Mr. Bickham, Joan, and Us

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Dennis and Joan posed outside the IFC Center, 11 November 2017

I haven’t written in awhile, not since we got back late this summer. Call it a combination of work, routine stuff, and not having any deep thoughts about what I did on my summer semi-vacation, or how I felt about returning from it.

But an outing this Saturday got me wanting to write here again. My old colleague-comrade Joan Cheever and her husband Dennis Quinn invited us to a screening of a mini-documentary they helped produce, Seven Dates With Death. It was part of the Doc NYC festival, said to be the largest documentary film festival in the world.  Seven Days riffs off part of Joan’s book Back From the Dead: One Woman’s Search for the Men Who Walked Off America’s Death Row. In one chapter, she describes the life and case of Moreese Bickham. (You should buy the book; Amazon’s selling it in digital form, too, and it’s an engrossing, thought-provoking read about capital punishment and redemption.)

Bickham lived in Mississippi and Louisiana for most of his nearly 100 years. He’d gotten into an argument with sheriff’s deputies in a bar back in 1958. Later that night, the deputies, without shields, and who many in the area said were Ku Klux Klan members, approached his house and opened fire. Bickham fired back, killing the two men. He was convicted of the murders and spent over a decade on Louisiana’s death row. He won seven stays of his execution date. In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Furman vs. Georgia that capital punishment was cruel and unusual punishment; from that moment all capital murder sentences were commuted to prison terms, usually for life.

In Seven Dates, Bickham talks about the incident, and his life in prison and out. The guy (who died last year at the age of 98) talks without guile, and without bitterness. Sure, he takes blame for the two men’s deaths, but he’s cleared eyed about the bigotry and mistreatment of African-Americans that led to his spending decades on death row.

Joan and I worked together as editors at The National Law Journal, back then a scrappy print weekly. We worked out of a cramped and ugly newsroom in what is now Google’s New York base. Regular old-fashioned metal desks were pushed together, although there were rudimentary partitions for some reporters. Joan and I sat without partitions at the entrance of the main part of the newsroom, sort of like Tibetan temple guards. In that little, crowded space, we committed some terrific journalism—and we heard everything that went on.


Three of the Florent Four: Rose Olander, Joan Cheever, and Anthony Paonita

Joan’s a lawyer, and through a friend was representing a death row inmate who eventually lost all appeals and was executed. She was getting into the capital punishment issue with the enthusiasm that is typical of her, and soon she was reporting and writing a book about the death row inmates whose sentences had been commuted by the Supreme Court’s Furman decision.

Suffice it to say, Bickham became our friend. I should really say “Mr. Bickham,” because that’s how Joan referred to him over the years, and that’s how I sort of know him. We heard all the updates about Mr. Bickham’s life, and in a way, everyone in the newsroom felt like we were part of Joan’s journey. Years later we were attending a memorial in the Bay Area for the spouse of an NLJ reporter, and Bickham lived in Oakland, and Joan and I went to the farmer’s market, where Joan bought Mr. Bickham a gift, wind chimes. I never got to meet him, though. At some point in the weekend, a friend took me on a whirlwind tour of San Francisco and the woods north of the city while Joan brought Mr. Bickham his gift.

The Seven Dates screening was pretty early for a Saturday, 10 a.m. We approached the theater and saw Joan and Dennis outside. We hugged like the old friends that we are, and I turned around to see Rosemary Olander-Beach, who was our copy editor at the paper way back when. It might have been awhile since I’d seen either of them, but we fell into conversation and laughs as though we’d seen each other the day before, at our then-regular Friday lunch spot, Florent. Soon afterward, another former colleague dropped by, ex-copy editor Joe Phalon. It was great to have part of the old gang together again.


The Florent Four, with Flo (left), at the infamous Table 8, during a 2002 reunion.

Why am I writing this? For a couple of reasons. First, I’m pushing Joan’s book and documentary short. But it also got me thinking about journalism, how people working in the profession formed long-lasting bonds—and how the business has changed, and not for the better. A lot of my best friends come from that era; we worked closely, and there’s something about that editor-reporter bond. It’s almost like a doctor/patient relationship. The reporter supplies the work for the editor, and places his or her life—the painstakingly crafted or even tossed off story—into the editor’s hands, hoping the editor will make it better.

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Joe Phalon came, too.

