This winter I went swimming

(with apologies to Loudon Wainwright III)

This winter I went swimming 
This winter I wouldn’t have drowned 
I held my breath and I kicked my feet 
And I moved my arms around
I moved my arms around

We’ve been back in New York for a few months, which has been bad for the waistline. And so it was time to get back into some kind of shape. The holiday season was blissfully over. No more béchamel, truffles, cocktails, cookies, pies, wine, more cocktails, more wine. No more avoiding the pool because, you know, I had things to do—like visiting a friend on the Upper West Side for cocktails and seeing friends who were holed up in a Times Square hotel for, you guessed it, cocktails.

I’ve had a YMCA membership before Kid no. 1 was born, some 35 years ago. I used to hit the pool at 9:30 pm every weeknight. I was in my twenties and super fast. The pool, in fact, was filled with people who were super duper extra fast, all young like me. We’d goad each other to go faster. I learned how to do flip turns. “You should make it snap more,” one of my partners counseled. I did. I kept it up for years, which was relatively easy to do when you’re young and didn’t have to get to the office until 10 or so. And as the kids grew up, I started going less and less, in spurts more than a steady routine.

I love the water. Unlike the experience of some friends of mine, for whom swimming was a structured, oppressive series of lessons in an indoor pool, swimming for me always meant freedom and escape. I learned to swim at the beach. My father was a really strong swimmer, and when I was only four or five, he’d sit me on the beach and tell me not to move. Then he’d swim way out, waving to me and calling me. Then it was my turn. I learned by riding the waves, and soon being buoyant was as natural as breathing.

Later, we had a backyard pool and my siblings and our friends spent most of our summers in it. We played elaborate hide and seek games that involved swimming stealthily underwater to evade who was “it.” In high school, I took swimming instead of gym a couple of times. Mostly it was to avoid the Marine drill-sergeant gym teachers and the stupid militaristic calisthenics. But it soon turned into a soothing respite from Brooklyn Tech classes. Most of the class (gym classes were single-gender) would play pool volleyball unless the swimming coach decided to actually teach a lesson. But I was nearsighted and hated games like that. And I realized that I could just be a loner, and float around the deep end. I’d make sure to get high before class and spend a very pleasant hour mostly underwater pretending to fly.

As a college kid, I’d go upstate with friends to explore swimming holes. We’d jump from cliffs into ice-cold pools of water. One drop was about 35 feet and, well, you can’t slow down once you step off the ledge. Didn’t stop us though. Those beautiful swimming holes—I barely remember where they were—were a great foil to a series of boring summer jobs.

So it was back to the Y pool this month. Only now, not having a regular office job means I can go to the 11 am lap swimming session, where I’m actually one of the younger people in the pool.

I’m sometimes alone in the lane, which is great. But more often than not, I split the lane with Chris, a retired fire captain about my age. Chris is tall and lanky, and he gets to the deep end with what seems like five strokes. He’s just so quick and quiet about it. He told me he was a high school swimmer and has been swimming in the Y pool since he was three years old.

I was inclined to hate Chris. Early on, I heard him talking with someone about how Trump was driving liberals crazy. They were giggling like little boys who snuck a frog into a girl’s lunchbox. I avoided talking to him or even really acknowledging his presence. Eventually, though, we got to talking, starting with the usual “want to split the lane?” question. And I found out that he’s a curious and smart guy and somewhat of an amateur historian. We still avoid politics, and that’s okay. Can you say “cognitive dissonance”?

Going back and forth in an indoor water tank does get tired, but I do things to make it interesting. The Spartan Woman gave me an Apple Watch a couple of years ago and I can wear it in the pool. It’s got a workout tracker for swimming in a pool, so I’m always tracking how much I swim in how many minutes. My baseline distance is 1,000 meters; I figure that that’s pretty good for an old guy. If I can do it in a half hour, so much the better. Besides, with the watch, I don’t have to count laps, which always tripped me up. I always lost count before.

It’s pretty amazing what swimming a few times a week will do. I have muscles again; they seemed to go into hiding once the summer swimming season ended. I’m incredibly relaxed post-swim, especially if I spend some time in the sauna afterward. And it gives me an excuse to get out of this little prison of a home office.

