It’s something we think about all the time here

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

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

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

Nope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vino and a panino, anyone?

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

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

The housewives like fresh vegetables!

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

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

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

Carl’s kind of people

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

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

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

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

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

ABOVE: Image, meet reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Seinfeld kind of life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Milano Milano

That’s not a typo in the headline. It’s a song title, from the (now split up) Italian rap duo Article 31. The song always pops into my head whenever I’m walking around that city I first heard the song while on a reporting trip back in, maybe, 2002? It kind of goes with the street rhythm, which is sort of like New York with a Latin beat.

I went up to Milan to be part of a week of events for lawyers organized by my friends at Legalcommunity. Despite the English name, the place is staffed mostly by Italians, and they put together a bunch of news websites, and not only for lawyers. They’ve expanded to the finance and food industries. (I put together the U,S. version of a site for company lawyers.) My colleagues there are young and enthusiastic and they do an amazing job, considering how few of them there are.

The week was rather more fun than anything that workaholic Americans might put together. Sure, there were substantive panel discussions, and I moderated a couple of them. But besides the Serious Legal Stuff, the  LC staff took people to a concert at La Scala, organized a run, brought bands from law firms together for a battle of the bands and held a gala awards dinner. At the battle of the bands, at this venue called Fabrique, my colleagues all wore black t-shirts saying “Rock the Law.” I want one. Ok, Aldo?

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MC Nicola doing his bit

As for the city itself, I like spending a few days there when I can. It’s not a touristy city, and its inhabitants work and play hard. I have a good crew of friends and colleagues to visit when I’m there. I had a little time to sneak out and visit places I like, or I’m told I would like. One of them is the Fondazione Prada, far from the posh city center. The site incorporates some old light-industry buildings with some new structures by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. The melding of old and new structures just made me smile. One of the buildings is encased in this metallic swirly stuff, and one has huge mirrors as siding. An old building, that served as a “haunted house” exhibit with works by the likes of Louise Bourgeois, was painted glossy gold, light at the top, darker at ground level.

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Then there’s the bar. In Italy, a bar is an all-purpose cafe, the kind of place where you stop in on your way to work to have a coffee and a cornetto (the Italian equivalent of a croissant), later for a snack or another espresso, a pick me up later in the day, and so on. The Fondazione’s version is called Bar Luce (light), and it was designed by none other than the film director Wes Anderson. He took Milan’s Viennese kaffeehaus vibe and ran with it. Think of it as the bar equivalent of The Grand Budapest Hotel.

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Wes Anderson’s idea of a Milanese bar

The other place I went off to was just a few blocks from my hotel, the redevelopment of the area around Porta Nuova. I’m of two minds about these projects. Porta Nuova is a rupture of the city fabric. Milan has this kind of Austrian vibe in places. No surprise there; it was part of Austria until Italian unification in the mid-19th century.  At the same time, it’s fun to look at and walk through. The Porta Nuova complex is over a rail yard, and it’s an architectural and environmental showcase. The centerpiece is the Torre Unicredit, a skyscraper designed for the bank by César Pelli. On one side, there’s a green area that a couple of years featured a wheat field. I’m not sure what happened with that, but now it’s a tree refuge; they’ve planted a bunch of varieties.

Keeping with the green theme are two apartment buildings called the Bosco Verticale, or vertical forest. The sides of the buildings have trees and other vegetation growing out of them. I saw them right after their construction and the greenery was definitely in the sapling stage. They look a lot more grown in now.

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The Bosco Verticale

Speaking of green, I’m back home in Umbria. It’s so green this year, it’s almost psychedelic. The sheep next door came to visit, and at one point, they just decided to chill right below our lawn (the property is terraced). Hey, if they eat the grass, terrific. Maybe we’ll get some great pecorino one of these days.,