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.

The housewives like fresh vegetables!

Let us go back in time. Way back. It’s around 1980 and we’re in a once-grand, now shabby student apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Right near Columbia University, in fact. We’re at a party with a bunch of grad students from the neighborhood; I forgot whether it was for any special occasion. Did anyone need one back then?

We’d been invited by a good friend of ours who back then went by the name of Drew. One of his roommates brandished some newspaper put out by Albania’s Communist Party (remember, this is the Upper Left Side, ground zero for left wing intelligentsia back then). “Pig iron production is up by 10 percent! All praise to our leader Enver Hoxha!” the roommates exclaimed before collapsing in laughter.

Meanwhile, there’s a cluster of women surrounding a guy looking, if I squinted, somewhat like the young Trotsky. They’re hanging onto every word of his. “I decided that I’d write my dissertation on the Italian anarchists,” Trotsky-alike said in a thick, somewhat plummy British accent. “That’s Carl,” I’m told. “He just got back from the London School of Economics.” The crowd surrounding him nodded in unison. I can be bad and say they looked like groupies surrounding Eddie Van Halen, but maybe they’re as fascinated by the Italian anarchists as Carl is.

Carl’s kind of people

I catch bits and pieces of Carl’s monologue. To my admittedly uneducated, bachelor degree at the time-only ears, the Italians that he’s describing—we’re talking post World War I and pre-Mussolini—sound like noble savages, selfless, instinctual in their generosity and class consciousness. Carl avers that Italians even now (well, in 1980) aren’t all that different. Then he utters the sentence that to him says everything: “The housewives like fresh vegetables.”

Did I mention that Carl grew up in Massapequa? As in Massapequa, Long Island? New York? Somehow I doubt that he spoke with that accent before he attended the hallowed LSE.

I’m writing about Carl, wherever he is now, because he was one of many people I met, and writers I’ve read, who look at Italians in this sort of folklore-y condescending way. Italians are passionate, they’re disorganized, they love their families, they’re Catholic, they drive fast, they have great food, they do funny things that we just can’t understand, but it’s so much fun to go there on vacation. This simplistic portrayal of a complex, modern society goes back to the days of the Grand Tour, when Brits of a certain class traveled south to learn about Art and gaze wistfully at the Tuscan landscape. Think of the E.M. Forster novel and film adaption of A Room With a View, and you’ll know what I mean.

I remember as a high school kid stopping in at a friend’s house, a friend whose family can trace itself back to the American Revolution. White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, in other words. Father (he was called that by his wife, who naturally was “Mother”) would greet me and then, knowing that I’m an American with Italian relatives, ask me about recipes for various Italian-American dishes. I’m sure he was just trying to make conversation, but I remember thinking, JH Christ, get real, as if every Italian-American kid has in his genes the ability to cook veal scaloppini.

The British press is prone to this sort of thing, too. A Modern Languages Open paper examines British attitudes, arguing that most British narratives toward countries like Italy start from the viewpoint that British culture is superior. And a lot of Brits fully believe in the usual stereotypes: sunny Italy, sunset with a glass of Chianti, anarchic drivers, etc.

ABOVE: Image, meet reality

And as in Britain, so its anglophile cousins across the pond. And fairly recently. The New York Times, long a bastion of proper WASP snobbism, pointedly ignored last year’s bankruptcy and shutdown of the Italian airline Alitalia, which by most measures, was a huge business news story on the continent. At some point, someone must have noticed that Alitalia—once the official Vatican airline—had ceased operations and finally, the Grey Lady ran a silly oped, er, sorry, guest essay, by Christopher Buckley.

I’M NOT A NAIVE CHAMPION OF MY other country. The bureaucracy can drive you nuts, the voting pool is divided about 50-50, which makes it easy for weak coalition governments to be patched together and then fall after only a few months. (Just last week, Italian politicians, led by the feckless Cinque Stelle leader Giuseppe Conte, jettisoned a national unity coalition, handing Putin and the right wing a gift.) But if you look past the stereotypes, you’ll see that Italian society is actually a rules-based, established culture. The rules, however, take a while to learn, and are mostly unspoken and certainly, unwritten. They’re woven into everyday conduct. And once you’re used to them, going back to the Wild West of the U.S. can be a jarring experience in reverse culture shock.

To give a concrete example, walk into a shop of any size. Even a huge hypermarket. You make eye contact with the cashier or salesperson and you had better exchange greetings. There’s none of the sullen get right down to it business exchange that you’ll see in any American mall. If you walk into a clothing shop and start with “do you have a white shirt in a 42 size?” the clerk will immediately peg you as a rude lout and will often ignore you until you approach him or her correctly.

Another example: Days are structured here in ways that may not seem immediately obvious, except for the general lull in the middle of the day. For us retired people, it’s a structure that helps us avoid the feeling that we’re drifting through time aimlessly, like people in an old age home watching TV all day and seeing friends carted off periodically. And it’s a general structure that everyone pretty much follows.

You get up pretty early. Have coffee or whatever you need to wake up. Eat a little something. If you’re employed. you go off to the office/construction site/shop/whatever. If not, this is a perfect time to run errands. Then lunch, a pause of an hour or three. Then things pick up until either the aperitivo hour—time to meet friends for a drink. Then a light dinner and off to the finish line. I once made a lunch date with a source, a prominent lawyer for a large company here. Silly me, I asked him what time should we meet at the restaurant. He laughed, saying, “do I really need to tell you?”

I could go into the zillions of food rules, but others have it covered, especially on YouTube, where scores of videos tell you what not to do. Over and over again. So much so that you could be faulted for thinking you’re watching the same video on an endless loop. Here and here are examples. And best of all, for a video review of the rules we live by here, is Marco in a Box:

But the main rule? Enjoy yourself, try to greet people in Italian and get with the flow. And eat fresh vegetables whenever you can.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

Three goes into one at some point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Howdy, neighbor!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s left of Norcia’s duomo.

