I just see a bunch of babies that could use some diapers. A painting of a horse? I’m going to assume that the artist really admired those equine thighs because I do not see any deeper meaning to that portrait. Here at SkyMall Monday, we have one piece of art, and it’s simple enough for me to understand (Calvin, on the other hand, is a member of the family and not an object). So, when I see Michelangelo’s David, I just see a dude with great abs who likes to hang around the locker room naked. Man, don’t you hate that guy? Put a towel on, buddy! Not only that, the statue hardly seems realistic in 2012. Who has time to develop great abs other than half-baked reality TV stars? We need art that reflects the people of today (or at least the People of Walmart). Thankfully, SkyMall is here to help us stay sophisticated with an update of Michelangelo’s classic work. Feast your eyes on the Super-sized David Statue.This modern sculpture looks like someone you might actually know. Maybe it resembles a co-worker or perhaps even your husband. Modern David is a man of the people. He enjoys macaroni and cheese inside of his patty melts. He’s just like us…except with an intense hatred of pants.

Think that David was a masterpiece that needn’t be updated? Believe that gluttony should not be celebrated? Well, while you paint by numbers, we’ll be reading the product description:

Classic art is busting out at the seams! If Michelangelo’s famous David was resculpted today by someone who’d recently been to a fast food joint, he just might have conjured up this super-sized fellow!

Hand-cast in quality designer resin, complete with modesty fig leaf for display in home or garden…

If only ancient Rome was blessed with a few more Friendly’s locations, the original David might not have needed to be plumped up for modern times. Thankfully, the “modesty fig leaf” allows you to display this statue inside or outside without offending guests or neighbors. However, we kind of think that his junk should have been covered by a greasy Taco Bell wrapper.

You don’t need to be an art history major to understand this modern man. Finally, art that doesn’t make us feel dumb or inadequate. It just makes us feel thinner when we stand next to it.

Check out all of the previous SkyMall Monday posts HERE.

In Italy: The Florence meanderings

Florence is so much more than a city. The past of this small community on the banks of the Arno is forever intertwined with invention and progress. The Renaissance began here, advancing all forms of intellectual inquiry and creation. The Medici, essentially the world’s first modern bankers, built a Florentine empire with a strong patronage for the arts. Once the center of the banking and art world, it now exists simply as a quiet city in the Tuscan hills. Florence has come down gracefully from its apogee unapologetic and ready to just be. It forges on ahead with shops full of artisans; architecture that has shaped our conception of beauty, and an art scene that may never be eclipsed. The Florence experience serves a welcome respite from the supercenter and highway lifestyle. Florence is more than a city. It is an ideal from which every other beautiful city should be measured.

Once you have arrived in Florence, the beauty can be overwhelming. I do not have a cure for Stendhal Syndrome, but I do have some experiences for you to enjoy while exploring this old town.

Bistecca

My first night in Florence, I sauntered by a dimly lit restaurant on my way back from the gym. In this restaurant, called Perseus, gigantic cuts of meat hung gracefully from the ceiling. That settled it. I had to go. And go I did. Bistecca Alla Fiorentina is a gigantic mass of beef similar to a multi-story T-bone weighing at least a kilo (2.2 lbs). They cut the beef extremely thick and cook it over burning wood coals. Black and crusty on the outside, scarlet in the center, this robust cut is a true carnivorous delight. The meat is so tender; you could eat it with a fork and spoon. The type of beef used is from the prized Chianina Cow, the largest breed of bovine in the world. It is also one of the oldest. These cows have roamed the hills of central Italy since the age of the Roman Empire.

Bistecca Alla Fiorentina is a famous Tuscan indulgence, and is quite easy to find around Florence. To be sure you are getting the real thing, find a local place that appears to be busy. I happened upon Perseus, and they slapped me silly with their decadent beef, fresh baked bread, and nutritious greens. I left that place with a smile and not a care in the world. A good cut of Bistecca starts at around 45 Euros, but don’t expect to finish it alone.

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Drink the Local Stuff

The countryside surrounding Florence boasts some of Italy’s finest vineyards. Chianti flows like the Arno River in this part of the world, and the straw-flasked bottles are an ubiquitous sight along the streets of Florence. A great place to sample wine is at an enoteca. These are wine shops that cater to all classes and tastes. Some are small street booths to stop for a quick glass while the upscale ones serve elegant meals with their wine offerings. No Florentine experience is complete without nosing into one of these establishments for some nectar from Chianti.

