Just another Spoleto Sunday

We have certain rituals—Sunday afternoon dinners, fires in the country on winter nights, morning walks with the dog on Staten Island. Here in Umbria, we’ve got certain towns that we just like to check out every so often. One of them is Spoleto, home to the classical music event Festival dei 2Mondi, and a strategic city-state hundreds of years ago, and a strategic city-state hundreds of years ago.

We just like the place. It’s different enough from Perugia to be interesting. It’s kind of aristocratic, and it’s got a great archeological museum, which, I must confess, The Spartan Woman likes to visit more than I do. (Once is usually enough for me, though I’ll concede that the Roman amphitheater is molto cool.)

So we pointed the red Clio south, with Radio Subasio putting out tunes. One wrong turn looking for the Spoletosfera parking garage, but we got back on track. Note: If you’re coming from the north on SS3, go through the tunnel first, then hang a right.

Like all of the bigger Umbrian towns, Spoleto makes visitors park on the outskirts. And then they have various ways of getting you up (it’s invariably up) into town. In Spoleto’s case, it’s a multilevel parking garage followed by what feels like a metro or subway, except there are no trains. Instead, there are long moving sidewalks, like you find in airports. The town tries to entertain you along the way with big portraits of musical and cinema stars who’ve been at the Spoleto Festival.

I am a train, I am a train.

Before you know it, you’re in the center of the old town, Piazza della Libertà. There’s a long shopping and cafe street leading away from it, with decent window shopping. (And I didn’t get to buy that cashmere sweater I’ve been coveting yet again. Foiled by Sunday….)

We have our Spoleto spots. We walk to the Duomo. It’s more an aesthetic thing, not a religious pilgrimage. There are some excellent frescoes from the 15th century by Filippo Lippi. I confess that I’m easily seduced by nice colors, and these frescoes do the job admirably. I’m a fan of the pinks, blues, teals, and the background scenes that look like what we see when we walk down our road.

Eye candy

When our older kid was a baby, she had an uncontrollable nosebleed outside the cathedral, for some reason. I’ll never forget the people who rushed up and tried to help. When we last went to Spoleto with her, she marked her return triumphantly.

Watch out, Spoleto, Martina’s back!

We weren’t through playing tourist. Suckers for a great view, we took advantage again of the city’s system of passages and elevators and went up to the Rocca Albornoziana (fort), which presides over the city. You can easily imagine how people repelled invaders. For one thing, on one side of the fort you can see up the valley forever. If an army was stupid enough to take that route, you can bet that the Spoletani were prepared.

Culture to the left, food to the right

After all this traipsing around, we were hungry. Luckily, we reserved a table at Apollinare. After a decade of restaurant reviews, we’re pretty jaded and don’t go out to fancy places much. But Apollinare is worth it, and is a steal by New York standards. Like L’Officina, which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, Apollinare takes some liberties with traditional Umbrian food. Unlike L’Officina, Apollinare has an old-school vibe in its decor and service, the latter being scrupulously correct and discrete, while being friendly.

Everything is how it should be.

You can order a la carte, but Apollinare has theme menus, too. We opted for the vegetarian one. It’s always interesting to see what a top restaurant does given a no-meat challenge, and the place was up to it. I wonder if a carnivore would even notice, given the creative and delicious food presented to us. Here are some shots.

Fava bean crème brulée
Lasagna of a sort
Eggplant parm, not the kind that NYC Italian delis sell

Last year around this time, we came to Spoleto with our friends Wendy and Vicky. After a great meal at Apollinare, we stumbled up the street and onto Spoleto’s Carnevale parade. It was great fun seeing all the floats, and dancers, and we had confetti and silly string in our hair and clothes for hours afterward. We didn’t get to see it this year, but here’a sample of last year’s fun.

The old grind

I whined a couple of weeks ago about the dark, grey, rainy weather we’d been having and how it sent me wandering around the local Centro Commerciale (somehow “mall” sounds better that way). One of our friends here had a suggestion: She said we should visit the Antico Molino Bordoni, an old-fashioned flour mill outside Foligno, a few towns south of us. They use millstones, they’re powered by water, and their wheat and corn—for polenta—flours are better than anything you can buy in the supermarket.

