Sunday, January 21, 2007
Saturday, January 20, 2007
After a while Suzy returns and we head out for some more shopping and sightseeing. Along the way we stop by the Palazzo Davanzati, a renaissance palazzo converted into a living history museum, giving visitors an idea of how life was lived in renaissance Florence by an upper class merchant of the time. We visited this museum during one of our early visits to Florence but for more than a decade it has been closed for renovation. It has become a standing joke between us, as we get our hopes up to see the Palazzo reopened. The day before, we have wandered by it and the placards announcing the renovation (which have been posted outside the palazzo for all these years) are still in place. This morning, however, the doors are open and there is at least the possibility that tourists are once again being allowed to enter.
So we enter into the outer courtyard, a space that has been open to the public during the renovation as a sort of preview of coming attractions space, but today there is a difference. The doorway into the inner courtyard, with its staircase up to the rooms of the palazzo, is also open. We creep into the courtyard, no security or ticket takers in sight, and get a glimpse into the palazzo. It is inviting, but there is no one to tell us whether the palazzo is open or not. After a few minutes we give up, happy for the opportunity to see the inner sanctum once again and planning to return on our next trip to Florence.
We prepare to depart Florence but despite our continued queaziness decide we need to have lunch before driving to Perugia, two hours away. The hotel staff recommends the nearby Trattoria del Porcellino, only two blocks away and just around the corner from the Mercato Nuovo, the outdoor market of touristy souvenir stalls graced by the statue of il porcellino, the bronze wild boar whose snout you rub for good luck. We are slightly wary about dining so close to such a dense tourist area, but looking in the windows at the crowded trattoria it is apparent that this is more of a local hangout than a tourist commissary. We wait ten minutes for a table and then sit for an improbably memorable meal.
I say improbable because we really can’t believe that a restaurant directly next to one of the most touristy destinations in Florence won’t be another fixed price, English language menu of spaghetti and meatballs. Improbable, too, because our stomachs, after weeks of overuse, are telling us not to enter. It seems foolish to sit down for a lunch given these realities, but we do. And with great optimism, Suzy orders a bottle of acqua frizzante (effervescent water), joking that it will calm our stomachs and make us able to dig into the meal. Improbably she is right.
Our waiter speaks little English (to us, always a good sign, and again unexpected given the locale) but seems pleased by the amount of food that we order and the obvious gusto with which we place our order. He is particularly pleased that we have chosen bistecca alla fiorentina, the local grilled steak, Florence’s signature dish and perhaps the best steak in the world. After a while our antipasto plate arrives, two plates of mixed crostini, topped with liver, black olive paste, tomato and mushrooms. We skip the pasta course and head right to the bistecca, served with a side order of white beans in olive oil and sautéed spinach. The steak is slightly more cooked than rare and it is chewy and slightly tough, a trademark of the chianina beef that is used for fiorentina. With each chew, however, the rich, earthy taste of the beef fills our mouths, mingled with the ample salt, olive oil and a little lemon that has been drizzled over it. This, put simply, is the best steak we have had in Florence, at least in recent memory. Thank goodness we did not wimp out and skip lunch!
We pay up and return to the hotel, which has delivered our car out front. We load our bags, say our goodbyes and are soon on the road out of Florence (while driving into Florence is next to impossible, leaving it is so simple even we can do it), heading south toward our next and final destination of this trip, Perugia. Along the way we plan to stop at an upscale outlet shopping mall about 20 minutes outside of Florence.
We exit the A1 autostrada at Incisa and follow the signs to the mall which is ingeniously named “The Mall.” We arrive a few minutes later to a wood and steel outdoor complex of buildings connected by wide cement walkways and manicured lawns that looks like what I imagine the Microsoft of Apple “campuses” look like. The shops are very high end and very high tech – Gucci, Armani, Ferragamo and the like. We are here solely on a reconnaissance mission, just eyeballing the shops so we can recommend (or not) this as a stop for our friends and customers. It is very impressive.
Perhaps we would have stayed longer, but somewhere along the way we realize that we have left one of our bags, the results of our shopping spree in Florence, back at the hotel. After a phone call to the reception we decide that we have to return to Florence to retrieve the bag, which will add about an hour to our trip. Two days ago, with our fog light warning beeping every 15 seconds, we probably would have shot ourselves. After a few therapeutic days in Florence almost look forward to the excursion.
We retrace our steps to the hotel, pick up the bag and about an hour later we are at the Sinalunga exit on the A1, where we pick up the spur to Perugia. We notice signs for the Outlet Village at Valdichiana and decide to take a quick stop, again solely for research purposes. The Outlet Village is not nearly as upscale as The Mall, but it is much, much bigger. There are dozens of shops selling mostly clothing and housewares. Prices in most of the stores are good and there seem to be some incredible bargains to be had. We wander for a while and head to Perugia.
About 45 minutes later we arrive in Perugia and head for the restaurant of the Deco Hotel in nearby Ponte San Giovanni, where we have arranged to meet our friend Javier Casuso and his children for dinner. The Deco is run by the owner of the house we have been looking at renting for our new villa business and we have had a few conversations with Javier (who is our partner in the business) about whether this is the right property. We are leaning against consummating the deal with the owner, but in Italy this should be no reason not to have dinner in his restaurant!
We arrive on time and enjoy the cool air on the terrace outside the restaurant as Javier struggles to assemble his team, which live a block away and whose apartment is visible from where we are sitting. We can see figures dart back and forth across the windows and occasionally hear shouting, fighting and begging to get a move on. It seems that family life in Italy is little different from that in the U.S.
Finally, about 20 minutes late Javier and the crew arrive, faces we have not seen for nearly a couple of weeks, since they have been visiting us in Washington, D.C. over the Christmas holidays. It is good to see the kids again and, despite the usual kid behavior in restaurants (eating with hands, hitting everyone, running around the table – and I am only referring to Javier here) we have a terrific dinner of pastas and fish, which takes several hours. Not content with saying goodbye, Javier invites us to his apartment for a nightcap of espresso and grappa, as well as delicious little crème filled pastries that one cannot seem to find on desert menus anywhere in Italy, but which are abundant in the country’s numerous patisserie.
We say our goodbyes and drive about 15 minutes to the town (in definition only) of Bosco, where our hotel for the next three days is located. At night it is easy to miss the sign for the driveway to the Relais San Clemente, but after turning around we navigate the long private road to this exquisite property which boasts beautiful gardens, a pool and tennis courts, many outdoor activities and dozens of beautifully appointed rooms in a building dating back from the renaissance. It is dark, naturally, so exploration of the Relais will have to wait until tomorrow. For now we are content to fall sound asleep in the peace and quite of the countryside, windows open and cool air filling the room. We deserve a good night’s sleep and the Relais seems just what the doctor ordered.
Friday, January 19, 2007
Our morning is spent in our hotel room working, working, working, trying to catch up on unwritten and unposted stories, making arrangements for the remainder of the trip, returning phone calls. We do all of this because we have to. Outside the clear bright sky is beckoning us to come out and play. Surprisingly, we resist.
Until lunchtime that is. Around noon we finally step outdoors and begin to reacquaint ourselves with Florence, an easy reintroduction not unlike when two friends who have not seen each other for some time fall back into the conversation they were having when they last saw one another. We shop, peering in the windows of countless beautiful boutiques selling high end clothing, fine jewelry and touristy souvenirs. And we shop some more, taking a half hour to cross the famed Ponte Vecchio, looking in each tiny jewelry store in search of the perfect gift for our daughter back home. And we shop, strolling through the outdoor market at San Lorenzo in search of bargain pashmina scarves for our niece-to-be’s wedding party.
We stop at an old favorite restaurant on the altrarno (the other side of the Arno), its wooden tables packed in a long, brick barrel vaulted cellar, having an unconventional (by Italian standards) lunch that is seemingly served in the wrong order. We stop for a glass of wine at one of the new wine bars that has sprouted up over this old city, enjoying the proprietor’s Chianti riserva under an awning in an outdoor seating area set up in the street which no longer permits automobile traffic. We give a homeless man a coin and, when his sad eyes make contact with the plate of small sandwiches proffered to us by the waitress to accompany our wine, slip him one filled with prosciutto, trying to avoid the disapproving gaze of the waitress.
We do all these things and more as we seem to float, effortlessly, through the streets and through the life of this city. For us, all seems at peace here. All is completely without effort. All is comfortable, relaxing. All is right with the world in Florence.
This is the place where we first came, fifteen or so years ago, taking an apartment on the altrarno, not speaking a word of Italian, not knowing how to buy a cup of coffee or order a pizza. With our son Austin in tow, this tow headed one year old was our ticket to the hearts and minds of our Italian neighbors. Enter the bread store in our neighborhood and you might be ignored for five minutes, the owner serving all of his regulars first. Enter the bakery with this tiny, smiling, blond haired baby, and you were sent to the front of the line, your order filled with a smile, even if you couldn’t explain what you wanted, and a few extra pieces of special schiacciata for il bambino.
After our first two month sojourn here, this is the place we returned to with friends and family, to share the delights we had discovered during our time here. Here we discovered grappa with my mother and father, the first versions tasting like zippo lighter fluid, flavored with grass growing from the cracks in the sidewalk. Here we improbably ate pizza with hot dogs with my mother after spending the better part of the day in a tow truck, our rental car having been incapacitated by feeding it regular fuel (it preferred diesel, thank you). Here we returned for a second grand vacation, this time with two children in two, but with the same result. Here we made our first Italian friends, giving us an even bigger reason to return. Here we shopped the San Lorenzo market, years later with our nearly grown up daughter and her cousin, drank coffee in the Piazza Repubblica until the wee hours of the morning as Greek expats and tourists celebrated their team’s Euro soccer cup victor and luxuriated in the newly renovated Savoy Hotel. Here we managed a group of 17 friends and family, making a grand convoy entrance through the unforgiving traffic of Florence (fortunately on an Easter Monday) and enjoying the kids’ faces as they tried to eat steamed cow’s foot.
So today we do nothing all that special or out of the ordinary. But with every step, every breath of cool, fresh Florentine air, with every turn around every corner we relive and silently recollect all of those experiences, building upon them with each return visit, brick by brick. Like the elegant bell tower on the Palazzo Signoria or the sturdy Palazzo Medici, these memories create works of art that we can cherish for a lifetime.
As we return to our room on the top floor of the Hotel Pierre, languid music suffuses the air, taking wing from the Piazza Repubblica a few blocks away where a Ukrainian woman is singing Italian ballads, accompanied by an accordionist. We open our windows, wrap ourselves in her melodies and drift off to sleep, another perfect Florentine memory to add to our collection.