Newsrooms until sometime earlier this century, or maybe even back into the 1990s, were full of brilliant and eccentric people. The so-called grownups, the editors, tolerated a lot of what would be deviant workplace behavior elsewhere from the reporters and from one another. It was more than tolerance, actually—we wanted it, cultivated it. We knew that people somewhat on the edge were sensitive and driven enough to connect with sources and really draw something great out of a conversation. Truly curious people tend not to be drones. We derisively called normal work environments “insurance companies.” (Apologies if you’re in that fine, fine trade.)

If we worked hard, we played hard, too, and not just in the approved way of meeting after work for drinks. We often drank on deadline nights; it helped with the headline writing. And we had a tradition of ducking out after the paper went out at lunchtime to a diner-turned-into-24-hour sanctuary for the weird and creative, Florent in the old meatpacking district. What started out as a restrained meal with a glass of wine turned into a legendary thing, with a core group of editors consuming bottles of wine with lunch, and having cocktails or armagnac for dessert. Occasionally our editor in chief would drop in when we were already pretty drunk, and ordered a bottle of the paper’s house Champagne, Veuve Clicquot. We started that day—our weekly deadline—with bubbly and bagels for breakfast. That sort of behavior probably would get us fired now.

What kept the sacred newsroom that way was separation. We existed apart from the business side of the operation. Good editors protected their wacky charges from such concerns as circulation and ad sales. But that couldn’t last. Maybe the business side’s resentments got the ear of management, but today’s newsroom often resembles that reviled insurance company. It’s a quiet place, with reporters often just emailing sources. They’ve got production quotas and metrics, and should they forget, there are large flatscreens showing how many mostly casual readers have clicked on their stories. As el Cheeto Loco might say: Sad!

In short, American business practices have taken over the news business and turned its workers into digital drones. Maybe I’m just a nostalgic curmudgeon, but the kids getting into it now are working in a more sterile, less adventurous, more orthodox careerist environment.

Do I or any of my ex-colleagues want to go back to that? I doubt it. Maybe the memories are like insects preserved in amber, pretty to look at and think about, but of a particular place and time that can’t be replicated.

I Met Her Online

I was a member some years ago of SlowFood, the back-to-basics food movement founded in Italy by Carlo Petrini. The organization supports local agriculture and traditional foods, and rejects industrialized, standardized methods of food production. Petrini founded the group after seeing a McDonald’s open in Rome’s Piazza di Spagna and decided the world needed an antidote to fast food.

I had joined the U.S. branch, but after awhile, I left the group. The Americans  seemed to be more interested in luxury food, rather than participating in the then-nascent farm-to-table movement, and I decided that it wasn’t for me.

But it left a legacy: Sandra Cordon and Letizia Mattiacci.


Letizia (left) and Sandra, old friends sharing stories.

It’s a little complicated, but going through the SlowFood site, I must’ve stumbled onto Slow Travel, which had message boards for travelers who wanted a different experience from the package tours and the usual Rome/Florence/Venice routine. In particular, there was a message board just for Italy. I was fascinated by the kinds of questions people would ask and the ensuing discussions. At some point, I noticed that there was a woman who was really into Perugia, and either asked questions about logistics or answered them for would-be travelers.

Sandra is Canadian and now works for the United Nations in Rome. We got to know her—my memory is vague, but she sent me a personal message. And at some point, we managed to be in Perugia at the same time, and she, The Spartan Woman, and I had a terrific lunch. We told stories and walked around Perugia via our favorite streets and had gelato at Augusta Perusia, the best gelateria in the city (and just maybe, the world). Sandra and I have a lot in common: We’re recovering journalists who once had full-time jobs in that wonderful and crazy and stressed out profession. Our politics are in synch and we like to get out of North America, either full-time for her, or part of the year for us.

Sandra brought us a gift: Letizia Mattiacci. On her posts, Sandra frequently mentioned Letizia, so like any good ‘net citizen, I did some Googling. Turns out Letizia is a cooking teacher and with her husband owns a bed and breakfast in the hills near Assisi, La Madonna del Piatto, a stone’s throw from Perugia. (You can see Assisi from Perugia, and the two cities were bitter rivals until the pope took over the region and put an end to intercity rivalry, and, well, pretty much else that was interesting about Umbria. That lasted until Italy’s unification, and it’s a topic for another post.)

Eventually, Letizia and I got to know each other through social media, but for some reason, we never met. Until Sandra intervened, that is.

Last month, Sandra came to Valfabbrica to check out our country spread. We had a great afternoon drinking prosecco, complaining about the heat wave Europeans dubbed “Lucifer,” munching on snacks and bringing ourselves up to date with one another. She mentioned that she was staying at Letizia’s place, and I told her I’d love to finally meet Letizia in person. By this point, Letizia has attained a kind of stardom—she published a terrific cookbook, has been featured in articles in The New York Times, and has pretty much established herself as the expert on Umbrian cooking and culture to the rest of the world. The next day, Sandra invited us to meet Letizia at her school/B&B.

