Brrr. It’s a little chilly here in Studio AP, where I put together these little dispatches from Italy’s version of Vermont. I could blame Vladimir Putin for the lack of heat, but that’s too easy. Besides, we have lots of propane right now. But the fact is, this is Europe in the Italyland province, and houses were built more to shield us from the heat of summer than the cold of winter.
I shouldn’t complain anyway. It’s January, and this month has been fairly benign. And it’s leagues better than the typical New York January, which I hear and my iPhone’s weather app tells me hasn’t been so bad this month for a change. And how’s this for role reversal? We had a real, actual, white, wet snowstorm earlier this week. It gave us lazy sods an even better excuse to build a fire and drink hot liquids and not do much else except for reading and finding good cooking videos on YouTube.
When people hear that you’re going to Italy, that usually conjures up a whole bunch of images. Golden sun, sports cars roaring along a curvy beach road, high fashion, great wine, and pasta. So much for high fashion: Most of the young and cool this week seemed to be wearing sweats, NorthFace puffy jackets, and Timberland boots. Yes, Timberland. The brand is huge here and there are Timberland stores everywhere, from the local upscale mall, er, sorry, centro commerciale to the main street in town where everyone walks up and down between 18:00 and 20:00 (6 pm-8 pm to you nord americani) to window shop, meet friends, and have a drink before dinner.
You might notice that there isn’t much of that here. Despite an app that told me it was almost springlike in Perugia, it was blustery and freezing and no one was lingering over anything, much less a cold alcoholic libation. In warmer weather, this pedestrian street is filled with tables and chairs and 20-somethings hoping to get lucky.
And how about the main piazza? Ditto.
We had to run a couple of errands in town. That usually means the aforementioned drinks while lingering at an outdoor table—a table set in the middle of the Corso Vannucci, for example, where that first picture was taken. We might meet friends walking around. And we like to go to the end of the street where there’s a nice cool green spot with a view of the Tiber Valley below. Instead, we rushed up the escalators from the Minimetrò (we parked the car in the big parking lot at the base of the hill) and headed straight to a clothing store to look for gifts. I was bundled up, but it didn’t keep me from looking longingly at some warm hats, I remembered that my coat has a down-lined hood and resisted temptation.
Then we ran to another shop. I can’t say anything about that because the thing we bought will be someone’s surprise. And we don’t want to spoil that, do we?
All good boys and girls get a treat at the end of this. I’d been jonesing for some Italian hot chocolate, and yesterday was the perfect time for it. We found our favorite bar to have it, and found a table. The waiter smiled when we told him yes please, with whipped cream on top. Italian panna, or whipped cream, isn’t sweet at all but it’s intensely milky. It balanced the luscious deep chocolate, which really is more like molten dark chocolate pudding. How could we not?
Otherwise, it goes. After a brief bureaucratic tussle over a supposedly unpaid bill for propane, we got a delivery. So now we old folks don’t have to build a fire if we want to stay warm. Turning on the gas will cost us, but when you stumble out of bed and need coffee and to stare at the walls and/or the scenery, the last thing we need is to empty out the fireplace, stack some wood in it again and set it on fire.
This being January with pretty lousy, cloudy, I don’t go out much weather, I’ve had a lot of time to read the early obituaries of Noma, which is closing late next year. In case you don’t follow “fine dining,” Noma is a restaurant in Copenhagen that appears on every best-restaurants-of-the-world list. The place and its owner/genius chef René Redzepi have inspired a whole bunch of creative chefs who go out and pick odd plants in the forest or in tide pools, do something transformative with the stuff, and then charge scenester diners a few hundred bucks for the privilege of ingesting what they foraged and tortured. A night at Noma, for example, costs around $500 a person.
