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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Cinque Terre: a place to love!

Dear friends,

Today I want to take you to another wonderful place of my Italy that I had the pleasure to visit several times with my parents and that I love ever since: Cinque Terre.

The Cinque Terre, which means Five Lands, is a rugged portion of coast on the Italian Riviera. It is in the Liguria region of Italy, to the west of the city of La Spezia. "The Five Lands" comprises five villages: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore.
All the towns slope down to sea-level except for Corniglia, which is perched on top of a tall cliff. Four of the towns possess an old-world charm (from North-to-South: Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, Riomaggiore). The northern-most town, Monterosso, is completely different. It is very beachy-resorty, with a beautiful boardwalk, modern apartment blocks and hotels, so different from the narrow, crooked streets of the other towns, lined with colorful old houses stacked haphazardly on top of each other.

The Cinque Terre is noted for its beauty, and I will assure you will fall in love with their landscaping. Over centuries, people have carefully built terraces on the rugged, steep landscape right up to the cliffs that overlook the sea. Mediterranean herbs and trees grow spontaneously from the top of the hills down to the water level. Well embedded in this magnificent natural scenery, one can admire the intense human activity of the ancestors, when the wine terraces were built. I was for sure an enormous (and somehow crazy) work of transportation, carrying all the heavy stones on men's shoulders and women's heads. A work through the centuries: in fact it's estimated to have taken about 200 years to build the entire stonewall network.

Paths, trains and boats connect the villages, and cars cannot reach it from the outside. As you can imagine it is a very popular tourist destination, but still you will not feel overwhelmed with it. There are places with so much beauty, breathtaking view that have the magic power to make you forget about anything around but what you see.

Traveling by car is by far the worst way to explore the Cinque Terre, there is little parking and what there is lies well outside the villages. On advise of a family friend, who was born there, we drove from Venice to La Spezia where we left the car and took the local train from La Spezia to Genoa to the "five lands". The tracks ran most of the distance in a tunnel between Riomaggiore and Monterosso. The train occasionally emerged from the tunnel along the way and there were quick glimpses of the Mediterranean Sea. Breathtaking!! On this picture you can see the tunnel near the ocean where the train punctures the mountain to travel from town to town.

I know that a passenger ferry runs also between the five villages, except Corniglia. The ferry enters Cinque Terre from Genoa’s Old Harbor and La Spezia, Lerici or Portovenere. I don’t know about the ferry, but I can say that the train ride was great!!

While in the 5 Terre there are walking trails that connects the five villages and walking is very popular, especially on the main coastal paths, which are subject to park entrance fees. The trails vary in difficulty from an easy stroll to a rough and physically challenging hike. There are fees to use the more popular walking trails, but the less frequently traveled (and most arduous I’ve been told) are free of charge. All of the trails are relatively narrow and are usually crowded in high tourist season. In order to walk along the trails between the villages, we had to purchase a pass (5 euros nowadays), which is available at the information offices near the train stations at any of the five villages. We payed a small supplement (an extra €3) for the pass and got unlimited travel between the villages, Levanto, and La Spezia on regional trains for the duration of the pass. This is what we did with my family while there and I must say made the whole trip easy going.

The Cinque Terre has one of the best coastline hiking trails in the world, and it was such a great experience to be able to walk them. I walk the path from Riomaggiore to Manarola. This is called the Via Dell'Amore (or roughly "Lovers Walk"). This beautiful trail along the shore was very easy to hike. I also hiked from Manarola to Corniglia, also easy. The trail from Corniglia to Vernazza had incredible views of shore but was steep at certain places. The trail from Vernazza to Monterosso was the steepest, but not overly demanding and was still doable: and winding through Olive orchards and vineyards and offering dramatic ocean views, was such a joy to walk. I enjoyed all of them…We were all very tired at night but we all had memories to share forever of so much beauty!!

The walk between all the villages took the better part of our days for sure. We decided to walk but we were aware that there was also a pedestrian ferry service to all five villages that gives you nice views of the villages from the water. The milk train that connects all the villages was also a quick way to hop among towns…but we had time and energy so we walked.