So it was with a little trepidation that we drove over the mountain to Assisi, through switchbacks and what Italians call a “strada bianca,” an unpaved, narrow gravel track. We pulled up and there she was, along with her husband Ruurd (he’s from the Netherlands) and Sandra. The trepidation was totally unwarranted: Letizia is warm,, welcoming, and funny. She’s also razor sharp—she and Ruurd, in a former life were entomologists who met at a conference in Paris and pursued a long distance romance through grad school and work.

We had so much fun that night. The Spartan Woman and Letizia hit it off and excitedly traded recipes and stories. Letizia and I talked about our Sicilian families. She served us fresh mystery-flavored gelato. No one guessed what it was; it turns out it was a subtle, real licorice from the real plant, not the anise-flavored stuff that often is passed off as licorice. She then brought out her own homemade arancello, the orange version of limoncello. It was strong, sweet and vividly flavored.


Letizia (right) is having way too much fun signing her cookbook.

Letizia may be warm and welcoming, but she also has strong opinions (and I agree with most of them when it comes to food in Italy). She mentioned that a lot of her American students found the orange liqueur to be too strong—”that’s because they’re so used to watering down their drinks with ice!” In a recent column on an English language Italian website, she weighs in on celebrity chefs altering such culinary icons as carbonara and passing them off as the real thing.

We ended the evening by driving into Assisi for dinner at one of the family’s favorite places, Trattoria degli Umbri, right on the central piazza. We had a table dead center on a very crowded night, and had a simple meal, the best thing to do when you’re in Umbria. Assisi’s an amazing place; it caters ways too much to the pilgrim/Catholic tourist trade with lots of tacky souvenir shops selling statues of St. Francis and the like. Yet at night, after the day trippers have gone, it’s got a party vibe, especially on a warm summer night.


Francesco Was Here

IMG_1926.jpgOne of the selling points of this house was its proximity to the Sentiero Francescano, a trail from Assisi to Gubbio that San Francesco (St. Francis of Assisi) took hundreds of years ago. The trail happens to pass through Valfabbrica and, happily for us, through and around the hills near the house.

We were sitting around having coffee and I got restless (hmm, coffee, restlessness, connection?). “Let’s go for a walk,” I told The Spartan Woman. For once, now that it was safe to walk without having a stroke, she agreed. We got in the car, just to avoid the boring walk to the trailhead, ditched the car, and set off.

And It’s just stunningly beautiful. The views, the blue sky, the ruins, the little country church, the olive trees, the sound of rustling leaves. See for yourself:


The trail is actually a “strada bianca,” or white road at this point, fairly wide with some gravel. There’s a steep incline to start, but it levels off somewhat and there are enough vantage points to take in the view. This was our first exploratory walk, so we weren’t sure how far we’d go. We did it on a lark, so no water, etc. But every corner urged us to go further.

At one point, we got a closer view of a ruin that we’d seen from across the road from our house. I was wondering what it was—from afar it could’ve been another farmhouse on a ledge. Of course we had to climb the hill and round the curve to check it out.


We met hikers coming from the opposite direction, one of whom seemed nervous about the sheep further down the path and the sheepdogs. We had to assure him that the dogs were harmless and they were only interested in guarding their charges. Their human is Luciano of our neighboring agriturismo, Ca’Mazzetto.


The Sentiero, we’ve learned, is just part of a network of trails that run through this area. The trails are well-marked, and there are periodic info signs that tell you what you’re seeing—even in English.

IMG_1947One of the trails, the Via Francigena is actually a long series of trails that, incredibly enough, connect Canterbury, England, to Rome, and onward to Puglia. We decided that that was a tad too ambitious for this Wednesday morning. Its site looks pretty good, and offers all sorts of advice for those who want to tackle at least part of the route. Eric Sylvers, a reporter who wrote freelance pieces for my old magazine, actually followed the route through much of Italy 10 years ago. You can see some of his videos here.


A Long Day of Doing Nothing Much at All


We’ve been running around a lot. The first month, for me, was a whirl of flying, metro trains and a small hotel room in Milan, meetings and meeting friends. Then home to Perugia, where I rented a car and drove right away out to the house in Valfabbrica, where a small army of workers was practically camping out. They were rushing to finish a pool because they knew we were coming, and the weather was just getting hotter and hotter.

