For true Italophiles, the next best thing to having Christmas in Italy is having an Italian style Christmas at home, complete with Italian presents under the tree. But don’t worry, you don’t need to splash out on Prada shoes or an Armani tablecloth, which, while beautiful, are, frankly, a tad too obvious (not to mention unaffordable). No, you can pander to the Italian in you with a bit less cash and a lot more creativity. Over the next few weeks, we will bring you a few ideas on how to celebrate an Italian Christmas to suit every pocket. And because it usually takes longer to find the right presents and get them shipped, we’ll start with those.
For music lovers
Save: Original opera score
For the true opera lover, get an authentic score from the golden age of Italian opera—the second half of the 19th century. You can find several on sale on Ebay.it at very reasonable prices—about €9-12. You can also find original libretti from operas such as Il Trovatore, La Traviata or La Forza del Destino for a little more (www.ebay.it).
Splurge: Musica a Palazzo
An unforgettable treat for opera buffs: the best Italian arias sung against the backdrop of the grand 18th century rooms of Palazzo Barbarigo-Minotto in Venice. Choose from La Traviata, Il Barbiere di Siviglia or an evening of Love Duets. Tickets cost a reasonable €40, but of course you have to add the price of flying to and staying in Venice. There is a special gala evening with dinner to coincide with Venice’s Carnival on 21 February 2009. Expect agnolotti, seabass fillet, fritters and many other Venetian delicacies served alongside arias from la Traviata, il Barbiere di Siviglia, Don Giovanni and Cavalleria Rusticana (€250, www.musicapalazzo.com)
Save: Marcinase olive oil
Swap wine for oil this year and give foodie friends a bottle of Marcinase, an organic, PDO varietal made from Coratina olives. Olive oil doesn’t come more titled than this one—last year’s Fruttato Leggero (Marcinase’s mildest version) got three out of three olives in the 2008 Slow Food Guide to Extravirgin Olive Oil, while the Fruttato Intenso and Medio received five out of five drops in Bibenda’s 2008 Guide to Italian Olive Oil. Liquid gold with some hints of green, the Fruttato Intenso is very aromatic with bitter and peppery notes. It is recommended for pulses, cooked vegetables, pinzimonio, bruschetta, meat dishes and flavoursome sauces. Available at verious prices and sizes, starting from 0.5 litres at about €11. Contact the producers for orders (www.marcinase.com).
Splurge: A meal at Gambero Rosso
Fulvio Pierangelini, the chef of Gambero Rosso, in San Vincenzo, near Livorno, is widely acclaimed as Italy’s best. He garnered the top accolades from just about every Italian restaurant guide, from L’Espresso to the homonymous (but unrelated) Il Gambero Rosso. San Vincenzo is a reasonably pretty seaside village, but don’t go (or send anyone) to Gambero Rosso for picturesque seaviews or a romantic ambience. It’s the food that is very firmly the star at this restaurant, which is why a meal here is a great present for die-hard foodies. Pierangelini creates innovative dishes out of uncompromisingly good ingredients, drawing on Italy’s culinary heritage but reinterpreting it in an edgy, contemporary light. You’ll find spicy pigeon, a burrata cheese and herring ravioli soup and (possibly) Pierangelini’s signature dish, Chickpea Purée with Prawns. Expect to spend about €100 unless you tuck heavily into the jaw-dropping wine list. To book, call +39 0565 701021. Gambero Rosso is closed in autumn, and reopens in mid-January.
For culture vultures
Save: Il Gattopardo
Tomasi di Lampedusa’s story of the making of Italy, peppered with witticisms such as “Se tutto deve rimanere com'è, è necessario che tutto cambi” (Everything needs to change for things to remain the same) and “Finché c'è morte c'è speranza” (So long as there’s death, there’s hope) remains unsurpassed. It is possibly the best novel in Italian literature (though Calvino’s Il Cavaliere Inesistente and Buzzati’s Il Deserto dei Tartari are both close contenders). Translations are good but, for a fluent Italian speaker, nothing beats the original version. You can order it from IBS.it for €10 to €13.60, plus shipping (www.ibs.it).
Splurge: view the newly-restored Madonna del Cardellino
Surprise an art lover with a trip to Florence to take in the newly restored Madonna del Cardellino. Raphael’s blonde, gentle Madonna underwent a ten-year microscopic restoration process to undo five hundred years of damage. The painting was shattered when its owner’s home collapsed in 1548. It was nailed together and given another coat of paint, but the cracks remained visible. Dust and age conspired to give it a yellowish hue, obliterating Raphael’s dazzling reds and blues. The restoration work, carried out by Florence’s Opificio delle Pietre Dure, has now sealed the cracks, revived the original colours and brought back some details that were no longer visible. The painting is on display at Palazzo Medici Riccardi until March 1 2009, when it will be returned to its rightful place at the Uffizi. Tickets for the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi exhibition cost €7, concessions €4, and it is useful to book in advance (www.palazzo-medici.it).
Also see: The three best Italian Christmas markets