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 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Other photos are by author.

We had no power, so we went out for coffee. And to look for castles, run an errand, and eat lunch.

It was awfully nice of the power company to warn us of upcoming work and an outage this time. Power outages here in the country are usually of the unplanned kind. The last time it went out, we got back home to a dark house, and a phone call to report the problem let me know that they were working on it and we’d be back online in a few hours. This time, for planned work, the power company posted notices up and down the road and stuffed our mailbox with one.

So we woke up early enough to use the espresso machine and to make sure our devices were charged. We sat around wondering if they really were going to cut the juice at 8:30 because it was a rainy morning. And at 8:32 the music stopped and the wifi cut out. We started to read novels but after awhile thought instead of waiting around, we’d go check out the borgos in the area that we always see from the road and say “we’ll have to check out XX one of these days.” Finally, it was one of those days.

If you’re new to this blog, a brief explanation. This region is called the mystical heart of Italy for a good reason. It’s densely wooded, hilly and mountainous, depending on where you are, and it’s dotted with castles, both adapted for modern use or abandoned, lonely testaments to the days of chivalry and bloody battles between city-states.

But first up was coffee. We had some at home, but we needed booster shots. And we had all the time in the world. We have a bunch to choose from and this morning we went to the next town, which has a sweet bar with lots of outdoor seating—perfect for a pandemic. Unlike bars (cafes in the U.S.) in touristy areas, in these local spots you don’t pay extra to hang around. Sure, you can grab a quick one standing at the bar, but in this area you tell the barista what you want and bring it to a couch or table and hang out until you need to go. First stop, then, was the Bar Dolce Vita in Pianello, behind a gas station. So what if it’s not romantically located? Good coffee, terrific outdoor seating, friendly baristas—it’s a genuine neighborhood hangout.

The first borgo on the list was Castel d’Arno (apologies for the outdate and weird-looking website). It’s a hamlet that’s part of Perugia and is up a narrow winding road. Yeah, you can describe most of the roads around here that way. We saw some workmen, and a guy supervising their work told us he rented out apartments in the hamlet. He told us to walk under an arch to an overlook and wow, even on a day full of threatening clouds and mists, the view was pretty fantastic.

It was raining down there, but not at Castel d’Arno.

Next up? Sterpetto, another tiny borgo, this time part of neighboring Assisi. Sterpetto is bigger than Castel d’Arno and looked in better shape. In general, Assisi seems to maintain its outlying hamlets better than Perugia, whose “frazioni” often seem to suffer in favor of the jewel-like historic center. Sterpetto has a working church and buildings that people actually live in. Its site is comparable in that wow factor, but Sterpetto just feels less like the 21st century has passed it by. Our gardener told me a funny story involving the borgo. A local businessman, a big man in every way, decided he’d lose weight by walking from the neighboring Pianello up the hill to Sterpetto and back. Sounds like a plan, right? Problem is, a guy works up an appetite on a long walk like that, and this man ate a couple of pizzas on the way back. Pizzas in Italy are individually sized, but still….

Would The New York Times call Sterpeto “tidy and well-kept”?
New desk lamp, meet old worry beads.

Speaking of the 21st Century, we next dropped into it by stopping at the megastore Leroy Merlin. It’s a French chain of big box stores that’s sort of like Lowe’s or Home Depot. Only L-M, or as The Spartan Woman pronounces it, “Lee-Roy,” is more stylish. With time to waste until pranzo (lunch), we looked at the light fixtures—I needed a new desklamp—and the tiles. We picked up some strong brackets to hang an amazing poster a friend sent us of the Spolete “Due Mondi” music festival, and took mental notes for a not-happening bathroom renovation.

Finally, lunch. We figured we still had some time to waste before the juice came on. We debated most of the morning off and on where to go. We could have gone north, back to our area to, perhaps, Il Panaro near Gubbio. Terrific torta al testo and rootsy homemade food. But there’s a strange waiter who may or may not pretend that he doesn’t understand our order and who once offended a diminutive but not too small friend of our kid’s by giving her a tiny wine glass.

