Sunday, October 15, 2006
Beyond the pool is a heavy whitewashed building, Moorish looking without any obvious Moorish decorations, its simple white stone forming a number of large rectangular spaces that are joined together into a single large structure, their outlines forming perfect right angles of perfect straight lines, the lone outside stairway defining the only other angle as it rises up to an open rooftop terrace. This is the building where we ate dinner last night and this morning it, and the entire grounds seem completely deserted, save for an occasional staff member who saunters by unhurriedly, dressed in a uniform that is particular to the spa, pool, restaurant or reception.
Another large, whitewashed building, lower slung than the first, is directly ahead. Slightly to my left is what appears to be a set of meeting rooms, sage bushes growing on its flat roof, palm trees here and there. Pomegranate trees, bending under their heavy fruit, line a walkway to the left which is lined with other strange bushes and trees, as the walkway disappears into a grove of olive trees that the guest book says comprises 100 hectares. I am not sure how big a hectare is, but by the looks of it I am quite sure it is quite a lot.
Songbirds chirp overhead, hopping from tree to tree.
* * * *
I stop to write this reflection, my first impression of Day 6, before I have written yesterday’s (Day 5) account, breaking my usual discipline of writing each day’s story before moving to the next. I do this for two reasons. First, I have risen a little earlier than I would have liked so that I can use the hotel’s high speed internet connection in order to post my Day 3 and Day 4 stories, only to find that the connection is not working. I am, to say the least, slightly perturbed that a resort of the caliber of the Masseria San Domenico cannot offer me a high speed internet line. I am generally anything but the ugly American, but this really burns me. Sitting by the pool, soaking in the beauty of this place, however, has restored to me a sense of calm and balance and I don’t want to lose it by focusing on recounting yesterday’s travel day, which was largely uneventful. The second reason is that if I should die later today, I want to leave this record of this remarkable morning hour I spent in relaxation by the pool.
* * * *
The Masseria San Domenico is farm that has been converted into a hotel. Masseria is a term used in Puglia to describe the fortified farms that dot this fertile region. I am not quite sure against what or whom they were fortifying themselves, but one notices a feature in this countryside that is not common in other places around Italy – walls. Plots of land are clearly defined from each other by low walls made of stones piled upon one another. Inside these walls farmers did their daily work and, in the case of the masserie, small communities of workers were organized and defended against outside threats.
But the atmosphere at the San Domenico is anything but threatening. Rated one of the top properties in Puglia it is hard to imagine any care or hardship here. Armies of staff buzz about (but quietly and unobtrusively), as guests saunter from the pool to the spa to the dining room. Everything manmade seems to be made of white stone, which might have given the place a South Beach sort of feel were it not for the incredible lushness of the place. Everywhere you look there are plants and bushes and shrubs and trees, most of them sagging slight under the weight of fruits or flowers. A gentle breeze seems to blow constantly. It is hard to get motivated to do anything but sit.
But after several hours of doing just that we find a small, hidden store of initiative and ask at the front desk about the possibility of playing some golf. Not a problem we are told and a few minutes later we are arriving at the front gate of San Domenico Golf.
The course is completely enclosed by walls and gates and we are not exactly sure where or how to enter. We approach the electric gate, buzz in and announce our name. They are expecting us. The gate slides open and before us in the distance is yet another heavy Moorish stone building that is the clubhouse. A flat, immaculately maintained golf course stretches to the north and south, running all the way to the Adriatic.
We enter the clubhouse and are greeted at the reception desk by an English speaking woman who takes care of everything for us – greens fees, clubs, pull carts, balls, token for the driving range. All is available for a price, which we have neglected to ask about until now, and we are slightly nervous about what we might have just got ourselves into. Instead, the tab is ridiculously cheap and we happily strap it on and head to the driving range.
After a little practice it is off to the first tee, which has been marked number 16. This is not some Euro to Dollar or English to metric conversion. The course is being prepared for some European tournament in the near future and the holes are being reconfigured, presumably to improve its television appeal. We follow the numbers on the scorecard map rather than those on the signs and never get lost.
Not that a few ball are not lost. This is a rather benign course unless you drive the ball far to the right or left, which we do with regularity. Off the fairway is rough that, if it stood straight up would be about two feet deep. Instead it lies down at a height of about 6-8 inches, like a giant green combover. If you are fortunate enough to find your ball in it, it is nearly impossible to get out of.
I actually put together my best three shots of the day on the first hole, carding a birdie, and visions of European championships begin dancing in my head, even without the aid of grappa. That bit of wishful thinking is soon put in its place and I begin to worry that I have not bought enough balls to last the nine holes that we are playing.
San Domenico (St. Dominic), for whom the golf course is named is, as Jeff tells me (based upon his extensive research) the patron saint of golfers. Scholars are divided on the exact number of major championships he won during his lifetime (one camp includes in its total the results from the Greater Assisi Open, where Dominic defeated the hometown hero St. Francis on the third hole of sudden death in one of the great matches of the medieval period; others do not include statistics from Assisi, arguing that the monks who transcribed the records from ancient scorecards erred, believing it was good to have a higher score) but his work in aiding the poor by reselling used golf balls at a substantial discount is beyond dispute. Jeff’s research is, of course, completely made up but we are still convinced that it contains a kernel of truth somewhere.
After a grueling day of nine holes of golf and lunch on the patio overlooking the ninth hole, we return to the Masseria, completely exhausted. Our extreme physical state calls for some sitting around the pool and relaxing on the patio outside the room. Finally, in order to regain some strength we decide to drive to nearby Ostuni to find dinner.
On the map Ostuni looks like it is about three minutes from Savelletri, for how could it take any longer to drive a tenth of an inch on the map? It is only after we arrive in Ostuni about 45 minutes later that we notice the warning on the map that objects on map may be farther away than they appear. Indeed, although the distances look short, it generally takes a bit longer to get where you are going in Puglia.
But the drive is worth the additional time. Ostuni is an ancient walled town (there must have been a glut of these on the market when Italy started building towns because just about every place we visit is "an ancient walled town"), its buildings gleaming white (apparently, we are told, because the entire town is whitewashed annually). Although it is nighttime, the entire city is bathed in light from the outside, making it visible for miles as you approach. We are looking for a restaurant suggested to me by our old friend Richard Lasner, but have no idea where it is, so we follow signs to centro, the city center, and find a parking space that is slightly smaller than our car and at an angle bearing no known Euclidian relationship to the street or sidewalk. And so we start walking through a town the size of Detroit, expecting to simply walk to the restaurant for which we are looking.
The peril of asking for directions in Italy for someone like myself who speaks and understands just enough Italian to be dangerous is twofold: you look foolish asking for directions because you sound like a two year old and you look even more foolish when you are completely unable to understand the response. Mi dispiace signore, ma perche chiede in italiano quando non parli italiano? (Excuse me [mister], but why do you ask in Italian if you don’t speak Italian?).
Tonight, however, everything works perfectly. Asked and answered in Italian. We resume our journey to the restaurant secure in the knowledge we know where it is. It also helps that our guide points to where we are going.
We wander up the hill into the historic center of Ostuni, which is quite beautiful and quite crowded. The streets, mostly pedestrian-only (or perhaps completely pedestrian only but with Italian motorists taking a few liberties) are made of stone and are full of young people out for a night on the town. Large groups of ragazzi duck into and come out of a surprisingly large number of bars and night clubs. It is a Saturday night and Ostuni is hopping.
We at last find Richard’s recommended Osteria del Tempo Perso (via G. Tanzarella Vitale, 47, Ostuni, tel. 08188.8.131.52, www.osteriadeltempoperso.com). It is nearly empty at 9:30 and we are somewhat nervous that it is closing down, especially when they ask us if we have a reservation. But we are seated and over the next hour the place fills up, presumably for the second time this evening.
I order a strascinate integrale con cime di rape e mollica di pane, a whole wheat orechiette pasta that is topped with rape (turnip greens), the whole delicious concoction floating in a garlic sauce. Richard has recommended it and it indeed made the entire drive and walk up to the old town worth the trip. I follow this with some delicious lamb chops, a little coffee and of course, some grappa. A bottle of local Primitivo di Manduria, chosen by the waiter is both obligatory and delicious. Jeff orders a few dishes, but is still suffering from grappa withdrawal, being a courageous dinner companion without so much eating dinner.
The drive back to Savelletri seems shorter than the drive to Ostuni. Perhaps it is the grappa; perhaps it is the fact that we take the highway back. But within a few minutes of returning I am fast asleep, body and soul relaxing and unwinding in a fortified farmhouse called a masseria, secure that marauding nomads will be kept at bay, at least for one more night, by the army of staff here at the San Domenico.
Saturday, October 14, 2006
In any case, I shower, close up my bags and check out of the hotel and walk down to the car park where I have left the car, hoping that I understood the attendant correctly that the garage would be open all night. We have a train to catch at 6:57am and we have not left a whole lot of room to spare for unexpected surprises.
Well, practice pays off. I meet Jeff in front of the hotel, having planned the route from the garage to the hotel the day before. We depart ahead of schedule, not a car on the road. Quickly disappearing in our rear view mirror are small armies of uniformed men in jumpsuits who are finishing up the assembly of the numerous tents that will house chocolate displays at tomorrow’s Eurochocolate exhibition. Our time in Perugia has been wonderful and rich, the only regret my intestinal distress, but it is time to move on to Puglia, a less well known region in the south of Italy. The heel of the boot.
We bob and weave our way down the hill of Perugia along the route we had practiced the previous day. Everything looks different at 6:00am, however, coming at you faster because there is no light to see signs and familiar landmarks. We end up in on a small one way street that is clearly not one we had traversed the day before, so be back up and retrace our steps nearly to the top of Perugia and try again. This time we make the right turn and soon we are in front of the train station with fifteen minutes to spare. Had we not practiced the route I would be writing you from Perugia, telling you how wonderful the Eurochocolate has been.
