A La Milanese

Art Detective Charles Hill on the Tracey & Helen Show

Charles Hill, Tracey Citron, Helen Curtin

Charley Hill was great speaking on the Tracey and Helen Show last Tuesday evening. I was quite nervous at the beginning, scared of saying the wrong thing and getting my facts all mixed up – relaxed into the second half though, and Helen, as always, brought a note of hilarity to the conversation and a couple of curious and rather morbid stories about Kilkenny. You can watch it here if you fancy. 
I’m in the pink jumper – techy problems, don’t ask!


Milan in the time of Coronavirus: Wednesday 4th March: Game Changer


L'Amore ai tempi del Co...vid-19 by street artist Tvboy

L’Amore ai tempi del Co…vid-19 by street artist Tvboy featured in Saturday’s Corriere della Sera. The original “Bacio” (The Kiss) by Francesco Hayez is in the Pinacoteca di Brera here in Milan.

Postponed, Juventus v’s Milan in the semi-finals of the Coppa Italia, scheduled to take place today.

The decision was taken as a precautionary measure, in line with the latest “nuove decreti” (new regulations) for combatting the spread of Covid-19. Here’s the latest regulations which were publicized yesterday:

  1. Keep a distance of at least 1 metre between you and another person
  2. Do not kiss, hug or shake hands when greeting or saying goodbye
  3. Stay away from crowded places
  4. Stay indoors if you have a low fever, even if you have no signs of having contracted the virus
  5. Stay at home if you’re over 75 years of age, or 65 years of age if you are unwell.

That’s not all the scary news. Schools have been ordered to stay shut until the 15th March!  That’s a good chunk of my monthly income for March wiped out. This is serious stuff. I enjoyed the unexpected week off last week, but this is a game changer.

Caffé macchiato con un ciocolato

Caffé macchiato and a sweet treat on Via Lorenteggio, Milan

Thank God for the internet. I’m going to need to get creative and techy about this to get through it financially. Necessity is the mother of invention. I can give Skype lessons, translate (thankfully the situation doesn’t drastically effect translation work), become a professional poker player, write a best selling guide called “Safe Sex in the Time of Coronavirus” (if it hasn’t already been written), or “How to Have a Virtual Sex Life” – one couple who haven’t even read my (unwritten) book yet, have already got pregant.

There’s always opportunists ready to make a quick buck at any cost. Take for example, the online Coronavirus Shop (covered on the news this morning) where you could find masks, gloves, overalls, various kits etc all at “prezzi stratosferici” (crazy prices), but guaranteed to 100% protect you from becoming infected with the virus. Who knows how many people got ripped off? That’s not right.

“Pazienza,” says N.

One daily ritual I’m missing is a macchiato (an espresso with a drop of steamed milk) and a sweet treat – some days I have two, but since I’m not running around Milan giving lessons and meeting friends or going on dates, it hasn’t been part of my day. So yesterday I had one on Via Lorenteggio. There were people out and about, mums with buggys, people waiting at the bus stop and sitting in the café. Then I strolled down to Via Solari where lots of famous fashion brands have their showrooms. There were people on the street there too. I looked into a restaurant and there were a few people having lunch. And there were people in the supermarket, and groceries on the shelves. And I wasn’t the only person wearing latex gloves! (N and I have decided to wear latex gloves from the minute we go out and then take them off the second we get back by rolling them off our hands so they’re inside out, and we stick them in the bin like that).

It’s fine, it is, it’s just a bit surreal while at the same time, reality is beginning to set in.

Fendi showroom, via Solari, Milan

Fendi showroom, Via Solari, Milan

Milan in the time of Coronavirus: Sunday 1st March: Seeing the funny side of it

One of the Art Detective’s favourite paintings is The Skater by Gilbert Stuart. He sees in it a man elegantly skating through life. Right now, life feels more like a Jackson Pollack painting – random – and you need a good sense of humour to appreciate it.

