Enough of that old stuff. Let’s see some modern architecture

People come here to see old stuff. There’s Assisi, with the hundreds of years old basilica, with Giotto’s frescoes. Perugia has a still intact Etruscan gate and mysterious Etruscan tombs on its outskirts. Spoleto has a Roman amphitheater. For those of you who missed Ancient European History 101, the Etruscans predated those newcomers, the Romans. You can see more modern construction from, say, the 1500s. And apartment buildings that are 100 years old or more are considered to be kind of new.

Along comes Kid no.2 and her partner in art and life. We haven’t seen them in months. And the atrociously hot, then tropically rainy summer kept us from going out much. (So did our continued Covid vigilance) So when those two arrived, it gave us a chance to get out of the house, off the mountain, and play sightseeing guides for a week.

What do you want to see? we asked. “Al (the BF) wants to see some modern architecture. Well…. But it does exist. Umbrians don’t sit on their ancient marble doorstops. And to be honest, looking for modern works was a nice break from Olde Europe,

Friends told us about Il Carapace, a winery like no other. The name means shell—most commonly a turtle shell, but animals like shrimp and lobsters have them too, The producers of prestigious wines like Ferrari bubbly, Lunelli, decided that they wanted a statement canteen.in their Umbrian winery, Castelbuono. So they commissioned sculptor Arnaldo Pomodoro to build it.He’d done work for them before, but I have to say, this building came almost as a shock as we drove through sunflower fields and old-style vineyards. The Carapace rises out of the landscape like some alien space ship, a little menacing and a little humorous at the same time.

He asked for modern. He got it.

The surprises don’t end when you enter the belly of what could pass as a Klingon ship. The theme is copper, which clads the exterior, and whose paint adorns the inside. You feel like you’re in the belly of the beast, and a 360-degree view lets you meditate on the ancient vines. Castelbuono produces Sagrantino—Umbria’s most prestigious wine—and Rosso di Montefalco, a less intense, more easily quaffed red wine. If you need a Tuscan comparison, think Brunello to Rosso di Montalcino. The aging barrels sit in a huge underground space.

We had to eat, espcially after sampling three wines with a little nosh, so we left the Carapace to get lunch in nearby Bevagna. We were back in old Umbria, which has its abundant charms, not the least of which was a salad of raw ovoli mushrooms, which in their way looked as alien as the Carapace.

The mushrooms from another planet

A COUPLE OF DAYS LATER, we went to Foligno. We’d never been, except to the train station, which is a major transfer point for trains from the main Rome-Ancona line and the pokey local “regionale” to Perugia. The object? The modern art museum, the Centro Italiano Arte Contemporanea.

Foligno is unexpectedly interesting. On the outer rings of the small city, there are lots of Stile Liberty, or Art Moderne villas. There’s a long wide pedestrian street filled with porticos with bars and restaurants, and tons of shops and terrific window shopping. Who knew?

The modern art museum has one thing in common with the interior of the Carapace: a copper color. It basically looks like a copper box in the middle of a older neighborhood, and is instantly recognizable because of that. The permanent collection is pretty small and unfortunately they were between exhibits. But there’s more….

A 10-minute walk brought us to a deconsecreated church, the Chiesa della SS. Trinità in Annunziata. where, in the middle is a giant skeleton replica, by the secretive and subversive artist Gino de Dominicis. Its official name, “Calamita Cosmica,” or cosmic calamity. It’s pretty amazing, the kind of thing that held our attention as we walke around it. It’s not just the thing itself; it’s the context. De Domicis is described in the work’s website as “a controversial figure in modern postwar Italian art, with an eccentric personality, himself an endless work of art, original and full of secrets.” All I know is we just stared in wonder as we walked about the beast and tried to take photos that did it justice.

Well, why not?

Of course, we worked up a powerful hunger after that expedition. Happily, Foligno was there for us, with a festival of first courses. In the progression of an Italian meal, the “primo,” or first course, is actually the second. It’s composed of pasta, soup, or rice. Note that it is not what Americans call a main course; to an Italian, a huge plate of overcooked spaghetti serving as the main meal is a travesty. The festival was terrific, even if it was a rainy day and we had to traipse all over the center of town. Big signs and a handout map guided us to various restaurants around town that served regional primi; it was fun to pick and choose, for a really good price of €5 (5 bucks) a plate, with cheap good wine to go with it.

