Category Archives: Italy trip

Pompeii and Vesuvius

Pompeii and Vesuvius

To the east, just around the bay of Naples, a 25 minute drive, you will find Pompeii and Herculaneum. These two cities are the most completely preserved cities of classical antiquity along with their nemesis, the volcano Vesuvius. The volcanic ash and lava from the eruption on the morning of August 23rd, AD 79 of Il Vesuvio preserved these towns almost exactly as they were on that day. This left them not just archeological ruins but precise replicas of daily life in this ancient world. Our family enjoyed a two hour tour by an informative guide who unveiled the mysteries of this ancient ruin.

This once bustling commercial center with a population of 10,000 to 20,000 covers 160 acres. Approximately one third of the ruins have been unearthed. Our family walked along the tracks of chariot wheels cut in the pavement. The rings where the horses were tied still remain near the sisterns which allowed them to drink the fresh mountain water while their charioteers enjoyed a beer. Pompeii’s frescoes which are painted in vibrant reds and orange have remarkably retained their vibrancy. You could feel the presence of the people as we wandered past what once obviously was their home.

Our entire family stood in awe of the plaster casts of those overwhelmed by the eruption left in situ. The Orto dei Fuggiaschi (Garden of the Fugitives).

The temperature was around 86 degrees but the gentle breeze made the two hour walking tour seem short. Even the children enjoyed this part of our Italian adventure.

Embracing our roots

Embracing our roots

Riarda, Caserta, Campagnia, IT

The entire family, three grand babies under 4, four grand children, twins 17, two more age 19 and 22, daughter and her husband, two sons and their wives plus Tommy and I made for 15 traveling from Jacksonville, Florida to Naples Italy 5,176 miles as the crow flies in 14.5 hours.

Our plans to celebrate Tom’s 60th journey around the earth brought us to Naples where we would stay for two days exploring Riardo, Caserta and our family roots and a guided tour of Pompeii. Next, a week at Villa Antonella, our lux vacation home in Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast. Day trips were planned to the Isle of Capri, Positano and a full day on a 50 foot yacht cruising the Isle of Capri with hope of a dip in the Blue Grotto. A trip most could only dream of.

We feel so extremely blessed. I believe there is a purpose behind this trip that will one day be revealed. But, for now, we must breathe it all in, every moment, every unexpected scent of truffle, every landscape of God’s creation. And, we will do it together, making memories that will last a lifetime of laughter, meals, family games, trips, sunsets, mountains, moments.

Just two weeks prior to our trip we were given the pathology results from my lung resection to remove three tumors that the doctors believed were lung cancer. They shockingly reported the cells were consistent with pancreas cancer. The news hit us hard in the gut. The pancreas cancer had metastasized to my lungs. Now the trip took on even more meaning.

Our hotel was situated in the center of Naples overlooking the port. When we explained to our driver what we were doing, he was sure to point out a beautiful but vacant building at the edge of the port where Luigi Zitiello passed thru in 1906 before boarding the ship that would carry them to their destination, in his case Ellis Island. We shared our research and the addresses we wished to locate once we arrived in Riardo. He seemed to share in our excitement and was eager to help us.

We spent some time sitting in the piazza and just walking the cobblestone steps where Tom’s ancestors had walked before us. My heart was filled as I watched our children and grandchildren stare at the beauty of this ancient city, near Caserta, the home of the Royal Palace.

Those many conversations with Tommy’s Dad about his family at my breakfast table while I reviewed Ancestry hints for accuracy had paid off. We had found our way to the root of our children’s family tree. It was a day I will never forget.

On the steps in Riardo

And we all lived happily ever after…

And we all lived happily ever after…

It is wonderful to feel healthy and happy and ever-so-busy. Trips, weddings, baby AND bridal showers, parties, dinners have all kept me running and focused on “life” rather than Pancreatic Cancer. To date Tom and I have weathered four CT scans.(All cancer free by the way!) With each passing month after chemo and radiation I am feeling stronger and back to normal. Well, the “normal” one feels after Whipple surgery. I truly feel like one of God’s miracles. And I thank Him for each new day.