We were almost in Assisi anyway. We normally avoid the place during the day, especially in summer, because it’s crawling with tourists and pilgrims and nuns and monks and souvenir vendors and….you get the idea. But on the off season and at night, it’s just a really pretty hilltown. The Spartan Woman remembered having really good stringozzi cacio e pepe at a restaurant right on the main piazza, the Taverna dei Consoli, which sounded good to me. We had equally decadent antipasti, little onion tartlets with a creamy truffle sauce for me, and a fonduta of pecorino and truffle for her. We spent a bit more than we normally would for an impromptu lunch, but it was worth it. Besides, we took the really long way back to the car, so we worked it off.

Even better, the lights came on an hour before they promised.

Image up top: the piazza outside the Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi, as seen from above and in black & white

Somehow we’ve managed to fill the void of having fewer guests this summer

We have a new guest this week, someone from the neighborhood. Or so it seems—it’s a horse, apparently a mare. She’s super skinny and she’s ravenous. This is good for one thing; it means I don’t have to mow the lawn which, after a heatwave and drought-induced slumber, is suddenly alive, green and growing. But it means occasionally dealing with the digestive results of her buffet. I just texted a neighbor who might know who her humans may be. [UPDATE: She belongs to our neighbors, who came by to encourage her to go home. She apparently likes our grass better.]

Howdy, neighbor!

Such is life in the Umbrian countryside. People ask me “what do you do all day?” Sometimes I ask myself the same question. But these few months have gone by way too quickly, and part of the reason is probably that it’s never dull around here, even without the parade of guests we’ve had in pre-Covid summers.

I mentioned a neighbor. Our house was part of a working farm that takes in guests. The owners sold us this house and almost two acres of their land. The business is called an agriturismo, and this one specifically is named Ca’Mazzetto. It’s certified organic and it produces olive oil and wool from a flock of about 125 Sardinian sheep.

Ca’Mazzetto also produces interesting people. One of them is Joonas Sotgia, a young guy about the age of our younger daughter. Joonas is half Finn and half Italian, though to look and listen to him he’s 100 percent Italian; his mother is from northern Finland. He got back about a week ago from Afghanistan, where he was working for the Italian NGO Emergency in the southern city of Lashkargah. Joonas isn’t a doctor, he took care of logistics and hiring of the nonmedical staff at the group’s hospital there.

Joonas relaxes with a drink the Taliban don’t approve of.

I did a formal interview with him the other day, which I’ll release soon. But that evening we sat out in the yard and updated each other about our lives; it’s been two years since he, The Spartan Woman, and I were in the same place. We talked about how we handled this pandemic, his last job in Slovakia for Amazon (key takeaway—he won’t buy from them, ever), and how the Taliban left the Italians alone, and when they came into the hospital they left their guns at the gate.

We don’t just sit around and talk. Like I’ve written before, The Spartan Woman and I walk. We walk up and down hills, we follow trails, rutted roadways, cow paths up mountains, etc. We continue to do it; doing so is part of The Spartan Woman’s boot camp for the nearly elderly. This is contagious, and we’ve taken to judge our guests by whether they like to hike with us or not.

For example, an America friend from our Staten Island neighborhood stayed with us for a bit. TSW and she do take walks through Staten Island’s Botanical Gardens at Snug Harbor. But those are level and not that long. Wendy (the friend) was craving escape and Italy, but when we told her about our morning routine, she said she’ll stay by the pool and read a book and let us have all the fun. Fat chance. She was addicted the first time up the road. Maybe it’s the vistas. Maybe the neighborhood dogs, which are impossibly cute and impossibly addicted to the biscuits we give them. By the end of her stay, Wendy was charging up hillsides and goading us to walk further. Now back in the U.S., she’s, um, strongly encouraging her husband to get vertical and move.

