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

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

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

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

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

Three goes into one at some point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Howdy, neighbor!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s left of Norcia’s duomo.

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

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

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

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

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

For best results, combine Catia’s and Oxy.

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

Where’s Gualdo?

Saluti da Valfabbrica! Stavo per scrivere qualcosa profonda, intellettuale, pieno di osservazioni, ma….

Oops, wrong language. Greetings from Valfabbrica! I was about to write something deep, full of observations, intellectual even. But I didn’t like where I was going. I must’ve been in a bad mood. Anyway, we have Wendy the houseguest hanging around these days, so we’ve been showing her around, including a Sunday morning trip to one of our favorite hill towns, Gualdo Tadino. Maybe we’re trying to convince that by being here, we’re doing right by us? I dunno. in any event, I’m addicted to my iPhone’s camera, and this is what we’ve been up to. Deep Thoughts will have to wait.

First WendyDay: Pizza at Perugia’s Mediterranea, with outdoor Covid-compliant tables. Sourdough chewy crust. Perfect.
Not the Staten Island Ferry: We took the boat from Tuoro sul Trasimeno to Isola Maggiore in the lake. It was a good place for The Spartan Woman and Wendy to catch up.
Great place—the ruins of an ancient mill—to store a motorcycle, no?
I just like this courtyard. Move along.

Gotta FaceTime with my dad every couple of days.
Covid meant that our town’s annual pre-autumn celebration was shorter and by reservation only. But we’re happy it wasn’t completely canceled, like last year’s.
We walked around town after dinner at the “taverna”—when towns set up outdoor restaurants for celebrations. The iPhone’s night mode always makes the mundane look interesting, even if I have to admit that our cantilevered town hall is pretty interesting by itself.
Our neighbor has a sheepdog pup (breed: Maremmano Abruzzese), who came to visit the other morning. He’s a quick study; he took to doggie biscuits right away.
Cappuccinos on a Sunday morning in (finally) the town of Gualdo Tadino, one of our favorite towns around here.I don’t remember what The Spartan Woman and Wendy were talking about, but they laugh together a lot in general.
There’s something endearingly eccentric about the town. And its main square is a splendid public living room.
I love the upper part of Gualdo, which has some of the most interesting buildings in the region. Most of this part of town is pedestrian-only, too.
I don’t usually do this, but somehow the trees told me to get them to stage a photo.

Is this what they mean by fusion cuisine?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The boxes we live in

It was lovely, darlings, just wonderful. Our jet aircraft deposited us at Rome’s charming airport, where our driver Sergio was waiting. He deposited our luggage in the boot, and we were off to our enchanted mountaintop. Francesca, our longtime family retainer, was waiting for us with ice cold Grechetto white wine from our neighbor, The Count’s, vineyards. The servants took care of our wardrobes while Katherine and i sat under the pergola, observing our little paradise, sipping our wine and nibbling on Francesca’s scrumptious tidbits. The salumi! The cheeses! I was utterly intoxicated. The scents of wisteria and jasmine perfumed the ……

————————-SCRATCH THAT

Sorry. I was indulging in an Under the Tuscan Sun kind of reverie. I see lots of that in real estate ads here that cater to foreigners, especiallly impressionable British and American people looking for that perfect villa getaway. Hey, it’s a nice fantasy.

Probably because we were forced to stay at home for more than a year because of the pandemic, I’ve been thinking a lot about shelter. Perversely, while I’m a homebody—too lazy to rouse myself to go out much—I was fairly indifferent to the particulars of that home. It just has to be in a decent neighborhood and give me enough space and comfort for when I got home from the newsroom that was my daytime hangout.

But a kitchen renovation some years ago, some homebuying and hours of HGTV during lockdown got me thinking a lot about what The Spartan Woman and I like and have done. And I realize that a lot of what we go for has a lot to do with the culture we were brought up in and, for better or worse, that indulgent children of the ’70s thing that’s shaped a lot of our moves, from career to food to dwellings.