Noma will follow El Bulli and Del Posto to the big food court in the sky. To which I say: no great loss. It’s not jealousy—I was a part-time restaurant critic back in the 1990s, when the big deal restaurant scene hadn’t yet metastasized into the monster it has become. Still, there were previews of what was to come in multi-course tasting menus in a breed of French restaurants that, looking back, served as a bridge between the snooty old French establishments and brave rich-hippie vibe of Noma. Not to put too fine a point on it, you can think of a Noma fan as the foodie equivalent of an investment banker who collects Grateful Dead concert tapes.
I’m not going to lie. I thoroughly enjoyed my decade of dining at my newspaper’s expense. It made me really popular, because The Spartan Woman and I usually invited a couple of friends to come along so that we could sample enough dishes. We ate at the new wave of Spanish/Catalan restaurants, fancy French eateries, aristocratic Italian establishments, as well as the occasional Hong Kong style of Chinatown palaces that were just beginning to establish a beachhead in New York. The review pace was gentle—I was on the hook every four weeks for a review, so it was just enough to be fun and not enough to be routine and boring. And when our girls were old enough, we often took them along. (They were tougher critics than our friends, who were just thrilled to have a free meal at a hot restaurant.)
After 10 years, though, we’d had enough. By then we just wanted to hang out with friends and family, either at home or in a local ethnic restaurant where we’d like the food but wouldn’t have to pay homage to it. I remember a colleague once went to El Bulli, the restaurant in the Catalan region of Spain, which had pioneered “molecular” cuisine. I asked him how it was. “Tiring,” he said. I’m paraphrase, but he said something like, “It was so exhausting. Open this lid, inhale the fumes three times, then pour the contents onto this plate and stir counterclockwise 4.5 times, then eat using these tweezers.” Sorry, that ain’t food, that’s entertainment for a very small cult audience.
And then there was Del Posto in New York. Its owner sought to elevate (so they thought) Italian food to the same rarified altitude of classic French cuisine. Talk about flawed concepts from the get-go—”Italian” food (a term I have trouble with because this country’s eating habits are hyper-regional) isn’t supposed to be the snobby refuge of the wealthy. My neighbors on our hill, who tend sheep and have an organic farm, make ricotta that would make you cry it’s so good. But there are a lot of people like them here and they’ll insist that good food is their birthright, not just a boasting point for the bourgeoisie.
EATING IN ITALY ENCOURAGED my move away from culinary preciousness. For one thing, the dominant characteristic of food here is to find really good ingredients and prepare them in a way that lets them shine. There’s little torturing of plants or animal bits to make them something else. And with the exception of a few Michelin-starred places, there are fewer celebrity chefs lording over everyone. Hey, this is Italy, where everybody is a star, and no one cooks better than Nonna (grandma) or your mother.
I know I’m lucky; as a teenager I stayed with relatives my first times in this country. I had a front-row seat to the food culture, which basically was just as my mom cooked back in New York, although mom, being a native New Yorker, pretended to be a normal American every so often and would give us steak and potatoes or peanut butter sandwiches in our lunchboxes.
But it’s interesting to see the differences between the cultures of my two countries when it comes to eating out. In cities like New York, Boston, and San Francisco, it’s become a high-stakes scene (and is bouncing back post-pandemic). Rents are high, food and liquor and wine prices are through the roof, so in an attempt to squeeze some profit restaurateurs pay their staff peanuts. Noma’s Redzepi himself said that fine dining has become economically unfeasible, and his complaints mirror what thoughtful American restaurant chefs and owners have been saying. In the U.S., the handful of successful celebrity chefs expand their operations into empires. The Bastianich group, headed by matriarch Lidia Bastianich and run by her son, has 30 eateries spread across the world. Thirty!
This craziness is fueled by a media and PR machine that glorifies celebrity cooks and runs competitions on TV instead of showing people how to cook. And there’s a definite high/low culture thing going on. The well-heeled eat at one of the Bastianich or Jean-Georges Vongerichten restaurants; normal people eat at the Olive Garden, which cuts corners by not salting pasta water in an attempt to cut down on spending for pots. The well-heeled use their experiences as conversations starters, and they love to spend big.