Enoteche range from the basic Casa de Vino, to the opulent Cantinetta Antinori. For a truly wonderful experience, take a tour of the Tuscan countryside and check out the surrounding vineyards. Some great vineyards to visit are Le Cantine di Greve, Castello di Meleto, and Castello di Brolio. Italy and Wine offers great wine tours of Tuscany.

Visit with David

David looks like, at any given moment, he could break free of his pedestal and take off down the hall of the Galleria dell’ Accademia. Michelangelo created a true masterpiece. Nothing really prepares you for its chiseled perfection and gargantuan size. This statue has been considered a masterpiece for over 500 years, and standing there in front of it only confirms this well-worn denotation. His alive eyes insinuate a level of intimacy beyond the customary experience with a fine work of art. He seems to follow you around the room.

Michelangelo’s David is housed in the Galleria dell’ Accademia north of the Duomo. If you are visiting during peak season, then purchase tickets ahead of time online to avoid wasting time in line. Entry is €6.50, and fees are added with online purchase. Open 8:15am-6:50pm Tuesday through Sunday. A replica is available in Piazza Della Signoria, but you need to see the real deal.



Brunelleschi’s Ambitious Dome

The Duomo began its life in 1296 by artist Filippo Brunelleschi and was finished by Filippo Brunelleschi in 1436 Emilio de Fabris in 1886. It is still, today, the largest brick and mortar dome in the world. To complete this herculean feat of engineering, Brunelleschi reverse engineered many lost Roman masonry techniques used in old structures such as the Pantheon in Rome. He also invented several new machines to complete this impossible commission made possible by Medici wealth and renaissance intuition.

The Duomo dominates the Florence skyline, and is thus quite easy to locate. The climb to the top is almost 500 steps up narrow stairwells filled with tourists. I know that part sounds awful, but the views of Florence and surrounding Tuscany from the top is well worth the torment. For a fantastic view of the Duomo, climb the adjacent Campanile, which is much quieter. Cost to climb the Duomo is €8, but free if you just want to enter the cathedral. Hours vary by day – Monday-Wednesday, and Friday 10:00am-3:30pm; Thursday and Saturday 10:00am-4:45pm; Sunday, 1:30pm-4:45pm. And to make things even more confusing, on the first Saturday of the month, the Duomo is open from 10:00am-3:30pm. The Campanile is €6, and is open daily from 8:30am-7:30pm.

Shop for a Fine Vintage

Florence boasts Guccio Gucci, Emilio Pucci, Roberto Cavalli, and Salvatore Ferragamo as native sons. As the list goes, so must the shopping. And while these names come with stratospheric price tags more likely to inspire shock than awe, Florence is also filled with some seriously amazing second hand boutiques. These small shops peddle vintage Gucci, Pucci, Valentino, Prada, and more. The finest vintage shop in Florence is quite possibly Elio Ferraro. Check out the website for sure.

Guccio Gucci started the House of Gucci as a craftsman supplying leather goods to the equine set of Tuscany. Florentine leatherworkers have established themselves as some of the greatest in the world, and Gucci’s wide spread success illustrates this point sufficiently. A fine way to bring home some fine Florentine leather craftsmanship without dropping hundreds of Euros is to purchase gloves. My black and red leather cashmere lined gloves are one of my favorite possessions. They cost me about €50, and are softer than a whisper.

The Secret Vasari Corridor

During World War II, the Germans blitzkrieged much of Florence. They bombed all of the bridges crossing the Arno River, except Ponte Vecchio. Rumor has it; Hitler found it too beautiful to destroy. This is an unlikely tidbit of local lore, but not as unlikely as Ponte Vecchio’s secret passageway. The Medici commissioned a secret passage leading from the Uffizi Palazzo Vecchio, over Ponte Vecchio, and to their home at Pitti Palace on the other side of the Arno. This was done so that they did not have to be bothered walking among commoners. The passageway is called the Vasari Corridor. It begins on the top floor of the Uffizi at a nondescript wooden door, passing covertly over the rooftops of the city.

Getting access to the Vasari Corridor used to be near impossible without bribes or connections, but now you can book a bundled Uffizi/Vasari tour here for around €100. The corridor is set to close down for 3 years at the end of 2010. Walking Ponte Vecchio with the commoners at the street level is also beautiful. The bridge is filled with old world jewelry shops. Ponte Vecchio is a popular and romantic sunset spot.