I’ll admit that I’m a fan of House Hunters International. I like to see what housing looks like for normal, non N.Y. Times real estate section buyers. And yeah, it’s always funny when the couple frowns at stuff like small refrigerators or washing machines in the kitchen, both common features in European homes.

It seems that the biggest conflict among couples is whether a property is full of old country charm or modern design and conveniences. I come down on the modern side, and I’ll tell you why. For me, the charm thing is overrated, and all too often old houses and apartments can just be dark and depressing. And when I say modern, I don’t mean corporate modern. There are lots of ways a space can be comfortable, individual, funky even, yet up to date. Look at the boutique hotels in Barcelona and Brooklyn.

When we went house hunting a few years ago, we unwittingly did our own version of House Hunters. We saw three very distinct properties. One was a gracious country home that had seen better days. And the listing deceptively left out an attached small home, complete with chicken coop and chickens. (“You don’t have to worry about them; the owner comes by to feed them every day,” said one of the owners to us in Italian.)

Another was an odd, smallish house on a plateau above a town. To get there from the nearest city, you have to drive through Italy’s equivalent of Anyroad USA, with car dealerships, gardening centers and supermarkets. Oh, and a huge prison and a long rutted dirt road. The last was a house perched on a hill in a green rural place, with a stupendous view across a valley and to the mountains—and, crucially, space for the pool that we’d long dreamed about having. It had two connected apartments, the upstairs one like a modern city dwelling and downstairs a slightly more rustic look.

We opted for number 3 (above, the day we first saw it).

The old world charm.

Part of the reason was that we already had a tiny place with Olde World Charme. Years ago, when it was obvious that we were putting too much of a strain on the sweet friends who put us up in Perugia, we bought our training wheels, a small apartment in their neighborhood. It was a new space in a very old building, the earliest parts that date to the 12th century according to our building neighbor-historian. The builders kept as much of the old detail that they could, including timbered ceilings and brick arches. The big kitchen ceiling timber is so old that it broke a couple of drill bits when we installed track lighting.

Another is the house on Staten Island that we’ve lived in since the mid-’90s. It’s over 90 years old and it has lots of period detailing and period plaster and lath walls. The Italian house’s clean straight walls and ceilings appealed to us, as did the big windows, which give us a lot of light and great views of the surrounding landscape. We did some updating to the systems, but by and large when we’re here we’re in a fairly sparse, spacious modern space. It contrasts nicely with the rustic outdoors, the fruit trees and mountains views, not to mention the flock of sheep that roam these hills.

So if you want to visit us and indulge that Italian country fantasy, we’ll put you up in the ground level apartment, which has more of a rustic air. There’s a big, bright kitchen with more traditional look. (Upstairs we opted for that modern Euro laboratory kitchen style.) We’ll spend a lot of time outside anyway; we’ve got a nice garden table and comfy chairs.

We’re not alone. Local friends of ours built a home for themselves a couple of years ago, and it’s a modern off the grid paradise. Solar panels heat the house and supply electricity, while a cistern gathers rainwater for their olive trees. They took what could have been a loggia and turned it into a thoroughly modern glassed-in kitchen with tremendous views of the valley and hills on the other side. We can practically wave to each other across the valley. (A high-powered telescope would help…) They cook on an induction range, and sleek built-ins hold their media devices.

I guess while visitors get charm we locals go for the new stuff. It makes sense—if you’re on vacation, you choose something different from your everyday environment. But living somewhere everyday, light, space and convenience trump romantic notions of a place.

You don’t need a weatherman to tell which way the wind blows

Call me a montanaro. You can translate it as a highlander or mountain dweller. That’s what my Perugian brother Federico called me last night. Our house perches atop a ridge that overlooks the valley of the river Chiascio, and across the valley we see the various hills leading toward the big daddy of the area, Monte Subasio. Because the house is built on a hill, it’s almost as though we have two ground floors: There’s an upper level, which is where we live, and a lower one, with its own entrances and even its own driveway.

This upper level has a driveway, too, and a front door. But it’s almost as though that side doesn’t exist, because your attention is drawn to the other side right away, with big windows and terrace doors that overlook the yard and the valley. We have a few linden trees lined up i the yard, so being here is like living in a treehouse. Right now I’m sitting at my desk looking out at the top of one of the lindens, and the mountains beyond.