* * * *
Italian train stations are pretty grim in general and Perugia’s is no exception. They are pretty easy to navigate, however, especially if you speak a little Italian. I have purchased our train tickets in advance online at www.trenitalia.it. There is an English version page and it is pretty easy to use; just enter your departure point and destination and the system will prepare a number of alternate itineraries. You can purchase your ticket online using a credit card but remember to print out your itinerary or at the very least, your PNR, a record locator code that you will need to retrieve your ticket from the ticket machine in the station. (If you are traveling from a smaller town, you should check the site to make sure your station has a ticket machine because no machine, no tickey. No tickey, no ridey.)
We get our tickets and a couple of bottles of water, find out which track the train will be arriving and departing from and begin the arduous voyage from the waiting room to the track. At many, if not most Italian train stations, the tracks run parallel to the station and you gain access to them by passing under the other tracks via an underground passageway. This necessitates carrying all of your baggage down the steps, dragging them a few yards down the hallway and back up the steps again. When you emerge from the tunnel you are about 15 feet from where you started, but generally require a change of clothes.
The train ride, which requires two changes of train (at Foligno and Ancona) is mostly uneventful. The first two trains are intercity type trains, a little long in the tooth but perfectly comfortable. We have nearly an hour wait in Ancona before boarding our sleek, lithe Eurostar train to Bari so we stop for a caffe and head for the more comfortable waiting room which inexplicably has many open seats. Upon entering the stench of urine is so overpowering it is a wonder that anyone can sit in there. Ah, the romance of train travel.
We board our final train, looking for our reserved seats, numbers 65 and 66 in carozza (coach) number 4. There is an illustration on the platform that shows the car numbers, helping you to wait in the right place for the train to arrive. What the sign doesn’t show is the middle aged man and his old mother sitting in seats 65 and 66 in carozza 4. This has been our experience previously. Reserved seats numbers are just suggestions that Italians may or may not follow. Apparently this bitter pair prefers the window and they look in no mood to offer them to us.
After some sleeping and writing we head to the dining car where a full meal can be had for about E20, which includes pasta, a meat dish, bread, dessert, coffee and, of course, wine. We are both hurting mightily from the previous four days’ overindulgence and sleep deprivation and order something light, with, of course, some wine. The meal helps pass the time and keep us away from the burning glare of our seatmates.
We arrive in Bari on time, waste some time debating whether to walk or take a cab to the rental car agency about a mile up the road and ultimately catch a cab with a friendly cabbie who promptly charges us E17 for the 3 minute ride. "Luggage, you know" he weakly offers as the reason for the charge. The cost of two plane tickets from Bari to Rome, which we are taking on Monday are E9 each, making the 2 kilometer cab ride nearly as expensive as an hour long flight. No wonder the Italians haven’t won any Nobel Awards for economics lately.
We hightail it out of Bari and find the motorway toward Brindisi, our destination the Masseria San Domenico in Savelletri di Fasano, about half way to Brindisi. We stop briefly in Polignano a Mare, a seaside town built into the cliffs above the Adriatic and a place Suzy and I visited last February. Polignano offers some breathtaking views from balconies and walkways along the sea. One restaurant, the Grotta Palazzese, features a dining room hewn out of the rocks perched above the crashing waves below. There is a hotel there as well, featuring rooms that look out over the ocean (Hotel Ristorante Grotta Palazzese, via Narcico, 59, Polignano a Mare (BA), tel. 080.424.06.77, www.grottapalazzese.it).
* * * *
We arrive at the Masseria San Domenico (72010 Savelletri di Fasano, tel. 080.482.77.69, www.masseriasandomenico.com) just as the sun is setting. Had management had the courtesy to place any signs at any of the dozens of intersections we crossed and recrossed as we looked in vain for the hotel, we probably would have arrived with an hour of sunlight to spare. A phone call to the reception proved no more helpful than our random wandering, the receptionist repeating over and over the not-so-helpful information that the hotel is "between Savellestri and Torre Canne." Unfortunately, there are precious few signs for Savellestri or Torre Canne and any signs that do exist pointing you toward these (apparently fictitious) places are not followed up with additional signs confirming that you are on the right track. Two words of advice for anyone staying at the Masseria San Domenico (and I would highly recommend that you do stay here, despite our difficulty arriving); do not follow the signs to San Domenico Golf (even though the two places are related and not all that far from another) and do head to the road along the ocean and follow it until you get to the granite factory. The entrance is just past it.
* * * *
I cannot do justice to describing the Masseria San Domenico and I certainly don’t want to try to do so at the end of a day that has been tiring and a little frustrating. I will endeavor to bring you some sense of this place tomorrow, after I have had a good night sleep, my stomach settles and I stop muttering about missing road signs. Suffice it to say that a 5:30 departure, eight hours of train travel on three trains, an overpriced taxi ride and driving around in circles for an hour all seem well worth it.
Friday, October 13, 2006
Perugia is hopping. Today is Thursday and in two days the annual Eurocholate, Italy’s largest, perhaps only, chocolate festival begins. The old town’s main street, the Corso Vannucci, is filled with piles of materials that will be transformed into a dozens of white tents, erected by numerous Italian chocolate manufacturers and retailers, and filled with cases of chocolates to be sold and, in some cases, given to the tens of thousands of acne-ravaged chocoholics that come from all over Italy and western Europe to accelerate their own tooth decay. Suzy and I quite by accident were in Perugia for a Eurochocolate several years ago, and although we had a wonderful time, I can honestly say that I’m thrilled to be leaving Perugia on Friday, before the caffeine-crazed hordes clog every medieval and renaissance street and passageway.
Besides, my imagination is fixed firmly on this morning’s program (as the Italians like to call your day’s itinerary). We are going on a journey to Montefalco, a town in the mountains about a half hour to the south and east of Perugia, with Javier and our good friend Giuseppe Fioroni to meet Arnaldo Caprai, the patriarch of the Arnaldo Caprai empire.
Today’s plan grew unexpectedly from a casual question I had posed to Javier a few days earlier when he had inquired about our program in Umbria. I mentioned to him that I would like to visit the Caprai vineyard in Montefalco if possible, to taste some of their wines, particularly the Sagrantino di Montefalco, Umbria’s most renowned wine and the one that has really put the area on the wine map. I was familiar with Caprai only because it is available in the U.S., and thought it would be fun to taste some wines from around Montefalco, whether at the Caprai vineyard or somewhere else in or around the region.
Upon hearing this, Javier immediately phoned Maestro Fioroni, a long time friend and mentor of Javier’s, who Javier suspected might know Sig. Caprai. Within a few minutes Maestro Fioroni called back to say that the four of us were going to Montefalco on Thursday to meet Sig. Caprai and to visit the vineyard. Mussolini may have got the trains to run on time, but he had nothing on Maestro Fioroni.
I refer to Giuseppe Fioroni as "maestro" because he is a renowned man of arts in Perugia and more broadly in Umbria. His work has been exhibited throughout Europe and he has won awards in Italy and abroad. Last September, Bella Italia hosted an exhibition of his work at our store in Bethesda, Maryland and over 150 people attended a reception in his honor at the Italian Cultural Institute in Washington, DC. Such accomplishments merit the title "master." But in addition to being a great self-taught painter, Maestro Fioroni has built a major grocery store consortium throughout Italy, making him a well connected and important businessman as well. It is both as businessman and artist that the Maestro developed a relationship with another of the region’s important business and cultural leaders, Signore Arnaldo Caprai.
We find the Maestro waiting for us at his offices outside Perugia, looking like a jolly Santa Clause, his flowing white beard and red suspenders unable to draw attention away from a sensitive countenance with gleaming eyes. We have not seen each other since he hosted a dinner for Suzy and me in Perugia in February, but it feels as though it was just yesterday. After exchanging greetings, the four of us climb into his SUV and we head toward Montefalco.
Or so I think. As it turns out, this is not just a wine tasting excursion. For although I am familiar with the Arnaldo Caprai name only from seeing it on the front of a wine bottle, the Caprai family, it seems, is actually engaged in many other businesses, all of them set around the valley near Montefalco. So we set off for the D.O.C. (Denominzatione d’Origine Caprai), an outlet store and factory in nearby Foligno to meet Sig. Caprai.
We pass by a number of beautiful hilltop towns, including Trevi, where Bella Italia’s Torre Mattige olive oil is produced, memories of previous visits to this area flooding back. Finally we pull into the parking lot of D.O.C., a non-descript looking building from the outside, and wander around until we find the main reception area. A receptionist seems unimpressed by our arrival and announces us, but when Arnaldo Caprai appears, he is most gracious in acknowledging us, particularly his old friend Giuseppe Fioroni whom, it seems, he has know for hundreds of years. Sig. Caprai is smartly dressed in a blue blazer, gray slacks and an open neck dress shirt, all of the finest quality. He exudes an aura of Italian chic without overdoing it. He is clearly the capo of the Caprai family.
Then begins an hour-long tour and education about some of the finer things in life, including Caprai’s trademark merletti¸ top quality lace made from cashmere, silk and other fine materials, silk and cashmere bedsheets and other fine fabrics. Sig. Caprai shows us the production facilities, machines that spin thread and that weave thousand foot long strands of cashmere into sheets or silk and gold threads into tablecloths and bedspreads. Other machines stitch delicate filigree patterns of lace on nearly transparent backgrounds that are later removed leaving a delicate and intricate merletti for which Caprai is rightly famous. We squeeze our way through rows of clanking mechanized looms that stitch and weave under the control of complex computer programs. But when asked, Sig. Caprai replies dryly that it is not the antiquated machinery that accounts for the elegant output, it is use of the finest inputs – expensive silks and luxurious cashmeres, and the relentless pursuit of the most distinguished and beautiful patterns, gleaned from historic research, that, when instructed by modern software causes these archaic looms to produce these luxurious fabrics.
