…so they just picked up where they left off

Years and years (and years) ago, a few people who worked at a weekly newspaper would duck out on Friday after the pages shipped to the printer. They were looking for a place to be, where at least some people knew their name. They tried out a little French luncheonette called Chez Brigite, which was pretty good, but it didn’t offer alcohol, which after a long week wordsmithing (ok, nagging people to get their stories in and then trying to put them in English) was a prerequisite. After a few weeks, though, they found their spot: Restaurant Florent.

They–yes, we–didn’t set out deliberately to find French food. We were looking more for a hangout, and Flo provided one. We became regulars, and we had our own table–Table 8 in the corner. We had a regular server, someone we called Nurse Jamie, because she took care of our every need, both potable and spiritual. I could go on–these lunches became legendary, and we became the kind of lunchroom clique that we only dreamed about as high schoolers. But suffice it to say that our Friday lunches created a bond. It’s the kind of bond that comes from working hard on deadline, having a tolerant editor in chief, and being together before journalism in New York, and working at the paper of which we’re alums became as dull as working in an insurance company. (You’ll have to trust me on this; I’m bound by a certain agreement not to speak ill of the dull.)

The shrine and Table 8
The last lunch at Flo’s, with Rose. By this point we’d graduated to Roy Lichtenstein’s table in the back.
Tom and Karen too!

Fast forward (sorry, ex-boss AP, I know you hate this phrase) 20-something years, and we’re in our yard outside the kitchen door here above Valfabbrica, Italy. Ex-art director Doug and his dog come by. We sit around, drink wine with him, play with the dog. Joni’s on her way, Joan of the Texan accent and, back in the day, Lucy Ricardo-like antic personality. (Rose, you know what you must do—next year in Umbria?) We wait; J and husband DQ were coming from Parma, and it would take a few hours. We wait some more, she’s not answering texts. Where is she?

Finally, a rented Audi shows up. DQ is driving, and J is…where? We look, and there she is in the back seat. Apparently DQ says she likes to sit back there and read; she says DQ banishes her because she’s a nervous passenger.

I know. This is all dull detail. But that’s the point. After a few hugs and a look around our place, we settle into a familiar routine. We eat, we drink wine, we talk. No matter that the three of us (plus two extremely patient spouses) haven’t been in the same place at the same time in years.

Jesus, we’re so old. But it doesn’t matter. We may be more settled, somewhat calmer, but we reverted to our roles. Joan is a barely suppressed stick of dynamite and a great raconteur; Doug is our spiritual leader and romantic-in-chief. I don’t know what mine is; maybe facilitator? For whatever reason, being a natural yenta, and not wanting to let go of good friendships, I try to keep in touch with most of the old crew. And when I can, get us together.

Change of venue. Rose. Note to self: Must summon the rest of the crew next year.

Anyway, it was great to see Joan and Dennis for even just a couple of days. They brought vodka and prosciutto from the mother star of Italian cooking, Parma, as well as good vibes and stories. We tried not to be too enthusiastic as we showed them around our nearby big town, Perugia, and we introduced them to the rustic yet camp charms of Anna’s Piatto d’Oro in a tiny hamlet about 20 minutes from here. If you come by, we’ll take you there; Anna knows that it’s my job to pimp the place for her and bring as many American friends around to overeat–it is not a place for delicate appetites.

Doug’s hanging around this summer, living just a few towns away from here. The poor guy, I think he’s become an incurable italophile. I hope the bureaucracy here doesn’t change that.

And Dennis, unlike his misadventure in our apartment when the kids were small, managed not to get locked in the bathroom.

They run a tight ship

I’m always amused when I hear people say that Italy is chaotic. Sure, it can be, but it’s not as random a place as many think it is. Like anywhere, it comes down to priorities.