Move along; nothing to see here

One of the dining room windows looks east toward the mountain chain that forms the spine of Italy, the Apennines. They’re pretty high and in the colder months, they’re snow capped. We learned this up close once when sometime in March last year, we drove up one peak, Monte Cucco, and encountered snow and ice that scared the daylight out of us. The
Apennines are fairly recent, as geological features go, and can be dangerously seismic.

All of this is a long way (a too long way? Sorry.) of saying that we see weather systems. In fact, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing the last week and a half or so. This early autumn has not been the golden sunlight Italy of people’s fantasies. It’s been the omigod it’s dark in here look at the curtain of rain approaching and shit the lights just went out again Italy. Most casual visitors to the Bel Paese don’t get to encounter this version of the country. Thankfully, we have decent windows, working furnaces and a fireplace that supplements the heating system and actually does a better job of heating the house once you get a good one going. (Note to self: Order more wood. On a sunny day,)

Subasio, meet storm

I wouldn’t normally write about the weather. But it’s curtailed some activities and meant that when the sun comes out, I drop everything I have to do and run outside to take in some sun.

Curtailed activities? Last Saturday I was supposed to help Franco, the neighbor of some friends of ours, pick his grapes. Franco (right, with cap) is 80 and has more energy than I do, but he does have a lot of vines. So we were going into his field. He makes a pretty decent white wine from those grapes—if you ever visit you will taste the wine and there are no excuses. And I thought here’s a chance to connect with some imaginary past, although my ancestors came from Sicily and fled their backbreaking farmwork. Unfortunately, last Saturday, while sunny, came after a couple of days of when will this stop thunderstorms, and if we had tried to do some picking, we would’ve been knee-deep in mud. And this Saturday looks no better.

So, dropping everything. A few days I took walks up the road and back. I’d wanted to go “trekking” or hiking in the woods to try out my spiffy light walking sticks, but it’s been too muddy. I’ve seen other hikers emerge from the woods with tons of dried mud on their boots, So I took to the road, which has some stunning views, some neighborhood dogs who follow me—actually, they’re following the doggie biscuits I carry for them—and Bernardo, his girlfriend whose name I forgot, and his pup Chai. If I pass as Bernardo and crew have risen and look out from their house, I get invited in for coffee.

I’ve also been prowling around some tombs of the Etruscan variety. I’ve been fascinated by this pre-Roman civilization for awhile, and decided to incorporate them into some work I’ve been doing. They’re fascinating; they didn’t leave tons of words, but they did leave a lot of funerary work, which shows how they lived. They amazed contemporary Romans and Greeks, too, who wrote about their sexual laxity, sybaritic ways, and lavish banquets. The visitors were amazed and a little scandalized by the fact that women participated in the banquets, not as servers/cooks and prostitutes, but as intellectuals who had a lot to contribute to the discussions. I like to think that a lot of that spirit lives on here today.

There are a host of tombs where Perugia meets Ponte S. Giovanni, one of its bigger suburbs, and the location is kind of strange. It’s right under a huge highway viaduct and next to the main rail line into the city. There’s a parking lot up the hill from the entrance. I couldn’t find said entrance when I left the lot so I called. The woman who answered said wait a second I’ll go outside. Just look to your left and meet me. Nice.

The tombs are set into a hill, and they vary from Greek style (single entrance) to full-on Etruscan, with multiple entrances and even timbered ceilings and other features meant to duplicate the deceased’s world in the afterlife. A separate building houses statues and other artifacts, and it’s easy to see how the Etruscans led a sensual life. Unfortunately, the big tomb was closed. The docent said that it was too enclosed a space for a safe visit during the Covid-19 pandemic.

