Friday, February 27, 2015

Family pride in Italy helps keep business focus on quality and longevity

Italy has a rich history, amazing art and architecture, good food and lovely scenery. These are all reasons the country is the fourth most popular tourist destination in the world. However, while these may be reasons tourists come to Italy, most leave saying what they will remember most is the people—even if the only Italians they met were owners of small restaurants and stores.

One reason for this may be that most small businesses are family owned, and it is highly likely that a client entering a small business will be served by a family member. The reputation of the family is on the line each time a business transaction takes place, and Italians take this responsibility very seriously. Even if the family does hire non-family members as employees, they are likely long-time family friends or have been hired on the recommendation of family or close friends. Pride in the business and securing its success is therefore of paramount importance to all workers, and they usually treat their customers with the utmost courtesy.
Giuseppe Benanti joked that he bought this
wine glass because his doctor told him that
for health reasons, he should only drink
one glass of wine a day.

“The family firm has been the backbone of the Italian economy,” reads an article in
The Economist. “Because managers and owners tend to be one and the same, the best Italian firms are hard-working and run for the long term.”

Businesses with fewer than twenty workers comprise roughly 60 percent of the work force in Italy, compared to 30 percent in Germany and 10 percent in the United States, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Worldwide, only 30 percent of family businesses transition to the second generation, but in Italy, the percentage is at least 50 percent.

I recently completed an eleven-day tour of Sicily, and in each city, our tour guides took us to small family restaurants, wineries and other attractions. We toured a candy factory that has been operated by the same family since 1880. Each time we left impressed not only with the level of customer service but with the pride that the families took in the processes they used in preparing their products. They stressed purity of raw materials, strict production protocols and the use of time-tested formulas. They talked about what they did as if they were talking about their children. While they were not opposed to experimentation and variations, they maintained their core products, which were essential to their success. Quality, they said, was at the heart of everything they made.

“The pride comes from close knit family bonds,” says Alfio di Mauro, tour guide with Rick Steves’ Europe. “You are proud to belong to the family. You are proud to do everything you can to maintain your family’s good reputation and traditions.”

Lauren Newcomer is a nurse from Bremerton, Wash., who travels to Italy at least twice a year. One of the traits she most appreciates in Italians is “the passion they show in their everyday lives.” She feels this carries over into the family operated businesses.

The places we love to go to are the family shops and restaurants, because everyone seems to be working together to provide you with a great experience. They all get behind their work, and they are very passionate about the services they provide or the products they produce,” she said. “I appreciate the effort and energy they put into their businesses because they care so much about the quality of what they are doing.”

One of the most extreme examples I saw of this pride and passion came when our tour group visited the the winery of Azienda Benanti, on the slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily. I listened to Salvino Benanti explain with great pride the care that his family took with the selection and testing of just the right varieties of grapes suited to the various soils and climates of Etna. Just a hundred meter difference in elevation can make a difference in what type of grape is used or in how many years the wine should be aged. Later, his brother Antonio spoke to us, devoting five minutes just on the process they use to select a provider for their corks. He discussed the varying levels of cork quality and the pros and cons of synthetic materials, concluding that his family has finally found a provider that he thinks can supply the business with the consistency of cork quality that its wine merit.

“Italy is all about family, and making quality products is crucial to keeping the family’s reputation high,” Salvino said. “It’s a matter of pride, and in some cases, excellence is pursued regardless of the lack of any immediate financial return.”

Italians are recognized for maintaining strong family ties, and running a business together can maintain and strengthen those bonds. In addition, the intimacy of a smaller company allows individuals to be more automous and creative, to be more involved in the decision-making.

The freedom to be able to follow your instincts—since you are your own boss—is a great feeling,” Savino said, “although the lack of confrontation may be very negative, so we always stress-test our ideas with the outside world.”

Antonio and Salvino were managing a pharmaceutical company in Milan when they decided to quit and join their father Giuseppe’s small but growing wine-making firm. They are combining their business knowledge with their father’s knowledge and experience—aided by the unique soil “minerality” and climactic qualities of the Etna region. Their wine has recently been recognized as among the best worldwide, winning prestigious awards in national and international competitions.

Their wine is made on one of the farms that had been owned by Giuseppe’s grandfather, who began making wine in the 1800s. Giuseppe said that in 1988, he revived the family’s old passion, but not before investigating “
particular clones of indigenous vines and new enological techniques to reproduce ancient fragrances using the most modern practices of vinification, in a perfect union of history and reality.”