In July Tom blessed me with my dream of taking our family to Italy. We packed up 13 together and headed to Milan and on to Lake Como. What a fun filled and action packed week we had. When I was at my weakest point, Tom asked me what I wanted to do in my life. I told him I wanted to take our family to Italy. He responded…”DONE”. In January we began to plan our trip. We decided Lake Como would be our home base. We rented a villa on the lake in a small village called Vassena.

Lake Como

During the holidays of 2014, our son Louis asked his love to be his wife. We were all thrilled that Louis had finally found the person he wanted to spend the rest of his life with. Emily is a wonderful girl with an amazing work ethic. She is constantly taking classes to better herself. She had a great job at Mayo Clinic in the research department, but that was not enough. She enrolled in nursing classes and graduated in record time. We were so happy with his choice and the wedding plans began. they could not decide on when or where. I said,”We are traveling to the most romantic place in the whole wide world…why not get married there.” They thought the idea was great and we contacted a wedding planner in Milan to help us with the process.

Passports needed to be applied for, special dresses, train tickets, tickets to the Vatican, tour guides, hotel in Rome….it all had to be planned for 13 Zitiello’s. (Well, 3 Garrity’s, Lindsay’s little family.) Plus, papers needed to be completed and submitted to our church and the church in Italy to make the marriage officially accepted by our Church and legal in the US. But, we had plenty of help. Everyone was so excited. It made Tom and I feel so good to be able to include everyone on this trip of a lifetime. Oh,and we would throw a wedding in on top of it!

13 Zitiellos  at the Airport - Check

13 Zitiellos
at the Airport – Check

On July 10th we all met at JAX airport and headed off on our family adventure. Emily’s parents had left a month before the wedding to visit Europe with plans to end up at Lake Como for the wedding. We flew to JFK in NYC and had a few hours to kill before our flight to Milan. We spent our time in lounges in the airport in excited anticipation.

Finally we were off. Tom had purchased first class tickets for he and I and the kids had upgraded to bulk-head seats for more room. We were off.

I must admit I was a bit nervous about traveling so far from my Mayo docs and wondered how my body would react to the hours on the plane, new food and just everything. Could I keep up with the walking? But, I seemed to have supernatural strength.

We were all wondering how little 14 month old Jude would handle the long flight. We had plenty of hands to help. At one point, Lindsay brought Jude up to first class and attempted to get him to sleep. He wasn’t having it. So back to coach he went.He did eventually sleep and so did Mom and Dad.

We arrived in Milan in the morning on Saturday and a 16 passenger air conditioned bus complete with toddler seat awaited us. Our driver whisked us off and in less than two hours we arrived at our Villa. The twisting narrow roads were daunting and we were happy we had cancelled two mini-vans and hired a driver. We could never had navigated the mountain roads.

When we arrived at the address of our villa, two iron gates began to open and we turned into a stone courtyard with two stone buildings. From out of two wooden doors came the owner of the villa…Guiseppe’, greeting us with a huge smile and big hugs. (That’s what I love about Italians, there are no simple handshakes. You are always greeted with a kiss on both sides of your face and a big hug.)

The grounds were spectacular. 28,000 square feet of garden and two beautiful villas right on Lake Como, the main house and a cottage that had recently been added. The family spent the next hour exploring the villa and the lake and choosing where they would be sleeping. Scott, Blake and two of the kids decided they wanted the cottage. The rest of us found our rooms in the main villa. The floors were all stone and the walls were plaster with lots of dark wooden trim. Both places could accommodate 18 comfortably. The kitchen was fully stocked with our prearranged list of groceries. Fresh local fruit and vegetables, cheeses, salami, pastries, beer, wine, water and the coupe de gras’ crusty artesian breads.

We changed our clothes quickly and piled back into the bus that would take us on a ten minute ride to Bellagio where we would lunch on authentic Italian cuisine…antipasti, pizza, beer (Peroni) and wine (local vineyards). We ate in an outdoor cafe right on Lake Como at the Bellagio marina. It was spectacular. There were lovely shops along the main road. Smart little shops lined the grass and cobblestone steps that climbed the mountain. I was sure I had died and gone to heaven. (This would not be the only time I had that thought during the trip.)

Dinner at Ristorante Silvio

Dinner at Ristorante Silvio

We walked Bellagio for the rest of the afternoon and returned to our villa to change for dinner. Tonight we would eat at Ristorante Silvio with spectacular seafood and breathtaking views of the Alps and the lake.