TSW and Wendy enjoy a break in Spello from climbing up steep hills.

So if you visit us, you’ve been warned.

We tried to find good places for Wendy to practice her new favorite hobby. We drove around the region, keeping in mind that because of Covid-19 we didn’t want to hang around with too many people. So we drove up into the Valnerina to visit one of our favorite places, the Piano Grande di Castelluccio, and on the way back we stopped to eat in Norcia, the gastronomical capital of Umbria. While we had a terrific lunch, it was heartbreaing to see that much of the town is still in ruins as a result of the devastating earthquakes of 2016.

What’s left of Norcia’s duomo.

What else? Gelato! Okay, I’ve been eating the stuff since I was a kid. It’s different from American ice cream in being made mostly from milk rather than cream. Plus it’s less aerated and the flavors are more intense, possibly because it’s servied a bit warmer than ice cream.

We’ve got our spots in the big cities. Well, okay, in Perugia (population about 170,000). And it’s terrific. But our friend Angelo pointed us to the Oxy Bar in the hamlet of Palazzo di Assisi, and we’re hooked. Great flavors, terrific service—all the standard stuff is terrific. What Oxy adds is its location. It’s right in the center of the small town, across the street from a castle that’s become a warren of restaurants and apartments.Oxy is next door to the town’s church, which conveniently has lots of places in front to perch.

If it’s a summer night, it’s time for a gelato.

There’s nothing quite like a summer night in Italy when the gelateria is one of the only games in town. The older folks sit at the tables in front, while everyone else is either standing in groups, walking around saying hello, or finding a spot in front of the church to hang out. You hear that flowing babble that characterizes the Umbrian accent when you’re not paying attention to what people are saying. And everyone’s united in the easy pleasure of a sweet treat on a summer night.

I’d be negligent not to mention the trattoria across the street from Oxy, Not the hipster-vibed “Gnocco e gin” place in the castle, but the friendly, family run Osteria del Cambio. Food like it serves up would be an expensive night out in New York, but here it’s mom’s home cooking. Or grandma’s. It’s Angelo’s favorite hangout, and he calls it by the proprietor’s name, Catia. When I came alone last year, Angelo and I had lunch once a week there. TSW, Angelo, and I recently had dinner at Catia’s and we didn’t hold back–antipasti, tagliatelle with black truffles, a “secondo,” wine and coffee, and the damage was all of €48, or about $56. You might get a pizza and a couple of drinks for that at Ribalta in New York.

For best results, combine Catia’s and Oxy.

We’re heading into autumn now. The weather’s changing, alternating between brilliant dry days and cloudy changeable ones. It’s time to close the pool, wear long pants when we go into the city, and to think of more ambitious hikes. Our aim is to tackle the uphill path to Assisi with a reward at the end in town: a decadent lunch.

Where’s Gualdo?

Saluti da Valfabbrica! Stavo per scrivere qualcosa profonda, intellettuale, pieno di osservazioni, ma….

Oops, wrong language. Greetings from Valfabbrica! I was about to write something deep, full of observations, intellectual even. But I didn’t like where I was going. I must’ve been in a bad mood. Anyway, we have Wendy the houseguest hanging around these days, so we’ve been showing her around, including a Sunday morning trip to one of our favorite hill towns, Gualdo Tadino. Maybe we’re trying to convince that by being here, we’re doing right by us? I dunno. in any event, I’m addicted to my iPhone’s camera, and this is what we’ve been up to. Deep Thoughts will have to wait.

First WendyDay: Pizza at Perugia’s Mediterranea, with outdoor Covid-compliant tables. Sourdough chewy crust. Perfect.
Not the Staten Island Ferry: We took the boat from Tuoro sul Trasimeno to Isola Maggiore in the lake. It was a good place for The Spartan Woman and Wendy to catch up.
Great place—the ruins of an ancient mill—to store a motorcycle, no?
I just like this courtyard. Move along.