Although the Benanti family business is still relatively new, its evolution is following a familiar path of many of the long-established Italian businesses, most of which began as small one-person operations tied to a special skill or passion.

Our winery started off as a mere hobby—a very costly one—for my father,” Salvino said. “His intent was to make excellent wine, and it has taken him more than a decade to perfect his techniques and put Etna on the global wine map. Now that the world knows about us, it is very important for us to maintain—and possibly improve—our standards.”

“I created a new farm with new technologies, new plantings, new processing methodologies,” Giuseppe said. “All new yet at the same time old, because the philosophy guiding my decisions was and still is my grandfather’s. He used to tell me, ‘Keep an eye on the grapes!’ I have also managed to transmit this passion to my sons, who follow this family tradition with the same inspiring principles and the same determination.”

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

I can hardly believe it myself: I’m going to be rocking to American gospel music with an Italian choir

Joyful Angels in concert in Lucca Sunday, February 22.

Just like that, as of last night, we are members of an Italian choir that sings American gospel songs—an interesting, pleasant and challenging experience for both of us, because we still have a hard time understanding the directions of the choir leader. It is especially strange for me, though, because in my 62 years of life, I have never been in any kind of choir. However, we came here to learn Italian and become involved in the community, so this certainly fits the bill.

This adventure began Sunday evening, when we attended a free concert of the Joyful Angels in a small Baroque-style church in Lucca. The choir sung a few older tunes such as “Amazing Grace” and “Lord, I Want to be a Christian,” and also some more recent songs, including “Shout to the Lord” and “Open the Eyes of My Heart.” All words were in English, even though the crowd was probably close to 100 percent Italian. We went up afterward to express our enjoyment, and somehow we ended up being welcomed to participate with the choir at its next practice.

Lucy jumped on the idea enthusiastically, as she enjoys singing and already participates with the musicians leading worship in our Gig Harbor church. I initially declined, saying, “Non canto bene.” I don’t sing well. However, as I thought it over, I realized I already knew most of the songs, and I knew how to pronounce the words better than the rest of the choir. Some subtle arm-twisting from Lucy also encouraged me to reconsider. When we arrived at the practice and found that no audition would be required, that pushed me over the edge, and I crowded onstage with the rest of the group.

In true Italian style, the practice was scheduled to begin at 9 p.m., usually well past the ending time of an average community choir practice in America. And when we found our way to the middle school in Ponte a Moriano at around 8:55, we still had to wait outside until about 9:10 with a handful of other “early” arrivals for one of the members with a key to come and unlock the door. After a little more milling around and chatting inside, the practice finally began at 9:25. I found myself singing next to another first-timer, Rossano, and Mauro, a veteran who helped us novices by showing us which lines the tenors were responsible to sing. Lucy sang with the contraltos and says everyone around her was very helpful and encouraging.

We practiced some of the pieces that we had heard at the concert, and then the group worked on Chris Tomlin’s “Forever,” a song new to the choir but familiar to Lucy and me. We felt useful when we were able to help some of the people around us with the pronunciation of words. We made it through halfway, with a nice balance of discipline and joking around, before Monica, the director, called it quits at around 11, and we feasted on some cheesecake that one of the members had brought.
Lucy shares a few words after rehearsal with our choir director.
We have never seen cheesecake in Italy before, other than ones that Lucy sometimes makes with ingredients she brings from the States. I asked what the Italian name for this delicious dolce was. It’s called cheesecake. I guess that makes sense, because we don’t give English names to pizza, ravioli, cannoli and other Italian dishes.

We found it interesting that one of the songs the group features is “My Guy,” a song popularized in 1964 by Mary Wells. However, the group uses the version from the movie Sister Act, starring Whoopie Goldberg, in which the word guy is changed to God. I learned while eating cheesecake that another song from the movie will soon be added to our repertoire: “I Will Follow Him.” Little Peggy March made this song a hit in 1963. I’m not sure if the Italian musicians realize that these are actually classic rock and roll songs adapted into gospel songs solely for the movie, but I don’t care. My favorite music of all time is 1960s rock, and next on my list is Christian music from the mid-70s to around 2010, so Joyful Angels is a perfect fit for me.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Five people get the boot by bus police on our journey home

Many travelers to Italy have wondered why anyone bothers to buy bus tickets, which, by the way, are usually purchased in advance at a tobacco shop, bar, news stand or sometimes even at a bus ticket booth. Tickets must be timbrato, or validated, as you board the bus, but foreigners often notice that some people board the bus without tickets and take their seats, and the bus driver takes no notice whatsoever. This could be because the passengers are students, who don’t need to pay for transportation to and from school. They could also be locals who have purchased monthly or yearly passes. Or they could be just playing the odds that the bus won’t be boarded by . . . (play theme from Beethoven’s Fifth) . . . the bus police.