Italians have a good sense of humour, especially the Milanese and over the last couple of days there’s been a few things that have made me laugh, either because they were supposed to be funny (videos, jpgs) or because they were just random or a bit incongruous. There’s the video of four guys coughing, singing and spluttering the My Sharona song with different lyrics: “If I cough in public, I feel like a criminal – VIRUS CORONA, everyone says you have to wash your hands, hands, hands, Woooooh”. And the jpeg showing three different crowds of people: at a Queen concert at Wembley Stadium, at a Pink Floyd concert in Venice and the biggest crowd of all, people walking around Codogno in 2020! Codogno is the small town in Lombardy where the first person in Italy was identified with the Coronavirus.

Then yesterday I read a message on an FB group I’m in. Seemingly a notice had been put up in one of the large apartment blocks, not 100 miles from where I live, informing residents that two people living in the block had been “identified” as having the virus . Loads of comments followed like “why would you want to post such a message – it only makes people more nervous” or “thanks, it’s better to know” or “it’s not true”or “it’s only a flu virus”, and so on but the funny thing was, as others were quick to notice, the poster had wanted to say that the building was now in the process of being disinfected, however they had misspelled the word “sanificazione”by adding a “t” making it “santificazione”, so the building is in the process of being sanctified as opposed to sanitized. ‘Let’s pray!’ someone replied with a laughing emoji. Meanwhile, N had heard about it as well, “si avvicina”, (“it’s getting closer”) she said pragmatically. “It’s only a flu!” I replied laughing, but there was a little bit of nervous laugher in there as well.

Life goes on though and as arranged, I met IG at Pagano yesterday at midday. There she was with her long, black hair and her long legs and her “nothing ruffles my feathers” attitude. I put this attitude down to the fact that she’s from Belarus and she’s a vegan. Mind you, we didn’t hug or kiss, our usual form of greeting, and she wasn’t keen on going for a coffee either (being indoors in a bar – although I would have) but we did go to Coin on Via Vercelli to do a little shopping.

On the way back, I picked up a copy of the newspaper, Corriere della Sera and the Saturday magazine that accompanies it, IO Donna. I couldn’t wait to get home to read what Danda (Danda Santini, Editor-in-Chief of IO Donna) had to say about it all. Instead, I was a bit let down and had to laugh when I read about her trip to Finland. In fact, her Buona domenica this week is called, Sì, viaggiare! (Yes, travel!). But she’s right – why even bother mentioning it at all?

Last night I stayed in and read Breakfast at Tiffany’s, “What, I’ve found does the most good is just to get into a taxi and go to Tiffany’s. It calms me down right away, the quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there, not with those kind men in their nice suits, and that lovely smell of silver and alligator wallets.” Pretending everything’s OK, I guess it can work for a while, but it made me sad, and I felt more vulnerable to life than I did before I started reading it.

Then I heard from A, with whom I had a tentative date for today (if not today, next Wednesday), but I cancelled today’s and maybe even next Wednesday’s as I was feeling so vulnerable. “Are you phased by the situation?” I texted, “Nah, not really,” he replied. “Best way to be,” I wrote back, “I’m a little bit younger than you so more foolish,” was his reply. I laughed. I’m looking forward to seeing him.


Milan in the time of Coronavirus: Thursday 27th February: To stockpile or take stock?

Generi alimentari da Carrefour

Today’s stockpile

To stockpile or take stock of myself – I’m caught between the two. There’s no doubt about it, people are stockpiling, (interesting to read this in the Irish Times, re my fellow Irish men and women here in Milan) but is there actually a need? From what I see, everytime I go to the supermarket there is absolutely no need. However, sometimes I drop into worry mode.

For example, what if, in a couple of weeks, there’s no trains, planes or trucks entering Italy? I heard someone talking about it yesterday and it touched my worry nerve.

So today I went to Carrefour, my closest supermarket. I usually go to Esse Lunga, but it’s further away and as I’m not using public transport these days, I thought I wouldn’t be able to walk back with the huge stockpile I’d planned on.

