Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Day 4 - Scanno

On the map, Scanno, our destination this afternoon, is approximately 15 kilometers (about 10 miles) from Sulmona. The drive, however, takes about 45 minutes, as we wind back and forth along a mountain road to this beautiful, but isolated paese, home of di Masso Dolciaria, maker of Pan dell'Orso, another version of the famed peasant cake of the Abruzzo.

We have been told that lago di Scanno (lake Scanno) is one of the most beautiful lakes in Italy, but it is lago San Domenico, less a lake than a slight widening of the Sagittario River, that brings oohs and ahs from the crowd. A milky green color, the lake follows the road for about a mile, giving way to a clear blue color at its source, where we pass through an ancient gateway, marking the final portion of the road to Scanno.

We arrive in the small town at dark, the temperature having dropped precipitously from the afternoon warmth. We make our way to di Masso, where Signore Gino di Masso, owner of the dolciaria welcomes us. Signore di Masso tells his unusual story of reverse immigration, where his father, who had emigrated from Italy to the United States returned to Abruzzo after the war. Although born in Italy, Signore di Masso has an affinity for the United States and is determined to bring Abruzzo (and, of course, Pan dell'Orso) to the attention of America.

We tour the facilities, once again impressed by the how these family businesses are able to meld machinery with the human touch. It seems as though there is a specially designed machine to do every task - mixing the dough, making crepes, covering cakes in chocolate, packaging and sealing finished products - but each process is monitored and nudged by human intervention. Dough is tested, crepes are crunched, chocolate is monitored to ensure it is at the correct temperature for coating and finished packages are boxed by hand. While automated, these are artisinal products that reflect the craftsmanship and care of the humans that make them.

We sample products and then retire to the café run by di Masso to talk about his products. The conversation turns to Abruzzo, however, as Signore di Massso is fiercely proud of his region and Scanno in particular. He asks us how he and his fellow Abruzzese can bring Abruzzo to America and Americans to Abruzzo. A thoughtful conversation follows. Selling Abruzzo to American will not be easy, we agree. It is practically unknown to Americans and lacks the sex appeal of Tuscany or the major cities of Rome, Florence or Venice. It seems to me that Abruzzo will have to grow into the American consciousness over time, slowly building and audience that can spread the word and build a following. It seems to me, too, that it is a goal that is extremely worthwhile, for Abruzzo has so much to offer.

We take leave of Signore di Masso and return to our pullman. Dinner has been planned this evening in Scanno, but the group, swollen from lunch at Gino's, samples of confections throughout the day, and the cumulative gorging of the past several days, decides that we have had enough. We take a stroll around the lovely town of Scanno, retire to the pullman (where Daniel and Monty have been kind enough to supply us with prosecco for the return drive) and head back to Pescara for an evening on our own. Many take the opportunity to fast for an evening as we prepare for our final day tomorrow, which will take us to the capital of Abruzzo - l'Aquila - where we will visit to two torrone producers. Who would have thought that not eating dinner in Italy would be such a welcome pleasure?

Monday, February 16, 2004

Day 2 - More Assagi

We start with thankfully a small crostini with a local lardo (pig fat). For those who think it disgusting to eat pig fat on bread I have one word for you - butter. For lardo (the lardo di Colonata is perhaps the best known variety) has a buttery texture and taste that leaves you wanting more. But, as Alfredo recounts to us, gone are the days such as when he was a little boy and his mama served him obscenely long slices of bread, toasted and slathered with lardo (picture if you will the barber sharpening his straight razor on the sharpening band and now imagine that is mama with a knife, applying lardo to your breakfast toast). This evening's crostini is half the size of an index card, rather than yesteryear's legal size page, and we are better off for this enforced reduction.

We follow the lardo with, what other than a piatto assagio, a sampling of several antipasti including stuffed zucchini flowers, fresh porcini mushrooms and one of the evening's biggest surprises and pleasures, grilled or baked red chili pepper skins. Expecting them to be hot and spicy, we are surprised that they are lightly crunchy, smoky, and taste almost of corn.
Rather than doing the smart thing and paying our bill and leaving, we push onward, drawn to more and more food like a mosquito to a candle, knowing in the end this cannot be good or right or proper. But push forward we do. A farrinella soup, made from farro that is crushed into smaller fragments, is another delightful surprise, particularly helped by microscopic but crunchy croutons and topped with local Pescara olive oil. Because we can not decide on a single secondo, the waiter brings us an assagio of every item he heard one of the group utter. The result is plates of tagliata di razza marchigiana, sliced beef from the Marche cow that is related to the famed Chianina of the Tuscan Maremma; the ubiquitous roast lamb with local saffron; and finally roast rooster. Going through the motions we manage to finish nearly everything, the check is paid and we being the 20 minute walk back to the hotel that does not even begin to work off the massive amount of food we have consumed throughout the day.