Thursday, January 18, 2007
Why they thought that a good meal would do the trick is beyond me. Maybe there is something in the way we carry ourselves that says that food is our prime motivator and source of happiness. Perhaps it is the waistline that gives it all away. Whatever it is, the friendly manager suggested to us a dinner at the Osteria la Sosta di Violante and even made a reservation for us. We’re awfully glad that he did.
Siena is a lovely city. It is sophisticated, wealthy and important, but it lives in the shadow of its more well known neighbor, Florence. Strolling the wide stone pedestrian streets from the Continental to the Piazza del Campo, the main square in Siena where the annual palio is held, we were glad that the town was not overrun with American, Japanese and German tourists. There certainly were plenty of them, but not at the Florentine level. We stopped for a drink at a café on the Piazza del Campo, watching the passersby for a while and finally moved on to la Sosta.
Walking into la Sosta di Violante (via di Pantaneto 115, 53100 Siena, tel. 0577.43774) we knew that things had returned to normal. A single small room with perhaps 6 tables, nearly every one full and each with a group of people deep in conversation, smiling, eating, we felt as if we had come home. Our waiter cheerily showed us to our table, which we would occupy for the next three hours. Although he spoke only a little English, he was able to make himself perfectly understood and he seemed excited by our efforts to communicate in Italian and by our obvious interest in and appreciation for his cuisine. I won’t bore you with the details of what we ate that night (picci with pork ragu, picci with butternut squash and radicchio sauce, tagliata (sliced steak), chicken with a spicy mustard sauce, spinach, fagioli and of course grappa). It was a truly cathartic experience that cleansed the day’s earlier disappointments from our memories.
Waking up in Siena the next morning, the slate had been wiped clean. We open the shades and beautiful, bright sunshine streams into the large, high ceilinged room. Outside a beautiful countryside unfolds in the distance, while earthy terra cotta roofs frame the foreground. Although the early morning fog is fading, it wraps itself around the city’s duomo, an enormous cathedral of stone, adorned with black and green stripes in marble. We are anxious to begin our day.
We check out of the Grand Hotel Continental and leave our bags behind, asking that they bring the car around at 2:30 for our drive to Florence. We retrace our steps from the previous evening and then make a turn arriving at the rear of the duomo. We climb the steep stairs up and find ourselves standing where we had parked the night before on our first, aborted attempt to reach the hotel. Needless to say, the duomo is breathtaking, even more inspiring from the piazza than the view from our room.
We enter the cathedral for a brief tour, again overwhelmed by the scale of the church and its beautiful decoration. The floor of the cathedral contains an intricate series pictures in inlaid marble. We are particularly interested to find a design of deers that are on the floor somewhere in the massive cathedral, as that motif is used in the ceramic design Siena, one of our favorite designs that we sell at Bella Italia. After an exhaustive but unsuccessful effort to find the pattern, we head to the cathedral bookstore to find a book that describes the cathedral floor. There we find the location of the pattern and discover the reason we could not find it is that the floor is under partial restoration and the pattern we were looking for was covered with plywood. We settle for a few postcards and leave.
We wind our way through the little streets poking around and into a number of shops. We are interested in the ceramics stores, which feature a mix of ceramics from all over Italy, some of which we recognize, but the prices are sky high. We press on to the Piazza del Campo and sit outside for a small lunch at a touristy restaurant, pizza and pasta, as we watch American school groups embarrass themselves and their countrymen with their total lack of regard for their host country and basic manners.
We finish lunch, enjoying the sunshine and relatively warm weather, sad that our brief visit to Siena is about to end. Returning to the hotel, we find our car waiting outside, with the bags already loaded. We really love this hotel! We get directions to Florence, sure that we will get lost as soon as we back out of parking spot and sure enough, within two minutes the car is beeping, warning us again that the fog lights don’t work, and we have already made several wrong turns. Today, however, we are back in stride and within a few minutes we are out of Siena and on the connector highway between Siena and Florence. We arrive at the outskirts of Florence a short while later, preparing ourselves for the inevitable disaster that awaits – attempting to find a way through Florence’s maze of one way streets to our hotel in the very center of town. On several previous occasions we have circled the entire city a half dozen time trying to penetrate to its center but today, thanks to the mystical power of the previous evening’s dinner, the car wills itself directly to the doorstep of the Hotel Pierre on the very first try. It is only 4:00 and the sun is still high in the sky. We live a truly charmed life in Tuscany.
Check in at the Pierre is a breeze, as we have stayed there before and our passport information is already on file. We drop off our bags and head outdoors to rediscover the city where we first fell in love with Italy many years ago. For us, returning to Florence is like coming home, and when, several hours later, we arrive at our favorite restaurant in Florence and are greeted by the two brothers who run it with big smiles and warm handshakes, it is like coming home to family.
Wednesday, January 17, 2007
When we last spoke with you, we had just returned to the Hilton Rome Airport Hotel after enjoying the sights and sounds of Rome, but certainly not the tastes. The bad taste in our mouths (literally) from the previous day seems to have set the tone for the day, a day in which little seems to go right. But all of that will change.
We wake at the impossibly early hour of 5:15 so that Austin and Norma can check in two hours in advance of their “international” flight to London on Alitalia. From there they will catch a transatlantic flight to Washington on Virgin Airways, but it has been cheaper to book these flights as separate tickets. Buyer beware; cheaper is not always better. Although Rome to London is clearly an international route, requiring check in two hours in advance, Alitalia considers it a domestic flight in terms of baggage allowance. While Austin and Norma are permitted something like 50 kilos per person on the transatlantic flight, Alitalia permits only 20 kilos per person and the resulting overweight charge wipes out nearly all of the savings we had realized. Live and learn.
Despite complying with Alitalia’s 2 hour advance check in requirement on this international flight (for which international baggage limits do not apply), the first Alitalia customer service rep does not show up for work until a half hour later. Meanwhile, across the lobby, British Airways has been checking in its passengers on a Rome to London flight departing at the same time for over an hour. Passengers wait patiently in line while prim BA staffers, in 1950’s style hats, explain to them what will happen when they get to the front of the line, anticipating and solving problems so that the whole affair goes smoothly. The bedlam that is the Alitalia side of the concourse presents a stark contrast. Having to pay a couple of hundred dollars in overweight charges does not help the mood.
But in the end all goes well and Austin and Norma are checked in, clear security and are off to the States after saying their goodbyes and we head back to the hotel to sleep – at least until the sun rises.
A few hours later we head back to the rental car pavilion at Fiumicino to pick up our final rental car of the trip. The efficient check in process we have experienced with our two previous rental cars this trip from Europcar has now given way to the utter confusion of the Avis counter. In the U.S. they may try harder, but they hardly seem to be trying at all here. When Bill goes to the pickup area, the midsized sedan he has reserved is not available, so they offer an “upgrade” – to a gas guzzling behemoth station wagon unfit for Italian cities. Bill balks at their generous offer and we end up with a sporty Alfa GT, smaller than we had originally requested but with amazing speed. It is a bit cramped, but fine for the driving we are going to do, so we take it and head for the A12 autostrada, planning on meandering along the coast and making our way to the ancient city of Viterbo, a city in which a friend’s son had studied last year and who highly recommended visiting.
We ease onto the highway, adjusting mirrors and seats, trying to make ourselves comfortable in this Italian rocket, when we notice a periodic beeping from the dashboard. This being a European car, the warning lights and messages are not flashing in Italian, as we would have expected and which we could make some sense of, but rather in German, apparently having been reset by the previous occupant. As we rocket down the highway, behind schedule, sleep deprived and attempting to deal with the aggravation of the incessant beeping from the dashboard, we struggle to read the owner’s manual so that we can change the language that the warning messages appear in to English or Italian, a task slightly complicated by the fact that the owner’s manual is written in Italian. Suzy attempts to read the instructions to Bill, but her terrible pronunciation coupled with Bill’s limited language skills, plus the necessity of weaving in and out and around the slower cars (which is just about everyone else on the highway), make this an impossibility. Adding to the tension is our growing realization that our leisurely jaunt up the coast and our confidence that we will “find our way to Viterbo” is clearly overly optimistic. We will be lucky to get to Viterbo in time for lunch, if we are fortunate to find a road that goes there. Suzy, with the owner’s manual in one hand is attempting to unfold a map of Lazio (the region around Rome), so we can find the small road to Viterbo, but the map, which has been folded a couple of dozen times to fit into its perfect bookstore shape and size, when unfolded is actually bigger than the car, obscuring the windshield and getting in the way of the stick shift. The small portion that we need is, of course, printed right over one of the folds, requiring the entire map to be unfolded and refolded backwards. Suzy finally manages to isolate the relevant section of the map folded into in a manageable size, alarm buzzers buzzing and terrified motorists swerving off the road to avoid being run over, and we begin a series of large circles, driving first in the direction of Viterbo and then, almost magically, returning to the A12. Several aborted routes later we decide to drive north on the autostrada, past Civitavecchia and take the main road to Viterbo. Perhaps a restaurant will be open when we arrive. At the very least we can get out of this infernal car and away from the telltale warning beep.
We arrive in Viterbo just as the last restaurant is closing. It is 2:55 and it starts to rain. Viterbo will have to be enjoyed another day. We park the car (we count our blessings that we did not rent the station wagon), and eat half a tuna sandwich and a bag of chips at a little bar before abandoning our dreams of Viterbo and driving to Sienna.
Clearly this is a day in which we should have never got out of bed. We navigate the narrow streets of Viterbo, lined with medieval and renaissance stone buildings, following the signs to Siena and Florence, able to unfold just enough of the map to see that there are two routes to Siena, the more direct yellow road and the less direct red road. We opt for the yellow and signs indicate that it is about 120 kilometers away, somewhere around 70 miles to you and me. The road passes through a small town, bobbing and weaving over and around hills, curve after curve when our progress is impeded by a three wheeled vehicle driving around 30 mph. After a few minutes we decide to take our lives in our hands and pass it around a hairpin corners, finally putting the pedal to the metal (this car really flies!) when around the next bend . . . there is another lorry. So we begin a series of stops and starts, periods of great boredom of driving 20-30 mph behind every form of transport invented in the western world, punctuated by a rush of terror as we hurl around the obstruction praying that we don’t meet another car head on in the process. After a while we decide to abandon the direct route. We head east toward the autostrada, fully aware that the drive to the autostrada and from the autostrada to Siena will take an hour, but looking forward to the prospect of driving in a straight line with more than one lane of traffic.
We arrive at the autostrada just outside of Orvieto, descending upon the A1 from the mountains to the west of this amazing town, built on top of a huge rocky plateau. The sight of the city, as we descend from the mountains to the autostrada that snakes its way through the valley below, is the only positive experience we have taken away from this day. We need to hold onto that thought, because as we reach the exit for Siena, the bobbing and weaving begin again. Only this time the sun has set; it is dark and it begins to rain again.