Cooling down in Lake Como

Cooling down in Lake Como

Sunday was a day of rest. We awoke to the sound of the church bells ringing just steps from our villa. The gentle sound resonated over the water. The bells sounded every hour and were a beautiful reminder that our Lord and Savior was with us.

We had arranged to have a chef prepare dinner for us in our garden on Sunday night. We needed to be in bed early as we had our bus picking us up at 4AM for our drive to Milan train station where we would embark on our train ride to Rome.

We spent the day swimming, sunning and canoeing Lake Como from our own beach and boat house.

It was refreshing to swim in the cold water. The temperatures at Lake Como in July were unseasonably warm. We averaged 85 every day but 70′ at night. The villas were not equipped with AC except for two small window units. We agreed Lindsay, Matt and the baby should take advantage of that so Jude would sleep. While in the lake and sitting on our deck we gazed upon the Swiss Alps across the lake. What looked like miniature trains noodled their way thru tunnels along the mountainside. It was amazing. While it appeared close, the boys attempted to boat to the other side. They made it half way and returned. It was much farther than it appeared.
We ended our day with a wonderful dinner served al fresco in our peaceful garden by an amazing chef and his helpers. The food was traditional, veal and pasta, wine great bread and a fabulous dessert. The cool evening air was refreshing and we were in bed early anticipating our trip to Rome in the morning.

Judi’s Basic Risotto

Judi’s Basic Risotto

1 Cup of Arborio White Rice
1 tbsp. Olive Oil
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup grated Parmesan Cheese
1 large onion, chopped
4-5 cups hot chicken broth

Heat the olive oil in a heavy,2 quart pot. Saute’ onion in the oil until it is translucent. Turn burner to medium heat. Add the rice and stir till it is completely coated with the olive oil. Add the wine and stir constantly until the wine is absorbed. Add 1 cup of the heated stock and continue to stir until absorbed. Continue cooking for about 20 minutes, adding the remaining stock one cup at a time. This rice creates its own creamy sauce. Add additional liquid if more sauce is desired. Remove from heat, stir in the cheese and serve immediately.

If you like to change it up occasionally add fresh herbs or chopped mushrooms or vegetables during the last five minutes of cooking.


A field of sunflowers

A field of sunflowers

Who doesn’t smile when they see the face of a bright yellow sunflower?
I told my friends on the trip to Tuscany the only picture I really wanted was one standing in a field of sunflowers, and they came thru for me.

One day we agreed to venture down the dangerous white road (dry gravel road with a 30 degree grade) to visit some of the nearby towns. Along the way we spotted fields of tall sunflowers stretching their large faces toward the sun.

When we found a perfect field we turned off the highway onto a ribboned path between two flowered fields. A farmhouse sat nested in the flowers to our left. We were definitely trespassing. And I believe we could not have been the first carload of American women to do the exact thing.

No place to turn around so the girls directed me back out.

Tower of the Truffles – Torre del Tartufo

Tower of the Truffles – Torre del Tartufo

Torre del Tartufo - Arezzo, Italy

As we walked the grounds just minutes after we arrived my friend Lisa quietly admitted she was thinking on the plane…”it is such a long trip, what if I really don’t like this place? Judi, this is truly the most beautiful and peaceful place I have ever seen. I am coming back for my 60th.” Within five minutes she was already planning to return.

That is the feeling that I felt my first trip with Kelly in 2010 to Tuscookany’s Casa Ombuto which is located just a thirty minute drive from Torre. Both locations are wonderful with spectacular views and restored villas that make you feel as if you are living a true Tuscan lifestyle.

Tuscookany staffs each villa with about six people. The manager, Barbara is the perfect hostess and sees to your every need. She dines with you several times and makes herself available to arrange a trip or answer travel questions. There are two housekeepers whom you seldom see. They tidy your room daily and do your laundry if requested. There is a groundskeeper you might see pruning the bushes or stoking the wood fired hot tub. Of course there is your Chef and their assistant. That is it. And, after dinner, everyone leaves the villa. The only sound you might hear is that of a wild boar.