To stress this point, Sig. Caprai takes us into several rooms, including one resembling a bank vault, complete with a foot thick door, comprising the most important private library of fine fashion in the world. Included are hundreds of samples of lace from the sixteenth and seventeenth century and beyond and an extensive private library of the history of merletti and other fine fashions, original volumes of which stretch back hundreds of years. The tour continues with rooms filled with ancient sewing machines, irons and boxes of thimbles dating to the time of Caesar.
When we return to the D.O.C. shop, an outlet store containing discontinued patterns and slightly imperfect samples (still well above my price range), Sig. Caprai makes an interesting comment. Neither he nor his company is interested in selling products. Rather, he says, he sells culture. The difference is that the customer should not just end up with an object, but an appreciation for that object and everything that came before it and on which it is based. While this may perhaps sound pretentious, it is clear that this man has devoted his professional career to developing and selling culture.
As we arrive at the Caprai vineyard, the place exudes this culture of which Sig. Caprai spoke. The main building, housing the cantina as well as the production facilities is beautifully designed and decorated. The vineyards stretching in all directions as far as the eye can see are neat and tidy. We walk under a blazing sun and clear skies as freshly picked bunches of grapes are unloaded from trucks that have brought them to the machinery for cleaning, separating and crushing. Sig. Caprai takes us on a complete tour of the facilities, describing every step of the process, leading us, finally, into the cantina where hundreds of bottles of all of Arnaldo Caprai’s offerings are displayed and where we are treated to a new I.G.T. offering. In the aftermath of the tasting Sig. Caprai offers to host groups we bring over from the U.S. for wine tasting and other cultural courses and hands me his card. Under his name is the term cavaliere, literally a knight or horseman, but more commonly used as a designation of a board chairman in Italy. It is clear that this man is indeed a cavaliere.
We depart the Caprai vineyard and drive to the nearby town of Bevagna, a tiny walled town that Maestro Fioroni claims has the most beautiful piazza in all of Italy. We park outside the walls, walk around a picturesque pond with waterfalls that power a grist mill and enter what is indeed a most perfect piazza, flanked with several perfectly preserved medieval churches and civic buildings. In the hot afternoon sun the clean, white stone buildings and stone square glimmer. We enjoy a little repose in the square before heading into a local trattoria, the Ottavius Ristorante (via Gonfalone, 1, 06031 Bevagna (PG), tel. 3184.108.40.206), where we enjoy a remarkable steak and grilled porcini mushrooms that literally explode with flavor in the mouth. The Maestro is excited to offer us a Sagrantino di Montefalco and the velvety rich wine is indeed memorable and a perfect accompaniment to the meal. We emerge from the restaurant feeling cultured and satisfied but a feeling of shock and horror invades as I look in the sky and see the first cloud of the trip. Alas, perfection can not last forever.
* * * *
How strange is it to be strolling down a street in a foreign city and hear your name called out? Strange indeed. But later that day as I am walking in Perugia before dinner I hear my name called out repeatedly. Looking around I spot Michele Fioroni, the Maestro’s son whom I had met when he accompanied his father to Washington last year. He is taking a walk with his three year old son, Rodolfo, and their au pair. I round up Jeff and we wander up the Corso Vannucci with Michele and company, stopping at one caffe for a beer, being taken to "the most beautiful spot in Perugia," being shown a church with an important work of Raffael and finally being invited into his home for "a good Italian coffee." It's nice to be recognized in a foreign town!
* * * *
A maestro and a cavaliere. Strange sounding titles to Americans. But these are men of culture, men who have spent their lives creating, enhancing and sharing things of beauty, who passionately love and value their cultural heritage. But it is not just this older generation that impresses. The younger Javier and Michele, so willing to share their time and the pride they feel for who they are and where they are is as great a gift as one can give to a stranger or acquaintance. Being able to spend some time in the company of these men and men of culture like them is, and continues to be, an honor. It is one of the things that keeps me coming back to Italy.
Thursday, October 12, 2006
We have a fairly simple itinerary today. I am taking Jeff to Deruta, the ancient hilltown of ceramics that lies about 15 minutes south of Perugia. I hope to show him a few of the dozens of little independent ceramics shops cum studios that comprise the town. Other than that, the day is wide open. We’ll let fate take us where it may.
We alight from the hotel quite late, having slept late and then struggled with modern technology so that you, dear reader, would be able to read the travel logs you have come to love so much. Twenty first century Italy is way ahead of America in some respects technologically (glance around any piazza and see everyone, and I mean everyone, even the dogs, sporting tiny cellphones) and I am fortunate that la Rosetta has a high speed ethernet connection available for my use. The only drawback is that it is in a sterile conference closet off of the main lobby, necessitating the carrying of a laptop and about two and a half miles of cables, cords and adaptors. All goes well, however, and the blogosphere is updated with new stories of adventures in Italy, and we depart for Deruta.
After the obligatory coffee stop it’s off to the Mercato Coperto ("Covered Market") car park where the previous evening we left our brand new rental car (0 kilometers), including keys, in the hands of two men we assumed to be parking attendants because of their sporty blue jumpsuits and hand gestures. As the elevator lowers itself to the parking level I feel a tinge of fear that these men are doing donuts ("doughnuts") in a parking lot somewhere in Rome, laughing at the Americans who simply gave away their new car. I find another blue jumpsuited attendant and ask him how we go about retrieving our car, which we left the previous night and for which I draw a complete blank as to make, model, size and color. After a brief search, our car is located – unharmed -- and we are off to Deruta.
According to Jeff’s research, Deruta stands for "of Ruta" or "of Roots," referring to the roots of the rutabaga that are used to tinge the earthen clay is the basis of the bisque of the ceramics. It appears that the ceramics grow from the earth, and that the workers merely harvest God’s bounty. According to Jeff, how the ceramic bushes – themselves approximately 5 meters in height and surrounded by prickly, broken ceramic berries – know to grow, say, a plate with a logo of a hotel already etched onto it is a matter best lest for the scientists. His research is, of course, completely erroneous and made up.
We arrive in Deruta just before lunchtime, traveling up and down the via Tiburtina, the main drag through the lower part of town, in the shadows of the old town which dominates the hill above. There are dozens of small and not so small shops along the via Tiburtina, most of them selling similar designs and shapes and struggling to differentiate themselves from one another. Most of the shops on the via Tiburtina have a second shop in the old town above.
We drive back and forth a number of times looking for Ceramiche Cama, established in the 1950’s and one of the shops that has been able successfully to differentiate itself from its competitors through a combination of unique designs and unrivaled quality. Without doubt, Cama ceramics are among the finest in all of Deruta. As we trace and retrace our steps, following outdated signs to the former location of Cama, we see a familiar face along the street. It is, of course, our buddy Javier Casuso, in Deruta on business. How odd to bump into someone you know so far from home.
We have no appointment or any real agenda at Cama, other than to stop by and say hello to Andrea, the youthful son of the founders and manager of the family’s operations. We finally find Cama and fortunately Andrea is in the shop where we spend a delightful time catching up with him. Andrea is proud to show us a video clip of his parents’ and his audience with the Pope during the Jubilee, during which Andrea presented il papa with a commemorative plate in a design developed especially for the Jubilee.
After our visit with Andrea, we wander down the street to Tavola e Favola, a local restaurant at which Suzy and I spent a memorable lunch with Andrea last February. In fact, the three of us had so much fun that we began plans to bring Roberto, the owner, to Washington for a special serata italiana event. Planning continues for a series of cooking classes and special dinners, together with a talk and demonstration of the art of ceramic making by Andrea. We are all looking forward to the event, but for today at least, we will simply enjoy Roberto’s fare.
Roberto welcomes us with open hands and points us to an outdoor table where we are seated across from some southern-tinged diners from the USA. Paolo, our waiter, confirms that bistecca fiorentina is on the menu today and we order one (yes, only one) and a primi piatti ("first course") of pasta, along with some bread, olive oil, wine and acqua minerale. The pasta would have been sufficient, but as this is Italy, it only whets the appetite for the bistecca. If you look at the pictures, you will see why only one was needed. It is a massive cut, perhaps half a stone in weight when you include the mastodon-sized bone. And, of course, it is brought to us bloody red.
Paolo then begins the carving and filleting of the bovine bounty. At this point, lunch has crossed Rubicon and there is no return. What follows is a blur of knife and fork, pepper and salt, olive oil and much chewing. How long this continues is completely unclear. Somehow and at some point, for some reason, Paolo emerges from the dining room with a grappa bottle large enough for a real ship to fit in, for those so inclined. As I mentioned earlier, Italians truly seem to believe that grappa is "important" and this bottle clearly makes Paolo the most important man in Deruta. He certainly is the most important man at our table at the moment and adds to his luster by bringing two additional bottles a short while later, one with homemade limoncello, a syrupy lemon liqueur and a frosty bottle of a nameless red liqueur that has been made on the premises from wine, grappa and cherries. All three bottles seem extremely important and Paolo checks in on us frequently to see how we are doing and to top off his glass.
It is during this bacchanalia that Jeff comes to a startling revelation, developing in an instant the Italian food pyramid (a la the USDA food pyramid). Like many of society’s greatest inventions, it is scribbled on a placemat and using his ubiquitous blue pen. A copy of it is attached as a photo and you can read Jeff’s complete account of the pyramid here. Suffice it to say that there is a prominent place in the pyramid for grappa.
We finish lunch and emerge from under the canopy which has shielded us from the blazing sun. It is then that we realize that here, on Day 3 of our journey, we have yet to see a cloud in the Italian sky.
