When Sweetie and I go out to eat, we rarely choose Italian. I make pretty good pasta dishes at home, and I've learned to make good polenta. I make my own pesto genovese. Going out for Italian never seemed to be that much of a treat.

That is likely to change, but only if we can find restaurants that do it right.

It's rather silly to talk about "Italian food," or even "northern" and "southern." Those categories are just too general, or else they indicate that the restaurant is serving a broad variety of more-or-less Italian dishes. I always knew that Italia is a country of distinct regions. It was unified only 140 years ago. Now I know even more that regional Italian cooking is about a lot more than north and south.


Wherever we stayed, we sought out restaurants that served cucina tipica of the region or even of the province. In Firenze that meant food of Toscano or even specifically of Firenze. We never did try Bistecca alla Fiorentina, which is a huge mass of rare T-bone steak (way too much for us), but we partook of as much other Tuscan food as we could.

One place that our concierge had recommended was Osteria Santo Spirito in the piazza of the same name. We went there for lunch on our first full day in the city. And it was there that I made a very pleasant discovery: ribollita. A soffrito base, bread, canellini, "black cabbage" (Lacinto kale)—this was so my kind of soup! Some might dismiss it as peasant food, but for me that's a plus. It means simple ingredients and lots of flavour that is very satisfying. Osteria Santo Spirito served a lovely ribollita. That and some house wine were enough for lunch for me.

Perseus had also been recommended. They featured Bistecca alla Fiorentina, but instead I went for a fillet steak that was beautiful, tender, and probably the most flavourful steak I've ever had. The seasoning was superb! And beef always needs some generous seasoning because, unlike pork, it doesn't have a lot of flavour. I enjoyed that steak very much, and there was enough to share with Sweetie.

The best food we had in Firenze came from another "stumble upon," like the Museo Galileo. We were walking on a narrow street on our way to the synagogue when we noticed a restaurant called Acquacotta with lots of Trip Advisor recommendations and a very interesting menu. We went there for dinner. As we often did, we shared dishes so we wouldn't end up with too much food. We had their version of ribollita, which was even more flavourful than the one at Osteria Santa Spirito. We followed that with wild boar in a sauce with porcini mushrooms with polenta, a beautifully flavourful dish. We loved Acquacotta so much that we went back on our last night in Firenze.

We also had lunch in San Gimignano at La Mandragola. This was a fairly high-end, gourmet kind of place, but quite affordable at lunch. They served "elevated" Tuscan food done very well. Truffles were involved.


Toscano has become so popular over the last number of years that by now most people are probably at least somewhat familiar with Tuscan cuisine and not just the "red sauce" form of Italian cooking. But how many people know the cuisine of Liguria? Or even that Liguria exists?

Liguria is a narrow province in the north of Italia bounded by mountains and the sea. This is the Italian Riviera, but away from resorts and the capital city of Genova it's quite a rustic area of fishing and terrace farming. The cuisine features seafood as well as boar and other meats. It also features one bit of Ligurian cuisine that most people probably are familiar with: pesto genovese made with basil, garlic, pine nuts, cheese, and olive oil.

Our first night in Levanto, we walked into L'Articiocca like drowned rats, having walked down the wrong street in the pouring rain for quite a way before realizing it was the wrong street. Clara, who I think is the owner, made us very welcome. We had chosen L'Articiocca from Trip Advisor because it featured fresh, local, and organic ingredients when possible, which sounded great. We started that evening with a typical Ligurian appetizer, gattafin, triangular ravioli stuffed with a vegetable-herb mixture, deep fried, and topped with a boar sauce. We were hooked already! Then came one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. We had ordered pasta with pesto, and the menu promised that it was made fresh in a mortar and pestle. What we didn't know was that Clara was going to make it right before our eyes. It was a pesto making ritual, and it sent shivers of delight through my body and throughout my olfactory system. Glorious! And the taste was even better. It was served in the traditional way with a small eggless pasta mixed with boiled potatoes and flat green beans. You might think we couldn't follow that with anything, but the rabbit sausage in saffron sauce was equal to the task.

We had to go back again. After our day in the Cinque Terre, we were ready to warm up with comforting Ligurian food. I thought it was kind of dangerous. When you've had an awesome experience, it's tempting to try to make it happen again, and often disappointing because it was a one-time thing. But if anything, L'Articiocca upped the ante. When we walked in, Clara greeted us like old friends with an embrace and kisses on both cheeks. She then brought us glasses of Prosecco. The best champagne is usually wasted on me, but I've grown fond of Prosecco. This time, we started with crozetti, a disk-shaped pasta served with basil and pine nuts (a sort of deconstructed pesto), followed by the catch of the day, which was a whole John Dory. Clara brought us the fish when it was finished and then was kind enough to take it back to the kitchen to separate meat from skin and bone and return us the fillets. It was a beautiful mild fish in an orange and wine sauce. As if that weren't enough, we asked what the vegetable was that day. First beautiful asparagus of the season!

