Adventures in repurposing

Day 3,756 of the Great Lockdown. We’ve ground the last of our backyard winter wheat to use for pasta, and bartered hothouse tomatoes for Lenny L’s eggs. We still have some zucchini and beans from the last rationing quarter. Queen Ivanka says that the virus should disappear on its own by the summer solstice; so far, average winter temperatures of 37 degrees C/98.6 degrees F haven’t had an effect on its spread. But we’re not allowed to say that.

Sorry about that. But it’s feeling endless, no? We alternate between days trying To Do Things, and crashing all day in the living room eating peanut butter and mango preserves on graham crackers while HGTV shows preach the virtues of family time in open concept homes.

On Sunday, one of our busy days, we made umbricelli—Tuscans call them pici (pronounced “peachy”). You make a basic pasta dough, with or without eggs depending on who you ask, then take little bits and stretch them out by hand. It can take a long time to do. But then again, do I have anything better to do?

Version 1: Umbricelli with a spicy “arrabbiata” sauce

I had some pasta dough left, so the same lump turned into tagliatelle. Only Daughter No. 2 had our pasta machine, Fair’s fair: We’re holding her dog hostage. So I got out The Spartan Woman’s heavy, really heavy, marble rolling pin. The thing could be a murder weapon in a Hitchcock film. And I cut off pieces from the lump of dough and rolled them really thin, the old-fashioned way. Gotta say, it worked pretty well. We took the thin sheets and cut them into tagliatelle. I will confess that the first batch ventured into wider, pappardelle territory.

I could have used some truffle purée that we’ve got in the cupboard to go with the pasta. But there were a half-dozen zucchine/zucchini (see my screed about sex-changed food here) in the fridge, and if we didn’t use them soon, they’d go bad. Problem is, tagliatelle and sautéed zucchini aren’t a natural pairing. Plus, we had some cooked navy beans that had to be eaten soon.

Tagliatelle with too much sauce

So, never to pass up an opportunity to be decadent, I realized that I could concoct a zucchini cream, and the beans would love to come for the ride. I sautéed all of the squash, then added the navy beans. On the side, I put together a quick béchamel. Then I took the béchamel and about two-thirds of the zucchini/bean mixture and threw them in the blender. With some seasoning and a little nutmeg, we had a smooth, creamy, and decadent sauce to go with the fresh tagliatelle.


Need a recipe? You’re in the wrong place; this boy cooks by instinct. But okay, I’ll try. You don’t have to make the pasta; you can buy tagliatelle or fettuccine or even pappardelle. If you do want to make your own, you’ll need, for two servings, 2 cups of Italian “00” flour, or low-gluten cake flour, 2 extra large eggs plus a yolk, and a little pour of olive oil. Double the recipe for four people.

Make a well in the flour and crack your eggs and egg yolk. With a fork, work the flour and egg together. And pour a tablespoon of olive oil into it. Work the dough for about 10-15 minutes into a smooth ball. You can also throw it all into a food processor or mixer and let the machine do the work.

Then, using either a pasta rolling machine or a rolling pin, roll the dough in batches into this sheets. Bolognese grandmothers say they should be translucent; paper thin is what you’re aiming for. A “4” setting on your pasta machine should be enough. Then fold and, either using a sharp knife or a pizza cutter, cut into strips.

For the sauce: Dice 4 zucchine/I into 1/2 inch cubes. Sautéed with good olive oil and a pat of butter. I added two smashed but whole cloves of garlic and a splash of white wine. When the squash is almost cooked, add a can of navy beans, or a cup of beans that you’ve cooked.

On the side, make a cup of béchamel. Or avoid it by heating a cup of heavy cream; your choice. The usual formula is one tablespoon of butter, one of flour, and a cup of milk. Cook the flour in the melted butter, then add milk slowly, whisking all this time. Bring nearly to boil. Turn the heat off when it’s thickened and season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg if you like that.

Blend most of the squash/beans with the béchamel. Cook the pasta, add the zucchini cream, toss, serve. Drink lots of wine.

Hello again

It’s Sunday night, and I am drinking a Bronx cocktail. Gotta support the outer boroughs, even if my support takes the form of getting slightly drunk. Really, what else is there to do?

I took a month off from writing. A big gig ended and a little one paused, so it was time to stop doing what I’d been doing for some 35 years. I kept thinking of stuff I wanted to write, but never did anything about it, and I left a couple of more political drafts for the blog incomplete. I have to say, it felt great not to have any work deadlines, and not to either edit someone else or deal with an editor’s comments.

So, it’s been more than a month since the last post. What’s happened? The curve in New York flattened, and this week in Italy, some of the restraints on gathering and movement begin to be phased out. It’s a gradual thing. You can visit relatives, but not friends. You have to wear a mask. Stores open in a couple of weeks, restaurants and bars in June. Maybe. Speriamo (let’s hope). And perhaps we’ll get to Italy eventually.