I can’t wait for the summer.

We went forest bathing with Mother Aquehonga

We’re back. And we’re a little homesick for the mountain and the Sentiero Francescano della Pace. So what do two people who live on a mountaintop criss-crossed by great hiking trails do when they’re back in New York City? They go hiking in the hills of New York City. The Japanese call it forest bathing, which is a pretty neat term, I think.

Let explain. Take a look at this satellite map of Staten Island.

See all that green stuff in the middle? That’s the Greenbelt, an inadvertent gift from none other than Robert Moses, that enemy of open green spaces. He planned a parkway right through that green north-south belt, the Richmond Parkway. It would have run from the Staten Island expressway in a southwest direction. And it would have run through and destroyed hundreds of acres of virgin forest. But that was no obstacle to Moses; he usually got what he wanted.

What the great builder and destroyer didn’t count on was Todt Hill. The neighborhood, smack dab in the middle of his planned road, happens to be one of the wealthiest in the city. Back then, we’re talking about the 1960s, it was an enclave of discreet wealth—nice big Tudor homes, tasteful mansions, fieldstone farmhouses with ponds, that sort of thing. If you’d taken photos of the area at that time and said it was New Canaan Connecticut, no one would’ve challenged you (except for the denizens of that exclusive community). Today, Todt Hill is rather less tasteful (see the monstrous McVersailles below), but I’ll leave that for another post.

The route also would’ve run alongside the Richmond County Country Club, golf course and watering hole of said community, as well as Moravian Cemetery, where generations of Vanderbilts are buried. Yes, those Vanderbilts. They came from Staten Island, of all places.

Now it’s one thing to ram a highway through the South Bronx. Sure, people opposed the notorious Cross-Bronx Expressway, but they didn’t have much clout. It’s another thing to wreck a wealthy wooded enclave. The good people of Todt Hill organized and fought Moses. After a struggle, helped along by the support of Jackie Onassis, the highway never was built. But what’s left is a fabulous green swath of land in the heart of the island, which is public property and which features terrific hiking trails and nature preserves.

So, in search of some quiet and green space, we took to the hills. We parked our car across the street from a couple of monstrous McMansions, one of which is big enough to be a hotel, checked out the map, and went hiking. First, accidentally, we went through the St. Francis/San Francesco woods—you may remember this post from a quite different Francis forest—and then decided to hang south

The path took us along the spine of the hills. At one point we could see the ocean, and according to the map, we walked alongside and above the country club fairway. The trails are well-marked and not too challenging–there’s enough variation to keep you entertained, but it never feels like you’ll fall off a cliff. But with the thick early autumn foliage, all we saw were trees and shrubbery.

One of these days, I’d love to walk the whole length with a naturalist. But this wasn’t the time; we had to get back to the car before it got dark.

If you want an out of NYC yet in NYC experience, go here:

An accidental Italian

This expat thing…I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. Kid number 2 was here this month, so it forced me to think about my two lives and weigh the one in New York and our few months a year up on this hilltop.

We’re aren’t here full-time, but we’re here in big enough chunks for it to feel routine. Still, it’s a leap, and I didn’t realize at the time how things would shake out. I started on second base compared to most Americans who move abroad. I grew up as a Sicilian kid living in the U.S. My father’s from Palermo, so as a kid I was surrounded by the language. My mom cooked Sicilian food more than half the time. I was always used to the Italian temperament: the different sense of personal space than Americans are used to, hearing two or three simultaneous conversations. I always felt like an interloper in the U.S.—of the place by birth, but somehow faking it.

Meet the family. That’s me on the left, with my nonna Maria. My grandfather’s to the right of her, and my father’s standing in between them. My mom and baby sister are on the right.

So coming here for a couple of months at a time wasn’t going to be too weird. My first experiences in Italy involved staying in the home of close relatives like my aunt and grandparents. I knew what shopping was like, I was used to how people live in Italy, and the food, even here in Umbria, in central Italy, is a lot like what I grew up on and what I’m used to.

