01 March 2015

LIFE: The (Other) Crown of Lombardy


CHIAVARI, Italy – Every once in a while I come across a bit of obscure Italian history, little gems of local customs no longer practiced, but that were once an integral part of Italian life. This is that kind of story.  It is all about silver sperade and the part they played in the costume and customs of the Brianza, an area in the northern Italian region of Lombardy.
 Folkloric Group from Lombardy, Italy

A sperada, also known as a raggiare, is a long, thin needle like hairpin, about eight inches in length, with a decorated top and bottom (olivelle), that was very much in fashion as a hair ornament in 17th century Lombardy. The characteristic fan shape formed a halo around the head of the girl who wore it, similar to the halo of the Madonna. It was called the Crown of Lombardy, not to be confused with the Iron Crown of Monza.
There is some dispute as to when a girl was first gifted with a sperada, some historians say at birth, others say at puberty, but they do agree that she was not allowed to wear them until she became a woman, in other words until she began to menstruate.

 A Crown of Lombardy
On that day, the long braids of her childhood were wound into a chignon by her mother, and fastened with the sperade the young girl had received over the years. Her new hair style was a signal to the community that she was now old enough to be married.  This usually happened when a girl was 12, which was considered marriageable age throughout Europe, but a girl could also be younger or older as everyone develops at their own speed.

From the moment a girl became engaged, her husband-to-be would give her a gift of sperada, and the number of sperada he gave her had to be equal to his age. And just as girls today dream of having the most beautiful wedding dress in the world, girls in 17th century Lombardy dreamt of having the most beautiful crown of sperade in the world for their wedding day
 It's Complicated
Sperade were only worn on very special occasions, and the women would spend hours helping each other with their hair. The sperade were a little complicated to put on as they were worn on the back of their heads.  They could be fastened, one by one into the hair style, or they could be held in place by a wooden frame and tied with a black ribbon called a ‘fettucine nero’, or spighetta de cutun negher in local dialect. What was important was that her crown of sperade form a perfect shape, like a peacock’s tail.  It wasn’t something a girl could do on her own.

From the 17th to the 19th century the more expensive sperada were made by silversmiths. Using the same techniques needed to make fine jewelry, the silversmith would work the olivelle into miniature pieces of art. These highly decorated sperada were worn by the women of Lombardy with the same satisfaction and pride as the diamonds and furs they wear today.
 A Woman Could Receive as Many as 50 During Her Lifetime
Sperada were considered to be “special” gifts, given on special occasions such as the birth of a child or a significant birthday. If the family was rich, women received sperade made of gold. For families who could not afford gold or high grade silver, sperade were made from less precious metals.  But regardless of what they were made of, a woman could expect to receive between 45 and 47 of them during her lifetime.  

There is not a lot of information about the origin of the crown of Lombardy. Some historians think the style was brought into Italy from Switzerland, but I couldn’t find any articles to back that up. Then I learned that sperade date as far back as the Bronze Age, and that they were also found in the graves of ancient Romans. I also don’t know when they first came into style, but I do know they peaked in popularity in the 17th century, but only in Lombardy. In the rest of Italy, women generally wore their hair covered with an embroidered handkerchief or a cotton square, held in place with a “hat” pin that looked a lot like a sperada, but was not used as a decoration.

 Worn with Pride

There are still many things I don’t understand about this custom, but I guess it is just going to remain a mystery, at least for the time being.

 

26 February 2015

AUNTIE PASTA: Baked Fish Pugliese Style


CHIAVARI, Italy – The small fishing town of Giovinazzo is about 10 miles from Bari, in the southern region of Puglia. It’s a pretty place, the fishing is good and in the summer it is very popular with tourists – Italian and foreign.   
 Giovinazzo, Italy
It’s an old town, but exactly how old is still a mystery. It is generally believed there were people living in Giovinazzo even before the Romans came along. If the antique graves from the fourth century BC that were found just a few miles away in Molfetta testify to the existence of a fishing village,  chances are there were fishermen living in Giovinazzo too.
Giovinazzo had a different name back then, but not much else has changed. People still make their living from the sea, but these days it is less about fishing and more about tourism. I know the Giovinazzo tourist board would like me more if I would talk about their history and their churches, their art and architecture, but to me towns like Giovinazzo and its slightly larger neighbors Santo Spirito and Molfetta are less about their touristic sights and more about the spirit of the place and the people who live there. They have a way of making you feel right at home.