We're now on the hunt for Ligurian food here in Vancouver. I found one place. I hope it's any good!


The cuisine of Roma and the surrounding region of Lazio is quite different than either Tuscan or Ligurian food. When we say "Mediterranean diet," we mean something more like those last two—light, with olive oil, not too much pasta, and lots of veggies. The food in Lazio has richer flavours, more meat fat and stock. Probably less virtuous! We had three great meals in Roma.

The first was at Da Vito e Dina, a family-run osteria in our neighbourhood. Sweetie and I shared a primo of fettuccini with mushrooms. I had expected a tomato-based sauce but instead this was a rich sauce that seemed to be mushroom-based with perhaps some meat stock. Our secundo was Saltimbocca, a dish of veal and prosciutto that couldn't be more typically Roman. It was delicious! We finished with a panna cotta that was smooth and lovely.

The second great meal was a simple lunch the next day after our exhausting tour of the Vatican. Panino Divino is a tiny, very popular place also in our neighbourhood. We were fortunate to get there during a slight lull. They make panini—great panini. I was drawn there by the promise of porchetta, simple and bursting with flavour. Sweetie had a panino with prosciutto, cheese, and a chili jam that was also amazing. If we had a place like this nearby, I'd eat at least one panino a day. I would love to work my way through the dozen or so varieties they serve. And at €5 for a panino and a pop, it was one of the bargains of the trip.

We finished our stay in Roma with a meal at Osteria Delle Commari, an elevated version of local food. It's a lot like places we go to here: fresh, local, seasonal ingredients, including wines sourced in the surrounding region. We started with our new favourite Prosecco. We decided to order two primi instead of a primo and a secundo. We split a house special, gnocchetti with clams and shaved truffles, as well as an order of rigatoni alla carbonara, a very typical regional dish. The gnocchetti dish was beautiful and subtly flavoured, while the carbonara was bold and satisfying. The last time I made carbonara, it didn't come out well, so I'm going to have to work on that. We paired it with a bottle Viognier, not exactly a typical Italian grape, but I saw it on the list, and it came from a winery in Lazio just to the south. It was excellent! We finished the meal with a torta made with ricotta and cherries.

Nature's perfect food

Did we have pizza as well? Oh yes we did. Of the new pizza places in Vancouver, we have been only to Pizzeria Barbarella, which makes thin(ish)-crust pizzas with great toppings—a bit more New York than Napoli, and very delicious. After this trip, I have a feeling we're going to be able to go only to places like that and Via Tevere. What usually passes for pizza in these parts just isn't going to cut it, unless I can mentally call it something else.

Edi House was just a few blocks from where we were staying in Firenze, and we went twice. They make all kinds of food, but their pizza is really good. Very thin crust, great toppings, although don't pile on too many (the Savonarella, named after the mad monk, tended to get a bit soggy). We also hit a place for lunch in the Oltrarno. We can't remember its name, but we do remember that the pizza was yummy. We had one pizza lunch in Levanto at La Piscea, the number one Levanto restaurant on Trip Advisor. They made only pizza, and it was excellent. A slightly thicker crust than in Firenze, with very creative toppings. Ours had pesto on it, of course.

There actually was some pizza more like we get at home, as well as some Sicilian pizza. These were at in the little "bars" that sold pizza by the slice, so it couldn't be the thin crust stuff that has to be eaten right away. I suppose I should have tried some just for research, but I never did. I imagine it was decent at least, but now I'm kind of hooked on Neapolitan style. Might a trip to Napoli be in our future?

Panem et circenses

A quick note on bread. I had already known that you don't butter bread in Italia. You dip it in a good olive oil, possibly with balsamic vinegar as well. In Italian restaurants, we would usually be brought not just bread but condiments as well.

The bread in Toscano was, without exception, curiously bland, as in no salt. In fact, I saw people put not just olive oil but salt as well on the bread, and we took to doing the same. They make bread with no salt! I mean, it works, but it seems weird.

The bread in Liguria was more as we expected. They also make brown bread. It was all quite good! We would dip it in olive oil, but it didn't need salt. Some of it didn't need oil! The bread in Roma was also quite good, and there was more than one variety.