It is hard to really understand what goes on in the minds of Italian traffic planners or road designers. They seem unable or unwilling to allow simple traffic patterns where complex will do. They seem afraid or disdainful of straight lines. Perhaps this is the same streak of artistic genius that resulted in the brilliant inventions of Leonardo and Brunelleschi. But it is hard to see the brilliance in some of the routing that goes on in Italian roadways. We have been able to unfold a portion of the map showing our route to Siena. Based upon our reading of the map we have made what appears to be the logical choice of taking the autostrada north to the exit that is even with Siena, passing an earlier exit that also gave indications for a road to Siena. We exit at Monte San Savino, follow the signs to Siena and are immediately routed back south again, parallel to the autostrada we have just exited, retracing our steps, but on a two lane road seemingly reserved for farm machinery. We curse the entire way back to the previous exit where we finally pick up a decent road for our triumphant entry into Siena.
Triumphant it is. A half hour later we are entering the city walls of this historic power, not exactly sure where our hotel is or how to get there. We do know that it is near the historic center of the town, so we follow signs for the Duomo and the Piazza del Campo, hoping to find signs to the Grand Hotel Continental (who exactly decreed the hotel “grand?”). We drive down pedestrian only streets, getting more than a few ugly stares, passing “authorized traffic only” signs until we finally drive into a piazza directly in front of Siena’s impressive Duomo. It is indeed a spectacular sight. Unfortunately the hotel staff (who we call from our parking spot in front of the Duomo) tells us that we cannot get to the hotel from the Duomo. We must exit the city walls, drive around to a different gate and enter there. We hang up, slump in our sporty little car seats and cry.
How we eventually arrive at the hotel is a mystery. Somehow, with warning systems beeping, pedestrians glaring and signs prohibiting we pull up in front of the Grand Hotel, tired and cranky and fed up. We are expecting disappointment as we enter the hotel lobby, realizing that that a 5 star hotel in Italy does not necessarily translate into service or luxury, but may simply mean that the elevator and the air conditioning always work. From the moment that we are greeted with a friendly “buona sera” it is apparent that this truly is a grand hotel and that Siena is just the antidote for a day we would rather forget. We check into our room, get a map of the city, begin a stroll through the streets of this elegant, sophisticated city and end up having the best meal of the trip. We’ve said enough for this installment, however. It’s time to say good night.
Tuesday, January 16, 2007
The drive from Perugia to Rome is surprisingly easy. It is a weekday but there is little traffic as we head south, past Deruta and Todi, crossing over the A1 autostrada via Narni and Orte. After slightly over an hour we arrive at the outskirts of Rome and turn on to the G.R.A., a kind of beltway or ring road that circles Rome. Lanes merge from 4 lanes to 3 lanes then 3 lanes to 2 and we are caught in a virtual standstill. The final 20 miles of our trip take nearly an hour but just after 11:00 we arrive at the Hilton Rome Airport Hotel, which is connected to Fiumicino’s three main terminals by a walkway and people movers.
The hotel is big and spacious, very much like an American hotel. Surprisingly, our rooms are ready and we return the rental car and drop off our bags. We discover the real beauty of the hotel, however, as we inquire about arranging a taxi into Rome. The hotel, we are told, has a private shuttle bus that takes guests into Rome every two hours, with return trips every two hours as well. We are there just in time to catch the 12:00 bus and, amazingly, considering that several hours ago we were zipping up our suitcases in Perugia, a few short minutes later we are bound for Rome. We spend the bus ride making plans to spend Austin and Norma’s last day shopping and sightseeing.
The Hilton bus lets us off in front of the Teatro Marcellus, a few steps away from the Capitoline Hill and the Forum, and very conveniently located in the center of Rome. We drag ourselves up the long staircase to Michelangelo’s piazza on the Capitoline Hill and enjoy his archetypical Renaissance palazzos that enclose the piazza. Around the back of the piazza is a terrific vantage point over the Roman Forum and we take a number of photos, including a number of Latin inscriptions that adorn the fragments of friezes that have been restored, hoping that this will earn our daughter Lindsey some extra credit in her Latin class.
The rest of the day is spent walking, sightseeing and shopping over miles and miles of Roman landscape. While we have visited Rome now a number of times, each visit has been brief and we do not consider ourselves experts – more likely only advanced beginners. We do know the lay of the land, however, and find that the city is eminently walkable, despite the crowds of tourists which are here even in the winter time. We walk up Via Corso, a fairly upscale area, heading for our three major landmarks – the Pantheon, the Piazza Navonna and the Trevi Fountain. We typically include two other points in defining our Roman universe, the Spanish Steps and the Campo dei Fiori, but today we are likely going to avoid the trendy shops and mobs of the Spanish Steps.
At this hour many of the shops are closed shops, so we wander to the Pantheon, one of the most studied buildings in Art History 101. No matter how many times you happen upon this structure, it popping into sight from between buildings as you enter the piazza, its magnificence never ceases to amaze you. We wander around the outside and inside for a while before heading for the Piazza Navona, where we expect to have a nice, if overpriced and touristy, lunch and do some people watching, waiting for the shops to reopen.
For the first time in our experience, the Piazza Navona is a complete disappointment. Only a few street artists are set up in the middle of the long oval piazza and there are few tourists or others milling around. The Bernini fountain, which figures prominently in Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons is under renovation and is completely shielded from sight by a wooden fence erected around it. Most disappointing, however, is that only one or two of the many cafes that line the piazza, and which typically are abuzz with activity, are open and those that are nearly empty. We decide to sit and have lunch anyway and are treated to the worst meal we have had on this trip, a fact which is not exactly surprising, but disappointing. We expected tourist-bad with a lively atmosphere. What we got was bad-bad with no atmosphere, kind of like a restaurant on the moon.
After lunch we wander down to the Campo dei Fiore, an outdoor food and flower market that is one of our favorite places to hang out in Rome. It is afternoon so the market has closed and where several hours earlier stall after stall of fresh produce, colorful fruits and fish and meat vendors was set up, the piazza is empty, save for a few flower vendors at the far end of the square. The Campo dei Fiori always seems alive, however, and there is a good crowd of people and a palpable buzz and energy. We stop for an excellent ice cream, something we have completely underaccomplished on this trip and wander through numerous trendy little shops that line the neighborhood.
Our shopping and strolling finally takes us past the Trevi Fountain, where we make our wishes and throw our coins in the fountain. Time is getting late, and we decide to search for a trattoria near the bus stop. After rejecting restaurant after restaurant we finally settle on a small trattoria literally around the corner from our pickup spot. Unfortunately our Trevi Fountain wishes have not come true – perhaps we should have thrown in more valuable coins – as this dinner is even worse than our lunch. Perhaps that is an unfair statement, because the food is better then the tepid pizza that hasn’t been microwaved long enough at lunch. But the experience of table, the very thing that makes for so many enjoyable meals here in Italy, is totally lacking at this Rome restaurant. Perhaps this jaded owner has had his fill of vapid Americans making a mockery of his proud vocation through their words and deeds. But we expect and deserve better than the shrugs and sneers we receive, plates and bowls slapped down in front us as if challenging us to a duel. We try everything Signore Personalita has to offer -- gnocchi with tomato sauce, ravioli with tomato sauce, fettucine with tomato sauce and spaghetti carbonara, but the whole affair is soulless and empty. Our main courses are good enough -- roast chicken, veal paillard, veal saltimbocca and veal Milanese, but both we and he are simply marking our time until the bus arrives. I will say that the profiteroles are excellent, swimming in chocolate cream, but it is too late to save this meal. A few moments later we hop on the bus and soon are heading off to sleep on one of those rare days in Italy where food not only did not play an important role, but where it made the experience worse.
Monday, January 15, 2007
Clothes shopping, like many other shopping experiences in Italy, is a very different affair. It is not possible to go in and grab several sizes hoping to fit into the smallest one. Most shops display only a few items, in a single size, and everything else is boxed up and out of reach. If you are interested in buying, or even looking, you are at the mercy of the shopkeeper. He or she will tell you your size and what to try on. While this can sometimes feel humiliating it does avoid the humiliation of having a dressing room full of clothes that are too small. We find a men’s clothing store that we have walked by several times and Bill puts himself in the hands of an attractive young saleslady who is very comfortable checking everything for size. After a protracted sales dance, we purchase several items, say grazie and head back outside.
We meet Austin and Norma at the Locanda della Posta and walk a few blocks to the car park, the Mercato Coperto (covered market), a two storey structure that is built into the cliffs below the old town and which is accessed by an elevator that takes you from street level to the subterranean garage a hundred feet below. Our destination is Deruta, the spiritual center of the ceramics industry in Italy. The historic center of upper Deruta consists of studio after studio of artists painting and offering their pieces for sale to the mostly American public. While we see a few new studios it is sad to see that a number of studios that have closed down – and not just for the winter. The ceramics industry in Italy and particularly Deruta is facing hard times, mostly from cheap Chinese knock offs and other work farmed out to places such as Tunisia and eastern Europe. These new centers utilize cheap labor to paint in the Italian style. We are saddened because we strongly believe that there is something more timely and magical about the pieces we see being painted in Italy by Italian artists, many with generations of experience in their blood. Our sadness also stems from the fact that we consider many of the men and women we meet in the streets of Deruta as our friends.
Despite a house that is bursting at the seams with ceramics, Suzy finds several new pieces that we have shipped back home. Our shopping spree in upper Deruta is too short and we make plans to return at the end of the trip, or at least on our next trip.
Maybe we do eat too much in Italy. One dead giveaway is that restaurant owners always seem to recognize us and seem delighted when we return. We have planned to meet Gerardo Rigibini, the owner of Geribi ceramics at Tavola e Favola, one of the best restaurants in Deruta and one where we have dined a few times in the past. In what is becoming an all too frequent occurrence, as we enter the restaurant the waiter leaps up, runs over and shakes Bill’s hand. He doesn’t speak much English, but it is clear that he is thrilled to see him again and that he will take very good care of us. No need for menus – he knows what Bill would like to eat and proceeds to bring us lunch, announcing each course before he brings it, but not putting up his selections for discussion. We start with an antipasto platter with some sliced meats that are the specialty of central Italy – braesola, prosciutto and salami, as well as some local cheeses. Next he brings each of us plates with two pastas – a ravioli with black truffle sauce and a fettucine with tomato sauce. While these are delicious, it is the beef that the restaurant is known for and Paolo brings us tagliata, rare slices of grilled steak served with arucola and tomatoes. It is to die for. We have little time to linger today, so we have to say no to the jeraboam of grappa beckoning us, but we make a mental note to have two glasses of grappa when we return later in the week.
