Bean there, done that

My mother was endlessly inventive in the kitchen. Married to a guy from Palermo, Sicily, she had to come up with a “primo” for dinner most nights. We didn’t have the traditional meat and two sides on one plate. My dad insisted on our following the typical Italian meal progression: a “primo,” either pasta asciutta (with sauce), soup, or rarely, rice. The meat or fish or frittata (omelette, Italian-style) followed. At the end of dinner, my father peeled and cut up pieces of fruit, which he doled out to us on the tip of his paring knife.

Those primi stick in my mind the most. I always preferred pasta to the second course. Twice a week we had spaghetti or some other pasta with tomato sauce—what most people back then thought was the only way to eat “macaroni.” But in between were pastas with broccoli or cauliflower, either in dry form or as a soup, escarole soup, spaghetti with clams…the list goes on. Having this first course made us less ravenous when the secondo came around, and I’m sure that it helped stretch the food budget, too. And at least once every couple of weeks, pasta e fagioli, which on the U.S. is often rendered in some obsolete dialect as “pasta fazool.”

Pasta e fagioli is the star of this post. It’s cheap, nutritious and can be fun to cook, and is delicious too. The variations can make your head explode. I’m going to tell you how to make my favorite version, which is an adaptation of what I first had one long afternoon, way too long ago.

Some culinary history: Mom usually used kidney beans, specifically canned kidney beans, for pasta e fagioli, because back in the dark ages of American grocery stores, kidney beans were everywhere, mostly to the exclusion of every other bean. Sure there might be navy beans, which are almost tasteless and resemble the canellini bean’s little brother. And you could buy lentils and split peas. But back then, there wasn’t much choice. Angie/Mom made it palatable by injecting a fair amount of garlic and some tomato broth to the mix. If she had some lying around, she’d chop parsley.

You can all them cranberry beans or borlotti. Either way they’re creamy and sfiziosi.

Years later, Perugian friends took us to an agriturismo (working farm with restaurant and/or rooms) over the border in foreign Toscana—Tuscany in English. The folks at the Castello di Sorci supplied a multicourse meal with two primi, one of which was an amazing puréed bean soup with homemade tagliolini, or thin homemade egg noodles. This was new to me; I’d never thought to purée the beans for the soup. Back home in New York, I made my own versions, one of which stuck. I love fennel and will sneak it in wherever I can. I did it with the bean soup and found that the addition of the fennel mellowed the soup out. At the same time, you wouldn’t know it was there if you didn’t look for it—just like chefs now use anchovies to increase the umami in a dish.

The supporting star

We’re starting to make soups like this as the weather turns cooler. So far this November it hasn’t cooled that much, but with the long nights this soup feels right somehow. You can put it together in 40 minutes or so using canned beans, or plan ahead, soak some good beans overnight and cook them before making soup out of them.

HERE’S THE NON-RECIPE RECIPE. I don’t measure anything, and this soup has endless variations in quantity and what you put into it. The orthodox version is pretty straightforward, though I have no idea whether anyone in Umbria ever purees fennel along with the beans.

You’ll need a package of canellini or borlotti beans. If you can’t find them, navy or kidney beans of whatever color will work. If you’re using dry beans, you’ll need to soak them overnight and cook them ahead of time. Otherwise, a couple of cans of white or borlotti (cranberry) beans will work.

A bulb of fennel—if you can’t find or don’t like fennel, you can use celery

One onion

2-4 cloves of garlic

One carrot

Tomato paste or a couple of peeled canned whole tomatoes (mainly for color adjustment; otherwise the soup can be way too beige)

Wine to deglaze. Or white vermouth.

Short soup pasta, or broken up spaghetti, or sheets of egg pasta cut into strips or irregular shapes. Quantity is up to you. About a cup works but it really depends on how soupy or solid you want the final version to be.

How to start:

Dice a small head of fennel, saute in good olive oil. Add a diced onion (red, yellow, or white, it doesn’t really matter). Dice a carrot. All of this doesn’t have to be perfect; you’re going to purée this toward the end. Add 2-4 smashed garlic cloves, and, optional, a pinch of hot pepper flakes or a little hot pepper—what we call “peperoncino” in Italian. Get the vegetables past soft and translucent; you’ll want a bit of golden color because it will taste better.

Add a splash of white wine or dry vermouth and get all the toasty bits off the pot. Add a squeeze of tomato paste or a peeled tomato or two. Add two liters/quarts of low salt vegetable stock or water. Add the cooked/canned beans. Bring to a boil and then let it settle into a simmer. At this point you’ll want the flavors to come together, so let it simmer for about 30 minutes.

Take the soup off the heat. Using an immersion blender, purée until smooth. You can keep some beans out and leave them whole if you want. It’s your soup. If you don’t have an immersion blender, a normal standalone blender or even a food processor will work.

Turn the heat back on. Add pasta. There are two schools of thought here. I’ll usually cook the pasta in the soup, but a lot of people will cook it separately and then bring the pasta and soup together just before serving. Cook the pasta until just before being al dente–it will continue cooking as you serve it.

The finished product

Serve the soup in bowls, drizzle good olive oil on top.

Variations

Possible additions: Greens. You can even just tear some rucola (arugula) up and it will wilt in the bowl and give the soup a peppery note. Finely chopped Tuscan (black) kale, escarole, or chicory are good additions.A pinch of red pepper flakes or chili oil will satisfy those who like things spicy.

You can also choose not to purée the soup. In that case, make sure you dice the supporting cast of vegetables finely and uniformly; it’s all got to fit on a spoon. Or you can ease up on the water or broth and make the dish semi-solid.

