Meditation is something on which I should rely. After all, I’m a neurotic Italian American mother. I worry about my family, health, money, work, and what we’re going to eat for dinner. My brain never shuts off.
Many people can relate, not just Italian Americans. However, when we say, “family,” it usually extends to grandparents, parents, cousins, aunts, uncles, your mother’s third cousin on her father’s side, who you call zio, and all the rest. The pressure to succeed, to have enough money to support the family (whoever needs your help), to work harder than everyone else, and to constantly feed each other literally and figuratively can be downright overwhelming.
As a child, my father insisted we take Tae Kwon Do classes as a means of learning self-defense. One of the first tasks we had to take on was “clearing our mind” and meditating. The master had us sit “criss-cross-applesauce” style on the floor of the gym. We had to put our hands palms up on our knees and breathe deeply. Then, we had to think of nothing at all.
Even back then, I could not grasp the concept. There was too much stuff taking up space in my mind back in elementary school. Things have only gotten more cluttered up there ever since. In fact, now that I’m 40, I’d need a big rig to haul out everything taking up space in my brain. I probably have one whole quarter of it focused on whether to make eggplant or zucchini for the side dish for lunch tomorrow at any given moment. Forget about all the space occupied with worry about affording a college education for my son.
In any event, Mother Nature can sometimes help me at least make a little room for peace up in there. This little video that I posted on Instagram is an example of one of those moments. It’s from summer 2018, and I suddenly realized that the sound of the waves in Ischia, which is off the coast of Naples in Italy, was calming. I recorded it, so I could have a slice of meditation, which always seemed impossible. Nowadays, whenever I need peace, I can let the waves wash over me, even if only in my mind.
Eataly Flatiron is a little piece of Italy in New York City. Italian Americans in the Tri-State area have long had reminders of home. I can think of three delis and two bakeries serving authentic Italian food items in the area near my home just outside of Manhattan in New Jersey. Everyone knows you can find the real deal in the specialty stores and restaurants on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. And, once upon a time, Manhattan’s Little Italy was authentic, too.
But Eataly lives up to its sophisticated reputation and brings to life the idea of the dolce vita in a way these other venues do not. This is not just shopping. This is not just eating a meal at a restaurant. This is an experience for the senses. You can visit Eataly Flatiron at 200 Fifth Ave. (like I did) or Eataly Downtown at 101 Liberty Street on the third floor in New York City. There are other Eataly locations in Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas.
If you plan a visit, expect to spend an entire day there. You arrive and walk into Caffe Lavazzo, which is a typical coffee bar, the kind you might find in Roma. (I would have said Napoli, but it lacks both sfogliatelle and baristas shouting to you in dialect, guaglione!)
While the pastries hardly match the ones I find in Ischia, a small island off the coast of Naples that is home to my family, the ambiance of the place is spot on. You feel as though you are back in Italy. For one, many Italians flock to the place. Everyone who visits us from the Boot insists on stopping there at least once. Two, it is all about taking the time to start the day peacefully, which is an entirely Italian idea.
My Americans get up and go. My Italians linger at the table and won’t turn on their brains without a sip of espresso, some people watching, and salutations among friends. A sweet bite is never discouraged either.
An Italian Market Experience
When you are done with your breakfast, you keep walking deeper into Eataly, and you realize these little cafes, bars, and restaurants are tucked in the nooks and crannies of a giant market. Here, you’ll find Italian ingredients of all sorts, books, and household items that are hard to pass up.
My husband and I were salivating at the array of cheeses and deli meats, including prosciutto crudo, prosciutto cotto, and salami. There is one area with pre-cooked items, where we picked up a thick slice of porchetta slick with oil and rosemary. It made for an unforgettable sandwich on ciabatta bread with arugula and mayo when we returned home.