It’s different here. Sure there are TV competitions; in fact Joe Bastianich is one of the stars of MasterChef Italia. But beyond that things tend to be more democratic. One of the biggest complements Italians give to a restaurant is “si mangia bene e si spende poco” (you eat well but spend a little). Restaurants are basically extensions of the small kitchens that many Italians have (most of the country lives in apartments; think of New York but better designed). Often, clans or groups of friends will go out because they can’t fit everyone into the kitchen or day room, but they know that their outing will lead to a great meal that won’t wreck their bank account.
It’ll be interesting to see what Redzepi comes up with next. He says he’s turn Noma into a “food lab” and try to figure out new models for feeding people creatively. El Bullï’s Ferran Adria said the same thing when he closed his legendary restaurant more than a decade ago. Maybe I haven’t been paying attention, but I haven’t heard much of what his lab has done. I’ve subscribed to his newsletter to see what’s up there. In the meantime, buon appetito, enjoy what you eat, and don’t think about it too much.
I’ve been lazy. Uninspired? Bored? Had writer’s block? Nah. It’s just that living in an outer borough of New York and not going out much can be, well, not the stuff I want to write about. So I didn’t. I was struggling to do something profound, either about differences between Europeople and Americans. Or maybe about technology, or taking a quick road trip. I could show you the unfinished drafts in my queue. But that way you’d see my tortured thought process.
At one point, I even got a bot—the now famous ChatGPT—to write about driving from New York to the Boston suburbs. Then I thought maybe I’d critique what the bot did. Okay, I’ll give you a peek:
On a chilly weekend, we took a 400 km ride to the Boston suburbs in our Volkswagen Golf. Four of us traveled comfortably in the spacious car, but we had to make a couple of stops along the way for our pregnant daughter, who is in her last trimester. Despite the stops, the ride was generally smooth and we were able to make good time. One thing that struck us on the American highways was the lack of lane discipline. People would frequently pass us on the right and zig zag dangerously through traffic.
Kind of workmanlike, no? I gave the bot no instructions as to style or my attitude. I wonder how it decided that the car is spacious—in Europe it’s a midsize thing, in the U.S., the land of SUVs, like a matchbox. I’ve read worse copy in my way too long editing career, but at this point I’m not exactly scared that it’s going to take my place.
Anyhow, then Christmas came, and three days later, we transferred to our Umbrian hill, so, yes! I have something to write about. First of all, the holiday. We’re not really subscribers to religion, but we’re culturally a tiny bit Catholic, and for years we’ve had The Spartan Woman’s Jewish cousins over for the day, as well as her parents and sister, etc. This year’s get-together was bittersweet for a couple of reasons. It was the first one post-Covid onset. And it could be the last one we do, because we may not be living in the U.S. this time next year.
All the same, it was terrific to see our kids and their second cousins hanging out together. We jokingly call them the coven; for years, hardly anyone in TSW’s extended family gave birth to males. I’m not the only one calling them a bunch of witches, they themselves encourage it and, well, it’s just funny. But in the next couple of months, that should end. Our number 1 kid, who got married this past March, is expected to actually bring a male infant into this world. “I don’t know what to do with a little boy,” TSW said at one point. I think she’ll manage somehow, she seems to have no trouble with grownup boys.
AFTER THE HOLIDAY, we had to scurry and clean up and get ready to spend a few weeks in Italy. Obviously, this isn’t our first time around the block for this. Still, we have to make sure stuff is taken care of there and that we remember to take what we need in terms of tech stuff and meds, weird food substances we use in the U.S. but impossible to find in Italy. [Tip: Cheddar cheese powder is really, really good on popcorn.]
The trip over was something else. Not that we were delayed or anything, like thousands of holiday travelers in the U.S. But for the first time since early 2020 airports and flights were jammed. I never saw so many people crowding JFK Airport’s bars/restaurants/shops. It was hard to find a place to sit at the gate. When I went to the least-crowded bar to get my by-now traditional preflight Martini, the bartender apologized for having to use a plastic glass because all the Martini glasses were being used.