Austin has college applications that are due at midnight and Norma still has a shopping list of shopping a mile long, so we drop them at the Locanda della Posta in Perugia and head back down to Ponte San Giovanni to meet with Walter, the man whose house we are negotiating to rent. It is a difficult finale to our earlier negotiations and everyone seems to be unhappy, even though we seem to have come to agreement. Such is business, whether it is in America or Italy.
This has been a wearying day, from our early start to the quick visits to Deruta, Gerardo, Walter and a brief visit to Javier’s studio. We return to Perugia late and without definitive dinner plans. We decide to try a new trattoria, highly recommended by our good friend Michele Fioroni. We enter the elegant but empty entry and an engaging Italian woman greets us, immediately warning us that their credit card machine is not working. No worries, as our son Austin is flush with cash. Over the next two hours we proceed to have a wonderful meal, although it is unlike most we are used to. Instead of the traditional Umbrian pastas and meats served in a home-style environment, typically by members of the owner’s family, this is a white tablecloth affair, with nouveau Italian cuisine. But the service and friendliness of our waitress, who had greeted us earlier, bridge the gap from a sterile, formal affair to the warmth of the traditional Umbrian trattoria. The result is a comfortable, enjoyable evening with a very different cuisine. It is not something that we would choose every night, but this night it seems to work.
We start with a nouveau selection of first courses. Austin has a chocolate cannoloni stuffed with cheese, prosciutto on a potato puree. Suzy has half moon pastas made with quail eggs stuffed with duck in an amatriciana tomato sauce with cappellini with black truffle. Bill opts for the traditional stringozzi (a thick homemade spaghetti) with norcina sauce, a creamy sauce made with sausage and truffle. Austin follows with tagliata di bue grilled sliced beef with black truffle sauce, Suzy has a turkey breast stuffed with sausage on a dried fig compote and Bill has rabbit with pistachio crust. For desert we share a foot long tray of little pastries, which Austin devours and Suzy cuts in half, proclaiming, without trying them, whether they are good or not. Coffee and a tray of cookies follows, putting a cap on the day.
It has been a long day, but a good one. A cumulative fatigue seems to be settling upon the travelers and we have an early start planned for tomorrow so we can spend a day in Rome before Austin and Norma return home. So it is off to sleep, hoping to delay the hour when the alarm clock squeals its admonition to rise once again.
Sunday, January 14, 2007
Menard family lore has it that the patriarch of the family, a bit of a scallywag in his youth and one who supported the Boston Red Sox as much as the next man or boy living in Cohassett, Massachusetts, grew tired of hearing others’ names announced over the air during the game broadcasts. As the story goes, he and his brother, then both south of ten years old decided to send their own telegram to the Red Sox broadcast team, touting the joy one gets from listening to the Red Sox as well as the smooth taste of Kentucky Colonel pipe tobacco. During a break in the action the town was shocked to hear that “Lyman and Lincoln Menard are sitting on our porch, rooting for the Red Sox and enjoying a pipe full of Kentucky Colonel.” And so perhaps it is genetic that I, too, feel the urge to broadcast to the world just what is going on in my little corner of the world, here in Siena, enjoying a dose of Tuscan morning. It’s much healthier than pipe smoking.
Today’s installment is not about Siena; that will come later. This entire trip has been an exercise in catching up, as we have raced across the boot of Italy from the knee to the heel, back up to the knee, down to the shin, back to the knee and finally to some place that would, if Italy really were a boot (with a leg inside), be covered with muscle and bone. We have not exactly worked ourselves to the bone, but the constant movement and travel, packing and unpacking has left little time to chronicle and post our (fascinating) adventures in real time. So while we awake this morning in Siena, in the heart of Tuscany, we are writing about what transpired a couple of days ago less than a hundred miles away in Umbria, having in the interim spent a day in Rome, said our goodbyes to Austin and Norma at the Rome airport, made a too-brief and ill-planned stop in Viterbo and fought our way against traffic and an annoying rental car here to Siena. Stay tuned for these exciting episodes, dear reader, and why not fire up a bowl of Kentucky Colonel to keep you company along the way?
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It is Sunday morning and Perugia is very quiet, a pleasant contrast to last night’s crowds. Today is perhaps the most important day of the trip; we plan to spend it with our friend and associate Javier Casuso to hammer out the details of a deal in which we will acquire a long-term rental of a charming property outside of Perugia, with the intention of establishing a business of renting to vacationers and organizing Bella Italia-led groups to Italy. After a quick coffee and pastry, we drive to Brufa to meet with Walter, the owner of the house we are hoping to rent. It is a short drive, just a few minutes outside of Perugia and although the day is hazy and gray, the house is delightful. As we walk through the airy bedrooms upstairs we begin to think of how we will furnish the house and how different types of families might use it. The downstairs kitchen is perfect, a huge rustic space with high wood beamed ceilings and a huge wooden fireplace. The room is big enough for a table for 12 and a few steps away one can walk out onto a covered portico. The garden is right outside and we envision the food we can create. Walter promises to start work on the back of the bottom floor adding two more bedrooms and bathrooms. We walk outside to look at the garden and the pool. We can imagine a few lounge chairs and some ceramic tables that will soon be sitting under the olive trees in our own little retreat.
Negotiations take time and much has changed since our initial conversation with Walter in October. We go back and forth and then agree to meet again tomorrow. We are cold and our feet are wet as we head back to the car somewhat disappointed. Javier happily tells us not to worry, that we are going to look at another property. Great! How big, where is it, does it have a pool? No worries, we will find out when we get there. The drive is beautiful and after every turn we look to see if the next farmhouse could be ours. The drive goes on and on and we get further and further from the highway. The view becomes even more amazing as we look out over the rich, fertile Umbrian landscape, spying many of the houses we had passed along the way. At last we pull up to the house we have come to visit. It is not quite what we had in mind. I am sure that in its day it was a beautiful old stone farmhouse, but in the present it looks like the shed from which Jed Clampett took his family when he discovered black gold. At least it has its original sone floors, which are slightly (okay very) uneven and its original walls. There is not a bit of plumbing or electricity to be had. It takes a great deal of imagination to see the beauty of the house and we can’t escape the dollar signs dancing in every nook and cranny. We leave without even asking the price. No doubt, ten years from now some canny investor will be sipping a glass of Montefalco Rosso, looking over these same hills, congratulating himself on his wise investment.
We drive to the town of Bevagna for lunch, one of Umbria’s most charming small towns, crowned by an extremely well preserved historic central square. The restaurant is, of course, unmarked, but we open the door and are greeted with a room warmed by a fire and the smell of rich Umbrian fare, a simple hearty cooking that highlights grilled meats and rich pastas that we have longed for despite many fine meals along the coasts. We are inspired by the fire and order bistecca alla Fiorentina for lunch. In the meantime, the pastas are house made and are great. The steak arrives perfectly grilled and for once it is not enough food – perhaps this is a blessing. We finish lunch and walk around the small town. Down every street there is a wonderful view of rooftops and arches. Bill and Austin take photo after photo.
We return to Perugia and plan to meet for dinner outside Assisi, at a restaurant that Bill visited last October. Since then the legend of this place has grown to almost epic proportions and we decide that we all must give it a try. La Stalla, which means the barn, is a simple room located next to a campground above Assisi. Nearly all of the food is prepared on a wood fired grill that is in the middle of the room, providing entertainment as well as nourishment. Over the years the whitewashed stone walls have become covered with soot from the fire, adding to the charm of the place.
We start with the grilled stuffed tartes – round bread toasted over the fire and filled with sausages, cheese or proscuitto. This is accompanied by a wooden bowl of polenta topped with tomato sauce and some grilled sausage crumbles. After a while the grilled meats start to arrive – sausages, lamb chops, pigeon, chicken. Our eyes roll back and we begin to forget what is arriving, simply trying to keep up with the onslaught of food. Finally little ramekins of melted cheeses arrive, which are smeared over more grilled bread, adding a satisfying layer on top of the animal slaughter that has preceded it. We call the evening and the day quits, forgoing a grappa in light of the long windy drive back to Perugia. And, because Italy’s restaurants have recently banned smoking (even in restaurants where the walls are covered with soot), we don’t light up a pipe full of Kentucky Colonel. That can wait until baseball season begins.
Saturday, January 13, 2007
Compared to our disastrous entry into Sorrento several days ago our departure from Sorrento is a breeze. Literally, as a cool breeze provides a refreshing tailwind as we ease from the tree-lined driveway of the Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittorio and into the chaotic streets of Sorrento. But today is Saturday and the hour is still early, the result of which is an almost pleasant drive through Sorrento until we reach the A3 autostrada, the motorway spur we were unable to find several days ago on our arrival into Sorrento and which resulted in us driving endlessly through the streets of Castelammare di Stabbia. Today, speeding along on the A3, an elevated highway high above the blight that is Castelammare, we soon find ourselves on the A1, the “autostrada del sole” which will take us to Rome and beyond.
We originally had planned to drive directly to Perugia, but we have changed our plans to include a brief meeting and lunch with one of our olive oil suppliers along the way. A few hours later we arrive at the arranged exit in Frosinone, about 45 minutes south of Rome, where we are to meet the Varriale brothers and Alfredo Cetrone, the owner of Frantoio Cetrone, producer of the award winning Cetrone olive oil. We exit the autostrada and park on the other side of the toll booth, looking suspiciously like a mob pickup. We call Carmine Varriale, who along with his brother Gianni is one of Cetrone’s principle sales managers, only to discover that his group is still 30 minutes away, a frustrating, but not unexpected turn of events on our trip. When the Varriale brothers and Alfredo Cetrone arrive their excitement is contagious and the delay is forgotten.
We follow the entourage back to their small home town, a lovely beach town just south of Rome that is so enchanting we have decided not to name it, referring to it only as “X.” This is the place where they produce Cetrone’s oil. The drive directly east from the autostrada takes about a half hour and covers some of the most beautiful scenery we have ever seen in Italy, passing soaring mountains and deep valleys, river streams and, everywhere olive trees. The drive along the autostrada gave absolutely no hint that the countryside would be this beautiful and we are in complete and absolute awe. About 20 minutes down the road the Cetrone entourage pulls over. We are very confused: is there a problem? Are they switching drivers? Have we gone the wrong way? No, this is why they insisted on having us follow them, rather than simply meeting in X – the hills ahead are covered with Cetrone’s gaeta olive trees and they did not want us to miss this sight.
