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!

Italia in Tilt

Nope nope nope. Not gonna write ’bout no Italian elections, although they’re a dark spectre haunting Europe here on Sunday. Here’s something more important: snow. Cold snow. Freezing rain. Slush. And no water at home.

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Perugia in disaster mode, believe it or not.

I’ll back up. We came here in January with the thought of escaping the New York winter. You may recall that it didn’t start out too well, with days of freezing cold weather, a couple of snowstorms, the usual misery.

And it worked, at least for awhile. January into February felt like early spring. Our friends who stayed with us pulled a couple of garden chairs outside and took in the view and sun. We walked around with light jackets and sweaters. Flowers bloomed.

Then last weekend…It was really cold, down in the 20s Fahrenheit, and further, like -14 C (you do the math). We thought we were pretty swift; we have a fireplace that doubles as a furnace. It circulates hot water throughout the heating system, reducing the need to keep using expensive and probably Russian gas.

Back when we got here, we were talking to our architect about various things. One of the items was an enclosure over the water valve. See, there’s this valve and exposing pipe that sends water to our cistern and house. He said it might freeze in cold weather and said we should enclose it. We added it to our to-do list.

We should’ve hopped to it instead.

The other day, the connection froze. We’re lucky; we have a place in the city to stay. So the cold-induced cabin fever is so over. But walking up and down Perugian streets is dicey, except for all the 20-something college kids who won’t be deterred from their cafe and pub hopping. We did get around, and even saw a movie (The Phantom Thread. Ask me later what I thought about it).

We aren’t alone, though that doesn’t make me feel much better All of northern Italy is frozen, literally. Trains either didn’t run or had hours-long delays. (The train company’s boss keeps apologizing in the press.) Heavy trucks were banned from the roads. The local hospital has treated hundred of fall-related injuries. I scanned the website of a local paper and saw a photo of a highway accident and it featured a wrecked police car in the middle of it.

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Only the brave or the very bored dare climb this hill.

Now here’s the kicker. We aren’t talking about a blizzard. It’s maybe an inch or two, or 4-6 cm. if you’re metrically inclined. That’s all. But streets are still a mess, and when they’re nearly vertical, getting around isn’t easy.

I’m beginning to think we bring bad weather with us. We’re due to fly back to New York soon,

You’ve been warned,

Be Our Guest

January into early February was a busy time up here on the mountain above the comune of Valfabbrica. We had three friend-guests. Really good, fun-to-be-with guests. The house encourages this sort of thing. We have plenty of room, with a semi-separate apartment on the ground floor. In the cooler months, The Spartan Woman and I live upstairs—we have our own kitchen, dining and living rooms, my office, and bedrooms. And when it’s cooler, our friends get to have their own place, too. That way, we get together when we want, and don’t get in each other’s way. (When it gets warmer, we move kitchen operations downstairs, because the kitchen there opens into the garden. And it’s easier to get to the center of all the summer action, the pool.)

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Wendy and Tim, usually teetotalers, get acquainted with the Aperol spritz.

Let me introduce Wendy, Vicky, and Tim. Wendy and Tim are neighborhood friends and former comrades in the battle over a special public school a couple of decades ago. Tim’s a lawyer (feel free to send him sympathy cards), and sisters Wendy and Vicky are semi-retired teachers. They’re retired enough so that they can spend a month after the holidays wandering around Italy, while Tim worked out of his laptop when he needed to. And when Tim had to head back to the U.S., Wendy and Vicky hung back.

We’ve known Wendy and Tim a long time, more than 20 years. Vicky, however, was an unknown quantity. We heard from Wendy that she was reluctant to take the trip. Their original intention was to case the joint, to find a country house of their own. Vicky was understandably wary; it’s a big responsibility and damn near impossible if you don’t have a network to depend on.

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Apricot tart, anyone?

Now Wendy and Tim had been here and elsewhere in Italy pretty frequently; Vicky less so. But that reluctant traveler turned out to embrace this area the most. She loved everything she saw. She sat outside on chilly winter days just staring at the view of the valley and town below. She shopped, she fed the neighbors’ working sheepdogs (and by doing so she turned one of them into an indolent nonworking sheepdog). She learned how to bake bread and make a fruit tart.

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Vicky, about to throw some garlic and shrimp into the pot.