Photo at top of page: Jeremy Keith from Brighton & Hove, United Kingdom

What’s that about how you can’t go home again?

I’m sitting in the kitchen of our house in New York. It’s been awhile since I posted from here, say, six months or so. We got here a week ago and I guess I could’ve posted some fluffy thing about our smooth voyage back to the land of the compulsory national anthem.

But then it happened.

We innocently took ourselves up the street to our friendly locally owned pharmacy for the latest Covid omnicron bi-whatever booster shot. We’d faithfully gotten every vaccine, every booster. In Italy, we stayed away from crowds. We wore masks when we weren’t obligated to. We got here via one long van ride piloted by our friend Angelo, one night in a beachside hotel, an early morning cab ride and two Lufthansa flights, the first from Rome to Munich, then Munich to JFK. The flights were jam-packed, so much so that we got alerts on our phones to check hand baggage if possible to leave enough space in the overheads.

So we masked on board, except for meals. Sorry kiddos, but these old peeps gotta eat and drink. Then, remasked, The Spartan Woman settled in for some movies, while I, the dissolute blogger, took advantage of some pharmaceuticals and the delicious bubbly Henkell Trocken supplied by Lufthansa to get some needed sleep. As far as I’m concerned, the best flight is the flight that I barely remember.

Immigration in NY was swift, lubricated by a nice conversation with an elderly lawyer and his charming wife while on line for Mr. Passport Man. “How long was your stay?” asked the passport guy. “Six months, more or less.” Welcome home. An Uber later and a frenzied Lola the Bassotto (dachshund in Italian) was doing circles and screaming at the top of her lungs when we saw her. It was nice to be back.

So fast forward…it’s Saturday. We take the pooch out for a walk and head for the Greenmarket. We’re always thinking of Sunday pranzo (midday meal, spiritually more than just lunch), so we buy mussels, some beautiful tuna and swordfish, chard, and apples. Corn, too. In other words, we’re back to our New Yawk life.

Snug Harbor: Where art and botany live together in perfect harmony

Or so we thought.

It started late Saturday. You know that intuition that something isn’t quite right? I felt hot. I felt cold. I felt hot and cold at the same time, I couldn’t tell the difference. Pressure built up in my head. I looked over to TSW. She seemed to be a bit ragged too. It got worse. We tested. Negative. Phew. It’s just a reaction to the booster.

It wasn’t. A day (or was it two? It’s all a blur) later, TSW tests positive. I took a few home rapid tests, still negative. Still, as of Monday morning I would’ve been happy to have been knocked unconscious. I put my hoodie on and wrapped myself up in a fleece blanket. Then took it all off and hung out in my T-shirt. Rinse. Repeat. Or something like that. In the back of my fevered brain (yes, I had a fever of 102 by this point) I knew I was on deadline for an actual, someone’s paying me article. In a mighty show of pitiful mind over matter, I sat up and banged out a draft. Then I collapsed in an easy chair. I don’t remember much else except that an hour before filing the piece the next day I decided that I wrote it backwards, and rearranged paragraphs. Good thing I had 30 years of editing experience, so doing that didn’t take much brainpower or patching around the moved pieces.

She had to rest after all the excitement of seeing us.

More tests for me. Same result. TSW and Dr. Joe said get thee to a PCR test. Did that. Still negative, while TSW, daughter no. 2 and BF of daughter no. 2 all positive This does not make sense. Nope. None.

So that’s where we are. We get a little better every day. The other three at least have a name for how rotten they feel. Trust me, I’m not having sympathy pains, though by now I’m a day or so ahead and can approximate a human being.

We never did have that nice seafood dinner.

It’s something we think about all the time here

Let’s talk about food, shall we? And where you consumed said food? (Sorry if the headline led you to think I was going to write about that other obsession.) I’m thinking about food in Italy these days, since I’m here. It really is an obsession, and not just with “sovrappeso” [overweight] me. I’ve overheard chic saleswomen talk about what they were going to have for lunch in tones that were, well, erotic. And if you happen to be in Italy and happen to get onto YouTube, your feed will soon be blitzed with food videos. I don’t think it’s just mine.

First off, most Americans without the good luck (or misfortune. It depends.) of having relatives living in Italy don’t get the full-on experience. They–you?–have to go to restaurants. And that’s a shame, especially if you’re in the big tourist cities. Why? Because restaurant food may be ok, but eating in an urban restaurant in Italy doesn’t come close to the real deal, and in big cities and touristy locations, many restaurants serve a kind of national “Italian” food that doesn’t reflect what people really eat in this intensely regional country. Plus they miss the vibe, where people loosen up and sit with friends, family, lovers, kids, dogs, whatever, just enjoying the moment. Or a town festival. Or, in the case of our town, any excuse to get together. Any.

First, friends and/or family. One of my most memorable “meals” here, if you can call it that, happened before we had a place of our own. My magazine astoundingly let me come to Italy on a reporting trip. My assignment was to make the rounds of lawyers and business analysts and give American lawyers an idea of what to expect if their companies or clients tried to buy an Italian company. I cannily scheduled interviews for the latter part of the week in Milan, and the early part of the week in Rome. Oh, dear, what to do in between? Live in a lonely hotel room? Eat meals by myself?

Nope.

I visited friends who happened to live in Perugia, about two-thirds of the way south to Rome. After a couple of train rides, my Italian papà Franco picked me up at the station. “We have to hurry,” he said. “Giovanna’s in the middle of a surprise for you.” Franco, never a quiet pensive kinda guy, gunned it, shouting at anyone who dared to drive any slower. “Figlio di puttana! Bastardo!” he shouted. After holding on for dear life—Perugia doesn’t know from straightaways—we got to their house. “Hurry! Just leave your bag. You can keep you jacket on. We have to do this NOW!” Franco told me.

