The headline means “cool.” It’s also sort of a pun, because we drove almost three hours the other day to something called FICO Eataly World. And “fico” in Italian means “fig.” It’s also an acronym for Italian Federation of Farmers. Hence, “Che FICO” means, more or less, “What a cool thing we saw the other day,” or “what a fig.” Whatever—take your pick.

FICO—nobody calls it Eataly World here in Italy—is probably the only theme park for foodies in the world. It’s gigantic, some 100,000 square meters (or, if you wish, 1,076,391 square feet), sprawling in a few directions. It might very well be the biggest food court you’ll ever see, because it’s basically a huge mall. Like, well, the Eataly extravanganzas that are spreading across the United States. I was a regular at the Financial District one in New York. Almost every day at about 3:30 or so, my web editor and I walked the block over to it to have a mid-afternoon shot of espresso. The coffee costs $2 there, which, for New York, is a bargain.

But those regular Eatalys don’t prepare you for the FICO version. First of all, it’s outside Bologna. Or, I should say, Italy’s New Jersey. Bologna’s outskirts are as flat as a board and the autostrada leading to Bologna from the Adriatic is monotonously straight. The only thing that keeps things lively is the constant terror of competing with gigantic tractor trailers on the right and the suicidal maniacs driving black Audis in the left lane. The road is lined with factories, office parks, Stalinesque apartment blocks and the occasional vineyard, of all things. So, think New Jersey Turnpike, but less smelly than its Chemical Coast stretch around exits 13 and 12.

Some roads lead to FICO.

To get to FICO, you get off the autostrada and go through a bunch of office parks and apartment complexes. And you can’t miss the huge McDonald’s. Finally, you arrive at what looks like a turnpike tollbooth. Collect the ticket, park and there you are, at the foodies’ Mecca.

At this point, I’ll answer the question: Why didn’t we just go to Bologna, gastronomical center of Italy? Because the parking’s easier here? Or, just because. I’d heard that FICO is a riot, and every now and then you have to leave your distaste for modern corporate experiences behind and see how a country’s corporate food industry wants to present itself to the world.

That said, it’s sensory overload. FICO has multiple stands, interactive spaces, classrooms, ride, and restaurants that represent Italy’s regions, which, even in 2019 are astoundingly distinct from one another. When you’re in the normal, non-FICO Italy, even the mineral water on a restaurant table changes from region to region. Here, the change happens in a few steps, and you start to wonder, Emilian? Sicilian? Where does nduja come from—Puglia? Calabria? You can sign up, too, for hands-on classes on things like bread making and how to make tortellini.

Dee-luxe Parmigiano wheels

The place is also filled with inspirational signs touting sustainability and humane animal practices. Not for nothing, Italy’s main export success these days seems to be its food culture, and if its small-producer ethos and practices influence the rest of the world, I’m all for it.

Apparently a lot of FICO’s Bolognese neighbors aren’t thrilled about its presence. Critics take aim at its international food court type presentation, and how it feels like an airport terminal. I’ll concede the point. It is nicer to stumble upon local fare at its origin, and do it serendipitously. In the Guardian article I linked to above, there’s a quote from a local saying that FICO presents Italian food in an un-Italian way. Perhaps, in terms of the size and corporate-ness of the place.

The original Fiat Nuova 500 (from 1957) is a great marketing tool–here, for Italian beer.

But it’s very Italian in another way—its sociability. Stop at one of the stands or restaurants, and talk to the people working there. You’ll find none of the bored teenager working minimum wage grunting and mumbled replies. Most people at FICO seem incredibly happy to engage you and talk about their specialties and their regions and cities. And it’s not canned, and totally unlike an unnerving lunch once in the Wall Street area at an American Grille, where the server obviously spoke from a script: “Is everything prepared to your satisfaction?”

After walking around trying to take it all in, including a visit to the farm animals, we went looking for lunch. At that point, we wanted sanctuary, an hour of calm, and we found it. If you find yourself there at lunchtime, go straight to Fattoria delle Torri. The original is in Modica, Sicily, in a beautiful site. The FICO version may be less scenic, but the overall feel is cosseting. And most important, its stylish Sicilian food felt like home.

Take me home….
…to tuna and caponata that’s a bit more upscale than mom’s.