The flights, first to Munich, then to Rome, were similarly jammed. Lufthansa kept texting us begging us to check our carryon bags (for free even!). We had huge bags anyway, and only knapsacks as carryons. Lufthansa in general is one of my favorite airlines. Its staff treat people like humans, the food and entertainment are halfway decent, as are drinks, and the Airbuses are pretty comfortable, at least in premium economy (and upward, though I can’t shell out for that).
I’d nervously been looking at flight stats; we had 1.5 hours between flights and with the chaos in the United States, our first flight was late on the days leading up to our departure. That had me looking at how often Lufthansa and affiliates flew between Munich and Rome. Happily, it didn’t come to pass. We left on time and arrived early. Since we’re EU citizens, we breezed through passport control. And somehow we landed at a different terminal, the same one as our second flight, so we even had time for a cappuccino and snack.
I’ve crossed the Atlantic countless times and I usually sleep through most flights. But I was so happy to be traveling that I pretended to be a tourist from my window seat. Long Island looked colorful and even a little glamorous as night had fallen. Germany looked tiny and modern, at least from the buildings I could see. And the Alps? Mozzafiati! (Breathtaking in Italian)
So here we are. And yeah, it’s a nice place. But it’s more than liking the place and having nice scenery and food. Our friend Angelo picked us up at the airport and knowing that we didn’t have much fresh food at the house, gave us a big bag of fantastic oranges (there is nothing like Italian citrus). This morning, I walked next door to our neighbors Marjatta and Pasquale at the agriturismo Ca’ Mazzetto to pick up our car; they’d been car-sitting while we were away. They used it every now and then and returned it with a full tank and cleaned inside and our. Later, Pasquale dropped by to say hi and give us a tin of their fantastic organic olive oil. It’s great to be home.
We’re getting ready for a quiet and decadent New Year’s Eve dinner here with our old friend Doug and his trusty sidekick Georgia the dog. Shopping for it was like being at JFK, way too crowded but instead of making me crabby, the IperCoop near Perugia had a party vibe, with sales of good Champagne and Franciacorta (Prosecco’s upscale cousin, fermented in the bottle like Champagne). Since this is Italy, we’ll take Franciacorta—to go with some scallops in the shell from France.
Thanks for reading this year, and happy New Year! See you here after the holidays.
My mother was endlessly inventive in the kitchen. Married to a guy from Palermo, Sicily, she had to come up with a “primo” for dinner most nights. We didn’t have the traditional meat and two sides on one plate. My dad insisted on our following the typical Italian meal progression: a “primo,” either pasta asciutta (with sauce), soup, or rarely, rice. The meat or fish or frittata (omelette, Italian-style) followed. At the end of dinner, my father peeled and cut up pieces of fruit, which he doled out to us on the tip of his paring knife.
Those primi stick in my mind the most. I always preferred pasta to the second course. Twice a week we had spaghetti or some other pasta with tomato sauce—what most people back then thought was the only way to eat “macaroni.” But in between were pastas with broccoli or cauliflower, either in dry form or as a soup, escarole soup, spaghetti with clams…the list goes on. Having this first course made us less ravenous when the secondo came around, and I’m sure that it helped stretch the food budget, too. And at least once every couple of weeks, pasta e fagioli, which on the U.S. is often rendered in some obsolete dialect as “pasta fazool.”
Pasta e fagioli is the star of this post. It’s cheap, nutritious and can be fun to cook, and is delicious too. The variations can make your head explode. I’m going to tell you how to make my favorite version, which is an adaptation of what I first had one long afternoon, way too long ago.
Some culinary history: Mom usually used kidney beans, specifically canned kidney beans, for pasta e fagioli, because back in the dark ages of American grocery stores, kidney beans were everywhere, mostly to the exclusion of every other bean. Sure there might be navy beans, which are almost tasteless and resemble the canellini bean’s little brother. And you could buy lentils and split peas. But back then, there wasn’t much choice. Angie/Mom made it palatable by injecting a fair amount of garlic and some tomato broth to the mix. If she had some lying around, she’d chop parsley.
