It’s all their fault

[Hey, Tea, here are some of my memories of Umbria.]

It was April 2002 and I was on a reporting trip in Italy. The trip mainly involved interviewing lawyers about the Italian economy and dealmaking possibilities for U.S. multinationals (I’ll write about that someday when I’ve had too much grappa to drink). I conveniently scheduled my trip to straddle a weekend: a few days in Milano, a weekend to chill, and a few days in Rome.

The weekend started on Friday afternoon. I took the train to Perugia and my “dad” there, Franco Castellani, picked me up at the station. He said we had to hurry because he and his wife Giovanna Santucci had a surprise. Franco drove faster up Perugia’s winding streets than usual, cursing about half the other drivers for having the nerve to share the road with him.

Finally arriving at their home near the top of a hill, we rushed inside. “Just put your bag down, we timed this exactly right.” I went into the kitchen to greet Giovanna, who just then pulled some baby artichokes out of the frying pan and put them in a paper towel lined basket. A quick spritz of lemon, a sprinkling of salt and she shoved them toward me. I should tell you that at this point, no one had sat down. “Use your fingers! They’re perfect right now!” Franco said. The three of us stood around fishing the precious nuggets out of the basket, blowing on our fingers because the suckers were hot, And crispy. And lemony. And soft inside. And yes, perfect. We just smiled at each other.

By that April, we had been chosen family for years. The Spartan Woman met up with them back in the 1970s when she had done a year of veterinary school in Perugia. It’s a long story, and the short version is that this couple had adopted us as their American kids. They got to know The Spartan Woman’s parents, we got to know their daughters and extended family, and we’ve been together ever since. We’re Catholics so lapsed that we should be excommunicated, but Franco and Giovanna stood as godparents to our younger daughter back in 1992. All of us have stayed in each others’ houses, we’ve seen elders pass, babies born, and one of their nephews has run a few New York Marathons. You get the idea.

The clan gets together for a summer dinner at Il Laghetto near Perugia, a couple of years ago.

For The Spartan Woman, her studies in Perugia were punctuated by Franco sounding his horn outside her apartment. “Gimmo!” he’d say, the Perugian dialect word for “let’s go,” dragging her out for a ride in the country. He read electric meters at the region’s businesses, and so knew every inch of his beloved Umbria. Franco knew where to get the best prosciutto, the best cheeses, where a special bread could be found. He loved to cook, which invariably meant a huge cleanup for his wife, because he was the kind of cook who would leave flour clinging to the high ceiling of his kitchen, He was almost a parody of the postwar Italian male, with tons of hair product, a walk that frequently involved dangling a cigarette from his lips and spinning his car keys.

Despite his outward bravado, Franco (left, photobombed with the power salute by grandson Francesco in the 1990s) was a sweet man, generous of spirit and time. (But not of gasoline; he’d coast downhill, and whenever I rented a car, he was very happy to ride shotgun while I drove everywhere.) I still hear his voice when I drive around Perugia. “Metti la freccia!” (use your turn signals); sempre diritto! (go straight, always here), vai, vai! (go, go as I gunned it to get onto a highway).

If Franco was the brash, extroverted side of the marriage, Giovanna was the quiet and deep counterpart. She was a career woman, working for the local fashion house Luisa Spagnoli. She took care of things, raised her daughters, and kept the household humming. She was my language tutor; my Italian wasn’t bad 30, 40 years ago, but she helped by giving me The Look when I said something wrong. She kept the spare bedroom ready for us; I used any excuse on a few solo trips to drop by and stay a few days.

See this picture? That was taken on one of the funniest days I’d ever spent with those two. “We’re going to Norcia today, ” announced Giovanna (shown enjoying a postprandial cigarette). I’d been in Perugia for a week, after a week spent with relatives in Sicily. I love both Palermo, where my father’s from, and Perugia. The latter on this trip was a quiet balm to the livelier, bigger Palermo and my family, who are masters in the peculiar Italian art of multiple simultaneous conversations.

So we got into Franco’s Mini, I riding shotgun, Giovanna stretched out in the backseat chainsmoking. The ride seemed back then like forever, but I’ve gotten used to it now; in fact, I visited Norcia in February to see the opening of an important schoolkids’ social center. For the uninitiated, Norcia is a town up in the Appenines famous for its salumi, or charcuterie, its cheeses and truffles. It’s a great place to eat, in other words.