Gotta FaceTime with my dad every couple of days.
Covid meant that our town’s annual pre-autumn celebration was shorter and by reservation only. But we’re happy it wasn’t completely canceled, like last year’s.
We walked around town after dinner at the “taverna”—when towns set up outdoor restaurants for celebrations. The iPhone’s night mode always makes the mundane look interesting, even if I have to admit that our cantilevered town hall is pretty interesting by itself.
Our neighbor has a sheepdog pup (breed: Maremmano Abruzzese), who came to visit the other morning. He’s a quick study; he took to doggie biscuits right away.
Cappuccinos on a Sunday morning in (finally) the town of Gualdo Tadino, one of our favorite towns around here.I don’t remember what The Spartan Woman and Wendy were talking about, but they laugh together a lot in general.
There’s something endearingly eccentric about the town. And its main square is a splendid public living room.
I love the upper part of Gualdo, which has some of the most interesting buildings in the region. Most of this part of town is pedestrian-only, too.
I don’t usually do this, but somehow the trees told me to get them to stage a photo.

If it’s Tuesday, we must be trekking

trekking
trek|king
pronuncia: /ˈtrɛkking/

sostantivo maschile

escursione impegnativa realizzata su sentieri montani, in genere di ridotta accessibilità

In other words, hiking

Last week I mentioned how we continue to distance socially. The dreaded Delta Covid-19 variant is working its way around Italy , and although almost everyone we know here is fully vaccinated, and that breakthrough infections are pretty rare, it’s better to be sure(r). So when I get antsy (it’s usually me. The Spartan Woman is surreally happy with her own company), instead of checking out a town/winery/restaurant/museum, we’ve taken walks in the country. It doesn’t mean we’re total hermits; I was happy to bump into a friend at the local bar when we had a post-walk cappuccino. But we’ve cut down on socializing.

Happily, one of the benefits of living in a region like Umbria is that it’s mostly rural and that means we’re near everything from lakes to rivers to rolling hills to the mountains that form the backbone of the Italian peninsula, the Apennines. And Italians have embraced hiking and being outdoors in general to an enormous degree. That means well-maintained and well-marked trails almost everywhere. We have a couple of trailheads right down the road from our house, but we wanted to take a ride Tuesday, too. (For some reason, it’s always a Tuesday. )

So off we went to the felicitously named Monte Cucco (say “kook-koh”). The mountain is on the border between Umbria and our neighbor, Le Marche (lay MAR-kay), and at 1566 meters high, is the centerpiece of a national park. It’s maybe 45 minutes from us normally, though a detour due to a closed section of highway slowed us down a little. It’s amazing how different an area that close to us can look. Maybe they’ve decided to go with that mountain resort look on purpose, but one of the towns at the base of the mountain, Sigillo, has a strong Alpine vibe. The buildings have roofs with more pitch than usual around here, for example.

You hang a right to an unassuming street but with the all-important brown sign indicating a Big Deal Tourist Attraction—the Monte Cucco park—and once past some apartment buildings, you climb up the usual (for here) mountain road, complete with switchbacks and occasionally bereft of Armco barriers.

We found ourselves, as we did two years ago, in the middle of what looked like an Alpine hideaway. There were a few campers, a shower/bathroom building, and a rustic hotel-restaurant. Picnic tables are spread throughout the area; just right for us because we brought sandwiches and fruit. We did not bring warm clothes, though. Although it was warm down in the lowlands, up on the mountain we felt an unusual thing–cool crisp air. We momentarily envied the young couple we saw wearing windbreakers.

Armed with trekking poles

Then we hiked. Our kids bought us trekking poles and this was our inaugural hike using them. Where have they been all my life? What seemed dangerously vertical two years ago now was an easy walk. Sure, we used our arms more, but it was a small change compared to the huge benefit. Plus, we’ve shed our Covid-19 extra kilos (don’t ask about the other kilos that hang around stubbornly), so traipsing up and down hills doesn’t seem like such a big deal.