Meanwhile, here at HQ, we try to keep to some kind of semblance of normalcy. We can’t go lap swimming or acquasizing, so we bought a cheap exercise bike. We take walks, mostly early in the day so that we don’t run into too many people. Otherwise, we don’t go out. I draw—I treated myself to an Apple Pencil that works with my iPad. And now I know how rusty my guitar playing has gotten. I have to get those calluses back, pronto.

Like some of you, we’ve been cooking. The Spartan Woman and I have our own zones of expertise. She bakes, I don’t. She produces bread, this addictive muffin-y thing made from beans and oatmeal, and brownies. I am the risotto king of Staten Island, and besides my own repertoire, I’m really impressionable and cop ideas from others. For our Sunday afternoon dinner today, for example, I copied Lidia Bastianich after seeing her PBS show and put together a risotto of pears, Grana Padano (it’s like Parmigiano-Reggiano, but a little milder and from north of the Po River), and leeks. What do you think?

I’m too tired to write out a recipe, but do this. Peel, halve and grate the pear. Clean and chop the leeks. Proceed as normal with the risotto—I used vegetable stock and didn’t add saffron, because I thought that the pears and leeks would get lost. I added the pears halfway into the cooking, which takes about 25 minutes of stirring and adding hot stock. At the end, some butter and Grana Padano, and a swirl of balsamic glaze. If you don’t have that last ingredient, either skip it, or put some balsamic vinegar in a pan and reduce by half. But do it before you start on the risotto; risotto does not like to wait around. The leftovers, by the way, became terrific arancini, or rice balls, the next day.

Risotto–>arancini

We went to Sardegna (or Sardinia, if you insist) last night. Not physically, but with food and wine. Our neighbors in Umbria came from that island a few decades ago, so we figured if we can’t be around them, we can channel some Sardinian food. I made a seafood dish, fregola with clams. Fregola are toasted beads of pasta that look like pearl couscous, or acini di pepe pasta. But toasted. I made a loose tomato and herb clam stew, and cooked the fregola right in the clam broth. Some of The Spartan Woman’s homemade sourdough, a chilled bottle of Vermentino from Sardinia, and we had Saturday night dinner. To mix Italian regions, we watched some of the series Gomorrah on Netflix. If you haven’t seen it, put it on your list. It’s good; it’s a gritty drama about the Neapolitan Camorra crime cartel. The series is based on a book by the same name by the great and courageous writer Roberto Saviano. He’s under police guard as a reward for his efforts to uncover corruption in Italy.

Some fregola and a bunch of clams

Speaking of wine, where would we be without Honor Wines? I’m really trying to minimize in-person shopping, like everyone else. I could get online to one of the bigger liquor services, but Staten Island’s North Shore has become a sort of laid-back hipster heaven lately and I like to use local merchants. We have cool restaurants, brew pubs, breweries, and wine boutiques. Honor isn’t far from my neighborhood, and a friend of mine has been praising them for a few years. So I gave them a call, and it’s like calling on an understanding therapist. The first time was a little formal, with me asking “do you have…” and “how about something with more body?” This month I let Lorie pick for me, besides the wines I liked from the last batch. Here’s the result; I’ll report back soon, but she sent whites from Catalunya, the Languedoc and the Italian province of Friuli, which borders Slovenia. The Vermentino is the bomb, gotta say. It’s unusual. A touch salty, with some body, and it feels like a wine whose grapes hung out in the hot sun. Sorry–I reviewed restaurants for a decade and never mastered the wine writers’ vocabulary.

Happiness in a box

Otherwise, we’ve been doing what y’all are doing. I bother people with FaceTime sessions because I get tired of texting. We watch Andrew Cuomo every day—his updates have become our version of FDR’s fireside chats. My former ferry crew got together for a FaceTime cocktail hour, and The Spartan Woman’s side of the family got together for a virtual reunion.

For now, I’ll spare you my thoughts on The Thing, and how the U.S. has dealt with it.

This one’s for you, Pamela

During this lockdown, I have a couple of daily routines: walking the dachshund in Snug Harbor in the morning (maintaining social distance, of course), Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s briefing, and Staten Island Advance food writer Pamela Silvestri‘s morning Facebook video. Pamela speaks from her kitchen just up the street from us, and talks about grocery shopping, which stores have what and which ones have early morning shopping for old people, and what Staten Island’s restaurants are doing to survive. She’s full of good, local information, and for us shut-ins, it’s a lifeline—that’s her in the screenshot.

Pamela also grew up in the same neighborhood I did, so we have that bond. It was an interesting place, and almost everyone I know of a certain age went on to have an interesting, non-mainstream for SI life. I bumped into Pamela a couple of times recently (six feet or more apart, it almost goes without saying), and both times she’s put in a request. She wants me to write about Holly Street and our immediate ‘hood. Pamela’s childhood home was on this little curvy road that snaked up the hill that Holly Street crossed, but I’ll grant her honorary citizenship.