That morning, Franco parked the car, and the three of us walked around from shop to shop, buying dried sausages with names like coglioni di mulo (mule’s balls), reflecting its large round shape. Franco had parked near a bakery he knew, which still used an ancient wood-fired oven, and bought a huge country-style bread. Shopping done, we stopped for the pleasant lunch that’s shown in the photo.

“Porca miseria!” Franco shouted when we got back to the car. “Figlio di puttana!” (son of a bitch). We were parked okay, but for one thing: Franco had forgotten to put his disco orario, or time metering disk, in the windshield, and he was fined the equivalent of $50 for the lapse. There are meters everywhere these days, and you put the receipt in the window. In 1996, not so much.

Franco was good at dishing, not so good at taking it. That night, as we sat down for a light supper, he sliced the bread. Taking the slices, Giovanna and I rolled our eyes and generally acted like we’d gone to a mock heaven. “Giovanna,” I asked her in Italian, “is this not the best bread you’ve ever eaten?” “Si, Antonio, I bet such perfection must have cost a pretty penny.”

Franco just growled.

500 hours of solitude (give or take): The mayor hangs up his shears

There are a bunch of things you don’t realize at first when you starting living for months or weeks at a time in another country. The big one is healthcare—what happens if you get sick? Then there are little ones, can I take my suit to a nearby dry cleaner? And where do I get a haircut? There’s one thing in Italy you don’t have to worry about: Where do you buy food? It’s everywhere.

I didn’t care about the haircut thing until a few years ago when I had so much to do before leaving New York that getting a haircut beforehand didn’t even enter my mind. When I got here, it was so hot that the mane I was sporting was just too much. I scoped out the neighborhood and settled on a taciturn guy on the next hill, across t he street from the bar where English-speaking foreign students drank too much and passed out on the mostly-pedestrian street. He was good, but every time I went he insisted that I part my hair on the other side and when he did, I felt as though the world had flipped over. You don’t realize how much stuff like that can change how you move through the world,

Then I noticed Franco. His little shop was down the street from where we were living. He had a bunch of wooden walking sticks that he’d carved in the window and the shop was decorated with photos of old Perugia. Why didn’t I go to him first? I forget. Anyway, I started going to him, and other than his propensity to take a lot off the top, I got decent haircuts.

Franco’s domain

But more important, he was fun to talk to. We’d chat about everything: our families, Perugia, New York, restaurants, Barak Obama (he’s a fan), Agent Orange (not really), urban planning and transport, being our age—only a few months separate us. The added bonus was that it was all in Italian, which was great because The Spartan Woman and I speak English to each other, except for certain words and phrases that only make sense in Italian. (Antipatico is one word. It’s the opposite of simpatico, but how to say it in English? )

What also made it fun was his clientele and his role on the block. His customers ranged from college students to the local politicians, lawyers and architects. The mailman or woman always stopped in for a chat, and if we passed by and he had no one in the chair at the moment, he’d come out to talk. Sometimes, I’d end up spending a lot more time than I’d planned just because of the stream of visitors and other customers.

So last week, just as I dragged my bag into the house after arriving from NYC, my iPhone rings. I don’t notice the number, but answer anyway. “Ciao Antonio,” I hear. “T’invito alla mia festa di pensione questo sabato. Puoi venire?” (Ciao A. I’m inviting you to my retirement party Saturday. Are you coming?) Between fatigue and jet lag, at first I didn’t realize who was speaking. But he knew my name, so I played along for a bit. Finally it hit me.

It’s official, kinda

A couple of days later, I had to go into town. And I didn’t realize what a big deal it was. Franco’s shop was closed, but there was a retirement certificate of sorts in the window: “Diploma of Deserved Retirement. Given with full rights to Franco P, who will continue to do nothing…but from today he’ll be doing it at home.” A notice below, which was posted for a stretch on the street as well, invited the neighborhood to his party at the local social center, conveniently located across the street from our place. Well, convenient except when ’70s music fans have an end of term party and blast Led Zeppelin at 2 in the morning, but it’s all part of the experience.

Of course I had to go. I didn’t know most of the people there, but that was ok, There were big cartons of wine, and a butcher was in attendance. All Umbrian parties worth anything have porchetta and the region’s dryer, chewier prosciutto. The butcher was slicing the ham surgically then offering people slices from the tip of his knife. As the party began to ebb, a small army made panini of porchetta and piled them high on the table for people to take home for dinner.

Porchetta, anyone?

Best of all (at least for me)? Franco promised that he’d do house calls.

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