 Giovinazzo is Charming
All I can say is I have never met a Pugliese I didn’t like. I even like John Turturro, whose father was born in Giovinazzo, and I’ve never even met him or his father, but John seems to be very charming.  The Pugliese seem to have cornered the market on charm. Maybe they have a special charm gene, I’m not sure. But I do know that in addition to being creative and innovative, if you lure them into a kitchen they’ll cook up some of the best food in Italy, especially fish.
With that in mind, I couldn’t think of a better recipe for you today than a Pugliese standard, baked fillets with potatoes, garlic and olive oil. I can’t resist mentioning it’s also a Ligurian dish, but never mind that, we are talking about Puglia today.

Fish Vendor, Puglia, Italy
In Puglia their fish of choice is grouper and they put the whole fish on top of the potatoes. I confess I’m not a fan of cooking a whole fish, I’m more of a fillet kinda gal. There is something about those fish eyes looking back at me when I open the oven door to baste them that puts a damper on my appetite. It’s all Walt Disney’s fault. He never should have made that movie Finding Nemo.

So it’s fish fillets for me – and yes even frozen fish fillets are okay if they are defrosted. Cod is my favorite, but any firm fillets like haddock, bluefish or even fresh anchovies will do.
Baked Fish and Potatoes Pugliese Style
This recipe is from Marcella Hazen’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. I chose it because it is easy, it’s delicious and it is practically identical to both my Pugliese recipe and my Ligurian recipe.

BAKED FISH FILLETS WITH POTATOES, GARLIC AND OLIVE OIL

6 Servings

1 ½ pound boiling potatoes
A bake and serve dish, approximately 16 x 10 inches
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
¼ cup chopped parsley
Freshly ground black pepper
1 pound firm fish fillets
 
1. Preheat oven to 450⁰ F
 
2. Peel the potatoes and slice them very thin. Wash them in cold water and pat them dry with a kitchen towel.
 
3. Put all of the potatoes into the baking dish, pour in the olive oil, the chopped garlic, half of the parsley, several good pinches of salt and black pepper. Toss the potatoes 2 or 3 times to coat them well and spread them evenly over the bottom of the baking dish.
 
4. When the oven reaches 450⁰ F, put the potatoes on the uppermost third of it, and roast them for 12-15 minutes, until they are about halfway cooked.
 
5. Take the potatoes out of the oven, but do not turn the oven off. Put the fish fillets (skin down if they have skin) over the potatoes. Mix the remaining olive oil, garlic and parsley in a small bowl and pour it over the fish, making sure it is distributed evenly. Sprinkle the fish with salt and pepper and put the dish back in the oven.
 
6. After about 10-12 minutes, take the dish out of the oven, again do not turn the oven off, and baste the fish with the oil on the bottom of the dish. Loosen the potatoes that have become browned and move them away from the side of the dish. In their place put potatoes that are not as brown. Put the dish back in the oven and bake for another 6 – 10 minutes, depending on how thick the fish fillets are.
 
7. When cooked, take the dish out of the oven and let it sit for a few minutes (5 or 6). Serve directly from the baking dish, and pour cooking juices over each serving.

22 February 2015

LIFE: Carnival in Venice 2015


CHIAVARI, Italy - Carnival ended this week and the streets of Chiavari that were littered with confetti and globs of silly string a few days ago, have been swept and washed and are once again sparkling clean. All the princess and Barbary pirate costumes, and eye patches, have been packed away. Every town has its own unique Carnival festivity but Venice has, without a doubt, the most famous. 