Vino divino

One more note, on wine. With the exception of the bottle at Osteria Delle Commari and a glass at a mediocre Roman restaurant that shall remain nameless, we drank house wine. In this country, that implies an inferior wine. Not so in Italia, where the house wine is something they are proud of. And yet it's relatively inexpensive. We'd get a half litre of red or white for about €6 at most, and it would be really good.



Exploring Italia

Sweetie and I packed a lot into our 10 full days and one partial day in Italia. But most of the time I felt that we were keeping a relaxed pace.

The Ponte Vecchio
When I visit somewhere new, the first thing I want to do it just to walk around and get a feel for the place—first for the neighbourhood we're staying in, and then branching out from there. We did that right away in Firenze and quickly fell in love with the city. It's such an easy place to love! Our hotel was just north of Piazza Savonarola, named for the "mad monk," and we walked a few different ways to and from the centre of the city many times as well as east and west of the centre. I loved walking across the river to the Oltrarno, the area south of the River Arno, where the tourist crowds thinned out.

We visited several places in the course of these walkabouts. The big tourist attraction we went to was the Uffizi Gallery, a huge U-shaped building filled with paintings and sculpture. We spent several hours there. When we came upon the iconic Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli, I felt emotionally overwhelmed. I had seen images of this painting so many times, but the real thing was quite stunning. We also saw numerous piazze and the churches near them, my favourite probably being the Piazza Santa Croce. We walked across the Ponte Vecchio ("old bridge"), which is covered in shops and residences.

We hit a few offbeat places as well, such as the Museo Salvatore Ferragamo, a strange little multimedia exhibit full of shoes and things about shoes. We went through the Museo Galileo, which we found by accident. It's filled with scientific instruments from the early Renaissance belonging to Galileo and others, and was fascinating. My favourite out-of-the-way place, however, was the Sinagoga e Museo Ebraico di Firenze. We couldn't take photos because their security required that we leave cameras and phones in a locker near the entrance. The synagogue is not old but is beautifully decorated. The Germans used it as a garage during World War Two and then mined it when they left, but partisans managed to defuse the mines and save the building. The museum contains two floors of sacred objects and displays having to do with the history of Jews in Firenze. I never fail to be moved by lists of names of those who were murdered in the camps.

San Gimignano
We made one day trip out of Firenze to San Gimignano, a walled medieval town a bit south of Firenze. There we visited the Duomo di San Gimignano and its associated museum, the Vernaccia Wine Museum (with tasting of the excellent local wine), and the Museo Archeologico, which houses some excellent Etruscan artifacts. And of course we also walked up and down and all around.

Even though we had been in the Tuscan countryside just a day earlier, there was a bit of culture shock moving to Levanto after Firenze, but we soon settled into the tranquility. We visited four out of five towns in the nearby Cinque Terre, a protected area of medieval towns southeast of Levanto along the coast. We also took time to stroll through Levanto itself, which has been inhabited since the days of the Roman Republic. It's a town of contrasts. One minute we're looking at ancient walls and medieval foundations, and the next we're walking along the waterfront watching surfers catch the decent sized waves. There is even a surf shop in town!

Riomaggiore in the Cinque Terre
Staying in the country was lovely, but we are urbanites, and it was good to be in Roma after the calm of Liguria. As with Firenze and Levanto, we first walked around our neighbourhood, which is called the Prati, west of the River Tiber and not far from the Vatican. From there it was an easy walk across the river into the old city through the Piazza del Populo, the Piazza di Spagna and the "Spanish Steps," the Pantheon, the Trini Fountain, and the Piazza Barberini. Later we took a long ride on one of the metro lines to the Arcibasilica Papale di San Giovanni in Laterano (St. John Lateran), the Pope's see as bishop of Rome and the "number one" church in all of Catholicism.

We're not much for tours, but we didn't have much time, and tours provide access to things we couldn't see on our own as well as allowing us to jump long queues. Both tours were run by a group called City Wonders, formerly Dark Rome.

The Pantheon
The first tour was called Crypts and Catacombs and took us to the Catacombs of Domatilla (where some of us fell behind the others as we were making our way out and were well and truly lost in a catacomb for several minutes); the Church of San Clemente, a 14th century church built on top of a fourth century church built on top of a second century Mithraic temple built on top of a first century work facility, possibly a mint; and finally the Capuchin Crypts, several rooms decorated with the bones of deceased friars and the sick people they had cared for. It was a fascinating and well-run tour, especially the "lasagna" strata of San Clemente.