This trip we took the Seven Day Italian Course. While this sounds like an intense amount of cooking we actually were only in the kitchen about four hours a day for four days. The rest of the time we spent relaxing by the pool, having massages or site seeing in the towns nearby.

Barbara greeted me with hugs and tears. She was pleased to see me return and made certain I was well taken care of. She placed me in what is known as the “honeymoon suite”. It is a very large room with a fireplace and an iron canopied king bed. All of the bathrooms are marbled floor to ceiling with large wooden beams that remind you of the rustic barn like feeling of a true Tuscan building.
The floors are stone and several large windows that are kept open allow the mountain breezes to waif through your room day and night. No air conditioning is needed in the warmest of temperatures.
This is truly a slice of heaven on earth.

Poolside at Torre. The honeymoon suite has the four windows with white curtains.

The Sunflower Dishes

The Sunflower Dishes

On April 1, 2004, the week of Palm Sunday, our family of four started out on a long awaited vacation to Italy. Although it was far it was not a difficult journey, it was exciting to be traveling together to Europe. Our first stop was Rome where we spent four days touring Vatican City and the Vatican and shopping and walking the busy streets. Next we took the Eur-rail to Florence for a two day stop where we saw the statue of David, drank a Bellini at famous Harry’s Bar and strolled the clean and narrow streets and shopped for treasures on the Ponte Vecchio. Then we railed once more to Venice where we spent two more days walking and sightseeing by gondola and sleeping in a Palace along the Grand Canal.(The Gritti Palace) It was all very exciting and quite extraordinary to travel the country of my husband’s roots, where everyone spoke Italian and appreciated it if you tried too.

In Florence we visited a leather shop at the suggestion of a friend. Hope Hanna had given us an excellent recommendation as the leather jackets, slacks and coats were the best we had ever seen. Tom ordered both he and Louis suede leather jackets and we bought shoes and other leather goods as gifts. We struck up a conversation with the owner/designer Jennifer Tattanelli who corresponds with us to this day.

During our trip I had been shopping for dinnerware. Florence is world renowned for hand painted ceramics. And they were absolutely beautiful and colorful, however priced well above my budget. The place settings alone for eight would run over $1400 Euro which converted to $1800 dollars.

Tom suggested I ask Jennifer if she knew of any ceramics shop to recommend. She was most excited to say she had only recently had one shop do her entire new home and was very pleased with their work. When I told her I was interested in purchasing dishes she pulled out her cell phone dialed the number of her connection “Giovanna” who owned the factory in Montelupo.

We learned that every trattoria (family owned restaurant) in Tuscany has their own vineyard. They produce their own vegetables and grapes for their own delicious food and wine. Well, in similar fashion, ceramics factories are not what Americans would imagine. They are small places where maybe two or three artists work hand painting and firing ceramics to be sold in the shops all over Italy and the world.

Jennifer arranged for us to meet Giovanna at her shop in Montelupo in one hour. We rushed back to The Grand Hotel where we were staying and Tom arranged for a car to take Lindsay and I to meet Giovanna. The driver whisked us off in his mini-van to what we could only describe as a scene from “Under the Tuscan Sun”. In minutes were riding along the autostrade. The rolling patchwork of hills dotted with fields of sunflowers were breathtaking. Every few miles we would see a bell tower and a farm house. Pinch me…. The driver spoke NO English and tried to sell us his own friends ceramics by shoving a brochure into my hand and repeating “cheap, cheap”. Within the hour we had arrived in front of the shop along a narrow street with cars parked on either side. A attractive well dressed Italian woman, stood blocking the parking space in front of the shop so no other car could take our spot. The driver parked and let us out. He would wait for us while we inspected the wares, hoping we would consider his recommendation.

When we entered the shop Giovanna introduced herself and explained she had asked her friend come to translate as her English was “Not so good”. She also introduced her smiling full-figured Mother who spoke no English at all. They seemed genuinely happy to see us.

The shop smelled new and was bright and cheerful. Along the walls were shelves displaying jars and bowls and pieces of every sort.

I explained that we were there to purchase dinnerware. I told her Jennifer had told me she would give me a good price and that she had highly recommended their work. I was sure that I could not afford to buy all of the pieces I would pick out, but, I would have a “wish list” that Tom could pull from for special gifts. They had a web site so that would work perfectly.