 
From January 31st to February 17th, Venice was filled with masked party goers, posing and preening, dancing and carrying on a long standing Venetian tradition.  Almost everyone knows about that blow out, dress up party that they do so well, but did you know it actually began as a pagan festival called Saturnalia. Saturn was the Roman God of Agriculture and the Harvest, and Saturnalia was more or less their Thanksgiving.

In the days of the Romans the festivities would start with a sacrifice (some say human but that’s debatable) at the Temple of Saturn followed by a public banquet. It was the only time of the year when slaves and masters could hide their faces behind masks and eat, drink and dance (and maybe some other things as well) as equals. 

 
Carnival in Italy first shows up in the history books in 1092 AD. Wearing masks is newer, it only goes back to the 13th century. It must have been a weird kind of Carnival by our standards, because in 1268 the Council of Venice outlawed men throwing scented eggs at ladies. I have no idea how you scent an egg and I can't imagine why they threw them in the first place, but I guess guys have always been a little weird, even back then. 

The masks have their own story. Take the white bauta in the photo above. There was a time when Venetian law dictated that lawmakers had to wear a bauta mask during political meetings to protect their identity.

The bird mask began as a protective device worn by doctors during the time of the Black Plague. I don’t think they were quite as fancy as these, but the idea was the same. They would stuff the beak with rosemary and other herbs, thinking that by breathing in the aroma of the herbs they would be protected from that terrible disease.  

 
Because of all the hanky-panky that went on during Carnival, and still does, the Italian government has tried for centuries to restrict celebrations and ban the wearing of masks. They want to see who the hanky pankyers are so they can lock them up, but I think they’ve just about given up on that idea. They finally realized it just wasn’t going to work.  

Unlike Carnival in Brazil which is celebrated with a huge parade with floats and dancing girls, in Venice the people are the show. Men, women and sometimes children parade up and down and all around Piazza San Marco, and pose for photos on Venice’s famous bridges. All in elaborate costume and masks of course.

 
In fact what's the point of going to Carnival as a mere on-looker, that’s no fun at all.  With all the mask shops there are in Venice, it’s easy to get the real thing rather than a far-eastern import, just head for traditional mascarei such as Ca’ Macanà (Calle delle Botteghe 3172, Dorsoduro 0039 041 277 6142; camacana.com), Tragicomica (Calle dei Nomboli 2800, San Polo, 0039 041 721 102; tragicomica.it) or Papier Maché (Calle lunga Santa Maria Formosa 5174B, Castello, 0039 041 522 9995; papiermache.it). These artisans produce some dramatic creations and you’ll soon be part of the spirit of Carnival.

Just as dramatic as the masks are the voluminous cloak that Venetians wrap around themselves against the winter winds. The are called tabarri (tabarro singular) and can be purchased from these shops: Monica (Calle Scaleter 2235, San Polo, 0039 041 524 6242; monicadaniele.com). Atelier Pietro Longhi (Ramo secondo Saoner 2671, San Polo, 0039 041 714 478; pietrolonghi.com) rents and sells historical costumes, from the most simple to the very elaborate.   Banco Lotto N°10 (Salizada Sant’Antonin 3478B, Castello; 0039 041 522 1439; ilcerchiovenezia.it) sells beautiful reproductions of historical costumes made by the inmates of Venice’s women’s prison.

 
After the gondola and boat parades along the Grand Canal, and after the confetti and multi-colored streamers that fly through the air, Carnival in Venice ends with a great fireworks show, and grand galas in elegant Venetian palazzi. You have to hand it to the Venetians; they really know how to throw a party.

19 February 2015

AUNTIE PASTA: Carnival Cookies


Chiaviari, Italy - Chiacchiere are delicate, crispy pastries that here in Italy are only found during the pre-Lent period of madness and mayhem called Carnival.  It can get a little confusing as they are called by different names, depending on where in Italy you are. In Lombardy they are called chiacchiere and lattughe, in Tuscany asking for cenci or donzelle will get you the same cookie.
Cookies Anyone?