The remaining ten minutes or so of the drive is beautiful and soon we catch a glimpse of the sparkling blue sea, which you can’t seem to avoid when you are in Italy. We enter the town of X and continue through the town center until we reach the beach, a wide expanse of white sand that stretches north toward Rome and south toward Naples. Although there are plenty of beachside hotels, the town is extremely pretty and well kept and unspoiled by overdevelopment. We park and walk to the Ristorante Violete where Alfredo and Gianni are unloading and carrying a number of boxes into the restaurant.
Alfredo is greeted heartily by the owner, a great big man with an even bigger mustache, who also gives us a loud buon giorno and we are directed to a table. Being a celebrity of sorts in these parts, Alfredo has arranged for the owner to open the boxes he has brought, which are filled with bottles of Cetrone olive oil and jars of olive products, including green and black olives in olive oil and brine and some in aromatic spices, green and black olive paste and artichokes in oil with wild herbs and mint, and to serve them to us. The owner brings baskets of toasted bread on which he soaks the olive oil – Alfredo makes two types of olive oil from the gaeta olive, intenso, which an extremely intensely flavored fruity oil pressed at the very beginning of the harvest and medio, still a strong, fruity oil, but with more subtleties and balance – and prepares bruschetta topped with the olive paste. We hear the story of these products from Alfredo, but the oil and the other foods do the real talking. After twenty minutes or so there are crusts and pits and puddles of oil all around and we haven’t even had lunch yet!
Then, once again as we have become accustomed to on this trip, the orgy of eating, worthy of Emperor Caligula, begins. This being a seaside resort, seafood is the order of the day. Many of the antipasto selections are slathered with more of Alfredo’s oil, which with its intensely green color and even more intense fruity flavor does not seem to overpower the rather intense fruits of the sea. Several plates of mussels baked with bread crumbs, garlic and olive oil arrive, followed by steamed mussels, and briny raw oysters. A seafood salad of calamari, octopus, celery, shrimp and steamed mussels arrives and is devoured by all. Steamed peeled shrimp on arucola follow, as well as long thin shells which we think are called file shells, with a small delicate meat inside, and then large grilled gamberoni (shrimp). Fritters – fried dough balls with bits of fish are passed around and one can sense that the party is beginning to lose some steam. Alfredo speaks with pride of his oil, noting that he is the fifth generation Cetrone to run the business, a decision he made after deciding against pursuing his lifelong dream of being a chef. He notes with pride that when he decided to become an oilmaker like his father he decided to be the best and the Cetrone oil’s recent awards – first prize for a monocultivar olive oil in the region of Lazio and voted in the top 10 oils in Italy last year – is confirmation that he is succeeding in his dream. Each bottle of the Cetrone oil has a small tag tied around the neck, a booklet of sorts that describes the oil and the family. On one page is a picture of Alfredo and a diner at another table recognizes him from the picture on the bottle and requests and audience. Such is the importance of olive oil in these parts.
During Alfredo’s absence more food arrives -- raw gamberi which although we are hesitant to try are subtle and delectable. More varieties of cooked shrimp and marinated sardines finish up the antipasto course. We have finally completed the first lap. More – many more – to come.
Compared to the antipasto course our main course is relatively straight forward. We enjoy a grilled white fish, of course drenched in Cetrone oil and lemon. Grilled calamari, grilled shrimp and more mussels are similarly bathed and consumed. Despite the embarrassingly large quantities of food we have consumed it all seems so light and we are not as full as we should be. This is a good thing because the desserts are about to begin. A plate of interesting looking cookies arrives, large and crunchy with flakes similar to corn or bran flakes plastered all over the outside. We enjoy them when the most beautiful plate of sorbetti is presented. We have enjoyed fruit sorbet throughout Italy and it is often served in the hollowed out fruit skin from which it came. For example, a lemon sorbet will be served in the lemon, orange sorbet in a hollowed out orange. Today’s sorbetti are literal works of art, each looking like the native fruit, berry or nut from whence it came – walnut, chestnut, lemon, lime, peaches, plums, bananas, strawberries, prickly pear, pineapple. With each bite of each different but delicious sorbet pangs of guilt rush to the surface, as though we are desecrating a great work of art. But art never tasted so good.
Finally it is time for coffee and grappa and today’s grappa is a refined champagne grappa made from grapes used to produce French champagne. While tasting nothing like its bubbly distant cousin it is a warm, sophisticated cap to a wonderful meal. The final memorable moment is a gag which is perfectly executed by the owner against Carmine, who with an iron will has resisted the temptation to gorge himself as the others have all afternoon. Passing around little cups of espresso to each of us, the owner appears to drop a cup right over Carmine’s lap onto his beautiful pinstriped suit. Nearly leaping to his feet, Carmine realizes that the cup was empty and that it has been hooked to the saucer by running a spoon through the handle. The clanking and apparent plunge of the cup into Carmine’s lap brings great merriment to everyone at the table, especially Alfredo who has arranged for the joke with the owner.
Time is running late. We have been with Alfredo, Carmine and Gianni since 11:30 and it is now past 4:00. But they will not allow us to leave, insisting that we see a little of their beautiful city – X. They take us to a pre-Christian Roman temple of Zeus, which is perched on a cliff directly above the city. The view of the city, the ocean and up and down the coast is breathtaking. We then make a short visit to Alfredo’s offices, before departing around 6:00. Our brief detour to visit our olive oil producer has taken practically the entire day. But it is these unscheduled, unanticipated adventures that make our visits to Italy so rewarding.
We say our goodbyes and return to the A1 as the sun is setting to complete our drive to Perugia. While the sun does set early in the winter – we do seem to frequently finish lunch as the sun is setting – the drive goes quickly and we arrive at the lower part of Perugia by 8:00. Getting into Perugia is not a simple chore. It is a long way up and the road twists and turns and branches every whichway. Bill seems to know the way and up we go. As we near the top we realize that we are not allowed to drive in the upper city and that our hotel is on a pedestrian road. Not a good thought considering the amount of baggage in the car. We decide to take our chances driving into the historic center and park in a temporary space half a block from the hotel. This may be the approved way – Bill races down to the hotel to see what to do and returns with a bellboy pulling a large luggage cart. We check-in and head off for an evening passagiata down the main street, thinking of place for a light dinner. We settle upon the Bottega del Vino, an inviting wine bar with nice antipasto plates, but it is too crowded and the young waitress struggles with our English and Italian just shaking her head muttering that no that we can’t have a table now or later, until under Bill’s persistence she finally breaks into perfect English (turns out she too is American) and pretends to take our name. We head back out to the street knowing that we will have to return another night. It is getting late and the streets are packed with people. It is 9:15 and the Corso Vannucci, the wide pedestrian street is full of people animatedly talking and walking. Perugia is a university town, but the street is full of people of all ages. Families walking with their small children, old women in their fur coats and of course the young crowd her are just starting out for the night.
We decide that despite our large lunch, enough time has passed and we can enjoy a meal at our favorite restaurant in Perugia, the Osteria del Ghiottone. We enter and are surprised when the owner greets Bill enthusiastically, remembering him from our many visits in the past and his most recent visit in October. We have called Javier to let him know that we arrived safely and he is on his way to meet us. As hoped we have a wonderful meal – just a light pasta and grilled meat. Maybe a little dessert to finish and of course coffee and grappa. Austin and Norma have had enough for the day and head back to the hotel. We walk the streets with Javier and stop in at a local coffee bar for one last drink, a final punctuation mark on a wonderful, special day.
Friday, January 12, 2007
About a half hour after leaving Sorrento we arrive in Positano, the internationally renowned jet-setter’s dream come true. Another 30 minutes and we are in the more charming coastal town of Amalfi, which despite its image as a humble seaside town and tourist magnet, was at one time the center of a worldwide empire, controlling towns as far away as Pisa.
After cursing local parking attendants and drivers, we find an illegal parking space not far from the main square and we walk to it, where steep steps lead up to the entrance of the Duomo the Cattedrale di Sant’Andrea. The streets are full of little bars selling coffees, gelato and slices of pizza and there is a bustle of activity in every direction. There are several jewelry shops selling coral and cameos and plenty of silver and gold pieces. It wouldn’t be Amalfi without the little food shops selling local pasta, sauces, cookies and candies. The entire coast seems to be one enormous lemon orchard and the lemon theme runs deep – the shops are selling lemon soap, lemon candy, lemon cookies, lemon crackers, limoncello liqueur. The fruit stands have lemons as small as a walnut and as large as a grapefruit.
The drive to Ravello is beautiful although the two way road, which snakes its way ever upward is even narrower than the coast road. We arrive at the car park below the city square and walk up the stairs to the main square and down a small quiet street to Pasquale’s beautiful shop. As usual Pasquale is full of energy and plans for the next year. We discuss which ceramic pieces have sold well and he shows us new designs available to be shipped in the spring. We are still recovering from our Christmas season, but Pasquale is ready to begin the new year. We make lists of pieces and designers and promise place an order as soon as we get back home.
What is special about this day, however, is not the business that transpires, even though that is our primary purpose. Instead, Pasquale offers to spend a couple of hours with us exploring the jewel that is Ravello. We are ready, overdue in fact, for a little unscheduled time and when he offers to take us to the Villa Cimbrone, one of Ravello’s more famous landmarks, we agree. The group of five begins a leisurely, albeit sometimes strenuous walk through the narrow, winding streets of Ravello, up steep inclines, past beautiful private homes and classy hotels, each sharing staggeringly beautiful views from vantage points perched high above the cliffs and valleys below, views that inevitably lead to the expanse of the sea that stretches to the limits of sight, disappearing into the chalky haze of the sky. For fifteen minutes we indulge ourselves in this cardiovascular and sensory workout until we arrive at the gates of the Villa Cimbrone. Although it is written about in all of the guidebooks, we know little about it, save what Pasquale tells us. A privately owned villa, it, and more importantly, its gardens, are open to the public, giving everyone (who pays an entry fee) an opportunity to walk down tree lined avenues, relax in geometric gardens and sit in solitude, bathed in warm sunshine and crisp, fresh air that has made a journey from the sea below, across the citrus groves and baking, rocky cliffs until it, too, finds relaxation and sanctuary in this special place.
We stroll, and I use that word carefully, because one does not walk or saunter, one languidly strolls along the lanes here at the Villa, for a time, spying old ruins, bronze sculptures and heroic statues from days gone by, until we reach the belvedere, a word from the Italian bel (meaning beautiful) and vedere (to see), a sort of gallery at the end of the park, with a few benches and a few terraced porches with marble railings topped with busts that have been worn away by the elements over time. On the other side of the railing the terrain falls away, completely and absolutely, as the belvedere is perched on the edge of the cliff that marks the property boundary of the Villa. From here the view is breathtaking but after the initial gasp it becomes almost karmic, if I use that word correctly, because the sight before you is the single and central stimulus that floods the senses, not overwhelming them, but purging them, cleansing them, allowing you to find your center, without even thinking about it. Yes, the belvedere at the Villa Cimbrone is a zen experience. Your eyes slowly move from one hill to another, from a tiny white settlement in the mountains to a shiny seaside town, to the sparkling blue green ocean. Your eyes and brain enjoy the beauty of all that it sees, but all the while your soul is taking a long, deep, cleansing exhale. You find peace here.