Deli Meats and So Much More
Honestly, you won’t know where to turn your attention next. Walking around Eataly is a whirlwind for food lovers like me. Along with my husband, I spent much of the morning browsing and picking up must-haves, such as polenta, which I thought would remind my father of his childhood, and seasonings for my cousin who is always in the kitchen. I fell in love with the household items sporting Italian phrases and symbols. If I had a million dollars…
The Stuff of an Italian Home
Costly But Worth It
Indeed, the one criticism of Eataly is the price of everything. Nothing is cheap. While you get what you pay for and the items certainly live up to expectations, you can’t justify regularly doing your grocery shopping here, even if you live nearby. The prices of menu items in the restaurants in and around the market stalls are similarly high. We spent more than $200 on groceries (of which we didn’t buy that much), our meal at one of the restaurants, and our travel to and from New Jersey (we are close to NYC and I used to commute daily for work). In other words, the day was expensive. That’s exactly why we have only done this once – and we were celebrating the tenth anniversary of our vow renewal in the United States.
A Worthy Meal
We ordered the fried antipasto, which included calamari and shrimp with a delicious mayonnaise-based dipping sauce. Many don’t realize Italian devotion to mayo. In fact, many of my relatives in southern Italy make their own mayonnaise from scratch rather than buying it in the grocery store.
Each of the restaurants surrounding the market has its own theme. We went to Il Pesce, the one focused on pesci or fish. You can also go to a pasta bar, where you can pick fresh pasta and its topping. You can bring the freshly made pasta home and put your own sauce on it, too. There’s another place with a meat-lover’s menu. Pizza is available, too, of course. And there’s a restaurant on the roof, which promises to be ultra romantic and is the site of events, such as wine tastings. We didn’t make it up there, but I understand that it is SERRA ALPINA by Birreria, a “winter greenhouse” pop-up restaurant on the roof during winter.
Get Thee to Eataly
Overall, I would recommend going to Eataly at least once. You can even take cooking classes there. Certainly, it will hold you over until you can afford a trip to the real Italy. However, be prepared to empty your pockets. In English or Italian, good stuff ain’t cheap.
Island life is fine for me in small doses. It took a long time for me to come to this realization. When I was in my 20s, I thought I wanted to give up the hustle and bustle of working in New York City, move to an island, and write while my feet were planted in the sand on the beach. It would be a simpler life but a better one.
Of course, if a handsome islander wanted to sweep me off my feet, I was fine with that, too. That’s what actually happened. While I was in my family’s native Ischia, an island off the coast of Naples in Italy, I met Antonio, who is now my husband of nearly 10 years. Basically, we live in two worlds. We often travel back to Ischia, especially in the summer. At one point, we spent nine months on the island with our then toddler son.
After being able to experience island life – and not a mere vacation – I was no longer as enamored with the idea of sequestering myself on an island. That’s the thing about taking up island life. Your beloved vacation destination becomes where you live and work. Therefore, it can’t possibly live up to the dream it once was.
While on vacation in Ischia, I would visit family I hadn’t seen in years. We would eat the best, freshest food and relish time together. I would go to the beach and the thermal spas. When we were dating, my husband and I would gather with friends until the wee hours of the morning. We would hang out at luxury hotels, owned by friends and family, and partake in gourmet meals by the best chefs on the island. It was like I was an eternal tourist even as a became part of the community.
In those days, I would always work from home and keep American hours. But I was young and hungry, full of energy. Then, we got married and started thinking about having a family. Things started to change dramatically. I found myself preferring sleep to talking and eating well into the early morning. Reading and writing on the beach made my hands sweaty and my eyes squinty even with sunglasses. Hello wrinkles! The sand falling into every crevice wasn’t making it any better. Those bright-eyed, bushy-tailed vacationers were no longer me and my people. Instead, they were annoying tourists sucking up all the air of the place. Who needs ’em?
Well, the island and its islanders do. So, I have to come to grips with the reality of living in a tourist’s paradise. Over the years, I’ve come up with a robust list of pros and cons:
Benefits of Living on an Island
Within Walking Distance of Natural Wonders
The beach is so close to where I live when I’m in Ischia that I can smell the sea air when I close the front door behind me. When you turn the corner, you may see a glorious sunset or the lush green hills in the distance. Pastel-colored homes dotting the countryside and a sea of stars with the bright full moon hang like a painting above the actual sea at night. The scenery is breathtaking and inspirational. While I love the views of New York City back home in Jersey, they are just not the same as Mother Nature.
Slower Pace of Living
There’s something about the heat and beauty that breeds a bit of laziness but not in a bad way. It’s a good thing. People are never in a rush. In Ischia, anyway, they still take a siesta every afternoon. It sometimes gets on my nerves, but it’s better for your health – physical and mental.