However in Emilia you’ll be cookie-less unless you’ll ask for frappe or sfrappole, while up in Trentino they go by cro’stoli. Island hopping in Venice? Look for galani and gale. But if you are traveling straight across the top of the boot to Piedmont with a possible swing by into Liguria, asking for bugie in both of those provinces will get you what you want. There actually are more names for them, but enough is enough.
My Aunt Louise had a little bakery business in Schenectady, New York called the Old Country Bakery, and guanti were the specialty of the house. But the cookies my Aunt Louise made were a little different than the ones I see in Chiavari. Hers were bigger and looked like bow ties. Here they simply cut the dough into strips and fry it. It’s certainly easier and faster but there are fewer nooks and crannies for the powdered sugar to hide, and that’s what makes them so lip smacking good.


 Barocco
Carnival as we know it today started out as a Pagan Roman festival called the Saturnalia. It was the time of the year when slaves and masters, with their faces hidden behind masks, could eat, drink, dance and make merry together. And then along came Christianity with a whole new set of rules, none of which included eating till you explode, drinking until you fall over or God forbid! dancing in the streets.

But Saturnalia was so much fun no one wanted to give it up, so the eat, drink and make merry part was incorporated into the Christian religious, but with a slight twist.


 Frappe'
The Christians started the transformation by giving the festival a new name: Carnivale. While it sounds festive to us now, the word comes from the Latin “caro” meat and “vale”, farewell, which, when you put them together really means say bye bye to meat and hello to those 40 days of abstinence known as Lent. And so that's where we still are, flipping through recipe books looking for meatless meals. Ugh!

Sometimes I wonder what kind of Italy I would be living in if the Roman emperor Flavius Valerius Constantinus, aka Constantine the Great, hadn't supported Christianity. Would I be out dancing in the streets of Chiavari throwing confetti in the air and acting like the buffoon that I know I can be? Probably.

 
 Looks Like Fun to Me
Best not to dwell on that thought for too long. So before I get carried away, here’s a recipe for those, ahh, whatever you want to call them cookies, I’m gonna call them Carnival Cookies.

CARNIVAL COOKIES
Makes about 4 dozen cookies
 Ingredients


1- ½ cups all purpose flour (plus ½ cup for kneading and rolling)
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon Kosher salt (or 1/8 teaspoon table salt)
2 large eggs
4 tablespoons water*
5 tablespoons butter melted and cooled (has to be cool so it doesn’t cook the eggs)
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon lemon extract or 2 teaspoons lemon zest
1 egg white for forming the bows


 *You can also use rum, grappa, anisette or whiskey in place of all or part of the water

Directions:

1 – Make the dough: Whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl and set aside. In a separate bowl whisk the eggs and water until thoroughly mixed. Add the cooled melted butter and whisk again. Finally whisk in the vanilla extract and lemon extract. (The lemon extract may curdle the mix a bit but just blend it smooth). Stir in flour mixture a little at a time until a dough forms.
  2 – Knead the dough:  The dough will be wet and sticky at this point so using your hands, knead in the remaining ½ cup of flour, a little at a time until the dough is soft, smooth and relatively dry. Be careful not to over knead or the cookies won’t be tender.
Let the dough rest at room temperature for about 30 minutes.
 3 – Roll out ½ of the dough: On a well floured surface, with a floured rolling pin, roll out the dough to a thin layer – the thinner your dough the crispier the cookies will be. You can use a pasta rolling machine for this step if you want.
 4 – Slice dough into ribbons. After the dough is rolled flat slice the dough into long strips 1-1/2 inches wide. Slice these strips to get ribbons of about 4 inches long. You can use a pizza cutter to get a nice edge on the cookies, but a sharp knife works just as well. At this point you can roll out the rest of the dough or you can wrap it in plastic wrap for another day.
 5 -  Form ribbons into bows: Place a bit of beaten egg white in the center of each strip – do this with your finger – this will hold the dough together. Pinch the centers together to form a bow. To secure it, fold that pinch over one more time otherwise it may come apart during frying.
 6 -  Fry the bows in hot oil, 1 ½ to 2 inches of oil, in a deep frying pan.  Using a slotted spoon, scoop them out when they are golden brown and drain on paper towels. Dust the cookies with confectioners’ sugar or warmed honey while they are still warm.
Tip: Test that your oil is hot enough before you begin frying by dropping in a small piece of cookie dough. If the dough doesn’t puff up and rise to the top of the oil, the oil isn’t hot enough. Continue heating or turn the heat up a little.