The second tour was a Vatican tour. Without a tour, you can wait for hours to make your way into the Vatican Museums. Once again, we had a very knowledgeable and engaging tour guide who took us through the galleries, into the Sistine Chapel, and then finally to the Basilica San Pietro. She had used a great electronic screen in the museum to go through the entire ceiling and explain what Michaelangelo had done, which was excellent, but nothing could have prepared me for the impact of the ceiling and altar artwork itself. I saw that I wasn't the only one in tears as we gathered again after our allotted 15 minutes of viewing. And then St. Peter's, including the Pieta, was simply magnificent. The only thing I didn't like about the Vatican was the huge crush of people.

We saw the Colosseum as we drove by on our tour bus, but we never did get to visit it. While we were in Roma, so was President Obama. In fact, while we were touring the Vatican, he was visiting with the Pope. Fortunately, that visit didn't shut down the Vatican as his visit to the Colosseum in the afternoon did.

Maybe we'll see it next time we are in Roma, as well as the Forum and the Jewish Quarter, among other sights we're interested in. And in Firenze, we have a date with the Pitti Palace and the Boboli Gardens at the very least. And maybe we'll make it to Vernazza, the one village in the Cinque Terre that we missed!


Forza Italia!

I'm probably going to be obsessed with Italia for a while. There are other things I want to write about, but they're going to have to wait. I just spent 11 days in Italia with Sweetie. I don't think the experience changed my entire life, but it definitely left a strong impression.

I say we visited Italia, but of course we only scratched the surface in that short time. We spent our first few days in and around Firenze in Toscana. We then drove to Levanto in Liguria on the Mediterranean coast and spent a few days there and in the Cinque Terre. Finally we drove back to Firenze and then took a train to Roma, where we spent our last couple of days.

It was like having three different vacations. We saw a lot of sights, some you might expect, some you might not. We ate some fantastic food. We did some things right and some not so right, although fortunately nothing disastrous. We learned from our experience and will do some things differently whenever we go back to Europe. But overall, it was a fantastic experience. I feel fortunate and blessed that we were able to go in the year of my 60th birthday.

More later. No-Jet-Lag seemed to work for us, but I'm still pretty disoriented, no doubt for a number of reasons.


Personal politics of food

This is one of those topics that can be difficult to talk about. I quite agree that fat shaming sucks, and I understand and support efforts to end it. Unfortunately, it seems to me sometimes that the reaction is so strong that it precludes even discussing things like weight, diet, health, and body image. Nonetheless, I am going to do so. It's my blog.

Just this week, I made a change and a discovery. The discovery wasn't a surprise. The result of making the change was exactly what I expected it to be. But until I actually made the change, it was only knowledge, not experience. Experience is the best teacher.

The change was to reduce the amount of food I eat at each meal and the amount over the course of a day. I had already taken the advice of a personal trainer I had worked with a couple of years ago to eat smaller meals (or snacks) five times a day rather than three regular (or, let's face it, large) meals. But I wasn't always successful at reducing the size of the main meals. Sometimes the snacks were too large. And some days included more than five noms.

I haven't stepped on a scale in a while. My clothes still fit fine. But lately I've been feeling kind of bloated and weighed down. I know when my body feels right to me and when it doesn't. I had known for some time that I would be uncomfortable if I ate too much, but I always seemed to forget that until after I had done it yet again.

So I got serious. I'm prioritizing protein and produce over carbohydrates but not stinting on fat, and making sure that less food does not mean poor nutrition. I make each meal smaller. I let myself get hungry sometimes. If I'm really starving between regular meals and snacks, the first thing I do is drink a glass of water, because what we perceive as hunger is often really thirst. If I'm still hungry after that, I have a small amount of protein, like cheese or peanut butter (or hummus when I get around to making any).

Is this making me feel better? Yes. My energy is still good (or would be if I got enough sleep and if someone hadn't put us all in virtual Mountain Time), and I am enjoying the food that I eat, but I'm feeling less like its an encumbrance. I go back to my desk after lunch feeling sated, not stuffed. Same after supper. No more going to bed feeling uncomfortable after having binged on a late-night snack, despite (or perhaps because of) having eating too much already that day.

I took this step after having considered eliminating various food groups. But truly, I am fortunate not to have an intolerances. I have never had a problem with dairy products, although for me that's yogurt and cheese much more often than milk. I have no problem with wheat or gluten. Frankly, I think fewer people are gluten-intolerant than the number who think they are. At least some people who go gluten-free and feel better are probably feeling better not from elimination of gluten but from getting away from eating too much of it. I eat less bread and pasta, and I feel better. I don't need to eliminate them. And I'm very glad for that, because life would be much less enjoyable without bread and pasta.