A “tris” of primi

We’ll be going back to Foligno as soon as we can. The festival got us acquainted with what seemed to be dozens of cool bars, restaurants and shops. Can’t wait.

It’s something we think about all the time here

Let’s talk about food, shall we? And where you consumed said food? (Sorry if the headline led you to think I was going to write about that other obsession.) I’m thinking about food in Italy these days, since I’m here. It really is an obsession, and not just with “sovrappeso” [overweight] me. I’ve overheard chic saleswomen talk about what they were going to have for lunch in tones that were, well, erotic. And if you happen to be in Italy and happen to get onto YouTube, your feed will soon be blitzed with food videos. I don’t think it’s just mine.

First off, most Americans without the good luck (or misfortune. It depends.) of having relatives living in Italy don’t get the full-on experience. They–you?–have to go to restaurants. And that’s a shame, especially if you’re in the big tourist cities. Why? Because restaurant food may be ok, but eating in an urban restaurant in Italy doesn’t come close to the real deal, and in big cities and touristy locations, many restaurants serve a kind of national “Italian” food that doesn’t reflect what people really eat in this intensely regional country. Plus they miss the vibe, where people loosen up and sit with friends, family, lovers, kids, dogs, whatever, just enjoying the moment. Or a town festival. Or, in the case of our town, any excuse to get together. Any.

First, friends and/or family. One of my most memorable “meals” here, if you can call it that, happened before we had a place of our own. My magazine astoundingly let me come to Italy on a reporting trip. My assignment was to make the rounds of lawyers and business analysts and give American lawyers an idea of what to expect if their companies or clients tried to buy an Italian company. I cannily scheduled interviews for the latter part of the week in Milan, and the early part of the week in Rome. Oh, dear, what to do in between? Live in a lonely hotel room? Eat meals by myself?

Nope.

I visited friends who happened to live in Perugia, about two-thirds of the way south to Rome. After a couple of train rides, my Italian papà Franco picked me up at the station. “We have to hurry,” he said. “Giovanna’s in the middle of a surprise for you.” Franco, never a quiet pensive kinda guy, gunned it, shouting at anyone who dared to drive any slower. “Figlio di puttana! Bastardo!” he shouted. After holding on for dear life—Perugia doesn’t know from straightaways—we got to their house. “Hurry! Just leave your bag. You can keep you jacket on. We have to do this NOW!” Franco told me.

What was the fuss all about? Artichokes. Glorious crunchy salty hot just from the fryer pieces of artichoke. “I’m squeezing lemon on these, ok?” said Giovanna in Italian (these two didn’t speak English; this is all translated), more as a statement of purpose than a question. “Eat with your fingers.” She had put the freshly fried artichokes in a paper lined basket and shoved it at me. “Eat with your fingers.” The three of us didn’t even sit; we just stood there eating, blowing on our fingers between bites.” When we weren’t wolfing down the artichokes, we were drinking and smiling at each other. It was one of the best food events I’ve ever been at. I know we sat down to a regular lunch after that, but for the life of me, I can’t remember it. Can you blame me?

If you don’t have an Italian friend or relative, the next best thing is probably eating at an agriturismo, or at least a country restaurant. If it’s the right season, eat outside. Yeah, there’s an Under the Tuscan Sun thing going at these places. But you’ll see what makes it all worth it. Some years before that reporting trip, we’d gone to an agriturismo high above Lago Trasimeno, the big almost ocean-like lake around here. I can still taste the pasta course, with an eggplant purée (no tomatoes) and bits of sausage. But what I really remember was the vibe. There we were, our family, plus our Perugian surrogate parents and their dog, just relaxing around a table with a view of the lake below for the whole afternoon. And it cost maybe a half of what a city restaurant would’ve charged. Maybe less.