Doing More With Less
Smaller places make for smaller lives, but not in the way you might imagine. In New York, everyone is fighting to be top dog. You want to have a bigger house than the Joneses. On an island, people seem to be satisfied with having a decent place to live, good food on the table, and an abundance of family and friends. There is no rat race or naked ambition.
Drawbacks to Living on an Island
Higher Cost of Living
Everything costs triple. Goods are expensive because delivery to an island is more difficult. It requires extra travel on a boat. And the expiration dates on food and drink are often shorter, especially in Italy, where there are strict laws about preservatives and additives. Sometimes, in the hot summer, the milk or cream is bad within a day of purchase. Around here, the clothes are always expensive. Because Ischia attracts luxury travelers, there are mostly designer stores, which aren’t exactly budget friendly for the island’s families.
Sorry Access to Health Care
If you have the flu or a simple cold on the island, you’ll be more than fine. Your nonna (real or adopted) will dote on you and feed you and you’ll be back to good in no time. But if you have a serious illness or disease (or you have a serious injury), you might have a problem. I lost all circulation in my leg after a knee injury when I was a mere tourist in Ischia in 2004. I nearly lost my foot (I didn’t, thank God), but it would have been better to be in a city. There is no MRI on the island (or at least there wasn’t then), for example. Usually, specialists for diseases, such as cancer, are found in Naples, Rome, Milan, and so on. As a result, the islanders, even at their most vulnerable, have to move to get care. When you’re in a weakened state, this is a disastrous proposition.
Opportunities for Work Are Slim
Young people living on the island often leave if they have greater ambitions. The island provides some opportunities to work in tourism. But it’s limited to six months out of the year when the weather is good. Most people have no option to work year round. New laws have made it harder to get unemployment during the other six months. The slower pace and indifference to outdoing your neighbors with your finances are results of this economic reality. But a young person, who wants to have a family or who dreams of doing something more with his or her life, will find the island prohibitive. So, many of them fly away and leave their nest – even if just for the six months of winter when Ischia slumbers.
Saturnino is a small restaurant in Forio, a town on the Neapolitan island of Ischia in Italy. It is run by Chef Ciro Mattera and his wife Stefania Coletta. Families in Ischia have always gone organic; it’s in their DNA. They did farm-to-table meals before we put a label on it in the United States. And Mattera is a firm believer in the island’s greatest culinary traditions. They serve as the cornerstone of his work.
Way Ahead of Their Time
At Saturnino, Mattera uses locally sourced fish and vegetables to create works of art with food. He and his wife are friends, and I don’t always pay for the dishes they serve me. So, for full disclosure, I’m totally bias. But I can tell you I’ve never had a dish of his that I didn’t enjoy. And the warm and inviting atmosphere of the restaurant, which looks out onto the street and sea, will surely draw you in.
In Ischia, I was struck by the vibe of the restaurant, which is at once upscale and warm. The fact that it is small makes it cozy. Looking out the window onto the view, you may catch a glimpse of kids and their parents dipping their toes in the sea or lovers holding hands and making tracks in the sand. A couple on a Vespa will undoubtedly pass while the gentle sea breeze caresses your skin. It gives the feel of a paradise, where people eat, drink, and love life, which is just how Ischia prefers to present itself. Whether it’s true or not is debatable, but at lunch at Saturnino you can be a believer.
Saturnino Serves Up Respite
Of course, that ambiance set the right mood for a sophisticated lunch with friends and family. Throughout the meal, I could not help but stare out the window for the people watching and feel of being on vacation. This was all despite the interruption brought on by an already scheduled conference call for work. With paradise in my face, the call hardly was a chore. Because I failed to take copious notes on each dish, I will let the food speak for itself.
Even our 6-year-old’s specially made kids meal of nuggets and roasted potatoes was presented impressively with a sparkle of homemade barbecue-type sauce.
Each appetizer was small but gratifying. And the presentation remained larger than life.
Chefs in the know make use of food’s natural colors to create beauty in each dish. This one, which includes a paper-thin, purple potato chip and bright green peppers, is a perfect example of this treatment.
You can not go to a restaurant of this caliber in Ischia and pass up the chance at tasting the chef’s take on a pasta dish. The orange zest is an homage to the island’s citrus riches and provides beautiful color and a refreshing taste with the included fish.
