Perugia? You know, the place where the chocolates come from.

More than 100 years ago, a woman named Luisa Spagnoli had a chocolate shop in Perugia. Spagnoli was married, had a kid, and was a successful business woman. But she wasn’t exactly faithful and carried on a longtime affair with Giovanni Buitoni of pasta-making fame. She and her paramour would send love notes to each other wrapped around chocolates. These notes, and those chocolates, became the basis for the famous chocolate and hazelnut confections known as Baci, by the company Perugina. That company is now unfortunately part of the sprawling Nestlé conglomerate. (I could go into what a disaster Nestlé has been for local employment…maybe another time. I want to keep this light.)

Perugia, Perugina, Baci, chocolates. The city became intertwined with its most famous product. Whenever people ask where we are in Italy, I’ll tell them Perugia, and if they look puzzled, I usually add “you know, where the chocolates come from” and they sort of get it. This city is also known for hosting festivals seemingly every other day, but I exaggerate, The biggest one is Umbria Jazz in the summer. “Jazz” is applied loosely here; we’ve been to concerts by REM, the P-Funk mob, and Caetano Veloso.There’s a journalism festival around Easter time. And if it’s October, it’s time for Eurochocolate. This city is not about to let a marketing opportunity go untapped.

Except when stuff like Covid-19 pandemics hit. In 2020, they were all canceled, as was the journalism festival this year. But Umbria Jazz and Eurochocolate came back in limited, socially distanced, vaccine-proofed ways. We avoided Umbria Jazz this past summer, but we couldn’t miss the chocolate bash. Instead of holding it in Perugia’s historic center, the organizers moved the show to Umbria Fiere, a convention center in the burbs. Entry was ticket-only, and it seemed that ticket sales were designed to keep crowd sizes down. Or maybe it was just because we decided to go on a Thursday?

If they had intended to hold attendance down to encourage social distancing, it sure didn’t look like it. The parking lot isn’t exactly sprawling, but the lines to get in–or I should say the space for the lines to enter–were long and wound around the building. You can see from the photo below that organizers channeled the different kinds of ticketholders into different lanes. The weird thing was you could count on one hand the number of people in each lane. And all three lanes converged so that one guy could check our “Green Pass“–proof that we’ve been fully vaccinated or had a negative Covid test within the previous 2 days.

Three goes into one at some point.

Whatever. The scene inside was crazy—seemingly every artisanal chocolate maker in Italy was present, as was the German chocolatier Lindt and, of course, Nestlé, er, sorry, Perugina. But the whole thing begged the question, how successful an experience could Eurochocolate be without its usual context. And I’d say, good try, but let’s try again next year for the real thing. It’s no fault of Perugia or Eurochocolate; Covid-19 is the culprit. Still, going out to the convention center and wallowing on chocolate wares wasn’t the worst way to spend a Thursday afternoon.

Part of the charm, if you want to call thousands of people crowding the centro storico (historic center) of Perugia to look at and taste and buy chocolate wares charming, is of the city itself as a backdrop. Baci candies are produced by a company called Perugina, and chocolates are a big part of the fabric of this place, giving it fame that it might not have otherwise. There are quite a few beautiful small cities in Italy, and they’ve gotten good at being known for one thing. Ravenna, up in Romagna, is about the same size as Perugia. And although it’s not a college town like Perugia, it’s got priceless and beautiful mosaics that attract people and keep them coming. (Below, Eurochocolate kept a small presence in Perugia to remind people that it was happening, and to sell some happy stuff.)

Umbria Fiere, the venue for this special edition, is a sprawling convention center near Assisi and only about 25 minutes away from our house. It’s in a town called Bastia Umbra, which is a fairly prosperous satellite town of Perugia’s, at least judging from the shops you see, like the French furniture seller Roche Bobois. There’s a compact center that’s okay, but there’s lots of suburban sprawl of the kind that must make romantic Brit and American Italophiles break out in hives. (I’ll save for later the subject of how the food in strip malls in such nondescript places sometimes beats what you find in more atmospheric spots.)

In any event, I made sure I had enough samples and bought a couple of artisanal chocolate things to keep me happy. The people at the stands and helping out on the floor were cheerful and helpful, and it was nice to see some Sicilian producers. Umbria chocolate makers have a real rival in the producers from my father’s island. And I probably will remember the dark hot chocolate I had at one stand (gallery below, lower left) for the rest of my life.

She makes it look effortless. But we found out how hard it is to put together a good cooking class.

A friend of ours runs a cooking school and bed and breakfast in the hills adjacent to Assisi. The friend, Letizia Mattiacci, has a, warmth and sense of humor that puts everyone immediately at ease. It’s probably why her school, La Madonna del Piatto, is so popular. Letizia herself is often quoted in articles overseas about Umbrian cooking, and she’s put out a couple of lavishly illustrated cookbooks,

She doesn’t do it alone; Letizia’s husband Ruurd de Jong is her roadie, co-manager, photographer and muse. But he was in the hospital and Letizia needed help when a six-member extended family came calling. We’d offered to help, and last week I got a text message summoning us, if we could, to her farmhouse a few hills away. Of course, we replied, and we soon found ourselves driving up the winding road alongside Monte Subasio, the mountain at whose base the city of Assisi lies, and in whose forests the saint took refuge whenever he needed to commune with the divine.