The Dead in Santa Croce

The Basilica di Santa Croce houses 16 different chapels, and is considered the largest Franciscan church in the world. The grounds are filled with frescos, sculptures, and most impressively – a fine collection of worthy tombs. Like a Hall of Fame for notable Italians, many individuals of great renown are buried here: Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli, Dante, and Rossini. The aesthetics do not disappoint either. The Basilica has several quiet courtyards to solemnly admire. If you happen to visit in early February, then check out the artisan chocolate festival in Piazza Santa Croce right out front. They give out prodigious amounts of free samples.

Santa Croce is located in the Santa Croce neighborhood next to the Biblioteca Nazionale. Doors open at 9:30am and close at 5:30pm, except on Sunday, when they open at 1:00pm and close at 5:30pm. Cost is €5. The 2011 Artisan Chocolate Festival has not yet been announced, but will likely be the first weekend of February. Cost to enter the chocolate festival is free.



Boboli Gardens

Spending an afternoon admiring the ornately appointed lawns behind Pitti Palace will put the Medici wealth into perspective. They began as wool traders and eventually came to form the most respected bank in Europe. They used their wealth and influence to build up Florence as a banking and art center for Europe. They sent family members to the papacy, invented double-entry bookkeeping(debits and credits!), and in many ways, initiated the Renaissance. They had fantastic taste and the Boboli Gardens were their backyard. Be sure to check it out.

The Boboli Gardens open at 8:15am daily, though closing time varies by season. They close at 7:30 in the Summer, 6:30 in the Spring, 5:30 in the Fall, and 4:30 in the Winter. Entry to the garden is through Pitti Palace on the south side of the Arno and costs €6. Pitti Palace boasts 7 different galleries, and was the original home of the Medici. The Palatine gallery houses the Renaissance stuff, and they also have a silver museum, carriage museum, royal apartment museum, a costume gallery, porcelain museum, and a museum of modern art.

The Uffizi Gallery

The Galleria Delgi Uffizi is the top art museum in Florence. Once the base of operations for the vast Medici empire, Uffizi translates to offices. The Uffizi has an extremely simple U shaped layout, and floating from room to room is effortless and awe-inspiring. From Botticelli’s Birth of Venus to Da Vinci’s Annunciation, the Uffizi impresses with over 1500 master Renaissance works. The frescoed corridors lined with statues lend a divine aesthetic to the experience.

During high season, the line for the Uffizi can take upwards of 3 or 4 hours. To expedite this process and ensure that you are not wasting precious Florence time in line, book your tickets in advance here. If you go in the winter, then you can get away with just showing up. The Galleria degli Uffizi is open Tuesday to Sunday from 8:15am to 6:50pm. Cost is a low €6.50, though booking online adds a few Euros to the fee.

Eat, eat, eat, and eat

I used to eat at this Chinese restaurant as a kid. I always wondered how their food was so freaking good. I would just shovel the stuff in until my instincts waved a white flag. Later, I found out that every entree was showered in monosodium glutamate – the bastard child of salt and science. I understand that now. The food in Florence also defies my notions of how good something should be. Everything tastes so fresh that I almost feel insulted by the banalities I drag out of the supercenter back home. Salads seem to grow straight out of the plate. Tomatoes burst with flavor and are “real,” not aberrations genetically tinkered to ripen as they jostle down the interstate. Whereas the secret to good 80’s Chinsese food was msg, the secret to great Italian food is closeness to the source, and of course, love. Everything feels as though it has been loved to fruition rather than simply cooked. From chocolate to pecorino to truffles to basil to gelato, everything tastes, as it should – perfect.

The Tuscan Countryside

While most of Florence can be explored on foot, taking to rural Tuscany requires some sort of wheels underfoot. Some great options for exploring the surrounding countryside include tours on bicycles, cars, or even by Vespa. A great car tour company, The 500 Club, rents out classic Fiats for you to drive in an arranged convoy. Tuscany Bike Tours offers a great bicycle tour of the Chianti region. If you want to take to the Italian countryside by Vespa, then check out Tuscany by Vespa.

To reach Florence from the United States, Alitalia offers a code share with Delta from New York, and Lufthansa flies from Boston and San Francisco. None of these flights are nonstop. From London, you can fly on Ryanair for under $30 nonstop to Pisa, and take a short train ride to the heart of Florence for about $16. It is difficult to find an inexpensive flight directly to Florence in Europe, but budget airlines easyjet and Ryanair serve nearby Pisa International Airport. Florence is just an hour and half express train away from Rome, so you can also fly to Rome and take the train to Florence for around $60.