Assagi. Perhaps I do not use the word correctly and after today perhaps it is a word that should be banished from my vocabulary. It is difficult to believe that "little tastes" can add up to so much. Like the "one little thin mint" of Monte Python's "The Meaning of Life," it does seem possible that just one more little assagio might make one literally explode. It is said, I think, that Julius Caesar was murdered by a thousand stab wounds, each one in itself non-lethal, but taken together a truly toxic combination. Today I feel as though I have died a death from a thousand assagi. But here in Italy, the home of Julius Caesar, it seems somehow an appropriate cause of death.

After a few small grappe and some spumante, I turn in for the evening. And I dream of tomorrow's meals and all the tiny episodes that will make up the tapestry of this truly wonderful experience.

Tuesday, February 3, 2004

Day 11 - Positano - Ravello

Our day begins when we draw back the curtains from the door to our balcony to reveal a beautiful sunrise reflecting off the blue sea below. Our hotel, the albergo Le Sirenuse is built into the steep cliffs that rise from the ocean. In fact, the entire town, like the other towns that dot the Amalfi coast, is a series of steep terraces supporting structures that are stacked one atop the other, stepping back and up from the sea. Le Sirenuse consists of 60 rooms on six floors, and each room faces the sea, most with their own private balconies. The views are extraordinary.

After breakfast we take an exit from the floor marked -1 to a narrow, winding staircase cut into the hillside that leads down to Positano's duomo and beach for a stroll through town. After exploring the rocky beach we begin our ascent to the other side of town, up a series of stairs so steep that they surely keep the local cardiologist's kids in private school. When we reach the top, we begin walking back down toward town, stopping in a couple of excellent ceramics shops (the ceramics industry is big here along the coast, not just in Vietri Sul Mare, but also in Amalfi, Positano and Ravello). Two of our favorites are Elisir di Positano and Umberto Carro. In addition to a good display of fine ceramics, Elisir di Positano offers some other housewares. We are interested in purchasing a beautiful linen tablecloth and when it turns out that the only one in the size and pattern that we like is set on a table covered with hundreds of ceramics, the genial owner moves everything from the table to make our purchase possible. Umberto Carro features rustic looking (but extremely high quality) ceramics.

We then head along the coast, back to Amalfi and onward to Ravello, a town perched high (and I do mean high) above Amalfi. While the drive along the coast road is harrowing, the drive inland to Ravello is genuinely dangerous. In SAT terms the drive to Ravello is to the Amalfi coast road as Psycho is to Friday the 13th. It's the real deal.

Fifty years ago, John Steinbeck, writing for Harper's Bazaar wrote the following of Italian traffic:

"to an American, Italian traffic is at first just down-right nonsense. It seems hysterical, it follows no rule. You cannot figure what the driver ahead or behind or beside you is going to do next and he usually does it. But there are other hazards besides the driving technique. There are motor scooters, thousands of them, which buzz at you like mosquitoes. There is the tiny little automobile called "topolino" or "mouse" which hides in front of larger cars; there are gigantic trucks and tanks in which most of Italy's goods are moved; and finally there are assorted livestock, hay wagons, bicycles, lone horses and mules out for a stroll, and to top it all there are the pedestrians who walk blissfully on the highways never looking about. To give this madness more color, everyone blows the horn all the time."

Other than the livestock and wagons, Steinbeck's description holds true today, made even worse along the coast by its narrow winding character (once again, Steinbeck, "a road carefully designed to be a little narrower than two cars side by side. And on this road, the buses, the trucks, the motor scooters and the assorted livestock"). Buses are a particular problem, but it is the incomprehensible decision of the locals deciding to take their daily constitutional along coastal highway at night clad only in black that really throws us. Nonetheless, we manage to get to and from Positano without claiming a single casualty.

Ravello, the road to which narrows to a single lane for about half its length, is yet another gem. It is a small town, which can easily be covered by foot. We have lunch at the Ristorante Salvatore (via della Repubblica, 2) run by a congenial extended family. The glassed in dining room boasts one of the most spectacular views you can imagine. Perched high in the hills above the coast, it looks straight down on the Mediterranean and a number of coastal villages. It is an awe inspiring view and we agree that it would be a true experience to wake up to this view every morning.

After lunch we visit Pascal Ceramics (via della Repubblica, 41; tel. 089-858576). The store is run by Signor Pasquale Sorrentino, a gregarious veteran of over 20 years in the ceramics industry who travels tirelessly to bring the finest and, in our experience, broadest selection of hand painted Italian ceramics we have seen. Pascal is jammed with an extraordinarily broad selection of ceramics selected, commissioned, designed and produced by Signor Sorrentino. We spend several hours with Pasquale, increasing our knowledge about local and regional designs, various artists and their studios and the ceramics market. It is a fascinating meeting with an engaging expert and we leave having made a new friend.

