La zuppa della strega e la festa della Befana

When Stefano was young, there were no packaged cookies, biscuits or other breakfast treats in his home.  His mamma, Maria, prepared everything homemade.  Breakfast was crostata, or rustic olive oil cake called pizza dolce, with a small glass of warmed whole milk darkened with a splash of caffè.

Some mornings, Maria would prepare la zuppa della strega for Stefano, his brother Marco and his sister Debora. Crusty bread was soaked in warm milk, with a bit of espresso, sugar and sometimes cocoa to sweeten it a bit.  Frugality was behind this breakfast creation; it was a way to consume day-old bread.  But Maria made it fun by giving it a mysterious and peculiar name – zuppa della strega, witch’s soup.

Zuppa della Strega

Stefano has carried this tradition forth in the States.  On weekend mornings he’ll prepare a bowl of zuppa della strega for 8-year-old Luca, who devours it with the same delight that Stefano did when he was that same age.

Zuppa della Strega

January is the season of witches in Italy.  La Befana is a folklorish, witch-like old woman.  On the eve of January 6th, the holiday la festa della Befana, she rides on a broomstick from house to house and leaves treats inside stockings left out by Italian children   As the date suggests, this holiday has its origins in the Christian Epiphany, and it marks the end of the Christmas holiday.  Con l’Epifania, tutte le feste si porta via.

La festa della Befana is even more eagerly anticipated than Christmas by young Italian children.  When Stefano was young, the Befana would leave him and his brother and sister home baked treats, clementines, sugar candy that resembled black coal, and sometimes a little bit of chocolate.  The Befana was a universal symbol for motherhood, and so after waking up and finding their treats in the stocking, Stefano and his siblings would give auguri to their mother, much like one would on mother’s day.  There was plenty of teasing about the Befana‘s homely appearance, too.

As has happened to so many holidays, la festa della Befana has become more commercial since Stefano was young.  Stores theme-based stockings stuffed with chocolates and toys have largely replaced the homemade treats of Stefano’s youth.

Unchanged, though, is the large open air market celebrating la festa della Befana in Rome’s Piazza Navona.  During the weeks between Christmas and la festa della Befana, the piazza is filled with stalls selling candy, toys, miniature Befana dolls and more.  There are amusement park rides, live street artists and more to delight young and old alike.  Whenever we are in Rome over the holidays we make sure to bring the kids for a day of fun.

photo from www.roma.repubblica.it

photo from www.roma.repubblica.it

Photo from www.roma.repubblica.it

Photo from www.roma.repubblica.it

photo from www.bigodino.it

photo from www.bigodino.it

Here, the Italian cousins enjoy ciambelle in front of Piazza Navona’s Fontana del Moro on la festa della Befana in 2010.

Piazza Navona Festa della Befana

Ingredients for zuppa della strega
Day old bread
Milk
Sugar
Cocoa (optional)
Espresso (optional)

Directions
Break the bread into small pieces, and place them into a small saucepan.  Cover then with milk and bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally.  Once the milk comes to a boil, remove from heat and transfer into a bowl.  Add sugar to taste, and espresso or cocoa, or both.  Stir, and enjoy warm.

Ciao, Roma!

Ciao, Roma!  It’s been too long.

We had a perfect day to visit our favorite city – it was hot but not sweltering, and a cool breeze competed with the splendid sun, offering us reprieve from the heat.

Via Condotti e Antico Caffè Greco
We took the Metro to Piazza di Spagna, and then worked our way down Via Condotti and Via Borgognona, strade romane dotted with the flagship stores of Italy’s most famous designers.  Window shopping for alta moda is hard work, so we took a break and ducked into Antico Caffè Greco, the oldest bar in Rome, for a coffee.