What was the fuss all about? Artichokes. Glorious crunchy salty hot just from the fryer pieces of artichoke. “I’m squeezing lemon on these, ok?” said Giovanna in Italian (these two didn’t speak English; this is all translated), more as a statement of purpose than a question. “Eat with your fingers.” She had put the freshly fried artichokes in a paper lined basket and shoved it at me. “Eat with your fingers.” The three of us didn’t even sit; we just stood there eating, blowing on our fingers between bites.” When we weren’t wolfing down the artichokes, we were drinking and smiling at each other. It was one of the best food events I’ve ever been at. I know we sat down to a regular lunch after that, but for the life of me, I can’t remember it. Can you blame me?

If you don’t have an Italian friend or relative, the next best thing is probably eating at an agriturismo, or at least a country restaurant. If it’s the right season, eat outside. Yeah, there’s an Under the Tuscan Sun thing going at these places. But you’ll see what makes it all worth it. Some years before that reporting trip, we’d gone to an agriturismo high above Lago Trasimeno, the big almost ocean-like lake around here. I can still taste the pasta course, with an eggplant purée (no tomatoes) and bits of sausage. But what I really remember was the vibe. There we were, our family, plus our Perugian surrogate parents and their dog, just relaxing around a table with a view of the lake below for the whole afternoon. And it cost maybe a half of what a city restaurant would’ve charged. Maybe less.

ANOTHER WAY TO ENJOY NON-RESTAURANT food is at a sagra or a festival. They’re held all over Italy, and here in Umbria there seems to be one every day or so somewhere. They serve as fundraisers for the town’s pro-loco associations, which support soccer teams, after school activities for working parents, and the like. But they’re also a way to get the whole town involved in something—and, for people to connect with their history. Local volunteer cooks take care of the food, sometimes, but only sometime, under the guidance of professional chefs. Of course, doing so often involves getting done up in medieval drag, which seems to happen for any excuse, but I digress.

After the Covid shutdown, the region came alive this year. We’ve been to a few. The first was for the food, in Ripa, two towns down the main road here. The town itself is a tiny hamlet, with a circular historic center, and various memorials to Gino Bartoli. He was a heroic figure, a Tour de France bicyclist who smuggled citizenship documents for Jews during World War II by stuffing them in his bike’s tubes and delivering them. Ripa holds a truffle sagra, and the food’s pretty good if you’re a fan of the underground fungus. (We are; Ripa sagra shown below.)

There’s a biggie around here, too. The small town of Cannara, near Assisi, is known for its onions. They’re sold in all the grocery stores and to be honest, we’re spoiled. I won’t say you haven’t lived until you’ve had a really fresh onion—but like a lot of produce, being grown locally makes a real difference. Cannara puts on a pretty big show, with various “stands” (yes, in English), really kitchens/outdoor restaurants, with each producing dishes that feature, yes, onions. Cipollamisu, anyone? It was a lot better than you’d think, with the typical tiramisu ingredients topped with a compote of sweet onions.,

Valfabbrica, where we live, goes all out. It’s bigger than Ripa, as far as towns and hamlets go around here, but smaller (population around 3,400) than the surrounding towns. There’s a week-plus celebration of being a valfabbricheso, with pageants, jousting tournaments, and, of course, food. The town’s historic center turns into a restaurant, and the town has a communal kitchen that churns out tons of dishes based on local produce and history. Gotta say, it was pretty good.

But the most charming event involving food was last weekend. Our town likes its parties, and the old medieval tower was restored recently. Most places would have the mayor cut the ribbon and leave it at that. Valfabbrica? Uh-uh. It got Italy’s only all-female jazz marching band to escort the mayor to the tower, playing Stevie Wonder’s Sir Duke and The Beatles A Hard Day’s Night. The women walked up the tower with Enrico (we’re all on a first-name basis here)

We don’t have dull ribbon-cutting ceremonies in Valfabbrica.

I know, this is supposed to be about food. Sure enough, after the music and the ribbon-cutting and the speeches about the historic importance of the tower, there was a free aperitivo* in the piazza. Older guys sat behind tables with loaded with decent boxed local red wine and porchetta panini* and doled it all out. I haven’t eaten much meat in a decade, but one of the guys shoved a panino at me after I poured myself a healthy glass. It seemed churlish to say no—and it was great to be hanging out in the main piazza on a beautiful late summer night with our fellow townspeople.

Vino and a panino, anyone?

*”Aperitivo” refers not only to a pre-dinner drink, but food to go with it. Places like Milan and even good bars elsewhere elevate it to the point where it can substitute for dinner. At that point you can all the meal an apericena—aperitivo and cena, which is what the nighttime meal is called.

* The word is “panino” for a single sandwich. “Panini” is plural. More than 1 sandwich. Ok? I get a little nuts when I hear “I’ll have a panini .” It’s like nails on a blackboard.

Come together?

So, it’s 2022 and Covid’s behind us and everything is just like the old days. Except that Italy reports more than 100,000 new cases on an average day. The United States records around 130,000 new infections daily. But hey, it’s just a bad cold, right? Let’s fly maskless, let’s go out to eat indoors, forget all those nasty restrictions.