We spend a while letting our eyes adjust to the sunlight and then head off for a quick visit to say hello to Gerardo Rigibini, owner of Geribi Ceramics, another of the handful of truly distinctive ceramicists in Deruta. We walk in unannounced to Gerardo’s studio, a large hangar-like building next to a supermarket and see Gerardo and an army of painters hard at work filling orders from customers around the world. Gerardo is happy to see me and me him (is this grammatically possible?) and we chat for a while. Jeff is amazed by Geribi’s beautiful and unusual designs, which Gerardo explains are the result of much research into the designs and colors used by ancient ceramicists, even predating the development of such renaissance classics as ricco Deruta and Raffaelesco. Gerardo is a serious man – serious about his art and his work – and he is seriously good at it.
We bid Gerardo adieu and head back to Perugia, stopping off to see Javier in Ponte San Giovanni for a brief stop. We then begin the winding return from the valley into the center of Perugia but instead of returning to the hotel, decide to practice the route from the hotel to Perugia’s central train station, from which we will depart before the crack of dawn in two days. The route is even more harrowing than the trip into Perugia, with sharp turns down streets that seem to be less than a car width wide, dropping at angles that make us fear that we will pitch pole down into the valley. But despite the complexity of getting to the train station (a "mini-metro" is being built that will soon whisk passengers from the station in the valley to the historic city center), the challenge is in getting back up into Perugia, as the approach is from the other side of the hill than I am accustomed to. We weave and circle and climb for nearly an hour to make the 15 minute drive into town, finally arriving at the Mercato Coperto, tired and drained and nearly ready for dinner.
The evening plan calls for meeting Javier at one of Suzy and my favorite Perugia restaurants, the Osteria del Ghiottone. But tomorrow’s plan looms even larger – a visit organized by our good friend Giuseppe Fioroni to visit the azienda Arnaldo Caprai, Umbria’s premier winemaker. So tonight’s dinner will have to remain forever undocumented, yet another great meal in the land of great meals. Suffice it to say, it was a very important dinner.
Wednesday, October 11, 2006
We get a late start this morning, meeting Javier in the hotel lobby after 10:00, having wiped away most vestiges of jetlag in a single night. Although my room looks out over the Piazza Italia, the main square at the end of the principal pedestrian street in the historic old town of Perugia, with a busy bus stop and throngs of Italians charging here and there, the room is deceptively quiet. I attribute the quiet and the dark to the window shutters, without doubt Italy’s most amazing engineering feat and a marvel that I believe they are foolish to have not shared with the rest of the world. And the Italians have a number of different shade technologies, each one more ingenious than the next, but all sharing the same outcome –absolute darkness and quiet in the room. It is this complete sensory deprivation to which I attribute the rapid victory over jetlag.
Javier takes us down the Corso Vannucci to an old world caffe for a cup of brown gold and a pastry. We’ve been to this particular caffe-patisserie before, but the routine is the same. Stand at the counter for a small cup of highly concentrated espresso, feeling the caffeine instantly course through your system like a powerful morphine drip, or choose a somewhat larger cappuccino, which adds a healthy dose of frothy milk and sugar to your pick me up. I choose the latter and a small pastry looking like a sugar covered horn filled with vanilla cream. The pastry case, which runs practically the entire length of the long, narrow room, is piled with dozens of varieties of sweets that are simple variations on the same theme – a bit of bread flavored with something sweet. There are horn shaped pastries filled with various creams, round buns cut in half and filled with cream, cups filled with cream or pudding; why there are even donuts, a relatively recent addition to the Italian breakfast lineup, some covered with chocolate and others, you guessed it – filled with cream.
We eat our pastries and knock back our coffee – which takes about 90 seconds total – at a small round table set up in the middle of the Corso. All around Italians are rushing by, many by themselves, only their cellphones to connect them to someone else with whom they can talk, others walking by in groups of two or three engaged in animated discussions with one another. This is a culture that likes to talk and it is rather entertaining to sit in one place and watch the conversations pass by, a sort of exercise in Italian channel surfing. It is unusual to see anyone under 50 years old walk by solo and not be engaged in some sort of conversation. It is the older people who slowly amble by, usually with hands held behind the back, hand in palm, saying nothing, seemingly going nowhere, talking with no one. Their languid pace and seeming purposelessness seems a refreshing counterpoint to the frantic dashes of their younger counterparts.
We finish up and begin a slow meandering walk past the duomo to one of the faculties of the University of Perugia, where Javier has arranged some assistance in expediting the renewal of his passport. Perugia is a college town, a fact that is probably obvious most of the time, given the large numbers of young people here, but which is undeniable if one ventures out in the piazza in front of the duomo at night when the steps of the cathedral are covered with groups of students, publicly drinking beers and engaged in the great Italian past time of talking.
Wandering down to the Faculty of Letters we pass through some of the most awe inspiring, but completely missable architectural layout imaginable. Streets bend down, tilt right and left, wind back up and seem to just go where they like. In order to accommodate these wandering pathways, the buildings use each other for support, with buttresses thrown high above the streets, spanning from one building to another to keep the whole crazy jumble from falling down onto one another. Archways and tiny passageways are everywhere and the colors are the same everywhere – a brown-gray stone color, the hue deepened with years of grime. The colors could be depressing or at least a bit melancholy were in not for the gleaming sun, which at this hour has not yet climbed overhead and is casting dark shadows over half the street, but is nonetheless bathing these dark stones in brilliant light that reflects everywhere, illuminating and warming even the darkest corners.
After leaving the Faculty of Letters we wander some more before heading to one of the municipal car parks where Javier has left his car. This particular garage, and there are many in Perugia because the main square and the historic center are off limits to auto traffic, is a multi-story affair. Drivers enter the garage well below main square, leave their cars and are hoisted to ground level by elevator, their cars remaining secure in the subterranean garage. This garage, the Mercato Coperto (covered market), is not visible from the main street. You must pass through a small archway and tunnel to reach it. But when you do, the effect is similar to walking through many of the other tiny passageways in Perugia – upon emerging from it you have been transported to a different world. Most of the historic center of Perugia is visually constricted. You are constantly surrounded by buildings; there are few panoramas. But emerging into the Mercato Coperto, a collection of stalls selling purses, tshirts and other souvenirs built on top of the municipal garage, you finally break out into the open. From the Mercato you can see the green hills of Umbria, small villages dotting the landscape. In the distance, through the haze of this bright morning we can see on the slope of a nearby mountain our destination for the afternoon, Assisi, the home of St. Francis.
* * * *
Javier has arranged to meet a friend for lunch and so we follow him to Joyce’s Pub (via Bonazzi 15, 06133 Perugia, tel. 075.57.56,800), a few steps from our hotel off the Corso Vannucci. This Irish pub, seeming a bit out of place in a medieval Italian city, looks right out of Dublin – dark wooden décor, small wooden pub tables and Guinness on tap. When the waitress arrives and recites the menu, however, it is clear that we are in Italy – penne al bosco, pasta with clams, pesche fritti and bistecca. We spend an enjoyable hour watching Javier and his buddy try to one up each other, harass the waitresses and generally enjoy the moment. After lunch we bid our farewells to everyone and after a while begin our trek to Assisi.If walking the windy streets of Perugia is an unadulterated joy, driving the windy streets of Perugia can be an unalloyed terror. When heading out of Perugia the best course of action is to keep your head low, try not to bump into anyone, follow everyone else and drive downhill. If you drive downhill you will eventually get out of this place, which, not amazingly, since it was built over a thousand years ago, does not appear to have been designed with cars in mind. We roll downhill until we reach the pleasant valley below and then rejoin the normal rush of Italian traffic, looking for signs to Assisi, which are everywhere. Within a quarter of hour we are exiting the strada statale (state highway) for Assisi, which is gleaming yellowish white perched on the slope of a mountain about 10 miles in the distance.
The approach to Assisi is almost as enjoyable as the visit itself. It is hard to overstate how beautiful the town looks from the distance – the color, the setting, the complete self sufficiency of the walled town separated from everything around it. As you come closer you can see more detail, including the basilica San Francesco the pilgrimage magnet where the saint is buried.
We drive right up to the town, brazenly ignoring, Italian-style, the traffico limitato signs, deciding to park where we like – preferably close to the basilica. I follow in my father’s footsteps, who more than a decade earlier ignored the signs and drove right into the piazza in front of the basilica, an area reserved for religious big shots and church officials, while my mother tore at her hair and cursed him in a way that would have shocked St. Francis. I have a failure of nerve however, and decide not to park in the square (which no longer is for parking anyway). Not wanting to drive through the square and into the town proper, however, I decide to turn around and retrace my route, a wise decision except for the fact that the road is one way. As we work our way through the oncoming traffic I inexplicably think of salmon.
We end up parking at a lot on the extreme south end of the city, far from the basilica on the north end, but also far from the police and angry mob. A pleasant 15 minute walk across the length of Assisi ends with us in front of the basilica, which is now bathed in a warm yellow light of the setting sun. It is late and we have only a short time to sightsee, so we enter the upper basilica, which boasts frescos of scenes from St. Francis’ life. At the entrance to the basilica is the scene of Francis preaching to the birds and animals, one of the famous scenes of his life. All I can think about, however, is what exactly did he eat?
We try to enter the lower basilica, which houses more famous frescoes, but a vesper service is taking place and the chapel is closing shortly. So we wander up the street pas numerous souvenir shops trading on the popularity of Assisi’s favorite son. Jeff buys a few St. Francis trinkets and we are struck by the odd juxtaposition of the numerous St. Francis statues and postcards with Roman swords, battle axes and maces. "This sword we call the St. Francis. Ten inches of gleaming steel. It’s the ultimate killing machine." We wander all the way up to Assisi’s main square, the Piazza Communale, with its Roman temple and shiny civic buildings. Just past the piazza we enter a store called Lisa Assisi (her real name?) and buy some souvenirs, asking for directions to our destination for dinner –Trattoria La Stalla. Lisa (we imagine) asks why we want to eat there, trying to direct us to a restaurant in town that she no doubt owns or gets a commission for sending tourists to, but in the end gives us good directions, scribbled on a piece of cardboard. She bids us adieu telling us that we will eat well.