There was one barrier; while I understood a fair amount of the language—and successfully hid that fact–I know that while I’m pretty fluent, I’ll never be taken for a native. I have an accent. I’d love to be able to take how I speak Italian and put it through a computer into English to see what the equivalent Italian person-speaks-English would be like. But I know that I’m missing some of the connective tissue of the language. I say “uh” when I’m thinking of a word mid-sentence instead of something that sounds like “erh” here in Umbria. Italian is more formal than American English; here we say “however” and “thus.” And word usage is more precise. There’s a difference between jealous and envious, and when a machine isn’t doing what it should do, it doesn’t function.

Daily life as a semi-resident is almost like learning to walk again. I’ve had help; we have friends here who don’t speak English, so it’s been a forced total immersion. But until the past couple of years, I felt like when I speak, it’s someone else. I’m really good at bending and twisting English to say what I want to say. I didn’t feel like that for a long time with my second tongue; I was happy to be able to communicate enough to do what I had to do, or to connect with a friend or my cousins in Palermo. A couple of years ago, though, I realized that my personality, for better or worse, was coming through. I can joke in Italian now; I’ve figured out how to be sarcastic. Irony is a hard thing and you have to express it differently than you do in English. You can used the same kind of words, but your intonation has to be a little different to convey it correctly. Otherwise you can get blank stares or you’ll find that you’ve insulted someone.

This all came together a few weeks ago when I was in a car crash. I was stopped, waiting to make a turn into a supermarket parking lot when a driver hit my car at a pretty high speed from behind. My first reaction was shock at what seemed like pure evil to me, at least for that instant. And then I felt like I was reduced to being a kid again. I didn’t know what to do, who to call, how to behave. The guy in the car behind me passed out after his airbags deployed. I was in shock, I think, and I couldn’t think straight even in English. I called my wife, and could barely get “I just had an accident” out to her.

Ouch! Or “aio!”

It’s good thing that we have friends nearby who came to help. A crowd gathered, too, and a couple of people calmed me down. One woman went into her house and brought out a bottle of water. Someone called the police and ambulance. They commiserated with me, and my friends helped me talk to the police. The EMTs in the ambulance were kind and checked me out while trying to figure out how the other guy was doing. The whole episode in short, kind of crystallized how far I need to go, and at the same time, what I like about living here. You’re never quite alone.

I guess I’ll always have a thing for my hometown of New York. Not the glitzy current city, which has turned into a kind of Disneyland for the One Percent. But taking the ferry and looking at the harbor, or a glance down a street still paved with cobblestones, the bones of old New York come through. There’s nothing like the sound of a foghorn on a zero-visibility day, or the crazy mashup of ethnicities and accents and foods, mostly found these days in the outer boroughs. And for that reason, I can’t just live in one place—seems like when I’m here, I look nostalgically at New York, and when New York drives me crazy, I think back to the hills around here.

They run a tight ship

I’m always amused when I hear people say that Italy is chaotic. Sure, it can be, but it’s not as random a place as many think it is. Like anywhere, it comes down to priorities.

Let’s look at the United States: it’s got Apple and Google and Amazon (and even Microsoft). All big companies that Get Things Done. But then let’s go down below the ground to New York’s poor excuse of a transit hub, Penn Station. It’s just plain gross. It’s early morning and time for another Acela train to Washington. The crowd mills, looking anxious, looking at the board to give some hint of which track their train will be on. Things are getting ugly, folks, as the anxiety level rises. Finally, the board lights up. People make a mad dash to Track Whatever and to get on the allegedly fast train, they line up. They have to show a ticket to get to the track–oh, and to get to that track you’re riding down a narrow dark escalator. And there are no assigned seats.

So, Italia. We were invited one Sunday to see what goes down on Lago (lake) Trasimeno at the Triathlon Club Perugia. Our friend Federico is Mr. Marathon Man, and he and his friends have set up this place to practice swimming moves in the lake, and there’s a decently level place to run and ride bikes.