A refreshing palette cleanser between the meal and dessert was a special treat because it was a far cry from the bowl of store-bought sorbet that most of us are used to eating.
This dessert was almost too pretty to eat. Almost!
Few people do love – and therefore Valentine’s Day – as well as the Italians. They are passionate and romantic. As a result, the holiday is the perfect match. On this day in Italy, lovers go on dates. They get dolled up. They eat a special meal (and really all the meals in Italy are special). This year, most of them will be avoiding meat because Valentine’s Day coincides with the Catholic holy day, Ash Wednesday. The men will dole out bouquets of flowers to their beloved. The women will offer little gifts to the man in their life. In other words, Italians are just like everyone else on V-Day.
What Makes the Holiday Different for Italians
Still, Italians celebrate the holiday while being Italian. They have a reputation for being great at love. A story I wrote about Italian men and why women find them so appealing is still the most popular article I have ever written. You know why? The truth is people are find Italians to be wildly attractive. Many Italians are driven by the bella figura, which means making a good impression and having your outside appearance reflect your inner being. So, they often take great care with their looks and clothing.
In addition, they have a way of flirting that makes the other person feel as though no one else exists. It’s embedded in the culture. Courtship still exists in Italy in a way that it no longer does in other parts of the world, including the United States. Men still pay for women’s meals and entertainment (even if they are not romantically linked to them). They are taught to woo each other with playful texts and extraordinary compliments. If you’re with an Italian, you feel the love. You feel as though you’re the only person in the room and the most beautiful ever. That rush is hard to get over. That’s why people are always seeking out Italian lovers. There’s no better time to recognize this way with love than on Valentine’s Day.
Today is the feast of Epifania, which is known in Italy simply as “Befana.” In fact, many people in Italy will greet each other on the street today with the words, “Buon Befana.” This salutation refers to La Befana, the Italian Christmas witch. She is still searching for Baby Jesus, whom she learned about from the Three Kings. Throughout her journey every Jan. 6, she offers gifts to other Italian children in the hopes she will one day find Gesu. Or at least that is how one of our story books tells the story. There are a few theories about how she came into this job.
Befana – From Whence She Came
Indeed, she made a stop at our house this morning. When my son awakes, he will be surprised. He went to bed early with visions of the Italian Christmas witch in his mind. Now, Befana is no Santa. She is a poor old lady. Before this gig, Befana was best known for sweeping inside and outside her home everyday. She mostly kept to herself. So, she offers up one or two small gifts to each child. When my father was a kid in Italy in the 1950s, he received tangerines, walnuts, a piece of chocolate, and pencils for school in his socks from Befana. Back then, she was the only gift giver of the season. Times have changed.
Even though Santa has since grown more popular than Befana even in Italy, she still makes her rounds on Jan. 6. This, in fact, marks the end of the holiday season and work and school breaks, which is different from the United States. Many families will gather again today for one more special meal. Children will recite poems for pennies — err euro. And Befana will leave a little something for them. Sometimes, adults even give each other little tokens of their love on Befana’s day. The Epiphany, after all, is about the arrival of the three kings, also known as three wise men. They had brought little gifts to baby Jesus and his family in Bethlehem.
One Last Hurrah
Throughout the holiday season, we keep a Befana doll hanging over our window. Some of our American friends think we’ve forgotten her there since Halloween. But Italians know better. You can read more about Befana in my previous stories:
The G7 interior ministers are gathering in Ischia, Italy, the Neapolitan island that is home of my ancestors and husband, Oct. 18 to 20, 2017. Reports indicate that these world leaders will be discussing counter-terrorism efforts. Specifically, they will talk about cybersecurity and combatting online recruitment on the part of terrorists.
On a Lighter Note at the G7
But what’s more interesting to someone like me, with ties to the island, is what a high-profile gig this is for the natives. Hotels, restaurants, and local politicians are rolling out the red carpet, practically literally. Ischia Porto’s mayor established a defined path to welcome G7 guests upon arrival at the port. Security is in full force. News reports indicate that schools will be closed during the height of the meetings. Journalists are beginning to arrive and take stock.