We hop in our car and make our way back to Positano in the dark, thanking our stars for our safe return. Tomorrow we make our way toward Rome for our flight back to the U.S.

Ciao a presto!
Suzy and Bill

Monday, February 2, 2004

Day 10 - Catania - Naples - Vietri Sul Mare - Amalfi - Positano

Day 11 begins nearly the moment Day 10 ends, as we rise at 5am for a flight from Catania to Naples. We have stayed up late, unsuccessfully attempting to find a television broadcast of the Super Bowl. CNN is broadcasting the final score on its crawl at the bottom of screen as we check out of the hotel, satisfying our curiosity.

Our flight is uneventful, but we are again reminded how cheaply you can fly internally on one of the low cost airlines serving Italy. This flight is on Alpi Eagles, with a ticket purchased on the internet. We note, however, that nearly every flight on the tarmac at Catania's Fonanarossa Airport is a low cost carrier airline.

After an hour flight we arrive at Naples airport, quickly get our rental car and just as quickly head to the autostrada for our one hour drive to Vietri Sul Mare. Vietri Sul Mare, a tiny hamlet on the Amalfi coast, is famous for its ceramics that have been popularized by the North Carolina-based Vietri Inc. While ceramics from Vietri Sul Mar run the gamut from classical patterns to whimsical ones, Vietri (the American importer) has popularized a line of patterns featuring childlike versions of animals in vibrant colors. We spend several hours in a number of ceramics shops perusing their offerings. We had heard so much about Vietri ceramics and were excited to see them. The numerous shops display subtle variations on the standard themes and they do not disappoint.

Vietri Sul Mare is near the south end of the costiera Amalfitana (the Amalfi coast), a picturesque and very windy coastal drive that wends its way from Salerno to Naples. The coastal road rises high into the cliffs that plunge steeply down to the dazzlingly blue Mediterranean and then as quickly drops to beach level. A narrow, two lane road, bounded on one side by cliffs and the other by a cement guard rail that prevents you from plunging into the ocean far below, driving is slow and deliberate. At many of the hundreds of switchbacks you have to come to a complete stop to allow oncoming traffic (including buses) to pass by. A number of tiny villages dot the coastal road along the way.

We stop in Amalfi, the town for which the coastal road is named. Although it is off season (even though the weather this February day is a beautiful, sunny 60 degrees, late January and February are extremely off season) and most hotels and restaurants are shut down, there is a good deal of activity in and around the main piazza near the city's beautifully decorated duomo.

Unable to find an open restaurant (other than a fast food pizza place), we press on and stop at Praiano, a small cliffside town between Amalfi and Positano. Parking in any of the coastal towns can be a challenge and Praiano is no exception. We park just outside of town along the side of the road, against the cliff and partially jutting into traffic and begin a treacherous walk back into town. The town appears to be shut down tight as a drum when we are fortunate enough to spy the Ristorante San Gennaro (via G. Capriglione 99, tel. 089-874293). We get a table outside, overlooking the sea and are the only patrons for the first hour, when a lone biker arrives. Basking in the warm sun, overlooking the Mediterranean and enjoying a mixed seafood grill is a wonderful experience.

We finish lunch and press on to Positano, which is about ten minutes from Praiano, to our hotel, Le Sirenuse, one of the great resort hotels in Italy. The hotel has just reopened today after routine maintenance, and we are part of a handful of guests at the hotel. Despite the low season, we are treated royally and are shown to our room with a small terrace overlooking the beach and ocean. It is a majestic setting and a perfect place to unwind and enjoy Italian hospitality.

We hope to do just that and will report our findings to you. Until then

Ciao a presto!
Suzy and Bill

Sunday, February 1, 2004

Day 9 - Caltagirone - Piazza Armerina - Catania

Today is another largely travel day - Caltagirone to Catania, where we plan to overnight before taking an early morning flight to Naples on Monday. While we hope to beat an early retreat, it takes longer to pack our bags, which have expanded throughout our trip. As a result, we have to take separate trips down the elevator to the lobby for checkout.

We plan a stop in Piazza Armerina, a diversion that takes us somewhat out of the way from Catania, but seems worth it. Just outside the town of Piazza Armerina is our destination - the Villa Romana del Casale, the country home of a wealthy Roman that was recently excavated and restored. It boasts some of the best preserved Roman mosaics and we are excited to be close enough to make a side trip.

