Tourists Wanted

There’s been a spate of stories in places like The New York Times and the Guardian about anti-mass tourism demonstrations and laws to curb tourism in European cities like Barcelona, Venice, and Rome. I can’t say that I blame the local authorities and demonstrators. Large groups of selfie-wielding tourists take a toll on a place and its inhabitants, who have to move around and get to work and home. Plus, mass tourism deforms the local economy: If you go to the popular haunts in a city like Florence, you’ll see that nearly every shopfront is either a pizzeria, gelateria, currency exchange, or snack bar. These businesses push out the tailors, bars, and bookstores that cater to residents.

But I’ll make an exception to the anti-tourism mood. Come to Umbria. We need you. Not all of you, and we’d prefer that you don’t travel in large packs. But last year’s earthquakes in the mountainous zones in the Valnerina scared a lot of people away from Umbria. It’s hard to get an exact count, but I saw estimates immediately post-quake of as much as 30-to-40 percent.

The ground has stayed solid lately, and, as a friend said, traveling in Umbria no more risky than going to California or Japan. And it’s a lot more relaxed. Sure, the Catholic faithful mob Assisi, but otherwise, it’s cool runnings. And I’ll tell you that you’ll have a more authentic Italian experience. Why? Here’s the thing: You can find pictures of monuments everywhere. But it’s really easy to have chance encounters with really nice, warm people here, people who haven’t been made cynical by an onslaught of visitors.

In the next few posts, I’ll show you why. First up, Isola Maggiore (“big island”) in Lago Trasimeno. “Lago” means “lake.” It’s the largest lake on the Italian peninsular, and it’s where Hannibal met his defeat during the Punic War in 217 BC. The place can fool you; it looks as big as an ocean from certain vantage points, and it’s a cool shade of turquoise on a sunny day.

IMG_1777It’s got islands, too. One of them, Isola Polvese, is an environmental research center. If you want to see what they’re up to, you have to sign up for a walking tour. Isola Maggiore (big island) is an easier experience. Go to Tuoro’s marina and take the ferry.

Isola Maggiore is hilly and has lots of well-marked hiking trails. There’s one big climb, but it’s not a hard slog. You won’t have to climb any rock faces. And once you’re up there, you’ll encounter an ancient church with frescoes and a friendly guide. Groves of olive trees fill the island, and you can’t really get lost. If you want to get back near the ferry landing, just head down the hill. The views of the lake from up there are pretty stunning, as you can see.

In a way, being there reminds me of an Italian version, in miniature form, of hiking on Mt. Desert Island in Maine. You’ve got a neat combo of water, trees and hills, with decent hiking and great views.

And just like Mt. Desert Island, there’s a payback: a good meal at the end of your hike. Isola Maggiore has the same lazy hedonistic feel to its big Maine counterpart, and pleasure is part of the experience. We always head to Da Sauro, a hotel/restaurant near the ferry dock. There’s a dining deck and room as you get into the little village, but walk a bit further and there’s a garden on the right. The garden has a splendid view of the lake, and friendly pheasants come to visit.

The food’s pretty good. There’s a bargain lake fish menu, featuring, for the most part, lake perch, or persico in Italian. We usually embellish the two courses (pasta, second perch skewer or fish stew course, vegetable) with an antipasto, like a mixed fried fish platter to share. Wash it down with cold, local white wine, have a coffee, and relax.

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They’re really sweet there. Last week, I was talking to one of the owners while paying the tab. I mentioned that we went back every year to Da Sauro and that it’s become a family tradition. She thanked me, and as I started out the door, she ran after me with a chilled bottle of the white house wine. “This is to thank you for coming back with your family. We hope to see you soon,” she said in Italian, as we shook hands.

Now doesn’t that sound better than running from monument to monument on a hot Roman day?

 

It Takes a Village…

Nope, I’m not writing about HRC’s book way too many years ago, but our little village here. Or I should say, about 4 or 5 kilometers below, the town of Valfabbrica. And more precisely, about the people we’ve met along the way.