Our friend, Letizia Mattiacci, was right. And she should know. Letizia is the Madonna del Piatto, a cooking school and B&B outside of Assisi. She gives great classes and puts up students, if they wish, in her beautiful old farmhouse up in the hills. She’s often quoted in the U.S. press whenever American travel writers somehow manage to wander from neighboring Tuscany to see what this little region next door is like. If you’re in Umbria and you like to cook, you should take a class from her. (In fact, you should make a special trip here to cook with her; it’s worth it.)

Of course, being my usual procrastinating self, we didn’t get around to visiting the mill until the weather turned sunny and springlike. No matter—it was a splendid way to spend President’s Day. We pointed the Renault’s nav system to the address, and off we went, dodging the usual maniacal black Audi drivers on the highway.

When we got near to the mill, we found a main road under construction. The exit we saw in real life didn’t match the exit on the navigation map; they apparently are turning a minor road into a limited access highway-type thing. So we breezed right by it. “Recalcolo percorso,” the female robot voice said. “Fate un inversione a U.” (Recalculating route…make a u-turn.) Ms. Renault was going apoplectic and I couldn’t stop giggling every time I heard “a U,” which sounds sort of like “ah-oooh!”

We doubled back, found the right way off, and drove down the street. It all looked unassuming, and we found a spot right out in front. You wouldn’t know by looking at it that there’s been a mill on this site since the 14th century. There was a little storefront with a few sample bags out on a shelf, along with a multilingual poster about the place. People were obviously at work in the workshops in back and off to the side, but it seemed like no one was taking care of the retail end. Or so we thought until the owner’s son came over to greet us. We told him that Letizia sent us, which brought a smile and an offer to show us around.

Our guide for the morning

And what a show. I loved this stuff, being a food geek and a manufacturing geek. I love watching videos of assembly lines, and my father worked for a company that made electronic connectors, and I used to love going to work with him and watching the big presses and molding machines do their thing.

“Everything is run with renewable energy,” our guide started off. Being a mill, there’s a river nearby. It used to turn the turbines that turned the stones, and it still can all work that way. But they combined new electric mills with old-fashioned, real stones, and all the power is generated by the water rushing by. They rerouted the water to run their generators–a pretty neat trick.

The real thing
A river ran through it.

They still have all the old stuff though. We walked out to the street and down a stairway that looks like your typical New York City stairs to an apartment house boiler room and found ourselves in an stone and arch wonderland. The old millstones stood by waiting for another batch of farro or red corn, and the old water channel stood mute, waiting for the river to run through it. To be honest, the place would make a terrific party or dance venue, with some decent lights.

What really impressed though, is something I’ve seen time and again here: pride in the craft. Our guide obviously buys into the whole operation; it’s provided his family’s livelihood for a century. He knew everything about the place and its history and how everything works. We learned about the difference between what they do and what big producers do, from the texture of the millstones to the grains they use. These people use strictly local grain—he had a couple of ears of dried corn to show us what goes into the polenta. It was dark red and yellow, “more nutritious than the lighter corn the mass producers use.”

That pride isn’t limited to Italy, though it seems easier to run across small producers in this part of the country that’s dominated by small producers and artisans. You see it in New York City’s greenmarkets, too. You can spend hours talking to a farmer or cheesemaker if that’s your thing. Mass produced food may be cheaper, but it’s usually less intense. I find myself adding hardly anything to vegetables I buy at the greenmarket or in the local markets here, because the food doesn’t travel far to get here, so you get a more developed flavor.

Decisions, decisions…impossible. So we bought one of each.

We bought a bunch of different flours at the mill. We’re trying the polenta tomorrow. It’s not the instant, add hot water and stir kind. I’ll be stirring for about 45 minutes. I take Letizia’s word that it’s worth it. In fact, she stopped by yesterday with some handmade treats, one of which is the most intense orange marmalade I’ve ever tasted.

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.