This year, we took a left turn—there are two main trails in this part of the park, called the Val di Ranco. At various points I couldn’t sworn I was on a trail in New York’s Catskills, or even on our little Staten Island. Most people don’t picture dense woods and Italy together. But believe me, they exist. I like to think of old-growth forests—and this is one, judging by the lack of low dense shrubbery—as a sort of natural green cathedral, and the paths in the valley fit that description nicely.

[continues]

Green cathedral

We weren’t alone. Every now and then we heard the murmur of the Central Italian dialect. If you don’t listen carefully to the words, it’s like a running brook of voices. At a couple of points, a fearless teenaged boy on the mountain bike passed in the opposite direction. He reined in his leaping style to avoid us. At another point we saw a young family group—parents and young girls—walking down a precipitous slope with the nonchalance of someone walking down Madison Avenue. At one point, we thought that the path looped around back to where we started because we saw the same kid on his bike twice. We were right, sort of. We did loop back near the parking area, but we were about 30 meters or about 100 feet above it.

Unexpected fellow hikers

So we turned around and retraced our steps. Soon we heard footsteps behind us—decidedly non-human footsteps. We turned to see a beautiful mare and her foal out for a little stroll. They were too used to humans to be wild. After some sottovoce encouragement—she was guarding her baby—the two horses passed us and were soon our of sight.

Lazy afternoon

After lunch at one of the picnic tables—sandwiches and a caprese salad and fruit—we got back into the car and headed up to one of the peaks. I’ve decided that my main job for the rest of the summer is to get to all the mountain peaks around here. We passed a herd of cattle—how do they get up here?—and found the parking area. We’d been here two years ago and it all looked as expected. But we did not expect to see the green-blue of the Adriatic Sea shimmering in the distance, past the coastal flatlands.

The Adriatic’s out there.

That reminds me. Gotta get to the beach one of these days.

We took a walk one day on an island in our landlocked region

How did we do this? Easy—there’s a big lake nearby, Lago Trasimeno. Brits sometimes call it Lake Thrasymene or some such, but they shouldn’t. It’s the biggest lake on the Italian peninsula proper, and if you’re a history buff, it’s where Hannibal’s great army fought the Romans. These days it’s somewhat less heroic, and probably more enjoyable. Lots of northern Europeople seem to like it; camping lots are filled with Dutch and German-plated cars. And Jeremy Irons and singer (sorta) Ed Sheeran have homes on or near the lake.

I was getting a little antsy after being in our mountaintop aerie a few days, except to descend to the plains to buy food and wine. We’re trying to continue social distancing as much as we can, avoiding large crowds and big cities. That leaves checking out or revisiting our favorite natural spots on weekdays, and the lake is one of those spots. Sure, there are lake towns that resemble beach resorts. But you can hop on a ferry and visit two of the three islands, Isola Polvese and Isola Maggiore, and hardly see anyone. (You guessed it: There is an Isola Minore.)

For this little trip, we chose Isola Polvese. For one thing, we’ve been there less often. And two, the walk around the perimeter of the island is relatively flat and the weather’s been either steamy like a New York August, or blazingly hot and pitilessly sunny. We looked at the forecast and chose steamy but slightly less hot, and it worked out.

The only problem, if you want to call it that, was the trip there. We wanted to make a mid-morning ferry without getting out too early, so we had to take the fast route, which involves our local highway (fast) and the Perugia ring road (hilly and traffic-clogged). Still, it was nice to be out. I’d dialed the ferry dock area into our navigation system, which was a mistake. I know my way around pretty much, but the nav is good for traffic and construction delays. It wasn’t that morning and seemed to like a ridiculously circuitous route that we ignored while The Voice practically shouted “fate un’inversione a U! (make a U-turn!).