My other sunny day gotta get out trip was to the domineering Subasio (there’s even a local radio station named after it, Radio Subasio. It’s got an iPhone app that works pretty well and when we’re in New York, we plug our phones into the car stereo and pretend we’re here). I’ve been a little obsessed about going to its summit for awhile, since I look at it every day. So yesterday I jumped in the car and went. I usually look at maps before I go, but this time I remembered that there’s a park up there and that the summit is past the Carcere di San Francesco, a place the saint would go to chill. I followed the road to the Carcere and saw signs for the park. A few, no, at least a dozen hairpin curves later, I was there, along with a few Dutch and German tourists in small Euro RVs and a smattering of young Italian hikers.

I see you: Upper left, our house; marker at the bottom, Subasio

Like every mountaintop, the view is breathtaking (the Italian equivalent is one of my favorite words: mozzafiato) and the air is cool and fresh. I looked at the map on my phone and found our house, and pointed the camera that way. Just ‘cos I could.

Somewhere out there is home.

Easy flying for all the wrong reasons

Well, this was different.

I entered Terminal 1 at JFK airport and there was no one there, in early afternoon. I exaggerate, but only a little. I find the Alitalia check in desks, but before I give them my suitcase, I’m stopped by a nice guy standing at a table. “You have to fill out this form and we need two copies.” I’d already filled in the form online when I checked in. “This is revised. You need the revision.”

Not wanting to be held up, I complied. “Can I take your termperature?” Sure—97.9 F. I filled out the forms; one was for the gate; “the other one is for Rome.”

Waiting for the crowds

Security takes two minutes. Maybe less. I actually chat with the guy who lets you into that area. “Yeah, this is the liveliest it’s been in months,” he tells me. There was one person ahead of me. I get through—they don’t even bother with the belt routine, and are fine with bottles of sanitizer,

The woman ahead of me, with a massive mask, keeps asking the guard the same question. I don’t even remember what it was; something about cell phones. Ma’m, I’m being as clear as I can be, as she rolls her eyes. We obviously had a newbie with us; what was she doing traveling now?

I get through and…well, nothing. It’s straight out of the horror film, The Langoliers, where a planeload of people get stuck in the recent past and have to outrun the creatures that eat up the past. Or something like that, I’ll have to look it up. But it’s like what I do remember, basically an empty terminal with a couple of food shops open and that’s it. No bars, no sit down restaurants, no one pushing a massage session or overseas phone SIMs. The few people working alternate between extreme chattiness or looking very put upon. Hey, pal, I’m not thrilled with being there either.

No bars, no aromatherapy, no people

I get to my gate. There is one other person waiting. Soon maybe another ten show up. Everyone is speaking Italian because US citizens, the new pariahs of the world, are banned from the European Union, unless they have permanent residency there and can prove it. I look across the space and see that Lufthansa Flight 401 is about to leave. Grr—that airline had canceled that flight for months, and because of that, I’m traveling alone to make sure our house is still standing.

The weirdness continues with the flight. The Airbus 330 is maybe one-quarter full. We’re spaced far apart. I opted for a window seat, a rare treat for me. I knew this time that no one would sit next to me, so I had both seats for myself. It’s nice to have an auxiliary seat in coach;; the other seat was for charging my phone, and I stashed my knapsack under the seat in front of my nonexistent neighbor.

Almost there

I’d looked at previous days of this flight and it usually took off early. Not us. Some unexplained “technical problem.” But after an hour, we were taking off, the empty dark plane feeling light and wieldy.

Service was minimal, apparently designed to minimize contact, No drinks service, which on European airlines is usually pretty elaborate. Flight attendants hurriedly dispensed minimal meals: limp ravioli, a piece of cheddar, a small bag of tarallucci, a cup of “tiramisu,” which was like pudding. And two bottles of San Benedetto water.

I used the water to wash down my flight sleep regime and soon nodded off. I got up once from my nap to get more water. Anticipating this the crew set bottles out on a shelf in the service cabin.

After a luxurious breakfast consisting of a package of marble poundcake and, yes, more water, we landed at Rome’s Fiumicino airport. Again, an eery emptiness, punctuated by last year’s cheery what-to-do-in-the-Eternal-City posters. No separate EU/non-EU citizen passport lines. Before showing the passport, though, we got our temperatures taken again, this time passing a uniformed guard wearing a weird helmet. And yes, a form. “I filled this out in New York.” “That’s for you. We need this. Italiano o inglese? Italiano, please.