So, Pamela, here you go. I’ll try to remember some interesting bits without getting too encyclopedic.

My first memories of the street and our house were as a three-year-old. My parents bought the as-yet-unfinished house, and my dad drove us in the old Pontiac to the construction site. It may have been raining; it’s unclear. I remember being impressed by all the trees—I was a Brooklyn baby at this time—and I can picture the wooden skeleton of what was to be a small Cape Cod style home. It was surrounded by woods and the street was a narrow patchwork through the woods. There were some older houses, but I don’t remember them.

As it looks now, gentrified, with the little Cape Cods the victims of terrible expansion/renovation.

We moved into the house in March 1960; the sale price was $16,500. It was a rainy day; my nervous young parents, both 30 years old with two kids, loaded the car. My baby sister, three months old, had a car seat. I was piled onto the back seat with all the groceries. I probably whined a lot; I remember resenting having to sit surrounded by cans and bags and Ronzoni spaghetti and macaroni boxes.

The next day was sunny. I have a distinct memory of taking a stick and stirring what looked like smooth brown melted chocolate—there was no garden yet and the house was surrounded by clay-like mud. It was paradise.

I’m guessing this is about a year after we moved in. My mother Angela with her two young kids (kid number 3 would follow in a couple of years).

I’ll go faster now. We became part of the place; grass and trees were planted; flowers and tomato plants bloomed. Holly Street was a big steep hill and probably because of that, seemed like a self-contained universe. We ran free as kids, with no supervision. We hiked through the woods, we had elaborate tag/hide and seek games, we rode our bikes everywhere. There was no traffic so we got good as scooting down hills at automotive speeds. My dad put a speedometer on my bike, and it was normal to go down the hill at 30 mph. No helmet. I survived.

Remember, this was in New York City. An outer borough, to be sure, and it shows how rural the island was back then, with about half its current population.

Right: My mom and Noodles the wonder dog out in front, 1970s

One of the things that made the block special, besides the geography, were its residents. I don’t know how typical it was of Staten Island or the city at the time, but there were lots of recent, postwar European immigrants. My dad, for one, from Palermo, Sicily, the year before I was born. Mr. and Mrs. Tait across the street hailed from Scotland. Marie Mastroianni two houses away came from Naples. Sultry, with huge eyes, she was our version of Sophia Loren. There was Mr. Young, our neighbor’s father from Ireland. He had a strong brogue and would chase us with a stick if we wandered into his yard. That’s all I remember of him (anything to add if you’re reading this, Barbara? ) All of this meant that what might have been exotic to others was normal to us. And you can throw any accent my way and I’ll understand what the person is saying. (It also gave my sister and me a good feel for mid-1960s European camp, and I got a ride in a fast BMW long before they became luxury SUVs for people who don’t know how to drive.)

A later entrant was Paul Guglielmetti, a builder. He constructed four houses on a huge plot that were shockingly modern at the time. He came from Lombardia in Italy, the region that’s been hardest hit by Covid-19, and in his own house dictated a strict aesthetic. No crystal anything. Straight lines, modern lighting fixtures. I remember lots of big circles. I liked to babysit for their kids because the house was fun to be in for a kid used to less of a, um, refined sense of design.

Nonno and me. My aunt Pia tells me that he discovered that he liked Scotch that day.

About that big plot: We got our first taste of 1960s environmental activism with that chunk of land. It was forest for the first few years that we lived there. There were paths through the woods that probably dated from pre-European days, when the locals called the island Aquehonga. We played in those woods and knew every tree, every twist in the path. There was an old derelict well and it was our meeting place when we played hide and seek.

Sometime in…1964? 1965? a builder bought the site and filed plans to build garden apartments. The neighborhood was shocked. Was it zoned for them? Back then, a builder could probably get away with it even if it was. Men of honor, you know? The grownups had frantic meetings. They managed to get a restraining order but it expired. Fierce men showed up in trucks. A bulldozer appeared. It was summer, I think, and our mothers gathered up the kids. We were instructed to go block the tractor. We ran down the street. Some of us threw rocks at the tractor. The guy threatened to call the cops. We spread out so he couldn’t move. Some of us, probably aping what we saw on TV news accounts of civil rights demonstrations, threw ourselves on the ground. “Now come on, kid, you don’t want to be arrested.” We were all between 7 and 10 years old. Someone threw a rock. They left, vowing to return.

They did, and destroyed the woods, mowing down every tree. We continued to harass the construction guys. They laid down some foundations before a final court order stopped them, but the damage was done. The land stayed that way for a few years, weeds growing everywhere until Paul G built his mini-Lombardia.