Tourist sites warn that the fine for riding without a ticket is 50 euros. Despite several years of riding buses in Italy, I have only seen the police come aboard a half dozen times—and one of those times was yesterday, when we took a bus for a half hour ride from Pisa to Viareggio. We had made it to within 15 minutes of our destination when a man and woman, well dressed but not in typical police uniforms, boarded the bus and stood next to Lucy, who was seated just ahead of me.

“She just stared at me,” Lucy said. “I didn’t know what she wanted.” Apparently, Italians know what the bus police look like, but we did not. After a few seconds of awkward pause, the woman said, “Biglietti, per favore.”

Lucy pointed at me, and I produced both of our tickets, properly validated with the time and date. The officers initialed our tickets and moved on to other passengers and took a seat in the back of the bus. I returned to my book, and unfortunately I was too focused on my reading to eavesdrop on the action going on behind us. The police had encountered a 16-year-old girl with blue hair who had no ticket, and one officer came to the front of the bus and told the driver to pull over and turn off the engine. And then we waited for 20 minutes, without any attempt made to explain the delay, probably because it was apparent to everyone that the officers had called for backup.

Meanwhile, the blue-haired ragazzina spent most of the time on her cell phone, apparently telling someone at the other end what was happening. Finally, an officer of the Carabinieri arrived and came aboard to talk to the girl. By this time, she had reached her mother and handed the telefonino to the carabiniere. Unlike the girl, who had been speaking so softly that we could only catch bits and pieces of her conversation, the carabiniere spoke loudly, so that everyone on the bus could hear. And so did the mother, who apparently satisfied the officer by giving out details about her daughter’s identity, including her date of birth. It seems that the girl’s only fault may have been leaving her carta d’identità and her school diario at home so that she had no way to prove her age or that she was a student. Italians are required to produce proof of identity on demand from the police, but the carabiniere seemed to accept the mother’s story. We still had to wait another five minutes while the bus policemen and carabiniere stepped outside and had a conversation that unfortunately I couldn’t eavesdrop on. When the bus finally left again, the girl got off a few stops later, but not before announcing her apology to the other passengers for having caused the delay.

Meanwhile, the bus police gave the boot to four other passengers who didn’t have proper tickets. A mother and her son had tickets for an urban bus, and they had clicked them in the machine properly, but we were on an interurban bus, so they had to exit. Two other women were also made to exit at the next stop. 
None of them received a fine, though. We also observed one elderly man who entered without validating his ticket and took a seat in the front. When asked to show his ticket by the woman, he pulled out an envelope full of tickets and was somehow able to convince the officer that he had had one of them stamped even if there was no date and time on it.

This incident sent me on a search of online forums to see what else I could find out about experiences with bus police, and though I didn’t really find anything new, I did read the funny and sad story of a couple of novice travelers from London who unfortunately boarded a bus in Venice that had just been stopped by the bus police. Steve M. wrote on Tripadvisor: “Having queued for a short time at the ticket office to get the number 5 bus to the airport, the lady at the desk suddenly put up a ‘temporarily closed’ sign in front of us, but pointed at the bus and told us to pay the driver. There was no driver on the bus, but we did notice a ticket inspector further down the bus. After waiting a minute or two, we approached him and asked if we could pay him for the ticket. He was ‘busy’ talking to someone, but he replied in Italian (not sure what he said, but the word ‘minuti’ was in there so we thought we had to wait a while), he also stood up and beckoned us to sit where he had been. A minute or so later, the guy he was talking to got off the bus and the inspector walked to the back and started working his way slowly through checking tickets. Then the guy he had been speaking to returned at the front of the bus and got into the driver’s seat (he was also accompanied by two more ticket inspectors). The bus moved off, and these two inspectors, ignoring the other people at the front approached us straight away and asked for our tickets. When we meekly offered our 15 euros, they said, ‘You should have a ticket, and there is now a fine of 100 euros.’