ANOTHER WAY TO ENJOY NON-RESTAURANT food is at a sagra or a festival. They’re held all over Italy, and here in Umbria there seems to be one every day or so somewhere. They serve as fundraisers for the town’s pro-loco associations, which support soccer teams, after school activities for working parents, and the like. But they’re also a way to get the whole town involved in something—and, for people to connect with their history. Local volunteer cooks take care of the food, sometimes, but only sometime, under the guidance of professional chefs. Of course, doing so often involves getting done up in medieval drag, which seems to happen for any excuse, but I digress.

After the Covid shutdown, the region came alive this year. We’ve been to a few. The first was for the food, in Ripa, two towns down the main road here. The town itself is a tiny hamlet, with a circular historic center, and various memorials to Gino Bartoli. He was a heroic figure, a Tour de France bicyclist who smuggled citizenship documents for Jews during World War II by stuffing them in his bike’s tubes and delivering them. Ripa holds a truffle sagra, and the food’s pretty good if you’re a fan of the underground fungus. (We are; Ripa sagra shown below.)

There’s a biggie around here, too. The small town of Cannara, near Assisi, is known for its onions. They’re sold in all the grocery stores and to be honest, we’re spoiled. I won’t say you haven’t lived until you’ve had a really fresh onion—but like a lot of produce, being grown locally makes a real difference. Cannara puts on a pretty big show, with various “stands” (yes, in English), really kitchens/outdoor restaurants, with each producing dishes that feature, yes, onions. Cipollamisu, anyone? It was a lot better than you’d think, with the typical tiramisu ingredients topped with a compote of sweet onions.,

Valfabbrica, where we live, goes all out. It’s bigger than Ripa, as far as towns and hamlets go around here, but smaller (population around 3,400) than the surrounding towns. There’s a week-plus celebration of being a valfabbricheso, with pageants, jousting tournaments, and, of course, food. The town’s historic center turns into a restaurant, and the town has a communal kitchen that churns out tons of dishes based on local produce and history. Gotta say, it was pretty good.

But the most charming event involving food was last weekend. Our town likes its parties, and the old medieval tower was restored recently. Most places would have the mayor cut the ribbon and leave it at that. Valfabbrica? Uh-uh. It got Italy’s only all-female jazz marching band to escort the mayor to the tower, playing Stevie Wonder’s Sir Duke and The Beatles A Hard Day’s Night. The women walked up the tower with Enrico (we’re all on a first-name basis here)

We don’t have dull ribbon-cutting ceremonies in Valfabbrica.

I know, this is supposed to be about food. Sure enough, after the music and the ribbon-cutting and the speeches about the historic importance of the tower, there was a free aperitivo* in the piazza. Older guys sat behind tables with loaded with decent boxed local red wine and porchetta panini* and doled it all out. I haven’t eaten much meat in a decade, but one of the guys shoved a panino at me after I poured myself a healthy glass. It seemed churlish to say no—and it was great to be hanging out in the main piazza on a beautiful late summer night with our fellow townspeople.

Vino and a panino, anyone?

*”Aperitivo” refers not only to a pre-dinner drink, but food to go with it. Places like Milan and even good bars elsewhere elevate it to the point where it can substitute for dinner. At that point you can all the meal an apericena—aperitivo and cena, which is what the nighttime meal is called.

* The word is “panino” for a single sandwich. “Panini” is plural. More than 1 sandwich. Ok? I get a little nuts when I hear “I’ll have a panini .” It’s like nails on a blackboard.

Perugia, mon amour

We went antiquing the other day. You might say, “meh, so what?” But this was an unusual event for us. Well, okay, not the venue: Our nearest big city, Perugia, hosts an antiques market in one of the big piazzas on the last weekend of every month and we’ve been there before. Still, this was kind of a big deal. The heat, and still-widespread Covid cases, kept us on our mountain most of the time. But we got antsy and needed to go out. And in the process, with the heat abating somewhat, we’ve rediscovered our old love: Perugia.

There’s an amazing amount of both good stuff and kitsch. In particular, I have a thing for old magazines from the 1950s and ’60s, artifacts of “La Dolce Vita” Italy, the Italy that my sister and I reveled in as kids, when our relatives from abroad came to visit, or when we listened to the pop songs of the time. The Spartan Woman and I have even bought little stuff at the market, like an antique corkscrew or some prints.