Would I go back? Maybe, if I were in the area. But Bologna itself would be the main attraction and I’d rather walk around in a place that’s grown organically over the centuries. That said, it was worth taking a warm springlike day off. With someone else’s credit card, I could do serious damage, since the food for sale is all pretty high end. Unlike some other visitors who’ve lived to write about it, I wouldn’t spend days there. But if you’re around and you have the time, go for it. Who knows? You might learn how to make proper tagliatelle.

Just another Spoleto Sunday

We have certain rituals—Sunday afternoon dinners, fires in the country on winter nights, morning walks with the dog on Staten Island. Here in Umbria, we’ve got certain towns that we just like to check out every so often. One of them is Spoleto, home to the classical music event Festival dei 2Mondi, and a strategic city-state hundreds of years ago, and a strategic city-state hundreds of years ago.

We just like the place. It’s different enough from Perugia to be interesting. It’s kind of aristocratic, and it’s got a great archeological museum, which, I must confess, The Spartan Woman likes to visit more than I do. (Once is usually enough for me, though I’ll concede that the Roman amphitheater is molto cool.)

So we pointed the red Clio south, with Radio Subasio putting out tunes. One wrong turn looking for the Spoletosfera parking garage, but we got back on track. Note: If you’re coming from the north on SS3, go through the tunnel first, then hang a right.

Like all of the bigger Umbrian towns, Spoleto makes visitors park on the outskirts. And then they have various ways of getting you up (it’s invariably up) into town. In Spoleto’s case, it’s a multilevel parking garage followed by what feels like a metro or subway, except there are no trains. Instead, there are long moving sidewalks, like you find in airports. The town tries to entertain you along the way with big portraits of musical and cinema stars who’ve been at the Spoleto Festival.

I am a train, I am a train.

Before you know it, you’re in the center of the old town, Piazza della Libertà. There’s a long shopping and cafe street leading away from it, with decent window shopping. (And I didn’t get to buy that cashmere sweater I’ve been coveting yet again. Foiled by Sunday….)

We have our Spoleto spots. We walk to the Duomo. It’s more an aesthetic thing, not a religious pilgrimage. There are some excellent frescoes from the 15th century by Filippo Lippi. I confess that I’m easily seduced by nice colors, and these frescoes do the job admirably. I’m a fan of the pinks, blues, teals, and the background scenes that look like what we see when we walk down our road.

Eye candy

When our older kid was a baby, she had an uncontrollable nosebleed outside the cathedral, for some reason. I’ll never forget the people who rushed up and tried to help. When we last went to Spoleto with her, she marked her return triumphantly.

Watch out, Spoleto, Martina’s back!

We weren’t through playing tourist. Suckers for a great view, we took advantage again of the city’s system of passages and elevators and went up to the Rocca Albornoziana (fort), which presides over the city. You can easily imagine how people repelled invaders. For one thing, on one side of the fort you can see up the valley forever. If an army was stupid enough to take that route, you can bet that the Spoletani were prepared.

Culture to the left, food to the right

After all this traipsing around, we were hungry. Luckily, we reserved a table at Apollinare. After a decade of restaurant reviews, we’re pretty jaded and don’t go out to fancy places much. But Apollinare is worth it, and is a steal by New York standards. Like L’Officina, which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, Apollinare takes some liberties with traditional Umbrian food. Unlike L’Officina, Apollinare has an old-school vibe in its decor and service, the latter being scrupulously correct and discrete, while being friendly.

Everything is how it should be.

You can order a la carte, but Apollinare has theme menus, too. We opted for the vegetarian one. It’s always interesting to see what a top restaurant does given a no-meat challenge, and the place was up to it. I wonder if a carnivore would even notice, given the creative and delicious food presented to us. Here are some shots.

Fava bean crème brulée
Lasagna of a sort
Eggplant parm, not the kind that NYC Italian delis sell

Last year around this time, we came to Spoleto with our friends Wendy and Vicky. After a great meal at Apollinare, we stumbled up the street and onto Spoleto’s Carnevale parade. It was great fun seeing all the floats, and dancers, and we had confetti and silly string in our hair and clothes for hours afterward. We didn’t get to see it this year, but here’a sample of last year’s fun.