Isola Polvese is uninhabited but has an elegant hotel and what looks to be a nice restaurant. It’s also home to a nature preserve, some ruins, including the shell of a castle fort, and most importantly, an environmental study center. The center gives guided tours on weekends, but we just wanted to have a different—and level—place to walk and picnic. For our elegant picnic, we toted peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and water. I can just hear the cries of people saying that’s not Italian! What can I tell you? Lunch was easy to carry—and the jelly was Italian elderberry preserves.

While the bar we stopped in before taking the ferry was observing distancing rules, the ferry completely ignored them. We found ourselves on a boat packed with Slovakian teenage campers. Funny thing is, they were incredibly polite and quiet. As we found our seats, a few boys said “buongiorno,” and they mostly looked around and stared at their phones, as did their companions. Italian kids would’ve been much more boisterous and in constant motion.

The Spartan Woman and I sporting the latest in monocolor mask fashion.

It took 10 minutes to reach Polvese. I’d forgotten how beautiful the landscaping is. As you circumnavigate the island, you pass cypresses, fields, fairly dense woods, marsh areas, and a long alley that alternates cypresses and oleander bushes. Unfortunately for oleander almost everywhere around here, a late April frost almost killed them off. Most of us saved them by ruthlessly cutting down almost to the ground, and then the roots took over for new growth.

If you go, check the ferry schedule and the environmental center’s website, if you’re interested in taking a tour.

As for the other visitable island, we’ll probably head there in a few weeks. If we do, I’ll write about it then.

Slovakian campers waiting to dock.
Sometimes Italy can’t help looking like Italy.
A lake, a boat, fishermen, serenity
Even uninhabited islands need to have a crenelated fortress.
I was having a little too much fun with the saturation and vibrance sliders.

[Updated to fix a factual error. Thanks, reader Vian. ]

How do you live like that?

We’re hiding out in the dark. It’s a bright sunny hot day out there. Beautiful, in fact. But you know what they say about mad dogs and Englishmen.

We get asked a lot by our American friends about, for example, the lack of air conditioning in our mountain retreat here. We love to say that we don’t need it about 99 percent of the time. Yeah, even when the Mediterranean sun is beating pitilessly down on us mortals, when you need sunglasses just to step outside, etc etc. What do we do? We conform to the local custom and hide out. In fact, I just had a wonderful short nap, after which I stared at the one open shutter looking at how the breeze swayed the tree branch. Hey, after years of working in busy newsrooms and tending to computer systems, this is not a bad thing.

It’s bright and hot out there, so I write in the dark.

In fact, our friends from across the pond are often amazed at this and the dozens of other small differences between the continents. In the old days those differences might have meant a lower standard of living for Europeans, but these days it’s often the U.S. that feels behind the times.

For us, it’s all about adaptation. We’re lucky in a couple of ways. First, culturally: I grew up in a Sicilian household that just happened to be in New York City. So the language wasn’t hard to pick up; when i was 5 years old my nonno (grandfather) from Palermo lived with us. He and I took walks almost every afternoon. He didn’t speak English and I don’t remember speaking Italian. But we had pretty involved conversations, so maybe I did, or at least understood enough of what he was saying. My first experience here in Italy wasn’t as a tourist; we stayed with family for half the summer. Likewise, The Spartan Woman lived in Perugia while attending the university there.

Nonno and me, a few years ago

As for climate, so far we’ve been blessed with only slightly strange weather and nothing like the craziness up in Germany. It’s been hot for the most part, but not too—around 30-31 degrees C, or 86-88 Fahrenheit. We get breezes up here since we’re at the crest of a hill. And our house, like every house around here, is made of stone, thick, meter/yard thick stone, which does a good job of keeping things cool during the summer. All we have to do is close the shutters along the sun’s path, which is why we sit in the dark at lunchtime.