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Debora Bazzucchi, left, with Angela Gorietti

First up is Bazzy, real name Debora Bazzucchi. She’s the real estate agent who sold us our  house here, and she’s a full-service friend and businesswoman. (Should you ever want to buy a place around here, I’ll put you in touch, but you’ll have to buy us dinner.)

Debora is energetic to the max, funny, and fierce. She’s a great cook, and we’ve spent a few evenings at her place somewhere up in the mountains across the valley from us. She likes good bubbly, has friends who traffic in black truffles, and drives an Audi cabriolet, usually with the top down. Don’t try to follow her if you want to hold onto your license.

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One country house, three Euro hatchbacks (friends came over)

Here’s the reason for the headline: We bought a house with great bones and an incredible location. But it needed some TLC before we could move in. We aren’t neophytes when it comes to Italian real estate, having a little apartment in the city. But having a house on a mountaintop is a whole ‘nother deal. Okay, so some of the work is self-inflicted. We wanted a pool, which is, I’ll concede, completely optional, if not irresponsible and decadent. Sue me. (By the way, with Debora in the photo above  is Angela, her pal who supplied the stone surrounding the pool. It’s amazing to look at and walk on, and it comes from a local quarry. It’s a family company, and she came every couple of days for quality control.)

When Italians move, they take their kitchens and light fixtures with them. Kitchens in the land of great food are, oddly enough, not a big deal in terms of installation. They’re plug and play, and not as big a project to design as they are in the U.S. We bought ours at Mondo Convenienza, which is sort of like IKEA, except that they don’t do flat pack, and deliver and install the stuff as part of the deal. Debora came into this by supplying the necessary guys to do the plumbing and electrical work. Plus, she watched the installation like a hawk. Installations, actually; the house has two kitchens, one upstairs in our living quarters, and one in the ground floor guest quarters, which serves as our summer kitchen since it opens onto the garden.

I won’t bore you with the wonders of places like Mondo Convenienza. Suffice it to say that they translate high design for popular consumption. We sat with someone who went through the dimensions we had to work with and we came up with the designs. They sent someone to measure and figure out whether it would work.

So back to the village. Simone was our plumber in this, and I suspect he will be forever. The guy just figures things out and makes it work. That included modernizing a manual water cistern/pump system (don’t ask) and making it so we really don’t have to think about how the water gets to the house.

Then there’s Luigi and his assistants. We bought a bunch of lighting fixtures. The previous owner, a good guy but a chef who works too many hours, did a lot of the electrical work himself in between shifts as a professional chef. Luigi, a pro, cleaned it up and installed all sorts of clever lights and switches around the house. I’m still trying to memorize what controls what, but it all works and I keep being struck by the thoughtful touches.

We can’t forget Enrico, who is Debora’s ex. He’s an incredibly kind and sweet guy who came in, patched up walls and painted. The place looks like new and without Enrico’s help (and his and Debora’s son, Nicolò, pitched in), I wouldn’t be sitting in my office here writing this. And there’s Gianni, a stonemason who worked through the hottest days to get the pool border done. Many hot days; the guy’s an incredible perfectionist.

Our village here wouldn’t be complete with mentioning Marco Ferramosche, who is our architect. He started the work on the pool on a dare, and served as the general contractor. He sent us almost daily photos when we were in New York, and coordinated the work of Simone, Luigi, the excavators, geologists, environmentalists, town officials, concrete workers, pool suppliers, etc., etc. He nagged me (nicely) when I had to do something like pay a bill, be there to make a decision, or talk to the pool guy about how to do things.

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The Spartan Woman, ricotta from Pasquale

Wait. I’m almost forgot our neighbor, Pasquale. He’s one of the brothers and their mother who sold us the place. He owns the agriturismo next door, Ca’Mazzetto. It’s certified organic, and they raise sheep, grow olives, and make cheese and fabric from the sheep milk and wool. He drops by to say hi regularly. And when we first started sleeping over here, he brought us a plate of delicious fresh sheep’s milk ricotta.

Phew. You can come visit now.

[Copyedited by Judy Lopatin]

Parla Svedese?

