Solitary man

Greetings from jail!

I left this:

To be here:

The superwide angle lens in the shot makes this room look bigger than it is. Behind the room is a postage stamp yard and the houses on the next block. The view is, in a word, boring.

No wonder Americans like(d) to work so many hours outside the home.

I’m whining because, if you’ve followed me on the social interwebs, you’ll know that I left the green hills of Umbria for the tough streets of New York City. Only we’re talking about Staten Island and….[yawn] I’m sorry, I dozed off. There are lots of nice parks around here, and I’m told that pleasant interesting people walk their dogs in the morning in those parks.

But I wouldn’t know because I’m in jail, a prisoner of Andy Cuomo and his warden, The Spartan Woman. Okay, it’s quarantine and the adult part of my brain understands That This Is Necessary and it’s all about Protecting My Loved Ones and Neighbors. But the lizard part of my brain screams get me out! Now! Except it’s dreary and gray out there. I’m pretty much confined to this room during the day and have to wear a mask when I venture out, mainly to grab my guitar or ask for a snack or some coffee. (The good side is that I’m barred from doing anything in the kitchen. After nearly two months of fending for myself for nearly every meal, this isn’t the worst thing to happen.)

Got drugs?

Eh, we didn’t think this was going to get bad again, did we? Not just my current incarceration, but the whole thing, the resurgence of Covid-19 cases, the renewed clampdown, The Donald denial of reality…. Wait, that last bit was completely predictable. As I prepared to leave, the Italian government had instituted new measures, like mandatory outdoor mask wearing and earlier restaurant and bar closures. And there’s an ongoing discussion about the need for another lockdown. Already, Lombardia, with Milan at its core, is under a nighttime curfew. Contrary, or maybe in addition, to the common perception of Milan as this serious hard-working Eurocity, it’s also party central, with great nightlife, bars, ethnic restaurants and places to just hang out outdoors with friends.

To get back to New York, I got a ride from the great Angelo, who along with his little pup, are great company for a road trip. Rome’s airport, Fiumicino, was a ghost town, as you can see in the photo below. I took a room in Hello Sky Air Rooms Rome, a hipster airport hotel because I had a morning flight and I hate leaving the house before dawn. It makes a depressing trip even worse.

Eerily quiet for a Tuesday early evening
Last dinner. Sigh.

My room was a cool monk’s cell. The nice guy behind the check-in desk’s plexiglass barrier showed me the limited restaurant menu and suggested ordering room service: “There is no penalty for having dinner delivered to your room.” I don’t remember much of the rest of the evening except that channel surfing was fun because the chain promoted a Monocle magazine sort of multiculturalism that was completely reflected in the choice of TV channels. TV Algérique, anyone?

The rest of the trip was pretty much a mirror image of my way to Italy. Alitalia did not cancel the flight; it’s actually been one of the more reliable airlines during the pandemic. I had to be more American this time and show the blue passport so that the nice Customs and Border Patrol people would let me into the country. I scored a bulkhead seat, read a novel, ate crappy sealed-in-plastic food, drank San Benedetto naturale water (the only on board beverage choice) and slept some. Arriving at JFK, I practically flew through passport control—props to the polite and even friendly people!—and when I exited the customs area the New York State folks grabbed me and made me fill out a form promising to do this quarantine thing.

Which brings us to today. I write. I go down the YouTube rabbit hole. I started watching Luca Guadagnino’s We Are Who We Are on HBO Max, which is nicely atmospheric. I’m not sure yet where it’s going, but Guadagnino (he’s from Palermo, like my family) definitely knows how to capture a place and time. The contrast between the little America vibe of the base and kids’ interactions with local Italian kids is pretty interesting. I’ll have more to say when I’m done with it.

I’ve also become a fan of cheesy Mexican crime/comedy shows on Netflix. The best so far has been Casa de las Flores, or House of Flowers, about a wealthy Mexico City family that owns a flower shop. And the family is falling apart in interesting ways. Big repressed sister is a riot; she speaks in a slow Spanish enunciating every syllable. It’s really odd, but I read that it’s how certain matrons of that wild city speak. Another good one is The Club, about a few rich Mexico City kids combine phone apps and MDMA sales, get rich, and run into turf wars with the established drug cartels. Watch it for the architecture; upper class houses in the city are fascinating to look at.

But for now, I have this. The Warden’s brought me a snack. Hey, maybe prison won’t be so bad.

And let’s give a listen to this post’s theme song:

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

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

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

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

Ubaldo at the doorway of his workshop

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

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

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

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

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

…so they just picked up where they left off

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Somehow I forgot to write a single word

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

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

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

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

If you build it, will they come?

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

Not quite ready for prime time.

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

So real. Surreal.

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

The friendly skies of Lufthansa

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

Polish dulce de leche and a serendipitous wedding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chocolate, the breakfast of champions

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

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

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


Just another Spoleto Sunday

We have certain rituals—Sunday afternoon dinners, fires in the country on winter nights, morning walks with the dog on Staten Island. Here in Umbria, we’ve got certain towns that we just like to check out every so often. One of them is Spoleto, home to the classical music event Festival dei 2Mondi, and a strategic city-state hundreds of years ago, and a strategic city-state hundreds of years ago.