Il Pantheon, Caffe’ Sant’Eustachio ed Enoteca al Parlamento
A trip to Rome’s historical center must include our favorite monument, the Pantheon, a temple originally built in 27-25 B.C. and dedicated to the goddess Olympia.  It was as magnificent as always today!  A quick stop for pizza al taglio was really just an excuse for another coffee, this time a creamy Gran Caffè  from Caffe’ Sant’ Eustachio, arguably the best coffee in Rome.  We found Sant’Eustachio surprisingly calm, and were happy to not have to press up against the other Romans and tourists to work out way to the bar.  Caffeinated and energized, we headed toward Piazza Navona and came upon Enoteca al Parlamento, a historical wine shop and bar filled from floor to ceiling with dusty bottles of Italian wine (some of it very high quality), along with preserves, spreads, candies and other delicacies.

Piazza Navona e Gelateria del Teatro
After browsing the artist stands and admiring Bernini’s famous fountains in Piazza Navona, we headed down Via dei Coronari toward one of Rome’s best gelaterie, Gelateria del Teatro.  This is the epitome of gelato artiginale, hand-crafted, inventive gelato made from all natural ingredients.  The Pistacchio and Ricotta, Fico e Mandorle Tostate (Ricotta, Fig and Toasted Almond) cone was spectacular, and we made a mental note to return for Pesca Bianca e Lavanda (White Peach and Lavender).

Il Tevere e la Grattachecca
It didn’t matter that we’d just had gelato.  We were really craving a Roman grattachecca, hand-shaved ice drizzled with syrup and adorned with fruit.  The grattachecche vendors are typically found along Lungotevere, the road that winds alongside il Tevere, or the Tiber river.  As predicted, we came across one at Ponte Umberto I.  We chose a black cherry and a mint one, and agreed to bits of fresh coconut on top.

The grattachecche gave us just enough energy to walk back to the Metro at Piazza Barberini and ride home in the cool and fast-travelling underground train…just in time for our nephew Davide’s 3rd birthday party, which lasted well into the night.  Stay tuned for birthday parties, Italian style!

An Italian Vacation

Cyprus trees line the majestic entrance to Il Borro. Photo: www.ilborro.com

We had driven kilometers and kilometers along curvy mountain roads after leaving the Autostrada A1.  Outside, the July Tuscan heat was stifling.

When we finally pulled up to Il Borro and saw the stately cypress lining the gravel path leading up to the main villa, the beauty of the place made the journey well worth it.

After an evening in our farmhouse Casa al Piano, a refreshing swim in the pool under the hot Tuscan sun, and a dinner under the evening skies at Osteria del Borro that concluded with the most amazing crostata di ricotta we’d ever sampled, we knew that it was a place to return to.

Il Borgo, the 11th century restored village at Il Borro. Photo: www.ilborro.com

Il Borro is an 11th century medieval village and estate that the Italian  Salvatore Ferragamo family purchased in 1993 from Duke Amadeo of Aosta.  They restored the entire village, and turned into a unique resort of sorts.  The complex includes village apartments, farmhouse apartments and complete villas, a spa, a Michelin-rated restaurant, a vineyard, and a wine cellar that houses award-winning Tuscan wines.

Casa al Piano was our home when we stayed at Il Borro. Photo: www.ilborro.com

A swim in the pool was refreshing under the scorching Tuscan heat. Photo at www.ilborro.com

Il Borro’s vineyards. Photo at www.ilborro.com

The road leading to Il Borro awaits our return. Photo at www.ilborro.com

Friends and family planning trips to Italy often ask us for ideas on where to go, and where to stay.  Il Borro is certainly a place we highly recommend.  Italy, however, is blessed with seas, mountains, plains and valleys, providing an countless array of enticing foods to sample, splendid wines to taste and alluring places to stay in cities and villages all across the country.

We can spend endless hours researching and planning our Italian vacations.  Just returned this past January, we are already sketching out or next trip, in summer of 2012.  On Stefano’s agenda is a tour of the Piemonte wine region, and maybe a stay at the Albergo Castiglione, adjacent to Paolo Saracco’s vineyards.  I’d like to drop down to Cinque Terre on the Ligurian coast for a few days at the sea.