The policemen didn’t believe the couple
’s story that they had not been on board previously or that they had tried to purchase tickets at the ticket booth. They didn’t pay the fine, though, and so they were issued tickets for double the amount to be paid at a later time. I see no follow-up posts to find out if they ever paid. However, these are all stories to keep in mind when one boards a bus in Italy. I’m certainly glad we had our proper tickets!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Ragusa, Modica, Noto, Siracusa and Catania--and then back "home"

On the road from Ragusa to Siracusa, we stopped at the Antica Dolceria Bonajuto in Modica, the oldest chocolate factory in Sicilia, dating back to 1880. Chocolate came to Sicilia from the Spanish, who ruled this island from 1734 to 1860. Sugar and many spices were brought by the Arabs, who ruled from 827 to 1061, and this combination of tastes has developed numerous dolci, or desserts, that have contributed to Sicilia’s fame. We learned about the processes and ingredients and then viewed a demonstration, but of course the best came at the end, when we were given free samples of 17 different varieties.

Santa Lucia
After Modica, we stopped at Noto and explored its main streets and grabbed some pizza and gelato for lunch. We stayed two nights on the island of Ortigia in Siracusa, taking a walking tour, visiting the church of Santa Lucia (one of the town’s patron saints), an archeological museum and taking the bus to see the ruins of huge Greek temple, a Greek theater and a cave called the Orecchio di Dionisio, or the Ear of Dionysius.
Orecchio di Dionisio
The latter is a limestone cave in the side of hill when workers extracted limestone blocks for construction of buildings in the city. 75 feet high and extends 213 feet back in the cliff. It is tapered at the top like a teardrop. Because of its curved interior shape, the Ear has extremely good acoustics, making even normal voices resonate throughout the cave. According to legend, the ruler Dionysius used the cave as a prison for political dissidents, and he could eavesdrop on the plans and secrets of his captives because of the acoustics. We listened to two impromptu musical performances in the cave, one by the same quartet that entertained us at Segesta and another by our local guide, Liliana, who sang a verse of Santa Lucia.

We also had a memorable lunch at a tiny restaurant at the Siracusa market before getting soaked in a downpour on the way back to the hotel.
Lucy and I show our Seattle Seahawk pride at the Greek theater of Siracusa.

Alstolfo meets St. John in the afterlife and asks how he can
help his cousin Orlando recover from his madness.

That evening, we were treated to a performance of Orlando Furioso at the Teatro dei Pupi in Siracusa. Pupi are puppets, and the performance we saw is a continuation of the Sicilian tradition of cantastorî (singers of tales), rooted in the Provençal troubadour tradition from the time of the reign of the Holy Roman Empire in Sicily during the 13th century. The puppeteers explained that theater has been restored in traditional style, with comfortable padded benches and red drapery in order to “evoke ancient times, when the theaters were crowded with people ready to acclaim the champions.”
After the fleeing princess Angelica helps this simple soldier back to health, they fall in love and marry, driving the paladin Orlando, already half-crazy for his love of Angelica, over the edge and into complete madness.
On our final full day, we drove to Catania, making a stop at a World War II museum, where our guide Alfio treated us to a thorough and masterful explanation of the Allied landing and conquest of Sicilia. The next day, Lucy and I flew from Catania to Pisa, and from there we would return to our normal life in San Salvatore.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Well preserved Villa Romana and food-making enrich our days

One of the many mosaics on the floor of the an ancient Roman vacation resort in Sicily.

This scene and the one above show animals from Africa being loaded
onto a combination galley and sailing ship to be taken to Rome.
Girls working out in bikinis in the 4th century.
We had a peek into the lifestyles of the rich and famous when we toured an excep-tionally well-preserved Villa Romana del Casale near Piazza Armerina. These excavated remains of an AD 4th-century villa has 40 rooms which are carpeted with nearly 48,000 square feet of the most extensive, gorgeous and colorful ancient Roman mosaics in western Europe. Archeologists think it may have been a hunting lodge of the emperor Maximianus, co-emporer with Diocletian.

According to “The entrance was through a triumphal arch that led into an atrium surrounded by a portico of columns, after which the thermae, or bathhouse, is reached. It’s colorfully decorated with mosaic nymphs, a Neptune and slaves massaging bathers. The peristyle leads to the main villa, where in the Salone del Circo you look down on recently restored mosaics illustrating scenes from the Circus Maximus in Rome. A theme running through many of the mosaics, especially the long hall flanking the whole of one side of the peristyle courtyard, is the capturing and shipping of wild animals, which may have been a major source of the master's wealth. Yet the most famous mosaic is the floor depicting 10 girls wearing the ancient equivalent of bikinis, going through what looks like a fairly rigorous set of training exercises.”