We’d heard that Vicky wasn’t into cooking until recently, either. At some point, she realized that restaurant and takeout food wasn’t that healthy, so she became a late-blooming semi-obsessional cook. She wanted to take a class while here—where better to learn the Italian way of feeding oneself than in Italy itself. So we arranged with our friend, cooking teacher and innkeeper Letitia Mattiacci, to hold a class for Wendy, Vicky, and The Spartan Woman. (Letizia’s school is called La Madonna del Piatto, and her classes are terrific—I “audited” their class while drinking some good local wine.) Another woman joined the group, an American lawyer from Pennsylvania no less. (We kept bumping into her in Perugia for the rest of our stay here, but that’s another post.) As you can see above, Vicky got into that cooking thing. She made shrimp scampi (bringing a bit of Italian-American via an Egyptian-American to Umbria). And heaven forbid we get store bought bread. She baked her own rolls and the apricot tart in the picture.

img_2956.jpgWendy had a couple of goals. To drink—she’s basically a teetotaler. To see what it’s like to live in Italy. And to learn to drive a stick shift—she was sick of paying extortionate rental rates here for automatics. Well, two out of three ain’t bad; by staying in the place downstairs and going food shopping, she got a taste of everyday life here, as opposed to being a tourist. We did ply her with alcohol in the form of wine as much as we could. Goal number three, though, didn’t pan out. The only stick shift was in our rental Renault Clio. With only 4800 kilometers on it, we didn’t think that Europcar would have liked it if we unleashed a newbie on the poor Clio.

Next time, Wendy, next time. (And they bought lots of stuff, but not a house.)

What Would Nuccio Think?

Years ago when I was a 14-year-old teenage boy, I learned that my father had another name. In the United States, he’s known as Tony, and all my cousins—I have lots of cousins—call him Uncle Tony. But when we went to Palermo as a family, all my cousins there called him “Zio Nuccio.” (He’s the guy on the right at the top; the other man is his brother Ignazio.)

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Gotta love the feathers: Nuccio in full bersaglieri regalia.

Nuccio a/k/a Tony’s real first name is Antonino, and Nuccio is a diminutive. He lived in Italy until he was 25, in the mid-fifties. It was a very different Italy. Think neorealism films. Think in black and white. The postwar economic miracle hadn’t yet taken hold. Nuccio had been in the army, first in school, then as part of the Bersaglieri, an elite brigade. They wore funny hats with big feathers. Dad kept the feathers in this sort of fez-looking container and when I was a little kid, he’d show them to me every now and then.

He returned from the military to a city still suffering from the war. Allied bombers took out a lot of the historic center, and the ruins still stood as constant reminders. (In fact, they stuck around quite a bit longer, and Palermo’s core is still in recovery mode after a mass exodus to the outskirts in the 1960s and ’70s.) If you look at photos of the time, you’ll see the major streets leading out of the core empty and desolate, with a stray dog, maybe a car and a few people walking. It looked forlorn, a far cry from the vibrant and often chaotic Palermo of today, with its luxury shops and metro construction.

I’m writing about this because every time I drive around here in Umbria, I think of my dad. I FaceTimed him last night, and told him we’d done some shopping in Ancona, on the Adriatic coast, about an hour and a half from home. “I was there,” he told me. “For a few weeks. We shot canons into the sea, pretending that we were bombing Yugoslavians who were invading our country.” For him, mainland Italy was an assortment of places he’d gone for training, or drills, or just  to carouse like any young guy.

Nuccio didn’t go back to Italy for 16 years after he’d emigrated. And he returned a few times, the last with me about 14 years ago. It was a changed country, but he, in the embrace of a loving family, didn’t really interact with modern Italy except for the drink or meal outside or an occasional ride somewhere. So these days when I drive around, I wonder what he’d think of this strange life his elder son was living.,

I know that he approves. He gave me his U.S. immigration papers so that I could obtain an Italian passport—I had to show the consulate in New York that I was born before my father became an American citizen. My former colleague Alexander Stille wrote a book about his parents, writing at length about his father, a Russian Jew who ended up in Italy pre-World War II and eventually became the New York correspondent of the Milan-based paper Corriere della Sera. Alex wrote that not having grown up speaking Italian, he learned it and immersed himself in Italian culture as a way of understanding and getting closer to his dad.