Let’s look at the United States: it’s got Apple and Google and Amazon (and even Microsoft). All big companies that Get Things Done. But then let’s go down below the ground to New York’s poor excuse of a transit hub, Penn Station. It’s just plain gross. It’s early morning and time for another Acela train to Washington. The crowd mills, looking anxious, looking at the board to give some hint of which track their train will be on. Things are getting ugly, folks, as the anxiety level rises. Finally, the board lights up. People make a mad dash to Track Whatever and to get on the allegedly fast train, they line up. They have to show a ticket to get to the track–oh, and to get to that track you’re riding down a narrow dark escalator. And there are no assigned seats.

So, Italia. We were invited one Sunday to see what goes down on Lago (lake) Trasimeno at the Triathlon Club Perugia. Our friend Federico is Mr. Marathon Man, and he and his friends have set up this place to practice swimming moves in the lake, and there’s a decently level place to run and ride bikes.

The habitués of the TCP think that torturing themselves running/swimming/biking great distances is fun. So that Sunday they had the first big exhibition of the season. And anyone who thinks that Italians are disorganized should’ve seen this. Everything started on time. Federico enlisted most of his family to work the event, and there were lots of others on hand to guide the competitors from swim to run to their bikes. They even had a kids’ event which also went without a hitch, and started and ended on time.

A few days later, work took me to Milan, where the company I work with (the great people at LC Publishing Group) held four days of discussions, dinners, concerts, a run, working lunches and workshops, all spread throughout Milan, Italy’s second-largest city and its business hub. To get there, I took a combination of bus and train. Fast trains here are called the Frecciarossa—red arrow—and the bus to the train a Freccialink. The bus left on time, got me to Florence’s main train station. Then to find my train. It took a few minutes before the track number came up on the screen, but there was no long line, no scramble for seats. My ticket listed the car number and my assigned seat, and the platform tells you where, for example, car number 7 stops.

Big week, lots happening, hardly a hitch
The New Yorker’s Fabio Bertoni presents an award.

Once there, tons of events, lots of attendees. All on time, and the substantive sessions rarely ran late. Part of the reason is there were few interruptions for questions. It may be a cultural thing for Italian lawyers not to stop and challenge the speaker. Then, the final awards ceremony and party. I forgot how many awards to law firms and department were doled out, but it happened quickly, in about 38 minutes, give or take. No ponderous speeches, no praise of the Glorious Legal Profession. We all got through it, then it was time for a party.

Fresh mozzarella, worth waiting on line for

One more example. Last Saturday night our hometown, Valfabbrica, held a neighborhood fish dinner in one of the old town’s main squares. There were, we figured, some 150-200 attendees. The dinner was supplied by one of the best seafood shops in Perugia, L’Angolo del Pesce. We all reserved and paid days ahead, at either the bar in town or the smoke shop. We show up, give our receipt in, they check us in. We found a few seats at a picnic table, and minutes later, fizzy water and wine show up. What followed was a parade of courses, from mixed antipasto to pasta to a mixed fish grill, to a fish fry. Water and wine refreshed when necessary. Efficient without fuss.

Big night in a small town
Just the beginning….

What that doesn’t tell you is how much fun it is. And that’s what this place adds—you never know exactly how much you’ll enjoy the show, but you will enjoy it, in the company of warm people who are compulsively social. And usually warm and kind.

So what am I saying? I’m not dissing one culture or the other. But when you look at another one, try not to bring your prejudices along with you. (And if you’re in Italy, go with the flow.)

We’ll just take a little break for a mini-travelogue

Oof. I’ve been too busy or too hot to write. When it gets really hot, as it has been for the last two weeks here, I’m in the pool, not sitting at a computer. It’s probably healthier, and has done wonders for my tan.

So, I’ve had work to do. Then we had eight splendid guests, my sister-in-law, her husband, and his siblings and their spouses. Here are some of them, taking shelter under the linden trees.