Thanks to:
http://www.mysteryloverskitchen.com for the recipe

15 February 2015

LIFE: For Whom the Bells Toll


CHIAVARI, Italy - The Pontificia Marinelli Foundry is in the town of Agnone, a small village in the Molise region in central Italy. They are the bell makers to the Pope and the Catholic Church. The Marinelli Foundry has been making bells for more than 800 years, making them one of the oldest companies in the world.
 Armando and Pasqualino Marinelli
It was Nicodemus Marinelli who bought the foundry in 1339 and the foundry he bought may have been there since 1040 or even earlier. What is certain though is that when Nicodemus Marinelli took over, one of the first bells he made was a two ton beauty for a church in Frosinone, in the region of Lazio. This shows that the bell making skills of the foundry were already known throughout central Italy.

Not much has changed in the foundry since those days. Everything is still made by hand and tradition is still king. The skills and techniques that they use have been handed down from father to son generation after generation. In fact, if Nicodemus were to walk into the foundry today, he would feel right at home. 
 Much of the Work is Still Done by Hand
They still use oak from the nearby woods to fire up the coal ovens used to melt bronze,  bricks, clay and wax are still used to make casts and molds, and the bells are still prayed over by the workers.

In all these hundreds of years only only two small concessions have been made: an air compressor has replaced the hand bellows that help heat bronze to 2,200 degrees, and the big bells are now lifted out of the casting pit using a motorized crane. As some of the bells weigh as much as five tons, the motor does come in handy. 
 The Bell's Soul
Bell making is a complicated procedure and it starts with a solid, bell-shaped brick core, the soul of the bell, which is covered by a thin layer of clay creating a smooth surface.

 The "False" Bell
A "false bell" is formed with a second layer of clay molded in the exact shape of the projected finished product. It is at this stage of production that images or commemorative lettering and dates are applied.

 The "Mantle"
The second layer of clay is then covered by another much thicker layer of clay called a mantle. After it has dried - and has taken on the impressions of the decorations on its inside - the mantle is lifted off.

The "false bell" layer is chipped away and the mantle is lowered over the original inner core. The mold is then firmly placed into the casting trench, which is just below the oven that keeps the bronze in a molten state, and the liquid bronze is poured into the space once occupied by the "false bell."
Foundry Workers 
By tradition, the bells are considered sacred, so each one has to be blessed. As the door to the oven is opened to release the molten bronze, the workers recite a litany of prayers to the Madonna starting with "Holy Mary, mother of God". After a successful pouring, the bell is then allowed to cool – which often takes several days. Once the bronze is cold, the bell is taken from the casting trench, freed from the mold, cleaned and polished.

Not all the bells made at the Marielli Foundry are giants weighing multiple tons. They also make smaller ones that ring out daily in churches across Italy, calling the faithful to mass or a funeral or marking the hours of the day.   
 The 2000 Jubilee Bell
To reward the Marinellis for their service to the Church, in 1924 Pope Pius XI decreed that the Marinelli Foundry would be known as the Pontificia Marinelli Foundry, bell makers to the Pope. And so they are.

Since the Middle Ages, the company has produced bells as diverse as the first bell for the Tower of Pisa, one for the abbey of Montecassino after it was damaged during World War II, the bell of the Catholic Jubilee of 2000 and many, many more. The Catholic Church has always had a special interest in the production of bells, which should not come as a surprise to anyone, for are they not the voice of the angels? 

