Saturday, January 13, 2007

Day 9 - City X - Perugia

This morning we depart Sorrento, bound for Perugia in the north central portion of the country. For the past week we have experienced the life of southern Italy, first Naples, then Puglia before returning to the Sorrentine peninsula and Amalfi Coast south of Naples. Life in the south of Italy is very different from that in the north, with Rome being a sort of unofficial Mason-Dixon Line in this country. Italians from the north speak of their southern countrymen almost as foreigners and those in the south – the mezzogiorno as it is called – similarly disdain those from the crazed, industrialized, soulless north as pseudo-Germans. Being an outsider has its advantages; we have thoroughly enjoyed our time in the south and the friends we have made there. At the same time we are happy to be returning to the north, particularly to Perugia, a place that feels almost like home for us.

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.

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