Unter den Linden

Finally on the 4th of July, we got to take a little road trip. We like to do something a little special. Last year we paid tribute to St. Francis of Assisi’s legacy of peace, love, and maybe understanding by visiting his favorite place to meditate, L’Eremo delle Carcere, on the mountain above Assisi.

This year, we went to Venice. Well, not really Venice, but a tiny town, or “borgo” that’s often called the Venice of Umbria. To get there, we headed south toward Foligno and hung a left. But the car’s navigation system never heard of the new highway we found ourselves on, and at some point we found ourselves in the neighboring region, Le Marche (lay már-kay). We double back and, using my iPhone’s better sat-nav, found Rasiglia, a little gem of a place.

Water, water everywhere

It’s weird–the water source is high on a hill, above the hamlet. It really flows, and the inhabitants built all these channels that send the waters coursing through the town. At one point, a branch takes a turn into a big laundry trough, which is enclosed and does a pretty great impression of air-conditioning. This was good thing, since the sun was about to melt my brain.

Throughout the hamlet, you could hear the sounds of rushing water. It was pretty soothing. The place itself is charming, with a shopkeeper selling fridge magnets and paintings of the town. She gave us a short history lesson, which was reinforced by large grainy photos throughout the hamlet showing us when the waters powered fabric looms and grain mills.

A bridge not too far

We finished off our visit with lunch in a tiny place. We started to sit outside, but they told us it was much cooler inside. And it was. Lunch was simple stuff, on paper and plastic plates and cutlery. Some tagliatelle with summer truffles, a caprese salad, and some panzanella. Pretty close to paradise in other words.

I’ll try to come up with some deep thoughts soon. Maybe one of the four draft posts I started actually works.

Somehow I forgot to write a single word

Okay, I lied. I’ve just been too busy to write here. Besides, life wasn’t all that interesting. Wake up. Walk the dog. Have breakfast. Work. Watch MSNBC because The Spartan Woman is an addict (I’m trying to cure her of this habit, or at least limit it to an hour a day, since they just keep repeating the same thing all day, just with different people).

Walking the dog ain’t bad—the Snug Harbor women and their dogs (all female, too).

We’re up on the mountaintop in Umbria for awhile now, and we had to open the house and get things going again in general. Plus, cobwebs. So I’m going to just update with some random stuff.

First, the Empire Outlets on Staten Island. You may remember my rant about the Wheel of Misfortune, er, The New York Wheel. Well, what a surprise, the Wheel is dead, its part gone to auction, a detritus of lawsuits in its wake, and the Empire Outlets. The thinking was that tourists would finally have a reason to get off the Staten Island Ferry, head for a $30 ride on the wheel, and then go shopping. European tourists, in particular, see clothing and tech stores here as an insane bargain, since the Euro is trading at about $1.12 and Euro sales tax can be 20 percent or more.

If you build it, will they come?

Italians, in particular, go nuts for stores like Abercrombie and Old Navy, hence, the outlet mall. Of course, being on Staten Island, you gotta wonder, since the mall lost its main draw, the Wheel. We’ve watched the construction of the mall with a combination of amusement and horror. The part that faces the street looks like some weird robotic contraption, while the public spaces—outdoor—aren’t too bad. There’s a big underground parking lot for Staten Islanders to drive in and, this is important, NOT HAVE TO STEP FOOT ONTO THE STREETS OF THE DREADED NORTH SHORE. That’s where diversity lives, not to mention that’s where the Wu Tang Clan burst out of Shaolin (aka Staten Island).

Not quite ready for prime time.

Next up: Memorial Day. We spent it with the kids and our friend Marsha. And we grilled Beyond Meat burgers, which are scarily like chop meat. Not having eaten much meat for most of a decade, it definitely felt a little strange. Not that it stopped us.

So real. Surreal.