Thinking about this stuff makes me remember last summer, during the darkest days of the Covid-19 pandemic. TSW and I (and our trusty dachshund Lola) basically stayed indoors most of the time, except for dog walks. We stayed in the shade too, but that’s because our Staten Island home is on a lushly tree-lined street. It being New York, though, it was humid as well as hot. So we kept the air conditioners running almost all the time, and the television was usually tuned to MSNBC or, for relief, HGTV. We sent out for food and wine, and I took naps out of sheer boredom. Our electric bills were through the roof; luckily we didn’t have huge gasoline bills because 1-we didn’t go anywhere, and if we did 2–we’re bad Americans and have a small European hatchback instead of a monster SUV or pickup like lots of our neighbors.

In fact, I gassed up last week here as we set out for a town in the mountains, Casteluccio di Norcia, and the vast glacial plain around it. One of my cousins from Sicily is driving around Italy on her wedding trip and she and her husband stopped by for a few days. So we were four adults in our Renault Clio, what the industry calls a B-segment hatchback (in U.S. terms, think Ford Fiesta or Honda Fit). Part of the way involved highway driving, but most of the route consisted of one lane in each direction, steep uphills and switchbacks, and lots of gear changing (as well as passing slow trucks, which means revving the small engine to the max). It’s a diesel, the kind of car that will be extinct in Europe in a decade along with all internal combustion engines. We filled up yesterday and for 338 kilometers, we bought about 15 liters, or nearly four gallons of fuel. It works out to about 52 miles per gallon—and that’s pretty normal here. Yet the four of us fit into the car fine and, yes, the a/c was on. I hate wind noise, especially when driving on a highway.

Meet Clio, who doesn’t drink very much.

Perversely, Covid-19 has brought some changes that have updated the way people here live. Cash was king not so long ago, and it wasn’t unusual to see someone pay for a load of groceries with a wad of cash. But now, most stores not only accept contactless debit or credit cards, but the same machines mean you can use Apple or Google pay on your phone. I’d guess that it’s more common here than in New York, where local merchants are still amazed when I pull my iPhone out of my pocket to pay.

We shared “the best beer in the world” at Umami Beer.

Speaking of Covid-19, WTF? We look at the vaccination maps back in the U.S. with a mixture of wonder and horror. Sure, there are some antivax crazies here, but it’s not a big thing. If there’s any criticism of the vaccination program it’s that it took awhile to gather steam. But now Italians are among the best-vaccinated people in Europe, and probably the world. After a slow start it seems like everyone we know has gotten both jabs, and the tend to be Pfizer. So we were less nervous when we got together with a few local friends here for, um, for burgers and beer. There’s a laid-back place near Assisi called Umami Beer, and it’s one of the favorite places for our friend Letizia Mattiacci, who runs the cooking school La Madonna del Piatto. I don’t feel sheepish at all plugging her and her classes; she’s warm, fluent in English, and her cooking pays homage to Umbria while having a fresher, more veg-friendly take on familiar foods. (By the way, she and her Dutch husband Ruurd also have a B&B there and can put you up between classes.) Umami’s no simple burger joint; owner Roberto sources high-quality ingredients and tracks down great beers from around the globe.

The Delta Covid-19 variant is beginning to be felt here, too, and it’s put a little damper on things. We don’t go out as much, and we’re still supposed to wear masks in indoor public spaces. The government says that it may tighten some rules in a few regions. But following public health rules here seems less fraught and less of a statement. Everyone does it and there’s no stigma or weirdness. If it’s one thing Italians are really good at, it’s self-preservation.

Is this what they mean by fusion cuisine?

If you wander around food-related sites on the interwebs, you might notice a strange little trend: Italian cooks reacting to the horrors visited on Italian dishes by non-Italian cooks. Some of those non-Italians might even be pretty famous, like the British restaurateur and TV personality Gordon Ramsay. You’ll see the Italians wincing as Ramsay and others put cream in spaghetti carbonara, or cook pasta in jarred tomato sauce. One of my favorites is the couple Harper and Eva (he’s American, she’s Calabrese) who good naturedly explore Whole Foods and Domino’s Pizza. Eva’s reactions alone are worth the time suck.