Looking for artifacts of a former civilization

This time was different. We actually bought a large piece of furniture. The seller called it a libreria—a bookshelf. But it looked like the perfect breakfront for our kitchen in the country. The top part had glass doors, while the bottom doors were wooden. It looked like it came from nonna’s (grandma’s) house. The seller probably sanded it down and painted, then distressed the wood to give it that old country house feeling. Whatever. We liked it. The price tag was €490, which comes to about the same amount in dollars. We were just looking and the seller blurted out €300. Sold!

What happened afterward is what made the deal special. We told him we lived in the country, about 20 kilometers away. Does he ship? He said he did. It would take a few days, which was fine by us. We gave him our address, with some directions, and my mobile phone number. Did we want to leave a deposit? he asked. He quickly added, it’s not necessary. Would this happen anywhere else I wondered? At the time, it seemed to me that at this point he had no incentive to get the piece to us, but hey, it’s not as though we were going to lose out if he didn’t deliver.

After breakfast at a nearby café (coffee and pastries), we headed to our car. My phone rings. “Antonio, this is the antiques guy,” the voice on the other end said in Italian. “Are you going to be home soon? We can deliver the piece today if you want.” Sure, I said, we’re on our way. Give us an hour or so—the actual trip is 25 minutes, but we had to clear out a space for the piece. A couple of hours later, a delivery van arrives, I help the guy carry the heavy load into the kitchen. Delivery guy drinks three glasses of cold water after he complained that the ghost town next to ours didn’t even have an open bar. We give him the cash and now the piece sits nicely in the kitchen.

I know, this is not extraordinary. People buy stuff like this all the time. But what got to me, and what I love about living here, is the element of trust. The seller didn’t take a deposit, and yet he delivered the piece based on our word. Maybe I’m wrong, but I can’t imagine that happening in New York. Or much of the U.S.

ON THAT SAME WEEKEND AS THE ANTIQUES MARKET, we had another terrific reason to go into town. Blame, or credit Laura. She’s part of the Santucci clan, which adopted The Spartan Woman back in the day, and which has become our chosen family here. In fact, the connection with Laura is where our Kid No. 2 was baptized. It’s a Romanesque church that dates to the 6th century, give or take, and was built using the columns of a Roman temple that previously stood on the site. Laura co-authored a book on the church, grandly called, at least officially, the Tempio di San Michele Arcangelo. But most perugini just called it the Tempietto di Sant’Angelo.

Perugia’s archeological museum hosted a presentation on the book and a general lecture about this extraordinary structure. It’s round, and set on a hill surrounded by lawns, with the neighborhood’s guard tower nearby. It’s such a tranquil and beautiful place that it’s got a waiting list of couples throughout Italy who want to be married there.

Laura Santucci, right, laughs at a co-panelist’s comment.

Besides its fame, it’s the local parish church, and hosts such activities as after-school recreation for latchkey kids in the neighborhood. And before Covid, its yard was the venue for an evening that Laura, her family, and friends organized called “Mangiamo Insieme,” or “Let’s Eat Together.” For a nominal sum, I think €10 or €15 a head (about the same in dollars), people in the neighborhood got together in long long tables for a full dinner. Some 200 people attended the one we were at; it was a beautiful night, bringing together just about everything that makes living in Umbria a pleasure.

After Laura’s presentation, we had a real need for some adult beverages and people watching. Perugia’s main drag, the Corso Vannucci, is a pedestrian island full of bars, cafes, restaurants, and shops. It’s also way too touristy for us, at least in Perugian terms—this city is decidedly not like the Holy Trinity of Italian tourist sites, RomeFlorenceVenice. You can spot the tourists easily: They’re the ones having dinner at 18:30 on the Corso.

So, avoiding the early dinner crowd, we went to a hipster bar, Mercato Vianova, on a side street. You can get sushi at this bar, if that’s your thing. But we were just into a drink and snacks.