And it is indeed fortuitous that we asked for directions, because no person, save Lord Shackleton, could find this restaurant without them. Located about 10 minutes outside Assisi, on the mountainside above it, La Stalla (via Eramo delle Carceri 24, 06081 Assisi (PG), tel 075.812.317) is in the Fontanella campgrounds. If you follow the signs for "Camping Fontanella" you will eventually find the restaurant. But you will likely be racked with self doubt a dozen times before you finally park your car, believing it impossible that the restaurant could be here!
Our perseverance was handsomely rewarded. The restaurant is in a non-descript hotel that probably serves primarily as bathing facilities for the nearby campers. It appeared deserted when we arrived, but we poked about various rooms, following sounds and smoky smells until we reached the cozy restaurant. The room is dominated by a huge brazier, a wood fired stove covered with metal racks on which a tag team of waiters and matrons constantly grill a variety of meats, sausages and fowl. Grilled cheeses, grilled vegetables, roasted potatoes and even grilled breads constantly are drawn from the fires and delivered to eager diners. The brazier gives off a warm flickering glow that lights the room and gives it character.
Jeff starts with strangozzi in tomato sauce, a handmade Umbrian pasta that resembles thick spaghetti. I have a bowl of farro soup that is thick and hearty and served on a rough wooden plate that is slightly scooped out, providing a space for the soup. A local house wine is followed by a Rosso di Montefalco, a hearty backdrop for the skewers of sausages that I have ordered. Jeff has a grilled chicken which has been split in half and grilled to perfection. We have some beet greens (grilled, of course) but the hit of the evening are the roasted potatoes, small new potatoes cut in half and grilled in the coals, which softens the pulp of the potato and slightly burns the skin, infusing the whole with a smoky taste that is deepened by a generous dressing of olive oil and a strategic pinch of salt. If we had been served only the potatoes the dinner would have been a success. The meats, bread and veggies make it just that much better. La Stalla (which means the barn), is one of those finds that makes your day completely worthwhile and I am glad that we persevered to find it.
So it’s back to Perugia, a half hour drive that finds no traffic on our return. We stop off for a glass of wine at my favorite wine bar the Bottega del Vino (hopefully more on it in tomorrow’s installment), return to la Rosetta and off to sleep, dreaming of grilled potatoes and thinking that St. Francis would probably preferred if we had skipped the chicken and sausages.
Tuesday, October 10, 2006
With me on the flight are Javier Casuso, the Spanish-born ceramicist who resides in Perugia and runs the D’Arna ceramics studio, and Jeff Gilleran, a long time buddy and co-worker of mine who has traveled to Italy with us in the past. Noticeably absent are my wife, Suzy, and our children. A long summer spent in Florida with my father and brothers has made it difficult for her to slip away from Washington, and besides, the kids have just started back at school. So while I am looking forward to some new adventures in the land of Cristoforo Columbo on this Columbus Day, a part of me feels like it has been left behind in the land of T.O.
The flight passes incredibly quickly for an 8 hour ordeal sealed inside what is no more than an enormous bullet shell, as it and its 300 passengers are fired from Philadelphia to Rome. I have been lucky enough to win a coveted upgrade to Envoy class from steerage, and I happily settle into the cavernous seat with so many recline and lumbar controls that a silhouette map of the seat, with separate arrows and buttons is required to control it. I imagine myself as a lottery winner, being presented an outsized cardboard check like a Publishers Clearinghouse sweepstakes grand prize winner -- payable to Bill Menard one big ass seat. Although there really is no Prize Patrol or balloons or crowds here, one look around the cabin confirms that most everyone else up here feels the same way, a certain giddiness that we will not only survive this aerial ordeal, we might even arrive in Rome having enjoyed ourselves.
And as the plane touches down at Rome’s Fiumicino airport, while I have not exactly had a swashbuckling good time (my television was broken), I have slept soundly for nearly 6 hours, a record of sorts for me, and I am ready to begin my Italian odyssey. We pass through immigration, a perfunctory stamp of the passport without the strip search and private screening room harassment that had greeted Javier when he arrived in the U.S. a week earlier, collect our bags and emerge from the dingy, antiseptic terminal into the cool shade of a crystal clear, crisp blue Roman morning. At slightly after 9:00 in the morning the temperature is a perfect 70 degrees and the sun is gently but surely bearing down on us, warming not only our outer skin but announcing to every fiber within that you are welcome here, to where civilization began in so many ways thousands of years ago under this same sun that warms and welcomes us now. As my eyes adjust from the cold yellowish light of the terminal to the cool white light of the sun, they marvel at the progression of blues, from a light, creamy blue of the horizon to the darker, deeper blue of directly above head, that is not punctuated by a single cloud. Nature does indeed seem to be rolling out the welcome mat and I feel in an instant, that I have returned home.
Our agenda for the day, or program as Javier calls it, is simple. Lunch and dinner then sleep, in an attempt to thwart jet lag and adjust to the six hour time difference. We get in Javier’s car and begin the two hour drive to Perugia through landscape dotted with some awful industrial zones and unattractive buildings, but set into beautiful, craggy hills that are covered in wall to wall green punctuated by the light gray of rocky hills. After just 15 minutes, the program is interrupted. We must stop for a coffee.
What a welcome first activity in Italy it is to take a coffee. Even at the Autogrill, the ubiquitous roadside rest stop chain found alongside autostrade throughout Italy you will find a first rate coffee bar that will put any American Starbucks to shame. Where we Americans have our McDonalds and Taco Bells along the highway, Tiger Marts with prepackaged sandwiches and vending machines, the simple Autogrill has refrigerator cases of fresh cheeses, dozens of salamis, assortments of pastas and, of course, the coffee bar. A creamy espresso and frothy cappuccino are offered up along with a simple sandwich of crusty bread and a few slices of prosciutto. It is another gift from the Italian sun who is watching over us today.
We arrive at last at Perugia, one of the most beautiful cities in Italy, winding our way up the road that circles back and forth up the hill on which the city is built. Our destination, despite Javier’s efforts to the contrary, is the Hotel la Rosetta (Piazza Italia 19, Perugia, tel. 075.57.20.841, www.perugiaonline.com/larosetta), smack dab on the main street in the middle of the old city. I have stayed up the street at the Hotel Brufani in the past and walked past la Rosetta dozens of times, but I had never noticed it before. The main entrance is on the Piazza Italia, but the better entrance is off the main street, the Corso Vannucci, through a lovely small terrace that, once again, I have passed dozens of times without ever noticing. After some formalities involving passports and license tags, we are shown upstairs to the guest rooms. As I pass through corridor after corridor, motion sensing lights switch on and, as we pass through each room, switch off, bringing to mind Agent Maxwell Smart and the automatic doors through which he passes on his way to meet the Chief.
The room is simple with nice furnishings and definitely worth the Euro 130 per night, especially given the hotel’s prime location in the heart of city center. A high, domed ceiling, painted with scenes of maidens reclining in landscapes scattered with cherubs fills the imagination, the last image seen before nodding off in a jetlag induced slumber.
But it is not yet time to sleep. We rejoin Javier and drive to Ponte San Giovanni, a bedroom community of Perugia located in the valley below. Here we return once again to the Deco Hotel (via del Pastificio 8, Ponte San Giovanni (PG) 06087, tel. 075.59.90.950, www.decohotel.it), a regular haunt of Javier and one which we have shared with him numerous times on visits to Perugia and Deruta. We (Javier) are greeted warmly by the manager, who rushes to the door to open it for Javier and welcome him back to town (he has been to Spain as well as Washington and away from Ponte San Giovanni for several weeks). We are shown our table and the feast begins. Javier has his usual pasta and clams and Jeff tries a penne with truffle sauce. I have a grilled fish (coda di rospo) and we wash everything down with a nice pinot grigio. Before dessert Javier orders a plate of prosciutto, which is sliced from a fresh leg that is brought in, replacing the spindly, sickly looking bone that was on display upon our entrance. Then it is on to grappa (what lunch would be complete without Italian rocket fuel which the Italians claim is important to good health) and coffee. We say our goodbyes after several hours in this lovely sun filled room, a glassed in space in the middle of a lovely, colorful garden. It is then off to Javier’s apartment for a little port and cheese, soaking up some more of the sun on his terrace, and then back to Perugia.
Javier drops us off at the hotel and we plan to reconvene for dinner in several hours and Jeff and I decide to explore Perugia a bit. Our first stop is the local wine store, which Suzy and I stop by on every visit to Perugia. The staff there stock a huge selection of Umbrian wines and are both very knowledgeable and proud of their local offerings. I engage one clerk in conversation, getting some good suggestions and we buy a couple of bottles before leaving.
Wandering around an unfamiliar neighborhood, we hear a strange clanking noise and arrive at a doorway opening into a cavernous darkened room, blanketed with smoke. The noise is from the collision of billiard balls, as we have discovered a real life Italian pool hall in the bowels of this university city. We rent a table for an hour, drawing a few stares from the locals who are clearly Italians and clearly college students (we clearly are neither) as we pass through. The experience is quite different from any I have experienced in Italy, but quite restrained and wholesome, not at all the raucous affair I had expected. A couple players pose for a photo on our way out.
Dinner approaches, as it has now been more than 24 hours after we left Washington and Javier calls from his car, his four children in tow. He suggests the Pizzeria Mediterraneo, a favorite of Suzy’s and mine, just at the end of Corso Vannucci, and I am excited to agree and to return there. We place our orders, seven pizzas, and they begin arriving at the table two or three minutes after we order them. They are delicious, topped with four cheeses, mushrooms, sausages and the like, each the personalized treasure of the diner. No dessert tonight. Just a quick dinner and a stroll back to la Rosetta, where a cozy bed is calling out my name. I am asleep before the light goes out, dreaming of adventures to come tomorrow.