We just like the place. It’s different enough from Perugia to be interesting. It’s kind of aristocratic, and it’s got a great archeological museum, which, I must confess, The Spartan Woman likes to visit more than I do. (Once is usually enough for me, though I’ll concede that the Roman amphitheater is molto cool.)

So we pointed the red Clio south, with Radio Subasio putting out tunes. One wrong turn looking for the Spoletosfera parking garage, but we got back on track. Note: If you’re coming from the north on SS3, go through the tunnel first, then hang a right.

Like all of the bigger Umbrian towns, Spoleto makes visitors park on the outskirts. And then they have various ways of getting you up (it’s invariably up) into town. In Spoleto’s case, it’s a multilevel parking garage followed by what feels like a metro or subway, except there are no trains. Instead, there are long moving sidewalks, like you find in airports. The town tries to entertain you along the way with big portraits of musical and cinema stars who’ve been at the Spoleto Festival.

I am a train, I am a train.

Before you know it, you’re in the center of the old town, Piazza della Libertà. There’s a long shopping and cafe street leading away from it, with decent window shopping. (And I didn’t get to buy that cashmere sweater I’ve been coveting yet again. Foiled by Sunday….)

We have our Spoleto spots. We walk to the Duomo. It’s more an aesthetic thing, not a religious pilgrimage. There are some excellent frescoes from the 15th century by Filippo Lippi. I confess that I’m easily seduced by nice colors, and these frescoes do the job admirably. I’m a fan of the pinks, blues, teals, and the background scenes that look like what we see when we walk down our road.

Eye candy

When our older kid was a baby, she had an uncontrollable nosebleed outside the cathedral, for some reason. I’ll never forget the people who rushed up and tried to help. When we last went to Spoleto with her, she marked her return triumphantly.

Watch out, Spoleto, Martina’s back!

We weren’t through playing tourist. Suckers for a great view, we took advantage again of the city’s system of passages and elevators and went up to the Rocca Albornoziana (fort), which presides over the city. You can easily imagine how people repelled invaders. For one thing, on one side of the fort you can see up the valley forever. If an army was stupid enough to take that route, you can bet that the Spoletani were prepared.

Culture to the left, food to the right

After all this traipsing around, we were hungry. Luckily, we reserved a table at Apollinare. After a decade of restaurant reviews, we’re pretty jaded and don’t go out to fancy places much. But Apollinare is worth it, and is a steal by New York standards. Like L’Officina, which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, Apollinare takes some liberties with traditional Umbrian food. Unlike L’Officina, Apollinare has an old-school vibe in its decor and service, the latter being scrupulously correct and discrete, while being friendly.

Everything is how it should be.

You can order a la carte, but Apollinare has theme menus, too. We opted for the vegetarian one. It’s always interesting to see what a top restaurant does given a no-meat challenge, and the place was up to it. I wonder if a carnivore would even notice, given the creative and delicious food presented to us. Here are some shots.

Fava bean crème brulée
Lasagna of a sort
Eggplant parm, not the kind that NYC Italian delis sell

Last year around this time, we came to Spoleto with our friends Wendy and Vicky. After a great meal at Apollinare, we stumbled up the street and onto Spoleto’s Carnevale parade. It was great fun seeing all the floats, and dancers, and we had confetti and silly string in our hair and clothes for hours afterward. We didn’t get to see it this year, but here’a sample of last year’s fun.

The old grind

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

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

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

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

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

Our guide for the morning

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

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

The real thing
A river ran through it.

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

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

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

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

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

Dining Finely

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway, on to the photos. First course:

Carrot “fettuccine” with Jerusalem artichokes and marinated artichokes.

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


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

Vegan dessert: Chocolate mousse with caramelized grape tomatoes


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

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

Italianese

When we’re in Italy (which we aren’t right now), what do you think we miss most about living in the United States? (Hint: It has nothing to do with language, shopping, movies, or our city.)

It’s the food, but not hamburgers or anything else typically American. We miss the easy access to Asian food. Gotta say first that Italy in general and Umbria in particular is getting better. Sushi (spelled “susci”) is a thing, from just-okay sushi in the nearby IperCoop (hyper Coop in English) supermarket, to really good, inventive sushi at Perugia’s Crudo (in the photo below). And it’s not only Japanese food. At the end of our inner city street, there’s a Taiwanese takeout, a Chinese noodle shop and another Chinese place whose focus I’m not quite sure about.

An expensive lunch for two on the Corso Vannucci

So we aren’t totally deprived. As far as I can tell, though, we don’t have much in the way of Thai food.

In any event, when we come back to New York, we eat less Italian-type food and more Asian, either out or at home. It’s gotten cold pretty quickly this November—the weather here seems to have gone from a prolonged, extended summer into a cold, grey and brown pre-winter. Luckily, the Spartan Women has become pretty adept at making Japanese-type big soups. With our current we-must-reduce regimen, she’s the main cook in the house (she doesn’t quite trust me to wield an easy hand with the olive oil, and my preference for a big spaghettata for lunch is something to be avoided for at least a few months.) So I’ve been treated to big miso ramen-type soups. I never know quite what I’ll find, whether it’s buckwheat noodles, a soft-poached egg, tofu in various forms, bok choy, etc.