The villages of the Cinque Terre were so beautiful that I only wish you could go and see it for yourself.
Riomaggiore is the southern-most of the 5 Terre. During the day you could hear bell towers chiming and at night the frogs were in frenetic chatter. Mysteriously, while I was there a fleet of ships had appeared at night and their yellow lights all clustered together offshore were so beautiful. I remember that I woke up early hoping to see them on the daylight …but by morning they were gone. The village is dated from the early thirteenth century and is known for its historic character and its wine, produced by the town's vineyards. While in Riomaggiore we visit its ancient stone “castello”. The first mention of this castello appeared in a document from the mid-500s, which already described it as “ancient”. Its quadrangular walls with two circular towers were built to protect the citizens in case of an attack from the sea. In 800, the castello became a cemetery, and parts were destroyed to adapt it to its new function. Nowadays it is one of the monuments of the Parco Nazionale delle Cinque Terre. Very beautiful!!

While in Riomaggiore I remember that most of the life at night was found at the Bar Centrale.
Most of the action in Riomaggiore was on the main street, Via Colombo, where there was an assortment of cafes, bars, restaurants, and of course, gelaterie.

There were also “alimentari”, food shops, selling the typical yummy Italian fare: fresh fruit (strawberries, cherries, and nespole), an assortment of salumi (salami, mortadella and the like), cheeses, olives, etc. These were good places to stock up for the hikes into the hills, although all of them were not very far from a town.
We had lunch at a great restaurant called “La Grotta” and dinner at “ La Lanterna” near the harbor, with specialty: mussels and pasta. Both great places, even if we were told that the good was great basically everywhere!! 

Bar & Vini, was a wonderful place on the side of the mountain above the sea, that my family loved to stop by at night. The place had the usual mix of tourists and local families with their kids, even well into the night. I have so many wonderful memories of this place. I hope to be able to get back one day soon.

In Riomaggiore I had the chance to walk the “Via dell’Amore”, a path connecting Riomaggiore to Manarola: a 15-minute stroll along this picturesque Via dell’Amore ("Love Walk") was just out of this world with magnificent views all around. I didn’t have the chance to feel tired at all…there was so much beauty all around that time flew away and so did our feet. Only to write about 5 Terre makes me happy!! Beautiful during the day and and at down!

Manarola is a town filled with boats, at least on the lower part of it. Covered boats of all kinds line the main street, was all I noticed in the beginning and the fact that is was hard to say when they had last been out. There were many lovely places to eat and drink also in Manarola. La Cantina Dello Zio Bramante was the one that we enjoyed the most where we had acciughe (anchovies) fresh from the sea, with lemon, olive oil, and fresh, crusty bread. Super delicious and super healthy. We went back a few days later for more!!  It turned out that Manarola also had one the greatest gelateria of all the towns: 5 Terre Gelateria e Creperia: their gelati were delicious and the warm weather had for sure made us love them even more….the view added some magic to it!!

Manarola also had a nice little swimming area. There was a little cement pier next to some big rocks that you could wade out from, into the blue blue waters. There were plenty of caves and coastline to explore, and underwater rocks. So much fun!! There were stairs going all the way down to sea level, and a small little terrace about halfway down with picnic tables where we could see locals enjoying a simple lunch. There were lots of sharp mussels and barnacles down by the rocks, but otherwise the swimming was fantastic here too, without many people around. We bought plastic shoes that we wore to get into the weather and we were all fine to go!!

In Manarola the citizen has made an enormous nativity scene on a promontory nearby the village. This “Presepio”, is overlooking the village all year round but is illuminated only at Christmas. We visit family friends many years ago for Christmas and I got to see it….even if I was a child I still remember the sight: magical!!

All of the Cinque Terre towns were accessible by boat except Corniglia, which sits about 300 feet above the Ligurian Sea. We went there with the train: what a ride between lemon trees, vines, lilies and vegetation of all kinds, and in May, when I visit, the air was full of the perfume of flowers.
Corniglia felt smaller and quieter, but just as quaint as the other towns. All in all, because of its altitude and its small size, Corniglia is the least visited of the five towns, and once we reached it, even though we were only two or three hours from the airport of Pisa or Genoa, or a half-day from Rome, we felt a wonderful, stress-relieving sense of isolation. It is a town that some guidebooks mention only in passing. Both the food and the wine are raised on the sides of cliffs, in spaces hacked out and terraced for plant and animal life. Corniglia has been isolated for all its existence, and that’s reflected in the character of its people. I went with my dad into the Enoteca PirunCorniglia.

While in Corniglia, we started our days with breakfast at Bar Matteo in the village’s most hospitable piazza, where we were recognized by the staff and called by name already the second day.
This was a little piazza with a communal olive press where we could sit and pass the time. People were very friendly here. I loved Corniglia. Was like the time stood still at time here!! Everyone who has ever walked the path from Vernazza to Corniglia has to walk up these stairs as they pass by these private home entrances. With all those people walking by every day, I was so impressed to notice how clean it was.