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Meet just a tiny part of the Paonita clan circa 1964. I’m the shirtless kid on the left with my nonno Ignazio, with whom I walked almost every day after school. Nuccio is top, center, and my mom is with my glum-looking sister up in front.

I think I had the some of the same motivation, though I didn’t realize it at the time. Being able to speak Italian to my father when I need to make something clear makes communication easier. Plus, it’s fun. I was always jealous of some of my Paonita cousins in New York who grew up bilingual. I’d heard Sicilian dialect and Italian through most of my childhood and understand a fair amount (and pretended not too, the better to eavesdrop), but I hadn’t learned the language formally until I was in college. But once I picked up the language, it was fun to talk to my father in his native tongue, and of course he had to correct me when I slipped up. It was good for both of us.

So now I do my errands, visit friends, and do the occasional interview for an article in Milan or on the phone, and I just wonder what Nuccio would make of it. I’m in a different part of Italy, and a lot of people would joke that Sicily isn’t part of the same country. (That’s for another post, or maybe never,) He’s reluctant to travel; he uses oxygen and worries that his portable machine would quit mid-flight. He’s a nervous traveler anyway; on our last flight together to Rome, I slept while he sat bolt upright and awake, arms folded. So much has changed since he last lived in this country, and, to be honest, a lot has changed in the past decade.

For better or worse, Italy seems to be the Italian-language province of Eurolandia. Multinational store outlets dot the suburbs, even here in Perugia. The same names familiar to most Americans fill the local centro commerciale (a mall, in other words): Zara, Benetton, McDonalds. Our local big supermarket has a big sushi bar right next to the deli counter. In fact, sushi’s a thing here; a new restaurant in central Perugia specializes in sushi and French oysters. It used to be that you went to a trattoria and had a first course of pasta, rice, or soup, then a meat or fish course. If you didn’t, you’d get looks and attitude from the waiter. Now, it’s pretty much do what you want, anddo you need gluten-free pasta? The youth here have their iPhones and use the same apps their counterparts in Billyburg use, and they lo9d1b4530659caed076d3a47367b4f42a--mens-blazers-scarf-menok pretty much the same, too.

The only way to tell Italians and their hipster American friends apart? When it goes below about 20 degrees C, or 68 degrees F, the scarves come out here, while a lot of American guys will go out in the snow wearing flip flops and shorts. Some things will probably never change, and for good reason.

It’s Not Always About That Guy

A little distance ain’t a bad thing. The man with the nasty combover and the orange skin and I left the U.S. about the same time, and for all of last week, my Facebook feed was full of the creep’s innumerable faux pas and how the United States now stands alone. The news articles were calling the meeting in Hamburg “The G-19” meeting, and for good reason. But I’ve been more than 4,000 miles away seems blissfully removed from my consciousness most of the time. Except for when my friends bring it up and ask, “but how come?”

Good question. What always fascinated me, and a lot of people, is how America is two countries, maybe more. You can divide it in a lot of different ways—politically, geographically, culturally. But really, how does a country that’s produced Patti Smith, Kerouac, Jay-Z, Merryl Streep, Louis Armstrong, Beyonce, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Prince, George Clinton, Dylan, etc., also give rise to the racists that won the last presidential election?

Liberals especially seem to think of last year’s election as an aberration. I’d say it was more an exaggeration. Sorry folks, while the Grateful Dead was playing for their blissed-out fans, and James Brown and Sly Stone were in their prime, Nixon was helping Chilean fascists kill Allende and put in place a repressive regime that tortured and killed thousands of people. And that’s just one example of an infinite number of contradictions between the vibrant culture and governments that haven’t exactly been on the side of angels.

And so, Umbria Jazz here in Perugia this week. It’s all about an American born and bred art form, with some other stuff thrown in. You can pay to see the headlines (this year, Kraftwerk, Wayne Shorter, and Brian Wilson) but there’s tons of free music, and much of it shows the greatness of American music. Blues, gospel, funk, hey even jazz, it’s all there. The festival organizers have a pretty inclusive idea of what constitutes jazz; I’ve seen REM on their last tour, Brazilian megastar Gilberto Gil, and George Clinton and the P-Funk Allstars, as well as Tito Puente doing an Oy Como Va that brought tears to this New York boy.