At least that’s what it’s feeling like around here. Italians, who braved lockdowns and some of the most restrictive rules regarding vaccinations and gathering in public spaces, are partying like it’s 2019. It’s weirdly disconcerting, because while mass masking is clearly out, you still see bottles of sanitizer and plexiglass barriers everywhere. And don’t try getting on public transport without a mask. The local mall, er, centro commerciale is another thing…

We’ve been living with this strange situation the past couple of months. So basically we keep to ourselves and vaccinated/tested negative friends for the most part. But even given how fascinating we are to ourselves, sometimes you gotta get off the mountain, you know? And our region tempts us every day with festivals, places to hike (and people to do it with) and, bigly, as what’s-his-name once said, sagras.

What? You don’t know what a sagra is? Think of it as a big church supper, but without the church. (I’ve written about them before, but without Covid looming over them.) Substitute a town sponsor instead and add a single ingredient or dish as the star attraction. Add some cheesy merchandising, a band playing covers of everything from the Eagles (ugh) to Dua Lipa (!), not to mention gentle line-dancing for the elders. Enlist a platoon of locals to run the thing—the kids busing and waiting tables are especially adorable. And place said event (which usually lasts a few days to a week) in the local soccer pitch and you’ve got a sagra. The closest U.S. event I’ve been to is Staten Island’s Greek Festival, hosted by St. Nicholas orthodox church there.

Add fine china, a white tablecloth and a New York address and this would cost $40.

There’s one nearby that we can’t resist. It’s in Ripa, a hamlet two towns away from us. And it features truffles. Not the chocolate kind your mom got for Valentine’s Day, but the black, luscious, pungent, mysterious fungus that grows near oak trees. And the black tuber is on everything from toasts to pasta. It’s good, decadent fun on a budget. Similar food at a New York Temple of Gastronomy ™ would cost ya plenty, but a few dishes, a bottle of decent local wine and fizzy water set three of us back a whole €56, or $57.

Brits, especially, like to rank on Italians for being chaotic. (They should talk.) Go to a sagra, and you’ll see that the stereotype is just wrong. It’s all a matter of priorities. So while Roman traffic may be a free for all, food preparation and service at these sagre (*plural of sagra) is efficient and friendly. You wait in line while dispatching a friend or relative to find a table. That person texts the person on line which table number. Line person gives the order to the person in the booth and pays for it, and finds the table. Then table finder/sitter ventures out for drinks. You start on the wine and water and soon enough, an adorable 10-year-old kid delivers the food.

It’s more than the food. The people watching (and listening) can’t be beat. It’s great to see groups of family and friends out on a sultry night simply enjoying themselves and their place in the world. I like to see how the tribe organizes itself, and which combination of people are hanging out. Basically, the groups come in four models: the mixed generation family, usually three generations; the friends with or without kids and dogs; the elderly couples, either alone or in pairs. And us, a couple and an old friend who’s just moved here and we were showing him one of the glories of rural Umbria in the summer.

ANOTHER SUMMER HIGHLIGHT AROUND HERE is the Umbria Jazz festival. Only Covid stopped and then sharply curtailed it the past couple of years. But this year, for better or worse, the festival was back in its full glory, with free concerts in the streets and parks, an outdoor restaurant, paid big concerts in a soccer stadium—and lots of crowds jamming the small historic center of Perugia. The video below shows what the good old days (2017 here) were like.

We were leery and determined to stay up on the mountain and avoid the crowd. But I’d casually mentioned to a friend that The Spartan Woman would like to see the Canadian singer/pianist Diana Krall. I’d completely forgotten that I mentioned it until I got a text from my friend, saying “here’s a little gift.” Enclosed with the text were two free tickets, given to friends and family of the festival organizers.

Krall fits the “jazz” billing of the festival. But let’s say that the festival transcends labels. In the past we’ve seen artists as diverse as Caetano Veloso, REM on its last tour, Beach Boy genius Brian Wilson, and George Clinton and the P-Funk Allstars. We saw that we had reserved seats, so, unlike at the REM show it would be unlikely that a standing crowd would be jammed in right by the stage. We were right—our fellow concertgoers were a decorous bunch and we were able to socially distance from most of them.

All in all, it was a terrific way to spend a balmy summer evening. To avoid the typical Perugian parking, we drove to the end of the city’s MiniMetrò line, where there’s a huge and free parking lot. The metro itself normally shuts down at a ridiculous 21:30 every night, but they extended it to 1:45 for the festival. We zipped in and out, masked as required. You could say that the line is gently used most of the time, but it was crammed; lots of people had the same idea.

We’re keeping our fingers crossed and stay masked in public places. It was great to get out and pretend life was back to normal for a couple of hours. But for the time being, it’ll always be a little fraught to do that, so we’ll be choosy about where to go and how to do it.

Perugia? You know, the place where the chocolates come from.

More than 100 years ago, a woman named Luisa Spagnoli had a chocolate shop in Perugia. Spagnoli was married, had a kid, and was a successful business woman. But she wasn’t exactly faithful and carried on a longtime affair with Giovanni Buitoni of pasta-making fame. She and her paramour would send love notes to each other wrapped around chocolates. These notes, and those chocolates, became the basis for the famous chocolate and hazelnut confections known as Baci, by the company Perugina. That company is now unfortunately part of the sprawling Nestlé conglomerate. (I could go into what a disaster Nestlé has been for local employment…maybe another time. I want to keep this light.)

Perugia, Perugina, Baci, chocolates. The city became intertwined with its most famous product. Whenever people ask where we are in Italy, I’ll tell them Perugia, and if they look puzzled, I usually add “you know, where the chocolates come from” and they sort of get it. This city is also known for hosting festivals seemingly every other day, but I exaggerate, The biggest one is Umbria Jazz in the summer. “Jazz” is applied loosely here; we’ve been to concerts by REM, the P-Funk mob, and Caetano Veloso.There’s a journalism festival around Easter time. And if it’s October, it’s time for Eurochocolate. This city is not about to let a marketing opportunity go untapped.