High and Low

Greetings from the mountaintop. It’s just beautiful today, with all the mystical Umbria clichés working together: snow-capped mountains, mists floating in the valleys, hilltops that looks like Renaissance painting backdrops, sheep roaming, the smell of a fireplace in someone’s house, neighbors who wave as they drive by. The whole deal.

Still, I wonder if living here brings out any latent bipolar tendencies I might have. All this beauty comes at a cost. When I think about it, it’s not a huge cost, but there’s a learning curve and more than a couple of times I’ve felt as though I’m losing my mind, only to get it back again when I realize how lucky we are to be here, now.

Case in point, yesterday. The Spartan Woman and I take a walk. The morning was snowy and cold, so I stayed in and, anyway, I had work to do. With the snow melting, TSW went out to the supermarket in the town below. I sent a bunch of emails, scouted for news stories, wrote a couple of short pieces and posted them for later as North America awakened. We had lunch (she made a zucchini and peppers frittata), then we got restless.

So we went out, bundled up a bit against the chill. Because of the earlier snow, we avoided the forest trails. The dirt around here is clay-like, and when it gets wet, it’s really viscous. We headed out instead along our road. As far as mountain roads go, it’s a major thoroughfare, but only sees a car every half hour or so. Most of those passing are neighbors.

The road is on a ridge between two types of scenery. Looking south/southwest, you see what you think of as typically Umbrian: rounded green hills, olive trees planted in rows, houses perched on the hillsides, a valley, mists floating in and out. The other side is stunning; there’s a long downward sweep into the River Chiascio valley, Lago Valfabbrica and a dam, then there are the cragged peaks of the Apennine range, which separates Umbria from the neighboring region, Le Marche (pronounced, roughly, lay mar-kay). We walked about five kilometers, or three miles, all told, accompanied by our canine escort. The dogs know that TSW carries doggie treats. They come up for a nibble, then find a smell to investigate, and if there’s a wide field, they run at top speed for awhile, rejoicing in being a free dog not bound by a leash and people.

The clichéd bit

You feeling it yet? Take a deep breath of the mountain air. Look at the hills, the changing sky, the mailbox.

Yes, the mailbox.

“I think there’s something in there,” says TSW. “Maybe we should check it.” Not a bad idea—we’ve been here two weeks, and hadn’t looked. Who sends us mail, anyway?

In three words, our insurance agent. That’s who sends us mail. There’s a terse letter that reads, in Italian, “Here’s a reminder to you that your auto insurance policy expires in December.” Details follow. Oh shit. Not only did the policy expire a month ago, but we’ve been happily driving around for two weeks not knowing it.

My heartbeat speeds up and gets more intense. I grab my phone and call the agent. “Yes, I was wondering about you,” he says. I tell him that I just got here and well he has my email address and could have at least sent me a message. Or called me earlier. “Sorry,” he sheepishly says. I pull out my wallet, tell him I can pay now with a credit card. “A credit card? How? MasterCard? No, sorry, you can’t. Maybe in the U.S., but not here.”

He then goes on to describe this payment system that will get me covered as of midnight. “It would be good not to drive until then,” he admonishes. It goes like this: He sends me a code. I go to the bank’s ATM in town and pull out the cash. Then I go to a tobacconist that has a “Lottomatica” machine. They all have them, I’m told. I give the tobacconist the code the agent sends me, the money gets transfer, bingo, the world’s a better place [ed. note., they don’t have the payment system part of Lottomatica].

So I drive gingerly down the snaking road into town, careful not to do my usual rally driver imitation as I round the curves and downshift. I do the bank thing, find a tobacconist shop that has the magical Lottomatica. “Do you have your codice fiscale?” I’m asked. I do have the equivalent of a Social Security number; it’s used for all big transactions here. I look it up on my phone. “No, I need the card. Do you have your identity card, or health card?” I don’t—I’m an Italian citizen, but not a full-time resident, so I don’t have those. He says he can’t do it, apologizing and looking very sympathetic (shopkeepers here have a lot of empathy). “Do you have a friend you can call?” Yeah, and they’re all busy on a Tuesday afternoon.

