We had no power, so we went out for coffee. And to look for castles, run an errand, and eat lunch.

It was awfully nice of the power company to warn us of upcoming work and an outage this time. Power outages here in the country are usually of the unplanned kind. The last time it went out, we got back home to a dark house, and a phone call to report the problem let me know that they were working on it and we’d be back online in a few hours. This time, for planned work, the power company posted notices up and down the road and stuffed our mailbox with one.

So we woke up early enough to use the espresso machine and to make sure our devices were charged. We sat around wondering if they really were going to cut the juice at 8:30 because it was a rainy morning. And at 8:32 the music stopped and the wifi cut out. We started to read novels but after awhile thought instead of waiting around, we’d go check out the borgos in the area that we always see from the road and say “we’ll have to check out XX one of these days.” Finally, it was one of those days.

If you’re new to this blog, a brief explanation. This region is called the mystical heart of Italy for a good reason. It’s densely wooded, hilly and mountainous, depending on where you are, and it’s dotted with castles, both adapted for modern use or abandoned, lonely testaments to the days of chivalry and bloody battles between city-states.

But first up was coffee. We had some at home, but we needed booster shots. And we had all the time in the world. We have a bunch to choose from and this morning we went to the next town, which has a sweet bar with lots of outdoor seating—perfect for a pandemic. Unlike bars (cafes in the U.S.) in touristy areas, in these local spots you don’t pay extra to hang around. Sure, you can grab a quick one standing at the bar, but in this area you tell the barista what you want and bring it to a couch or table and hang out until you need to go. First stop, then, was the Bar Dolce Vita in Pianello, behind a gas station. So what if it’s not romantically located? Good coffee, terrific outdoor seating, friendly baristas—it’s a genuine neighborhood hangout.

The first borgo on the list was Castel d’Arno (apologies for the outdate and weird-looking website). It’s a hamlet that’s part of Perugia and is up a narrow winding road. Yeah, you can describe most of the roads around here that way. We saw some workmen, and a guy supervising their work told us he rented out apartments in the hamlet. He told us to walk under an arch to an overlook and wow, even on a day full of threatening clouds and mists, the view was pretty fantastic.

It was raining down there, but not at Castel d’Arno.

Next up? Sterpetto, another tiny borgo, this time part of neighboring Assisi. Sterpetto is bigger than Castel d’Arno and looked in better shape. In general, Assisi seems to maintain its outlying hamlets better than Perugia, whose “frazioni” often seem to suffer in favor of the jewel-like historic center. Sterpetto has a working church and buildings that people actually live in. Its site is comparable in that wow factor, but Sterpetto just feels less like the 21st century has passed it by. Our gardener told me a funny story involving the borgo. A local businessman, a big man in every way, decided he’d lose weight by walking from the neighboring Pianello up the hill to Sterpetto and back. Sounds like a plan, right? Problem is, a guy works up an appetite on a long walk like that, and this man ate a couple of pizzas on the way back. Pizzas in Italy are individually sized, but still….

Would The New York Times call Sterpeto “tidy and well-kept”?
New desk lamp, meet old worry beads.

Speaking of the 21st Century, we next dropped into it by stopping at the megastore Leroy Merlin. It’s a French chain of big box stores that’s sort of like Lowe’s or Home Depot. Only L-M, or as The Spartan Woman pronounces it, “Lee-Roy,” is more stylish. With time to waste until pranzo (lunch), we looked at the light fixtures—I needed a new desklamp—and the tiles. We picked up some strong brackets to hang an amazing poster a friend sent us of the Spolete “Due Mondi” music festival, and took mental notes for a not-happening bathroom renovation.

Finally, lunch. We figured we still had some time to waste before the juice came on. We debated most of the morning off and on where to go. We could have gone north, back to our area to, perhaps, Il Panaro near Gubbio. Terrific torta al testo and rootsy homemade food. But there’s a strange waiter who may or may not pretend that he doesn’t understand our order and who once offended a diminutive but not too small friend of our kid’s by giving her a tiny wine glass.

We were almost in Assisi anyway. We normally avoid the place during the day, especially in summer, because it’s crawling with tourists and pilgrims and nuns and monks and souvenir vendors and….you get the idea. But on the off season and at night, it’s just a really pretty hilltown. The Spartan Woman remembered having really good stringozzi cacio e pepe at a restaurant right on the main piazza, the Taverna dei Consoli, which sounded good to me. We had equally decadent antipasti, little onion tartlets with a creamy truffle sauce for me, and a fonduta of pecorino and truffle for her. We spent a bit more than we normally would for an impromptu lunch, but it was worth it. Besides, we took the really long way back to the car, so we worked it off.