Good for a Laugh
One of the funnier reports I read comes from La Reppublica Napoli. It published a photo of a fruit stand in Ischia. Attached to the tomatoes is a sign that reads, “Nun facite guaie cu stu G7.” This more or less translates to “Don’t make a mess at this G7.” While this gives me a giggle, I think the message has two audiences actually.
For one, the fruit seller is warning natives to be gracious and responsible hosts. Having this assignment is a chance for Ischia to get some publicity. The place is beautiful, but few people outside of Italy and some other select areas (parts of Germany and Europe, Russia, Ukraine) know about it. Americans, in fact, are much more familiar with neighboring Capri.
Second, the sign is a message to protesters, who are expected to descend on the island, too. In speaking to natives, I know that’s a concern.
Italy holds the G7 presidency at the moment. In fact, it welcomed the G7’s prime ministers and presidents, including U.S. President Donald Trump, in Taormina, Sicily earlier in the year. As an outsider looking in, I can’t help but imagine that Italy is trying to flaunt the beauty of the south. The mezzogiorno as it is sometimes called is notorious for its economic challenges, crime syndicates, and political corruption.
Lately, there has been more of a trend toward undoing some of that ugliness. Some leaders want to put a spotlight on the positive aspects. Instead of calling for secession, some Italians want to show the promise of the south. Just to look at the splendid sea, lush vegetation, and rich history is to see what could be. For at least the next few days, it is Ischia’s turn to shine on the world stage. That can only be a good thing. After all, to know Ischia is to love it. Perhaps no one recognizes this as much as I do.
Visit Italy, and you will be mesmerized. Regardless of the time of year, you will see its beauty and history. And you will taste its delicious food and wine. Still, each season provides a different perspective and therefore a unique experience. Deciding when is the best time for your visit depends on a number of factors. For instance, if you are planning to travel to Italian islands, the winter is pretty much dead. But if Florence or Venice is calling your name, any time would work.
Discover what each season offers to tourists:
In general, fall is my favorite time of year to head to Italy. Airfare is cheaper than it is at the height of summer. The crowds have all returned to school and work. And the weather remains delightful, especially down south. In fact, I’ve been to the beach in Ischia, an island off the coast of Naples, well into September and even October. In addition, all the thermal pools are open through November. The rest of the country is usually cooling off, at least compared to the hot temperatures of July and August. The most popular sites, such as the museums or the Colosseum in Rome, have fewer visitors. People traffic is no longer an issue in the big cities and hot spots. To visit Italy in fall, is to take a real vacation. It allows you the time to truly relax.
Colder weather is a deal breaker for some visitors. But others long for the snow in the north. In fact, many come to cities, such as Torino, just for the skiing and other snow sports. There’s no question that you can avoid crowds during this season in Italy. Also, the prices for airfare and hotels is usually the lowest in January and February after the holiday season.
While I’ve been in Ischia and Naples during the winter months, I wouldn’t advise people to go there during the dead season. Few natives are on the islands, and many of the hotels, restaurants, and other sites are either closed or open only sporadically during winter. The holidays are an exception; hotels and even some restaurants will open for the Christmas season, even on the islands. The hiking and swimming in the oceans are pretty much impossible because of the temperatures. Still, if you have family there as I do, it might be a nice time to go to spend uninterrupted time with them.
One warning, however, is about the heating available. I find myself cold to the bone whenever I’m in Ischia in the winter. Much of the south is similar. Though the temperatures never drop as much as they do in my hometown in New Jersey, the homes are made of cement. And no one uses heat 24 hours per day. There’s high humidity, which makes it a wet cold instead of a dry one. Babies and older people and those susceptible to ailments, such as bronchitis, might not want to be even in the warmer south during the winter.
Europe, in general, is a popular destination come springtime. Spring break and Easter are popular dates for travel during this period. Because demand is up, the airfare and hotels tend to charge more. This is a lovely time of year to visit Italy. But you have to be prepared for a range of weather. In the north and central parts of the country, you may still experience snow or low temperatures. In the south, don’t be surprised if you get lots of rain. The dampness has gotten to me at this time of year more than once.
Still, this can be a nice time to visit. First, you get to see some of the spring rituals – beginning the gardening, preparing for holidays, such as Easter, and seeing the buds come to life. Second, you also don’t have to deal with the heavy crowds you’ll find in the summer. In late spring, on the islands and coast in the south, you might even get a few beach days. For instance, the thermal spas and pools in Ischia are usually open by late spring, weather permitting.