The habitués of the TCP think that torturing themselves running/swimming/biking great distances is fun. So that Sunday they had the first big exhibition of the season. And anyone who thinks that Italians are disorganized should’ve seen this. Everything started on time. Federico enlisted most of his family to work the event, and there were lots of others on hand to guide the competitors from swim to run to their bikes. They even had a kids’ event which also went without a hitch, and started and ended on time.

A few days later, work took me to Milan, where the company I work with (the great people at LC Publishing Group) held four days of discussions, dinners, concerts, a run, working lunches and workshops, all spread throughout Milan, Italy’s second-largest city and its business hub. To get there, I took a combination of bus and train. Fast trains here are called the Frecciarossa—red arrow—and the bus to the train a Freccialink. The bus left on time, got me to Florence’s main train station. Then to find my train. It took a few minutes before the track number came up on the screen, but there was no long line, no scramble for seats. My ticket listed the car number and my assigned seat, and the platform tells you where, for example, car number 7 stops.

Big week, lots happening, hardly a hitch
The New Yorker’s Fabio Bertoni presents an award.

Once there, tons of events, lots of attendees. All on time, and the substantive sessions rarely ran late. Part of the reason is there were few interruptions for questions. It may be a cultural thing for Italian lawyers not to stop and challenge the speaker. Then, the final awards ceremony and party. I forgot how many awards to law firms and department were doled out, but it happened quickly, in about 38 minutes, give or take. No ponderous speeches, no praise of the Glorious Legal Profession. We all got through it, then it was time for a party.

Fresh mozzarella, worth waiting on line for

One more example. Last Saturday night our hometown, Valfabbrica, held a neighborhood fish dinner in one of the old town’s main squares. There were, we figured, some 150-200 attendees. The dinner was supplied by one of the best seafood shops in Perugia, L’Angolo del Pesce. We all reserved and paid days ahead, at either the bar in town or the smoke shop. We show up, give our receipt in, they check us in. We found a few seats at a picnic table, and minutes later, fizzy water and wine show up. What followed was a parade of courses, from mixed antipasto to pasta to a mixed fish grill, to a fish fry. Water and wine refreshed when necessary. Efficient without fuss.

Big night in a small town
Just the beginning….

What that doesn’t tell you is how much fun it is. And that’s what this place adds—you never know exactly how much you’ll enjoy the show, but you will enjoy it, in the company of warm people who are compulsively social. And usually warm and kind.

So what am I saying? I’m not dissing one culture or the other. But when you look at another one, try not to bring your prejudices along with you. (And if you’re in Italy, go with the flow.)

We’ll just take a little break for a mini-travelogue

Oof. I’ve been too busy or too hot to write. When it gets really hot, as it has been for the last two weeks here, I’m in the pool, not sitting at a computer. It’s probably healthier, and has done wonders for my tan.

So, I’ve had work to do. Then we had eight splendid guests, my sister-in-law, her husband, and his siblings and their spouses. Here are some of them, taking shelter under the linden trees.

Unter den Linden

Finally on the 4th of July, we got to take a little road trip. We like to do something a little special. Last year we paid tribute to St. Francis of Assisi’s legacy of peace, love, and maybe understanding by visiting his favorite place to meditate, L’Eremo delle Carcere, on the mountain above Assisi.

This year, we went to Venice. Well, not really Venice, but a tiny town, or “borgo” that’s often called the Venice of Umbria. To get there, we headed south toward Foligno and hung a left. But the car’s navigation system never heard of the new highway we found ourselves on, and at some point we found ourselves in the neighboring region, Le Marche (lay már-kay). We double back and, using my iPhone’s better sat-nav, found Rasiglia, a little gem of a place.

Water, water everywhere

It’s weird–the water source is high on a hill, above the hamlet. It really flows, and the inhabitants built all these channels that send the waters coursing through the town. At one point, a branch takes a turn into a big laundry trough, which is enclosed and does a pretty great impression of air-conditioning. This was good thing, since the sun was about to melt my brain.

Throughout the hamlet, you could hear the sounds of rushing water. It was pretty soothing. The place itself is charming, with a shopkeeper selling fridge magnets and paintings of the town. She gave us a short history lesson, which was reinforced by large grainy photos throughout the hamlet showing us when the waters powered fabric looms and grain mills.

