Vespasian’s Legacy

January 27th, 2014

An original article published by Italian Notebook

Not a lot is known about the Emperor Vespasian’s life and brief rule, other than that he built the enormous Flavian Amphitheatre, better known as the Roman Colosseum.

His famous aphorism “Pecunia non olet” (money doesn’t smell) refers to the response to his son’s complaint about the unpleasant nature of the Urine Tax that he had imposed on the product of the city’s public urinals (the first ever, by the way, introduced in 74 A.D).

Up until that time, Romans had simply urinated into pots that were emptied into cesspools. With the introduction of public urinals, the liquid waste could be collected and sold as a source of ammonia, which was used in tanning and by launderers to clean the patricians’ white woolen togas.

Today the latin phrase is used to mean that the value of money is not tainted by its origins; and even though public urinals have become a rarity, they are still known in Italy as ‘vespasiani’.

Vespasiano at Morcone

Vespasiano at Morcone

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Capua’s Mithreaum

February 7th, 2013

Fotos and article by Barbara Sargoza from Italian Notebook

]The ancient Romans had as many gods as there were people and if you visit the Capua amphitheater, make sure to stop at the entrance and ask the custodian about the Mithraic temple. He disappears for a moment, then returns with a key and tells you to follow him by car. You drive through narrow streets until the custodian stops at a dead-end road. Unremarkably pressed between two apartment houses, a placard simply announces: Mithraeum.

The custodian unlocks double iron doors, brings you down a flight of stairs and into a vestibule where a curved ceiling has vestiges of red and green stars on a yellow background. In the front niche a rather dilapidated fresco depicts the god Mithras slaying a bull.

The cult of Mithras originated in Persia during the 14th century B.C. and his worship traveled across Asia Minor to Greece and then to Rome where by the 1st century A.D. the Mithras deity gained popularity. Interestingly, many Christian churches were formerly Mithraic temples and the birthday of Christ coincides with that of Mithras — December 25th.

Barbara recently published “The Espresso Break: Tours and Nooks of Naples, Italy and Beyond” available on You can also visit her great website about Naples.

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Pizza, Pane & a Pignata

October 18th, 2011

Click here to view at Italian Notebook

The pignata, seemingly straight out of Geppetto’s workshop in Pinocchio, is a ceramic pot that comes in various sizes. It has an adorable tubby body with two stout handles attached lopsidedly to the jug. Facing away from the fire, they never get hot even after hours in the red-hot embers… very clever. Many people have fireplaces around here and the pignata continues to be used in the Sannio to this day.

While bread-making with friends who live on an isolated farm, I chanced upon a pignata in action. So what bread and pizza have to do with the pignata?

Everything, in a way. Making and baking bread in a wood-burning oven takes half the night and half a day and the concerted effort of the whole household, leaving no time for cooking.

After preparing the mother of yeast the night before, early the next morning the women mix and knead the dough. (oh, and by the way; they make enough so that parents, grandparents and in-laws will have bread for the entire week. And while they’re at it, they’ll make pizza, pizza-pane and a few crostate too… a mountain of dough to be kneaded!) This is heavy-duty work that takes almost two hours and strains nearly every muscle in the back, neck and arms.

After pummeling the daylights out of the dough, it is put to rest, covered in clean sheets and old blankets and left to rise (is this an oxymoron?). Now the men can start the fire in the oven, a procedure that verges on the realm of alchemy… but that is another story.

Then comes the spezzatura, or division of the dough; then a second rising, calibration of the furnace temperature, elimination of the embers and finally, the frenzied ritual of filling the oven. By the time everyone catches their breath it’s way past lunchtime.

Herein lies the beauty of the pignata. Throughout the whole morning, with little more than a stirring and a topping up of liquid, the little pot has sat staunchly in the fire all on its own, bubbling quietly, delicately cooking its contents of beans, celery, garlic and guanciale (pork jowl… like bacon, only better) with absolutely no fuss.

Ladled onto hot bruschetta, with a drizzle of olio piccante, this is a meal fit for food afficionados!

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Have I Made Myself Unclear?

September 30th, 2011

click here to view at Italian Notebook

If there is one thing that gets my knickers in a twist, it’s those things that still have me stymied after 50 years in Italy.  So let’s like to try to solve the broccoli/broccoletti dilemma once and for all, shall we?

First up are broccoletti aka cime di rapa, rapini and broccoli di rape (broccoli raab or rabe in english).  This vegetable is actually the top tender leaves and buds of a wild yellow flower that is picked before it blossoms.  I am told they are a member of the Chicory Family.  In Naples they are called friarielli - not to be confused with friggiarelli, which are those scrumptious little green peppers that are stir-fried in garlic and oil.

Then an American couple told me that broccoletti in America (aka broccolini) are a different plant altogether; a cross between broccoli and Gai Lan or Asian Broccoli.  Oh Lord!

Chaos sets in when it comes to the broccoli enigma because as a little girl in America, I remember broccoli as a vegetable that looked like a tiny green tree.

But when I came to Rome and was sent to the market to buy some, the vendor handed me a fascinating, alien-green cauliflower (cavolfiore) with fractal spires that looked like something that had been revisited by Max Escher.  He called it broccolo.

Now broccolo, or cavolo, is actually a cabbage, which is part of the Brassicaceae Family.  Other members include: cavolo cappuccio (used to make sauerkraut), cavolo nero, cavolo cinese, broccolo cinese, cavolo portoghese, cavolo rosso, cavoletti di Bruxelles (Bruxelles sprouts) and even CAVOLO BROCCOLO!

MA CHE CAVOLO! (in english, what the…!) or as the Romans say, “SONO CAVOLI VOSTRI” or ‘it’s your problem’.

And so be it!

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Vera - Heidelberg, Germany

August 26th, 2011
Wesley Makes Cavatielli

Wesley making Cotolette di Provola

“Barbara and Federico, Thank you so much for arranging such a delightful cooking experience in the Mustilli kitchen. I was so happy to share the pasta making experience with my 16 year old nephew; Marili and her staff were so encouraging to him. I like to remember the “Bravo, bravo” when he was forming the caviatelli. I cannot wait to make the arancini and calzoncini at home…the latter was especially delicious and different than any I had had before. Federico’s tour of San Agata dei Goti and the Mustilli wine cellar was also wonderful. Who knew that such a fabulous, historical, walled town was so close to Naples. These couple of days were an exceptional highlight in our visit to Italy. Can’t wait until we can do it again. Ciao!

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