I was filling it out, and the airport cop went around to everyone to make sure we were filling it out correctly. Then finally, the passport routine. Usually, when you present an Italian passport in Italy, the guard looks at it for maybe half a second and then waves you on. This time, the guy typed stuff in, looked at me, looked at my passport. In Italian, he warned me to adhere to the quarantine. I told him I’m hanging out for two weeks on a mountaintop, watching sheep and clouds go by. “That sounds nice,” he said dreamily. “I could use a peaceful week or two.” He actually smiled. This does not happen that often.

My new friend Angelo was waiting to drive me to Umbria, about 2-2.5 hours. Instead of taking my small Renault, he was driving his big Mercedes van. Please, this time sit in the back, he asked, gesturing toward the third row. This was not exactly conducive to talking, but then again, neither was my Xanax hangover.

Angelo way, way in front

We stop for coffee at the huge Autogrill that spans the autostrada. It’s almost empty, and the shop is closed. But there’s coffee! And all of a sudden, ordering coffee at an Italian bar has gotten complicated. I asked for caffè macchiatos for Angelo and me; here, a macchiato is a shot of espresso with a little steamed milk floating on top. “Is Lavazza ok?” asked the barista. I must’ve looked puzzled because she started to offer me a couple of single-origin coffee beans. I was fine with regular Lavazza.

So, after gathering my car, I’m up on the mountain again. We never got to open the pool; instead we spent the summer shut in with the a/c going full blast. I’d forgotten what New York summers were like. I saw the sheep this evening, grazing like mammalian locusts. We had monumental thunderstorms, which came as a relief, friends tell me, after an oven-like summer.

I did my duty, registering with the health service for quarantine. I’m told to expect a call and maybe a visit. People may think Italians are chaotic and anarchic, but when it comes to public health, they rival their neighbors to the north. More as it happens, then.

500 hours of solitude (give or take): The mayor hangs up his shears

There are a bunch of things you don’t realize at first when you starting living for months or weeks at a time in another country. The big one is healthcare—what happens if you get sick? Then there are little ones, can I take my suit to a nearby dry cleaner? And where do I get a haircut? There’s one thing in Italy you don’t have to worry about: Where do you buy food? It’s everywhere.

I didn’t care about the haircut thing until a few years ago when I had so much to do before leaving New York that getting a haircut beforehand didn’t even enter my mind. When I got here, it was so hot that the mane I was sporting was just too much. I scoped out the neighborhood and settled on a taciturn guy on the next hill, across t he street from the bar where English-speaking foreign students drank too much and passed out on the mostly-pedestrian street. He was good, but every time I went he insisted that I part my hair on the other side and when he did, I felt as though the world had flipped over. You don’t realize how much stuff like that can change how you move through the world,

Then I noticed Franco. His little shop was down the street from where we were living. He had a bunch of wooden walking sticks that he’d carved in the window and the shop was decorated with photos of old Perugia. Why didn’t I go to him first? I forget. Anyway, I started going to him, and other than his propensity to take a lot off the top, I got decent haircuts.

Franco’s domain

But more important, he was fun to talk to. We’d chat about everything: our families, Perugia, New York, restaurants, Barak Obama (he’s a fan), Agent Orange (not really), urban planning and transport, being our age—only a few months separate us. The added bonus was that it was all in Italian, which was great because The Spartan Woman and I speak English to each other, except for certain words and phrases that only make sense in Italian. (Antipatico is one word. It’s the opposite of simpatico, but how to say it in English? )

What also made it fun was his clientele and his role on the block. His customers ranged from college students to the local politicians, lawyers and architects. The mailman or woman always stopped in for a chat, and if we passed by and he had no one in the chair at the moment, he’d come out to talk. Sometimes, I’d end up spending a lot more time than I’d planned just because of the stream of visitors and other customers.