A bridge not too far

We finished off our visit with lunch in a tiny place. We started to sit outside, but they told us it was much cooler inside. And it was. Lunch was simple stuff, on paper and plastic plates and cutlery. Some tagliatelle with summer truffles, a caprese salad, and some panzanella. Pretty close to paradise in other words.

I’ll try to come up with some deep thoughts soon. Maybe one of the four draft posts I started actually works.

Somehow I forgot to write a single word

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

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

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

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

If you build it, will they come?

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

Not quite ready for prime time.

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

So real. Surreal.

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

The friendly skies of Lufthansa

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


The headline means “cool.” It’s also sort of a pun, because we drove almost three hours the other day to something called FICO Eataly World. And “fico” in Italian means “fig.” It’s also an acronym for Italian Federation of Farmers. Hence, “Che FICO” means, more or less, “What a cool thing we saw the other day,” or “what a fig.” Whatever—take your pick.

FICO—nobody calls it Eataly World here in Italy—is probably the only theme park for foodies in the world. It’s gigantic, some 100,000 square meters (or, if you wish, 1,076,391 square feet), sprawling in a few directions. It might very well be the biggest food court you’ll ever see, because it’s basically a huge mall. Like, well, the Eataly extravanganzas that are spreading across the United States. I was a regular at the Financial District one in New York. Almost every day at about 3:30 or so, my web editor and I walked the block over to it to have a mid-afternoon shot of espresso. The coffee costs $2 there, which, for New York, is a bargain.

But those regular Eatalys don’t prepare you for the FICO version. First of all, it’s outside Bologna. Or, I should say, Italy’s New Jersey. Bologna’s outskirts are as flat as a board and the autostrada leading to Bologna from the Adriatic is monotonously straight. The only thing that keeps things lively is the constant terror of competing with gigantic tractor trailers on the right and the suicidal maniacs driving black Audis in the left lane. The road is lined with factories, office parks, Stalinesque apartment blocks and the occasional vineyard, of all things. So, think New Jersey Turnpike, but less smelly than its Chemical Coast stretch around exits 13 and 12.

Some roads lead to FICO.

To get to FICO, you get off the autostrada and go through a bunch of office parks and apartment complexes. And you can’t miss the huge McDonald’s. Finally, you arrive at what looks like a turnpike tollbooth. Collect the ticket, park and there you are, at the foodies’ Mecca.

At this point, I’ll answer the question: Why didn’t we just go to Bologna, gastronomical center of Italy? Because the parking’s easier here? Or, just because. I’d heard that FICO is a riot, and every now and then you have to leave your distaste for modern corporate experiences behind and see how a country’s corporate food industry wants to present itself to the world.

That said, it’s sensory overload. FICO has multiple stands, interactive spaces, classrooms, ride, and restaurants that represent Italy’s regions, which, even in 2019 are astoundingly distinct from one another. When you’re in the normal, non-FICO Italy, even the mineral water on a restaurant table changes from region to region. Here, the change happens in a few steps, and you start to wonder, Emilian? Sicilian? Where does nduja come from—Puglia? Calabria? You can sign up, too, for hands-on classes on things like bread making and how to make tortellini.

Dee-luxe Parmigiano wheels

The place is also filled with inspirational signs touting sustainability and humane animal practices. Not for nothing, Italy’s main export success these days seems to be its food culture, and if its small-producer ethos and practices influence the rest of the world, I’m all for it.

Apparently a lot of FICO’s Bolognese neighbors aren’t thrilled about its presence. Critics take aim at its international food court type presentation, and how it feels like an airport terminal. I’ll concede the point. It is nicer to stumble upon local fare at its origin, and do it serendipitously. In the Guardian article I linked to above, there’s a quote from a local saying that FICO presents Italian food in an un-Italian way. Perhaps, in terms of the size and corporate-ness of the place.

The original Fiat Nuova 500 (from 1957) is a great marketing tool–here, for Italian beer.