Everything was the same as usual bar empty shelves where the good quality pasta is usually found, tinned tomatoes and tomatoe paste were also in low supply as well as things like breakfast croissants, sliced white bread and long life milk. As for “l’Amuchina” (hand disinfectant) – not a whiff of it to be had, although I did get a giggle out of this video – a take on the song Ciao Bella, Ciao Bella, Ciao, Ciao, Ciao – it’s ciao bella to the Coronavirus with “l’Amuchina” but it costs the same price as an iPhone.  Other than these, all was normal, just a bit quiet to be a regular day.

By the time I’d finshed aimlessly walking around, picking up things I’d never usually buy (tea for a flat stomach – that’ll keep me going if there’s a famine, olive and almond paste likewise) the sense of anxiety I’d had about starving to death in Milan had completely subsided and my stockpile came to 13.08 euro.

Mayor of Milan, Beppe Sala, has the right idea. I love this clip he posted earlier today on Instagram plugging Milan. Hashtags #milanononsiferma (“milan’s not stopping”) and #forzamilano (“go Milan” or “power to Milan”) are the way forward. Meanwhile, everyone’s dealing with the situation in their own individual way. I’m trying to roll with it, stay practical, rational, stiff upper lip, but once in a while it gets the better of me – this calls for a bit of the old Wim Hof method I think. Here’s some insight into how friends currently feel:

J (English, based in Milan): It’s no big deal, everyone’s probably gonna get it and get over it, just look after yourself and eat well.

N (Italian, based in Milan): This is serious, stay calm, be patient, everyone must do what they feel is best; better if you don’t go out.

I (Belarusian, based in Milan): These things happens, I’m out and about.

C (Italian, based in Milan): Call me when it’s all over.

E (Italian, based in Turin): It’s a cover up job for something bigger; the martians have landed.

Local Rabbi (Italian, based in Milan): Moral of the story – keep kosher.


Gluten Free in Italy

Gluten free pizza napolitana a Be Bop restaurant, Milan

Pizza, pasta, panettone. Some of the delicious joys of Italy, but not for you. Instead, you’re relegated to the fruit and veg stands, the fish, meat and cheese counters. Not such a bad thing really, but while everyone else relishes mouthfuls of spaghetti carbonara, pizza Napoletana and pistachio cream filled croissants, you hang your head like the kid who didn’t get theirs.

Chin up! There are alternatives for us gluten freers that will bring smiles to our faces and indulgent pleasures to our taste buds, without the thumping headaches and itchy rashes. Here are a few of my personal favourites and a few just to have in the cupboard:

Pasta di mandorla  (Almond  paste  biscuits)Pasta di mandorla

If you want to do as the majority of Italians do, and have a quick coffee at your local bar on the way to work, but you can’t stand the temptation as you watch everyone else dunking sugar dusted brioche into their cappuccinos, then this one’s for you. Pasta di mandorla is a paste made out of ground almonds, egg whites, sugar, almond essence and lemon zest. It’s a classic Sicilian recipe which can be found throughout Italy. The paste is made into soft, chewy biscuits that come in different flavours and shapes.

There’s the simple ‘pizzicotti’Pasta di mandorla biscuits balls that have been ‘pinched’ before being put into the oven, cherry topped rounds, pine nut covered balls and many more. The variety is endless. If your local bar has one type, they’ll no doubt have three or four types. I’m particularly partial to the ones at the Dolce Capriccio Bar and Pasticceria on the corner of Via Bramante and Piazza Lega Lomarda here in Milan. BTW, where you have your morning coffee is called a bar in Italy, not as us anglo folk say, a café.

La farinata di ceci  (Chickpea  flat  bread)La farinata di ceci at Pizzeria dell'Angelo, Milano

Lunchtime. You’re starving. What are your options? A “panino” (a bread role sandwich), a “piadina” (like a soft tortilla sandwich), a slice of “focaccia” (oven baked bread topped with salt and fresh rosemary) or a slice of pizza? In short, none. But wait, there is a quick carby alternative for gluten freers on the go. It’s called “La farinata di ceci”. Made from chickpea flour, water, salt and extra virgin olive oil, the recipe comes from both Tuscany and Liguria and goes by different names depending where you are: “faine” or “faina” in Liguria, “cecina” or “torta di ceci” in Tuscany. While the Tuscans tend to keep it classic, the Ligurians add rosemary or even peas. When I’m at home, I nip across the road to get my farinata at Pizzeria Dell’Angelo on Via Belfiore. You’ll find it in about one out of every three bakeries (usually on display beside the focaccia and pizza) or in some local pizzerias.