I practically have to look at the pictures I took to remember July. I vaguely remember driving to Rome to pick The Spartan Woman (TSW) up from the airport, and the next day we drove out to Ancona to the big IKEA store there. We had a deadline: Our daughter and her cousin were coming in soon and needed beds to sleep in, and we needed tables to sit at and cooking utensils.

Most people come here to sightsee or to sip Aperol spritzes while watching the sun set. We got to know the local big box hardware store, the French furniture store and various housewares emporia. One of these days, if I have the stomach for it, I’ll tell you about cisterns, water pumps and hot water heaters.

Then the young ones came (and so did a bunch of friends to play in the pool and have dinner and…etc.)

Phew. So here, finally, a day of nothing much at all. We did get out to buy a lawnmower, but that was a quick run (to another French retailer, no less). Otherwise, nothing. Feeding the feral cats who come by for food. One likes spaghetti; the other potato chips. We give them cat food, too. Wine for me. Maybe we’ll fix some dinner in a couple of hours.


We’re sitting at our patio table watching stupid bugs fly into citronella candles and listening to planes occasionally land and take off somewhere over the mountains, where there’s a gently used regional airport. If I were in New York, I wouldn’t even notice, but the noise disturbs the rustling of the leaves on one of the few temperate days we’ve had this summer. I’m playing with Siri, summoning her—it?—with the command, “hey, Siri” and telling her/it what song to play (So far, Bowie, Travis, R.E.M.’s “Wichita Lineman” cover, Daft Punk).

Oh, and we passed up being at a party at Sting’s estate in Toscana, sorry, Tuscany. A big part of me wanted to go. No, really. I’ve seen previous years’ videos, where he does a killer acoustic version of “Message in a Bottle.” But it would’ve meant dressing like a grownup, getting into the car, driving a couple of hours. (Plus, I had to think to about mowing the lawn, maybe tomorrow. Exhausting!) Sally, I’d love to do it next year, but today just didn’t feel right.

It’s taking me awhile to get used to this relative quiet. I’ve been on the go for decades, going to an office every day or working at home and staying in contact for fear of being forgotten. Living with TSW has always been akin to being near the eye of a hurricane: not always frantically spinning around but being sucked into the vortex often enough.

Italians have a word for it: La dolce far niente, the sweet do-nothing. I guess I’m not just doing nothing. I’m sitting here writing about doing nothing, which I’ll admit is a contradiction. While I’m writing this, TSW is reading me news headlines about this exotic land across the ocean run by, get this, a failed real estate developer. She chortles at words like “fake news” and “Bannon.”

In the back of my mind, it’s all a prelude to going back to what some think is the real world. I’ll be getting back to work, and some home improvement back in New York. We’re having visitors from here in October, and we’d like to show them more than our usual chaos. But first, I’ll do some more travel writing. I wanted to write something today, but I didn’t want to put much energy into it.

Tourists Wanted

There’s been a spate of stories in places like The New York Times and the Guardian about anti-mass tourism demonstrations and laws to curb tourism in European cities like Barcelona, Venice, and Rome. I can’t say that I blame the local authorities and demonstrators. Large groups of selfie-stick wielding tourists take a toll on a place and its inhabitants, who have to move around and get to work and home. Plus, mass tourism deforms the local economy: If you go to the popular haunts in a city like Florence, you’ll see that nearly every shopfront is either a pizzeria, gelateria, currency exchange, or snack bar. These businesses push out the tailors, bars, and bookstores that cater to residents.

But I’ll make an exception to the anti-tourism mood. Come to Umbria. We need you. Not all of you, and we’d prefer that you don’t travel in large packs. But last year’s earthquakes in the mountainous zones in the Valnerina scared a lot of people away from Umbria. It’s hard to get an exact count, but I saw estimates immediately post-quake of as much as 30-to-40 percent.

The ground has stayed solid lately, and, as a friend said, traveling in Umbria no more risky than going to California or Japan. And it’s a lot more relaxed. Sure, the Catholic faithful mob Assisi, but otherwise, it’s cool runnings. And I’ll tell you that you’ll have a more authentic Italian experience. Why? Here’s the thing: You can find pictures of monuments everywhere. But it’s really easy to have chance encounters with really nice, warm people here, people who haven’t been made cynical by an onslaught of visitors.

In the next few posts, I’ll show you why. First up, Isola Maggiore (“big island”) in Lago Trasimeno. “Lago” means “lake.” It’s the largest lake on the Italian peninsular, and it’s where Hannibal met his defeat during the Punic War in 217 BC. The place can fool you; it looks as big as an ocean from certain vantage points, and it’s a cool shade of turquoise on a sunny day.