But it’s very Italian in another way—its sociability. Stop at one of the stands or restaurants, and talk to the people working there. You’ll find none of the bored teenager working minimum wage grunting and mumbled replies. Most people at FICO seem incredibly happy to engage you and talk about their specialties and their regions and cities. And it’s not canned, and totally unlike an unnerving lunch once in the Wall Street area at an American Grille, where the server obviously spoke from a script: “Is everything prepared to your satisfaction?”

After walking around trying to take it all in, including a visit to the farm animals, we went looking for lunch. At that point, we wanted sanctuary, an hour of calm, and we found it. If you find yourself there at lunchtime, go straight to Fattoria delle Torri. The original is in Modica, Sicily, in a beautiful site. The FICO version may be less scenic, but the overall feel is cosseting. And most important, its stylish Sicilian food felt like home.

Take me home….
…to tuna and caponata that’s a bit more upscale than mom’s.

Would I go back? Maybe, if I were in the area. But Bologna itself would be the main attraction and I’d rather walk around in a place that’s grown organically over the centuries. That said, it was worth taking a warm springlike day off. With someone else’s credit card, I could do serious damage, since the food for sale is all pretty high end. Unlike some other visitors who’ve lived to write about it, I wouldn’t spend days there. But if you’re around and you have the time, go for it. Who knows? You might learn how to make proper tagliatelle.

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.

The road taken

A few days ago, we were doing our usual morning walk up the road when we bumped into a neighbor, who introduced himself as Claudio. He was out for a walk, too, telling us that he just retired. He told us about his walk, which involves walking down the road and making a turn into a “strada sterrata,” which is an unpaved road. He said that he makes a loop and comes around after being on the Sentiero Francescano. This trail is a series of trails that trace the steps of St. Francis of Assisi when he left his family home and riches, and walked to Gubbio through the woods. A mystical, rebirth ritual walk, in other words.

Curious, we wanted to see if we could replicate Claudio’s walk. (Francesco’s walk is well-marked and in warmer weather, sees waves of pilgrims.) A few days ago, we walked on some of the Franciscan path, and I was looking at the map on my iPhone. I saw as we were walking back down the hill another road that, if you looked uphill, veered left. Hmm, we didn’t remember that. But as we descended, we saw an opening and yes, a path that was carved into the side of the hill. That’s one of winter’s advantages; without the overgrowth and weeds, it’s easier to make out the paths that wind all around here. We took it and saw that it followed a higher trajectory than the Sentiero and then sort of curved around the hill. That must be Claudio’s route, we figured, and made plans to come back the next day.

The turnoff, not that you’d know it. Apple Maps showed it; Google didn’t. But for some other stuff, Google shows details Apple doesn’t. Guess you need both.

So we did. And O.M.G. We’re suckers for a good view and on this path, they just kept coming. Unlike on the Sentiero, you don’t really plunge into deep woods. The path—it must have been a road of some kind at some point—just hugs the hill, carved into it as it follows the basic path of the Sentiero, but about a tree higher. So we got to look into the ruin that we’ve passed many times (we hear that it’s for sale, if anyone out there is interested). As the path curves to the left and westward, the views are pretty stupendous.

Looking into the ruins of a farmhouse. An old timer neighbor told us that the family that lived there farmed the area until the 1960s. Their olive trees are nearby, still producing fruit.
On top of the world! Those are the snow-capped Apennines in the distance.

And then, we thought we hit a road block. Or, at least, a gate shutting us off from the rest of it. Luckily, though, as we got closer, we saw that the path veered left then curved around a large house with a pool and gardens that we soon realized was the Agriturismo Val di Marco. An agriturismo is supposed to be a working farm that welcomes guests, but this one does not look remotely farm-like. It’s just a big comfortable house in the Umbrian tradition that happens to be in the country.

Agriturismo Val di Marco, waiting for summer’s guests

Enough fun, though. What went down had to go back up. Our road, which we knew was south, or to the left, follows a high ridge. And the path did indeed go up. And up. And up. We were panting, okay, I was panting as we neared the top.

There was a payoff, though. We were met at the crest by our usual canine welcoming and escort service. But we disappointed them–The Spartan Woman had forgotten to pack the doggie biscuits. I guess they forgave us, though, and followed us most of the way home.