Back to the people (and thanks for sticking around if you’ve come this far). I’ve written about Joe across the street. His full name is Josef Irlinger, and he comes from Berchtesgaden in Bavaria. Joe has converted what was Mr. Murphy’s colonial house into a cozy piece of his native land. He’s retired and still lives there, and being retired means he’s had more time to turn the place into a great hangout. Joe kept up other European habits; every night at about dinner time, he made the rounds, visiting a bunch of families. For us, it usually meant offering Joe a glass of wine and maybe a taste of what we were having for dinner. We called him Seppe (everyone who visited our house was made an honorary Sicilian). If I’m driving near the old place I’ll drive down Holly Street, hoping to see Joe. (We have a VW, and he usually looks at the car and says, “I approve.”)

Back before the city paved the street, eliminating its patchwork quilt of asphalt and dirt, it barely bothered to plow it after a snowstorm. That meant sledding during the day for us kids (my dog would leap onto my back and ride down the hill but he never deigned to pull the sled up the street). At night, though, it turned into the Alps. Joe (left, with his wife Louise, or Luisa, as he calls her) would ski or pull out his toboggan; someone would distribute hot toddies. We’d be inside, sometimes in bed, listening to the chatter and laughter as these hard-working people finally got to enjoy themselves.

I’ll leave you with that. This has gone on long enough. I’ll scare up some more memories for another post, ok, Pamela?

A Seinfeld kind of life

First off, thanks everyone for getting in touch. I’m okay, even if I was in the COVID-19 infested Italy only three weeks ago as I write this. And I was even in the terrific city of Milan while in Italy, visiting colleagues and getting a dose of big-city life. It seems so long ago now. Because of my possible exposure to the virus, I’ve stayed home for the most part this month, doing so before it became the thing to do. Even when I was in Umbria I stayed home a lot because 1-it was winter and didn’t exactly encourage wandering and 2-it’s just a nice place to hang out in.

Number 2 is what I’ve been thinking about a lot. The European Union has closed its borders to non-EU citizens, and the U.S. State Department put out a notice discouraging Americans from going abroad. But hey, I’m an EU citizen, too, and a big part of me would rather be there than in New York. Nicer weather, for one thing.

But I’m not. And instead of views out to Monte Subasio, I’ve been looking at way too much TV. One of the things I’ve caught, besides the perpetual “reno” of HGTV, are reruns of Seinfeld. Remember that? The joke was that nothing ever really happened. They just talked and obsessed about themselves. People popped into Jerry’s apartment, they said funny things, and occasionally they went to the diner to say funny things. It’s just like us under this kind of house arrest. Only we don’t say much that’s funny and the local diner only does delivery now.

So, like millions around the world, on s’amuse, as Judy might say. We had a cocktail hour the other night. A virtual one, with my ferry posse. Back when I was a respectable citizen with a day job, I rode the Staten Island Ferry to work every day, usually taking either the 8:30 or 8:45 boat from St. George. A bunch of us met in roughly the same place nearly every day, breaking the peace of the unsuccessful silent zone. Our ringleader was John Ficarra, former editor of Mad magazine. Besides him, we had a recording engineer at an advertising shop (The Romantics’ “What I Like About You” is one of the songs he engineered), a lawyer, one of John’s editors, a video advertising guy, a couple of social workers, and an HR woman at a publishing company. That was the core, anyway—others dropped in and out as our work schedules changed.

Anyway, we’ve had a text chain going for awhile. Sometimes it’s a can-you-top-this of witticisms, but it’s a good way to stay in touch. Peter found out that you can take an Apple Messages multi-person text thread and convert it temporarily to a FaceTime video session. Since we all have iPhones—no Android bottom-dwellers among us—we could have a virtual cocktail hour, almost, but not quite as good as the in person one we have every few months.

Here’s the evidence. Props to Lenny for the most glam drink, a blood orange martini. Do this: squeeze a bunch of blood oranges. Combine the juice with vodka and a dash of limoncello. I want one now.

Today is particularly grim, being the first day of a stricter lockdown in New York, and a nasty day outside, rainy and cold, so no solitary outside exercise walk.

Italian doctors predict that people under lockdown will, at the end of it (should that ever happen), gain between 4 and. 8 kilos, or about 9 to 18 pounds. Lord knows we’re just as guilty as any. But first let me show you what we’re missing by being here. This is a photo of our Umbrian friend Angela, who’s just picked a huge bunch of wild asparagus in the hills outside her parents’ home:

We’ve been indulging in less wholesome food experiences. One type, and I know this will bother a couple of our friends, is to experiment with fake meat. We haven’t been eating meat for about 10 years now (though I confess that I stray when I’ve had a few glasses of wine or I’m at a friend’s house). It feels a little odd, to take some ingredients and torture them into something they’re not. The Spartan Woman has become pretty good at taking gluten, nutritious yeast, and jackfruit and turning them into a fair approximation of boneless pork ribs. Basically, she’s making seitan, whose use, according to Wikipedia, has been documented to the sixth century. Here’s the result:

Meanwhile, we’ve been looking at what modern technology has been up to. We’ve had Beyond Meat hamburgers, which are scarily like real hamburgers. You can also get “sausages” and the hamburger “meat” in bulk. Have nothing better to do for Sunday dinner, I decided to attempt what we call Giovanna’s roulé, an Umbrian meatloaf our dear departed Perugian mama used to cook for us when she was with us and we were staying with her. She’s take ground beef and sausage meat and make a dense round loaf, and braise it with onions, wine, and broth. I used the Beyond products, and came up with this:

It was good, but I’m wondering: Are these gateway drugs back to being carnivores?