Rick Steves’ New Travel Mag

Just in time for you to change your summer travel plans, the Smithsonian and Rick Steves just launched their special summer edition magazine, Smithsonian Presents “TRAVELS with Rick Steves”. (In case you forgot, a magazine is a bundle of glossy paper printed with pretty colored pictures and some words, then bound with staples and placed within arm’s reach of the toilet in case you lose your iPad and need something to read.)

Just like Rick Steves the person, Rick Steves the magazine is dedicated to traveling in Europe. The 104-page Eurofest breaks down into 24 articles that describe Europe’s “Top 20 Destinations” which mixes up the obvious (Florence, Prague, Rome, Paris, and Venice) with the obscure (Denmark’s Aero Island, Bosnia’s Mostar, and the tiny Austrian village of Hallstatt). As an unapologetic advertorial, the magazines flips between a few scant full-page ads for Smithsonian Journeys and Rick Steves Tours. For a mere five bucks, you can buy a still-warm copy from the 100,000-strong print run at a newsstand near you.

Now honestly, I know nothing about Rick Steves other than he’s quite famous for helping regular Americans take tours of Europe. Also, many travelers who I respect swear by his travel guides, and once upon a time, a bunch of his fans mistook me for his assistant at a book signing. After reading his entire magazine cover to cover, I made the amazing discovery that the masthead lists only one writer. Yes, Rick Steves wrote the entire magazine all by himself, so… respect. The guy works hard and is way gutsy… gutsy enough to publish a print travel magazine in 2010.Love him or hate him, Rick Steves is a brand that’s infected America in much the same way as Target, Wranglers, and hip hop music sung by Caucasians. He’s everywhere and we all end up liking him, just like a lot of Americans enjoyed the movie “Chocolat” and a lot of Americans dream of carrying a baguette under one arm in France or clinking beer steins in Germany or sipping ouzo shots in Greece. This magazine is for them. For us pickier travel snobs, the gorgeous photo spreads and classy Smithsonian layout gives Rick the royal treatment and makes us all want to book a trip to Europe with our new best friend Rick.

Nevertheless, for someone whose entire identity involves leading America by the hand through Europe’s backdoor, it’s hard not to ignore Rick’s hearty embrace of cliché. His magazine’s titles highlight “Storybook” England, “Sound of Music” Austria, and “Heidi’s Switzerland” before trailing off into a slew of earth-shattering travel tips such as “David is a must-see visit in Florence”.

Now, if I wrote travel copy like that, my editors would shove it through a shredder. Twice. All you would have is a bunch of little squares of paper-like confetti thrown at a quaint Italian wedding that I just happened to run into as I was strolling down a cobblestone street under a buttery Tuscan sunset.

I much preferred Rick’s more honest and authentic articles like the “Best Little Street in Paris”–a candid Polaroid narrative about Rue Cler in the 7th Arrondissement–and his heartfelt discovery of Danish island life. I was also happy to see some of the Rick Steve love shine down on Blackpool–a northern British seaside resort that very few Americans ever visit.

If Rick Steves and Smithsonian want to feed our dreams of Europe, then mission accomplished. I want to go to all the places listed and now that I’ve read this sunny version of their Top 20 list, I’m so there. My only conjecture is that the “quaint folksiness” Rick so adamantly warns travelers against might also be the very product that he’s selling.

Michelangelo’s David, after a short stay in America

I got this email from a couple of different people: “After a short stay in America, David returns to Italy.” You know what’s coming before you even open the picture. David gets FAT.

It reminds me of my first extended stay in America. When I first lived in the US as a student in 1994, I gained 30 pounds and 3 months. Yep, it was a not a pleasant sight. The thing is, I am not the type of person who ever gains weight. Until I moved here, I never thought it was possible for me to gain weight. It took me a year (after leaving the US) to lose those pounds.

I still can’t figure out why. It didn’t seem that I was eating more than I was used to. I had exercise. Some people tell me that it was probably just because I completely changed my eating habits and ate more carbs than I did before. Others claim that the additives in US food is what makes people gain weight.

I don’t know what it was. I do feel bad for David though. (Geez, lay off the pasta, man!)