Even better, the lights came on an hour before they promised.

Image up top: the piazza outside the Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi, as seen from above and in black & white

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.

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)



Short, cool summer (so far)

This year is not like last year. It’s been kind of nice, cool and breezy with bright sun and some rain, like the other day. That lasted all day and refreshed the greens that surround us up here on the hilltop. It’s definitely different from last summer, which basically was an outdoor oven. The all-summer European heatwave even had a nickname: Lucifer.

We’ve been lucky, although I’m jonesing to go swimming. The relative chill most mornings means it’s time to walk. This zone is full of places to do that, from steep gravel and dirt paths in the woods, to level riverside walks (the Chiascio, which winds past the town) to, even, our road. The road connects the hamlets of Coccorano and Monteverde (“green mountain”), which we call home.

We wake up decently early most days. It’s good enough for us to have some coffee, zone out skimming the headlines and our Facebook feeds, and then head out. We usually just head up the road. It’s hilly, to be sure, but the relatively easy footing is good for someone like me, who’s basically a klutz hampered by a torn meniscus that I can ignore most of the time. Besides, when we walk up the road and back, we get to talk to neighbors (they’re 1 km. away, but a mother and daughter pair usually sets out the same time we do), and we often get a canine escort. There’s a little terrier that likes to keep us company. I’m sure the biscuits that The Spartan Woman packs for him have nothing to do with it.

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Our little bodyguard

So we walk. Today, we covered 5 km (a shade over 3 miles) and my watch tells me an elevation difference of 119 m (250 feet, give or take). I’ll share.

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We see vistas like this every time there’s an open area.

When we first started doing this, I was struck by the big panoramas. To this New York City boy, though, most of the plants were, you know, plants. That’s nice. But I didn’t really notice their diversity and how they unfolded as June progressed. The other thing that takes awhile, and still surprises me, are the houses and outbuildings. It takes awhile to scope them out, because the gorgeous views are so distracting. Like this house, perched high on a ridge. They must have an amazing view.

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At some point, we came across signs telling us that the road traveled over a city—okay, town—aqueduct. Is it accidental that there’s a mini-oasis here? Does the aqueduct leak, or is this from the other day’s rain?

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Finally, on a clear day, you can see Perugia, some 25 km away.

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Sex Change Operations, Zucchine/i, and Lasagne. Or Lasagna?

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A friend of mine moved to Spain some years ago. She and I used to speak Italian to each other every so often, but once she was getting ready to head over, she forbade any Italian. “Please,” she said, “learning Spanish is confusing enough. I can’t have the two languages blending together in my head.”

So let’s talk about Englitalian. Or Italish? The mashups occurred to me as we got Sunday dinner together today. First, let me describe the day. It’s gross. We thought we’d escaped the New York winter, and we did for the most part. But today into Tuesday, we’re facing il gran gelo (deep freeze to Anglos). It’s been snowing in a half-ass way, not really piling up but with the wind blowing, it stings your face and makes for general misery. Looking out my studio window, I can barely see beyond the fruit trees outside the house.

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It’s starting to stick and look like an outtake from an early R.E.M. album cover photo.

That means we’re housebound, at least today. And dinner—we do the Italian or French thing on Sundays and the midday meal is the star. I thought I’d try to replicate the flavors of a pizza that the terrific pizzeria Ribalta in Manhattan puts together. It’s got the usual mozzarella, but they add what I’d call zucchini cream, and grilled zucchini. It’s sweet and nutty and creamy at the same time. Only this time I thought it would make a terrific lasagne. Or lasagna, if you prefer, but Italian Italian style, with thin layers and béchamel on top with some crispy bits.

Lasagne. Lasagna. Zucchine. Zucchini. That’s where my linguistic confusion comes in. There are a lot of words, mostly food related, that differ in the Italian spoken in Italy, and the supposedly Italian words, or names of dishes, in the U.S. “Lasagna” is one of them. In the Italian-American (and, I guess, the Olive Garden) canon, it’s a layered pasta dish with tons of ricotta, mozzarella, meat sauce. In Italian, “lasagna” means one single, solitary noodle. Hence “lasagne,” or the plural. The feminine plural, to be precise.

“Zucchini” is another odd duck. When this green summer squash crosses the ocean, it gets treated to a sex-change operation from the original plural feminine “zucchine.” To say “squash” in Italian, it’s “zucca”—feminine singular. The -ina or -ina suffix means a little one.

Don’t get me started on the poor panino, masculine singular. One sandwich, and it doesn’t have to have melted cheese and squished in a sandwich press. “Panino” means a little bread, or a roll. In the U.S. and other English-speaking countries, you hear people saying “I’ll have a prosciutto and mozzarell’ panini” and I cringe.