Only a day earlier I boarded a jet in Washington, DC, looking forward to returning to Italy, a place I love and which has for the past several years has been the focus of my business and professional life. That excitement was tempered, however, with some apprehension about leaving Suzy behind as well as other family responsibilities that need to be tended to. The ease with which I rediscover the rhythms and rituals of Italian life make the transition easy. And as I take a shower before dinner, reaching instinctively for the knob marked "C" and realizing that "C" is for "Hot" (caldo), rather than "Cold" (freddo) and amusing myself with evil thoughts of Americans who have probably scalded themselves in this very same shower, turning the "C" knob even further as their screams bounce off the domed ceiling, painted cherubs and maidens secretly laughing to themselves. I have returned to a place where I belong and where I can sometimes secretly laugh to myself about those outsiders as well.
Tuesday, February 21, 2006
We have decided to write about our arrival in Gubbio, which occurs on the night of the tenth day in this Day Eleven journal because we vowed not to write about food on Day Ten and to not write about our evening in Gubbio, around the dinner table of the family Biagioi would be to do an injustice. The evening that is about to unfold is all about food. Not so much about what is served by Paolo’s mother Ombritta, although it is once again a culinary tour de force, but because the dinner table is the central prop around which all of the important action seems to take place in Italy. And our visit to Gubbio and the Biagioli family is essentially a two act play that takes place at dinner on Day Ten and lunch on Day Eleven, with a brief intermission held in their ceramics factory.
But to reduce our visit to a discussion about food would also be an injustice because this is really a story about hospitality. We Americans throw around the expression "good old fashioned Southern hospitality" and we have seen dozens of examples of southern graciousness. But Italian hospitality is really in a league by itself, so much more extreme, so much more genuine, so much more heartfelt than anything we have experienced back home. Why it’s so important that the Olive Garden restaurant came up with a new word for it – "hospitaliano."
One example of this hospitaliano from a trip many years ago comes to mind. We were traveling in Italy with Bill’s mother and father, the three of them taking an overnight trip to a small town north of Venice. They were on the prowl for a particular restaurant that had been recommended to them and after fumbling around looking for a parking space in the center of town and completely botching how to pay for parking (they eventually got a parking ticket), they began looking for the restaurant, armed only with the address and a small map lacking in sufficient detail. Picking up what they believed to be the scent of the restaurant from a few map cues and other signs, they began a building by building search of a particular area and after a turn began to grow frustrated that the promised restaurant was not where they thought it was. Even though they were a group of two males and one female, in their frustration they decided to ask for directions, picking a newspaper vendor who was standing behind the counter in his newspaper kiosk as a captive subject. It was obvious to him that this party of three was completely lost and as the giornalaio began sputtering out incomprehensible directions it also became obvious that our party was incapable of responding to his simple commands. So, instead of growing frustrated and leaving them to their own devices he emerged from behind the counter, gestured them to follow him and began walking up the street. They figured that they must have been close after all, but as their guide continued block after block they realized that they probably never would have found the restaurant. In all he led them at least 4 or 5 blocks from his newsstand, gesturing them to keep following him every few steps or so until voila (or eccoqua), there they were. The three thanked him profusely, with visions of him returning to his stand a few moments later to find that he had been robbed blind, but he just smiled and shook their hands and left them at the door, his act of uncommon kindness leaving an indelible impression on them.
The meal that night was one of the most unforgettable of the trip and is still fondly recounted today. But perhaps the gesture of hospitaliano is what really made it so special.
To be sure, we have encountered more than our share of rudeness, boorishness and downright bad form from many Italians. Just get behind the wheel of a car and you’ll see what we mean.
But when the kinder, gentler impulses of the Italian people exhibit themselves, you are in for a treat. And as we arrived at the ceramics studio of the Biagioli family we were unaware that we were in for just such treatment.
We had met the Biagiolis less than a year before, in March of 2005. While on vacation with our four children and another family, we had decided to take a day trip to Gubbio, a famous ancient walled city about a half hour from Assisi. We had read about a famous festival that takes place every year, an important civic function like Siena’s palio, where groups of Gubbians carry enormous, heavy wooden poles, carved to resemble enormous candles called ceri, in a sort of neighborhood relay race. The real trick (or treat) of this ceremony is that the ceri weigh nearly 100 pounds, requiring a group of men to carry them, and that the route takes them through streets that are crowed like those of Pamplona on festival day, from piazza to piazza and then up a long, steep hill, to the cathedral perched almost directly above the town. As we approached Gubbio that spring day the walled city stood out like a gem against the mountain into which it is built and we could not believe our eyes when we could see the cathedral above the town, the path leading to it a series of steep straight roads, consisting of switchback after switchback. Later we were to visit the cathedral, taking the funivia, a type of cable car in which the riders stand in what appears to be a small round metal trashcan or drum, suspended from the cable by a single metal spar. The thought of a group of men struggling up these steep, narrow roads, driven only by neighborhood pride and religious passion was truly awe inspiring.
And so we arrived in Gubbio that day, enjoying its history and architecture and, above all, its gelato. We had been drawn there, too, by stories of its centuries old ceramics tradition, rivaling that of Deruta, another Umbrian hilltown with which we were quite familiar, and from which we import some lovely ceramics. So, our purpose was twofold, to enjoy an outing to this new town with our children and to be on the lookout for a possible new supply of ceramics. In fact, we had been in contact before our trip with Paolo Biagioli and slipped into his family’s beautiful retail store in the main square. Having liked what we had seen, we struck up a conversation with Paolo’s sister, who was minding the store. She phoned Paolo who arrived from the studio a few moments later and whisked us down to the studio for a tour of the facilities. We left our children in the main square to eat ice cream and retrieved them an hour later to chill out at the studio, for in the interim we had seen a lot that we had liked and knew that we would be a couple of hours picking pieces to import and sell back home.
So we return to the Biagioli studio after a single two hour visit a year earlier and, walking through the door we are greeted by Valentino Biagioli, the patriarch of the family. This elegant, easygoing man in his 60s seems happy to see us and he escorts us to the office of his son, Paolo, who has been our primary connection with the family company. The four of us sit and talk for a while, catching up and talking about business. Valentino, who speaks better English than he lets on, is completely engaging and keeps marveling at how Bill can speak Italian (he really can’t) and the four slip easily into a familiarity that marks the next 24 hours.
When we had made arrangements to visit Gubbio on this trip we had asked Paolo for recommendations where to stay. He had replied on several occasions that "you will be our guests," which we were unsure how to interpret. So we were not surprised to find out that we would be staying at Valentino’s house that night, the other possibility having been that they had booked us at a local hotel.
After a little while at the studio we head to Valentino’s house, a short car ride around the corner from the studio, but, we learn later, actually on the same grounds as the studio, but behind it and up a hill. It is dark when we arrive (with an embarrassingly large assortment of luggage), but we are escorted through a gate and a lovely garden into a post-modern house, looking as though it might have been designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The entry hall looks over a long, elegantly furnished living room and our room for the night, a large comfortable bedroom, is just around the corner. We are shown a spiral staircase down to the dining area two floors below and invited to join them for dinner after a short rest.
Around 8:00 we head down the spiral staircase and Valentino greets us in the dining area, showing us the other rooms on this floor, one of four floors in the house which is now shared only by Valentino and his wife. We are introduced to Valentino’s wife Ombritta, who is busily preparing dinner for us and Paolo in her modern kitchen, which in addition to a full array of modern appliances sports a wood burning fireplace that is used for grilling meats. There are dozens of cookbooks throughout and we learn that Ombritta is a passionate cook. Her passion certainly shines through that evening and the next day.
Within a few minutes Suzy, Bill, Paolo and Valentino are seated and are enjoying the courses that Ombritta continuously brings to the table. In fact, we do not get a real opportunity to spend time with her until after the meal, as she is continually bringing more food to the table. Valentino has uncorked two excellent bottles of wine, a Sagrantino di Montefalco and a Brunello, filling up Bill and Suzy’s glasses throughout, while shortchanging himself and Paolo. Ombritta must feel that we are underweight, because at each course she fills our plates to overflowing, seeming offended when we don’t pile more food on top. The conversation flows easily, shifting from one subject to another without effort, but always focusing on the guests, on their lives, on America on our business. This Biagioli family is outstanding at entertaining, making us feel like the most important people not just in the room, but in the world. As we finish the main course we are innocently asked if we have ever tasted pheasant and answering yes, some pheasant is warmed up and served to us. We are quite sure that had the answer been no, the result would have been the same.
Later cheeses and fruits are served, then several desserts and, of course, an array of after dinner drinks. We retire to the living room and when we finally wind down the evening it is well after midnight, a four and a half hour dinner feeling like it had taken only half an hour. In those magical hours, two families, whose previous relationship had been a business relationship built on a single two hour visit, have become friends. But we have also become partners in the ceramics business, the previous buyer-seller/supplier-retailer relationship replaced with one of mutual understanding of each other’s needs and goals.
The next day is more of the same, more food, more drink, more camaraderie and more family. For at lunch we get to meet Paolo’s wife Deborah and their new baby Giulia. Both are lovely and wonderful additions to the previous evening’s roster and once again we feel the warmth and acceptance of a gracious family that really knows hospitaliano.
So we close another adventure around the table. But while we have eaten and drunk our way throughout this wonderful country (you need only look at our other days’ trip reports to verify this), a day like today (and the previous evening) show us that food is but a catalyst. What the Italians really rejoice in is the table, the sharing and camaraderie that takes place around the table. Food and drink keep one seated, but the real sustenance comes from the people, like the Biagiolis, and not the food.