Like this:

I do go out, too. Lately, I’ve managed to avoid most business meetings and lunches and instead meet up with friends or one of our kids. Daughter No. 2 works where the eastern reaches of Soho start to blend with the northern border of Chinatown and Asian stuff in general. “We have to go to Cocoran,” she told me when I mentioned that I needed to escape the house one day to avoid terminal cabin fever. She was right. It’s a smallish place, painted black inside, and quite eccentric. In a good way. Most of the seats are at the counter or at long, high communal tables, and the menu promises health and satisfaction. It delivers. (Beware, though, the menu also admonishes that it’s cash only and there’s no takeout and no doggie bags.)

This Japanese soup fanatic could not resist the spicy vegan soup, while the more spice-shy Liv opted for the unspicy vegan version.

I know this sounds strange, but sometimes when we get back to New York after a long day of flying across the ocean, the first thing we do is call the local Chinese takeout joint. When I was a kid, we’d only go out to Chinese restaurants. My father said it only made sense to go to a place that served food you couldn’t really cook at home, but I thought it was mainly because they were cheaper than most of the other restaurants in town.

Whatever. Following in dad’s footsteps, I opted for Chinese food for my birthday a few weeks ago. We have this family tradition–the birthday boy (me) or girl (The Spartan Woman, two kids) gets to pick a restaurant to celebrate. The birthday boy/girls usually pick an expensive place. But eh, I’ve had enough. Plus, I’d become really curious about this huge Chinese place on the Sunset Park/Bay Ridge border that I’d driven past a few times, East Harbor Seafood Palace. It looked good nosing around on the usual sites, so one blustery Saturday morning (I broke another rule, that the meal should be dinner), we convened the fam, including the boyfriends. And boy was it fun. 

We managed to beat the crowd, luckily. Within a half hour after we got there, people were lining up outside. The cart ladies are a riot there, pretty aggressive in a self-aware, humorous way. “You want this! You want this!” We did. The food was definitely a couple of levels above the usual dim sum dumpling experience, and service, even to us non-Asians, was friendly and efficient. You should go.

Anyone feel like pizza? We do all go back to where we’re from, right? I actually didn’t like pizza much until I was well into adulthood. But now….Amid the Asian food, we had a home pizzathon. The Spartan Women, a pretty good bread baker, invited the family and again, it was good times. One with onion, zucchine, or if you prefer, zucchini, an orthodox Margherita, and an unorthodox purple potato and truffle one. Talk about a nice way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Και κάτι ακόμα…

 

I thought that maybe my last post would be the final one about summer festivals, but I was wrong—hence the headline, which is Greek for “And another thing…” Between that and the video above, you’ve probably figured out that Greece somehow was involved.

Greeks were involved, anyway. I call Kat The Spartan Woman because her mother’s family comes from a part of the Greek city Sparta called Magoula. And the Greek Orthodox Church on Staten Island has an annual festival in September over a couple of weekends. They do a great job, converting the parking lot into a passable imitation of a Greek village square during a festival. It’s an all hands on deck affair, with church members running a huge kitchen that supplies all the favorites like moussaka, gyros, spanakopita and the like. There’s Greek wine and Fix beer on sale, and the dessert area even makes freddos and frappés, different versions of iced coffee that, when we’ve gone to Greece, have become addictions. When they’re good, they’re amazing.

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Grilling here is a manly art.

We started going to the festival with my in-laws years ago. The Spartan Woman’s mother Eleni wasn’t a regular churchgoer, but the church is more than a place of worship; it’s also a cultural center. She rightly thought that her daughters and granddaughters shouldn’t forget their Greek side, so every September, we all went to the festival together. It became sort of a Greek recharging station for Eleni and The Spartan Woman, and our kids now think something’s missing if we skip a year.

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How do you translate “sagra, Staten Island stylee” into Greek?

Luckily, we got back from the land of the sagra to Shaolin (Staten Island, in Wu-Tang Clan-speak) just in time for the last weekend of the festival. Our kids probably think we’re less-bad parents now. TSW and I made sure we’d be awake enough after a grueling flight back on Iberia, forced to lie flat in a business class cubicle, being plied with all sorts of liquids and forced to eat smoked salmon with a warm potato salad and caviar. Oh, the torture. We took an afternoon nap, knowing that without it, even the Zorba theme played by an electric bouzouki band wouldn’t keep us up. Where’s my freddo?

Even with our souls lagging somewhere over the Atlantic, we had a good time. It was great to reconnect with the charming young women we somehow managed to raise in our chaotic, improvisatory way. And a boyfriend was introduced to the Hellenic side of our family traditions and, I think, he might have another vein of music to sample for his stuff.

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Loukoumades: Yo, you got a problem with fried dough?