Three tanks of expensive gasoline, many kilometers in a clapped-out rental Panda and thousands of steps later, we may actually we able to do normal things like sit on chairs, cook in a kitchen, and take showers in a country house we closed on last November.

Version 2

“You know, I’ve been thinking….”

My first weekend here, I pretty much hid out from the heat in the city, did some work, took some naps, and in general did nothing much at all in glorious solitude. I did drive up here a couple of times because I wanted to get acquainted with the house, but because of Perugia’s compact size, and the fairly strict land-use rules, it’s a quick run from city to country. You’re in the country almost as soon as you leave the city limits. And I took walks to take in some free music and cheap, good “artigianale” beer.

Besides, I needed to conserve some energy for the arrival of The Spartan Woman.

I did miss her. But I knew that once she arrived, it would be nonstop activity. She always claims that she’s a low-energy person, but I have yet to see much evidence of that. And I’ve known her for decades. Sure, she will sit and do crossword puzzles on her Mac for hours, but I suspect it’s so that she 1—can conserve some energy  for her next move (see above) or 2—she’s plotting her next move.

It began with me racing to Rome’s airport to pick her up. She was carrying household items in one big bag, and a few clothes in another. I chivalrously gave her the chance to avoid buses and trains, and she took me up on on it.

But then…What does one do on the first full day in Italy? You might think some time to get acclimated, to have a good meal, to stroll, have an aperitivo, to wind down from the pre-trip craziness of getting the pets settled and the bills paid, etc.

You would thinIMG_1072k wrong. We raced across the center of the country to Ancona, on the Adriatic. Not to go to the beach. No, IKEA, that most fiendish of Swedish inventions. We had a deadline: Young people are coming next month, and they might want a bed to sleep in and some furniture to perch upon.

But it’s in Italy. Exotic, no? No. It’s exactly the same, bar some Italian items in the restaurant. The same goofy names, the same maze that drives you crazy. What is different is the kindness and helpfulness of customer service. We found someone who, knowing we needed some stuff fast, worked really hard to get good

IMG_1070delivery and assembly dates. (I’m too old for performing the dark assembly arts of IKEA.)

When Tina, the customer service person, saw that I was getting antsy, she told me to go and play, and gave me a voucher for the restaurant’s bar. An espresso and pastry later, I was a happy guy.

 

It’s Not Always About That Guy

A little distance ain’t a bad thing. The man with the nasty combover and the orange skin and I left the U.S. about the same time, and for all of last week, my Facebook feed was full of the creep’s innumerable faux pas and how the United States now stands alone. The news articles were calling the meeting in Hamburg “The G-19” meeting, and for good reason. But I’ve been more than 4,000 miles away seems blissfully removed from my consciousness most of the time. Except for when my friends bring it up and ask, “but how come?”

Good question. What always fascinated me, and a lot of people, is how America is two countries, maybe more. You can divide it in a lot of different ways—politically, geographically, culturally. But really, how does a country that’s produced Patti Smith, Kerouac, Jay-Z, Merryl Streep, Louis Armstrong, Beyonce, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Prince, George Clinton, Dylan, etc., also give rise to the racists that won the last presidential election?

Liberals especially seem to think of last year’s election as an aberration. I’d say it was more an exaggeration. Sorry folks, while the Grateful Dead was playing for their blissed-out fans, and James Brown and Sly Stone were in their prime, Nixon was helping Chilean fascists kill Allende and put in place a repressive regime that tortured and killed thousands of people. And that’s just one example of an infinite number of contradictions between the vibrant culture and governments that haven’t exactly been on the side of angels.

And so, Umbria Jazz here in Perugia this week. It’s all about an American born and bred art form, with some other stuff thrown in. You can pay to see the headlines (this year, Kraftwerk, Wayne Shorter, and Brian Wilson) but there’s tons of free music, and much of it shows the greatness of American music. Blues, gospel, funk, hey even jazz, it’s all there. The festival organizers have a pretty inclusive idea of what constitutes jazz; I’ve seen REM on their last tour, Brazilian megastar Gilberto Gil, and George Clinton and the P-Funk Allstars, as well as Tito Puente doing an Oy Como Va that brought tears to this New York boy.