It is hard to top an experience such as this, particularly as we are not aware of how this brief sojourn has refreshed us. The beauty of it all is that there is no need to try to outdo ourselves. In Italy, and especially in Ravello we are finding, experiences come in all shapes and sizes, and not always positive. But the experiences themselves are what is important, so we return to Ravello’s main square and decide to make a brief visit to the Villa Rufolo, a villa much smaller than the Villa Cimbrone, just a few paces off the main square. We enter and pass a building where chorale music is softly playing in the background, leading Pasquale to mention the numerous outdoor musical events that take place in Ravello throughout the year, especially in the summer. We pass ancient Roman ruins and newly excavated bread ovens, a reminder of the ancient settlements that covered this distant mountain outpost. After a relaxing stroll and more beautiful views we say our goodbyes to Pasquale and begin our descent from Ravello, bound for Sorrento.
Dusk has begun to fall and our drive back is in the dark. Bill thinks perhaps it is easier driving the coastal road in the dark because the headlights warn you of oncoming cars. The rest of us in the car are happy not to be driving the narrow road with or without warning headlights.
We arrive back in Sorrento exhausted from the day. We spend an hour or two packing, catching up on our travel notes and finally relaxing on the balcony with a glass of white wine. Norma wisely decides to call it a night but around 9:00 the rest of us set out for dinner. We decide on a restaurant called Caruso’s which looks a little fancy for our taste, but it is the last of the open restaurants we have found. The restaurant is named after the tenor Enrico Caruso and the walls are covered with framed photos and concert programs. Of course the music playing over the speakers is opera. There is a nice crowd in the restaurant and we appreciate not eating in an almost empty room for a change. The waiter brings us a glass of prosecco as we look over the menu. We are also brought a plate of freshly baked bread bits. We smother them in olive oil and begin snacking. Bill orders the vermicelli with clams, Suzy has her usual pappardelle with shellfish and Austin has risotto with artichokes and clams. The first course is impressive and we dig in with gusto. For a second course Bill has the fish acqua pazza (fish with crazy water), Suzy has breaded fish with clams, Austin, who has had enough seafood on this trip, orders Veal Caruso – which turns out to be veal with shrimp. We order fresh pineapple for dessert, which is tasteless and tough, but we are full so it is not a problem.
The waiter offers us limoncello with our coffee, when in Sorrento…. Bill enjoys the icy glass but Suzy thinks it tastes like chemicals. We settle up and walk back to the hotel to finish packing for our departure in the morning.
Thursday, January 11, 2007
After breakfast, Bill is off to the telephone store to complete his internet purchase and Austin, Norma and Suzy head off to find souvenirs in Sorrento. And souvenirs are exactly what a city like Sorrento is made for. One little stand after another with aprons, inexpensive ceramics and postcards. We find treats for everyone as we wander the streets. On our way back to the hotel we pass the Duomo Santi Fillipo e Giacomo and walk in. The church is not nearly as impressive as the ones we have seen earlier this week the simple façade is a result of modern construction. The choir stalls behind the altar are a beautiful demonstration of the local wooden inlaid artwork. There are a few paintings from the 16th and 17th century, but the church is not massive. A small group local woman are busily cleaning the individual altars and we remember that each church has its own special significance.
We meet back at the hotel and assemble on the hotel’s back terrace, which faces the Bay of Naples and is perched a hundred feet above the city’s marina. There we take a tiny elevator directly from the hotel to the port below. The elevator is small and shaky and halfway down we regret having stepped on, but soon afterwards the doors open. For some reason the elevator does not stop at ground level; instead we have to take stairs another flight down to the marina. The 11:45 ferry is about to leave, so we race to the dock and catch it, headed for the Island of Capri. The skies are a little gray but the view is still breathtaking as we head out. It is a perfect opportunity to see the sheerness of the cliffs and how the buildings are built directly into the side of the mountain. The ride is about 20 minutes and the wind is a bit chilly but we insist on enjoying the view from up top of the boat.
When we arrive we are greeted with a touristy dock of stands where you can buy tickets for boat rides, gelato, tacky souvenirs and guided tours. We head to buy tickets for the funiculare which is a straight ride up to the mountain to Capri town. The tickets are easy to buy but when we get to the funiculare it is locked up tight. We ask next door and they tell us to use our tickets to take the small orange bus to the top. We board the crowded bus and are treated to a wild ride on a windy narrow road.
When we get to the top we are ready for a break to catch our breath. The combination of the fast ride, the narrow road and buses passing on the opposite side have worn us out. As we enjoy our coffee and hot chocolate we read through the guide book of all that we should see. Fuhgetaboutit. It is time to enjoy Capri. The view from the main piazza is amazing. The sheer cliffs and the color of the sea below are a perfect combination. We wander the streets, enjoying the amazing collection of high end Italian shops throughout this tiny town – all of which are empty and opening again in March of 2007. Not a sale to be had, just empty. There are a few dedicated shops that are open, little perfumeries and clothing stores. We walk past gorgeous hotels and restaurants – all closed. We finally stumble upon the Canfora shoe store which is fortunately still open. Amadeo Canfora snc, Via Camerelle 3, 80073 Capri (NA) Italy, (39) 081.837.0487, www.canfora.com. In addition to a delightful collection of sandals, Canfora hand makes the Capri sandals made famous by many celebrities, most notably Jackie Onassis. We (Suzy) try on several pairs and finally ask if they have a certain style in her size. No problem – they can make them on the spot. She tries several bases and then we wait as they attach the straps she has chosen. After a few adjustments, they fit like a glove! The final alterations are made and we walk out with a perfect pair of sandals. I’m sure Suzy will be mistaken for Jackie Onassis or Sophia Loren when she wears them.
Fortunately the shoe shop has called around and found a restaurant that is open for lunch. We walk through the streets finishing our window shopping and never find an open restaurant. We go back to the main piazza and head down several side streets (not quite understanding the directions but knowing that somewhere there is an open restaurant). The Ristorante Buca di Bacco, Via Longana 35, is a sight for sore eyes. It has a small dining room with a little window looking out onto the water. We settle into our table and order aqua frizzante and naturale and a bottle of the local Aglianico red wine. While the pastas and seafood entrees look amazing we are all delighted to try the pizzas. Bill has the DOC, the authorized pizza with tomato and mozzarella, Norma has pizza with champignon mushrooms, Austin has pizza diavalo – spicy salami, and Suzy has the Siciliana – with tomato, mozzarella and eggplant. We split a mixed green salad and decide that since we are on the isle of Capri it is important to try the Caprese salad – sliced tomatoes and fresh mozzarella. It is a perfect light, relaxing lunch and we enjoy almost every bite debating whether the restaurants in Italy should offer doggie bags so that we can enjoy more later or whether it is better to start over again at every meal. We all clean our plates so the discussion becomes a moot point. We finish with coffee and grappa.
We continue our window shopping – Bill’s favorite since everything is closed and all we can do is look and dream. We follow a little side street to get some shots of the water and then head up through tiny narrow streets. After a little way we realize we have no idea where we are and through the narrow maze it is impossible to do more than continue to follow the signs to Belvedere Cannone. The streets becomes steeper and steeper but we are committed and don’t turn back. We wind around corner after corner and go up higher and higher wishing that we were in better shape. Huffing and puffing we finally we arrive at a dead end, saved only by the fact that it is a beautiful view of the cliffs and the island from way up high (no surprise given the walk we have just taken.) Everybody snaps shot after shot – the boats sitting in the water, the sun setting, the trees, the houses built into the side of the cliffs – there is no limit to the number of spectacular shots we can get. Finally we remember that we have a ferry to catch, so it’s off we go. Downhill seems much easier than the uphill trip – we make a few turns and find a flight of stairs which leads us right to the bus turnaround. We buy tickets and quickly board the little orange bus with ten minutes to spare to catch our 4:25 ferry. Yeah right. The bus keeps waiting for passengers and despite the hair raising speed at which we descend the mountain, we arrive on the dock just as the ferry is leaving. We take deep relaxing breathes, remembering that we are on vacation with no set schedule and begin to check out the little souvenir shops along the water – nothing impressive although we can’t resist buying a few t-shirts and knick knacks. We settle in at a little bar gelateria and wait for the 5:25 ferry.
The ferry is more crowded on the way back. The last ferry leaves at 6:25 and the boat seems to have a larger share of locals returning from work and fewer tourists. Despite the drizzle and the breeze we settle in on the top deck for the ride back. We are entertained the entire ride by five young wise guys who holler at each other, wrestle, slap and generally carry on until the ferry is tying up in Sorrento.
We are all tired but decide a little walk before dinner is in order. Its almost 8:30 but the shops are still open and we wander in and out finding a few essential items to bring home. We are limited in our restaurant choices because so many are closed for the season. We opt not to eat sandwiches at a bar on the Piazza Tasso and head instead for a little garden restaurant we had passed this morning. The interior is full of plants and flowers making it a perfect indoor garden. We decide on pasta and vegetables for dinner. Not a traditional Italian meal – but this restaurant doesn’t seem to have too many rules. The pastas are adequate but not remarkable. Norma has the ravioli stuffed with cheese and served with tomato sauce; Suzy has the combination ravioli, pacchieri and conchiglia with mozzarella and tomato baked; Austin has the pasta carbonara spaghetti with bacon, egg and cheese; and Bill has a light bowl of minestrone. We also order grilled mushrooms, sautéed spinach, fried artichokes and fried zucchini flowers. The flowers are not in season, so we are not surprised when we are served fried dough balls with tiny bits of zucchini flowers in them. The food is perfect for the night. Not inspired, but a great atmosphere and an attentive server. Austin and Norma call it quits and leave Bill and Suzy to enjoy their coffee and grappa on their own.
As we turn in for the night, we reflect on how special a place Capri seems to be, even off season and how the relaxing uneventful day was a perfect antidote for the previous day’s day from Hell.
Wednesday, January 10, 2007
The day starts off on a decent note. We sleep a bit later than planned, which is especially nice for Austin and Norma who have just arrived from the U.S. We meet in the breakfast room at 9:45, just minutes before they close and are treated to a wonderful buffet of meats, cheeses and fresh fruits. In addition, there is an American breakfast table complete with eggs, bacon and various cold cereals. We eat light and have extra servings of the thick hot coffee with milk. With internet access limited to the one hotel computer, we all take an opportunity to check back on important matters at home. (Go Gators!)