Travelers who wish to spend more time in a particular part of Italy and explore the area from a central location should consider renting an apartment or a villa.  We recently came across a small company based out of Boston and Genova, Italy called Parker Villas.  While there are hundreds of listing services for renting properties in Italy, Parker Villas stood out to us for being highly accountable for the quality of its properties, and for having a strong customer-service orientation.  We’ve not used their services and therefore must use caution in recommending them, but we were intrigued by their properties and thought our readers may be, too.

Below are a few of their offerings from different regions of Italy, and our ideas for a trip to each of them. May your vacation planning be inspired and fruitful!

Villa La Quinta

Parker Villa’s Villa La Quinta. Photo at www.parkervilas.com

Villa La Quinta is located in the northern city of Bellagio, on Lago di Garda.

Go there for:

  • The original terracotta floors and period antiques.
  • The meticulate lawn, gardens and terraces.
  • The breathtaking views of Lake Garda.

The Tortuga

Parker Villa’s Tortuga apartment in Le Gondole, Venice. Photo at www.parkervillas.com

The Tortuga is one of several 2-person apartments in Le Gondole building, located in Venice’s island district of Giudecca.

Go there for:

  • The gorgeous hard-wood floors and wood-beamed ceilings.
  • The marble bathroom.
  • A weekend in one of the world’s most romantic cities.

Villa Ava

Parker Villa’s Villa Ava in Montefollonico, Tuscany. Photo at www.parkervillas.com

Villa Ava is located in the Tuscan countryside, near the Umbrian border and within short driving distance to some of Tuscany and Umbria’s most charming towns.  Able to sleep 10 comfortably, it is the ideal location for a large family gathering or a vacation with friends.

Go there for:

  • The vineyards, olive groves and fruit orchards.
  • The villa’s interior stone archways.
  • A home-cooked feast on the lovely outdoor patios.

Roman Holiday

Parker Villa’s Roman Holidy apartment in Rome. Photo at www.parkervillas.com

The Roman Holiday apartment is located in Rome, on a narrow side street just off of Piazza Navona, within short walking distance of Campo de’ Fiori and the Pantheon.

Go there for:

  • Its amazing location in the heart of Rome.
  • The osteria just across the street.
  • The air-conditioning; summers in Rome are sweltering and AC isn’t always common.

Corona del Golfo’s Diamante

Corona del Golfo’s Diamante apartment in Positano on the Amalfi Coast. Photo at www.parkervillas.com

Corona del Golf’s Diamante apartment is located in Positano, one of several villages perched in the steep mountains that form the spectacular coastline of the Amalfi Coast.

Go there for:

  • Morning cappuccino and an evening glass of wine on the pergola-covered terrace overlooking the coast and the Mediterranean sea.
  • An exceptional seafood dinner in an unbelievable location at Torre Normanna.
  • A trip to the neighboring village Vietri sul Mare to shop for colorful, hand-painted ceramics.
  • A day trip to the island of Capri; it’s just a ferry-ride away.

Dimora dei Signori

Dimora dei Signori in Trecastagni, Sicily. Photo as www.parkervillas.com

Dimora dei Signori is located in a small town near Catania, on the eastern coast of the island of Sicily.  With a rental car, families and friends can conveniently explore the island’s architectural, geographical and culinary treasures.

Go here for:

  • Its vicinity to the lava-spewing Mt. Etna, Europe’s largest active volcano.  If you are lucky, it may give you a fireworks show.
  • Easy access to the fish markets, thermal spas, and architectural treasures of Sicily’s eastern shore.
  • A gelato-centered culinary tour of the ancient island.

Are you planning a trip to Italy?  Have you stayed at a fantastic place there?

Comment and tell us about the places to aspire to visit, or those you dream of returning to.