So the dilemma: When in Rome, so to speak? It just sounds weird to say “zucchini lasagna.” The poor dish gets one gender wrong, and one quantity wrong, leaving us with a transgendered vegetable accompanying a singular noodle. Or something like that. But if I did go around saying the proper Italian pronunciation to an English speaker it would come across as possibly confusing and definitely pretentious.


The Non-Recipe Recipe

In any event, here’s how to put it together. However you say it, it’s delicious. We managed to transfer the flavors of Ribalta’s pizza to a gooey, decadent, perfect-for-a-snowy day pasta dish. Disclaimer: I am not a professional recipe writer, and this presupposes you have some cooking chops and can figure it out where I’ve messed up.

Preheat oven to 375F/200C. Take 7 or 8 medium zucchine/i. Slice fairly thin lengthwise. Place on oiled baking sheet. Season with salt and pepper, sprinkle liberally with olive oil. Roast for about 40 minutes, until they’ve given up all their liquid and some may be a little browned.

Take 1/3 of the squash (gotcha!) and place in a blender or food process. Zap with about 250 ml or a cup of heavy cream or Italian cooking cream (panna). Add a good handful of grated parmigiano or grana cheese. Do NOT use pecorino; it’s too sharp for this dish.

Have some ricotta and béchamel lying around. If you’re lucky enough to be near an Italian gourmet shop, you can get prepared béchamel. Otherwise, make it yourself.  You’ll also need no-cook lasagna sheets.

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In a baking pan, spread béchamel on the bottom. Add some milk. Layer the first pasta sheets. Spread with ricotta and grated cheese, and a layer of squash.

Layer 2: pasta sheets, your zucchini cream.

Layer 3: Like layer 1.

Layer 4: Pasta sheets, bechamel, grated cheese, and some bread crumbs.

Cover with foil, place in hot oven for 30 minutes. After that, remove the foil and let it brown. Remove from oven, let it rest for 15 minutes. It’ll be easier to cut and portion out., Serve with a green salad.

Gone to the Dog

IMG_3260.jpgI signed up on Quora.com awhile ago. I was intrigued by the mixture of questions, from genuinely wanting to know something, to clueless, to trolling. So I thought hmm, maybe I’ll use that format here. In the absence of real questions (feel free to ask me some via email), I’ll make up some of my own.

What the hell do you do up in the country?

I had no idea watching the color of the hills change by the hour, sometimes by the minute, could take up so much of my time. And in an unaltered state of consciousness, no less.

Seriously, what do you do?

We serve Retu. It is our job to feed him, praise him, get him to sit, teach him other languages, and did I mention feed him?

Whose dog is he?

IMG_3187Retu belongs to Ca’ Mazzetto, our neighboring agriturismo. Supposedly. But I’m getting the feeling that the dogs along our road don’t belong to anyone. Or, they belong to everyone. I’m trying to figure that one out.

What is an agriturismo?

Are you trying to confuse me by changing the subject? Well, ok. An agriturismo is a working farm that takes in paying guests. Ca’ Mazzetto has a few apartments, a pool, about 125 sheep and a bunch of olive trees. They produce cheese, fabrics (wool, of course) and olive oil. I may be missing something, and, hey, Joonas, did I? (Joonas is the son of the proprietor and sits on our town council, too.)

What kind of dog is Retu?

He’s a relatively rare breed that is native to these parts, called a Maremmano. According to Wikipedia, the Maremmano is “a breed of livestock guardian dog indigenous to central Italy, particularly to Abruzzo and the Maremma region of Tuscany and Lazio.” The breed is known to be intelligent, loyal, protective, and friendly. He definitely was smart enough to find a sucker in The Spartan Woman, who actually buys dog food for him and, this evening, fed him tagliatelle with truffles.

How is that breed used?

Again, from Wikipedia: “Maremma used as livestock guardian dogs are introduced to sheep flocks as puppies so they bond to the sheep. Some ranchers place Maremma puppies as young as 3–4 weeks old with young lambs, but beginning this bonding process at 7–8 weeks is more typical.[19] Although it is easiest to bond Maremma to sheep and goats, cattle ranchers have found that the dogs bond with cows and Maremma are increasingly used to protect range cattle.”

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Does Retu live up to his breed’s reputation?

He’s a splendid young dog. But if he has bonded to the 125 sheep that live next door, it remains to be seen. One of his owners said that Retu has decided to take early retirement. Whatever sheep guardian attributes he may lack, Retu is definitely good at bonding with humans and bending them to his will.

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.)