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

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

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

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

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

For best results, combine Catia’s and Oxy.

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

How do you live like that?

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

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

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

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

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

Nonno and me, a few years ago

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

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

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

Meet Clio, who doesn’t drink very much.

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

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

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

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

Is this what they mean by fusion cuisine?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Anyone can do steamed broccoli”

We were bad. Lots of people were. Still are. This thing that’s kept us home alone also contributed to our gross domestic girth. We’d watch a cooking show or tutorial on YouTube. “I can make pâte à choux,” she’d say, and later we’d have creampuffs. Or Montréal-style bagels. Or a baguette. Or steamed bao.

The Spartan Woman wasn’t the only offender. I began to like how butter added an extra sheen to the tagliatelle with a mushroom ragù. Or risotto. And you need to use a fair amount of olive oil for spaghetti with clams to taste right. Right?

I was getting into ridiculous rationalizations, too. If I was going to be cooped up for months at a time, I sure as hell wasn’t going to drink ordinary wine. Hello, Honor Wines! They delivered in a funky blue vintage truck. I’d call Laurie, and she and I would talk about what I feel like drinking. It was like visiting a shrink, except instead of more self-awareness, I’d know more about rosé wines from the Trentino-Alto Adige region of northern Italy. Which is not a bad thing, but when you’re habitually drinking 2/3 of a bottle every night, those calories pile on.

I started to avoid wearing jeans. Even my big boy jeans. She wasn’t too happy, either. Our usual exercise outlet, the local YMCA pool, was closed. And it didn’t feel right to take long walks. Besides, winter. Yuck.

Finally, with a last toast and blowout New Year’s Eve dinner for two, we decided to do something about it. I’d dry out in January. Let me tell ya this was not easy, if you can think back to the days when the orange lunatic was braying about a supposedly stolen election and his deplorables attacked the Capitol. I ended up extending the drying out into April, with exceptions for Joe Biden’s inauguration and Easter with one of the kids.

Ciao for now

So, a diet. But not a diet. It was winter, we were depressed, and TSW said she couldn’t live on steamed broccoli and tofu. That’s her usual way of dissing over-virtuous regimens. We’re also almost-vegetarians. We eat fish and seafood as a naughty treat, although I’m beginning not to like the fish part so much. So planning meals posed an extra challenge. But we’ve been down that road before, and we resolved that this would be it.

I’ve mentioned before how TSW likes systems, but also likes to game those systems. She applied that to our food. (Note: I do cook; we usually split the chore. But this time I let her drive, since rightly or wrongly, I’m to blame for our gastronomic excess. Plus, after living alone in Italy last fall, and feeding myself almost every day, I was happy to take a break. Plus, I threw out my back sometime in January…)

With this in mind, I’ll set out how we managed to lose about 20-25 pounds so far and actually enjoy it. This will just be the intro. Like obsessed, annoying Instagramers, we take photos of almost every meal, so I have a lot of material.

First, this is an adoption of the WW points system. TSW chose the version that’s most restrictive in points, because it’s extraordinarily permissive when it comes to stuff we like to eat: vegetables, fruit, whole grains, more vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. Fats are limited (think a couple of tablespoons of olive oil between us at dinner), as are simple carbohydrates and sugar.

We do adapt what we used to eat to this routine—we’ll sub out white pasta for whole wheat in a dish, for example. But the past few months have unleashed TSW’s creativity and ingenuity. She’ll use silken tofu to make decadent banana-mango puddings, and we’ll reduce broth and wine for sauces instead of relying on the butter/oil crutch.

I guess the best thing at this point is to show you what we eat. And as I write more, I’ll be explicit with recipes and simple cooking tips.

First of all, up top is a tray bake of vegetables and feta cheese. There’s asparagus, grape tomatoes, striped sweet peppers, red onions, cremini (supermarkets insist on calling them baby bellas or some such) mushrooms, shishito peppers, and slices of feta cheese. It’s simple to make, fun to eat. Spray it all with olive oil–do yourself a favor and buy either a good non-aerosol brand or get a spray bottle and fill it with decent oil that you like. Toss with salt and pepper, maybe some chilis if you like. Roast at 375F/180C for 35-40 minutes. Pair it with farro, brown rice, or whole wheat orzo or couscous.

Color-adjusted bean soup

Beans are a vegetarian’s (or a wimpy semi-vegetarian’s) best friend. This soup, Central Italian style, got us through a lot of cold nights. Cook some dry navy, cannelini, or cranberry (borlotti) beans yourself, or for a quick lunch or dinner, use good canned beans. Using a spritz or, if you’re feeling decadent, a tablespoon of oil, saute diced fennel, an onion, and a carrot until they’re translucent. Add the beans and either water or vegetable stock. Let it all come together, about 15 minutes-half an hour. Use a hand immersion blender or pour the solids and some of the liquid into a blender and purée it. Return to the pot and heat, add some small soup pasta. If it looks too gray, add some tomato paste or puree, and season it.

It doesn’t have to be cold out to enjoy this. You can let it cool down a bit, and, if you like, add a drizzle of fresh olive oil.

Finally, Asian-style food suits this thing pretty well, too, and TSW spent a lot of time working on various ways to put great mock-Chinese meals together. She’s like an alchemist in the kitchen, and over the past few months has figured out how to make seitan, a meat substitute that’s make of wheat gluten and a few other ingredients, depending on how and where you want to use it. In the meal shown below, she paired mock duck with broccoli and other vegetables, and on the right, there’s a silken corn dish over soft tofu. I’ll update this page with a recipe.