As we check out from the Villa San Mauro we are told the trip to Piazza Armerina and the Villa Romana is about a half an hour. Indeed, the trip is rather simple; one follows the indications from Caltagirone to Piazza Armerina, which appear with dimishing frequency the closer you get to Piazza Armerina; when you finally arrive at the exit for Piazza Armerina simply follow the signs for "mosaici" (mosaics) which route you off the highway into the town of Piazza Armerina. As you arrive outside the town, an access road takes you the town center, which winds you through a number of piazzas, past churches (which, being a Sunday, are choked with pedestrians who dive from our oncoming vehicle), while all the time signs for the Villa Romana become fewer and farther between. If you are like us, you will drive back to the highway and proceed to the second exit for Piazza Armerina, hoping there is better signage for the Villa Romana. Fortunately, this is the case, and numerous signs lead you down narrow streets back to the access road into the town of Piazza Armerina that you took just a few moments ago. At this point your best bet is to pull into a gas station, where you can ask for directions from a helpful attendant (make sure you fill your car with the correct grade of fuel - if you are driving a diesel car, don't fill it with regular gas!). He will likely give you directions in flawless English, telling you to return from the direction from which you came, go through three traffic lights, take a right turn at the hotel and then (unintelligible).

We follow the helpful attendant's directions, departing the gas station exactly as directed. Despite his helpful demeanor, we don't see a single traffic light (let alone three) until we reach Catania several hours later. Instead, we start down progressively narrower and narrower and then even narrower lanes until we have to turn our rental car on its side in order to fit. This leads to a "street" so steep I fear that our car will flip over forward despite the approximately three tons of ballast we have in the trunk. If the street were not made of cobblestone, Tony Hawk would no doubt be hosting an X Games competition on it. At last we arrive at a secret exit from town that reminds us of the exit from the Batcave, and emerge about 50 feet below the highway exit to Piazza Armerina that we took nearly a half hour before. From there, it is a simple, clearly marked five minute drive to the entrance to the Villa Romana del Casale.

The Villa Romana is a terrific stop. You can spend as much or as little time as you want on a self guided tour of the grounds, which is covered in clear plexiglass walls and ceilings with catwalks to protect the ancient mosaics. There are dozens of rooms, each decorated with a different mosaic theme, including scenes of the hunt with exotic animals such as tigers, elephants and wild boars and ancient mythology (including a Cyclops whose three eyes apparently are the result of intermarriage between a two eyed human and a one eyed Cyclops). The most popular scenes, however, the "Room with Erotic Scene" (we'll leave the interpretation to you) and the Room of the Bikini Clad Babes (our translation). The latter depicts eight young Roman girls engaged in athletic pursuits, including working out with Roman versions of barbells, playing with a Roman hackey sack and one girl being crowned Miss Piazza Armerina as the runners up look on waving various large herbs. The effect is overpowering.

Then it is on to Catania. We arrive at the Excelsior Grand Hotel as the few shops open on Sunday begin to close down for the afternoon. The hotel, which has been advertised to us as centrally located is. It is located in the center of a parking lot about a mile from the main downtown area. We are informed that being Sunday, there are no restaurants open in the area, and likely none are open in the town center. Being optimists, we walk to the center and when even none of the Chinese restaurants is open, we begin to panic. As the hour draws closer to 3pm (when all restaurants, even on days other than Sundays, close), our panic becomes more palpable. Fate intervenes, however, and we find the one trattoria serving lunch on Sunday, the Trattoria del Cavaliere (via Paterno, 11, tel. 095-310491). The place is packed with locals, including numerous families with children running about and playing. We settle in for a two hour lunch and enjoy some more nice seafood and pasta.

We wander back to the hotel along the via Etnea to the Giardino Bellini. There is an enormous flea market going on throughout the park. While there is a lot of junk, cheap clothes and toys, nearly every other stall is selling fresh made candies and confections, most featuring almonds that are ubiquitous in this area. Most stalls have their own copper kettles in which they mix almond croccante, almonds in a caramelized sugar that is like peanut brittle. The aroma of the fresh croccante is heavenly.

Our final stop before returning to the hotel to pack for our departure tomorrow is at a patisserie on the via Etnea. I have a my first gelato in Sicily, an island renowned for its ice cream, and I am not disappointed. It is creamy and intensely flavorful. Suzy samples an arrancini, a deep fried ball of rice that comes stuffed with a variety of fillings. It is another Sicilian specialty we feel a need to try. Our kids will be eating a lot of these when we get home.

So it's back to the Excelsior to pack and get an early night in anticipation of a 7am flight to Naples. We hope the weather on the mainland is as nice as it has been here in Sicily. Our first experience here has been a positive one, even if it has been too short. We look forward to returning here in the future to do some of the things we were unable to see this time around, to re-experience the joys we had on this trip and to renew and deepen some of the friendships we made.

Ciao a presto!
Suzy and Bill