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.)

Rent

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So the other night we celebrated kid number 2’s birthday. We did it like we always do: We go out to eat, and usually it’s at the kind of place that’s more of an occasion than the place up the street. After 10 years of writing restaurant reviews in a prior life, I keep up with what’s happening, more or less. The only thing is that someone isn’t paying the tab any more, so it’s more less than more.

The birthday girl (my wife, kids) or boy (me) gets to choose. Every now and then, Ms. Birthday can’t make up her mind, so The Spartan Woman or I make it up for her. Liv couldn’t decide or think, or probably was too busy to find a Brooklyn hot spot this time. So I saw that Eataly’s Flatiron rooftop restaurant/bar, Birreria, had a cool seasonal popup  called Baita, an Italian Alpine-themed eatery. Supposedly. By mid-spring, polenta had vanished and the food seemed fairly New York dee-luxe Italian, with the exception of Alpine cheeses and wines from northern regions.

Version 2So, fine. It was all delicious, well-prepared. We had a great time. The boyfriend and kid number 1 came, and we enjoyed ourselves immensely. But really: a cheese plate with three bites for $15? A seafood fritto misto in a dainty little bowl? Some reasonably priced wine, but you can get two or three Aperol Spritzes for the price of one at Birreria.

Coming from Perugia, it all seemed faintly ridiculous. I know, I get it. This is New York, and it’s an expensive city. We aren’t just paying for the food and drinks, we’re paying for the privilege of being part of a scene in The Greatest Fucking City on Earth. Rent.

Or is it? I’m a native, but the city seems distinctly Disneyland-New York-themed to me these days. It’s as though the city, especially Manhattan and the more precious Brooklyn precincts, is like a movie set for those not privileged to be native New Yorkers to live out their fantasies. I realize that New York has always been a place to retool oneself and be cooler than…well, out there somewhere. But sheesh, there have always been real people living in Manhattan and Williamsburg. Until, it seems, now.

This Disneyland for the 1 percent quality isn’t accidental. Check out this interview in Gothamist with Kim Phillips-Fein about how this unreal movie set of a city isn’t accidental, but a result of deliberate policies set in motion back during New York’s 1970s financial crisis.

In the meantime, here are a couple of photos of a dinner we had with our pal Fabio Bertoni a couple of weeks ago in Perugia, at l’Officina, probably the city’s biggest scene of a restaurant. It doesn’t lack for creativity; in fact, the food was fancier than what we had at Baita/Birreria. These shots are from the vegetarian tasting menu; a few courses with generous pours of wine throughout cost €25 a head. You read that right.IMG_0209IMG_0208