Most of us think of balsamic vinegar as Italian food royalty and while it’s true that in the pantheon of Italian food products Aceto Balsamico from Modena stands above all others we should not feel intimidated to use it on a daily basis. Like extra virgin olive oil, Italian balsamic has documented health benefits, an extraordinary depth of flavor and a clean delicate finish to season and enhance the flavor of a variety of foods. True balsamic vinegar only has one ingredient: must, a combination of the juice and skins from crushed Trebbiano grapes. The grape juice is cooked slowly down until it is reduced by 35 – 50%. Then, the reduction is placed, along with a bit of an older balsamic vinegar to assist with acetification, into barrels to age. After a period of time some of the vinegar evaporates and the vinegar is transferred into a smaller barrel made of a different woods (often chestnut, cherry, juniper, mulberry, acacia or ash). Each wood infuses a different flavor into the vinegar, making it more complex and unique and as the vinegar ages and becomes concentrated, it becomes thick, sweet and dark.
Glazes, reductions, vinaigrettes, drizzles – the unique sweet/sour flavor and rich consistency of balsamic vinegar is what makes it so special. It adapts well to a variety of preparations from a chef inspired Six Minute Chocolate Cake with a Chocolate Balsamic Glaze to adding caramelized onions and a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar to your basic jarred basil and tomato pasta sauce. Make 2015 the Year of Balsamic and use this exceptional Italian ingredient to its greatest potential.
During the holiday season I crave an Italian passito. A sweet wine made from grapes that have been dried to concentrate their juice. Festive, intense and fun to drink they are the perfect accompaniment to Italian dolci. Sometimes referred to as “pudding wines” in the UK because they are served with dessert, these wines contain high levels of both sugar and alcohol and are meant to be enjoyed as a leisurely sip after dinner. Their richness lends itself to the classic Tuscan pairing, a glass of Vin Santo to dip with biscotti or cantucci or to drink with a Milanese holiday panettone.
The excess of Italy’s pasticerria at Christmas time and the penchant for the Italian love of serving nuts and dried or seasonal fruit for dessert is a great opportunity to pair some of Italy’s other passito wines to your favorite holiday dessert. One of my favorites is Albana di Romagna from northern Italy, an Italian passito from Emilia Romagna. With an aroma of balsamic eucalyptus, dried apricots, dates and honey and shades of amber and gold it is an insensual indulgence with pastries, cakes, ricotta-filled torta and for our UK friends – pudding. Be aware that passito wines are difficult to find in the States (my last sip was in Ferrara) as most of famous brands are kept in Italy.
One of my fellow travelers once asked me who”Louie” was. She said I talked about him a lot with my Italian friends and family. Not knowing the language she didn’t realize that “Louie” was actually spelled “Lui” and referred to the Italian personal pronoun for he or him. So when I would say “Mi piace Lui” I wasn’t saying “I like Louie” by rather saying “I like him”.
Listening to this conversation can be confusing for a non-Italian speaker. All the more reason to know a little Italian when traveling in Italy. Phrase book Italian is confining and a little like speaking from a script. Learning vocabulary alone is limited – a “speak and point” version of a language. Although both are good starting points for your first trip to Italy you will need to build on these rout sayings and idioms to carry on a conversation. Remember language is a form of communication with many dimensions and most languages spoken without proper grammar and conjugation won’t make much sense.
SCARPA, Zanotti, Superga. For aficionados of Italian style sneakers these are part of the pantheon of fashionable athletic foot gear. Casual shoes that have transitioned from hard core sports to become haute shoe couture. One of our favorites is SCARPA sneakers inspired by the climbing culture of Italy’s Montebelluna region in the Northern Veneto. A shoe lovers paradise (Geox and Trezeta are also based here), SCARPA, which by the way means shoe in Italian, is also an acronym for the Società Calzaturiera Asolana Riunita Pedemontana Anonima, which means Associated Shoe Manufacturing Company of the Asolo Mountain Area, a part of Italy well-known for handcrafted footwear. The cult classic SCARPA Mojito Suede Sneaker would be a prize addition to anyone’s kick collection. Made from Italian leather it traces its lineage to the traditions of hiking, trekking and mountaineering shoes for which the company is known for.
Revered worldwide for their style, materials and an unrelenting attention to quality and craftsmanship, Italian shoes are part of a unique tradition that makes them on my shopping radar when traveling in Italy or back in the States.
If Italy in 30 seconds has whet your appetite for more, may we recommend our sister blog Seeing and Savoring Italy for unconventional travelers who want to experience Italy on more than a “show and tell tour”. We write about travels in Italy with our Italian family and friends that focus on the culinary and cultural traditions of regional Italian food. Seeing many of the iconic sites of Italy a little differently, outside the tourist flow to places Italians enjoy when traveling in their own country. We want to inspire you discover the “fatal charm of Italy that can be found nowhere else”.
I guarantee you’ll never think of Italy the same afterwards and never think about having a cappuccino after 12:00 noon.
Some of our favorite posts
Truffles and Termes in Tuscany
The Pope Slept Here
21 Undeniable Signs You’ve Traveled in Italy (on more than a “show and tell tour”)
My Italian Ghost
If you’re like us you like T-shirts. They’re comfortable, fairly cheap and go with almost anything. We especially like them if they have some connection to Italy. Not the ones that say Italian Stallion or Keep Calm and Eat Pasta but those made with Italian sprezzatura, a well-practiced naturalness, an almost effortless sense of style that belies considered thought and effort.
That’s why we like these T-shirts by Sangue who uses the natural environment of his hometown in southern Italy as inspiration for a unique set of silk screened designs.
Masterful mixology on a stick. Sweet summer cantaloupe and the bitter Italian aperitivo Campari. A delicious contrast that turns a childhood favorite into an adult popsicle treat. Crisp, tart and refreshing. A great way to beat the heat and enjoy the last call for Summer.