We’re pretty accomplished cooks, and I try to do a good prep if I’m going to do anything halfway complicated. What I didn’t realize was how much hard work and organization goes into even a relatively laid-back, informal cooking class. And while I try to clean up as I mess up, I realized how absolutely crucial constant cleanup is when more than a couple of people are preparing a multicourse meal in a relatively small space.

We soon found out. Our smiling, sociable friend transformed herself into a friendly but firm taskmaster as she ordered us around her kitchen.

“Have you had breakfast?” Letizia asked. After responding “yeah, we had something at home,” she immediately put me and The Spartan Woman to work. First up: Prepare the dining room. Letizia’s classes are typically in the late morning, after which the class gets to eat what its members cooked. On the menu that day was a winter squash soup with spinach and croutons, potato gnocchi with tomato sauce, a chicken dish with balsamic vinegar, and chocolate panna cotta. She was particular when certain cutlery could be put out: first only spoons for the soup course, and then the rest. We neophytes were lucky that the cupboards in the dining room were all well-organized and labeled.

Pronto per pranzo/Ready for lunch

Back into the kitchen—I got to wipe down the cabinets while The Spartan Woman bustled around making sure cooking surfaces were all spotless. Then some prep work. While Letizia had done the bulk of it (she reserves class prep work for the important stuff–anyone can pour milk into a measuring cup), there were some odds and ends. So I peeled garlic and measured out flour and milk for the gnocchi and the panna cotta, TSW did some prep that I forgot. By this time, arrival time was drawing near so who had time to watch what someone else was doing?

Eleven o’clock came and it’s time! The class arrived on time—you could tell they weren’t from here, where being “late” by 15 minutes is standard procedure. They spoke English too, something that was a bit rare and weird to us outside our home, where we obviously speak our native tongue to one another. That is, unless an Italian word seems to fit better.

I can’t tell you much of the class, especially the first half, as TSW was the designated class kitchen elf. She facilitated, for want of a better word, helping out with the logistics, cleaning utensils and pots and plates as they used them, pouring wine for the adults (the class included two children). Yes, wine. It may have been late morning, but a little wine goes extremely well with a cooking class in the hills of Umbria. While this was going on, I was sipping some Rosso di Montefalco myself and deleting a zillion emails on my iPad. TSW was really taken with the commercial-grade dishwasher: It requires as astounding 90 seconds—seconds!—to clean and sterilize a full load.

Getting ready to make some gnocchi.

Once done, we escorted the class to the dining room with their soup, some more wine and mineral water while TSW portioned out their gnocchi. It’s always funny to see the differences. I looked at the random pattern of dumplings and remembered which ones I counted and which I hadn’t (accuracy be damned but I knew I was close), while TSW, with her years of teaching and organizing behind her, lined up her gnocchi in tidy straight rows, easy to count, easy to be accurate. No wonder I depend on her to organize my life. (My ex-colleagues can attest to my anarchic pace and organization. My saving grace is that I’m fast Except when I’m not.) Our objective: 30 gnocchi per person,

At this point, I re-engaged as the busboy. You know the drill: A good busperson unobtrusively monitors beverage consumption, offering refills when needed; makes sure diners have the right silverware and that nothing goes seriously awry. This being an informal setting, this busboy also answered the many questions the diners had. Why were we living in Umbria? Where were we from? How is the Covid situation? Is it hard to find a place to live? (Because we like it. New York. Better than the US, almost like Denmark. No.)

Between courses, TSW, Letizia and I hid out in the secret room off the kitchen, eating some of the excess, grabbing a little wine, and catching up on everything since we last saw each other a few weeks before. Soon, the diners were finished and the class was over. “I really like the communal aspect of the class,” said one of the members. “At most of the class I’ve taken, everyone has his or her own stove.” That was a fitting comment to sum up why we’re here—the compulsive social nature of Italian life may not be for everyone, but it suits us fine—and keeps people coming back to Letizia’s.

It helps that La Madonna del Piatto is is in a beautiful setting:

Addio, Alitalia. It’s been sometimes good to know you. Still, we hate to see you go (because you owe us).

I flew for the first time on July 4, 1971, when I was 14 years old. My family took an Alitalia flight from New York City to Rome, and I was on vacation with my parents and my younger sister and brother. The trip was a big deal for us; it was my father’s first time back to his native Italy in 16 years, and it was our first trip abroad. I remember a lot of the details. The plane was a new Boeing 747, and even in economy class they gave us slippers to wear. The dinner’s centerpiece was a filet mignon in a red wine and mushroom sauce. Excited to be on a real vacation, my 11-year-old sister and I explored the plane. “Maria, come here!” I called to her as I peered beyond the curtain toward the first-class cabin and its spiral staircase. “No, go there,” the mustachioed flight attendant told me, pointing us back toward steerage.