Almost done. I decide to drive to the agent and hand him the money, only I’ve forgotten where he is. I call him, we talk about the risks of driving to a town that’s three towns away. I take the risk. He pings me with his location, I put it into the car’s navigation system, and we’re off and running. Slowly. Carefully. I try to imagine a big cushion around the car. Ommmm.

I love technology when it does something useful, like showing you where your insurance agent’s office is located. Everyone uses WhatsApp here.

We reach Luciano’s office, he ushers us in. I hand him the wad of cash. He plays around with his computer, prints some stuff out, including a new insurance card. Done. Phew. I drive very carefully home, on the lookout for cops and feel so happy to be home when I pull into the driveway.

Life is good again. Dinner, a fire to warm us up, and Netflix. The next morning, this morning, another walk, some work, and this post.

My hometown

I caught up with Bruce Springsteen’s Broadway show on Netflix the other day. It must have been a great experience to be in the theater with him. But it wasn’t too bad on the flatscreen. I was pretty amazed with the whole thing, especially his stamina and the details he remembers about his childhood.

That brings me around to the headline of this post, and it’s the title of one of Springsteen’s songs. He manages to imbue Freehold, New Jersey, with a mythical status. The Catholic Church and school, the Ford factory, the bars, his father, working men in general. I started to wonder why so much of my childhood is a blur. “He’s a poet,” said The Spartan Woman. He can mythologize his memories. Of course, in my mind, it came back to me, me, me. Am I just insensitive by not thinking too much about where I came from? Brain damaged by some of my old habits? Was it all just too long ago? Wait, Bruce is older than I…

I think part of the difference, apart from the obvious disparity in artistic ability, is that Springsteen came from a small town that was pretty well self-contained. I may have grown up on a hill on Staten Island, but our neighborhood was always part of a bigger whole: the island in particular, and New York City in general. So we, or at least I, didn’t have that sense of local-ness. Sure, we had our candy store and deli and bars, and there were places we kids went in the woods, at first for innocent play, and later for not-so-innocent partying, but we always knew that we were part of a really big place and that it didn’t just belong to us. Or at least it seemed when I first compared my memory to Springsteen’s.

Then again, Springsteen early on in his show says he made it all up. It’s his magic trick. And while he exaggerates, there’s some truth to his perceptions.

In any event, it got me thinking about the peculiar place I grew up in. It’s gotten a bad rap, often unfairly. Sure, there are jerks like the cast in MTV’s Jersey Shore and a lot of it is a badly developed wasteland of high ranches and strip shopping centers and bad Italian-American restaurants. But it’s also where the first tennis games were played in the U.S., where prohibitionists established a colony where they could be uplifted by concerts and lectures. It’s where the Catholic Worker Dorothy Day chose to live out her last days, and where Hair composer Galt McDermott lived and brought up his family–right in my neighborhood, in fact.

So I’m trying to remember details, if and why it’s a special place. I’m not going to get into a sweeping mythology like Springsteen does, but my Staten Island friends and relatives will probably agree that it’s quirky and molds its inhabitants—at least those with half a brain and some ambition—in certain ways.

Now, some geography, which shapes a place’s destiny: Compared to the rest of the city, Staten Island’s got a certain natural beauty that’s lacking in much of the city, from the Lower East Side to the high-rise sprawl of Queens. We’ve got hills, a whole chain of them from the northeast tip throughout the central spine. The master builder (and destroyer) Robert Moses met his end on Staten Island. The man who rammed destructive highways through outer borough neighborhoods didn’t do his due diligence: He drew a highway straight through miles of woodland and, coincidentally, one of the city’s most affluent neighborhoods. That neighborhood, Todt Hill, rose up, enlisted celebrity aid, and put an end to his fevered highway dreams.

The hills are one thing; the other big feature is, for want of a better term, its island-ness. There’s a certain sense of isolation, of self-containment. (Like Freehold? Hmm…) Island dwellers around the world feel it. You know in a way that you can’t get lost. Go long enough in one direction and you’ll hit a natural barrier—the water. It’s what makes Manhattan Manhattan, too. Look across a crosstown street and you see where the land ends and the Hudson or East Rivers flow. You know you’ve got limits. When I first started to drive around in Umbria, I was disoriented because I could go for hours in one direction and not hit the water. I had to learn how to tell where I was by looking at the mountains and hills.

