Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Day 11 - Gubbio

We actually arrive in Gubbio on the evening of the tenth day of our trip, wondering exactly how we will find our destination – the studio of Ceramiche Biagioli – as we make our way along the meandering strada statale or state highway when boom, on our left is the large, low slung building that we had visited only one time before, for a couple of hours nearly a year ago when we first had the opportunity to meet Paolo Biagioli and his father Valentino. But tonight we have stumbled right back to this place, once again displaying a knack for retracing our steps in Italy, effortlessly finding our way back to places we have visited sometimes years before. This instinct has served us well, saving us from having to ask for directions from passersby, which is particularly fortunate because directions are always given in the most rapid fire Italian, incomprehensible other then the occasional destra (right) and sinistra (left). "How did he say we get there, honey?" "He said to go right until we get to something and then a left and another left at something else . . ."

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

Day 9 - Civitella del Tronto-San Benedetto del Tronto-Urbino

How is it that an advanced civilization, one that designed architectural and engineering wonders such as the Coliseum, the magnificent dome over the church of Santa Maria dei Fiori in Florence and tunnels that carry multiple lanes of traffic under the Alps, does not understand that if you stand in a shower with no curtain or door, water will inevitably get all over the floor? I stand in the shower this morning pondering this question, as I place the telephone type showerhead in the hook protruding a few feet above my head against the long end of the tub. Predictably water splashes off me an onto the opposite wall, which at least is covered with tile, puddling up on the floor and slowly, slowly attempting to escape the tiled confines of the bathroom floor by sneaking underneath the door and onto the wooden floor of the bedroom. Later I apprehend the fugitive puddle, soaking it up with a pile of towels and tossing them back into the bathroom. Another escape foiled.

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

Day 8 - Pescara-l'Aquila-Castelli-Civitella del Tronto

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.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Day 7 - Gioia del Colle-Bitonto-Foggia-Pescara

If you haven’t noticed that our daily reportage has gradually (or perhaps precipitously) begun to run out of steam, we commend you go back and read some of our earlier, more energetic, enthusiastic reports, including the one from day 1 (despite the jet lag), or the ones that barely contain our excitement over the warmth and beauty of the Amalfi Coast (days 2-4) or the anticipation of discovering Puglia (days 4-6). What we have learned over the years from our trips to Italy, which we try to present as rollicking adventures of discovery, is that mixed in with all the food, the fun and the grappa, is a lot of hard work. But even on those days when we arise dead tired, with an impossibly busy itinerary, in a lousy hotel with no CNN, a lumpy mattress and wafer thin pillows, an empty gas tank and a map that has a rip along the fold right where our destination is, we think to ourselves, how bad can this be? We’re in Italy. People may not understand us, but they will be nice to us. They will feed us, smile at us, pretend to understand us and show us the magic of their country.

Today is, fortunately, not one of those bad days where we have to buck it up. We are, no question, dog tired. But we have just wrapped up a three day voyage of discovery of the province of Puglia, a place completely unknown to us three days earlier. We have become familiar with its sights and smells, its rhythms and sounds, and although we have only explored one tiny corner of this vast region, we have made a good friend in Angelo and have forged a strong affection for him and his native land.

It is not one of those dark days, too, because while we have a long drive ahead of us (by Italian standards, at least; they marvel at us referring to an eight hour drive from Washington, D.C. to North Carolina as a short drive), it is essentially an off day, our only objective to make our way from Gioia del Colle to Pescara, in the province of Abruzzo.

So, we make our way to the breakfast room of the B&B and say our goodbyes to Franco, the genial proprietor of the B&B, who has also served as our host at breakfast every morning, forcing croissants and coffee on us. We are prepared to say goodbye to Angelo as well and he drops by, but not just to say goodbye, but to take us on one last excursion.

Angelo wants us to visit what he considers to be the ultimate olive oil producer in Puglia, a small family run operation that sells its oil under the name Mancino. The frantoio (oil mill) is closed for the season, as the olives are harvested and pressed in the late fall and early winter, but we are shown the machinery for cleaning and crushing the olives as well as the machinery that separates the oil and bottles and labels the final product. It is apparent from the scale of the operation that the production of every bottle is overseen by the owner and that the family’s pride, not just olive oil, is present in every bottle. We agree to explore the import of a range of their products, including sublime orange and lemon infused oils, in which the citrus is crushed along with the olives, giving the resulting mixture a unity not possible when flavoring or essence is simply added to the crushed olives or to the extracted oil.

We finish up at the frantoio and say our final farewells to Angelo, promising to return soon, a promise that we are already thinking of ways to fulfill. Angelo escorts us to the autostrada and we are soon speeding (literally) north, toward the Molise and beyond to Abruzzo.