Friday, February 17, 2006
As I brush my teeth I notice the obligatory alarm pull next to the shower, a small cord protruding from a hole in the wall with a black handle hanging from one end, like the end of a jump rope. I have never had occasion to pull the alarm cord and am not quite sure what constitutes an emergency serious enough to warrant a pull – scalded by hot water when your mate flushes the toilet? Soap in your eyes? In desperate need of a cheeseburger from room service? The only thing that I am certain of is that if I were to fall and truly need help so badly that I wouldn’t mind the front desk attendant finding me completely naked, I probably would not be able to reach the cord anyway.
And so we pack up and check out of the Hotel Zunica, nearly ready to say goodbye to Civitella del Tronto which we have met only hours before. But before departing we must visit the famous fortezza, one of the strongest fortresses in Italy, which is balanced on top of this already vertical town. The night before, taking a stroll before dinner we wander from the main square where the Zunica is located and head up in the direction of the fortress. The walkways (for there are no streets for traffic in this town) are so steep and so disorienting in their turns and twists that it is difficult to determine if you are walking up or down, making you feel as though you are trapped in a bizarre M.C. Escher drawing.
But today we are taking the luxury tourist route to the fortress, a set of escalators that have been carved through the foundation of the town to make this site accessible, even to overweight American tourists. The ride takes only a couple of minutes and we find ourselves outside a massive, and I mean massive, stone fortress. The views from the base of the fortification, looking out over the top of Civitella del Tronto and across deep valleys and on to snow covered mountain peaks, is beautiful, and the weather has cooperated today, even at this altitude, allowing us to shed our coats as we explore the fortress.
We pay our admission and enter the fort. There is much climbing to do, but in the fortress walking is done on wide brick walkways that slope at gentle angles, presumably so soldiers could scramble up and down them laden with weapons and transporting artillery. Remains of barracks, stockades, mess halls and latrines are accessible, most in pretty good shape, but we are reminded that after the fortress fell to the forces of a unified Italy at the end of the 1800s, the last such stronghold to surrender, we are told, it was destroyed by the victors. Only recently has it been rebuilt and many of the structures are ruins, looking like 19th century versions of the forum in Rome.
This is a pleasant, secluded place and one that would be a good visit for families with small children, who have not developed the patience or sophistication to be dragged through endless rooms of paintings or churches. There are great views of the mountains, an occasional cannon, visions of enemies obliterating one another and lots of wide open space in which to run and play.
We exit just as the ticket attendant, who warned us to be out by 1:00 is locking the gates as he leaves for his lunch break, making us wonder what we would have done had we been locked inside. It is a fortress after all. We probably couldn’t have escaped until he returned from his siesta.
The drive from Civitella del Tronto to the autostrada at Ascoli Piceno is windy and slow but soon we are heading east, toward the beach resort of San Benedetto del Tronto, which we have decided to stop in for lunch. A few days earlier Angelo has recommended a stop here, opining that it is one of the most beautiful beach towns along the Abruzzo coast.
We drive up the lungomare, the beachside road that runs the length of San Benedetto and, although the town is mostly closed for the season, are captured by its hidden beauty. While San Benedetto looks a lot like other Italian beach towns – building after building, mostly restaurants and bars, between the beach and the road, uninspired apartment buildings and an occasional attractive hotel on the other side – the beach is wide and we can imagine rows of colorful beach chairs as far as the eye can see. Because it is off season, it appears that all of the restaurants are closed and we make a u-turn to head to town center where we hope to find a restaurant when Suzy spies the lights on in one beachside restaurant. We circle back and confirm that it is open, a fact we should have noticed by the large number of cars parked out front. Oddly, parking is in the middle lane of the street, rather than on the side and Bill’s door is nearly ripped off as he opens it into traffic.
We enter the well lit "ristornatino" La Croisette (Lungomare Trieste 37, 63039 San Benedetto del Tronto, tel. 0735/81842), which buzzes with energy. Waiters glide by and framed against huge windows looking onto the beach diners are engaged in animated conversation and consumption of mass quantities of seafood and wine. This is the jackpot.
We are shown to a table with a good view of the beach, a wide sandy strip that is protected by a jetty and what appears to be an artificial reef a hundred or so feet from shore. The man who seats us seems to be the proprietor, a powerful looking man in an untucked white dress shirt, unshaven and dark with an unruly thick mass of hair in black, peppered with grey. He exchanges words with a couple of men dining at the table next to us, what appears to be an Italian version of ragging and it becomes clear that these men are regulars when one of them jumps up and gives the proprietor a bear hug. He sits back down and continues to eat and drink from one of three or four wine glasses in front of him.
Somehow, inexplicably, our host knows that we are not Italian, but treats us well anyway and speaks in rapid fire Italian. He warns us that they serve only fish here and recommends that we start with antipasti, which we think he tells us they will keep bringing us until we stop them. We agree and a few moments later the first little plate arrives, polenta with small chopped pieces of shrimp. As we are working on this two more plates arrive, whole scampi and an arugula salad with shrimp and parmigiano. A slight problem arises as a huge plate of foccaccia and a smaller plate of what appears to be marinated octopus arrives. We are still working on our polenta and the table has become completely covered with plates. We pick up our pace, finishing off the polenta and salad, putting the scampi on our plates and piling up some of the empties when a plate of mussels stuffed with olive oil soaked bread crumbs, shrimp and vegetable tempura and lightly fried eggplant topped with shrimp and cheese arrive. We begin to panic that we don’t know how to stop this onslaught, feeling like Lucy and Ethel unable to keep pace with the conveyor belt of cakes in the famous I Love Lucy episode or Mickey Mouse trying to rid himself of the infernal brooms and buckets in Fantasia. A plate of enormous flattened octopuses, lightly battered and fried arrives as we start to sweat, images of death by seafood racing through our head.
Then it comes to a stop. Perhaps sensing that we don’t know the Italian word for stop, the waiters have mercy on us and allow us to catch our breath and savor what has already piled up on our table. And savor we do, each plate featuring one or two simple, pure flavors, highlighting the freshness of the ingredients. It is yet another magical food moment in our Italian adventure.
But we are not through. We decline to order a pasta, opting to skip ahead to the secondi or main course. We ask for a plate of mixed grilled seafood and one mixed fried seafood but a few minutes later we are presented two small plates of pasta anyway, with complimenti from the restaurant. The plate contains a half dozen giant penne that have been tossed in oil and butter and sprinkled with parsley and a single clam. A delicious intermezzo for the carnage that is about to ensue.
Two large plates, one covered in heavy brown paper, are brought forth. They contain an assortment of fried and grilled fishes, including the mangled carcass of something called a frog fish, a local delicacy that is split in two and splayed in a contorted pose on the plate. Tiny fried squids, shrimp and bait fish are heaped in piles and a whole scampi, an oversized shrimp with a hard shell and a couple of long, thin claws round, out the aquatic who’s who. An orgy of eating begins (or rather continues), the effect enhanced by a crisp white wine from nearby Loretto.
Several hours after we arrived our meal is at an end. We order coffees and prepare to leave. The waiter, in addition to our coffee, brings us a small painted coffee pot and two shot glasses, explaining that it is filled with a special caffe marinaio, sailors’ coffee. We enjoy the warm, sweet coffee, flavored with chocolate and a touch of some aromatic liquor. Bill gets up to pay, exchanges some words with the proprietor and returns with a partially empty bottle of Punch Creola, the secret ingredient in the caffe marinaio, which the proprietor insists we take with us. We take a brief walk along the beach, digesting our meal and recounting the magic of the afternoon, already fantasizing about a return visit to this beach town in season, one motivating factor being the opportunity to return to la Croisette.
We arrive in Urbino, one of the great renaissance towns of central Italy. Located in La Marche region, along the coast and adjacent to Umbria, this is a region, like Puglia and Abruzzo which we have just visited, that is not much visited by American tourists. But Urbino, an important university town does get its fair share of American visitors, in part because of its renaissance treasures and its iconographic patron, Federico di Montefeltro, the Duke of Urbino in the 15th century, whose striking profile with his misshapen hook nose and fascinating red outfit is known to every Art History 101 student in the world.
We had booked a room at the Hotel Bonconte but received an email the day before that we had been moved into a nice room at a sister hotel, the Albergo San Domenico (Piazza Rinasciamento, 3, 61029 Urbino, tel. 0722 2626). We follow the signs to the perimeter wall of this walled town, finding signs directing us to the San Domenico through the city gates. We are hesitant to enter by car for a couple of reasons. First, the streets inside the walls are marked as a zona limitata, limited to use by authorized vehicles, which to our knowledge we are not. Even more so, however, are memories of entering the town of Assisi decades earlier in a minivan driven by Bill’s father, the vehicle practically wider than the streets, which were themselves clogged with pilgrims who did not interpret a bus full of Americans as a particularly positive sign from above. But we decide to chance it anyway and, fortunately, we arrive in front of the San Domenico about a minute later. And what a fortunate turn of events it has been for management to have moved us here. The albergo is located just across the square from the Ducal Palace and the facility, in a renovated convent and church is luxurious, our room the biggest of the trip and nicely furnished including a teapot and a shiatsu massage chair.
As we unload our bags from the car a parade of 20 or so people march by, playing flutes or lutes or some other strange instruments, skipping and dancing and chatting with one another. We are embarrassed that the hotel has arranged this welcome for us but learn a few moments later, as we check in, that it is a private celebration for the students of the medical university, who have finished their final exams today and are now about to go out into the world and do no harm.
We head to dinner a bit late after having strolled through the lively city, which has a definite college feel to it but which is also crowded with responsible adults. Although a walled city, it seems to have been built on an enormous hill, because all of the streets tilt upward and downward at incredibly steep angles.
Thursday, February 16, 2006
Checking out of the Hotel Esplanade is unquestionably the most satisfying aspect of staying there. Its old world charm, which is evident from the moment you are greeted ("passports please") and in their attention to their clients’ needs ("of course you can park in any spot which is empty") make one wonder if this region of Italy was perhaps settled by the Swiss. The room, at least, is quite nice, a good sized bedroom with attached sitting room, which we put to good use consolidating the purchases we have made along the way by essentially throwing away all of our dirty clothes.