We begin our day in earnest around noon, headed for the town of Gragnano, which is known across Italy as the country’s premier pasta making town. We are looking forward to seeing the production of pasta, meeting a few suppliers and having a memorable meal of Gragnano pasta at a charming osteria. We leave our secluded little compound, which is connected to the main square in Sorrento by a private garden and emerge into the bustle of the Sorrentine Peninsula. Traffic in Sorrento is abysmal, alternately jammed to a crawl and then lurching forward, with whiny Vespas zipping in and out to keep you on your toes. The whole traffic pattern and street layout seems to have been designed by someone with a pathological dislike of straight lines, opting instead for manic swirls and violent turns, up steep hills and plunging down even steeper ravines. The weather, however, is nice, with bright sunshine and cool air.
Daylight reveals terrain that we were unable to see the day before as arrived in Sorrento after dark. It is for the most part an ugly landscape of soulless modern but rundown cities, connected together by windy roads, which stands in stark contrast to the overwhelming beauty of the cliffs that fall off into the clear blue Mediterranean. The absolute nadir of this drive is the repulsive town of Castelammare di Stabbia, a town totally lacking in Italian charm and, unfortunately, one which we seem to drive through forever. The icing on this most inedible cake is the enormous piles of garbage, some of which stretch for an entire city block, and that leap into view around nearly every corner. We can only imagine that the local garbage workers are on strike, hoping against hope that this situation is temporary. After a while the mountains of trash begin to lose their shock value and we even begin to see beauty in the various colored trashbags, the slope of these moutains, an occasional special item to attract the attention. We even stop to take pictures, selecting only the best trash piles, while turning our noses up on mere garbage piles. Our son Austin take a particularly artistic shot of one collection, which he dubs “EuroTrash.” A budding photographic career is born.
After an eternity we arrive in Gragnano and pull right in to a parking spot, just like they do in the movies. We walk up and down the street noticing several small shops and bakeries that are open, but as we find the doors for the pasta shops they are locked up as tight as a drum. We find, too, that the main (read only decent) restaurant in town is closed on Wednesdays, so we decide to drive a little further up the mountain to find a nice spot for lunch, preferably with a view, and then return around 3:00 or 4:00 when the shops should be open.
Thus begins our journey half way to the sun. We climb the mountain, following sign after sign for pizzerias, trattorias and restaurants. Each time our efforts are rewarded with a closed establishment, most of them shut down for the winter, with drop cloths over the tables and doors chained shut. We press on, following the narrow road higher and higher into the countryside, past run down villages, grand hotels (closed for the season), parked buses (parked for the season) until we decide that going on is futile. Our assumption, our belief, our fervent hope that someone in this region must eat out somewhere occasionally has been proven wrong. We admit defeat and head back down the mountain, alighting after an hour at the single restaurant has shown any signs of life. It is located in, you guessed it, Castelammare di Stabia.
The port area in Castelammare is rough and rundown looking, but our restaurant, il Dubbio, is like finding a needle in a haystack, or rather a jewel in a trash heap. Despite the late hour, they welcome us in and we happily take our seats. We are rewarded with a wonderful plate of octopus salad and spaghetti frutti di mare and dentice (snapper with a potato sauce.
After lunch we get back in the car (clearly a mistake) and head back up the mountain to Gragnano, passing some of our favorite junk heaps only to find that the famed pasta shops, including one described as a “pasta university” are not reopening this day. Everything is locked up still – perhaps they are closed on Wednesday afternoons. It only makes sense on a day like today.
So, we begin the long, slow drive back to Sorrento. A drive always seems shorter when you have achieved your goal for the day. Today is no such day. We make a quick stop just outside of Sorrento where there is a local produce market which is just closing – we stock up on oranges and apples and take a quick walk around, mostly just for the fresh air.
We return to the Excelsior Vittoria, thinking we will take a few minutes to relax before dinner, but decide instead to make a quick dash to the phone store before it closes to see if they have a high speed wireless internet access card that might solve our internet access problem. With mounting excitement we are shown the very answer to our technological prayers, a UMTS/HSDPA card from Telecom Italia. It does everything we want relatively cheaply. Now we will have the ability to check our emails, read the news and post our trip reports on time. Only one glitch, however. It cannot be activated until tomorrow. On a day like today, however, even this delay seems like a major victory.
While Norma has wisely decided to call it a night we head out with Austin in search of a light dinner. The front desk calls the Trattoria Tasso to make sure they are open and after a great recommendation of their pizzas we head out. The restaurant is enormous – in the summer it is probably filled to the seams, but tonight we are just one of 5 or 6 tables. The waiter is friendly and we order a pizza capricciosa, mushrooms, cooked ham and artichokes, and a pizza with spicy salami and a pasta from Gragnano (we are still determined to try the pasta) with a tomato fish sauce. One salad to share and we still have too much food. The restaurant begins to get more crowded as the evening goes on. We arrived just after 9:00 and it seems that we are on the early side. The food is good and we have a lot of laughs and head home to get a good nights sleep.
Perhaps tomorrow our luck will change.
Tuesday, January 9, 2007
We leave Polignano a Mare and drive to Bari to catch our flight to Rome. Flying internally in Italy is very efficient and can be inexpensive. It is important to remember that you can only check two bags and that you are limited to a baggage weight of 20 kilos per person. Of course our bags are already too heavy and we are told we will be charged an additional 5euros per kilo. We scramble to move our heavier items into our carry-on and lower the weight being checked. Unfortunately we have forgotten the new laws regarding liquids and when going through security we have to say goodbye to our shampoo and other cosmetics.
We fly into Rome, pickup our rental car and wait for our son Austin and Norma (who pretty much runs Bella Italia) to arrive. Their flight from London is slightly delayed and it seems their baggage is the last to arrive, but finally they emerge from the baggage pickup and we head straight for Sorrento. We have scouted out this drive earlier – going as far as Naples and are confident we will make good time. The road is fast and traffic is light. We stop at an Autogrill for sandwiches and a coffee and despite their best intentions to admire the views along the way, both Austin and Norma drift in and out of sleep. And then it happens, somewhere just past Naples we make a wrong turn, following what should be a major highway that turns out to be a different major highway, unfortunately heading away from Sorrento. We double check the map and can’t figure where the mistake was made but it seems from the tiny rental car company map that if we continue on we can just go for a tiny bit on a small road (shown in yellow) and connect back with the major autostrada without losing much time. This is a big mistake. NEVER go on a little small road, even for a little bit, especially on the Sorrentine Peninsula, the Amalfi Coast or anywhere in the mountains. If it is not green or red on the map, stay away. Yellow is not the color of caution in Italy, it is a toxic color. Invariably when our Italian friends give us directions they always seem to loop us around on the autostrada even when it seems clear on the map that there is a much more direct route on a slightly smaller road. There is a good reason to never use the little roads – they don’t necessarily connect to anything, sometimes they just end and they are always slow. We wind around and around as traffic on this little one lane road becomes heavier and heavier and goes in and out of one little town after another. What looked like about a five minute drive on this road turns into a very frustating hour and we finally drive over the A3 and loop around for another 15 minutes before we arrive at the entrance. As we near the coast, the road becomes narrower, and the descending darkness and unbelievably heavy traffic make it a nightmare scenario. We drive steadily on and the 11 kilometers to Sorrento takes almost 45 minutes. It is too dark to enjoy the view, but as we drive up and down through the cliffs we are anxious for what we will see in the morning light.
It is off season in Sorrento, which like the towns along the Amalfi Coast on the other side of the peninsula is a town. Much of the area is shut down during the winter and we have had to look at almost 20 hotels to find one that was open this week. After exhaustive research and much phone calling we have booked a couple of nice rooms at the five star Hotel Grand Excelsior Vittoria. While the summer is beautiful in Sorrento the prices are much less expensive and the crowds very small in January. We check in to a very quiet hotel and are lead to our rooms which have an unbelievable seaview. The hotel, which like many luxury hotels in Italy (at least in our limited experience), has a stiff, formal feel to it, but it is located high above the ferry dock and has a commanding view of Gulf of Naples. Before dinner we take advantage of the chilled bottle of Prosecco left in our room and sit on the balcony watching the ferry return from Capri as the lights of Naples flicker in the distance.
We take a small walk before dinner to get a sense of the town. The shops are all familiar and are still open at 8:00pm. We stop at the restaurant recommended by the hotel and are not impressed with the façade or the menu presentation out front. But we are tired and there is a good crowd of people inside so we wander in. We sit downstairs next to an animated group of American college students. The waiter is impatient with us but warms up as Bill speaks to him in his best Italian. For Austin and Norma it is a lot of food, but after yesterday, it feels like a small snack. Bill and I have pasta with shellfish, Norma tries the housemade gnocchi with tomato sauce and Austin has the mushroom risotto. Before the pasta arrives the waiters appears with a plate of baked dough fresh from the wood burning oven drizzled in olive oil. What a great treat! The fresh fish is a sea bass which we have grilled, Norma has the local sausage grilled and Austin is treated to a plate of fried fish. We clean our plates and truly pass up the offer of dessert. We have just enough room for a coffee and a grappa, which we quaff before returning to the Excelsior Vittoria and put this rather dull day of traveling behind us.
Monday, January 8, 2007
We awake to the gentle lapping of the ocean against the cliffs below our window, but today the sun is not so bright. The skies are gray and rain clouds dart in and out. But the temperature is mild, perhaps 50 degrees, a veritable heatwave compared to the freezing, snowy weather we encountered here last February.
We drive to Gioia del Colle to meet Angelo, who will be our guide for the entire day, retracing the route by which we left him the night before. On the map the road from Gioia to Polignano looks simple enough. One heads east to the coast through the towns of Putignano (a town renowned throughout Italy for its production of wedding dresses), Castellana Grotte and then to Polignano a Mare. The previous evening we had not trouble finding Putignano, even in the dark. We smartly made our way from Putignano to Castellana Grotte without incident. However, it is a massive understatement to say that you simply drive from Castellana Grotte to Polignano to complete your trip. Somewhere along the way you slip into a parallel universe, a bizzaro world if you will, where your vehicle is powerless to drive in a straight line, uncontrollably turning right and then left, then right again, spiraling in ever tighter circles until the center cannot hold. You have entered the Castellana Grotte zone and although this town cannot possibly boast of a population of more than 20,000, you spend easily half an hour zigging and zagging to navigate through it. Entering the town from the northwest, you emerge an eternity later what seems like 50 yards away from your starting point, happily leaving this breaker of men’s spirits in the rearview mirror. If there was ever an argument for a beltway or bypass spur, certainly Castellana Grotte is the posterchild for it. Fifty years from now Castellana Grotte will have its own chapter in urban planning textbooks used at the finest institutions of public policy.