We took then the Blue Trail from Corniglia to Vernazza, the next town to the north. This was a dirt path that started off in an olive grove above the town. It kept climbing and things got a bit sweaty and steep in some places, with many stone steps and a few switchbacks. Nothing too strenuous though, at least it wasn’t for me….if you ask my dad he will tell you a different story!!  You need to wear walking shoes…and and have some serious sun protection!! The trail along the sea gave great backwards views of both Corniglia and Manarola.

Vernazza is approached from above and there are two ancient towers in prominent view (they close at 7PM…so don’t get there too late like we did). The town itself was a maze of tiny streets that eventually lead down to the main street. At first sight, Vernazza seemed a little rundown to me and I’m sure you will feel the same. The paint on the buildings around the beach area were peeling off in large sections, but don’t let that put you off. Vernazza was lively and had a great night scene, two clock towers, a beach, boats, and a large public space with umbrellas and tables. The beach area was a small sandy strip that was not the best swim spot (there was only a small section of water roped off for swimming, beyond which were boats and then the open sea), but it was safe for kids and free of sharp bivalves….and at time quiet busy, if you ask me!!
While there we went to Pizzeria Fratelli Basso on via Roma, one of only two places in town where you can eat farinata—like a focaccia but made with chickpea flour. Very yummy!!
We spent the evening having drinks along the main street below the train station, lounging on a quiet bench above the town the sea, or by the sea, watching the mountainous coastline zigzag in and out, hiding to Monterosso. We spend one night here and it was like fairytale. So quiet and relaxing!!
You can find many Hostels and Bed&Breakfast in all the villages, but you can also easily find private rooms for rent. If you can't see signs, just ask in a cafe.

But most of the tourists in the Cinque Terre stay in Monterosso. This village is built to accommodate many tourists in large, modern apartments and hotels. It didn’t have quite the same charm as the other towns, but it did had a quite a large sandy beach with lots of umbrellas, and of course, beachside restaurants and cafes. It was worth visiting but the backstreets of Monterosso were not as interesting as in the other towns for me.

Depending on the time of the year there are some specific things to see: The lightning Nativity in Manarola (Dec. 8th till late Jan.). The world biggest Lighted nativity. Beautiful!!
The patron festivity of the 5 towns (all between late May and Aug.), a mix of religious ceremony and popular parties. A lot of fun!!
The pirate’s attack in Vernazza (mid summer), a celebration of the successful defense of the town from a Saracen attack occurred during the middle age. Very entertaining.

The harvest (early/mid Sept.) and wine making, when men's shoulders and women's heads are still used as they were hundreds of years ago. Suggestive and unforgettable experience.
I have heard that the sea storms (frequent in winter), a great show of nature's power. But I can’t confirm this, since, luckily, I haven’t experienced it while there!!

Given its location on the Mediterranean, seafood is plentiful in the local cuisine. But stay tune for my next week blog to hear more about food and wine and some surprises of the Cinque Terre.

Love always,


Thursday, April 22, 2010

My New York City life: intensa ma meravigliosa!

Dear friends,

Today blog is dedicated to some wonderful events I had the pleasure to attend this past week. An exclusive dinner at Falai in NYC with Accademia Italiana della Cucina in NYC , a dinner show with Vinnie Pastore in NJ, the Annual BB’s Dinner in Little Italy, the 40th year Celebrations of the Radio show “Italian House Party” with John LaBarca in CT and the luncheon Award “Il Leone Di San Marco”in New Rochelle. All of them celebrations of the beauty of the Italian Culture and of the achievements of some great Italians and Italian Americans people. For sure a very busy weekend: got tired, but it was worth it.

As I wrote in a previous blog I’m proud to say that I’m a member of the Accademia Italiana della Cucina, an Italian Cultural Institution. Actually the Accademia is one of the largest and most important Italian cultural organizations, working intensively for the valorization, research and broadening of knowledge about the Italian gastronomical culture. The Accademia is organized in territorial Delegations - up to today 205 in Italy and 67 abroad, counting approximately 7.000 associates altogether. Every month the members of each Delegation around the world gather together for a dinner, called Symposium. The Symposium, basically a dinner, represents an occasion for the investigation and supervision of the condition of public catering and Italian Restaurants. By means of a detailed evaluation form, the participants to the Symposium will express their judgment regarding the chef's capacity of interpreting the menu, the quality of the products used and the combinations with the wine, the hospitality and reception of the restaurant and regarding the ratio between price and quality.

