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A Q&A with Expert John Dobbins

By | April 6, 2014

Sometimes as I drive through the beautiful rolling hills of Virginia I fantasize that I am back in Tuscany. Tuscany's profound beauty is not that of the dramatic Amalfi Coast, but it is another pocket of Italy where Nature has created something special. The hills and folds in the landscape create a chiaroscuro of painterly effects that remind one of Renaissance paintings. We will witness many shades of green as spring blossoms in Tuscany. Tuscany is far too beautiful for me to attempt a description!

Second, the culture/art/architecture/food!

Books are written on these subjects. Let's just focus on food and stick to the three locations treated above.


Seafood is king and we will delight in revisiting favorite dishes, or better yet, making discoveries anew for first-timers. Simple is good and in all of Italy, but especially here, a caprese salad is one of the most wholesome and refreshing lunches on the planet. Four ingredients: mozzarella, basil, tomatoes, and olive oil. The secret is the mozzarella di bufala — mozzarella made from water buffalo milk. Gnocci are thick, soft, small (knuckle-sized) potato dumplings served in a tomato sauce. Gnocchi alla Sorrentina (google it!) are wonderful and I look forward to a plate as a primo piato (first course). Or just alone as lunch with a salad. And finally comes limoncello, the lemon-based liquor that is typically offered after dinner as a gesture of appreciation from the host/restauranteur to the diners. The gesture is sweet and is pure Campania.


Somewhere it must be said that you can't go wrong with a pizza in Italy. Naples is supposedly the best. I like eating pizza in Rome…and ice cream. A very typical Rome dinner is saltimbocca alla Romana (veal prepared with prosciutto and sage). The Italian language is so expressive — saltimbocca means "it jumps into your mouth." Ah, but then there are the carciofi — artichokes. Swoon. And the Romans swoon over baccala, cod.


In the marketplace in Florence we will encounter a bronze statue of a boar. That is significant! Meat is king in Tuscany. This does not mean that the people in Tuscany don't eat simply, but when one wants a celebratory meal, it is not vegan. Here are four possibilities to reflect on (and to google) as we anticipate our trip: pappardelle (a wide pasta) with wild boar sauce (doesn't that sound yummy?); bistecca fiorentina–Florentine steak–for meat lovers; ossobucco–veal shank. And there is also pasta fagioli–pasta with beans — wonderful!

Q: Pompeii was devastated by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in A.D. 79. As director of the Pompeii Forum Project and co-editor of the book, The World of Pompeii, that treats all aspects of Pompeian life, what do you recommend that our Smithsonian travelers look for and focus on during their time in Pompeii?


John Dobbins

John Dobbins is a field archaeologist who has excavated in Spain, Italy, Greece, and Syria. He specializes in ancient Roman art, archaeology, architecture and urbanism, and he regularly teaches the History of Art I course at the University of Virginia. John holds the posts of the Richard A. & Sara Page Mayo NEH Distinguished Teaching Professor and Professor of Classical Art & Archaeology in the McIntire Department of Art at the University of Virginia. Professor Dobbins received a B.A. from the College of the Holy Cross, an M.A. (English Literature) from Boston University, and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan.

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