IMG_1777It’s got islands, too. One of them, Isola Polvese, is an environmental research center. If you want to see what they’re up to, you have to sign up for a walking tour. Isola Maggiore (big island) is an easier experience. Go to Tuoro’s marina and take the ferry.

Isola Maggiore is hilly and has lots of well-marked hiking trails. There’s one big climb, but it’s not a hard slog. You won’t have to climb any rock faces. And once you’re up there, you’ll encounter an ancient church with frescoes and a friendly guide. Groves of olive trees fill the island, and you can’t really get lost. If you want to get back near the ferry landing, just head down the hill. The views of the lake from up there are pretty stunning, as you can see.

In a way, being there reminds me of an Italian version, in miniature form, of hiking on Mt. Desert Island in Maine. You’ve got a neat combo of water, trees and hills, with decent hiking and great views.

And just like Mt. Desert Island, there’s a payback: a good meal at the end of your hike. Isola Maggiore has the same lazy hedonistic feel to its big Maine counterpart, and pleasure is part of the experience. We always head to Da Sauro, a hotel/restaurant near the ferry dock. There’s a dining deck and room as you get into the little village, but walk a bit further and there’s a garden on the right. The garden has a splendid view of the lake, and friendly pheasants come to visit.

The food’s pretty good. There’s a bargain lake fish menu, featuring, for the most part, lake perch, or persico in Italian. We usually embellish the two courses (pasta, second perch skewer or fish stew course, vegetable) with an antipasto, like a mixed fried fish platter to share. Wash it down with cold, local white wine, have a coffee, and relax.


They’re really sweet there. Last week, I was talking to one of the owners while paying the tab. I mentioned that we went back every year to Da Sauro and that it’s become a family tradition. She thanked me, and as I started out the door, she ran after me with a chilled bottle of the white house wine. “This is to thank you for coming back with your family. We hope to see you soon,” she said in Italian, as we shook hands.

Now doesn’t that sound better than running from monument to monument on a hot Roman day?


It Takes a Village…

Nope, I’m not writing about HRC’s book way too many years ago, but our little village here. Or I should say, about 4 or 5 kilometers below, the town of Valfabbrica. And more precisely, about the people we’ve met along the way.


Debora Bazzucchi, left, with Angela Gorietti

First up is Bazzy, real name Debora Bazzucchi. She’s the real estate agent who sold us our  house here, and she’s a full-service friend and businesswoman. (Should you ever want to buy a place around here, I’ll put you in touch, but you’ll have to buy us dinner.)

Debora is energetic to the max, funny, and fierce. She’s a great cook, and we’ve spent a few evenings at her place somewhere up in the mountains across the valley from us. She likes good bubbly, has friends who traffic in black truffles, and drives an Audi cabriolet, usually with the top down. Don’t try to follow her if you want to hold onto your license.


One country house, three Euro hatchbacks (friends came over)

Here’s the reason for the headline: We bought a house with great bones and an incredible location. But it needed some TLC before we could move in. We aren’t neophytes when it comes to Italian real estate, having a little apartment in the city. But having a house on a mountaintop is a whole ‘nother deal. Okay, so some of the work is self-inflicted. We wanted a pool, which is, I’ll concede, completely optional, if not irresponsible and decadent. Sue me. (By the way, with Debora in the photo above  is Angela, her pal who supplied the stone surrounding the pool. It’s amazing to look at and walk on, and it comes from a local quarry. It’s a family company, and she came every couple of days for quality control.)

When Italians move, they take their kitchens and light fixtures with them. Kitchens in the land of great food are, oddly enough, not a big deal in terms of installation. They’re plug and play, and not as big a project to design as they are in the U.S. We bought ours at Mondo Convenienza, which is sort of like IKEA, except that they don’t do flat pack, and deliver and install the stuff as part of the deal. Debora came into this by supplying the necessary guys to do the plumbing and electrical work. Plus, she watched the installation like a hawk. Installations, actually; the house has two kitchens, one upstairs in our living quarters, and one in the ground floor guest quarters, which serves as our summer kitchen since it opens onto the garden.

I won’t bore you with the wonders of places like Mondo Convenienza. Suffice it to say that they translate high design for popular consumption. We sat with someone who went through the dimensions we had to work with and we came up with the designs. They sent someone to measure and figure out whether it would work.