Ever since that first flight, I’ve taken Alitalia a couple of dozen times. The Italian flag carrier was historically generous with its mileage loyalty programs, and its direct flights to either Rome or Milan were a godsend to people who dislike changing flights and going through security more than once. It served as the unofficial carrier of the postwar Italian diaspora, and was the pope’s official airline. 

But Alitalia is about to taxi back to the big hangar in the sky, joining other defunct airlines like Sabena, TWA and Pan Am. Years of bad management, wildcat strikes, patronage staffing levels, and indifferent service took their toll. Alitalia has been in receivership since 2017, and the Italian government of Mario Draghi and the European Union finally pulled the plug. Sure, successive Italian governments tried to keep Alitalia aloft, but after billions in bailouts and repeated, unsuccessful efforts to find it a suitor, everyone called it quits. 

Sorry, your flight’s been canceled and there isn’t much that you can do.

There’s a psychological element to the carrier’s end. Although a lot of Italians had become tired of its hijinks, Alitalia remained one of the last cornerstones of Italy’s postwar boom, which saw the mostly rural, war-torn country become a modern economic and social power. Indeed, Alitalia’s fate echoes the fate of other big Italian companies, like the auto giant Fiat, which once stood for that postwar economic miracle and is now just a part of a French-led conglomerate, Stellantis. This hollowing out of Italy’s big companies has taken a big toll on Italian pride, no matter how many soccer championships the national team wins. This psychological toll is one of the reasons for the ascendancy of populists like the Lega’s Matteo Salvini, and the right wing party Brothers of Italy. The latter is led by the photogenic Giorgia Meloni, who can be thought of as the Italian equivalent of the French politician Marie Le Pen.

Taking Alitalia’s place will be ITA, or at least a company called ITA at this moment, which may or may not use the Alitalia brand and aircraft livery when it takes to the skies this month. A public sale of the old company’s assets will be held soon. Think of the change as something akin to the bailout of General Motors back in 2009, when the U.S. government severed the automaker’s assets from its debts and let the “new,” debt-free GM continue to operate. Only this time, the EU specified that there’s to be less continuity between the old and new companies. Ticketholders for flight’s after Alitalia’s October 14 demise have been told, basically, tough luck, file for a refund. 

Despite all the bad times, some of us will be sad to see Alitalia land for good. Sure, thousands of people complained about bad service. Booking agents could be impolite or even hostile; delays were, for a time, legend. But the airline served as a cultural bridge and a symbol of the stylish, dolce vita Italy. When you boarded an Alitalia flight at JFK—an often-chaotic ritual, to be sure—you felt as though you were already in Italy, for better or worse, between the Italian announcements and the proper, rather snobbish attitude of the designer-attired cabin crew.

You could feel almost human in premium economy.

For one thing, Italy’s humanity in all its glory seemed to be embodied by the flight attendants. I once watched a female attendant watch with concern as a very young couple tried to soothe their screaming infant. “Give to me,” she told them in accented English. Putting a napkin on her shoulder, she walked up and down the aisle with the infant, rocking it softly and cooing to it. The baby fell asleep within minutes and she gave it back to the parents. “See?” she asked them. “It’s not so hard. Be calm.” 

Alitalia’s premium economy service was a terrific medium between the lay-flat luxury of “Magnifica” class and the awful, cramped economy cabin. Flight attendants brought us glasses of prosecco and swag bags by designers like Dolce & Gabbana and Diesel. The cabin was intimate, with only 17 seats. For a small premium, budget-minded travelers could feel cosseted and a little special. 

Often, though, those good moments were punctuated by less-happy times. The cabin crew wasn’t always interested in keeping flyers happy, retreating to the back of the plane and telling people they could serve themselves from the cart if they were thirsty mid-flight. The meals declined in quality—a recent Covid-19 compliant meal consisted of a few overcooked, stuck-together ravioli and two bottles of mineral water. Italian speakers often got much better treatment than non-Italians. Forget about it if a celebrity boarded and headed to first class; most of the crew would migrate to the front, leaving the other passengers to fend for themselves.

The final indignity, at least for my wife and me, came recently with an email canceling our flight back to New York. We’ve been here in Umbria a few months now, and have to get back to New York for the holidays. And I’ve filed for a refund from the €100 million the government has set aside for people like us,  and rebooked on another airline. It seems that under the agreement with the European Union creating ITA, the new entity doesn’t have to honor our tickets nor does Alitalia have to find us flights on other carriers—which is the usual procedure here in Eurolandia  

So farewell, Alitalia, it’s been a tempestuous affair between you and me. But I’ll still miss you. Now where’s my refund?

Photo up top: Andrea Tavoni, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Other photos are by author.