Hiking is optimal because the weather is usually not too cold or too hot. While the sites, such as museums, might be packed during the week of Easter and the week after (especially in Rome and Vatican City), the rest of the spring is usually less crowded. What I always love about being in Italy during this spring is that the whole nation is coming back to life.
Summer is the most popular season for travelers for a reason. Obviously, in many places, schools are out, so families prefer this time of year. Also, the warmer temperatures mean less uncertainty about the weather. This is appealing whether you’re heading south for the beaches or looking to discover beautiful cities and historic sites. The downside is that sometimes Italy experiences major heat waves. Because electricity is so costly and the people believe too much air conditioning can make you sick, you don’t always have easy access to AC. It is, however, becoming more available, especially in major cities.
While I go to Italy just about every year in the summer, I can’t recommend it for everyone. It is super crowded. Estimates have shown that the population on the small island of Ischia, where I stay, triples in August. Indeed, most Italians have either the entire month or a significant portion of it off from work, which means they are all on vacation, too. Often, they visit parts of their own country. I have referred to it as the siesta on steroids.
But the summer is full of fun, especially if you’re heading to any of Italy’s incredible beaches. You can experience the pagan holiday of Ferragosto that is uniquely Italian. The sun and sand are essential for serenity. So, if you’re willing to deal with human traffic jams while walking down the street or bathing in the ocean, then you might pick summer for your journey.
Bagno Corrado is where my husband, son, and I go to the beach in Ischia, Italy. We rent chairs and umbrellas from the owner, and then we have lunch or dinner at the quaint beach eatery. The place is simple – a small kitchen with a deck for diners to eat and take in a view of open umbrellas as far as the eye can see. During the summer, you can actually have dinner there, too, on some nights.
It’s one of my son’s favorite places because he loves the chicken cutlet and fries. We kind of can’t go to the beach anymore without taking him there. But today we’re going to show you the showstoppers of the kitchen. Sample the dishes that make this unlike any beach grub you’ve ever eaten. Promise.
From Your Table
The deliciousness begins with the natural wonder all around you. There’s the perfume of the sea, the beautiful people lounging on the beach, and the air of relaxation.
Earth and Sea
One of my favorite dishes from this latest trip to Ischia was this long pasta with porcini mushrooms and clams. The combination of the earthy mushrooms with the sweet seafood was unexpected and delicious. It also brings together two of Ischia’s culinary treasures. My people have been foraging for porcini in the hills of Ischia for generations. And the clams of the sea are the freshest you’ll ever taste.
In the heat of August in Ischia, you don’t really want to eat a heavy meal of pasta. In those moments, a dish like this seafood salad is a welcome respite. With a touch of olive oil and lemon, these mussels, clams, octopus, and more are refreshing and light. I can’t stress enough how friggin’ good the seafood is here.
A Little Mussel
Mussels and toasted Italian bread in this slightly spicy tomato broth is a little piece of heaven on Earth. A good friend of mine once visited Ischia and ate these shellfish in these soupy sauces. Her reaction was that she’d like to bathe in it and drink all the bath water. Indeed, I can’t argue with her. It would be divine.
Pot of Gold
The beauty of eating octopus in Ischia is that almost all the professionals know how to cook it properly. You never chew on rubber here. The octopus is soft and delicious. This one was no exception. Mixed in with the mussels, the octopus was extra special. You felt like you stumbled upon treasure with every bite of it.
Seeing Red, Tasting Red
Tomatoes in the summer in Ischia are the ultimate in juiciness and taste. Team them up with baby octopus and squid and al dente pasta and you have a winner.
A Real Pick Me Up
Tiramisu – the original with espresso – is on just about every dessert menu and mamma’s repertoire in Ischia. This is a unique take that replaces espresso with a pistachio-based cream. It’s addictive and delightful. Made by the owner’s wife, this tiramisu also has heaps of love in it. And it’s adorable presentation never goes unnoticed.
Get Over Here
Pull up a lounge chair on the beach before, after, or even during your meal. (That’s right, Bagno Corrado serves small bites and drinks right on the beach.) What are you waiting for?