Let’s forget for a moment about El Cheeto Loco, the man who must not be named. Check out a couple of videos I made. I kept them short because I wanted to feel the music, not just think to myself, wow, this’ll be great on Facebook Live (though I did some of that). Hope you like them. More adventures are upcoming. We go shopping in a couple of days, so that we can sleep in the house we bought last year. But that’s another story or two…

First off, a wild blues duet, from a the Delta Wires Blues Band out of Oakland.

Next up, a sweet Italian group that does a lot of oldies, mainly swing jazz, Sugarpie & the Candymen. They take liberties with modern stuff, turning it into a mix of gypsy and swing styles. The Beatles’ “Come Together” didn’t survive too well, but Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” sounded just fine.

 

And now, for something different. A sexy concert with Gangbé Brass Band, which got the audience dancing and chanting. I love the old guy who was really going at it, and coaxed a bunch of youngsters to join in. It was contagious; soon everyone got into it one way or another.

Wheel of Misfortune

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[courtesy of ]S9 Architecture / Perkins Eastman]

Yes, this is again about Staten Island. I have an urgent warning for all of you. BE SCARED! PULL YOUR MONEY FROM YOUR 401-K! HIDE IT UNDER YOUR MATTRESS!

There, I feel better now. You might be wondering what caused that outburst. For once, it wasn’t the current occupant of the White House, who shall not be named. It has something to do with the rendering above. It’s the New York Wheel, and it is the great hope of Staten Island real estate developers.

Here’s the deal: Whenever money was pumped into St. George, bad things have followed. Can you say recession? The last big push was in the mid 2000s, and then 2008’s crash happened. That wasn’t the first time we’ve seen this happen. It’s almost as predictable as the tides.

And so, the latest St. George push. This gigantic Ferris wheel would lure all those tourists off the Staten Island Ferry—the best sightseeing bargain in the city—for a $30 ride. Then they’d see all the wonderful stores in the adjacent outlet shopping mall. Who can resist a Nordstrom Rack? And then knock back with a burger and beer at yet another Shake Shack? It’ll all be there at Empire Outlets.

The construction has turned the area around the Staten Island Ferry terminal into a traffic and construction nightmare. But we’re told it’s all for a good cause. St. George will be the new hot neighborhood—watch out, Williamsburg. We’re looking at you, Bushwick and Astoria! I don’t know about you, Staten Island friends, but I go to Zillow every few days and watch my house’s estimated value grow and grow. I don’t live in St. George, but I’m in the same zip code, and we’re already feeling the love.

IMG_0729Our excitable local politicians aren’t the only ones wondering if this means a Staten Island renaissance is finally at hand. Press coverage has been consistently breathless, which goes to show that in New York City, it’s all about real estate. We’re obsessed, and our supposedly objective press organs are the official cheerleaders.

But why the panic? My cynical friends and I have been, shall we say, less than sanguine about the whole enterprise’s prospects. Sure, there might be decent views from the wheel, but seriously? The tourists are going to spend a few hours on a big ride and then in a shopping mall when they easily go back to lower Manhattan and annoy the workers trying to get somewhere? Will they forego the pleasures of shopping in the madhouse that is Century 21 for an outlet mall? Won’t this cut into their Wall Street bull posing time?

Okay, so let’s say the tourist turnout isn’t what its backers are projecting. There’s the rest of Staten Island looking for an exciting shopping experience, right? Well, no. See, this complex is on the North Shore. It’s not on the South Shore. This is very significant. There is a highway that runs across the island, about a third down the island from the northernmost point. It connects the Verrazano and Goethals Bridges, to Brooklyn and New Jersey, respectively. It also serves as a sort of Mason-Dixon line. North of the expressway, Staten Island sort of resembles the rest of the city. It’s more urban, diverse, and politically liberal. Most of the borough’s cultural institutions are there, and you know what sort of people work there.