Years later, Perugian friends took us to an agriturismo (working farm with restaurant and/or rooms) over the border in foreign Toscana—Tuscany in English. The folks at the Castello di Sorci supplied a multicourse meal with two primi, one of which was an amazing puréed bean soup with homemade tagliolini, or thin homemade egg noodles. This was new to me; I’d never thought to purée the beans for the soup. Back home in New York, I made my own versions, one of which stuck. I love fennel and will sneak it in wherever I can. I did it with the bean soup and found that the addition of the fennel mellowed the soup out. At the same time, you wouldn’t know it was there if you didn’t look for it—just like chefs now use anchovies to increase the umami in a dish.
We’re starting to make soups like this as the weather turns cooler. So far this November it hasn’t cooled that much, but with the long nights this soup feels right somehow. You can put it together in 40 minutes or so using canned beans, or plan ahead, soak some good beans overnight and cook them before making soup out of them.
HERE’S THE NON-RECIPE RECIPE. I don’t measure anything, and this soup has endless variations in quantity and what you put into it. The orthodox version is pretty straightforward, though I have no idea whether anyone in Umbria ever purees fennel along with the beans.
You’ll need a package of canellini or borlotti beans. If you can’t find them, navy or kidney beans of whatever color will work. If you’re using dry beans, you’ll need to soak them overnight and cook them ahead of time. Otherwise, a couple of cans of white or borlotti (cranberry) beans will work.
A bulb of fennel—if you can’t find or don’t like fennel, you can use celery
2-4 cloves of garlic
Tomato paste or a couple of peeled canned whole tomatoes (mainly for color adjustment; otherwise the soup can be way too beige)
Wine to deglaze. Or white vermouth.
Short soup pasta, or broken up spaghetti, or sheets of egg pasta cut into strips or irregular shapes. Quantity is up to you. About a cup works but it really depends on how soupy or solid you want the final version to be.
How to start:
Dice a small head of fennel, saute in good olive oil. Add a diced onion (red, yellow, or white, it doesn’t really matter). Dice a carrot. All of this doesn’t have to be perfect; you’re going to purée this toward the end. Add 2-4 smashed garlic cloves, and, optional, a pinch of hot pepper flakes or a little hot pepper—what we call “peperoncino” in Italian. Get the vegetables past soft and translucent; you’ll want a bit of golden color because it will taste better.
Add a splash of white wine or dry vermouth and get all the toasty bits off the pot. Add a squeeze of tomato paste or a peeled tomato or two. Add two liters/quarts of low salt vegetable stock or water. Add the cooked/canned beans. Bring to a boil and then let it settle into a simmer. At this point you’ll want the flavors to come together, so let it simmer for about 30 minutes.
Take the soup off the heat. Using an immersion blender, purée until smooth. You can keep some beans out and leave them whole if you want. It’s your soup. If you don’t have an immersion blender, a normal standalone blender or even a food processor will work.
Turn the heat back on. Add pasta. There are two schools of thought here. I’ll usually cook the pasta in the soup, but a lot of people will cook it separately and then bring the pasta and soup together just before serving. Cook the pasta until just before being al dente–it will continue cooking as you serve it.
Serve the soup in bowls, drizzle good olive oil on top.
Possible additions: Greens. You can even just tear some rucola (arugula) up and it will wilt in the bowl and give the soup a peppery note. Finely chopped Tuscan (black) kale, escarole, or chicory are good additions.A pinch of red pepper flakes or chili oil will satisfy those who like things spicy.
You can also choose not to purée the soup. In that case, make sure you dice the supporting cast of vegetables finely and uniformly; it’s all got to fit on a spoon. Or you can ease up on the water or broth and make the dish semi-solid.
Photo at top of page: Jeremy Keith from Brighton & Hove, United Kingdom
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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)
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 porchettapanini* 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.
*”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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.