Except when stuff like Covid-19 pandemics hit. In 2020, they were all canceled, as was the journalism festival this year. But Umbria Jazz and Eurochocolate came back in limited, socially distanced, vaccine-proofed ways. We avoided Umbria Jazz this past summer, but we couldn’t miss the chocolate bash. Instead of holding it in Perugia’s historic center, the organizers moved the show to Umbria Fiere, a convention center in the burbs. Entry was ticket-only, and it seemed that ticket sales were designed to keep crowd sizes down. Or maybe it was just because we decided to go on a Thursday?

If they had intended to hold attendance down to encourage social distancing, it sure didn’t look like it. The parking lot isn’t exactly sprawling, but the lines to get in–or I should say the space for the lines to enter–were long and wound around the building. You can see from the photo below that organizers channeled the different kinds of ticketholders into different lanes. The weird thing was you could count on one hand the number of people in each lane. And all three lanes converged so that one guy could check our “Green Pass“–proof that we’ve been fully vaccinated or had a negative Covid test within the previous 2 days.

Three goes into one at some point.

Whatever. The scene inside was crazy—seemingly every artisanal chocolate maker in Italy was present, as was the German chocolatier Lindt and, of course, Nestlé, er, sorry, Perugina. But the whole thing begged the question, how successful an experience could Eurochocolate be without its usual context. And I’d say, good try, but let’s try again next year for the real thing. It’s no fault of Perugia or Eurochocolate; Covid-19 is the culprit. Still, going out to the convention center and wallowing on chocolate wares wasn’t the worst way to spend a Thursday afternoon.

Part of the charm, if you want to call thousands of people crowding the centro storico (historic center) of Perugia to look at and taste and buy chocolate wares charming, is of the city itself as a backdrop. Baci candies are produced by a company called Perugina, and chocolates are a big part of the fabric of this place, giving it fame that it might not have otherwise. There are quite a few beautiful small cities in Italy, and they’ve gotten good at being known for one thing. Ravenna, up in Romagna, is about the same size as Perugia. And although it’s not a college town like Perugia, it’s got priceless and beautiful mosaics that attract people and keep them coming. (Below, Eurochocolate kept a small presence in Perugia to remind people that it was happening, and to sell some happy stuff.)

Umbria Fiere, the venue for this special edition, is a sprawling convention center near Assisi and only about 25 minutes away from our house. It’s in a town called Bastia Umbra, which is a fairly prosperous satellite town of Perugia’s, at least judging from the shops you see, like the French furniture seller Roche Bobois. There’s a compact center that’s okay, but there’s lots of suburban sprawl of the kind that must make romantic Brit and American Italophiles break out in hives. (I’ll save for later the subject of how the food in strip malls in such nondescript places sometimes beats what you find in more atmospheric spots.)

In any event, I made sure I had enough samples and bought a couple of artisanal chocolate things to keep me happy. The people at the stands and helping out on the floor were cheerful and helpful, and it was nice to see some Sicilian producers. Umbria chocolate makers have a real rival in the producers from my father’s island. And I probably will remember the dark hot chocolate I had at one stand (gallery below, lower left) for the rest of my life.

Somehow we’ve managed to fill the void of having fewer guests this summer

We have a new guest this week, someone from the neighborhood. Or so it seems—it’s a horse, apparently a mare. She’s super skinny and she’s ravenous. This is good for one thing; it means I don’t have to mow the lawn which, after a heatwave and drought-induced slumber, is suddenly alive, green and growing. But it means occasionally dealing with the digestive results of her buffet. I just texted a neighbor who might know who her humans may be. [UPDATE: She belongs to our neighbors, who came by to encourage her to go home. She apparently likes our grass better.]

Howdy, neighbor!

Such is life in the Umbrian countryside. People ask me “what do you do all day?” Sometimes I ask myself the same question. But these few months have gone by way too quickly, and part of the reason is probably that it’s never dull around here, even without the parade of guests we’ve had in pre-Covid summers.

I mentioned a neighbor. Our house was part of a working farm that takes in guests. The owners sold us this house and almost two acres of their land. The business is called an agriturismo, and this one specifically is named Ca’Mazzetto. It’s certified organic and it produces olive oil and wool from a flock of about 125 Sardinian sheep.

Ca’Mazzetto also produces interesting people. One of them is Joonas Sotgia, a young guy about the age of our younger daughter. Joonas is half Finn and half Italian, though to look and listen to him he’s 100 percent Italian; his mother is from northern Finland. He got back about a week ago from Afghanistan, where he was working for the Italian NGO Emergency in the southern city of Lashkargah. Joonas isn’t a doctor, he took care of logistics and hiring of the nonmedical staff at the group’s hospital there.

Joonas relaxes with a drink the Taliban don’t approve of.

I did a formal interview with him the other day, which I’ll release soon. But that evening we sat out in the yard and updated each other about our lives; it’s been two years since he, The Spartan Woman, and I were in the same place. We talked about how we handled this pandemic, his last job in Slovakia for Amazon (key takeaway—he won’t buy from them, ever), and how the Taliban left the Italians alone, and when they came into the hospital they left their guns at the gate.

We don’t just sit around and talk. Like I’ve written before, The Spartan Woman and I walk. We walk up and down hills, we follow trails, rutted roadways, cow paths up mountains, etc. We continue to do it; doing so is part of The Spartan Woman’s boot camp for the nearly elderly. This is contagious, and we’ve taken to judge our guests by whether they like to hike with us or not.