South of the highway is, well, SopranoLand. It’s highly Italian-American, but of a certain kind. Many of these people left their homes in Brooklyn when, back in the 1960s and ’70s, the racial composition changed. Whether their fears of increased crime, etc., were real or not, they left their homes for what they hoped was safe—and where people were like them. There are lots of cops, firefighters, sanitation workers, and trade people. Unsurprisingly, they vote Republican and have sent conservatives to Congress and to the City Council. I doubt whether they’ll drive (basically the only way to get there) to the wheel and the mall there unless a gun is pointed at their heads. Trust me.

So forgive me my doubts about this great project. I’m not alone. As I write, the wheel itself is mired in litigation, with its owners and the contractors who are building it pointing fingers at each other and tossing accusations back and forth in court papers. It ain’t pretty, and it could doom the project itself.

Remember, you read it here first.

L’Isola di Staten

I haven’t written much lately. Or, to be more accurate, I haven’t posted much. It’s a combination of work, some real estate matters and the fact that I’m not in Umbria right now (or Tuscany, for that matter). So I pretty much ran out of new material from there.

But I am on Staten Island most of the time there days, and being here often reminds me of how Italian this borough is. Somewhere just shy of 40 percent of its half-million residents claim Italian descent, and this comes out in various ways, from fig trees in the backyards of old houses, to some architectural kitsch to approximate the villas of the old country.

It’s not all kitsch, though. In the well-heeled neighborhood of Grymes Hill, good taste

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The “Villa Volpe”

mostly prevails. I was walking around one afternoon, and walked past this house. We used to call it the Villa Volpe, because John Volpe, the former chancellor of the College of Staten Island, used to live there. And across the street is Casa Belvedere, now an Italian cultural center, complete with bocce court and a kitchen sponsored by the food importer Colavita. It’s sort of Italianate in design, like a lot of the grand houses on the island, but it in fact was the Stirn-Roebling mansion, built by relatives of the engineers who built the Brooklyn Bridge (also relatives of Caroline, my neighbor, in fact). If you walk around the Villa Volpe and squint a little, you might think you’re somewhere else. Reportedly, one of the Guide Michelin inspectors lived on Staten Island during the inspection tour a dozen years ago, and liked Staten Island because it reminded him of being in Italy.

Some people might get the idea that the island got its Italian vibe from those idiots who starred in MTV’s Jersey Shore, most of whom came from the south shore of the island and speak with distinct Brooklyn accents. But Italians moved onto the island early on. Back in the 1840s, the Italian hero Giuseppe Garibaldi fled a failed revolution and moved his with his compatriot (if it can be called that; Italy wasn’t yet a nation), Antonio Meucci. In the succeeding decades, Italians settled in the neighborhoods now called Rosebank, Arrochar and Tompkinsville. Garibaldi and Meucci left something behind: Meucci’s house is now a museum dedicated to the two men, and you can stop in a read Garibaldi’s notes, or see some of his uniforms. They also hold Italian language classes there, at gentle prices.

Other Italians came to stay, but not for good, or the whole year on Staten Island. Beach colonies grew up along the south shore, and Italians rented or bought bungalows not far
from the beach. My own grandparents, Carlo Ancona and Rosa Urso, originally from Castellammare del Golfo in Sicily, bought a bungalow not far from the home of William

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My mother Angie on the right, with her sisters Marie, Kitty, and Sarah, and Sarah’s husband Vito in back

Vanderbilt, one of the famous clan. (Yes, they hailed from Staten Island.) I spent the first few summers of my life in that bungalow. My mother and her sisters moved to the bungalow with us kids, while the dads lived in Brooklyn and went to work during the week and stayed with us on the weekends. [Side note: My grandmother died when I was young, but I continue to marvel at the fact that she bought two houses, one in Brooklyn and the bungalow on Staten Island, in the middle of the Depression. 

Naturally, where Italians go, so does their food. And the island has salumerie and even supermarkets that would make a Manhattan foodie go crazy, especially since the prices are for real people, not the masters of the universe who want to dabble in making pasta like the chef at Marea told them to do.

I’ll confess, there’s a lot of dreck; the kind of inauthentic places that think bruschetta is some chopped vegetables that goes atop bread (it’s the toasted bread, actually), or that serve overcooked spaghetti on the side of a meat or fish dish. But Staten Island has a few really good pizzerias: Denino’s, Joe & Pat’s, and Lee’s Tavern.