I usually go for a spritz of some kind, but after seeing a glass of Franciacorta on the drinks list (like a lot of restaurants post-Covid here, you scan a QR code for the menu), we decided to have our bubbly unadulterated. (If you’re wondering, Franciacorta is Prosecco’s more grownup cousin. It’s aged and develops bubbles in the bottle, just like Champagne, and is usually drier than Prosecco.) Some house-made potato chips and toast with butter and anchovies, add some great people watching, and we fell in love again with the city that took TSW’s heart decades ago.

Come together?

So, it’s 2022 and Covid’s behind us and everything is just like the old days. Except that Italy reports more than 100,000 new cases on an average day. The United States records around 130,000 new infections daily. But hey, it’s just a bad cold, right? Let’s fly maskless, let’s go out to eat indoors, forget all those nasty restrictions.

At least that’s what it’s feeling like around here. Italians, who braved lockdowns and some of the most restrictive rules regarding vaccinations and gathering in public spaces, are partying like it’s 2019. It’s weirdly disconcerting, because while mass masking is clearly out, you still see bottles of sanitizer and plexiglass barriers everywhere. And don’t try getting on public transport without a mask. The local mall, er, centro commerciale is another thing…

We’ve been living with this strange situation the past couple of months. So basically we keep to ourselves and vaccinated/tested negative friends for the most part. But even given how fascinating we are to ourselves, sometimes you gotta get off the mountain, you know? And our region tempts us every day with festivals, places to hike (and people to do it with) and, bigly, as what’s-his-name once said, sagras.

What? You don’t know what a sagra is? Think of it as a big church supper, but without the church. (I’ve written about them before, but without Covid looming over them.) Substitute a town sponsor instead and add a single ingredient or dish as the star attraction. Add some cheesy merchandising, a band playing covers of everything from the Eagles (ugh) to Dua Lipa (!), not to mention gentle line-dancing for the elders. Enlist a platoon of locals to run the thing—the kids busing and waiting tables are especially adorable. And place said event (which usually lasts a few days to a week) in the local soccer pitch and you’ve got a sagra. The closest U.S. event I’ve been to is Staten Island’s Greek Festival, hosted by St. Nicholas orthodox church there.

Add fine china, a white tablecloth and a New York address and this would cost $40.

There’s one nearby that we can’t resist. It’s in Ripa, a hamlet two towns away from us. And it features truffles. Not the chocolate kind your mom got for Valentine’s Day, but the black, luscious, pungent, mysterious fungus that grows near oak trees. And the black tuber is on everything from toasts to pasta. It’s good, decadent fun on a budget. Similar food at a New York Temple of Gastronomy ™ would cost ya plenty, but a few dishes, a bottle of decent local wine and fizzy water set three of us back a whole €56, or $57.

Brits, especially, like to rank on Italians for being chaotic. (They should talk.) Go to a sagra, and you’ll see that the stereotype is just wrong. It’s all a matter of priorities. So while Roman traffic may be a free for all, food preparation and service at these sagre (*plural of sagra) is efficient and friendly. You wait in line while dispatching a friend or relative to find a table. That person texts the person on line which table number. Line person gives the order to the person in the booth and pays for it, and finds the table. Then table finder/sitter ventures out for drinks. You start on the wine and water and soon enough, an adorable 10-year-old kid delivers the food.

It’s more than the food. The people watching (and listening) can’t be beat. It’s great to see groups of family and friends out on a sultry night simply enjoying themselves and their place in the world. I like to see how the tribe organizes itself, and which combination of people are hanging out. Basically, the groups come in four models: the mixed generation family, usually three generations; the friends with or without kids and dogs; the elderly couples, either alone or in pairs. And us, a couple and an old friend who’s just moved here and we were showing him one of the glories of rural Umbria in the summer.

ANOTHER SUMMER HIGHLIGHT AROUND HERE is the Umbria Jazz festival. Only Covid stopped and then sharply curtailed it the past couple of years. But this year, for better or worse, the festival was back in its full glory, with free concerts in the streets and parks, an outdoor restaurant, paid big concerts in a soccer stadium—and lots of crowds jamming the small historic center of Perugia. The video below shows what the good old days (2017 here) were like.