Staten Island is defined by its island-ness.

On the micro level, I grew up on one of those hills. Staten Island, like everywhere around it, was originally made up of small towns. Our was Dongan Hills, now grandly called Dongan Hills Colony, to distinguish the hilly part of town from the plebeian lowlands. Back in my childhood, though, it wasn’t full of McMansions, it was a place with some old colonial-type houses, the odd farmhouse, and a bunch of new houses that gradually took over from the thick woods. And those woods were where we kids spent most of our time outside. We knew every footpath, probably dating from the Native Americans who lived there hundreds of years ago. We’d just go hiking, or play hide and seek, or imagine we were partisans in the hills resisting invaders.

Meet Joe. He’d love to have a beer with you.

Back on the street, it was a hill full of recent European immigrants, from Italy, Ireland, Germany, and Scotland. We got used to hearing people with accents—my own father spoke, and still speaks with an Italian accent and often wonderfully fractured syntax. They brought their habits across the ocean with them. The guy across the street, a big man named Josef, was a devoted practitioner of the European aperitif hour. At about 6 every evening, he made the rounds, checking into his friends’ and neighbors’ houses, accepting a drink, or a bite. We saw it as totally normal that Joe would drop by. Later on when I was a teenager coming home from some revelry, he returned the favor. He’d be sitting on his screened in front porch late in the evening, with a cooler full of beer. “Anthony,” I’d hear, “come over for a nightcap.” He’d offer me a weiss bier, something light he’d say, and we’d sit around and talk about…I don’t know, honestly. It didn’t matter; it was always a grace note to a night of fun.

And then, my parents’ house. It’s funny to hear how my cousins remember it. To us, it was just where we lived. But my parents were the young ones in my mother’s extended family, and we were, relatively speaking, the hipsters. While my aunts and uncles strictly oversaw their kids’ interests and habits, we were like wild animals, free to do what we wanted to do. My poor cousin Noel had to play the accordion; I got a guitar and Beatles sheet music. My parents had a New Year’s Eve open house and invited everyone they knew. It was a big raucous party spread throughout the house, with people dancing downstairs to Motown on my sister’s dance floor (my father built it for her, complete with barres along two sides). After midnight, my father would channel his father and fry up sfingi, or what Neapolitans call zeppole–fried dough to soak up the night’s alcoholic overindulgence. When I turned 16, my parents gave me what would probably get them arrested now, a pizza and beer blast, complete with a keg. They invited all my friends and our extended family. (They also gave me a gold watch, which I soon lost. Nice things are mostly a lost cause for me.)

So, was how we lived a product of the geography that surrounded us? I think so. We liked to think of ourselves as special, or at least different. And the hills and self-containment of the island back that supported that feeling. Maybe it was just that back then, a few decades back, people were just more interesting, and not mere manipulators of what’s on the screen in front of them. We had to move around in the space we were in, or we’d die of boredom. Or, I like to think, we had more of an opportunity to wander and to dream, and to imagine the kind of person we’d like to be and the life we wanted to live. And the surroundings, as well as the tolerance shown by parents and other figures of authority, let us do just that without much interference.

Hey, maybe we’ve all got an interesting life story to tell, if only we stopped to think about it. Whatdya think, Bruce?


When we’re in Italy (which we aren’t right now), what do you think we miss most about living in the United States? (Hint: It has nothing to do with language, shopping, movies, or our city.)

It’s the food, but not hamburgers or anything else typically American. We miss the easy access to Asian food. Gotta say first that Italy in general and Umbria in particular is getting better. Sushi (spelled “susci”) is a thing, from just-okay sushi in the nearby IperCoop (hyper Coop in English) supermarket, to really good, inventive sushi at Perugia’s Crudo (in the photo below). And it’s not only Japanese food. At the end of our inner city street, there’s a Taiwanese takeout, a Chinese noodle shop and another Chinese place whose focus I’m not quite sure about.

An expensive lunch for two on the Corso Vannucci

So we aren’t totally deprived. As far as I can tell, though, we don’t have much in the way of Thai food.