Then off to Umbria. We shop around for airfares, not having any particular loyalty to one airline. The Spartan Woman is long limbed and so insists on flying premium economy, and we’ve had decent experiences. The roster so far: Alitalia, Norwegian, Iberia, and Lufthansa. Do not take Norwegian. Premium on the 787 “Dreamliner” is fine, if you manage to fly on one. But Norwegian’s flights are invariably late and they love to cancel flights. Plus, the engines on those planes had problems, so they’ve pulled some out of service and have used chartered, old, disgusting, do not do this, aircraft. The other three are fine. Alitalia’s Premium is pretty cosseting, Iberia cheerful and fun, Lufthansa kind and generous when it comes to drinks and food.

The friendly skies of Lufthansa

So here we are. The two of us speak a weird mix of Italian and English to each other, and have done fun stuff like taking the car for an oil change and getting the brush cleared. We take walks, watch Turkish shows on Netflix, and take walks. Did I mention that we take walks? I work, too, in a cool office with a view of the mountains. Non c’è male…(not too shabby)

Polish dulce de leche and a serendipitous wedding

I haven’t written much since we’ve been back in New York—and I haven’t posted what I wrote. Too busy with the usual stuff, work and (ugh) taxes. Truth is, it’s been kind of dull, except for good things like seeing the kids and having the dog around.

But this past week was different. Nope, not talking about the Mueller report. This is about me, remember?

First up: The Spartan Woman had to go to a teacher’s union meeting near Wall Street. She’s retired, but they keep the alums in the fold. I tagged along, having nothing better to do and wanting to get out of the house. I used to work in the neighborhood, so I have my favorite walks. One of them took me to Eataly, where I used to enjoy a mid-afternoon espresso with one of my deputies most days. It may be a semi-pretentious temple of Italian gastronomy, but they actually make good coffee there and it’s not ridiculously priced. Then I walked through the Oculus, which I love in spite of the $4 billion price tag. The passageway under West Street took me nearly out to the river, where I started to head downtown along the Battery Park Promenade. The harbor’s my thing. After living on a mountaintop, the crush of people on the street is a bit much.

One of the few places to get a decent espresso in the city.

So I walk, and I see a tent. There’s a party going on, apparently thrown by the I Love Poland Yacht. People have gathered, but it’s not a huge crowd. “Help yourself to the buffet,” someone told me. I was tempted, but I wasn’t into sausages, sausages and huge balls of stuffed cabbage. But the drinks stand called me. “Some vodka or beer?” Yes, please, the vodka being herb flavored and delicious over ice. A young woman was walking around with a tray, while kids were getting helium-filled balloons. “This is a traditional Polish pastry,” the woman said. “It’s filled with something like dulce de leche.” Thus fortified, I continued my walk and saw views like this:

New Yorkers sometimes forget that they live on a beautiful harbor.

The next day, we walked the Avenue. We live a few houses up from Forest Avenue, the neighborhood’s commercial strip. A few months ago, I walked up and down it with one of the kids, who, looking around, said something like “When did this go all Brooklyn on you?” It’s true–we always had bars, but now we’ve got cafés, cool restaurants, including my favorite local Syrian place, hipster barbers, a bakery that has a gelato stand when it gets warm…you get the idea. We stopped in for breakfast at the On Your Mark Café, a breakfast and lunch place that employs people with special needs. The servers are super-attentive and food’s decent. I’m not a breakfast person but I couldn’t resist the chocolate chip pancakes, made with chocolates the organization makes next door in its chocolatier.

Chocolate, the breakfast of champions

The best adventure, though, was on Friday. I was heading into Manhattan to have lunch with an old friend who was in town the same time I was. We’d been missing each other for the past couple of years when it came to being in New York at the same time. The bus to the ferry was slow and I started to hustle to get the 11:30, just to have a little walking around time in Union Square. But another friend, Joan, intercepted me. “Want to see a wedding on the boat?” she asked. What? Her son was going to tie the knot on the next boat. I guessed that that explained the young woman running around the terminal in a wedding gown. We went over where the other guests were hanging out; I saw another old friend and a former co-worker from 20 years ago.