Before we leave Puglia, we decide to make a stop to buy some last minute specialty foods and perhaps a local bottle of wine or two. We pick Bitonto, a red circle on the map (not obscured by a rip on the crease) and exit the autostrada, following the signs with the black and white bullseye symbol for centro, the historic and social center of the town, which is a good place to start in any Italian city. We walk in endless circles, wondering where the local Bitontenes buy their olive paste or primitivo, until we stumble upon la Candoine (via Mons. Calamita, 11 – 70032 Bitonto, tel./fax 080.3743832), which appears to be a nice wine shop. We enter and strike up a conversation in our best Italian (up until now we have been in the company of folks who speak better English than most of our friends back home), getting recommendations on some Puglian wines. When we express our interest in some local food products, the owner launches into a 30 minute lecture and tasting of various olives, vegetable appetizers, tarali (pretzel like crackers) and manages to sell us enough to necessitate the purchase of a new suitcase. After nearly an hour we begin the checkout process, which takes at least another hour as every item is commented on, packed in boxes, bubble wrapped, insulated with packing peanuts, taped and put in handled bags (only after stickers with the store’s name are affixed to the bags). We return to our car, the handles of the bags tearing off within the first few paces, only a handful of kilometers from our original starting point, but nearly a half day later.

On to Foggia, a large, modern town only a little off the route to Pescara, but we are desperate for lunch. We arrive in town perilously close to the 2:30 hour (Austin, Lindsey, Davis and Teddy, you know what this means), when many restaurants stop serving lunch. Frantic, we spot a restaurant and throw the door open with a few minutes to spare, forgetting that this is Italy, not Switzerland, where the position of the big hand and the little hand don’t matter so much.

We have a nice lunch at a nondescript restaurant called Pinogiorgio (via N. Delli Carri, 17, Foggia, tel. 0881.709890). Today is la festa di San Valentino and it is apparent that Hallmark has got its tentacles into Italy, as February 14 has become more than a celebration for an obscure saint, but now is a reason to spend money. Cheesy Walt Disney decorations of Pongo and Perdita from 101 Dalmatians hang from the ceiling of the restaurant, which is already decoratively challenged (pastel pink and blue table cloths and window coverings, menu boards featuring a cartoonishly obese chef with today’s specials written in chalk on his stomach and mock southern (U.S.) country style signs that announce things to the effect that life is too short to eat bad pasta). The meal is quite good, however, and served by a kind man who suggests good food and wine.

Off we head, finally, to Pescara, a not too attractive beach resort that is the economic capital of Abruzzo. We wend our way along the coast toward Pescara as the sun begins to set, and are able to catch glimpses of the Adriatic as we work our way north through some picturesque Abruzzo towns. This feels like a homecoming of sorts for Bill, who visited the region a year and a half ago, and he is eager to share some of his experiences here with Suzy. But that adventure will begin tomorrow when they head toward the majestic mountains just to the west of Pescara to visit the town of l’Aquila. For tonight we are happy to fight our way through the surprisingly heavy traffic of Pescara, find parking near our seaside hotel and drop our bags in the cold, charmless business hotel that will be our home for the evening. For we have a date to keep on this festa di San Valentino, settling on a shabby, touristic ristorante/pizzeria for that special evening after the place Bill has selected turns out to be closed. But hey, this is Italy, and even a simple pizza and glass of wine is special if you let it be. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Day 6 - Polignano-Alberobello-Grottaglie

Today we are to visit greater Puglia, straying away from Gioia del Colle and we wake not to the bright warmth that had been predicted, but instead to freezing temperatures and grey skies. In fact, while the world has been watching young athletes compete in the Winter Olympics only a couple hours’ flight from here, we had naively expected Puglia, indeed the whole south of Italy, to be as warm as southern California. Instead, it has been downright frigid, even when the clouds have lifted and the sun has turned the sky a bright blue and seas an opalescent green.

We meet Angelo at breakfast, hurry through coffee and pastry and climb aboard his car for a daytrip that will take us from the Adriatic coast to the Ionian coast. For three quarters of an hour we wind through beautiful countryside and small towns as we make our way to Polignano a Mare, a picturesque town on the Adriatic, south of Bari. As we pass through the various towns along the way Angelo notes that each of these towns has its own special identity – Alberobello, the town of the cylindrical stone farm houses called trulli; Turi, known for its cherries; Santeramo in Colle renowned for inventing the sofa; Altamura, known throughout Italy for its bread, which is trucked to restaurants as far away as Rome and Venice; Grottaglie, the town of ceramics; Putignano, known for its bridal fashion and shops; Castellana Grotte, renowned for its caves; and of course Gioia del Colle, not known for one thing, but three: the best mozzarella in Italy, its D.O.C. primitivo wine and its extravirgin olive oil.

The drive takes us through farm country as well. Far from appearing impoverished as Americans tend to perceive the south of Italy, there is a refined tidiness to it all. Low stone fences partition endless plots of land. Carefully stacked by hand, these stone fences stretch as far as the eye can see. Within every plot defined by these fences is an abundance of life, animal, vegetable and mineral. Olive trees, their silver green leaves in repose for the winter and almond trees like wooden skeletons devoid of leaves or nuts nonetheless appear full of life against carpets of green grass, lettuces and vegetables. Despite winter’s best shot, life and abundance spill forth within these little confines and large, comfortable looking farmhouses, most of which incorporate an older trullo give the impression of a cozy country life.