In any event, when we come back to New York, we eat less Italian-type food and more Asian, either out or at home. It’s gotten cold pretty quickly this November—the weather here seems to have gone from a prolonged, extended summer into a cold, grey and brown pre-winter. Luckily, the Spartan Women has become pretty adept at making Japanese-type big soups. With our current we-must-reduce regimen, she’s the main cook in the house (she doesn’t quite trust me to wield an easy hand with the olive oil, and my preference for a big spaghettata for lunch is something to be avoided for at least a few months.) So I’ve been treated to big miso ramen-type soups. I never know quite what I’ll find, whether it’s buckwheat noodles, a soft-poached egg, tofu in various forms, bok choy, etc.

Like this:

I do go out, too. Lately, I’ve managed to avoid most business meetings and lunches and instead meet up with friends or one of our kids. Daughter No. 2 works where the eastern reaches of Soho start to blend with the northern border of Chinatown and Asian stuff in general. “We have to go to Cocoran,” she told me when I mentioned that I needed to escape the house one day to avoid terminal cabin fever. She was right. It’s a smallish place, painted black inside, and quite eccentric. In a good way. Most of the seats are at the counter or at long, high communal tables, and the menu promises health and satisfaction. It delivers. (Beware, though, the menu also admonishes that it’s cash only and there’s no takeout and no doggie bags.)

This Japanese soup fanatic could not resist the spicy vegan soup, while the more spice-shy Liv opted for the unspicy vegan version.

I know this sounds strange, but sometimes when we get back to New York after a long day of flying across the ocean, the first thing we do is call the local Chinese takeout joint. When I was a kid, we’d only go out to Chinese restaurants. My father said it only made sense to go to a place that served food you couldn’t really cook at home, but I thought it was mainly because they were cheaper than most of the other restaurants in town.

Whatever. Following in dad’s footsteps, I opted for Chinese food for my birthday a few weeks ago. We have this family tradition–the birthday boy (me) or girl (The Spartan Woman, two kids) gets to pick a restaurant to celebrate. The birthday boy/girls usually pick an expensive place. But eh, I’ve had enough. Plus, I’d become really curious about this huge Chinese place on the Sunset Park/Bay Ridge border that I’d driven past a few times, East Harbor Seafood Palace. It looked good nosing around on the usual sites, so one blustery Saturday morning (I broke another rule, that the meal should be dinner), we convened the fam, including the boyfriends. And boy was it fun. 

We managed to beat the crowd, luckily. Within a half hour after we got there, people were lining up outside. The cart ladies are a riot there, pretty aggressive in a self-aware, humorous way. “You want this! You want this!” We did. The food was definitely a couple of levels above the usual dim sum dumpling experience, and service, even to us non-Asians, was friendly and efficient. You should go.

Anyone feel like pizza? We do all go back to where we’re from, right? I actually didn’t like pizza much until I was well into adulthood. But now….Amid the Asian food, we had a home pizzathon. The Spartan Women, a pretty good bread baker, invited the family and again, it was good times. One with onion, zucchine, or if you prefer, zucchini, an orthodox Margherita, and an unorthodox purple potato and truffle one. Talk about a nice way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Nord of the Border

Three weeks back in the U.S. and we already wanted to escape. The political circus here was too much, but by living in Italy part-time, we were missing some of our favorite places in North America. One of them is Montréal, a straight drive up I-87 from New York. One of our kids lived there for a while, going to university, and we missed the French-accented vibe, the combination of North American laid-back attitude coupled with Latin hedonism.

So we pointed the VW north. With Liv and Al, plus Lola the dachshund in tow, we joined Martina and her boyfriend Dan for a family long weekend.

I’d forgotten how different the city is from New York—it’s like, in a different country. Beyond the obvious—the street signs in French, the metric measurements—it feels a lot like Europe these days, and less like the U.S. For one thing, at least in Montréal, the cars on the streets are smaller. You don’t see many hulking pickups, or huge monster SUVs (Escalades, the big BMWs and Mercedes, etc.) VW Golfs and Mazda3s are more typical. And there are bikes everywhere—New Yorkers like their two-wheeled transport, but the Montréalers have them beat. There are clusters of bikes everywhere, in front of every dwelling, scattered around in front yards. A lot of streets have dedicated lanes, and Montréalers ride in the worst weather, too.