But if you want to experience what it’s like to be near the Italian coast on a warm summer day, reserve a table on a Sunday afternoon for Basilio Inn, in Arrochar, the

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Sunday dinner with Kathy at Basilio’s

town where my father-in-law Joe grew up. It’s in a 19th century house, which has always been a tavern. They grow a lot of their own produce, and there’s a bocce court out back. The Asperti family are the latest owners, and they came over to the U.S. in the 1960s. They pay a little homage to Italian-American, as opposed to Italian, food, but they have their limits. Once, a patron complained about the mussels, which are served steamed with white wine, like you’d find anywhere in Italy. “Where’s the sauce?” “We do it this way.” “But I want sauce.” The owner gave the guy $5 to go up to the deli to buy some Ragù, and he offered to heat it up in the microwave.

You can go the DIY route, too. There are lots of local pork stores, or salumerie. And the local franchise Pastosa’s has, I think, three branches on Staten Island. They’re a

 

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Cheap vacation, an Italian supermarket on Staten Island

little bigger and each one has its own personality. The one in my neighborhood leans a little international and is like a mini-Eataly. But for a full-on Italian food shopping experience, you have to go to LaBella Marketplace, all the way down on the southern tip of the island. It’s a long ride, even from our house. But it’s worth it. They’ve got all sorts of products, from limonata (Italian lemon soda) to packaged cornetti (the Italian equivalent of a croissant, often filled with cream or preserves) to mind bending assortments of olives, cheese, olive oils, and pasta. Espresso beans and coffee are reasonably priced. There’s an Italian-style bar where you can have an espresso and bombolone–think of a cream-filled doughnut) for around $3. The fish counter has tiny clams, octopus, sardines, branzini and orate (sea bass and sea bream, from Italy and Greece). And if you’re really into it you can even buy Italian laundry detergent.

There’s lots more, but this post has already gone on for too long. Maybe I’ll do a part II soon.

[The photo at the top of the page: The Tuscan Garden at Snug Harbor Botanical Garden and Cultural Center]

 

 

 

Fruity

Enough seriousness. Here’s our friend Enrico pointing out the fruit trees alongside our house in Valfabbrica earlier this month. I wrote enough English subtitles to give you the gist of what’s going on, but I didn’t translate everything.

A Fish Tale

Version 2

Look at this photo. What do you see? Yeah, it’s a trick question.

The answer, it seems, depends on who’s being asked. But first, a little context. The Spartan Woman and I were walking down Perugia’s Corso Vannucci one fine evening, doing the passeggiata thing that’s a big deal there. The Corso is the main drag downtown, a fairly wide (for a medieval city) pedestrian street dotted with cafés, restaurants, and swank shops. It’s where the city gathers on nice nights. You walk su e giù, up and down, looking at the shop windows, gossiping, people watching. It’s one of the sweet pleasures of life in a small Italian city.

We passed Sandri, the oldest bar-café on the Corso. It’s a Vienna-style place, with frescoes on the ceiling and an Olde Europe feel to it. Waiters and baristas wear smart red vests, white shirts, and bowties. It’s got tables out on the street, where people stop all day for a coffee, a drink, and a bite.

Sandri always has an amazing window display, and it’s usually keyed to the season, or what’s going on in the city. I took this shot on March 31, a day before April 1. In Anglo-Saxon countries, it’s April Fool’s Day. Fun tricks abound—I remember one year, a computer-savvy composing room guy (that’s you, Tom B) installed an extension on the art department Macs that caused them to either shut down automatically once they’d finished their startup sequence, or the cursor got an, um, erection and had a sound effect to match.

There’s an Italian equivalent: the “pesce d’aprile.” It just means April Fool’s joke. Sandri made these pastries, or chocolates, especially for the occasion. They’re brown because Perugia as a city is renowned for its chocolates, especially the Baci made by the hometown company Perugina (now owned by Nestlé, but still based in San Sisto, a Perugia suburb). The red lips are a bit over the top, but you get the idea, a pastry shop doing an April Fool’s tribute.