Eva does not like Ramsay’s “carbonara.” Not at all.

Here on our mountaintop getaway, we manage to visit other horrors on the food of this region. You see, there really is no such thing as “Italian food” because the cooking in Italy is so regional. No, hyper-regional, because dishes can change even from town to town. Get a local nonna (grandma) to show you how to cook a local dish and she’ll give explicit directions and mention what is absolutely forbidden: no onion and garlic together in X, put celery in Y and you’ve dishonored all your ancestors, etc.

We’re in Umbria, a small, mostly rural, landlocked region tucked between Lazio (Rome’s region) and Tuscany in Central Italy. For a region with a population just shy of 900,000, it’s sure got a distinctive cuisine. it’s a land of black truffles, legumes, mushrooms, pork products, and grains. Try to picture all that and you realize that mostly of this food is brown or black. A typical snack is chicken or goose liver paté on toast—I was served that along with a drink the other day.

If you’ve grown up with that, it’s fine. Our Perugian “mother,” Giovanna, shunned most vegetables and compensated by having huge bowls of fruit on hand for dessert. (Her idea of health food was to bake eggplant slices with lots of crumbled sausage on top.) But The Spartan Woman and I have Sicilian (100 percent for me; 50 percent for her) and Greek ancestry. Both Sicilian and Greek cuisines are colorful, vegetable-friendly, bright flavored and citrusy, while Umbrian food tends to be heavier, more comfort-food like. Add to the mix the fact that we’re native New Yorkers, and therefore entitled to eat any kind of food we like that exists on the planet, and you’ve got the makings of either interesting contrasts or a disaster. Having relatively good taste, we’ve managed to avoid most disasters.

Oh, and we don’t eat meat, which keeps a big part of the food here off-limits to us. We do eat fish when we feel decadent or lazy Plus us native New Yorkers (sorry copyeds, but I’m using NYC dialect here) grew up eating seafood. A couple of decades ago this would have probably cramped our style big-time, because Umbrians didn’t eat much fish and you could hardly find any in the markets. Lately, though, they’ve embraced seafood and supermarkets have huge fish departments.

Two years ago, pre-Covid, our town of Valfabbrica got together for a multicourse seafood dinner.
An Asian market in Perugia

In good weeks, we’ll get gifts from our neighbors and friends. When Angelo picked us up at Rome’s airport, he gave us a care package, the fixings for a Sicilian blood orange salad, complete with olive oil that his friend produced. And our neighbors at the agriturismo Ca’Mazzetto occasionally show up at the door with freshly made sheep’s milk ricotta.

So what do we cook? Let’s call it Umbria-Sicilian-New York fusion. We pay homage to Umbrian food—I haven’t met a truffle I didn’t like—while at the same time keeping it light and bright with lots of different colored vegetables and spicier/brighter flavors. Luckily, the olive oil here is incredible, green and a little spicy, and enobles simple dishes like borlotti beans stewed with garlic and tomatoes. The markets carry tons of fruits and vegatables, and Italians have embraced healthier food between, you know, a morning Nutella-filled cornetto and an afternoon gelato.At the same time, being Americans generally and New Yorkers in particular, we occasionally crave Asian food. Our area is pretty well served by sushi restaurants and Chinese markets, so it’s not that hard.

But here are some examples of how we feed ourselves and others.

Farro tagliatelle with zucchine, shrimp and tomatoes with Greek egg and lemon sauce
Whole wheat rigatoni with a mushroom ragù
Salad with farro
A Sicilian classic: fried eggplant to put atop spaghetti
Sheet-pan roasted vegetables and feta, a variation of a NY Times recipe