Montréal wasn’t immune to political tumult. Earlier this month, the Coalition Avenir Québec (Coalition for Québec’s Future) won a majority in provincial elections. Variously described as center-right, populist, or anti-immigrant, Montréalers gathered while we were there to protect what they see as the CAQ’s racist stance.

But we were there to escape, and we did for a bit. For one thing, we got to know Child No. 1’s boyfriend better over a couple of dinners, and that was good. Dan, you passed. Speaking of dinners, we first gathered at Restaurant Alep, a cool and elegant Syrian restaurant near the sprawling Marché Jean-Talon. Amazing, refined takes on the usual dips along with some really interesting dishes. With so much to choose from, we put ourselves in the hands of our server. She just brought food out that she thought we’d like. And she was right.

Version 2

We came, we ate, we demolished

The next day, after the obligatory cappuccino and croissant—okay, a pain au chocolat—we walked around the old port doing some shopping and then it was time for culture. Having an architect in the family meant that we had to visit the CCA—a museum and foundation whose acronym works in both French (Centre Canadien de l’Architecture) and English (Canadian Centre of Architecture).

There’s always something interesting going on there, and so it was that day. Unfortunately for you guys, it was the last day of an exhibit on revolutionary Italian architects of the 1960s and ’70s. A couple of them eventually became famous, like Ettore Sotsass, a leader of the whimsical “Memphis” movement. You can see his influence in a lot of the furniture sold today, even in places like Ikea.

Naturally, a lot of it was unintentionally hilarious. There was one grainy video manifesto, full of Big Statements about contextual dichotomies and stereotomic liminal tectonics, in Italian no less. That took the voiceover to another level. There were dinner tables set with plates representing different constituencies and capitalist considerations, and models of cars going through apartment buildings. Anyone wanna deconstruct that?

This needs no deconstruction. It was, for whatever reason, a comment on modern Italian TV culture:

The trip was way too short, and made me just want to go back up and spend a few more days. I’d love to stay at Hotel10 again—for some reason, we reserved a normal room and ended up in a palatial suite, with a huge living room, a couple of bathrooms equipped with every toiletry you’d ever need, plus comfy bathrobes, all of it in a cool industrial style package, complete with polished concrete ceilings. (Yes, we noticed the ceilings.) It was the kind of place you’d imagine a band hanging out in, calling out for bottle service and some, um, company.

IMG_5366We ended our stay with a visit to Habitat 67.  The apartment complex was conceived as architect Moshe Safdie’s thesis project at McGill, and was built for Expo 67. We’d never been, and the place is pretty amazing, if isolated from the urban fabric. There’s always a surprise in Montréal, though, and this was pretty cool. Despite all the “propriété privée” signs, a friendly groundskeeper pointed us to a trail behind the complex, on a slight bluff above the St. Lawrence. It’s a hot surf spot, and despite the drizzly, chilly day, intrepid Montréaler surfer dudes and dudettes were taking to the rapids. Très cool—literally.


Boy trouble (time out from the travelogues)

I have no idea why I’m writing this, or whether it’ll be any good. I guess I just have an urge to write and to react to what we found when we got back to New York.

This place feels crazy. I honestly can’t remember when the U.S. felt weirder to me. I’d been away a few months, and I guess that time alone had something to do with it. But really, Watergate, Reagan’s election, the Bush I and II years all seem relatively normal.  You can feel it on the street. People just drive weird, and my friends here are all justifiably upset and unnerved. It’s a strange feeling.

I don’t think I can say anything profound about the Brett Kavanaugh torture. I vacillate between detached disgust and complete obsession. I hate the nastiness, the incredible contempt for civility shown by the old men on the Senate judiciary committee.

I can only write about my own experience, and how common this casual abuse of women was—and is. And seeing what I saw, I completely believe Christine Blasey Ford. As a teenager, I was peripherally involved in an attempted assault of a female friend of mine, and I witnessed disgusting behavior by a friend’s father at her 16th birthday party.