So back to the village. Simone was our plumber in this, and I suspect he will be forever. The guy just figures things out and makes it work. That included modernizing a manual water cistern/pump system (don’t ask) and making it so we really don’t have to think about how the water gets to the house.

Then there’s Luigi and his assistants. We bought a bunch of lighting fixtures. The previous owner, a good guy but a chef who works too many hours, did a lot of the electrical work himself in between shifts as a professional chef. Luigi, a pro, cleaned it up and installed all sorts of clever lights and switches around the house. I’m still trying to memorize what controls what, but it all works and I keep being struck by the thoughtful touches.

We can’t forget Enrico, who is Debora’s ex. He’s an incredibly kind and sweet guy who came in, patched up walls and painted. The place looks like new and without Enrico’s help (and his and Debora’s son, Nicolò, pitched in), I wouldn’t be sitting in my office here writing this. And there’s Gianni, a stonemason who worked through the hottest days to get the pool border done. Many hot days; the guy’s an incredible perfectionist.

Our village here wouldn’t be complete with mentioning Marco Ferramosche, who is our architect. He started the work on the pool on a dare, and served as the general contractor. He sent us almost daily photos when we were in New York, and coordinated the work of Simone, Luigi, the excavators, geologists, environmentalists, town officials, concrete workers, pool suppliers, etc., etc. He nagged me (nicely) when I had to do something like pay a bill, be there to make a decision, or talk to the pool guy about how to do things.


The Spartan Woman, ricotta from Pasquale

Wait. I’m almost forgot our neighbor, Pasquale. He’s one of the brothers and their mother who sold us the place. He owns the agriturismo next door, Ca’Mazzetto. It’s certified organic, and they raise sheep, grow olives, and make cheese and fabric from the sheep milk and wool. He drops by to say hi regularly. And when we first started sleeping over here, he brought us a plate of delicious fresh sheep’s milk ricotta.

Phew. You can come visit now.

[Copyedited by Judy Lopatin]

Parla Svedese?

Three tanks of expensive gasoline, many kilometers in a clapped-out rental Panda and thousands of steps later, we may actually we able to do normal things like sit on chairs, cook in a kitchen, and take showers in a country house we closed on last November.

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“You know, I’ve been thinking….”

My first weekend here, I pretty much hid out from the heat in the city, did some work, took some naps, and in general did nothing much at all in glorious solitude. I did drive up here a couple of times because I wanted to get acquainted with the house, but because of Perugia’s compact size, and the fairly strict land-use rules, it’s a quick run from city to country. You’re in the country almost as soon as you leave the city limits. And I took walks to take in some free music and cheap, good “artigianale” beer.

Besides, I needed to conserve some energy for the arrival of The Spartan Woman.

I did miss her. But I knew that once she arrived, it would be nonstop activity. She always claims that she’s a low-energy person, but I have yet to see much evidence of that. And I’ve known her for decades. Sure, she will sit and do crossword puzzles on her Mac for hours, but I suspect it’s so that she 1—can conserve some energy  for her next move (see above) or 2—she’s plotting her next move.

It began with me racing to Rome’s airport to pick her up. She was carrying household items in one big bag, and a few clothes in another. I chivalrously gave her the chance to avoid buses and trains, and she took me up on on it.

But then…What does one do on the first full day in Italy? You might think some time to get acclimated, to have a good meal, to stroll, have an aperitivo, to wind down from the pre-trip craziness of getting the pets settled and the bills paid, etc.

You would thinIMG_1072k wrong. We raced across the center of the country to Ancona, on the Adriatic. Not to go to the beach. No, IKEA, that most fiendish of Swedish inventions. We had a deadline: Young people are coming next month, and they might want a bed to sleep in and some furniture to perch upon.

But it’s in Italy. Exotic, no? No. It’s exactly the same, bar some Italian items in the restaurant. The same goofy names, the same maze that drives you crazy. What is different is the kindness and helpfulness of customer service. We found someone who, knowing we needed some stuff fast, worked really hard to get good

IMG_1070delivery and assembly dates. (I’m too old for performing the dark assembly arts of IKEA.)

When Tina, the customer service person, saw that I was getting antsy, she told me to go and play, and gave me a voucher for the restaurant’s bar. An espresso and pastry later, I was a happy guy.


It’s Not Always About That Guy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Wheel of Misfortune

Screen Shot 2017-06-29 at 21.30.36.png

[courtesy of ]S9 Architecture / Perkins Eastman]

Yes, this is again about Staten Island. I have an urgent warning for all of you. BE SCARED! PULL YOUR MONEY FROM YOUR 401-K! HIDE IT UNDER YOUR MATTRESS!