We meet Angelo in Gioia , kissing the ground as we pile into his car and begin our drive toward Santeramo, where we will meet the aunt of Filippo Mancino, our supplier of extravirgin olive oil. Filippo and Angelo have been kid enough to arrange for us to watch fresh mozzarella being made and Filippo’s aunt, who runs a farm just outside of Santeramo, has been making this signature cheese her entire lifetime. The drive is beautiful, with olive trees stretching into infinity and small stone fences lining the road. As we descend from the Murge, the plateau on which Gioia del Colle is situated, onto the plain that stretches into neighboring Basilicata, the terrain becomes rocky and then lush. The rain has given up and bits of sun occasionally stream through the gray sky.
We are greeted warmly by Filippo’s aunt a farm woman in her fifties and her eighty year old mother who moves with ease and who sports soft, ageless skin (it must be the mozzarella!). We are led into their kitchen which is connected to the cheese making area, a small sanitary area with some sterile metal cans and other devices for making various cheeses. Our mozzarella today, however, is a decidedly low tech affair. A simple plastic tub, filled with briny water is sitting on a stool and next to it, on a wooden table is a thick white mass the consistency of cottage cheese but smooth rather than lumpy. This mass will in a few moments become mozzarella, and has been made from a mixture of the previous evening’s milk and this morning’s milk from the farm’s cows. The milks have been heated to a temperature of 40 degrees celsius and rennet has been added. (When we ask about rennet we are told it is not a very “nice” ingredient. It comes only from the stomach of baby calves who are still drinking their mother’s milk. We are not quite clear how it is extracted from the cow, but we really don’t want to know.) The heated milk has been left to drain and has now settled into the light paste that is before us. The Aunt uses a knife to cut through the paste, mixing it up by cutting it (we are told that the word mozzarella comes from the old Italian mozzare which means to cut) and then placing it in a large bowl where her mother pours hot water over it. Using a long, flat, wooden paddle the cheese is rolled and pressed, moving it in and out of the water and over the paddle. The texture begins to change from a paste and becomes light and elastic, like a bright white wad of Silly Putty. The aunt shapes the cheese into a long flattened tube, tying a knot and using a knife to cut off the little tied pieces which she puts into a bowl of cold water. Alternately she rolls the mass into a small ball the size of an egg, gathering the edges together and tucking them away from view inside the ball. Asked if we want salted or unsalted cheese the mozzarella is transferred to a bowl of salted water and then we are each served a plate of cheese. A small glass of red wine and a piece of bread accompany the most delicious (and definitely the freshest) cheese we have ever had. The cheese has a mild taste, slightly salty but creamy and smooth. We finish our plates and are rewarded with another knot of cheese, Bill consuming six balls and braids of mozzarella so as not to be rude, dreams of Metamucil dancing in his mind.
We are told that the family raises cows only for the production of milk and also have a small stable of a special breed of donkeys. As we are preparing to leave, two donkeys are brought out for milking. The milk of these donkeys is very close to mother’s milk, we are told, and the family sells it to families whose children cannot drink cow’s milk.
We are feeling comfortably full, and it is time to head to Altamura to taste the famous bread from this city. The bread of Altamura is registered DOP and shipped all over Italy and around the world. Gianni Zullo, our friend at the nearby Viglione vineyard has asked one of his customers to show us around his bakery. It is late morning and the baking is finished for the day, but the shop is full of customers stopping in for a loaf of bread or a piece of foccaccia. We are led back from the shop to the bakery where bins of the famous bread are cooling and awaiting sale. The pane di Altamura is made in two shapes, one resembling a cardinal’s hat and the other a simple square. Some of the bread has been baked in the gas ovens in the bakery and others have the telltale marks of being cooked in the wood burning oven down the street. What makes this bread so special? Just the local ingredients and the regulated procedure for baking the bread. The ingredients are local durum wheat flour, salt, water and yeast. Extra yeast is used to help the bread maintain its freshness and one of the signatures of bread from Altamura is that it reputedly can stay fresh for 10 days after it is made.
The dough is mixed and kneaded in a huge mixer that makes Suzy envious and then set to rest for 90 minutes. Then it is formed and set to rest for an additional 45 minutes. The dough is finally reformed and set to rest for 5 minutes and then put into the ovens to bake with the doors open for 15 minutes and then closed for an additional 30 minutes. A very specific procedure, but with excellent results. We eat slices of the bread and begin to understand why restaurants in Rome would have the bread shipped up every day and why the baking is often timed to make sure it can meet planes departing for New York for distribution to restaurants there.
The bakery also makes a variety of delicious cookies and taralli. We go upstairs and tour the cookie facilities and are surrounded by bins and trays of cookies and crackers. Of course we are allowed to help ourselves and start snacking on simple biscuits, taralli with sugar and taralli with fennel. The taralli are a traditional cracker of Puglia, resembling tiny circular pretzels. The dough is made from flour, olive oil, white wine and salt and formed into little circles which are boiled and then baked until crispy. Fennel, rosemary or chili peppers can be added. Our tour has ended and we leave with bags of bread, crackers and cookies.
Angelo leads us on a stroll through the historic center of Altamura. We pass the Cathedral San Nicola and arrive at the Duomo which is much smaller than the cathedral in Lecce, but with an intricately detailed frieze over the doorway. We recognize the front arch depicting the last supper from the plaster reproductions we saw in Bari two days earlier. We walk a few more streets and out of nowhere Angelo opens a door and we enter a small osteria for lunch. Antica Osteria, Corso Umberto I, 58, Altamura, 080.311.8313. The Osteria is another customer of Gianni and he has recommended it to us for lunch. We are seated in a crowded room downstairs next to a couple who have brought their dog to lunch. We shift our chairs carefully so as not to disturb the dog but he is a bit grouchy and circles the table, finding a spot on the floor that is not so busy. The waitress is young and speaks in a delightful mix of English and Italian. We guess she doesn’t trust Angelo to translate properly. We were full when we walked in, but seated downstairs next to the kitchen the aromas have aroused our taste buds. We order orechiette with greens to start. When she offers the second courses we have a tough time choosing between the mixed grill of horse meat, pork and sausages and the bracciole (rolled meat) of horse meat cooked in a tomato sauce. We ask for a small portion of both and a salad. Once again we have way too much food – but we faithfully sample everything and decide just this once it is okay to leave a few bites behind. We skip the grappa but order a local specialty – padre peppe, a strong, thick, brownish liqueur made from walnuts. We return to the car and decide to go directly to Gioia del Colle and visit Filippo at the Mancino olive estate.
The olive harvest, which began in October was mostly finished in November (exclusively through the labor of Filippo, his brother and father and two other men) and the entire year’s production of Gravestelli oil, Mancino’s flagship oil made exclusively from the prized coratina olive, has been pressed and stored. A small portion of the crop has remained on the trees until now and these olives are to be pressed into Svevo oil, a blended oil with a slightly different character than the Gravestelli. We are fortunate enough to be at the oleificio at the moment when the Svevo oil is being produced and watch a vast array of machinery dedicated to extracting the prized oil from these tiny fruits. Crates of olives are poured into a chute and conveyed past an air blower which removes most of the leaves and twigs before sending the olives for a thorough rinsing and washing. The olives are then carried upward by a device resembling Archimedes screw, through a crusher which renders them to a goopy green paste. This paste then goes into an agitator where the olives recover from the stress and are churned for an hour then sent through the cold water where a centrifuge separates the oil from the water and the vegetable water. The new oil trickles out in a steady stream and the waste water is pumped to a holding tank outside, where it, and the composted stems, leaves and olive paste residue, are used to nourish the olive trees. Filippo is very proud of his production and talks often about the care and development of producing high quality foods and olive oils. He grabs a couple of plastic cups and pours us a taste of the new oil. There is no bread dipping here, just a quick slurp to make sure we get all the nuances of the taste. This Svevo is a great oil, with a strong, peppery taste. We look forward to its arrival at Bella Italia in the coming weeks! We taste a few of Filippo’s new products and review the list of pastas he supplies us we take a few samples of cookies and flavored oils and agree to meet for dinner in two hours, just enough time for us to drive back to our hotel and take a quick nap – hopefully just enough to refresh us for dinner.
Dinner promises to be an adventure. Angelo, Gianni and Filippo have become good friends and we enjoy tagging along with them and listening to their boisterous conversations and friendly arguments. No one can agree where to go for dinner and Gianni finally takes the lead, calls a friend and tells us to follow him. Unfortunately he is not sure where we are going and despite asking for directions several times we make several u-turns and finally end up at the Transatlantico Restaurant. Trav. Via Resta 1/3, Torre a Mare (BA), tel. 080.543.2486, closed Mondays. The waiter comes to the table and there is much disagreement over which wine to order and what food to order. It is unclear who won; perhaps the waiter simply brought everything mentioned. We start with a simple plate of stuffed fried dough and tomato mozzarella bruschetta. A platter of grilled octopus salad, pureed fava beans with baby octopus, fried fish in tomato sauce and octopus with potatoes in sauce follow. Our plates are replaced with clean plates every time we put down our forks and even more food arrives -- farro with shrimp, fried shrimps with raspberry sauce, broiled mussels with garlic and breadcrumbs and more fresh mozzarella. Just when we think we have arrived at the end of the antipasti course, our plates are replaced and a tray of sea urchins is put before us. Now this is a treat we have yet had the pleasure of enjoying and Filippo’s eyes roll back in his head as he describes with gusto how much of a delicacy these are considered. The spiny shells have been sliced in half like a soft boiled egg, exposing an orange cream inside which is scooped out with bread or eaten with a spoon. Both work for us and we enjoy the briny treat which is best described as tasting like the sea. A platter of raw seafood – clams, mussels, oysters and shrimp is delivered to the table. Raw mussels and shrimp are a new treat for us, but with a little lemon juice they taste great. A bowl of raw calamari does not tempt us, but we try a piece, which gets worse with every passing chew, its chewy, creamy texture expanding and filling our mouths in a most undelectible manner. One bite is enough. The boys are great company and we enjoy getting to know them all a little better. They haven’t been able to agree on a pasta course so we enjoy a bowl of pasta with shrimp in a light tomato cream sauce followed by a bowl of linguine with seafood. Will this never end? Nope. The waiter arrives with a three foot tray brimming with grilled calamari, shrimp and octopus. No matter how full we are we have to have just a bite – it is wonderful. All we have room for is coffee and grappa until the waiter brings a plate of hot, fried dough filled with pudding. We can always diet tomorrow.
So we say good bye to our friends and tell them that we will not return until we have time to recover from this food orgy. But we make many plans for travel together next time and the business we will continue to do with each other.