[Image at the top: The Spartan Woman’s bread, baked just because she could]

I come from the future

[I wrote this a couple of days ago and it already seems dated. I thought I’d post it anyway to show how quickly events have overtaken us.]

I got home a couple of weeks ago, ending the popular series “500 hours of solitude (give or take).” My blogpost output in New York falls drastically, not because it’s a less interesting place, but because, I will admit, I lead a boring life here. Call it the uneventful life of the New York native who didn’t move to the city to live out some fantasy of a glamorous life.

So, first off, I’ll come out and say it. I’m a klutz. Call me butterfingers. Remember when people said that? I was reading something on my dear sweet iPad Air 2, a model that first saw the light of day in 2014, when I dropped it onto a hard tile floor. It wasn’t the first time that I’d dropped either a phone or iPad, but this time it was serious. At first things seemed to be ok, but then the screen turned into a series of gray stripes. Once the icons flashed and I thought, great, it’ll self-heal. But the was only a momentary letup in its slide to oblivion.

I’m also a geek, and when I’m here, I tend to obsess over stuff like computers, iPhones, TV streaming services and the like. I suppose it’s just another way to fill these boring days. Sure, I’ve had work to do, but I am a master of procrastination.

Okay, you say, why not go out and do something? Good question. Since I did return from the walled country of Italy, I’ve been trying to do the right thing and self-isolate as much as I can. Screening while traveling back was nonexistent other than being asked if I’d been to China. But I was in Milan for a couple of days, traveling back and forth from Perugia on crowded trains. So I figured I’d do the right thing and lay low. Plus, jet lag hit me hard and I’ve been semi-narcoleptic, waking up at 4 a.m. and needing a nap by lunchtime.

The Italy I left was about a month ahead of the U.S. in terms of Covid-19 craziness. Whole areas of the north were under lockdown and it was only days before all of the north, then all of the country was ordered to stay home just a few days after I got back to New York. It was all people talked about, and I was unnerved by how unaware people in New York seemed to be about what was going to unfold.

I almost wish I hadn’t left. As a journalist, you want to be where the action is, and a whole country of 60 million people basically staying home is definitely the kind of phenomenon you want to witness. Thanks to social media and everyone having a smartphone, though, it’s been easy to see what’s going on there. Italians have adapted with some sadness and, as you might expect, with a fair amount of style and humor.

Some of our friends are lucky enough to live in the country. Angela and Debora, for example, live across the Chiascio valley from us, in a hamlet of Valfabbrica called Poggio S. Dionisio. Their incredible off-the-grid new house abuts some woods, and Angela, who grew up surrounded by forest, is an expert forager. The first days of staying home found her wandering around to pick wild asparagus, which, after a warm winter, is now in season. Here’s one day’s harvest:

Others have taken refuge in books, cooking, drinking. They’re allowed to take walks, but have to maintain a 1 meter/1 yard distance from others. At first restaurants and bars (more like all-purpose cafés in the American context) were at first allowed to be open from 6 am to 6 pm, but they’re all shut down now. Italians can buy food and medicine, but there are rules. Angela tells me that at the local supermarket, only 1 person per family is allowed in, and there’s a limit of 25 people in the store at any one time. The writer Beppe Severgnini has a piece in The New York Times that describes things pretty well.

Our friend Federico works in an appliance/computer shop. Computer stuff has been deemed essential, so he continues to go to work.

More, later….

500 hours of solitude (give or take): People everywhere! Some with masks!

Did anyone notice that I’d changed what’s in parenthesis in the headline? I didn’t, only realizing the change when I scrolled through the blog. Both phrases say the same thing—give or take, versus, more or less—but the change was completely accidental. Hey, where’s my copyeditor?

Anyhow, so much for solitude. After a drive to another town, then Angelo driving me to Perugia, then a bus trip to Rome’s airport, then a 10 hour flight and 40 minutes to our house and a few hours’ sleep, I’m sitting across the table from The Spartan Woman with cappuccinos and her homemade bean-oatmeal muffins. [Update: I’m finishing this up a couple of days later, jet lag having temporarily eaten my brain,]

I didn’t see any signs of coronavirus worries until I hit Rome’s airport, where every now and then you’d see someone with a mask. When I got in line to check into my flight, an airline rep came up to me to ask me if I’d recently been to China; presumably if I’d said yes I would’ve been tested. I was preoccupied anyway, my periodic allergic cough having returned at a most inconvenient time. Luckily a visit to a pharmacist took care of that; he gave me this great cough suppressant in lozenge form, so I wasn’t hacking all the way to JFK.