We were leery and determined to stay up on the mountain and avoid the crowd. But I’d casually mentioned to a friend that The Spartan Woman would like to see the Canadian singer/pianist Diana Krall. I’d completely forgotten that I mentioned it until I got a text from my friend, saying “here’s a little gift.” Enclosed with the text were two free tickets, given to friends and family of the festival organizers.

Krall fits the “jazz” billing of the festival. But let’s say that the festival transcends labels. In the past we’ve seen artists as diverse as Caetano Veloso, REM on its last tour, Beach Boy genius Brian Wilson, and George Clinton and the P-Funk Allstars. We saw that we had reserved seats, so, unlike at the REM show it would be unlikely that a standing crowd would be jammed in right by the stage. We were right—our fellow concertgoers were a decorous bunch and we were able to socially distance from most of them.

All in all, it was a terrific way to spend a balmy summer evening. To avoid the typical Perugian parking, we drove to the end of the city’s MiniMetrò line, where there’s a huge and free parking lot. The metro itself normally shuts down at a ridiculous 21:30 every night, but they extended it to 1:45 for the festival. We zipped in and out, masked as required. You could say that the line is gently used most of the time, but it was crammed; lots of people had the same idea.

We’re keeping our fingers crossed and stay masked in public places. It was great to get out and pretend life was back to normal for a couple of hours. But for the time being, it’ll always be a little fraught to do that, so we’ll be choosy about where to go and how to do 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.

Truffles, onions and frogs, oh my!

 

 

One of the pleasures of an Italian summer is the town sagra. It almost always involves food, and centers on one ingredient. Think Gilroy (California) Garlic Festival with some Italian verve thrown in. The sagra serves a few purposes. It’s fun; the towns get to show off; and they raise money for public projects—not to mention for the the next year’s sagra.

We set a personal record this summer: three. Well, four, if you include our town’s Palio, during which the small medieval core was turned into a decently sized outdoor restaurant. The first one was in Ripa, a walled circular town with a big outdoor space outside the walls. The main ingredient: black truffles. Then we went to a neighboring town, Pianello, home to the parents and business of our friend Angela. Pianello did mushrooms.

IMG_4514

Soon, stringozzi (thick, long Umbrian pasta) with black truffles

I’ll admit I cheated in the headline. We went to the frog one in Capanne last year. My bad. That’s the frog one, and we didn’t eat the frog. Instead, we feasted on the other big attraction, umbricelli with a spicy tomato sauce. Umbricelli are these thick, round, chewy handmade noodles of wheat and water—no eggs.

The big daddy, though, had to be the Cannara onion festival this past weekend. These things can get pretty crowded, but this one turns that up to 12. Cars streamed in from all directions and, we were told, from outside Umbria, too. We had a VIP pass that got us a great parking space. And yeah, I’m being vague about that spot on purpose.

The star ingredients may all differ, but there’s one thing in common. They are really well-run. I laugh when people call Italy chaotic or, at best, disorganized. These critics obviously haven’t been to a sagra. Or any big food event here in the Bel Paese. It’s all a question of priorities, you see. You want people to stand obediently in line for mediocre coffee? Then don’t leave home and go to Starbucks. You want the trains to be on time to the second? Go to Switzerland. And stereotypes sometimes are just wrong, as anyone who’s been through the madness of Frankfurt’s airport can testify.

There are two basic models for these: the checkoff form and the restaurant model. With the checkoff one, you find a table, and jot down its number. Get a couple of friends to save the seats. Argue about who’s getting what. Send a couple of people to stand in line, submit the order, and pay. Then go back to the table and wait.

IMG_5126

The waiting is the hardest part.

Cannara did the restaurant model. We had to wait behind a little barrier, for something like 45 minutes. We passed the time teasing each other and drinking an illicit (non festival) beer. Our party was called, and we felt like celebrities as we were escorted to our half of a picnic table. A festival dude took our order and with astonishing speed, the town’s kids brought our dishes out, in the proper Italian meal order: antipasti, primi, secondi, dolci.

This scenario was played out throughout the town. Like I said, this is the mother of all sagras, and they had four or five big restaurants spread throughout the town. One of them featured a menu by a Michelin-starred chef, no less.