There, I feel better now. You might be wondering what caused that outburst. For once, it wasn’t the current occupant of the White House, who shall not be named. It has something to do with the rendering above. It’s the New York Wheel, and it is the great hope of Staten Island real estate developers.

Here’s the deal: Whenever money was pumped into St. George, bad things have followed. Can you say recession? The last big push was in the mid 2000s, and then 2008’s crash happened. That wasn’t the first time we’ve seen this happen. It’s almost as predictable as the tides.

And so, the latest St. George push. This gigantic Ferris wheel would lure all those tourists off the Staten Island Ferry—the best sightseeing bargain in the city—for a $30 ride. Then they’d see all the wonderful stores in the adjacent outlet shopping mall. Who can resist a Nordstrom Rack? And then knock back with a burger and beer at yet another Shake Shack? It’ll all be there at Empire Outlets.

The construction has turned the area around the Staten Island Ferry terminal into a traffic and construction nightmare. But we’re told it’s all for a good cause. St. George will be the new hot neighborhood—watch out, Williamsburg. We’re looking at you, Bushwick and Astoria! I don’t know about you, Staten Island friends, but I go to Zillow every few days and watch my house’s estimated value grow and grow. I don’t live in St. George, but I’m in the same zip code, and we’re already feeling the love.

IMG_0729Our excitable local politicians aren’t the only ones wondering if this means a Staten Island renaissance is finally at hand. Press coverage has been consistently breathless, which goes to show that in New York City, it’s all about real estate. We’re obsessed, and our supposedly objective press organs are the official cheerleaders.

But why the panic? My cynical friends and I have been, shall we say, less than sanguine about the whole enterprise’s prospects. Sure, there might be decent views from the wheel, but seriously? The tourists are going to spend a few hours on a big ride and then in a shopping mall when they easily go back to lower Manhattan and annoy the workers trying to get somewhere? Will they forego the pleasures of shopping in the madhouse that is Century 21 for an outlet mall? Won’t this cut into their Wall Street bull posing time?

Okay, so let’s say the tourist turnout isn’t what its backers are projecting. There’s the rest of Staten Island looking for an exciting shopping experience, right? Well, no. See, this complex is on the North Shore. It’s not on the South Shore. This is very significant. There is a highway that runs across the island, about a third down the island from the northernmost point. It connects the Verrazano and Goethals Bridges, to Brooklyn and New Jersey, respectively. It also serves as a sort of Mason-Dixon line. North of the expressway, Staten Island sort of resembles the rest of the city. It’s more urban, diverse, and politically liberal. Most of the borough’s cultural institutions are there, and you know what sort of people work there.

South of the highway is, well, SopranoLand. It’s highly Italian-American, but of a certain kind. Many of these people left their homes in Brooklyn when, back in the 1960s and ’70s, the racial composition changed. Whether their fears of increased crime, etc., were real or not, they left their homes for what they hoped was safe—and where people were like them. There are lots of cops, firefighters, sanitation workers, and trade people. Unsurprisingly, they vote Republican and have sent conservatives to Congress and to the City Council. I doubt whether they’ll drive (basically the only way to get there) to the wheel and the mall there unless a gun is pointed at their heads. Trust me.

So forgive me my doubts about this great project. I’m not alone. As I write, the wheel itself is mired in litigation, with its owners and the contractors who are building it pointing fingers at each other and tossing accusations back and forth in court papers. It ain’t pretty, and it could doom the project itself.

Remember, you read it here first.

L’Isola di Staten

I haven’t written much lately. Or, to be more accurate, I haven’t posted much. It’s a combination of work, some real estate matters and the fact that I’m not in Umbria right now (or Tuscany, for that matter). So I pretty much ran out of new material from there.

But I am on Staten Island most of the time there days, and being here often reminds me of how Italian this borough is. Somewhere just shy of 40 percent of its half-million residents claim Italian descent, and this comes out in various ways, from fig trees in the backyards of old houses, to some architectural kitsch to approximate the villas of the old country.

It’s not all kitsch, though. In the well-heeled neighborhood of Grymes Hill, good taste


The “Villa Volpe”

mostly prevails. I was walking around one afternoon, and walked past this house. We used to call it the Villa Volpe, because John Volpe, the former chancellor of the College of Staten Island, used to live there. And across the street is Casa Belvedere, now an Italian cultural center, complete with bocce court and a kitchen sponsored by the food importer Colavita. It’s sort of Italianate in design, like a lot of the grand houses on the island, but it in fact was the Stirn-Roebling mansion, built by relatives of the engineers who built the Brooklyn Bridge (also relatives of Caroline, my neighbor, in fact). If you walk around the Villa Volpe and squint a little, you might think you’re somewhere else. Reportedly, one of the Guide Michelin inspectors lived on Staten Island during the inspection tour a dozen years ago, and liked Staten Island because it reminded him of being in Italy.