I’ll start with the first. I was at a party in a big Victorian house in an outer borough. The parents were either out or on vacation, and it was a typical 1970s party, with lots of alcohol, weed and god knows what else being consumed. I wandered outside for fresh air, and it was dark. I heard a friend of mine, let’s call her Beth, saying no and I think she was saying “stop.” I looked around and there was a space under the front porch and Beth and this kid my age were sitting under there. There may have been others. I looked in and saw the neighbor of the host, a boy about my age, maybe 16-17, pawing at my friend, who was definitely out of it, much more than I was. He was making kissing sounds and saying “c’mon” over and over again.

I don’t think I’m the bravest guy in the world, and the neighbor was an athlete. I wasn’t. Whether it was the vodka I was drinking or weed that made me act, but I dove in and shoved the guy off Beth. I remember him saying to me, “hey man, what the fuck?” and I thought he was going to punch me out. But I grabbed Beth and pulled her aside, out of his reach. He ran off back to his house cursing. I wasn’t trying to be a hero, and I don’t think of myself as one now. I was just reacting to seeing a friend hurt, and thinking back to that now, I can almost—almost—feel what Blasey felt that night.

Also in high school. One of my classmates was a girl from a wealthy family. They had the whole deal, a huge house in a posh neighborhood, servants. Her parents were both college professors, who earned a decent living. What made them wealthy, though were the people next door, my friend’s maternal grandparents. My friend, just about to turn 16, knew she had a trust fund. She would talk every so often about what she’d do “when I get my money.”

For her 16th birthday, her parents threw a big house party. It was a catered thing, and we had to dress up: girls in gowns, guys in jacket and tie. Mom and pop would’ve gotten arrested now for the party beverage, Moët Champagne. It was my first taste of the real thing, and we were chugging it down like it was soda.

Her dad wasn’t chugging, or sipping. He decided it would be fun to walk around and pour Champagne down the front of the girls’ dresses. He was in great spirits and he succeeded a couple of times. My friend got wind of it and told her dad to stop. He whined like a little boy: “Aw —–, you always spoil my fun.”

I later learned that my mother-in-law worked for him for awhile, but requested a transfer. Why? He’d chase her around the office trying to grope her. “You’re so zaftig,” he’d tell her.

I’m relating this, I guess, as a way of saying that without even looking for it, I saw two egregious instances of sexual harassment and attempted abuse in the space of a couple of months. I don’t doubt Blasey’s account, nor do I doubt those of the others who have come forth. And I don’t doubt that this casual abuse happens every day. We haven’t evolved, and that’s a profoundly depressing thought. And here’s the thing: The Republicans are defending this guy as though the fate of Western civilization is at stake. It’s just mind-blowing.

I didn’t understand it then, and I don’t now. And seeing Brett Kavanaugh’s sneering self-defense just let loose emotions and memories I’d almost forgotten. I wasn’t the victim in both cases way back then, but I was horrified at how guys could so casually mistreat women. In the first party, it was a situation that was probably similar to the “skis” party that Kavanaugh’s calendar alluded to. And I remember throwing that kid off my friend pretty vividly. You don’t forget stuff like that.

When I started editing for a magazine, my boss would bounce articles back to me, saying they basically were fine, except for one thing: the ending. I’m pretty good at starting something, but I have trouble ending it. I guess that for a post like this, there’s no real conclusion. Should I apologize on behalf of my gender and profess to be better? Maybe, but it’s kind of a wimpy windup.

So. I think we’re talking about a lack of respect and empathy. Of humanity. Kavanaugh and the good old boys on the Senate committee are all of a piece. They disrespect women, and they disrespect the people they’re supposed to represent. No, more. They hate them; they objectify women and they sneer and dehumanize at people who aren’t part of their tribe.

Men have to do something. Men of conscience, those who’ve evolved past these Neanderthals (apologies to our ancestors). They say we get the government that we deserve, but nobody deserves this bunch of creeps. Women are leading the way here. But it’s also up to men to man up and join them in calling this shit out.