Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Day 6 - Montefalco-Boston

Sox win! Sox win! Sox win!

Those beautiful words are replayed in the hearts and minds of the millions of faithful that comprise Red Sox Nation last night as they tuck themselves into bed, bleary eyed but dreaming dreams of a second World Series victory in three years. The game has been late, as have each of the games in this nail biting series, but it has been worth staying up for and now sleep awaits.
But for the sole representative of the Nation residing in Ponte San Giovanni, the clock is not so kind.

In order to catch the decisive seventh game of this League Championship Series, I had to wake up at 2:00 in the morning, sit through an unbearably irrelevant pregame show on Fox, and live and die with every offering from Dice-K, watching a 1, then 2 then 3 run lead shrink back to a 2 and then 1 run lead, which would have been no lead at all had the second base umpire not blown a call (in the Sox’ favor) on Dustin Pedroia’s tag out of Kenny Lofton who seemed to successfully stretch a single into a double. When 5:00am tolled, with a 7:00am wakeup time scheduled, this Sox fan decided he would simply have to read about, rather than watch the result. Reading about the 11-2 victory at 7:00 on Monday morning made that hour an instant nominee for favorite hour.

It has not always been that easy to be a fanatic of American sports when travelling in soccer-mad Italy. More on that later.

Back to Sunday morning. We rise late having no real agenda for the day, catching up on reading, writing and relaxing, the only thing missing is a copy of the Sunday New York Times. I check a few websites offering predictions about the evening’s upcoming baseball game. After a leisurely morning we eliminate some potential plans, such as driving to Norcia, which seem to ambitious, particularly given the inclement weather which is cold, cloudy and threatening to rain, even possibly snow.

We decide against a trip to Foligno, which we want to visit if only to have a meal at the trattoria Il Bacco Felice, a small family run restaurant that was recently written up in Food and Wine magazine. We opt to try dinner there on Tuesday, instead, if a reservation is available, and decide to return to Montefalco, Umbria’s greatest wine producing town, which is making a name for itself internationally with its award winning Sagrantino di Montefalco wine. We have made two previous visits to Montefalco in the past, each resulting in good meals, but suffering from seat-of-the-pants-itis, which leaves us wondering what this little hill town is really like. We look up the name and phone number of the trattoria we have been unsuccessful at visiting in the past and give a call to see if a table is available. Unfortunately a recording tells us that the telephone number we have dialed is no longer in service, so we set off by car, hoping that our thirty minute drive will be successful.

Thirty minutes turns to an hour as we miss a turn here and there. Signposts indicated Montefalco – 4km one moment, then a few minutes later, Montefalco – 11km. We climb hills then plunge back down into valleys. Something is not quite adding up, so we retrace our steps and eventually the signs indicate that we are getting very warm.

We arrive just outside the village gate (Montefalco is not large enough to really call a city), cars jammed in every space and then some, so we cross our fingers and drive through a barrier that is clearly marked “for authorized vehicles only,” even to those who read very little Italian. Along this one way street there are numerous empty parking spaces, but no entrance through the city walls. So we press on.

We finally get to the end of the road, a narrow alley that is bound on one side by the city wall and occupied parking spaces, on the other by a low retaining wall that holds the city in place above the valley hundreds of feet below. Getting out of here will require backing down the entire street we have just traversed, in the wrong direction along this one way street. Just then the reverse lights of one of the parked cars lights up and it begins to back out of its space. Salvation, as we will be able to park, avoid backing up or turning around and we are right next to another (city) gate.

The car backs out of its space and begins to inch down the one way street, as we start to negotiate the narrow parking space. The other car stops and seems to be watching us as we then notice another very obvious sign that parking in this stretch of spaces is limited to those with Zone D permission and that others will be subject to towing 24 hours a day. We have ignored these types of bluffs many times in the past, having only received one or two parking tickets (and never having been towed) over years of driving here. As a friend explained to us recently, “the Italians love to make laws, but they make them so complicated that no one follows them.” I’m not sure that this applies to parking laws, but judging from how Italians park their cars (behind dumpsters, between trees, on sidewalks) we have become pretty comfortable that parking enforcement is not high on their list of national priorities.

But I have a bad feeling today, especially as the car that vacated the spot keeps seeming to look at us, apparently to see if we are going to take his space. Finally I blink and we back down the street in search of a more legal parking space. I am silently ashamed.

We enter the village gate and walk up a steep stone street toward the main piazza, which we have visited before. The restaurant, Coccorone (Largo Tempestivi, Montefalco, correct tel. 0742.379535) is just off the main piazza, down a short windy alley, which we had had difficulty finding previously. Then, we arrived in town late at night hoping to eat there, followed signs to where we thought the restaurant was, and walked in circles for half an hour, only then discovering that the restaurant was closed for renovation. Today we are in luck, for all signs, and roads, lead to Coccorone, and we enter to find a warm, inviting refuge from the cold, a fire burning in the fireplace, white tablecloths on the tables, cases of local Montefalco wines stacked in bins throughout and every table completely full. And, according to the not-so-helpful hostess, full until the end of time. There is no way we will ever get a table here, she seems to be saying, adding that we really should have called for a reservation. In my most syrupy Italian I explain to her that we had tried to call but that her phone was disconnected. She gives me a card with the new phone number and recommends what we imagine to be a crappy little tourist restaurant in the main square. It is obvious that this woman has no time for me and probably thinks I am a complete jerk, which Suzy seems to agree with.

Fuming, we wander up the street and spy a nice little restaurant which we decide to try, being told that we will have to wait about twenty minutes. (An American woman at the table by the doorway tells us that she will be leaving in a few minutes and that it is definitely worth waiting for.) We plan to return in about ten minutes and set out for the main square to take some photos.