Making a vow or two.
Meet Gary and Joan, parents of the groom

We boarded, went downstairs and, yeah, this was an official wedding, with a bridal party decked out (and sporting similar retro sneakers). The officiant gave a little speech, saying he didn’t have many profound things to say, but that we were all gathered there because of love. “And that’s a good thing, right?” Right.


Che FICO!

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.

The old grind

I whined a couple of weeks ago about the dark, grey, rainy weather we’d been having and how it sent me wandering around the local Centro Commerciale (somehow “mall” sounds better that way). One of our friends here had a suggestion: She said we should visit the Antico Molino Bordoni, an old-fashioned flour mill outside Foligno, a few towns south of us. They use millstones, they’re powered by water, and their wheat and corn—for polenta—flours are better than anything you can buy in the supermarket.

Our friend, Letizia Mattiacci, was right. And she should know. Letizia is the Madonna del Piatto, a cooking school and B&B outside of Assisi. She gives great classes and puts up students, if they wish, in her beautiful old farmhouse up in the hills. She’s often quoted in the U.S. press whenever American travel writers somehow manage to wander from neighboring Tuscany to see what this little region next door is like. If you’re in Umbria and you like to cook, you should take a class from her. (In fact, you should make a special trip here to cook with her; it’s worth it.)

Of course, being my usual procrastinating self, we didn’t get around to visiting the mill until the weather turned sunny and springlike. No matter—it was a splendid way to spend President’s Day. We pointed the Renault’s nav system to the address, and off we went, dodging the usual maniacal black Audi drivers on the highway.

When we got near to the mill, we found a main road under construction. The exit we saw in real life didn’t match the exit on the navigation map; they apparently are turning a minor road into a limited access highway-type thing. So we breezed right by it. “Recalcolo percorso,” the female robot voice said. “Fate un inversione a U.” (Recalculating route…make a u-turn.) Ms. Renault was going apoplectic and I couldn’t stop giggling every time I heard “a U,” which sounds sort of like “ah-oooh!”

We doubled back, found the right way off, and drove down the street. It all looked unassuming, and we found a spot right out in front. You wouldn’t know by looking at it that there’s been a mill on this site since the 14th century. There was a little storefront with a few sample bags out on a shelf, along with a multilingual poster about the place. People were obviously at work in the workshops in back and off to the side, but it seemed like no one was taking care of the retail end. Or so we thought until the owner’s son came over to greet us. We told him that Letizia sent us, which brought a smile and an offer to show us around.

Our guide for the morning

And what a show. I loved this stuff, being a food geek and a manufacturing geek. I love watching videos of assembly lines, and my father worked for a company that made electronic connectors, and I used to love going to work with him and watching the big presses and molding machines do their thing.

“Everything is run with renewable energy,” our guide started off. Being a mill, there’s a river nearby. It used to turn the turbines that turned the stones, and it still can all work that way. But they combined new electric mills with old-fashioned, real stones, and all the power is generated by the water rushing by. They rerouted the water to run their generators–a pretty neat trick.

The real thing
A river ran through it.

They still have all the old stuff though. We walked out to the street and down a stairway that looks like your typical New York City stairs to an apartment house boiler room and found ourselves in an stone and arch wonderland. The old millstones stood by waiting for another batch of farro or red corn, and the old water channel stood mute, waiting for the river to run through it. To be honest, the place would make a terrific party or dance venue, with some decent lights.

What really impressed though, is something I’ve seen time and again here: pride in the craft. Our guide obviously buys into the whole operation; it’s provided his family’s livelihood for a century. He knew everything about the place and its history and how everything works. We learned about the difference between what they do and what big producers do, from the texture of the millstones to the grains they use. These people use strictly local grain—he had a couple of ears of dried corn to show us what goes into the polenta. It was dark red and yellow, “more nutritious than the lighter corn the mass producers use.”