Let’s forget for a moment about El Cheeto Loco, the man who must not be named. Check out a couple of videos I made. I kept them short because I wanted to feel the music, not just think to myself, wow, this’ll be great on Facebook Live (though I did some of that). Hope you like them. More adventures are upcoming. We go shopping in a couple of days, so that we can sleep in the house we bought last year. But that’s another story or two…

First off, a wild blues duet, from a the Delta Wires Blues Band out of Oakland.

Next up, a sweet Italian group that does a lot of oldies, mainly swing jazz, Sugarpie & the Candymen. They take liberties with modern stuff, turning it into a mix of gypsy and swing styles. The Beatles’ “Come Together” didn’t survive too well, but Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” sounded just fine.

 

And now, for something different. A sexy concert with Gangbé Brass Band, which got the audience dancing and chanting. I love the old guy who was really going at it, and coaxed a bunch of youngsters to join in. It was contagious; soon everyone got into it one way or another.

Fruity

Enough seriousness. Here’s our friend Enrico pointing out the fruit trees alongside our house in Valfabbrica earlier this month. I wrote enough English subtitles to give you the gist of what’s going on, but I didn’t translate everything.

Ricalcola Percorso

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The phrase means “recalculating route.”We keep getting that message on our rental Renault because we like to play with the navigation on it, but when we’re close to home we ignore its commands and take the shortcut we know.

But, as The Spartan Woman mentioned this morning, it’s a metaphor for our lives. Until a few months ago, I had a day job with decent pay, sparse benefits, at a media company that shall not be named. (A few of us are recalcoling our percorsi, but that’s another post, another time, maybe another dimension.)

Now I don’t. I jokingly tell people here in Perugia that rather than being “disoccupato” (umemployed), I’m a “libero professionista” (independent professional).

Gotta say, I don’t miss going to a newsroom every day. For some reason, not being there didn’t feel as big as a shock as I thought it might be. Looking back, I already had a foot out the door. I was working from home more and more, working from abroad more and more, and in general, disengaging myself mentally as well as physically. I was always moving around, though, even if I was at the same company. After a long haul at one publication, I had machine and expensive software lust and turned into an IT dude. (Some of you might remember that and wince; I liked projects, grew to loathe printers and wires.) Then back to editing, but with a big writing component, along with what was for awhile a burgeoning freelance side career.

It’s funny, though. I have a restless spirit, but at the same time I like certain rituals. Or, more to the point, I like creating rituals with friends and family and then keeping to them for awhile. (Since we’re apostate Catholics, we skipped all the religious milestones that are basically excuses for kids’ parties.) So, oyster shucking and cider and/or Prosecco  drinking with my kids, Eastertime dinner with Greek friends, exploring Brooklyn or Queens ethnic restaurants with friends or the kids.

We’re easing into new rituals here in Italy, where we’re doing some house stuff, some work and networking. Similar rituals, different percorsi. Dinner with our friends upstairs (good food, and gentle advice, and cute kids), a morning and evening hike. At the same time, being here means that it’s easy to, well, recalculate our path and explore places we haven’t been. We’re starting to do that in Italy, and have taken advantage of some cheap European flights, too. One summer, we went to Barcelona for a few days for just a few hundred euros.

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[Beware of dog people.]

And so in New York, too. An old friend and colleague of mine, Sue Reisinger, told me that it was important to have routines, something to anchor myself, to substitute for the day job. Kathy and I already had the morning routine of taking the dogs to the park. Now that walk with Henry and Lola is later and longer. And I go to the pool as much as I can. I swim with the old dudes, breaking into their routine—two of them can’t always just split the lane between them because of me, the interloper.

Here in Italy, the rhythm of everyday life anchors you. Get up fairly early, make coffee, check email. Do errands, stop for a midmorning espresso and maybe a tramezzino or cornetto. Soon, it’s time for pranzo (midday meal, from a sandwich to a multi course thing out in the country). Then the midday pause. Work or nap (I want to do both right now), then it’s aperitivo time with friends, if they’re around. What? It’s dinner time? And so on. Notice that the two meals anchor the day…

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The pizza boscaiola at Mediterranea, the best pizzeria in Perugia

[Updated to fix some typos. Everyone needs an editor.]