We check out late, not even getting a chance to enjoy the view of the deserted beach, which in the summertime is lined in a precisely laid out grid of bright colored cloth beach chairs and cabanas. But we have little time to dally for we have an appointment in l’Aquila, an hour and a half into the mountains, to visit with Rita Faroni, proprietor of Sorelle Nurzia, who supplies Bella Italia with delectable torrone and cookies.
The drive inland from Pescara is utterly breathtaking, with the sea at our backs and towering ranges of mountains on our left (the Maiella) and right (the Gran Sasso). On its way to Pescara the autostrada, which connects Pescara to Rome confines itself to the valleys between peaks, and off the side of the road dozens of small towns are perched in the shadows of those mountains, stretching from the valley floor upward into the hills above. The scene is much different from Puglia, from whence we have just come – gone are the fertile green, gently rolling hills, replaced with rocky grey and brown terrain, sharp, craggy hills and towering mountains majestically capped in snow.
We exit the autostrada and Bill retraces the steps he took a year and a half earlier when he met Rita along with a delegation of American companies organized by the Italian Foreign Trade office. We glide into the industrial park that houses Sorelle Nurzia and through a motorized security gate, parking in front of a nondescript industrial building. But while the outside of the factory does not impress, the inside is a veritable Wonkaland of activity making the prized torrone, a soft nougat candy that is flavored with chocolate, coffee, hazelnut, pistachio and the like. On the factory floor men and women operate machines that beat egg whites in oversized bowls into frothy peaks, sweet honey is dried and added to the mixture, nuts and other flavorings are added and the gooey mixture beaten and stirred until it is ready to be spread and cooled and cut and packaged into Nurzia torrone, known not just throughout l’Aquila and Abruzzo, but in Rome and distant corners of Italy and as far away as Amsterdam, Toronto and Bethesda, Maryland.
For today, and in fact for the next several months, that activity has been slowed, as the frenetic holiday season has given way to a slower season in the confection industry, perhaps in response to a collective New Year’s resolution to lose weight? Rita shows us around the quiet factory explaining what goes on when production is at full tilt, while a few workers continue to bake cookies and fresh torrone for the local market. And, fortunately, there are stacks of goodies everywhere – freshly cut soft chocolate covered torrone, bite sized bars of torrone packed in boxes ready to be shipped, freshly baked biscotti and other cookies just removed from the oven that are cooling and waiting to be packed by hand in clear plastic wrappers bearing the bell’epoch Nurzia emblem.
Rita shows us a large break room that is really a full kitchen where the entire Nurzia family, managers and factory workers alike, pull together to prepare lavish lunches that are lingered over by all in true Italian fashion. Later, after we return from our lunch, the smell of rich tomato sauce fills the hallways, mixing with the smells of freshly baked cookies from the factory floor, and we discover a woman lovingly stirring a pasta sauce of tomato, sausage and pork for tomorrow’s lunch. We are invited to join them the next day and when we explain that we will be unable, are told to arrange our next trip so that we can join everyone for lunch in the factory lunchroom.
It is apparent from our tour of the factory that Rita is, as she likes to say, la capa, the head or boss. But it is apparent, too, that this is a happy place, as one would imagine a candy factory to be, indeed like a big family. Much of that family atmosphere is attributable to the energetic and engaging Rita, who is in constant motion, on the phone, on the factory floor, looking over the factory workers’ shoulders or strategizing with Roberto, a genial man who acts as the company’s business manager. So after showing us around the factory and discussing our current order, forcing us to sample a new line of cookies (which we agree to add to our order) we are off to lunch with Rita and Roberto.
Rita drives us a few minutes up the road to Urbani (Via Umberto I 89 – 67026 Poggio Picenze (AQ) tel., 0862/801101), a small locanda restaurant that we would have driven past without giving a moment’s notice to. According to Rita and Roberto, they practically live in the place, dropping by for hearty meal on days when the company kitchen is not in service.
The restaurant is nearly deserted and in the kitchen we can see an elderly woman busily cooking. Rita shouts into the kitchen and we seat ourselves. A few moments later another shout comes from the kitchen, asking us what we would like to eat and we know we have found a place to our liking. Rita jumps up and runs into the kitchen and an animated conversation ensues. Rita comes back and begins to canvass us about what we would like. Apparently the gnocchi is handmade and excellent. She jumps up again, returns to the kitchen and emerges a few moments later with some toasted bread and a plate of grilled mushrooms, much fresher she assures us than the dry bread sitting on the table.
We all agree on the gnocchi and there is complete confusion regarding what to order for an entrée. Pork? Veal? We go back and forth and Rita returns to the kitchen several more times. We finally seem to be agreeing on some of each when Rita throws lamb into the equation, disrupting the equilibrium that we apparently been working toward. In the meantime the gnocchi appear at the table, lightly coated in a tomato sauce and as soft and delectably chewy as advertised. Unsatisfied, Rita returns to the kitchen yet again, returning with a silver dish filled with more tomato sauce and a giant ladle she had fished from some drawer. She insists that we all add some more tomato sauce to our gnocchi and who are we to disagree?
Later the lamb and pork arrive (we managed to decide on this one), as does a side dish of local potatoes that have been oven roasted to perfection and a plate of sautéed broccoli rape. Like the company commissary, the Urbani restaurant has been transformed into Rita’s family kitchen and we are drawn into her world perhaps unwittingly but quite happily. We clean our plates (not literally, although in Rita’s world, who knows?), thank everyone and return to the factory, once again happy and full.Back at the factory we finalize some details on our order and begin to say our goodbyes, but things do not always go directly from A to B with Rita. She insists that we take a few samples with us, some of her new cookie assortment and a package of new wine cookies. But that is not enough, so we add some assorted bars of torrone and before you know it, a 3 kilo bar of chocolate torrone in a straw basket is offered up along with other treasures. A box is prepared and our samples are boxed up, and as it is taped closed our visit to Sorelle Nurzia comes to a close. We say our goodbyes with promises to return in the near future and are off to our next destination, Castelli.
On his previous visit to the area, Bill rented a car to get from Sorelle Nurzia to Castelli, a small mountain village on the other side of the Gran Sasso, Italy’s highest peak. In order to get to the other side the Italian government has thoughtfully built a tunnel under the mountain. On that day the tunnel was closed due to high winds and Bill made his away around Italy’s tallest peak instead of under it, a detour that added four or five hours to the trip. Needless to say, Castelli was struck from the itinerary that day.
Today we learn that the tunnel is open and we arrive at the tunnel entrance under thickening clouds and falling temperatures. The tunnel is over 10 kilometers long (approx. 7 miles) and when we emerge from the other side our breath is taken away. On this side of the mountain the sky is a bright blue with a few clear white clouds visible. To our left is a mammoth rounded peak capped in snowy white like a gigantic ice cream popsicle you get at the beach and behind us, which we have to crane our necks to see, is the endless Gran Sasso, covering at least half of horizon and also peaked in white.
Ahead of us are numerous peaks and valleys, dotted with little towns, one of them Castelli. After a minor map challenge we exit for Castelli and work our way down one slope, across a valley and back up another slope where the road ends in the little town of Castelli, an assemblage of stone buildings piled one atop another all precipitously balanced on a cliff reinforced with buttresses and other engineering feats from a period long past. The town of Castelli has been a principle ceramics town for centuries and we joke that the business got a real boost 50 years ago when a road was finally extended to the town, resulting in the sale of hundreds of years’ inventory of ceramic art. This is definitely a place that you want to come to. It is hard to imagine anyone just stumbling upon Castelli.
We have come here intentionally, but unfortunately the locals have not anticipated our arrival, as nearly all of the retail shops are closed and appear to have been shut for the season. We enjoy the ambiance of the place, however, and window shop for a time, getting a feel for the designs and styles unique to the place. We make a note to return some day (in season).
So it is back to the autostrada and our final destination for the day, the tiny mountain town of Civitella del Tronto, perched in the hills between Teramo and Ascoli Piceno. We are surprised to find the town so easily and glide into a public parking area just outside the tiny town’s gates and find our hotel, the Hotel Zunica a few steps away. We are slightly disappointed by the room, which for some reason includes a queen bed (a convenient six inches off the floor) and next to it a single bed also a mere six inches off the floor. We determine the room to be adequate but not charming. But the town is charming and the view from the room, over the valley, is beautiful. We take a brief stroll and get a table for dinner in the hotel restaurant.
We order a special four course tasting menu that features foods typical of the local area. Judging from the first three courses they must grow a lot of mushrooms, for our first course is a soup of pecorino cheese that is flavored with mushrooms, reminding us vaguely of fondue. The next course is a lightly fried porcini mushroom in a cheese sauce that looks an awful lot like the soup. A local pasta called ceppe is served next, a hand rolled noodle that is long, tapered and hollow, looking a little like a hand rolled cigarette. It is soft and tasty and served in a sauce of, you guessed it, mushrooms. The main course is a local specialty called filetto borbonica, a huge, tender steak served on a piece of toasted bread, topped with an enormous dome of mozzarella cheese and, for good measure, a garnish of mushrooms. And the whole affair, which seems to be taking itself a bit too seriously is greatly improved by an excellent bottle of the local vintage, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, this D.O.C.G. bottle from the Teramo hills.
Throughout the meal we have noticed a gradual warming of the wait staff, perhaps realizing our preference for the simple and rustic over the elegant and refined. A few smiles are offered as the meal progresses and occasional eye contact ensues. When we finish our tasty filetto the waiter brings us each a glass of champagne and moments later returns with a large ice cream cake with a candle in the center, the front desk having realized that it is Bill’s birthday when they took our passports at registration. So, for those who generally avoid hotel restaurants here is the tip of the day. If you want free desert, eat at the hotel restaurant on your birthday.