Giovanna, then her interpreter, suggested first we needed to choose the shape of the plates. I asked Lindsay for help, after all, these would be her dishes one day and I wanted her to love them too. They showed us the options and we settled on plates with some character to them. We agreed on the dinner plate and bread plate and then chose the bowls.

When we asked for coffee cups and saucers they brought out small demitasse cups and small saucers. I asked if they had any larger….”grande” I said. She laughed and ran to a shelf grabbing a large coffee mug. “We see these on TV Friends.” she said. I told her they would be perfect.

Next we began to pick out platters of all sizes and shapes then bowls, then canisters. Giovanna asked if we wanted the wording to be written in English or Italian? “Italian, I want Farina, Cafe’, Zucchero, Sale and Biscotti.”
It was all coming together. When we were finished we had thirity-eight items on our list.

” Now you must choose a pattern.” said Giovanna. I looked at Lindsay and we began to browse the shop. We turned a corner at the same time and seeing the deep cobalt blue background and bright golden sunflowers we shouted in unison….”sunflowers”.

“Please give me the cost for the entire order Giovanna.” I asked. She busily tapped on her calculator and spoke in Italian to her friend. “How about $1500 Euro?” she asked coyly. “Does that include shipping?” I asked.
She looked at her friend and they agreed it would be around $300 Euro to ship to the USA. She replied “Yes, it includes shipping.”I smiled and said, “We will take them ALL!”

Giovanna was as excited as we were and agreed to throw in a spoon rest and an olive oil and vinegar cruet. She could have the order made and shipped in just three weeks. Everyone was thrilled.

Our ride back to Florence was wonderful as we dreamed of the beautiful dishes we would use everyday for many years to come.

When the dishes arrived, they were even more beautiful than we had expected.

Tom never said a word about the price because it was the memory we created. It was wonderful to have something meaningful from our trip we could pass on to Lindsay and her family from our unbelievable trip to Italy 2004.

Sunflower Dishes from Fantasie D'Arte, Montelupo Firenza.

Our family favorite…..Grandma’s Cake – Torta della Nonna

Our family favorite…..Grandma’s Cake – Torta della Nonna

Since my return from cooking class at Casa Ombuto in the Tuscan countryside last summer my family has fallen in love with this classic Italian dessert.
Now, I must admit the recipe requires patience and time. But if you add a bit of love to your preparation I know it will become your family favorite as well.
So, just turn up some Andrea Bocelli on on your iPod and let yourself drift to a place where green rolling hills are dotted with sunflowers and the bell towers above the terra cotta tiled roofs of the stone farmhouses ring out a gentle welcome.
To make you feel like you truly are in Italy, I am leaving the measurements in Metric. If you have a food scale or a computer you will have no trouble.

Pasta Frolla (short crust Pastry)
1 liter of milk
1 lemon, 1 orange
250 g of sugar
1 vanilla pod
80 g flour, 20 g corn starch
7 egg yolks
100g pine nuts – for decoration

Prepare the crust –

250 g flour
125 g butter at room temperature
1 to 2 tsp cold water or milk
1 Tbsp sugar
pinch of salt
1 egg

1 Cut the softened butter into pieces. Combine in a bowl with the egg and sugar and mix and crush with a spatula.
2 Sift the flour with the salt and add to the egg and butter, mixing with the tip of a knife.
3 Add the cold water or cold milk if the dough feels too dry. Do not overwork.
4 Transfer to a lightly floured surface and work the dough with the palm of your hand, then form into a ball. Work quickly, as the dough must not be handled too much. It does not matter if you see little bits of butter not properly incorporated into the dough.
5 Wrap into a plastic bag and let it rest in the refrigerator for 1 hour minimum.

1 Heat the milk together with the lemon and orange skins and add the vanilla.
2 Whisk the egg yolks together with the sugar, then add the flour and the corn starch and finally the hot milk.
3 Pour the mixture into a saucepan and heat over a low heat, stirring until you have a thick creamy texture.