So last week, just as I dragged my bag into the house after arriving from NYC, my iPhone rings. I don’t notice the number, but answer anyway. “Ciao Antonio,” I hear. “T’invito alla mia festa di pensione questo sabato. Puoi venire?” (Ciao A. I’m inviting you to my retirement party Saturday. Are you coming?) Between fatigue and jet lag, at first I didn’t realize who was speaking. But he knew my name, so I played along for a bit. Finally it hit me.

It’s official, kinda

A couple of days later, I had to go into town. And I didn’t realize what a big deal it was. Franco’s shop was closed, but there was a retirement certificate of sorts in the window: “Diploma of Deserved Retirement. Given with full rights to Franco P, who will continue to do nothing…but from today he’ll be doing it at home.” A notice below, which was posted for a stretch on the street as well, invited the neighborhood to his party at the local social center, conveniently located across the street from our place. Well, convenient except when ’70s music fans have an end of term party and blast Led Zeppelin at 2 in the morning, but it’s all part of the experience.

Of course I had to go. I didn’t know most of the people there, but that was ok, There were big cartons of wine, and a butcher was in attendance. All Umbrian parties worth anything have porchetta and the region’s dryer, chewier prosciutto. The butcher was slicing the ham surgically then offering people slices from the tip of his knife. As the party began to ebb, a small army made panini of porchetta and piled them high on the table for people to take home for dinner.

Porchetta, anyone?

Best of all (at least for me)? Franco promised that he’d do house calls.

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.

Good eats, beauty, and heartache

It’s been a hectic couple of weeks. In fact, we got here two weeks ago to the day. We’ve had to do stuff to open the house, lay in groceries, buy a weed whacker (the grounds looked like a jungle and the electric mower just wasn’t going to cut it, literally). And as if all that weren’t enough, there was work and we bought a used car, because rental rates in the summer are ruinous.

But last week Liv and her guy were around. Being young and not yet ready for country life, they stayed in the big city (Perugia; population 170,000) and got to know the restaurants, bars and museums. Plus, where to go for aperitivi, or Italian happy hour. The better places have a buffet; if you’re in Perugia, head to Umbro near Sant’ Ercolano right away.

It was fun playing tour guide. It was Al’s first time in Europe. We got him used to being called Alberto, and he got to see a side of Italy that most first-time tourists never see. As part of his education, we headed to the hills. Actually, the mountains. You go south toward Spoleto and turn left and up, up, up. Our first stop: Norcia. It’s a little walled town high up in the approach to the Apennines, and is known for its gastronomy.  It’s the land of skilled pork butchers, cheesemakers, and black truffle hunters.

We stopped first at an agriturismo outside the town. I’d heard that the earthquake of 2016 inflicted a fair amount of damage on the town, and a lot of places were closed. So we drove up into the hills above to the felicitously named Il Casale degli Amici (The House of Friends). We first timers certainly felt the warmth of instant friendship. It’s a seriously nice place, and the staff couldn’t be friendlier. And, as you say in Italian, si mangia bene—you eat well. We took full advantage of Norcina cooking, and had truffles, great cheeses, and even some salumi. I don’t usually eat meat, but this place led me into temptation.

Then we climbed—we took the tortuously curving road up to Piano Grande di Castelluccio. It’s stupendous, a giant glacial plain high up in the mountains. It could be New Zealand, or the American West. Well, except for the wrinkles of Italian life on the road. Motorcycle gangs road up and down the road, but these weren’t exactly Hell’s Angels. Just normal people going for a Sunday ride. Can’t forget the porchetta truck or the stand selling local beans and other foods.

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The road was harder to navigate than usual. The earthquake made it impassible for awhile, and we could see where chunks of it just fell down into the valley. At numerous points, you had to stop at a light to let the other direction proceed, because only one lane had been reconstructed so far.

The heartbreak came after we spent some time traipsing around the mountain paths and the plain. We went up to the hamlet of Castelluccio, which up until almost two years ago was a perfect little isolated jewel of a place. The earthquake leveled much of the town. The locals set up business as best they could, but destruction and fencing is everywhere, and soldiers guarded the entrances to the zona rosa, the parts off-limits.

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Danger! Do not enter!