For example, an America friend from our Staten Island neighborhood stayed with us for a bit. TSW and she do take walks through Staten Island’s Botanical Gardens at Snug Harbor. But those are level and not that long. Wendy (the friend) was craving escape and Italy, but when we told her about our morning routine, she said she’ll stay by the pool and read a book and let us have all the fun. Fat chance. She was addicted the first time up the road. Maybe it’s the vistas. Maybe the neighborhood dogs, which are impossibly cute and impossibly addicted to the biscuits we give them. By the end of her stay, Wendy was charging up hillsides and goading us to walk further. Now back in the U.S., she’s, um, strongly encouraging her husband to get vertical and move.

TSW and Wendy enjoy a break in Spello from climbing up steep hills.

So if you visit us, you’ve been warned.

We tried to find good places for Wendy to practice her new favorite hobby. We drove around the region, keeping in mind that because of Covid-19 we didn’t want to hang around with too many people. So we drove up into the Valnerina to visit one of our favorite places, the Piano Grande di Castelluccio, and on the way back we stopped to eat in Norcia, the gastronomical capital of Umbria. While we had a terrific lunch, it was heartbreaing to see that much of the town is still in ruins as a result of the devastating earthquakes of 2016.

What’s left of Norcia’s duomo.

What else? Gelato! Okay, I’ve been eating the stuff since I was a kid. It’s different from American ice cream in being made mostly from milk rather than cream. Plus it’s less aerated and the flavors are more intense, possibly because it’s servied a bit warmer than ice cream.

We’ve got our spots in the big cities. Well, okay, in Perugia (population about 170,000). And it’s terrific. But our friend Angelo pointed us to the Oxy Bar in the hamlet of Palazzo di Assisi, and we’re hooked. Great flavors, terrific service—all the standard stuff is terrific. What Oxy adds is its location. It’s right in the center of the small town, across the street from a castle that’s become a warren of restaurants and apartments.Oxy is next door to the town’s church, which conveniently has lots of places in front to perch.

If it’s a summer night, it’s time for a gelato.

There’s nothing quite like a summer night in Italy when the gelateria is one of the only games in town. The older folks sit at the tables in front, while everyone else is either standing in groups, walking around saying hello, or finding a spot in front of the church to hang out. You hear that flowing babble that characterizes the Umbrian accent when you’re not paying attention to what people are saying. And everyone’s united in the easy pleasure of a sweet treat on a summer night.

I’d be negligent not to mention the trattoria across the street from Oxy, Not the hipster-vibed “Gnocco e gin” place in the castle, but the friendly, family run Osteria del Cambio. Food like it serves up would be an expensive night out in New York, but here it’s mom’s home cooking. Or grandma’s. It’s Angelo’s favorite hangout, and he calls it by the proprietor’s name, Catia. When I came alone last year, Angelo and I had lunch once a week there. TSW, Angelo, and I recently had dinner at Catia’s and we didn’t hold back–antipasti, tagliatelle with black truffles, a “secondo,” wine and coffee, and the damage was all of €48, or about $56. You might get a pizza and a couple of drinks for that at Ribalta in New York.

For best results, combine Catia’s and Oxy.

We’re heading into autumn now. The weather’s changing, alternating between brilliant dry days and cloudy changeable ones. It’s time to close the pool, wear long pants when we go into the city, and to think of more ambitious hikes. Our aim is to tackle the uphill path to Assisi with a reward at the end in town: a decadent lunch.

Is this what they mean by fusion cuisine?

If you wander around food-related sites on the interwebs, you might notice a strange little trend: Italian cooks reacting to the horrors visited on Italian dishes by non-Italian cooks. Some of those non-Italians might even be pretty famous, like the British restaurateur and TV personality Gordon Ramsay. You’ll see the Italians wincing as Ramsay and others put cream in spaghetti carbonara, or cook pasta in jarred tomato sauce. One of my favorites is the couple Harper and Eva (he’s American, she’s Calabrese) who good naturedly explore Whole Foods and Domino’s Pizza. Eva’s reactions alone are worth the time suck.

Eva does not like Ramsay’s “carbonara.” Not at all.

Here on our mountaintop getaway, we manage to visit other horrors on the food of this region. You see, there really is no such thing as “Italian food” because the cooking in Italy is so regional. No, hyper-regional, because dishes can change even from town to town. Get a local nonna (grandma) to show you how to cook a local dish and she’ll give explicit directions and mention what is absolutely forbidden: no onion and garlic together in X, put celery in Y and you’ve dishonored all your ancestors, etc.

We’re in Umbria, a small, mostly rural, landlocked region tucked between Lazio (Rome’s region) and Tuscany in Central Italy. For a region with a population just shy of 900,000, it’s sure got a distinctive cuisine. it’s a land of black truffles, legumes, mushrooms, pork products, and grains. Try to picture all that and you realize that mostly of this food is brown or black. A typical snack is chicken or goose liver paté on toast—I was served that along with a drink the other day.

If you’ve grown up with that, it’s fine. Our Perugian “mother,” Giovanna, shunned most vegetables and compensated by having huge bowls of fruit on hand for dessert. (Her idea of health food was to bake eggplant slices with lots of crumbled sausage on top.) But The Spartan Woman and I have Sicilian (100 percent for me; 50 percent for her) and Greek ancestry. Both Sicilian and Greek cuisines are colorful, vegetable-friendly, bright flavored and citrusy, while Umbrian food tends to be heavier, more comfort-food like. Add to the mix the fact that we’re native New Yorkers, and therefore entitled to eat any kind of food we like that exists on the planet, and you’ve got the makings of either interesting contrasts or a disaster. Having relatively good taste, we’ve managed to avoid most disasters.