12 February 2015

AUNTIE PASTA; The Great Amatriciana War


CHIAVARI, ITALY – The Italians are calling it the Amatriciana War and in the center of the scandal is celebrity chef Carlo Cracco. Cracco who has cooked alongside famed French chef Alain Ducasse, has earned two Michelin stars for his restaurant in Milan, but the chef’s professional pedigree did not stop the local council in Amatrice, a town two hours from Rome, from publicly denouncing his mistake
 Amatrice, Italy
Cracco’s sin? The chef confessed on national television that he used unpeeled, sautéed garlic as the “secret ingredient” in his amatriciana, one of Rome’s classic pasta dishes.
The town council of Amatrice, where the dish originates, accused Cracco of a lapse in judgment. “We are confident that this was a slip of the tongue by the celebrity chef, given his professional history,” the council said in a statement.
According to officials in Amatrice, there are six ingredients that make up a real amatriciana: guanciale (pork jowl), pecorino cheese, white wine, tomatoes from San Marzano, pepper and hot peppers.
 Traditional Amatriciana
The town’s deputy mayor, Piergiuseppe Monteforte, denied that officials were being too strict. “By using other ingredients you change not only the flavor of the dish, but also the history of it,” he said. “If you use ingredients like garlic or onion in amatriciana, it means you are ignoring a tradition that is almost 1,000 years old, a tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation.”
 Chef Carlo Cracco
Amatriciana originated in the the hills overlooking Amatrice, when shepherds used to bring cheese and pieces of pork jowl with them during long stays away from home and cook them in an iron pan. They made fresh pasta using flour and water that was then wrapped around a piece of wire, forming a tubular shape (bucatini) that is still used today.
This original dish is now known as white amatriciana. It was only at the end of the 1700s that tomato and hot peppers, two ingredients native to America and brought to Italy were added to the dish to create the modern version.
Grazia Lo Bianco, the owner of Matricianella, a small restaurant in central Rome that specializes in the dish, agreed with the Council’s complaint. “The flavor of the pork should be dominant,” she explained.
 Basic Ingredients for a Traditional Amatriciana
”Some people added onion to their sauce, but that is offensive, she said. “If there are rules, they need to be respected, it’s like any job.”
For Lo Bianco, the rules do not apply only to the sauce, but also to the correct pasta, meaning bucatini. However she admitted that some of her customers prefer rigatoni over bucatini because it is less messy.
“We have to compromise when businessmen come to eat and say they want rigatoni with the amatricana sauce because they have a meeting and don’t want to show up with spots of red sauce all over their white shirts. We can’t say no.”  
Variation Rigatoni
An Amatrice official says that while bucatini used to be considered the ideal pasta because it was used by the shepherds, these days, others can be used. Even the traditional amatriciana festival in Amatrice uses spaghetti.
“We say that to make a real amatriciana you have to make the sauce according to tradition. Then add bucatini or spaghetti, whichever you prefer.”
 The Real Deal
Recipe for Amatriciana, from the office of the Mayor of Amatrice
Ingredients (for four people) 500g spaghetti (1lb), 125g (1/4 lb) guanciale (pork jowl) from Amatrice, a spoon of extra virgin olive oil, a drop of dry white wine, six or seven San Marzano tomatoes or 400g (either fresh or 1 large can) of peeled tomatoes, some hot peppers, grated pecorino from Amatrice or Roman pecorino, salt.
Directions Place the oil, chopped hot peppers and guanciale, which you have cut into small pieces, into an iron pan. It is a long standing tradition to use the soft part of the pork jowl, or else it is not an amatriciana. Only that way will it have a delicacy and sweetness of a true amatriciana. Sauté these ingredients in a pan. Add the wine.
If you are using fresh tomatoes blanch them so that you can easily remove the skin, and then quarter them, remove the seeds and add to the pan. Or use canned tomatoes. Season with salt and allow the sauce to cook over the heat for a few minutes.
In the meantime, boil water add salt and cook the pasta until it is al dente, or still slightly firm. Drain and place in a bowl. Add the grated pecorino. Wait for a few seconds and then add the sauce to the bowl. If you wish, you can add more pecorino after it is served.

