PUT A LITTLE SPRING IN YOUR AIR!

I know I’m not the only snow-zonked New Englander who wakes up every morning asking, “Is it Spring yet?”

            Right.  So, not skipping a beat, I’m up and opening all my l’Erbolario shower and bath gels, foams, milks and creams and pondering which scent will make my day.  In case you’re unfamiliar with the l’Erbolario line of luxurious but not too pricey natural, plant-based lotions, scrubs, and so forth with which to pamper your winter-weary body, they’ve been wildly popular in Italy for years but now they’re finally, at long last, easily available to us here in the U.S., online. 

            And they have the power to make Spring happen right in your own bathroom even if there’s no sign of a thaw outside.  How, you ask?  What makes l’Erbolario such a stand-out in the crowded – no, make that way over-crowded – cosmetics field?

            Above all, it’s the quality of the fragrances offered, dozens of them, fruity, woodsy, green, spicy, exotic, and floral – Almond, Magnolia, Green Tea, Vanilla & Ginger, Honeysuckle, Carnation, and Narcissus, to name just a few. Then there’s the variety of products through which you can bask in these sublime scents – everything from colognes to massage oils to soaps to deodorants to stuff for sweetening the home.  Best of all, everything seems to work.  That is, everything I’ve tried works. And I’ve tried a lot.

            My favorite fragrance so far is Neroli Neroli.  It is the purest, warmest, cleanest, most delicious orange blossom I’ve come across since Stendhal stopped producing Chartreuse de Parme Eau de Toilette some years ago.  Try the Neroli Neroli shower foam ($20), followed by great dollops of Neroli Neroli body cream ($34) – and poof!  It’s not winter anymore!

         

   I love the Mimosa bath foam ($20), too – and the Mimosa perfume extract ($22).  This is a more intense floral experience, and sexier than Neroli (I’m told).  And timelier at this moment since March 8 is International Woman’s Day and in Italy, at least, the traditional gift is a bouquet of bright yellow mimosas. 

            Just try to find yellow mimosas in Connecticut, especially in March – especially this March!  But l’Erbolario’s bottled versions more than compensate.

            Go to http://www.lerbolario-usa.com/ for your bring-on-Spring fling!

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AT THE SUPERMERCATO

Roman supermarkets are much more fun than ours!  I mentioned this to an Italian friend who once visited Los Angeles and she told me I was soooo wrong, and she’s probably right.  The grass-is-always-greener factor comes into play a lot when I’m in Rome.

            But there is a particular charm to Roman supermarkets – that is, the ones in the heart of Rome, as opposed to the suburbs.  (The ones in the suburbs can be surprisingly similar to ours except the tomatoes are always better.)

            In the heart of Rome, they specialize in stealth supermarkets.  There you are, strolling down one of those winding, cobbled, claustrophobically narrow alleyways they also specialize in here, and then suddenly, tucked into a medieval facade, you spot the fluorescent-lit entrance to what turns out to be a labyrinthine wonderland of groceries.

 

             Sometimes, the interiors have as much architectural integrity as the facades.

 

             And if you do a little exploring beyond that loaf of bread and bottle of San Pelligrino you came here to pick up, you will discover all sorts of things you can’t get at home.  America is lagging far behind, for example, in the production of toilet paper infused with chamomile.

           

             I do not mean this little riff on the Roman supermarket to be an endorsement of the chain and even big box stores that are becoming more and more of a presence in Italy, as they are everywhere else.

            I am all about supporting small business, as you know.

            Roman supermarkets, like most supermarkets, tend to be chains.  But in my – and their – defense, I just want to say that they seem to make a real effort not to desecrate the cityscape.

            Unlike the McDonald’s that until just before Christmas spilled out onto the Piazza della Rotonda right across from the Pantheon, attracting the sort of clientele that thought nothing of dumping their McGarbage all over the poor Pantheon’s portico. 