Oh, and we don’t eat meat, which keeps a big part of the food here off-limits to us. We do eat fish when we feel decadent or lazy Plus us native New Yorkers (sorry copyeds, but I’m using NYC dialect here) grew up eating seafood. A couple of decades ago this would have probably cramped our style big-time, because Umbrians didn’t eat much fish and you could hardly find any in the markets. Lately, though, they’ve embraced seafood and supermarkets have huge fish departments.

Two years ago, pre-Covid, our town of Valfabbrica got together for a multicourse seafood dinner.
An Asian market in Perugia

In good weeks, we’ll get gifts from our neighbors and friends. When Angelo picked us up at Rome’s airport, he gave us a care package, the fixings for a Sicilian blood orange salad, complete with olive oil that his friend produced. And our neighbors at the agriturismo Ca’Mazzetto occasionally show up at the door with freshly made sheep’s milk ricotta.

So what do we cook? Let’s call it Umbria-Sicilian-New York fusion. We pay homage to Umbrian food—I haven’t met a truffle I didn’t like—while at the same time keeping it light and bright with lots of different colored vegetables and spicier/brighter flavors. Luckily, the olive oil here is incredible, green and a little spicy, and enobles simple dishes like borlotti beans stewed with garlic and tomatoes. The markets carry tons of fruits and vegatables, and Italians have embraced healthier food between, you know, a morning Nutella-filled cornetto and an afternoon gelato.At the same time, being Americans generally and New Yorkers in particular, we occasionally crave Asian food. Our area is pretty well served by sushi restaurants and Chinese markets, so it’s not that hard.

But here are some examples of how we feed ourselves and others.

Farro tagliatelle with zucchine, shrimp and tomatoes with Greek egg and lemon sauce
Whole wheat rigatoni with a mushroom ragù
Salad with farro
A Sicilian classic: fried eggplant to put atop spaghetti
Sheet-pan roasted vegetables and feta, a variation of a NY Times recipe

Positively negative

This pandemic thing sure put a damper on our plans last year. But at least we’ve made it through so far. We couldn’t spend the warmer months on our mountaintop. The pool for which we raided our savings stayed covered and unused. And we basically hid out all summer in our New York living room, air conditioning on full blast, binge watching Mexican Netflix shows. (Watch “The Club” and “House of Flowers.” You won’t be sorry.)

A big part of our life last year

The Spartan Woman made it extraclaro that she wasn’t going anywhere without a vaccine. And Dr. Fauci told us not to travel. But I did, just to inhabit the house in Umbria a bit and clear out the inevitable cobwebs, run the appliances, and drive the car. Truth is, we really didn’t know when we’d get back here, and the previous U.S. government didn’t seem inclined to make a horrible pandemic any better.

But sometime this winter into spring, the situation in the U.S. looked better. The Biden gang made vaccinations a priority, and TSW was an early subject, getting her first shot in January. I followed by about a month, and soon most of our friends and immediate family were vaccinated.

We still didn’t know what we’d do about coming here until a friend texted me. Alitalia was offering a 20 percent discount, he said, making a premium economy seat with its luxurious two-bag allowance and better legroom fairly reasonable. We jumped at it. Right around that time, the Italian airline and its code-share partner Delta started running what they call Covid-tested flights. If you test negative before the flight and upon landing in Rome, you wouldn’t have to submit to a 10 or 14-day quarantine. Our booked flight wasn’t on the list, but it was the right time for us. I quarantined myself last year, so if it came to that, we figured, it wouldn’t be terrible.

As it turns out, Alitalia added our flight to its “Covid-tested” list. It sent us emails telling us about the change, and then had a woman call from Palermo to tell us what we had to do. (I wondered whether I’d be charged for receiving a call from Italy; thankfully it didn’t happen.) We were to get a PCR (molecular; the more accurate method) test no more than 72 hours before the flight. And upon landing at Rome’s Fiumicino airport, we’d be given a rapid test. If the first test was positive, we could reschedule or cancel; once in Italy, a positive result means quarantine.

We were in prep mode to be away mode all of a sudden. That’s become almost routine. And we and our vaccinated friends started carefully to socialize. In the middle of all this we had to get tested. I’d gotten a rapid test back in November after returning from Europe. But with this one, we had to time it right. New York’s test site is pretty helpful, showing locations throughout the city. We had a 72-hour window both for the test and results. I found a drive-in site near our house; the city’s site just gave a street address and didn’t specify the venue.

Turns out, the site was a CVS pharmacy. There was no signage outside showing what to do, but a sign showed where a drive-in pharmacy was located. It looked like an alleyway, but we drove through, wondering if we were in the right place. Turns out we were. The pharmacist, acting as though our scheduled tests were a complete surprise to her, put together our kits, slid them through the drawer and told us what to do. (Basically, stick a swab 1″ or 2.5 cm. through your nostrils and put the swab in a test tube.

We worried about whether we’d get the result back in time–they said 1 to 2 days, which would be cutting it close. And the CVS website cautioned that due to high volume, there could be delays. So we waited to schedule a time to get to the airport, where if we had to, we could be tested. As it turns out, they emailed us the results less than 24 hours after our tests. Negative!

Armed with that, we headed to the airport a couple of days later. If I could give you advice for one of these flights, I’d say bring a pen. And look for QR codes to scan with your phone. The Italian health ministry had us fill out forms giving the reason for entering the country (“to return home”) and we had to promise to quarantine if necessary. A QR code, once scanned, led to a site where you can alert the Fiumicino health people to your imminent arrival.