A report of the “Symposium” will be published on the Accademia monthly Magazine “Civita’ della Tavola”, where each Accademico around the world can read about the Accademia's activity. Each Accademico get this publication every month. Last month this monthly dinner was at Falai in NYC. Jacopo Falai is Florence native chef. He started his career as head pastry chef at the three Michelin starred Enoteca Pinchiorri in Florence. Next Falai traveled to France, collaborating with renowned Chef Michel Bras as a bread baker at his three-Michelin-starred restaurant in France, and with Chocolatier Michel Belin, developing chocolate-making techniques for Fauchon. Jacopo Falai moved to the New York in 2001. Since then he has been at Le Cirque 2000, where he held the Executive Pastry Chef position, then at sister restaurant, Osteria del Circo, before crossing over as Executive Chef of Bread Tribeca, which was awarded two stars by The New York Times.
Nowadays Jacopo, here on the photo with me, owns a cafĂ©, a bakery and a Restaurant. Last Tuesday the Restaurant Falai was closed to the public and Jacopo cooked a delicious dinner for us Accademici, according to his philosophy of Italian modern kitchen: he very much believes in lightness, in using a light hand when adding flavors or balancing flavors. The rates for his food were very high. The all dinner was very light and still very tasteful. His Frittelle alla Crema & Crepe Cake, the desserts, were out of this world!!  Jacopo Falai is a very talented and passionate chef!! And as usual the company was great: I’m so lucky to be a member of the Accademia! What a fun night of delicious food.

The whole week was kind of busy and joyful.  Friday night I was invited by AndrĂ© Salzano, owner of a beautiful catering hall in NJ  called the Hamilton Manor, to go to a dinner Party where Vinny Pastore of the Sopranos was performing. I was there with JJ and my dear friends and fans Lynn and Angelo Avino, here on the picture, and her beautiful parents, Bob and Gayle. A great night of fun with great friends. The place is very beautiful and elegant and we are right now talking about having me perform my show at this location soon.

Then my Saturday went on bringing me to another event in Little Italy where I was guest at a wonderful dinner of the Buanne Babes, the fan club of my dear friend and colleague Patrizio Buanne. I was supposed to stay only for an hour, since the day after I had to wake up at 5 AM. But the party was so great, full of love, happiness and positive energy that I ended up staying till the end!! I was so happy to see all the ladies, some of whom are also very dear friends and fans of mine as well, who came from Pittsburgh, Chicago, Boston and Florida!! And I got so many presents, including this Official Buanne Babe t-shirt!! What a fun night!!

And then there was my busy Sunday!! I went to bed at 1AM but I was in Stamford, CT at 9AM guest of the Italian House Party with the wonderful DJ and dear friend John LaBarca that was celebrating his 40th Anniversary with this show!! Perfect in time!! The radio show was live at the beautiful Italian Center in Stamford. All around there were vendors with Italian products, and stands with food, drinks and coffee. There was so much joy and support for John!! I got to perform 3 songs, always scary so early in the morning and with only 5 hours of sleep. But all went well. Here a picture of a tender moment with John! 

And it was so nice to get to meet so many wonderful people who were there for John, friends, fans and family. And some of them were also FB’s friends of mine that are now real life friends!! Like Sonny Maxon, here on the picture with me and my CD "And I Love You So", who took the pictures that you see here of this event.
I would have loved to stay there longer and wait for my dear friend and colleagues, great tenor Chris Macchio, with whom I will be doing a Concert presented by John LaBarca on May 21st at the Norwalk Concert Hall.
But I had to go another event in New Rochelle where I was expected to be at 11AM.

The event, the 31st Annual Champagne Luncheon “Il Leone Di San Marco” was held also this year at the beautiful Davenport Club in New Rochelle. 
I’ve been part of this event for the past 4 years, thanks to my dear friend, movie producer Sonny Grosso, who’s Vice President of the Italian Heritage and Culture Committee of the Bronx and Westchester who every year award outstanding Italians and Italian- Americans during this event. Among the honorees this year were basketball player with the New York Knicks of the NBA, Danilo Gallinari, my friend and legendary Music Producer, winner of 14 Grammy Award, Phil Ramone, legendary rock singer Lou Christy, Commander Officer of Detective Borough of Queens, Deputy Chief Louis M. Croce, famous oncologist Dr. Franco Muggia, M.D. and Louis Salvati.