When we arrive there, we find the restaurant recommended by the unfriendly hostess of Coccorone, the Ristorante Enoteca Federico II (Piazza del Comune, Montefalco, tel. 0742.378902), which is not at all the crappy, tourist restaurant I had imaged it to be. In fact, the two small dining rooms, separated by an arch and walkway, seem cozy and inviting. We enter and inquire about a table and are told the wait will be about 10 minutes. We then spy the wine bar (enoteca) part of the restaurant, featuring dozens of local wines (which are sold in the attached wine shop) and our decision is made for us. We sidle to the bar, order a glass of the Sagrantino di Montefalco, the local gem of a wine that is produced just outside the town walls, and wait for our table.

This particular Sagrantino is a whopping 14.5 percent alcohol content and the first sip courses through our veins like red hot chili peppers. Our faces immediately flush and standing at the bar becomes an adventure, but the rich, deep taste is worth it, especially on a cold, blustery day where nothing has seemed to go quite right. A few minutes later we are escorted to our table, happy for the security of a chair.

We proceed to have a wonderful lunch of pastas and meat. Suzy starts with a stringozzi (a local peasant pasta, like a fat spaghetti) with cinghiale (boar sauce) with a modern touch – it is flecked with shavings of chocolate. We’re not generally fans of nouveau cooking, but the chocolate merely peaks through the meaty, tomato-y sauce, enriching it and rounding it somewhat. I have a tagliatelle con tartufo, flat pasta with truffle sauce whose unmistakable aroma announces its presence before the waiter steps into our dining room. We follow this up with a filetto al sagrantino (fillet with sagrantino wine sauce) that is divine and tagliata con rucola e balsamico (steak with arucola and balsamic vinegar). The food is terrific. But once again, in this wine town, the food is overshadowed by the wine.

We order a bottle of Sagrantino, from a different vineyard, this one a mere 14 percent alcohol, but the former effect is amplified. We stagger through our pasta like a punch drunk boxer and only begin to catch our wind as the secondo is served. The effect of this wine is like being kicked in the head by a donkey. The first kick makes you woozy and the second one really shakes you up. But the next several don’t seem so bad and after a while you forget that you are being kicked.

In this Sagrantino-induced haze we strike up a conversation with an American couple at a table across the room. They are visiting Italy for a good while, looking at business opportunities relating to wine production, the husband recently retired from the Mondavi company after having founded and operated the Woodbridge winery for many years. We exchange notes on wine but also on different foods, nutrition and the philosophy of the table. The couple is conversant on every subject, opinionated as well, and they clearly appreciate diversity in the food supply and enjoy regional differences. Italy is definitely a good place for them to be. We talk about what we all perceive as America’s seemingly growing appreciation for food and the table and after they leave it occurs to me that in Italy it is not just a small group of obsessive “foodies” that demonstrates a love of food and the pleasures of the table, but everyone. This is truly a country of food junkies.

As we leave the restaurant (having stopped off at the enoteca to buy some bottles of Sagrantino for private tasting back home), we notice three stainless steel vending devices attached to the wall outside the restaurant. Each of the shiny boxes has a large glass window on the front displaying a half dozen or so bottles of wine inside. There is a small slot at the top of each box and below each bottle there is a nozzle. This is, of all things, a wine tasting vending machine. After watching another group of American operate it, we learn that one goes inside and buys a smart card that is charged up with credit by paying at the cash register. You insert your card in the top of the machine and press a button corresponding to one of the wines in the case, specifying 30ml, 60ml or 90ml samples and the wine is dispensed below. A startlingly imaginative use of technology that at once seems funny and eccentric but may also serve as a warning against our seeming desire to have everything we want when we want it and our even more dangerous impulse toward building lives that are completely independent of one another. Sharing a glass of wine with others, and especially the pleasure of tasting new wine and comparing the experience with your fellow man, is a quintessentially human experience that should be savored and encouraged. Let’s hope that we won’t let technology inadvertently tear apart yet another essential human interaction.

But technology can’t always be bad, right? After all, thanks to technology I am bleary eyed, exhausted and happy, having watched six innings of the Red Sox victory that advances them to the World Series. Years ago, actually decades ago, during our first trips to Italy during football season, I remember waking up at 3:00 in the morning to watch the Monday Night Football broadcast featuring my Miami Dolphins (those were better years for the franchise) on a local broadcast of some Italian sports network. The problem was that the network required a subscription, so all I could view was the scrambled signal, twisted and contorted, without sound. I would stare at the TV for minutes at time, catching a momentary glimpse of the original picture as the scrambling sequence recycled. Eventually I would drift off to sleep, knowing who was in the lead, able to wait for two days to read about the game in the Herald Tribune.

Today you can find the USA Today in almost any city, and although the publishing calendar creates the same two day delay in news, its sports section highlights US sports in a way that the Tribune never did. High speed internet connections are available almost everywhere in Italy, often right through your hotel, but if not the major cell phone companies, TIM and Vodaphone, offer high speed wireless internet cards for your computer that work just like the Sprint or Verizon models, without the annoying guy who says “Can you hear me now?” These cards can be activated for a month at a time with very reasonable plans, such as our 100 hours of usage for €30. With a device called a slingbox connected to my TV at home, I can watch my own television over the computer anytime I want. Like at 2:00 in the morning on the day of game 7 of the ALCS. Three years ago when we were in Italy we missed all four of the Red Sox’ historic World Series victories, leading to their first championship in over 80 years. Thanks to technology we won’t make that mistake again.

A presto,
Bill and Suzy

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