Nativity Scenes that take a Village

It began with Saint Francis, who reenacted the birth of Christ with live animals in 1223. Actors were added and later, “presepi” (means ‘crib’) were set up throughout Italy, but with pomp and circumstance. In the 1470’s sculptor Alamanno was commissioned to create 42 painted and gilded sculptures for a private Neapolitan chapel. The nativity scenes grew into small cities, with landscapes, grottos, caves, a specialized art with intricate lighting and even mechanical movement and sound.








Nativity creches can be found in many nooks and crannies throughout Italy, especially in the Campagnia Region. Our driver actually parked on Amalfi Drive so we could photograph is ancient “Presepe” built into the side of the rock wall.


The art of Neapolitan nativity of S. Gregorio Armeno, S. Gregorio Armeno is a small street in the old town of Naples, Italy.

Today, Naples has a whole street in the San Gregorio Armeno neighborhood with 40 active workshops producing a third of the 200,000 terracotta figures made annually devoted to the nativity trade. Quality of workmanship, construction materials range  from plastic to hand-blown glass, custom costumes and elaborate papier-mache creations with prices that match the “get what you pay for” advice. Find shopping criteria on Italy Magazine’s excellent article:


Pizza, Pizza, and more Pizza…even multi-grain

From: Italy Magazine

Everything Italy. Authentically Italian.

go and get this great recipe from a great magazine!

I was in a quandary since we are headed for Naples, the birthplace of the “magic Italian Pie”. Where is the best one going to be located for us to try?  Italy Magazine synchronistically came up with an answer or two, along with a recipe you might want to try.

“Overall, Campania is still at the top with 19 award-winning pizzerie, and we shouldn’t be too surprised since the region is considered the birthplace of pizza (Napoli).

Pizza of the year is ‘Oceano’ by the Salvo brothers of Naples, made with fiordilatte, buffalo ricotta flavored with algae, smoked amberjack, pink pepper, lemon zest, Muraglia smoked oil.

“On restaurant menus you’ll often find thin crust pizzas or Neapolitan style pizzas (which are smaller and thicker) baked in wood fire brick ovens where the temperatures arrive up to 800°F. Home ovens don’t arrive at these high temperatures and will therefore be softer and fluffier unless using a pizza stone where you can easily obtain a thin and crispy pizza.

“Highly refined white flours and brewer’s yeast are traditionally used for pizzas, but currently there is a new trend in Italy towards pizzas made with ancient grains like Kamut© and spelt and lievito madre—sourdough starter.”


The Big Cheese

(in humble tribute to the 6 million sheep of Sardinia and the rest of Italy, rarely attributed their due)

sheep of Sardinia

Pecorino Romano, referenced in many Italian recipes, but equally hard to find around my town, is that miracle of ewe’s milk that in Roman times reputedly surpassed cow’s milk because it was thought to “help the stomach”. Like so many Italian Regional topics of myriad variety, this is one of the most confusing.


It is an over-simplification to say that all Pecorino is not the same, and that cheese cultures

in Italy vary from region to region.  It is revered similarly in comparison to perhaps a patron saint when Di Bruno Bros. importers calls it “A tincture containing the essence of a Mediterranean isle.” It is ceremoniously served in Italy’s finest hotels and restaurants with all the pomp and circumstance one might award a dish of extinct eels.

The “fully stagionato” are “aged” for as long as 36 months. Some are “matured under ashes”, some bear a stamp, or brand; one from the Val d’Orcia in Tuscany recognizable by its black rind is the pecorino di Pienza, reputedly loved by Lorenzo de Medici. The brine gets a bit muddy when it appears that the Pecorino Romano Locatello® brand, sold in the premium price category exclusively in the U.S. market, also has a black rind.  The brand originated in 1860 in Lombardy and is imported from Sardinia and the Lazio Region. Pecorino “sardo” of Sardinia is used in the deep fried “seadas”, a sweet and savory dessert of Sardinia (shown below), or with peaches and pears or a glass of the local red cannonau wine.


Pecorino Romano, one of Italy’s oldest and most famous cheeses,  loses much of its acidity when cooked into a sauces such as carbonara, amatriciana and cacio e pepe.  Different than Tuscan pecorino, the Sicilian Pecorino siciliano stands head and shoulders high in flavor, often eaten only on its own reserve wrapped in a vine leaf, a rival in taste to none other and pompously served, of course.

Who is to know that when it comes to pecorino, the complexities of this artisan recipe addition can mean so much to the success of a dish and occupy one’s research so laboriously long.

I think it is the sheep that make the countryside so dear.




….uh-oh, a brand new blog may be necessary!

With the trip to Southern Italy dawning closer as a “first adventure”, I thought to consult Fred Plotkin’s “Italy for the Gourmet Traveler”, a voluminous knowledge base.   Mine resides more to the north.  Thankfully, my traveling companion likes to eat good food and wine and even asked me to be sure and get it together in that area.  So far, the research has yielded many deep fried recipes to look forward to, and pizza, neither one my first choice, and many strange and exotic fruits from the sea, not even a second choice.  The south of Italy apparently has an even sweeter tooth than my Tuscan relations, which will have to be on the reluctant choice menu (except for anything lemon, my fav). Red flag! This region is all about lemons everywhere and lemon everything delicious!

I heard about this book on a podcast interview Rick Steeves had with Plotkin and was impressed enough to buy the over 700-page encyclopedia. What a treasure of information on every major and un-major city and/or region, with notes on what it is famous for, where, why, and how…….dining, wines, ice cream, coffee, menu terms and definitions, even detailed walking guides through a town, recipes, folklore, calendar events, maps, personal notes and historical data for example …..”as you walk around Venezia, there are two  other things I would like you to bear in mind……..”  Instead of an index, all the cities and recipes mentioned are listed, and the 27-page Glossary of Food and Wine Terms is a literary piece of its own merit. The book is a treasure-trove of total entertainment to read.  I crossed myself in case  ancestors were watching and skipped to the Campagnia Region where we will be headed.