My impulse has always been to get too full rather than not full enough. I'm not sure why. It's not as though I grew up deprived of food. Even during the lean years, I never went hungry. Nonetheless, eating too much seemed like a normal thing. So did occasional (and sometimes more than occasional) heartburn and acid reflux.

But they're not normal. I am changing my mindset. If I eat too little, I can always eat more. If I eat too much, I can't undo it. I can only wait for it all to make its way through my digestive tract and feel lousy until that happens.

None of this has anything to do with shame. In general, I am happy with my body. What I have done is not a diet. It's an attempt to find what I think should be my norm, which is different than my previous norm. It's not about making myself feel better psychologically. It's about avoiding the physical discomfort of eating too much. There is no happiness in giving myself discomfort and even pain.

And none of this is about anyone else. Just me. I really don't care if someone is thin or fat or anywhere in between. That's their business, not mine. I love people. I don't judge them based on their size. I don't tell people they should weigh more or less than they do.

People often preach about food: no meat, more meat, no dairy, low fat, high fat, no carbs, lots of carbs, no gluten, all juice, kale in everything, coconut oil, whatever. There is a great deal of pseudoscience about food. But there's no need to go with pseudoscience. If you are allergic to or intolerant of some kind of food—and there are tests that can tell you—then eliminate that food. But if you are tempted to eliminate a single food or class of foods because you think it's harmful, try going for balance instead. In the oft-quoted words of Michael Pollan: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." I tended to forget that middle part, and didn't realize until I tried eating less that "too much" is a lot less than I thought it was.


Long road ahead

Yes, it's time for another International Women's Day post.

The thing that struck me today won't be any surprise to academic feminists. But it still seems to be something the rest of the world doesn't get. It's not something I understood when I was younger. I'm not sure if anyone did at first. But it's certainly something I understand now.

And that is that feminism isn't about making a place for women at the table. It's about making a new table. The present table was made by and for men. "Leaning in" is at best only a start and might well do more harm than good by validating the current male-oriented paradigm. Equality isn't about women being allowed into the boys club. It's about creating a "people's club."

That new table, that people's club, is not just about women. It must be radically inclusive. It has to go far beyond non-discrimination to active participation by people from all parts of society. We need to turn our non-discriminatory values into inclusive values. Not just white women and men at the table, but people of colour, people with mobility issues, people of all sizes, people who lack money. We can't solve the issue of women's equality while ignoring issues of race, class, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical ability, size, and more.

It's about power and agency, the ability of people to control their own lives. At this point, those who have political power make laws that affect those who don't. Those who have economic power also exert a huge influence on the lives of those who lack that power. It would be no victory for women to join the current power structure, since only certain women would benefit and basic inequities would continue to exist.

The world I envision is not necessarily the same as the one envisioned by other feminists. Unlike many feminist writers and activists, I am not a socialist. A social democrat, which is why I (a) live in Canada and (b) am a Liberal, but not a socialist. I will go so far as to submit that espousing socialism is something that only those from wealthy, powerful nations can afford to do. Socialism, a product of European academics, is in fact a form of cultural imperialism. Women in developing countries don't want socialism. They want to create items, grow food, build things, and ultimately to sell their goods to others and make themselves better off. Creating, selling, and buying aren't modern, Western innovations. They are as ancient and widespread as humanity.

It is often difficult to explain that while I do not think socialism is a good answer, neither do I think that the current form of capitalism is any kind of answer. Women's equality without economic reform would be like that problem of sitting at the men's table. What I espouse is free enterprise within a social democratic framework. Enterprise creates wealth in a way that socialism never will, but only with a strong social democratic structure can we deal with the gross inequality that crony capitalism has engendered.

Just as I'm not on the same page as socialist femimists, it seems there are people who are more in the "lean in" camp. A great many people, because that's usually what "feminism" seems to mean in the popular press. And if women really want to have equality in a man's world, if such a thing is even possible, then I guess all I can say is that I disagree. I don't think it's a long-term solution, and I don't even think it's the best possible first step. It harks back to the "women have to be more like men" school of thought, to which I say that the world has to become more like women.

I say all of this while realizing the danger of falling into essentialism. I don't think that men automatically think one way and women another. I don't think women will automatically bring some kind of nurturing quality to boardrooms. Men and women are from earth, not Mars and Venus. But there are tiny differences between the brains of men and women, real ones, which then tend to be augmented by societal conditioning. And if you don't want to go with that, the other biological differences matter. Even if women take on stereotypical male behaviour, a great many men will still view women as weak baby-makers who need to be protected and have decisions made for them. Far too many of those men sit in legislatures, and far too many men and women vote for them.

On this International Women's Day, we celebrate how far we've come and remain mindful of how far we have to go.