This year was extra special since they were honoring Phil Ramone, that besides being a dear friend, he’s the most legendary and iconic Music Producer in the world. If you are not familiar with him you will have to check this link

Sonny Grosso introduced Phil to me a few years ago when I was cast for a role in the musical that Phil and Sonny are working on, the “Be My Love”, about the life story of Mario Lanza. Meeting Phil was like a dream coming true for me. Phil has worked with Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra, Sting, Tony Bennett, Luciano Pavarotti, Madonna, Liza Minelli, Paul Simon, Ray Charles, Bono, Burt Bacharach, Aretha Franklyn, Rod Steward, Stevie Wonder and the list goes on and on. He has produced so many great records that are part of the greatest songs of the last century. I will never forget the first time I had to sing for him. I felt so nervous and insecure. I had to sing “Caruso” a song that Phil had just recorded with Luciano Pavarotti, at his “Pavarotti & Friends”.  I will never forget the grace and the humbleness that Phil had when he came to me after my performance telling me that I had moved him with my voice. Can you believe it?? Phil Ramone saying that??

Since that day Phil has become a friend and even if he has the gift of making you feel very comfortable in his presence, since he’s the most sweet and down to heart man in the world, knowing who he is and what he has done, makes me feel nervous always!! But I sang for him a song and it was a moment I won’t forget!!

I was so touched by him also last Sunday, when he was receiving his Award. While Sonny Grosso was introducing him and acknowledging his unbelievable achievements, I was so touched to see Phil nervous, touched and emotional!! What a great great man!! I feel so blessed to be able to call him my friend and to get to spend time with him. We are now working on another project together and I can’t wait to start to work with him again!! It will be like a dream coming true!

I was also thrilled to get to meet Lou Christie, another Icon of the American music. After I sang I had the chance to talk to Lou, a very sweet and gentle human being as well. I gave him a copy of my latest CD” And I Love You So” and he was so thrilled to see that “Cinema Paradiso” was on it. Cinema Paradiso is one of his favorite movies and songs!! It was so nice to hear his speech and see how important for him is his Italian heritage. Unfortunately he didn’t sing…but the ladies in the audience, great fans of Lou, serenade him with his “Lighting’ Strikes”. It was such a great moment!!

Here is also a picture I took with my fellow Italian  Danilo Gallinari basketball player with the New York Knicks of the NBA. My friends were joking me saying if I was sitting on a chair while taking this picture: of well he is 6ft 10!! I was wearing hills, but only standing on a chair can make me tall like him!! A wonderful young man!!

The Ceremony of the Leone di San Marco is one of my favorite Annual Events. There are always so many wonderful people, a lot of which are now also dear friends. And this year I was so happy to have with me some new wonderful friends That I met thanks to my music, the wonderful Susan and Dr. Robert Korwin and Lissa Pericolosi. It was great to be able to share this great day with them.

Also my musical director Etienne Stadwijk was there, since he’s too a big admirer of Phil Ramone. 

Among the many great people there were also two wonderful parents, Phil and Andrea Marella. Two of their 4 beautiful kids, Dana (16) and Andrew (10) are suffering of Niemann-Pick Type C disease (NPC), which is a genetic metabolic disorder in which harmful quantities of cholesterol and other fatty substances accumulate in the cells of the body such as the spleen, liver, lungs, bone marrow and, most dramatically, the brain. Since time is short, as there is no proven treatment or cure for this cruel childhood disease, they organize every year a benefit. This year’s  Concert of the Dana's Angels Research Trust will presents
 "The King of Motown"

Smokey Robinson,
Live at the Palace Theatre
61 Atlantic St., Stamford, CT

Friday, May 14, 2010. I will be there to support this cause and if you would like to help check this link for more info.

Valerie Smaldone, here with Phil and me, is another talented and wonderful friends of mine and past year honoree. With her usual grace and elegance, was there this year to introduce the Honoree Dr. Franco Muggia, an impressive great oncologist that has saved so many lives. It was so inspiring to hear how the passion for his work and his dedication has really contributed in saving so many lives.

To be part of these events always makes me feel so blessed with my life. To get to meet such impressive and outstanding people makes me every time realize that I’m very lucky. From this people I have learned that in life we have to work hard to be the best we can possibly be, according to our ability and talents!! And most of all follow our passions and live with passion always and everything.

Well the time passed rapidity. It was 4PM when the Ceremony was over, but it felt to me like a second.
What a wonderful wonderful weekend!!

Stay tuned for my next week blog about a wonderful place of the Italian Riviera: Cinque Terre.

Love always,
Un caro saluto a tutti,