That pride isn’t limited to Italy, though it seems easier to run across small producers in this part of the country that’s dominated by small producers and artisans. You see it in New York City’s greenmarkets, too. You can spend hours talking to a farmer or cheesemaker if that’s your thing. Mass produced food may be cheaper, but it’s usually less intense. I find myself adding hardly anything to vegetables I buy at the greenmarket or in the local markets here, because the food doesn’t travel far to get here, so you get a more developed flavor.

Decisions, decisions…impossible. So we bought one of each.

We bought a bunch of different flours at the mill. We’re trying the polenta tomorrow. It’s not the instant, add hot water and stir kind. I’ll be stirring for about 45 minutes. I take Letizia’s word that it’s worth it. In fact, she stopped by yesterday with some handmade treats, one of which is the most intense orange marmalade I’ve ever tasted.

Dining Finely

I wrote restaurant reviews for a decade, back (way back) in the 1990s. It was a great part-time gig. I wrote a column every four weeks, sharing the space the other times with a friend/colleague and a semi-famous reviewer whose prose made me flinch. We invited friends and family along so that I got to taste enough dishes to get a sense of what the kitchen could do.

Best of all, my company paid for it. My only limit was $500—I think that above that, the CFO had to go into more detail to the IRS about the charge. Back then, it was no problem; once we went to one of New York’s most exalted restaurants and for three, paid the princely sum of $450. I think that’s about what you’d pay for one person these days at places like Del Posto, Masa, Blanca, or any of the other ridiculously priced New York temples of gastronomy.

I think about this stuff because I like to go out and see what cooks are up to. But at the same time I flinch at what it costs. In New York and, I guess, London and San Francisco and similar places, the cost of going out even to an okay restaurant has skyrocketed, with entrées typically in the $35-45 range. That’s just nuts. Sorry, but it is. We’re paying for real estate. And don’t get me started about wine prices, with just-okay restaurant wine lists started at $50, and the wines at that price aren’t exactly transcendent. And $5-7 for an espresso? No. At that point, it’s just food fetishism and, yeah, pay to play for being part of the scene in a world city.

The Spartan Woman and I were talking about this the other night when we went out. Our favorite “fancy” restaurant in Perugia had a vegan night with a guest chef, Angelo Belotti. The restaurant, L’Officina Ristorante Culturale, has a mission, and I’m on its mailing list. It features local produce and other fashionable stuff, but it’s done that before hipsters knew where Brooklyn appears on the New York subway map. And it has a lot of special nights. Once, in a nod to someone on staff, it had a Greek night, and the menu featured modern, deconstructed takes on Greek cooking standbys.

We went intrigued by a recent Vegan Wednesday. What would they do? The place is known for beautiful presentation and enjoyable tasting menus. The newsletter contained the menu, but it was just words that wouldn’t convey how it would look, or taste. The menu also said the tasting menu would come with three glasses of wine.

Oh, and all this came at the princely sum of €25. That’s right. At current euro/dollar exchange rates, that’s $28.23. And there’s no additional tax or tip. You just don’t tip in Italy, unless you’re a tourist or really, really want to reward someone for truly special service. But normally, it isn’t done. Wait staff earn a decent wage, and don’t have to grovel to customers. The system upends the power dynamic in an American or Canadian restaurant.

And yeah, I get it. New York vs. a small provincial city in Italy, world capital vs. not a world capital (but a pretty cool international college town), masters of the universe vs. normal people—although if there were a sophistication in food contest, I’d put any Perugian up against a reader of Pete Well’s New York Times restaurant review column.

Anyway, on to the photos. First course:

Carrot “fettuccine” with Jerusalem artichokes and marinated artichokes.