            The Pantheon, of course, has survived far worse over its 2000 years of existence – for instance:  fires, floods, earthquakes, the sack of Rome.  But still…

            So I am happy – deliriously happy!! – to report that that particular McDonald’s, at least, is gone now!

 

And good riddance!

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SHOPPING, ITALIAN-JEWISH STYLE

          My favorite shop in all of Rome does not sell boots, shoes, handbags, scarves, scrumptious leather gloves, or food of any kind.  The specialty at Saray (via del Portico d’Ottavia, 14) is Judaica, although you will also find some spectacular secular stuff here such as cutting edge costume jewelry, stately vases, and picture frames featuring cabochons of semiprecious stones or flocks of silver butterflies.

            Sandra Moreschi, who opened Saray in 1992 – the full name is Saray Italian Judaica, and you don’t have to be in Rome to visit;  just go to http://www.saraystore.it/ – recently turned the shop over to her beautiful and talented daughter, Yael Dokhanian (below).

   But Sandra, whose brilliant designs have made this the Prada of Judaica shops, continues to come up with unmistakably Italian-accented sure-to-be-heirlooms, such as:  Faenza pottery Seder plates, menorahs, dreidels, tzedakah (charity) boxes, and Kiddush cups;  other-worldly handblown, made in Rome glass ceremonial cups and platters;  exquisite handmade linen and lace challah and matzoh covers, also made in Rome; a silver Roman columns Hanukah lamp that doubles as Sabbath candlesticks; and, new this year..The Murano Kiddush cup to end all Murano Kiddush cups (with matching plate)…

      And the Pinocchio dreidel! 

That’s it, right in the middle.  (All these dreidels, by the way, are Saray originals carved out of wood and then hand-painted, as our ancestors’ dreidels – now extremely hard to come by – were.)  Needless to say, I couldn’t go home without one. And now I can’t stop spinning it –

Did you know that dreidels, during those long months of unemployment between Hanukkahs, can be called upon to tell your fortune?   And look what I just got!  Winner takes all!!

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FLOWER POWER ALLA ROMANA

Unfortunately, the flower situation in Rome is reminiscent of the flower situation in everywhere else, which reflects the realities of our global marketplace – i.e. it’s really hard to come by cut flowers these days that smell as good as they look and don’t cost a fortune. 

            On the other hand, you can be walking along a street in Rome and all of a sudden, right there on the sidewalk, just like that, are olive trees for sale!  You can just pop into the average flower shop and buy an olive tree for your terrazza overlooking the Piazza di Spagna! 

How cool is that?

            But to return to the flower situation.  Shortly after I noticed that stopping to smell the roses in Campo de’ Fiori is just as disappointing as in my local Stop ‘n Shop, I began to see that in Rome, at least, flowers have become this year’s most popular motif for just about everything, perhaps by way of compensation.  As in the necklace at the top of this post.

Here’s some more flower power, Italian style:

 

 

And finally — Le tram aux camellias!  

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BUY THE CHANGE YOU WANT TO SEE IN THE WORLD (2)

But enough about Rome.  Not really.  I’ll get back to it, for sure.  I just got an important e-bulletin, though,  from Ten Thousand Villages, a major resource for Enlightened Shoppers.  Every single thing you purchase there helps take the global standard of living up a notch. 

            This latest e-bulletin featured Haitian handicrafts – graceful sculpted figures made  from local river stone, and heart-lifting metal wallhangings (“Tree of Life,” “Creole Garden”) and objects (turtles, birds, musicians, dancers!) made from oil drums that have been pounded, hand-cut and sometimes painted – that are really works of art.

            Some of them are presently on sale.  But aesthetically speaking, they’re always a bargain.

            Upon reading the e-mail I felt like running right downtown to our local Ten Thousand Villages and snapping up one of those turtles.  Or at least taking some pictures.  But unfortunately, we’re pretty snowed-in here.  Eight more inches arrived last night.

            So for the moment, here’s a detail of a Haitian painting I bought years and years ago in Port au Prince. 