08 February 2015

LIFE: St. Valentine's Day 2015


CHIAVARI, Italy – With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, love is in the air. Some will surprise the love of their life with an engagement ring hidden in a cupcake, or hidden in a shoe box wrapped like a present. But no matter the style of delivery, the objective is the same – the urge to merge is universal.  

 The Family
Some countries seem more romantic than others. Italy is a good example. It is easy to think of Italy as a country of traditional values, of marriage, home and children where the family is the glue that holds everything together. Of a country where there is a church on just about every corner and centuries old traditions are respected. And it is. But over the years I have been surprised by the number of young women I have met who embody all of those values, except one: Marriage.

Most of the women are in their 30’s and early 40’s, they all work, and they all live with a significant other. For the most part they have been in their relationships for 5, 10 or more years. Some have children, often more than one. Others, like Sara, were married, got divorced and are now in a new relationship. When she and her new boyfriend moved in together, I asked her if her mother liked him.

“Who? Alessandro?” she said. “My mother loves Alessandro. My father too.” 

As her parents are originally from Puglia, her answer surprised me. I had the idea that southern families were more traditional, but I guess I was wrong. Or it could be that Sara’s parent’s are the exception to the rule. Who knows.

 Always and Forever
Divorce is more common here in Italy than you might think. They do take a while as there is a mandatory separation period before the divorce is finally granted. But when they are, they are no-fault, everything is divided down the middle and the kids inherit everything equally. And now with Turin allowing do-it-yourself divorces at the bargain price of $36/32Euros, can the rest of Italy be far behind?

A few summers ago I did a series of Living in Italy lectures for an American tour company that specializes in bringing groups of university alumni to Italy for a week of lectures and travel. When I would get to the part about divorce being commonplace in Italy, a collective gasp would pass through the crowd. But when I would tell them that abortion is also legal here, available on demand, no questions asked and can be paid for through the National Health System, I was practically stoned off the stage. 

Then I would get the BIG QUESTION: “What does the Pope say about that?”

Because we do have the Pope, and the Vatican and there are crucifixes hanging in every room of every public building in Italy, you would think that the Church would have a greater influence on the laws of the land. But it doesn’t. The Church is the Church and the State is the State and Italians are only obliged to follow the laws of the State, even when it comes to marriage.

  Family is the Glue That Holds Everything Together
When Italian women decide to get married they have two choices: the first, is the civil ceremony preformed by a State official. In a small town it might be the Mayor or, in a bigger city, a representative of the government. The civil ceremony takes place in a public building, like the Comune (City Hall). You can also have a church ceremony anytime after the civil ceremony, even months afterwards, but it is optional. 

And even with two ceremonies at their disposal it isn't easy to understand if a woman is married or not as women keep their own name from cradle to grave.

 Italian Mamas
You can call your neighbor Signora XX as a courtesy, but that’s all it is. That is also the reason why you see two names on a mailbox: one is the wife, the other is the husband. 

Bank accounts, Social Security number, National Health Card, property, all of a woman's legal documents and any legal transactions she enters into have to be, by law, in her own name. She can even choose not to give her children their father’s name, just hers. Or she can give them both names like the Spanish do.

 United We Stand
Even in death women retain their identity. There is a custom in small towns to post death notices in public places. Large 30 x 50 notices, banded in black announce the passing of the town’s citizens. If Maria Caterina Severio dies, that is the name you will see first. Underneath the name it will say "in Castelleto." What that means is the person who died was Maria Caterina Severio and when she was alive she was married to Mr. Castelleto.

Less you think Italians have grown less romantic, let me assure you that it is not the case. You still see couples, young and old, walking hand in hand down the street. People still flirt. Couples sit in cafes and talk – to each other. Teenagers camp out on park benches to cuddle and kiss. If they do have to go their separate ways, text messages and phone calls fly back and forth like confetti during Carnival. It’s nice. I like it. It renews my faith in the power of love, and as we approach this St. Valentine’s Day in Romantic Italy, who could ask for anything more.
 
Photos: Dolce and Gabbana 2011/2012