Purée of soybeans soup with five spices
Spicy buckwheat with fennel, Swiss chard and olives
Little phyllo sack with spinach, raisins and sesame with hummus of curried lentils and mango


Savory cannoli with broccoli “cream” and sun-dried tomatoes on a bed of mixed oranges

Vegan dessert: Chocolate mousse with caramelized grape tomatoes


If I were reviewing, I’d say the only false step were the tomatoes that topped the chocolate mousse. They weren’t really caramelized. Otherwise, it all tasted as good as it looked, even if everything was understated. The chef came around to every table and explained the menu, and, he said, the spare salting was a deliberate choice.

But Vegan Wednesday accomplished its main task. It showed how vegan food needn’t be a punishment, and instead can be creative, provocative, and enjoyable. We aren’t vegan, or even real vegetarians (when we’re feeling decadent, we eat fish and seafood), but eliminating meat has turned us into more creative cooks. And it looks as though L’Officina was up to the challenge, too. I don’t think I’d ever go vegan—I like cheese on my pizza and honey in my tea—but it’s nice to see that it doesn’t have to mean the virtuous lentil loaves of the vegan past.

The road taken

A few days ago, we were doing our usual morning walk up the road when we bumped into a neighbor, who introduced himself as Claudio. He was out for a walk, too, telling us that he just retired. He told us about his walk, which involves walking down the road and making a turn into a “strada sterrata,” which is an unpaved road. He said that he makes a loop and comes around after being on the Sentiero Francescano. This trail is a series of trails that trace the steps of St. Francis of Assisi when he left his family home and riches, and walked to Gubbio through the woods. A mystical, rebirth ritual walk, in other words.

Curious, we wanted to see if we could replicate Claudio’s walk. (Francesco’s walk is well-marked and in warmer weather, sees waves of pilgrims.) A few days ago, we walked on some of the Franciscan path, and I was looking at the map on my iPhone. I saw as we were walking back down the hill another road that, if you looked uphill, veered left. Hmm, we didn’t remember that. But as we descended, we saw an opening and yes, a path that was carved into the side of the hill. That’s one of winter’s advantages; without the overgrowth and weeds, it’s easier to make out the paths that wind all around here. We took it and saw that it followed a higher trajectory than the Sentiero and then sort of curved around the hill. That must be Claudio’s route, we figured, and made plans to come back the next day.

The turnoff, not that you’d know it. Apple Maps showed it; Google didn’t. But for some other stuff, Google shows details Apple doesn’t. Guess you need both.

So we did. And O.M.G. We’re suckers for a good view and on this path, they just kept coming. Unlike on the Sentiero, you don’t really plunge into deep woods. The path—it must have been a road of some kind at some point—just hugs the hill, carved into it as it follows the basic path of the Sentiero, but about a tree higher. So we got to look into the ruin that we’ve passed many times (we hear that it’s for sale, if anyone out there is interested). As the path curves to the left and westward, the views are pretty stupendous.

Looking into the ruins of a farmhouse. An old timer neighbor told us that the family that lived there farmed the area until the 1960s. Their olive trees are nearby, still producing fruit.
On top of the world! Those are the snow-capped Apennines in the distance.

And then, we thought we hit a road block. Or, at least, a gate shutting us off from the rest of it. Luckily, though, as we got closer, we saw that the path veered left then curved around a large house with a pool and gardens that we soon realized was the Agriturismo Val di Marco. An agriturismo is supposed to be a working farm that welcomes guests, but this one does not look remotely farm-like. It’s just a big comfortable house in the Umbrian tradition that happens to be in the country.

Agriturismo Val di Marco, waiting for summer’s guests

Enough fun, though. What went down had to go back up. Our road, which we knew was south, or to the left, follows a high ridge. And the path did indeed go up. And up. And up. We were panting, okay, I was panting as we neared the top.

There was a payoff, though. We were met at the crest by our usual canine welcoming and escort service. But we disappointed them–The Spartan Woman had forgotten to pack the doggie biscuits. I guess they forgave us, though, and followed us most of the way home.

Casa, dolce casa (home sweet home)