            It’s not for sale, of course, but it does a really good job of conveying the SPIRIT of what is, at http://www.tenthousandvillages.com (search for “Comite Artisinal Haitien”).

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POSCRITTO

That’s postscript in Italian.  I don’t know how to abbreviate it.  In any case, I just wanted to say, post-post (the other day’s), that if you do look into the fabulous offerings of Santa Maria Novella – and I hope you will – be sure not to overlook the Melograno in Terracotta, or Terra Cotta Pomegranate.  This elegant little item leaves all other home fragrance diffusers in the dust, as far as I’m concerned.

            It’s hand molded in small quantities, according to the Lafco N.Y. website, then half-fired, then infused in pomegranate essence for a week and fired again to hard-wire the fragrance for up to a year.  I have two that are way over a year old and still lightly scented.  But needless to say, when we were in Rome we treated ourselves to one more.

            You can never have too many pomegranates, I always say.  Especially Santa Maria Novella pomegranates ($60 at http://www.lafcony.com/, and somewhat less in Italy – but then, of course, you have to figure in the plane fare, etc.).

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WISH I WERE STILL THERE

ROME!

At last count 90,865,322 ex-pats, pilgrims, just plain tourists, and actual Romans have published their impessions and recommendations.

            What more can I add?  Oh. I know!

            To a Romeophile the draw is not what’s new so much as what’s not new, and hasn’t been for centuries.  Yet every time I visit Rome – and I’m far from alone in this – I discover things that are new to me and that make me fall in love with Rome all over again.  As Henry James would have put it:  Again, for the umpteenth time, I live!

            This time was no exception.  There we were in the Rome branch of Oficina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella (Corso del Rinascimento, 47), the famed Florentine maker, since the 1220’s, of beauty and wellness products for women and men, and now – I was thrilled to find – also for dogs and cats!

            “We have to get some of this mouthwash gel for Sadie!” I said.

            “For 12 euros?” Herb said.

            “But that’s nothing!”

            “Nothing?  A humongous bottle of my mouthwash is less than $2.”

            “But this is Santa Maria Novella! We’re not talking about Scope here!  And don’t you want Sadie to have the best?”

            The elegant saleswoman, sensing potential, sidled closer. “This is the No-Rinse Shampoo Foam,” she said.  “Perfect for between visits to the grooming salon.  It’s rose-scented.”  She spritzed some foam on the back of my hand. 

            “Heavenly,” I said, giving Herb a significant look.  He’s well aware of Santa Maria Novella’s pedigree.  Every product is herbal and/or floral, impeccably pure as well as deliciously fragrant.  And, because the founding fathers were just that – Benedictine monks – there is also the spiritual element that most other cosmetics so sadly lack!  I truly believe in the healing power of these potions and lotions!  I have been bringing SMN’s divine Pomegranate Soap to ailing friends and relatives for years. 

            This dog shampoo reminded me of another legendary SMN concoction I love, the gardenia- and rose-infused Body Milk, which I first found out about from a sweet-smelling female cab driver in Florence. 

            “We’ll take one of these,” I said to the saleswoman, thinking I’d come back some other time without Herb and pick up the mouthwash gel for Sadie, and maybe also the Delicate Shampoo and the Untangling Lotion and the Paws Ointment – Sadie’s worth it! – or, there’s Santa Maria Novella’s New York store (285 Lafayette St.) or the website (http://www.lafcony.com).  SMN also has stores in L.A., Dallas, and Bal Harbour, incidentally – and a Facebook page.

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NATURE SHOCK

            I know I shouldn’t complain.  We were only away two weeks.  Rome is not the moon.  Our re-entry is hardly of astronautical proportions.  I know this and yet looking outside at the cosmic white-out (and that snow’s still falling thick and fast) I can’t help feeling beleaguered, exhausted, out of sorts.  It was mostly in the fifties in Rome – and plenty sunny! 

             And we come home to this!