I’m not gonna play restaurant critic. Did that for 10 years and it was enough. But oh boy those gnocchetti with an onion-cheese cream sauce. And the schiacciata with onions. The onions in agrodolce (sweet and sour) weren’t bad, either. I somehow ended up with a free half-bottle of wine, too, courtesy of the guy who took our order. All he asked for was for us to give the kid-runner a decent tip.

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Gnocchetti (small gnocchi) from heaven

Big City Boy in a Small Town

I have to say that I had my doubts about this whole thing. Buying and maintaining a house in the country is a big deal. I’m not exactly handy—let’s just say that on Staten Island, when it came down to either buying a lawnmower or hiring a lawn service, I outsourced my homeowner duty.

Plus, again, true confessions here, I had my doubts about a small town. Sure, we’re high above the comune (municipality) of Valfabbrica, but eventually you have to go into town to buy groceries, pay taxes, get a coffee at the bar, get cash from the ATM and, invariably, you run into your fellow townspeople. What would they be like? I remember when I was a kid riding through small Sicilian towns, with the old ladies in black crocheting, backs to the road, while their menfolk eyed us suspiciously. I know it’s a stereotype, but it’s an impression that’s stuck with me ever since.

We’ve had sensei here, though. Our real estate agent and her pal have helped us navigate some, and they’ve introduced us to a cast of characters. We’ve also had another guide, and his name is Joonas. He’s the son of one of the brothers we bought the house from, and he also happens to be on the town council. Fun fact: He’s about three weeks older than our younger kid, which means he’s all of 25 years old,

Joonas hangs out with us every now and then. He probably thinks New Yorkers are exotic. In any event, it’s mutual: He’s half Italian and half Finnish, which explains his first name. Last summer, we tried out a new place in town, a bright and clean snack kind of place that features local cheeses and salumi, artisan beers, and you can go there with empty bottles and fill ’em up with local bulk wines. What’s not to like?

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Joonas indulges a couple of old people with a selfie.

The day after that, we joined a few hundred other Valfabbricanesi to watch a pageant that turned the main drag in town into a medieval fantasy. It features readings, chanting, singing, mysterious looking hooded people, a very ribald song, and vigorous drumming by the town’s young guys. I’ve put a sample below. It was pretty sophisticated, and at times reminding me a lot of Montréal’s Cirque du Soleil. That’s probably not so strange, since both come from the same Commedia dell’Arte tradition.

 

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By Johann Jaritz – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 at, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45485693

 

Again, this weekend, we participated in a town event. Joonas had seen from a Facebook post that we’d arrived and PMed a circular about the patron saint festivities over the weekend. The saint, by the way, is Sebastiano, probably best know for inspiring hundreds of homoerotic images of the martyr being shot through with arrows.

 

One of the events was a pranzo sociale, or social lunch, at a local restaurant. We figured it would be a good way to check out the neighbors and participate in the weekend events. It was. We found the place, and the owner immediately recognized us as the people who reserved places via the restaurant’s Facebook page. (I’m also about 99 percent sure that we were the only people he’d never seen before.) The local priest soon zoomed in on us and introduced himself. Poor guy—he’s not going to see us at his establishment…

Then, the usual Italian dinner bash ritual. People standing around, lots of talking, friends seeing each other, smokers ducking out. I could’t figure out immediately how I’d pay, but then saw a couple of people at the bar. I went over, asked the owner, who told me, get this, €20 a head. It was a long, terrific lunch of antipasti, two pastas, a main course and dessert, wine, etc., all included. We figured it would be about $75 in New York.

But the best part was being around the neighbors. As chance would have it, one of our table mates is a local teacher. (I’m convinced that teachers have this built-in tracking device for their own. Yes, The Spartan Woman is a retired teacher. But they never really stop being teachers.) They knew the family we bought the house from, told us that Joonas got the most votes in the city government vote (that boy will go far) and told us about others in town. I may have been a little apprehensive at first, but the warm welcome and easygoing nature of the lunch went a long way to make us feel at home.

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Pranzo at VillaVerde, Valfabbrica

That night, we stood on our balcony with our houseguests watching fireworks in the town below. It was a beautiful ending to a sweet day.