1 Grease a cake tin with butter, and dust with flour.
2 Line the tin with the pastry and make small holes in the base (with a fork). Cover with a layer of baking foil with dry beans or rock salt over it, so the pastry does not rise too much when baking.
3 Bake the pastry in a preheated oven at 180 C ( 355 F) for 12 minutes. Remove the baking foil and beans/salt and bake for another 8 minutes.
4 Take the tin out and pour the cream into the pastry base.
5 Roll out the rest of the pastry to make a “lid” for the cake. Brush the top with egg and cover with pine nuts.
6 Cook for a further 12-15 minutes, with only the top part of the oven heated. Dust with icing sugar (confectioners)

The cream will have more flavor if the milk cools with the aromatics left in the pot. ( lemon, orange and vanilla pod)
Cut two pieces of parchment paper and dust with a bit of flour, then roll out the dough between the sheets. It is simple to transfer the rolled dough to the tin this way.

Although this Italian Recipe is named “cake” it is more like a pie. I will normally double the recipe since it is so time consuming and prepare another for a friend.

Torta della Nonna - Grandmas' Cake

Tuscan Beans….creamy and delicious!

Tuscan Beans….creamy and delicious!

There is a common misconception that Italians are big eaters and the majority are overweight. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In my travels I have found them to be extremely thin and fit. During our trip, Kelly and I determined the secret to eating wonderful Italian cuisine with all of the carbs in the hearty breads and the tasty pasta could only be the staple we found at many of the meals………beans!

Diets including beans can reduce your risk of heart disease and some cancers. It is a food high in protein to “start your engine” and virtually fat free while containing more fiber than many whole grain foods. Because of the high fiber content they tend to fill you up quickly and prevent you from overeating. Someone suggested it takes more calories to digest the beans than they contain. Now that is the kind of food I want to be hooked on.

The great thing about this recipe is you can change it up by adding diced tomatoes or okra or any other vegetable you have an abundance of. You can also add some bits of fried prosciutto or Italian sausage for spice. This would not be as healthy, but a nice change if you serve beans often.

Since being home from Italy I have made the beans almost weekly in a large pot. I have tried cannellini beans, lentils and navy beans. They are all good, but I prefer the cannellini beans personally.


1-2 lb. bag of dry cannellini or navy beans
1-48 oz. box of chicken broth
1 medium onion diced
4 cloves of garlic minced
1 bay leaf
5 Tbsp. olive oil
sea salt and pepper to taste


1 Empty the beans into a large mixing bowl and fill to the top with water, allowing to soak overnight.
2 Dice the onion and mince the garlic while the olive oil is warming in a 5 quart pot.
3 Add the onion and garlic to the pot and allow to become transparent around 3 minutes being careful not to burn the garlic.
4 While the onion and garlic are cooking to tender rinse and sort the beans.
5 Add the beans and bay leaf to the pot and cover with chicken stock.
6 Bring to a boil stirring occasionally.
7 Reduce heat to medium (a soft rolling boil) and stir occasionally so they do not stick to the bottom of the pot. Cook beans until tender.

The beans should be tender and a creamy sauce should develop from stirring in about an hour.
Serve with a sprinkle of parmesan cheese and enjoy a healthy and satisfying meal.


Gratin of Braised Fennel

Gratin of Braised Fennel

This is one of my favorite recipes from our Italian- Mediterranean Cooking Course. Kelly and I were served this recipe our very first meal at Casa Ombuto and could not wait to prepare it ourselves. I love the licorice taste of the fennel. It is a wonderfully tasty side dish that is healthy and not difficult.

Tip- When you shop for the fennel bulbs, try to get medium size bulbs if they are available. They look like a celery bunch with long green tops with what appears like dill. Just slice off the end and trim off the fragrant green tops of the bulbs right down to where it becomes white. Remove any bruised outer leaves and quarter them. You will be adding this recipe to your “go to’s” I am sure.



5 fennel bulbs
5 Tbs grated parmesan
olive oil
chicken stock
sea salt and pepper to taste


1 Cut fennel tops and discard any bruised outer leaves. Cut into quarters
2 Heat 4 tablespoons of olive oil in a large saucepan, add fennel and cook over a medium heat, turning the slices over, until the fennel begins to brown nicely.
3 Add chicken stock to come two-thirds up the fennel, cover, lower the heat and simmer until very soft.
4 Take out the fennel quarters, place them side by side in a buttered oven dish and season with sea salt and pepper. Sprinkle with parmesan cheese.
5 Place under broiler for a few minutes until the cheese has melted.