That’s not how some of my friends saw it, though. I posted an uncropped version of that photo on Facebook, and it sparked a dozen comments. Why? Some people saw it as racially offensive, as blackface, or minstrel imagery. To be honest, that didn’t even occur to me when I saw the fish in the shop window, and I had no intention of approving a racist pastry or image. And I don’t think that was the intention of Sandri’s pastry chefs, either. But to be fair, I’ll post some of the comparison photos my friends posted.

One friend wrote:  “I’m gonna go with “racist”. /runs out of the room” Another: “I’m going with racist too. Blackface caricatures were/are always accompanied with red lips that are exaggerated in both color and size. This caricature lives on in the Netherlands with Black Pete, so I’d say it’s extremely unlikely that you’d see a non-racial use of the exact same features in another European country that’s not that far away.”

I guess I’m kind of innocent, or that being culturally bilingual, I just saw the fish, and my post, as something sort of weird looking, but typical of the artistry of Sandri’s chefs and their sometimes off sense of design and humor.

But the whole affair just tells you how racially charged the U.S. has become, especially after the spate of police killing of unarmed African-Americans, and the despicable campaign that El Cheeto Loco ran last year, and the racism that runs through whole swathes of American society. And it shows how cultural context colors what we see and how we act.

I needed a reality check, so I asked around. My Italian friends said variants of this: They’re April Fool’s fish, and Perugia makes chocolate, so… In fact, some were offended that their city’s premier café would be seen as racist. I posted a comment to explain their view, but few responded. By then, the photo was probably forgotten, being buried way down in people’s Facebook news feeds.

One of my Italian friends really took offense and wanted an apology from you guys in the U.S. She wrote: “A 1,000 thanks Anthony for having explained to your American friends that there was nothing racist in the photo you posted. Simply put, pasticceria Sandri, as you well know, is the oldest in Perugia, and it makes pastries that track events and puts them in its front window. In fact yesterday was 1 April, the day we celebrate jokes we call ‘April fish.’ Don’t forget that chocolate is dark.”

What does all this mean? I’m still not sure, except that when I see something odd in another country, I’ll think hard about its implications before I post of photo of it.

Rent

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So the other night we celebrated kid number 2’s birthday. We did it like we always do: We go out to eat, and usually it’s at the kind of place that’s more of an occasion than the place up the street. After 10 years of writing restaurant reviews in a prior life, I keep up with what’s happening, more or less. The only thing is that someone isn’t paying the tab any more, so it’s more less than more.

The birthday girl (my wife, kids) or boy (me) gets to choose. Every now and then, Ms. Birthday can’t make up her mind, so The Spartan Woman or I make it up for her. Liv couldn’t decide or think, or probably was too busy to find a Brooklyn hot spot this time. So I saw that Eataly’s Flatiron rooftop restaurant/bar, Birreria, had a cool seasonal popup  called Baita, an Italian Alpine-themed eatery. Supposedly. By mid-spring, polenta had vanished and the food seemed fairly New York dee-luxe Italian, with the exception of Alpine cheeses and wines from northern regions.

Version 2So, fine. It was all delicious, well-prepared. We had a great time. The boyfriend and kid number 1 came, and we enjoyed ourselves immensely. But really: a cheese plate with three bites for $15? A seafood fritto misto in a dainty little bowl? Some reasonably priced wine, but you can get two or three Aperol Spritzes for the price of one at Birreria.

Coming from Perugia, it all seemed faintly ridiculous. I know, I get it. This is New York, and it’s an expensive city. We aren’t just paying for the food and drinks, we’re paying for the privilege of being part of a scene in The Greatest Fucking City on Earth. Rent.

Or is it? I’m a native, but the city seems distinctly Disneyland-New York-themed to me these days. It’s as though the city, especially Manhattan and the more precious Brooklyn precincts, is like a movie set for those not privileged to be native New Yorkers to live out their fantasies. I realize that New York has always been a place to retool oneself and be cooler than…well, out there somewhere. But sheesh, there have always been real people living in Manhattan and Williamsburg. Until, it seems, now.