The ride home, stage 2: the Perugia-Rome airport Sulga bus

The scare is already seriously changing how we live. American Airlines has cancelled flights to Milan, while Perugia’s terrific Journalism Festival has been cancelled. Also cancelled is Geneva’s auto show, one of Europe’s big industry get-togethers. In AA’s case, a flight from New York to Milan never took off because the flight crew refused to board the aircraft.

Back in Italy, at least for me, the last couple of days were such a whirlwind that it didn’t occur to me that I was alone most of the time. I realized at some point that our home insurance had expired, so a few WhatsApp exchanges led to my attacking the bancomat (ATM) in town and running off to our agent to pay in cash. Okay, so, cash, old-fashioned, right? Then the policy is called “Generali Sei a Casa Digital” (Generali–the company–you’re at home, digital). I had to sign a half dozen times on an iPad. Go figure.

Then I rushed home to change and take the organic Prosecco from the fridge to go over the hill to our friends Letizia and Ruurd for dinner. Letizia runs a cooking school, her specialty being updated Umbrian classics made with the best ingredients. The couple also run a bed and breakfast, the classes and inn both bearing the name Alla Madonna del Piatto. Both trained entomologists and former academics, they tossed it aside for life in the hills outside Assisi. In one way, it wasn’t a big stretch; Letizia grew up in nearby Perugia. Ruurd’s from the Netherlands and is a multi-talented guy; among other things, he took all the photos in Letizia’s cookbook Kitchen With a View. You should buy it.

We finally called it a night with Ruurd and Letizia

It was an adventure getting to their place at night. Being a city boy, it’s taken me awhile to get used to driving around the Umbrian hills, especially when it’s dark. We native New Yorkers orient ourselves by buildings and by knowing where our islands end and the water begins. You can’t really get lost, plus, you know, streetlights. Letizia’s place is way up a winding road, and it took awhile to figure out how to get there with the car’s navigation. Now I can do it easily in the daytime. But at night, without those cues, not to mention streetlights, I had to keep checking my onboard map, which has been known to lead me through fields.

It was a terrific night, with a couple they know, Augustino and Rossella, who live not too far away in the countryside outside Foligno. We talked about food, families, where we live, ingredients, how to make polenta properly (there are actually pots with motors that stir the stuff for you), beer and the incredible dessert wine we were Letizia’s biscotti into—Passito di Sagrantino.

All good things end, and I woke up the next day at 8:30, late for me, with a whole bunch of things to do. Closing the house is more involved, plus I had to pick up a couple of things at the supermarket for friends. And, er, I wanted a bottle of that Sagrantino dessert wine. That night I had my final solitary bachelor’s dinner—farro spaghetti with fennel, spring onions, chili-spiked anchovies, and bread crumbs. Basically, it’s what was left in the fridge.

I scrounged in the fridge to put this together. In a New York restaurant, you might get charged $30 for it.

So…yes, I survived 23 days mostly alone. I spent far less time by myself than I thought I would. Living in Italy means that you have a lot of interactions with people—neighbors, shopkeepers, friends, barristas, etc. I’d get into conversations just walking up the road to get some exercise. We have neighbors up and down the road, and if they’re driving, they’ll usually stop to say hi. Then there’s that inter webs thing. I used FaceTime a lot, probably bothering The Spartan Woman, and we’d just go about our business chatting over an open connection. “Phone calls,” if you can call them that, are free with an Internet connection now.

We’ll be here for awhile. I just hope we can get there from here later this year…

500 hours of solitude (more or less): I have often walked down these streets before…

…but they never quite looked like this.

It was Sunday afternoon into evening. I had some stuff to do in the city, including laundry, so I loaded the clothes in the car and off I went, beseeching my late father-in-law, the patron saint of parking, for a spot up the street. Joey came through, So I loaded the machine (it’s a combo washer-dryer, felicitously called a “lavasciuga” in Italian–say “la-va-SHOO-gah) and then decided to take a walk,

I was really hoping to do something bad, like have a drink or a hot chocolate, which here is more like downing a warm slightly more liquid dark chocolate mousse. But I didn’t, and maybe because I was distracted. The sky seemed a little more dramatic than usual. I snapped a shot to catch that, and went on my way.

I did the obligatory back and forth—su e giù in Italian—on the Corso Vannucci, watching some Carnival silliness. When I reached the end of the Corso, things were looking fine, as you can see below.

Soon it was time to walk back, maybe see some friends in the ‘hood. Now the sky went from interesting to wow, it that for real? I never saw the buildings turn quite that color, either. Usually they get golden, then sorta brown, then black.

And then, it was breathtaking—another favorite Italian word of mine: mozzafiato,

I wasn’t the only one who noticed. I looked around and people were stopping everywhere to take pictures, selfies, or just look around. It was one of those collective moments of appreciating beauty, on a late Sunday afternoon as a warm winter draws to the end.

P.S. I checked out Facebook when I got home, and it seems like everyone I know who’s on it posted a shot or talked about the sunset.