After touring the villa, we had lunch at an agriturismo, and the appetizers may have comprised the best primo piatto I have ever tasted. It consisted of fresh ricotta cheese drizzled with honey and sprinkled with almond chips, a delicate pecorino, fresh artichoke, arugula and eggplant sautéed in locally produced olive oil, large thin slices of prosciutto and sausage, a rectangular egg frittata and pickled olives. We also had toasted bread brushed with garlic, sprinkled with Parmigiano cheese and drizzled with olive oil. I have had all these delicacies before, but never were they so expertly prepared or contained such delicious fresh ingredients. Our guide Alfio described it as a “zero kilometer” meal, meaning the main ingredients were either from the agriturismo itself or from nearby farms.

We continued on to Ragusa Ibla, where we took a short orientation tour of the city and then went out for another sumptuous (but smaller) meal.
Ragusa Ibla, viewed from the piazza in front of the church of Santa Lucia.
Lucy and I hiked some 300 steps up the hill the next morning, where we paused to take in some breathtaking views of the city below while standing in front of the church of Santa Lucia.
Santa Lucia x 2.
Then we walked a few hundred meters to the church of Santa Maria della Scala and attended mass. We rested in the afternoon and watched a movie in our room in Italian.

A highlight of the tour, at least for me, came in the evening, when we were treated to a demonstration of how the local cheese, Ragusano, is made. We were given samples of the smooth, hot cheese as it came from the mixing container, and we ate it mixed with fresh tomato slices. Usually it is formed into bag-like shapes and hung to cure for at least a few months, allowing it to develop a more robust flavor. Even without this added process, its warmth and freshness, combined with the acidity of the tomatoes, made it irresistible.
Virginia mixes the milk and enzymes while her son
Ignazio pours in hot water.
The cheese byproducts—milk and whey—were then cooked in a large cauldron for perhaps another 45 minutes, with nearly constant stirring, before the cheese makers skimmed the solids off the top. This was ricotta, literally “re-cooked,” and we were given more samples to try, this time with bread. Incredibly good!

Eating fresh, warm Ragusano cheese with tomatoes.
Ricotta is meant to be served fresh; we were told it should be consumed with three or four days. We also learned that Italians do not consider it cheese. It is simply ricotta, though in America we call it ricotta cheese, but now I will know better. Ricotta is high in protein, calcium, omega-3 and omega-6 fats and minerals—especially phosphorus, zinc and selenium—but be careful not to overdo it, because ricotta is also packed with calories.

Virginia scoops the ricotta from the top.
After the ricotta demonstration, we had a chance to get dough on our hands while we helped the kitchen staff make pasta from scratch, with finely sieved 00 flour, eggs and water. The most amazing part of this was watching the experienced Italian women who could form perfect little shapes of cavati pasta with one hand in less than a second. All of this was followed by a huge dinner with so many courses that we couldn’t possibly eat everything.
Lucy adds an egg to her flour.
Luckily I had saved a small area for the dolce, which was cannoli, a Sicilian specialty, stuffed with chocolate, cinnamon, lemon juice and the ricotta we had seen cooked just a couple of hours earlier. I’m not sure my clothes will fit me by the end of the tour
We were amazed at the speed in which the two Italian cooks (left) could form the raw dough into pasta shapes.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Onward to Greek ruins of Agrigento

Two rock-hard bodies in a Sicilian museum.
We traveled by bus from Trapani to Agrigento, which is situated on the southern coast. We went first to the Museo Archeologico, which has a huge amount of statues and pottery that mark various advances and declines in workmanship and technology. Probably the most notable artifact is a giant statue that was one of 38 which formerly decorated a temple that was staggeringly huge. The weather-worn 25-foot tall telamon used to be part of the temple’s decoration—and it didn’t even come halfway up the columns of the gargantuan temple itself. The giant had his arms bent back over his shoulders in a pose showing that he was holding up a beam. As tall as he was, he looked small compared to the model of the temple that shows where he and the other giants may have once stood. It is estimated from architectural remains that the temple reached about 11 stories high.
This is a model showing one of the possible configurations of the temple
that used the huge telamons as decorations.

Then we visited the Valley of the Temples (Valle dei Templi), a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the greatest legacies of ancient Greece. These well-preserved Doric temples, just outside town, date back to the fifth and sixth centuries BC and are what remain of the Greek city of Akragas. Afterwards we had a huge seafood based dinner at a local restaurant and spent the night in Agrigento.
Our tour group in front of the Temple of Concordia in Agrigento.