            I’ve turned on every light in the house to fight UV deprivation.  Draped my mother’s afghan over my lap – followed promptly, of course, by Sadie the dog, never one to miss an opportunity for a super extra toasty dose of creature comfort.  Oh, and before settling down here to divulge my secret remedy for nature shock (as well as for a head cold, which I also have), I rinsed a half cup of dried baby lima beans and put them in a bowl of water to soak so that I can cook up what to me is the comfort food of comfort foods, “Grandma Little’s Butter Soup”.

            My beloved Grandma Little, so-called because that’s how I pronounced “Lil” when I was little, was, in fact, probably no more than 4’11” and though she is gone now, her recipes live on.  Could she ever cook!  If only there had been a cooking channel during her lifetime (because she could talk, too)!  But readers of “Favorite Recipes from Beth Israel Sisterhood, Margate, New Jersey” (ca. 1968) might well remember her for her great “Noodle Cheese Souffle” and “Baked Chicken in Lemon Juice,” both of which relied heavily on cornflakes, the go-to topping for pre-panko foodies. 

            But Butter Soup was arguably what she was most famous for among her children and grandchildren.  Arguably, because there was also her stuffed cabbage, not to mention her jam- and nut-filled roll cake, her cheesecake, the butter cookies shaped like stars and chickens and covered with blue sprinkles that she made every Hanukkah…

            It was all irresistible – still is – but to me, Butter Soup is the most irresistible – and unlike, incidentally, any other soup recipe with butter in the title that I’ve seen on the web or off.  This is essentially just a very simple vegetable soup, enriched with a butter-based roux.  Very down to earth, very healthy, very Hungarian – just like Grandma herself.

                                    GRANDMA LITTLE’S BUTTER SOUP

Soak ½ cup baby lima beans in 2 cups water (overnight or according to directions)

Put soaked beans in soup pot and add:   2 small carrots, chopped fine;  2 large stalks of celery, chopped fine;  1 cup canned chopped tomatoes; 4 cups water.

Simmer until beans are tender.

Melt over very low flame in a small pan 2 T butter.  Add ½ medium onion, cut fine, and 2 T chopped parsley, and cook until vegetables soften slightly and butter is bubbly.  Add 2 T flour and stir till smooth. Add mixture to boiling soup, stirring  constantly.

Using the same small pan, toast 1/8 cup farfel (or pastine) over flame.  Add to soup, and also add salt and pepper to taste.

Simmer soup until onion and farfel (or pastine) are well cooked.

            That’s how my grandmother made the soup, as recorded by my mother.  Like any good soup recipe, however, it’s amenable to improvisation.  I like to substitute organic vegetable broth for part of the water – and to thin it out with more broth when it thickens after refrigeration or because I accidentally over-simmered it.  Sometimes I add mushrooms.  And I often make it heart-friendly by using my favorite butter substitute:  Canoleo Soft Margarine  (which you can read all about at http://www.sbamerica.com). 

Even butter-substitute-alert Herb can’t tell the difference!

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WE ARE IN ITALY, THEREFORE WE SHOP, CONT’D.

“Why aren’t you wearing your new boots?” Herb asks as we stroll across the piazza in front of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva.

            “Because I don’t want to get them dirty.”

            “I told you just to take their picture!  You’re never going to wear them when we get home, either!”

            “Are you kidding?  I’ll wear them all the time. Like, when we go to Yorkside Pizza with Cis and Jim.  I can’t wait till Cis sees them!”

            We’re now strolling down via Santa Caterina da Siena.  “What I don’t understand,” Herb says, “is – how exactly do those boots fit into your new Enlightened Shopper agenda?”

            “Well, maybe they don’t – exactly.  As Joe E. Brown famously said, ‘Nobody’s perfect.’” (That was at the end of “Some Like It Hot,” Herb’s all-time favorite movie.)  “Ah, here we are.”