Although not the most populated city, Naples and the Campania region has the highest population density of any region in Italy. Plotkin’s descriptions are robust, colorful, inviting and, by nature,  contradictory. For example, Campania, like California, has been subjected to severe earthquakes and Mount Vesuvius and Mt. Etna loom over millions of people. Napoli may be wild and chaotic, the people understandably a bit jumpy, but Plotkin goes on to say “the volcanic soil is unusually fertile, so the fruits and vegetables that grow here are sublime…….once you dine at even the most humble trattoria here, it will be hard for you to swallow so-called Italian food back home.”

The Roman emperor Tiberius made Napoli and Capri his playgrounds. Since then,  there is a long tradition of elaborate cooking and baking for the royal families and nobles. Pizza, born in Naples, is the favorite nighttime meal that wraps around the local street life conviviality today.  The finest “mozzarella di bufala” cheese, Plotkin says, comes from Campania in the province of Salerno.

Pecorino Romano sheep’s milk cheese comes from Sardinia, home to millions of sheep. It holds no candle to American imitations and must be imported, Plotkin advises.   It dances on every table, especially those laden with festival foods created for every saint’s day and for whatever reason you might imagine.

You may think of pasta when Italian food is mentioned. Did you know it did not originate in Italy?  Arabs introduced noodles in the 8th century, Marco Polo brought them from China in 1295 and they were the food of aristocrats until the 1600’s when mechanical pasta began and Naples’ pasta shops blossomed in the 1700’s.  The first documented recipe, however, is said to have been born in 1839. The glorious growing conditions of southern Italy took the credit.

Despite dozens of versions of pasta with lemon in this region, there is much, much more:

Plotkin offers a Penne con Ricotta e Noci Sardinian recipe, that is, pasta with Ricotta and nuts.

I am anxious to try a local version of  Colatura dei Alici, or spaghetti with anchovy sauce.

Every province, every region has their own pasta, individually named, and their own recipe

for the best dish you ever ate. Of course, those from Campania are the ultimate best, you know.  uh-uh.

We will see.





FIRE IN THE HOLE… Italian Style

Take a look at these earthly treasures soon to be glimpsed:

Vesuvius_from_Naples_at_sunsetAs seen from Naples at Sunset, Mount Vesuvius is an imposing sight.  At 4203’ it is the only active volcano on the European mainland, close to Naples, with over 3 million people close by, and considered one of the most dangerous in the world. It is a good 400,000 years old, with the most catastrophic eruption in 79 AD which wiped out Roman settlements including the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum whose total population was between 16,000 and 20,000. The remains of over 1500 people have been found, but the death toll is unclear.  It’s calculated that 21 miles of ash, molten rock and pumice was released, a hundred thousand times the thermal energy of Hiroshima-Nagasaki bombings. vesuvius_806ef36f-b618-420c-b25e-ce827d2a2515-1
Mt.Vesuvius from the air

This Unesco World Heritage Site is called today Archaeological Areas of Pompei, Herculaneum and Torre Annunziata. It is one of the many Unesco World Heritage sites that make the region of Campania, Italy, unique worldwide. In addition to its source of important geological and tectonic knowledge, Vesuvius is constantly monitored and studied for past present and future activity within the confines of its mainland scientific laboratory, according to a 2018 NOVA documentary. It last erupted in March, 1944. Another eruption in April 7, 1906 killed over 100 people and ejected the most lava ever recorded from a Vesuvian eruption, and even today, there is a constant state of danger surrounding the volcano. It is constantly monitored.

Volcanoes are formed by the upward forcing of rocks formed in the earth’s tectonic boundaries.  There are at least 11 dormant volcanoes in the Italian territory.   The only country with active volcanoes, Italy’s three major concerns are still erupting today.


10,912’ Mount Etna World Heritage Site on the island of Sicily is a stratovolcano or conical volcano, with activity traced back 500,000 years, has mythological beginnings, and in an almost continuous state of activity with summit and flank eruptions, as recent as December 2018. It is the highest volcano in Europe and one of the most active.

Conical shaped Mount Stromboli, north of Sicily in the Tyrrhenian Sea, on the island by the same name, is 3040’ high and in a constant state of eruption.  It’s eruption on July 4, 2019,  is the largest since at least 2007, according to Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology.*   Molten lava flowed, causing tree and grass fires. In addition to  panic, a male hiker was killed by a falling stone, apparently the only casualty.

July 4, 2019 eruption of Mount Stromboli.

Approximately 1,000 people live in Stromboli’s shadow. The enormous influx of tourists in July is also a pressing concern. The volcano’s spectacular geological feature is the “Stream of Fire” (Sciara del Fuoco), a U-shaped depression on one side of the cone created by 13,000 years of eruptions and collapses. Like the other Aeolian islands, Stromboli is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After the 2002 eruption, a network of high-tech monitoring of volcanic activity was set up, making it one of the most monitored volcanoes in the world. Excursions to the craters are only allowed with a volcanological guide.

There are at least 11 other volcanoes on Italian territory with dormant and/or “uncertain” status dating from 600,000 years ago through to the 1900’s.

*INGV is funded by the Italian Ministry of Education, Universities and Research and monitors seismic and volcanic phenomena, employing approximately 1000 people between headquarters in Rome and other locations in Milan, Bologna, Pisa, Naples, Catania and Palermo.