Some people might get the idea that the island got its Italian vibe from those idiots who starred in MTV’s Jersey Shore, most of whom came from the south shore of the island and speak with distinct Brooklyn accents. But Italians moved onto the island early on. Back in the 1840s, the Italian hero Giuseppe Garibaldi fled a failed revolution and moved his with his compatriot (if it can be called that; Italy wasn’t yet a nation), Antonio Meucci. In the succeeding decades, Italians settled in the neighborhoods now called Rosebank, Arrochar and Tompkinsville. Garibaldi and Meucci left something behind: Meucci’s house is now a museum dedicated to the two men, and you can stop in a read Garibaldi’s notes, or see some of his uniforms. They also hold Italian language classes there, at gentle prices.

Other Italians came to stay, but not for good, or the whole year on Staten Island. Beach colonies grew up along the south shore, and Italians rented or bought bungalows not far
from the beach. My own grandparents, Carlo Ancona and Rosa Urso, originally from Castellammare del Golfo in Sicily, bought a bungalow not far from the home of William


My mother Angie on the right, with her sisters Marie, Kitty, and Sarah, and Sarah’s husband Vito in back

Vanderbilt, one of the famous clan. (Yes, they hailed from Staten Island.) I spent the first few summers of my life in that bungalow. My mother and her sisters moved to the bungalow with us kids, while the dads lived in Brooklyn and went to work during the week and stayed with us on the weekends. [Side note: My grandmother died when I was young, but I continue to marvel at the fact that she bought two houses, one in Brooklyn and the bungalow on Staten Island, in the middle of the Depression. 

Naturally, where Italians go, so does their food. And the island has salumerie and even supermarkets that would make a Manhattan foodie go crazy, especially since the prices are for real people, not the masters of the universe who want to dabble in making pasta like the chef at Marea told them to do.

I’ll confess, there’s a lot of dreck; the kind of inauthentic places that think bruschetta is some chopped vegetables that goes atop bread (it’s the toasted bread, actually), or that serve overcooked spaghetti on the side of a meat or fish dish. But Staten Island has a few really good pizzerias: Denino’s, Joe & Pat’s, and Lee’s Tavern.

But if you want to experience what it’s like to be near the Italian coast on a warm summer day, reserve a table on a Sunday afternoon for Basilio Inn, in Arrochar, the


Sunday dinner with Kathy at Basilio’s

town where my father-in-law Joe grew up. It’s in a 19th century house, which has always been a tavern. They grow a lot of their own produce, and there’s a bocce court out back. The Asperti family are the latest owners, and they came over to the U.S. in the 1960s. They pay a little homage to Italian-American, as opposed to Italian, food, but they have their limits. Once, a patron complained about the mussels, which are served steamed with white wine, like you’d find anywhere in Italy. “Where’s the sauce?” “We do it this way.” “But I want sauce.” The owner gave the guy $5 to go up to the deli to buy some Ragù, and he offered to heat it up in the microwave.

You can go the DIY route, too. There are lots of local pork stores, or salumerie. And the local franchise Pastosa’s has, I think, three branches on Staten Island. They’re a



Cheap vacation, an Italian supermarket on Staten Island

little bigger and each one has its own personality. The one in my neighborhood leans a little international and is like a mini-Eataly. But for a full-on Italian food shopping experience, you have to go to LaBella Marketplace, all the way down on the southern tip of the island. It’s a long ride, even from our house. But it’s worth it. They’ve got all sorts of products, from limonata (Italian lemon soda) to packaged cornetti (the Italian equivalent of a croissant, often filled with cream or preserves) to mind bending assortments of olives, cheese, olive oils, and pasta. Espresso beans and coffee are reasonably priced. There’s an Italian-style bar where you can have an espresso and bombolone–think of a cream-filled doughnut) for around $3. The fish counter has tiny clams, octopus, sardines, branzini and orate (sea bass and sea bream, from Italy and Greece). And if you’re really into it you can even buy Italian laundry detergent.

There’s lots more, but this post has already gone on for too long. Maybe I’ll do a part II soon.

[The photo at the top of the page: The Tuscan Garden at Snug Harbor Botanical Garden and Cultural Center]