 

            “Here” is Barbiconi, one of the elegant Roman purveyors of ecclesiastical garments that characterize the neighborhood behind the Pantheon.  I’ve visited their website with its ethereal image of Santa Caterina and look foward to seeing the real shop.  And I’m not disappointed.  The splendor of bolt upon bolt of sumptuous cloth for making clerical robes, plus miles of brocaded ribbons with which to trim them!  Dazzling! Even something as humble as socks is in a whole different realm here!  No wonder clerical socks, especially in hot pink or red, have gained such a following among non-clerical visitors to Rome, eager to bring back gifts that really capture the spirit of the Eternal City.   

             

            On the Barbiconi website I discovered that the big round flat black hat I’ve only seen on country priests in Italian neorealist films is called a Saturno.  In the Barbiconi shop, I ask to see one.  It really does have a Saturn-like look – also very satiny, since its surface is made of beaver.  I want to take its picture.  But somehow I can’t bring myself to ask the clerk if that would be okay.  Making photos of the stuff in the windows from outside the shop is one thing.  But here inside the hush is so awesome, the atmosphere so thick with reverence, that it just doesn’t seem right.

            Fortunately for those interested in seeing a Saturno, however, there are pictures on the website (http://www.barbiconi.it).  

            As we’re strolling back across the Piazza della Minerva, Herb says, “You know, some Hasidic hats are also made of beaver and other kinds of fur.”

            “You’re kidding.  That’s so interesting.  Its like, when it comes to material things created to express spirituality, or to dress for it, cost is no object whatsoever.  Only the best will do.”

            “Well, we’ve certainly just seen spiritual shopping at its best.”

            “And all that beauty – of vestments, of the churches themselves – and temples – elevates peoples’ spirits, right?”

            “Of course.”

            “Well, my beautiful new boots elevate my spirits.”

             “And your point is…?”

             “Beauty is the point. And feeling good is the point.  So whether or not I ever wear the boots is beside the point.  But I will wear them.  You’ll see.”

(to be continued…)

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WE ARE IN ITALY, THEREFORE WE SHOP

One of the joys of packing for any trip is deciding which books to take.  But this time – for Rome – our 25th anniversary gift to each other – it was a no-brainer. I would re-read “The Marble Faun”and “Daisy Miller.”  So this left me with plenty of free time to worry about which books Herb would bring. 

“This looks good,” he said, holding up a copy of “Watermark” by Joseph Brodsky.

“But it’s about Venice,” I pointed out.  “And we’re going to Rome.”

“So?  Venice is also in Italy.  And it’s Joseph Brodsky!” (Our son recently bought a car from a Brodsky who turned out to have been a relative of Joseph’s, so that does sort of make him family.)

Anyway, am I ever glad Herb brought that book along because it turns out that some of Brodsky’s most trenchant observations apply as much to Rome (not to mention Milan, Parma, Florence, etc.) as to Venice, and specifically to how we stranieri experience those places, and even more specifically to shopping in Italy, and most specifically of all, to my experiences shopping in Italy!

Just listen to what Brodsky had to say:

“We all harbor all sorts of misgivings about the flaws in our appearance, anatomy, about the imperfection of our very features.  What one sees in this city at every step, turn, perspective, and dead end worsens one’s complexes and insecurities.  That’s why one – a woman especially, but a man also – hits the stores as soon as one arrives here, and with a vengeance.  The surrounding beauty is such that one instantly conceives of an inherent animal desire to match it, to be on a par.  This has nothing to do with vanity…It is simply that the city offers…a notion of visual superiority absent in (our) natural lairs…Upon returning home, folks stare in wonderment at what they’ve acquired, knowing full well that there is nowhere in their native realm to flaunt these acquisitions without scandalizing the natives…”

This brings to mind the purple Benetton sneakers I acquired in Livorno the year every single human being from one end of Italy to the other was wearing purple from head to foot (2009, I believe) and never put on my feet again.  I could go on…and on…But then I’d start obsessing about the over-the-knee black leather boots I bought the other day, ignoring Herb’s suggestion that I just take their picture. (Over-the-knee boots, especially with lots of buckles, are the new purple around here.)  Where will I wear them at home?  Stop ‘n Shop?  Yoga class?

(to be continued…)

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