500 hours of solitude (more or less): Hands across the ocean

These weeks here are definitely turning out to be less than solitary. Yesterday my new friend Angelo and I went to Norcia, which was hard hit by a fierce earthquake more than three years ago. Angelo’s a driver; he’s got a Mercedes van and he takes groups around Italy and into Austria, Switzerland, Spain and Portugal. He lives in a church building in the next town over with his constant companion, a sweet little dog name Titi.

Angelo and his sidekick

After days of blazing sunshine, yesterday showed Umbria’s moody, foggy winter side. We climbed into the van, with the dog happily riding between us and headed south. Perugia’s commercial suburbs gave way to mountains. Somewhere near Spoleto you go left and into a 4 km (roughly 2.5 miles) tunnel. When you emerge, you’re in the Valnerina district.

It wasn’t an idle trip. Angelo knew some people who helped build the first new structure in Norcia since the earthquake—a lab and public rooms for Norcia’s kids. The building’s nice enough. What was remarkable about it was how it came together—a unique collaboration between Benedictine monks, Harvard Medical School psychiatrists, and the National Italian-American Foundation (NIAF). The Harvard guys are Richard Mollica, Director of the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma and Eugene Augusterfer, of Harvard’s Global Mental Health Center, and they specialize in helping traumatized people deal with the aftermath.,

After the quake, the foundation sent the Harvard-NIAF team to the area. But how would they connect with the traumatized locals? They found a connection in Padre Basil, a Benedictine originally from Arizona, who moved to Umbria and immersed himself fully the community. The three men met and the Americans got to know the Norcia community. It’s a proud little city with a long gastronomic heritage. Its pork products are famous throughout Italy, so much so that a slang term for a pork butcher from these parts is “norcino.”

Padre Basil, Richard Mollica and Eugene Augusterfer (in the blue jacket)

Eventually, the Harvard people, Padre Basil and NIAF decided to build the center, with the foundation kicking in $450,000 from its earthquake relief fund. The town’s high school was damaged by the quake and the kids attend classes in borrowed spaces. They needed labs for their science classes, a space for gatherings, and spaces for counseling. That’s where the Italian Trauma Center came in and helped coordinate the efforts to build it.

The three men share a few characteristics: They’re lively, extremely friendly and just ooze kindness and concern. Those traits were on full display as people gathered for the ribbon cutting. Officials, local cops, disaster recovery people, and the curious milled around beforehand. The project’s architect, Mario Solinas from Perugia smiled wanly as he looked around and told me, “Can you imagine? This is the first new building in Norcia since the earthquake and it took private funds and initiative to build it.” Others nodded and compared the slack recent government efforts to the aftermaths of previous tremors.

Architect Mario Solinas (left) in front of his work

The pre-inaugural gathering soon got a big energy injection as high school kids trooped up the road, their boisterous voices carrying far as they enjoyed a morning off from classes. Soon we were all rounded up as the school principal, the architect, local officials, and the Harvard and Trauma Center teams gathered to cut the ribbon.

Both national anthems were played, the Italians telling one another, “it’s the American one. No, we don’t have to know the words.” When the Italian anthem, officially called “Il Canto degli Italiani” came on, the kids and their teachers sang along boisterously, cheering one another on and challenging themselves on sheer volume.

Finally, the speeches, which were mercifully short, and short of boasts. If anything, the theme was community, cooperation, and survival. Fun fact: After disappearing for years, the local river reappeared after the quake. The speakers took it as a sign of rebirth.

They aren’t out of the woods yet. Behind the center is a still-incomplete new school. The kids may be able to use it next academic year. Or not. Here’s hoping. I have a feeling Padre Basil won’t ease up on his efforts to get it finished.

500 hours of solitude (give or take): All the pretty colors

I overestimated. Those 500 hours I thought I’d spend alone seem rather less, and that’s probably a good thing. While I’m talking to myself a fair amount, it’s not any more than usual. And I keep bumping into people I know, or they or I make appointments to meet. I forgot that I have more of a social life here than in New York,

Part of the difference is location. Our house in New York is in an outer borough-—the outermost borough, in fact: Staten Island. It’s a pain to meet people for lunch when they’re in Brooklyn or Manhattan. I either have to drive over a bridge or take a ferry and probably the subway. Up here on the mountaintop, we’re only a few kilometers from the town and an easy 20-minute drive to the nearest city. Plus Italians are more spontaneous. Chances are if you say let’s have lunch or a drink, they’ll say yes. New Yorkers, and Americans in general, have to check their calendars first. It’s the cult of busy-ness. If you ain’t busy, you’re a loser.