This Disneyland for the 1 percent quality isn’t accidental. Check out this interview in Gothamist with Kim Phillips-Fein about how this unreal movie set of a city isn’t accidental, but a result of deliberate policies set in motion back during New York’s 1970s financial crisis.

In the meantime, here are a couple of photos of a dinner we had with our pal Fabio Bertoni a couple of weeks ago in Perugia, at l’Officina, probably the city’s biggest scene of a restaurant. It doesn’t lack for creativity; in fact, the food was fancier than what we had at Baita/Birreria. These shots are from the vegetarian tasting menu; a few courses with generous pours of wine throughout cost €25 a head. You read that right.IMG_0209IMG_0208

Enemies of the People Invade!

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Look what they’ve done to the Brufani, the poshest hotel in Perugia! Wires all over the place. People with badges on lanyards, saying things like “Press,” “Volunteer,” and “Speaker.”  The bar overrun by MacBook Air-wielding journalists, er, enemies of the people. Italian journalists run after the occasional celebrity wielding cameras and microphones, while the public rooms keep everyone buzzing on a happy sugar high with bowls of free, and apparently fresh from the factory Perugina Baci chocolates.

It’s the last day of the International Journalism Festival here, and, as usual, it’s the usual mixture of politics (El Cheeto Loco figured prominently in discussions, but so did Facebook, Google, Amazon and the rest). Journalist, college students, the curious, all racing from session to session, or, as the weather got better, from bar to cafe to restaurant, with a stop every now and then to a session to justify the company expense account or next year’s tax deduction.

IMG_0197As for this enemy of the people, I bounced between doing house stuff, hanging out with the neighbor, and showing my friend and panel discussion partner Fabio Bertoni around town. He was here for an all-too-brief 2 1/2 days, but I think he managed to get in enough to whet his appetite for another go at it next year. Here’s Fabio at an outdoor cafe, where we tried to map out how we’d do our talk. Fabio probably has the best legal job in New York City—he’s the general counsel of The New Yorker, which means that, in addition to the usual lawyerly stuff like guarding the publication’s intellectual property and the like, he gets to read everything. It’s a dream job for someone who has a law degree and a masters from Columbia J-School.

Next up, Richard Sambrook. Richard’s great—a BBC reporter for 30 years, he now teaches and does research on how to move this hallowed profession into IMG_0198the future. We talked about trends in the business, and how media companies in many cases have absolutely no clue what to do, except for the brave exceptions like the Washington Post, which has the benefit of a benefactor’s money (take a bow, Jeff Bezos). Maybe the old family press magnates had it right—not being beholden to shareholders (I’d be a happy man if I never heard the phrase “create shareholder value” again). Companies are on a hiring frenzy, he says, not of journalists (except for the Post) but of consultants, who may talk a good talk, but then implement newsroom changes that simply turn heart-and-soul reporters into interchangeable widgets. Then, when the companies’ private equity owners or public shareholders demand bigger margins, it’s easier to cut staff. And the unvirtuous cycle of layoffs and retrenchment becomes self-perpetuating.

IMG_1801Richard, Fabio, and I had a little session on a beautiful Saturday afternoon. We talked about weighty matters like the right to be forgotten digitally in Europe, and a horrific (for editors) Italian court ruling that ordered a small website to pull an article that its subject had issues with. For good measure, a lower level court impounded the editor’s car as part of money damages. We did okay, though we were competing with other sessions and one of those Italian spring days that bring whole populations out into the piazzas and make you feel as though you’ve leapt into an ad for the Italian tourism board.

As so it ends. And I figure that I’ll give in. Our venue was the Palazzo Sorbello, a beautiful mansion just off Perugia’s Piazza Piccinino, which serves as a house museum, to show off what how the Perugian aristocrats once lived. Our room was decorated with somewhat kitschy frescoes, but the terrace view was another thing entirely. Perugia has lots of terrific museums and churches and all the other things tourists seem to like, but the city itself, I think, is the main attraction. Here’s a bit of evidence.

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