Casa, dolce casa (home sweet home)

Resistance was futile

There’s a certain romantic type, someone who lives in an Anglo-Saxon country like Britain or the United States, who wants to live in a warmer Latin country, like Italy. He or she dreams about stone farmhouses lovingly restored, pergolas under which to have fabulous wine-drenched meals, and outdoor markets, where you can walk through the stalls and proud local producers sell their wares. There are fresh vegetables, artisanal cheeses, honey from the lavender in their garden, stoneground flour and biodynamic wines. People can taste everything before buying, and maybe get to be friends with one of the purveyors.

They do not think (shudder) about the IperCoop in the suburbs. They escaped all that back in the consumerist hell they left.

I was like that once, despite having grown up in a Sicilian-American household and having spent a lot of my vacation time in Italy, either with relatives or friends. Once we bought a small apartment in the historic center of Perugia, I would try to do our grocery shopping at the Tuesday/Thursday market down the street, or among the stalls of the shrinking Mercato Coperto downtown (really up the hill, and now it’s being remodeled as a temple of gastronomy). Once a month, there’s a big organic market, with local cheese producers and organic grains and beans and…well, you get the picture.

Every now and then, we’d have to go to the dreaded big supermarket on the outskirts of town, in an area called Collestrada. I’d allow myself to drive there with The Spartan Woman and maybe kids, and I’d whine the entire time, urging said TSW not to get distracted so that we could get the hell out of there. Needing household goods like paper towels and dishwasher detergent, I once drove M. Chasse out there, and like all good romantics, he looked as though he wanted to bolt as soon as he could.

I was so foolish, so naive. I’ll come clean. I’ve given up my resistance. I’m embracing the Borg, er, the IperCoop and the Centro Commerciale Collestrada.

A sea of temptations

Today finally did it, my last bit of resistance just evaporated. Why? It’s yet another dark rainy day. I’ve spend the last two days basically at home working and waiting for a GPL (natural gas) delivery, which never came, DO YOU HEAR ME UMBRIAGAS??? With cabin fever turning me into a hall-pacing lunatic, I had to get out. TSW, who likes nothing better to do than to settle down with a few hundred online crossword puzzles, got restless, too. Plus, we could fix our runaway cellphone plans. We kept thinking of rational reasons to go to Collestrada, all very adult, very important. But really, we were going stir-crazy because of the weather and needed not to be home.

It was fun. No, really. Without the overhead of fantasy and good weather, I’ve learned to love the IperCoop. Are you in one of those U.S. cities that has an Eataly? Eat your heart out. Look! Over there, red oranges (what Americans disgustingly call blood oranges) are on sale by the sackful, for a couple of euros a kilo. There’s an entire aisle for fresh pasta. Over there, a giant mortadella. A sushi stand, for chrissakes. A pretty good wine canteen (Sorry, New Yorkers. Maybe after pot legalization, Andy Cuomo can tackle the no-wine-in-supermarkets rule.)

Wine selection big, wine selection good. These are the fancy ones; there’s another aisle for everyday plonk.
On the whole, I’d rather not be in Philadelphia. There a lots of cream cheese choices at the IperCoop. Not shown–feta and dill.

I gawked at the espresso machines. We bought a case of decent house wine for €12. A case—not one bottle, which I think would be the price in New York. Should I get that leather jacket? We chatted with the fish monger, watched harried young people wheel their babies around. I saw two Chinese girls with a cart loaded with Moretti Rossa beer. Party tonight!

Maybe those Chinese women can use these bar stools?

Oh, and we changed our phone plans: €7 a month for unlimited calls and 50 GB of data on our iPhones.

I’m sure when the weather is nicer, I’ll revert to my old habits. I’ll want to go for a hike or a swim. Or have an aperitivo at Spello’s Bar Bonci, looking at the mountains and stroking the owner’s cat. Our friends will come over to splash around with us and prepare decadent lunches. But until this incessant damn rain ends, I’ll take what I can. I [heart] the IperCoop.

UPDATE: The sun is back. Sort of.