Anyway, I was reminded of Staten Island’s outer outer borough status by a friendly gentleman who sells ceramics. He’s Ubaldo Grazia, and his family’s company has been selling this beautiful stuff for, like, forever. I met him because a friend of mine visits him every year. She comes to Perugia most winters for a few months and take a language course, but this year her visit was a short one because she and her husband just moved into a house they built. But Grace, a semi-retired lawyer from Pennsylvania, wanted to get some kitchen accent tiles, and since she and I planned to get together, she asked if I could drive her to see Ubaldo. He likes to know his visitors and asked me where I was from, in English. “New York” “But where?” “New York City.” “But where in New York City?” “Staten Island.” “You’re not from New York,”

Ubaldo at the doorway of his workshop

Yeah, right. Just listen to my accent. I think the way I write has a New York City kid accent too. But anyway I promised in the first of these posts that if I didn’t have a lot to say I’d just post pictures. So here they are. They look great on my Mac laptop, I hope the colors pop on whatever you’re using, These are all Grazia ceramics, from the capital of ceramics around here, Deruta,

That was hard work, looking at all that eye candy. So we went off to Torgiano, mostly famous these days for the Lungarotti winery/Relais & Chateau hotel. But the Lungarotti family isn’t the only game in town. Our friend Letizia, of the cooking school and bed & breakfast La Madonna del Piatto said we should try out Siro for its rootsy Umbrian food. I’m glad we did.

It still may be winter, but artichoke season is upon us here, a few weeks early. So how could we not indulge? First, some fried small ones:

And my lunch companions had this pasta, olive leaf-shaped packets of artichoke cream.

It was all washed down with a bottle of my latest favorite white wine, Trebbiano Spoletino. In particular, Adarmando from the producer Tabarrini from Montefalco. If you can find it, grab it.

500 hours of solitude (give or take): The mayor hangs up his shears

There are a bunch of things you don’t realize at first when you starting living for months or weeks at a time in another country. The big one is healthcare—what happens if you get sick? Then there are little ones, can I take my suit to a nearby dry cleaner? And where do I get a haircut? There’s one thing in Italy you don’t have to worry about: Where do you buy food? It’s everywhere.

I didn’t care about the haircut thing until a few years ago when I had so much to do before leaving New York that getting a haircut beforehand didn’t even enter my mind. When I got here, it was so hot that the mane I was sporting was just too much. I scoped out the neighborhood and settled on a taciturn guy on the next hill, across t he street from the bar where English-speaking foreign students drank too much and passed out on the mostly-pedestrian street. He was good, but every time I went he insisted that I part my hair on the other side and when he did, I felt as though the world had flipped over. You don’t realize how much stuff like that can change how you move through the world,

Then I noticed Franco. His little shop was down the street from where we were living. He had a bunch of wooden walking sticks that he’d carved in the window and the shop was decorated with photos of old Perugia. Why didn’t I go to him first? I forget. Anyway, I started going to him, and other than his propensity to take a lot off the top, I got decent haircuts.

Franco’s domain

But more important, he was fun to talk to. We’d chat about everything: our families, Perugia, New York, restaurants, Barak Obama (he’s a fan), Agent Orange (not really), urban planning and transport, being our age—only a few months separate us. The added bonus was that it was all in Italian, which was great because The Spartan Woman and I speak English to each other, except for certain words and phrases that only make sense in Italian. (Antipatico is one word. It’s the opposite of simpatico, but how to say it in English? )

What also made it fun was his clientele and his role on the block. His customers ranged from college students to the local politicians, lawyers and architects. The mailman or woman always stopped in for a chat, and if we passed by and he had no one in the chair at the moment, he’d come out to talk. Sometimes, I’d end up spending a lot more time than I’d planned just because of the stream of visitors and other customers.

So last week, just as I dragged my bag into the house after arriving from NYC, my iPhone rings. I don’t notice the number, but answer anyway. “Ciao Antonio,” I hear. “T’invito alla mia festa di pensione questo sabato. Puoi venire?” (Ciao A. I’m inviting you to my retirement party Saturday. Are you coming?) Between fatigue and jet lag, at first I didn’t realize who was speaking. But he knew my name, so I played along for a bit. Finally it hit me.

It’s official, kinda

A couple of days later, I had to go into town. And I didn’t realize what a big deal it was. Franco’s shop was closed, but there was a retirement certificate of sorts in the window: “Diploma of Deserved Retirement. Given with full rights to Franco P, who will continue to do nothing…but from today he’ll be doing it at home.” A notice below, which was posted for a stretch on the street as well, invited the neighborhood to his party at the local social center, conveniently located across the street from our place. Well, convenient except when ’70s music fans have an end of term party and blast Led Zeppelin at 2 in the morning, but it’s all part of the experience.

Of course I had to go. I didn’t know most of the people there, but that was ok, There were big cartons of wine, and a butcher was in attendance. All Umbrian parties worth anything have porchetta and the region’s dryer, chewier prosciutto. The butcher was slicing the ham surgically then offering people slices from the tip of his knife. As the party began to ebb, a small army made panini of porchetta and piled them high on the table for people to take home for dinner.

Porchetta, anyone?

Best of all (at least for me)? Franco promised that he’d do house calls.