Otherwise, the JFK experience was slightly less surreal that it was last August. More bars and restaurants were open and there was a slightly bigger crowd in Terminal 1. The main difference was the paperwork–agents at the gate checked ours and it felt like giving your homework to the teacher. A few corrections and we boarded.

The bar was open, and I was able to have my traditional pre-departure Martini.

I’ve written about the flight. Nothing’s changed. Not the reduced drinks and meal service nor the crew’s reluctance to interact much with us. You’d think a flight filled with people who tested negative would be different, but you’d be wrong.

Landing in Rome, however, was a different story. They herded us onto two lines, with people having connecting flights given priority. A jovial gatekeeper kept us entertained. We then went to someone who checked us in and collected a €20 a head fee. Then around the corner to a line to be tested. They had pretty permanent looking booths up, and the testers were doctors as well as nurses. This rapid test was just as invasive as the PCR test we’d gotten in New York. Afterward, we had to sit and wait for our number to called for the results. We were negative again, and so, no quarantine.

The next few hours are a blur. We found our friend who drove us almost to our home. We had to stop first to get our car. And somehow we managed to get everything in. It was nice to drive a car with a stick shift again, and there are no traffic lights on the country roads we take.

Once home we were famished. Luckily, before I left last fall I bought the components or a fast meal: canned tuna, tomatoes. Pasta. It’s traditional for returning Italians to have a “spaghettata”—basically spaghetti with garlic, oil, and chilies. We had no garlic, so TSW put together a quick tuna sauce, while I used the blood oranges, olives and fennel our driver friend gave us for a Sicilian salad. Home at last.

Home (alone) for the holidays

Christmas spread, pre-pandemic

IF THIS WERE A normal year, I’d be helping to come up with a menu for Christmas day. I’d be sending out invitations to our annual get-together. And I’d probably be heading into Manhattan a couple of times for drinks/lunch/dinner with friends.

But it’s not a normal year, so instead I’m mostly confined to this house except for a morning walk in Snug Harbor with the dog. We won’t be having anyone over for the holiday. And I’m having trouble remembering which day it is, although today feels very Thursday-ish for some reason. I do try to remember, because I have to remind The Spartan Woman which day it is periodically. (The pup does not care, as long as she gets out to the park, and gets treats.) At least we have garbage collections days to remind us as well.

Henry liked the evil red chair, too. And it did the same thing to him.

I usually get grouchy in late November/early December. I don’t like the plunge into cold weather, and I intensely dislike the early sunset. Plus, holiday prep annoys me, all that forced running around for…what, exactly? This year, probably due to the boredom of being home just about every day, I fight off narcolepsy, or what seems like narcolepsy. Especially if I sit in the evil red chair in the living room. It’s so easy. Just sit and read or watch TV. Pretty soon, gravity seems to get stronger and my bones start to resonate with that invisible force. I can’t get up. Next something—could it be gravity here, too?—grabs my eyelids and pulls them down. Honestly I had nothing to do with taking that nap. Damn that chair!

The not very inspiring view from my office window

I could look out the window, but all I see are other houses. We do hear ambulances all too often, as the novel coronavirus takes over most of the city again. There’s a hospital just a few blocks away, which normally would be reassuring. Not now though, as we cringe when we hear an ambulance heading down the next one-way street toward it.

So, we’re not going to have our annual Christmas Day bash. There’s a history behind it. The Spartan Woman’s Aunt Bessie married a Jewish grad student back after World War II. They had three kids and raised them in the Jewish faith. It became a tradition for them to gather with their gentile relatives for Christmas. We inherited the tradition when we bought this house. We’re an ecumenical bunch—most of us are nonsubscribers or cafeteria practitioners when it comes to religion, but there’s still culture and tradition. If the two holidays coincide, more or less, we’ll light a menorah, and we have a dreidel on our Christmas tree. The Spartan Woman sometimes makes latkes for the crew, too. It’s really one of the best days of the year, even for me, who basically loathes the forced jollity of the holiday season.

This would not be a good idea this year.

I loved it when The Spartan Aunt was still alive and well. She was a worldly, curious woman who, like her husband, was a trained biologist. She wrote the kid’s book, All About Snakes. Bessie was a really good cook, as well as her husband’s frontline and probably best editor. I realized after a year or two of hosting these get-togethers, that I was cooking for her. I wanted to surprise her, or, on a childish level, to get her approval. She always brought bottles of very nice Bordeaux, and her wine fueled great conversations.

Another year, a young cousin of mine was visiting New York over Christmas. She and her boyfriend (and her family) live in rural Sicily, where the family business is a veterinary diagnostic lab. I got in touch with her and asked her if she wanted to come over for the day. I’d met her years before, at my grandmother’s (her great-grandmother’s) 90th birthday party, but didn’t really know her. I arranged to pick her and her boyfriend Francesco up at the ferry terminal and I was almost shocked when she got in the car. I knew she sort of looked like a lot of us Paonita clan members, but what was—is—a testament to genetics is that Annalisa could be my older daughter’s sister. They’d never seen one another but there they were, identical smiles, similar gestures and weirdly similar voices. They’ve been in touch ever since.

Sisters or second cousins?

Sigh. Forget bah humbug. We’re really going to miss these people this time around.

Looking for a gift? How about a terrific cookbook for yourself, straight from the hills of Umbria? Order Festa Italiana and A Kitchen With a View by Letizia Mattiacci, a/k/a La Madonna del Piatto. And watch her YouTube trailer to get into the mood.

They run a tight ship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fresh mozzarella, worth waiting on line for

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

Big night in a small town
Just the beginning….

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

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