Panella made from farinata di ceci.I’ve also found it in the form of Panella, a Sicilian version, which is smaller pieces of the same dough fried. Leave it to the Sicilians to rev it up a notch. Either way, it will keep you full for much longer than a sandwich will, not to mention all that chickpea goodness. The only downside is, it disappears from about mid June to mid September.


Traditional pizzoccheri is not 100% gluten free. Roughly speaking, it’s made with 80% buckwheat flour (buckwheat is a seed, not a grain) and 20% wheat flour, so if you’re super intolerant or celiac, beware, although 100% gluten free pizzoccheri is also sometimes available. This hearty dish hales from the alpine region of Valtellina, and more specifically from the little town of Teglio where it is considered a national heritage and where you will find the Accademia del pizzocchero di Teglio, an entire institution dedicated to keeping the original recipe alive.

Made of tagliatelle like strips of mostly buckwheat pasta, potatoes, savoy cabbage, butter and cheese, it’s Italy’s rich cousin to Ireland’s colcannon, with its layers of textures and flavours. You won’t find it easily outside of Lombardy, although it’s not uncommon in Milanese restaurants and I’ve also seen it served at an aperitivo buffet. But if you’re looking for the real McCoy head north. One restaurant I would highly recommend is Crotto Valtellina about an hour and a half’s drive from the centre of Milan.

Gluten free pizzas

For my liking, not enough pizzerias are serving gluten free pizzas. Take the hugely popular Neapolitan Sorbillo Pizzeria, with branches in Naples, Milan, Rome and one soon to open in New York, yet only the one in Naples offers gluten free pizza. This is a good indication of the general state of affairs. If you’re like me and can tolerate the odd slice now and again, but not really, you’ll succumb, hoping you won’t have to pick up a tube of 1% Hydrocortisone cream the next day. It’s just not good enough! Let’s hope this changes soon.

Be Bop restaurant Milan, gluten free pizza menu

But although we can’t pick and choose, some restaurants do serve gluten free pizzas. I had one in Quinto on the coast of Liguria in August. I thought I was walking into a fish restaurant, but they also had pizza and gluten free at that. In Milan there’s the brilliant Be Bop Pizzeria and Restaurant close to the very trendy Navigli district. I absolutely love this place, with it’s great choice of gluten free pizzas, (see photo above, everything on the menu is gluten free as is the beer and bread basket contents), great atmosphere and friendly and professional service. I’ve also been told that Cook Window do a good selection of gluten free pizzas, but this one I haven’t tried yet, creature of habit that I am.  I’m positive these aren’t the only ones though, it’s just a matter of striking lucky as I did in Quinto or doing a bit of research on the internet.

gluten-free pasta, pasta senza glutine

Gluten free at the supermarket

Getting used to a gluten free diet is challenging, especially mentally. How often have I eaten a sandwich, slice of cake, chocolate biscuit, literally feeling my skin prickle before I even put it in my mouth, and yet I ate it anyway. The mind is like a kid who gets fixated on having to have something, then when they know they can have it, they don’t want it anymore. You have to train it, firmly, but with compassion. This is where supermarket gluten free products can really help. Italian supermarkets like Esselunga and Auchan have an excellent choice of gluten free products including flours, pastas, breads, savory and sweet biscuits and even piadinas – those soft flat breads I mentioned earlier.  The key words to look out for are “senza glutine”. So if you must have a chocolate digestive, have one by Schaer, the German, gluten free brand. They’re just as yummy and equally as naughty. I personally rate Garofalo the best for gluten free pasta. And my favourite “gallette” (crackers) are 100% made out of buckwheat by Fiorentini.

Fiorentini Bio Gallette Grano Saraceno