We arrive in Polignano a Mare, an ancient seaside town built on sheer cliffs above the boiling Adriatic. To the north and south other beach towns dot the coastline, but only here in Polignano do the cliffs dramatically rise from the sea and the locals have made a spectacle of the setting, with their town dramatically built right to the edges of the cliffs. We wander along the cliffs at the edge of town, Angelo explaining to us about how the locals will set up their towels on the rocks to take the sun while their children will plunge into the sea dozens of feet below. It is something, one hopes, that they grow out of as they age.

We wander through the streets of Polignano, a tidy, compact little town with shiny stone streets. Although essentially a summer place, there is a good deal of activity in the streets and a number of good looking restaurants, pubs and bars, many of which are closed for the season. We wander through a small archway and down a windy alley and emerge on a balcony overlooking the sea. Below, choppy waves swell in and crash against the cliffs on which the balcony is perched and along the cliffs we can see a number of such other public balconies, strategically positioned private homes, with their living room windows overlooking the sea, and some awesome looking restaurants with tables either set out on seaside terraces or with enormous picture windows looking out to the sea.

We wander from balcony to balcony, taking in slightly different views of the ocean from each successive one and enjoying the twisty alleys that connect each one. At one point we pass through the main square and note an inscription below a religious offering, that is dedicated to San Vito, lawyer, that thanks Jesus for bringing him. Imagine that! People thanking Jesus for setting an attorney upon them, when most references have them playing for the other team. We figure that there may be money to be made in organizing pilgrimages of attorneys from our native Washington, DC to this mecca of jurisprudential gratitude.

As we depart town, we stop in a caffe for some café and, surprisingly, the barista inquires whether we are Americans. He mockingly tells us of how he loves George Bush (the American president does not seem very popular here). He and Angelo, himself a foreigner in this strange land so far from Gioia del Colle, begin to engage in an animated, but respectful, conversation about the state of Italian politics that, to our ears sounds a lot like how two Americans would argue about Democrats and Republicans.

We return to the car and head toward Alberobello, the famous city of the trulli. Along the way, as we pass through Putignano and into the Itrian valley we see increasing numbers of trulli along the road, mostly brown and grey stone structures. But where the occasional trullo could be seen in the countryside outside of Gioia del Colle, this valley is literally chock full of trulli, each neatly marked parcel of property sporting not just a single conical roof, but rather large multi-roomed structures, with four, five or six spires, looking like stone circus big tops. The effect, coupled with the ubiquitous stone fences and the fertile soil, is honestly breathtaking.

We arrive in the outskirts of Alberobello, looking for il Vecchio Granaio (C. da Capitolo 7 B. 151, 74015 Martina Franca, tel. 080.4383122), which Angelo promises us is a nice local trattoria. We pass fields of olive trees and trulli and eventually arrive at the restaurant and cannot tell whether it is open or not. Angelo and Bill enter the empty restaurant while Suzy completes a phone call to find out our son’s SAT results (great work, Austin!) and after knocking on the door of the house next door Angelo is able to get the owner to open up and seat us.

And what a good decision our perseverance turns out to be. The genial owner offers us a limited choice for lunch, explaining how the pasta is made fresh on Sundays when the crowds are larger, but suggests some pasta and a main course of donkey meat. We eagerly agree and once again a two and a half hour lunch begins its slow, steady assault on every aspect of our physical, social and psychological being, rendering us completely open and satisfied in every aspect upon its completion. We start with a platter containing little bowls of olives, tasty dried fava beans resembling corn nuts and spicy little tiralli, which resemble round pretzels. This is followed by a plate cheeses – ricotta, mozzarella and another fresh cow’s milk cheese – and a variety of cured meats including prosciutto and a buttery lardo which is thinly sliced white fat that may sound repulsive but is in fact a treasure. The owner then brings us three lasagne, stuffed with fresh mushrooms from his garden and filled with tomato sauce and garnished with little fried meatballs. Finally we arrive at the donkey, which is thinly sliced and rolled around a mild cheese in an involtina, and served in a hearty tomato sauce with smaller chunks of donkey meat hidden in the sauce. We bray that it is the best donkey we have ever had, trying not to make asses of ourselves as we lick our plates clean. For dessert we are treated to potatoes baked in a wood fired oven and baked whole onions, which are served plain, which we drench in olive oil and salt, a perfect light accompaniment for our meal.

Actually, dessert is forced upon us, a slab of chocolate cake that is multilayered, alternating with moist cake and a chocolate crème, whipped cream and laced with walnuts (a bowl of which are also served, unopened, for us to enjoy after our meal). By this time, it is nearly time for dinner, but we lube our joints with a shot of espresso and a grappa (it is truly good for the heart and digestive system we keep telling ourselves), profusely thank the owner who must think that we are morons for going gaga over what for him is just another meal and head out the door for a visit to Alberobello, the town of trulli. As we leave we note the three middle aged women at the table next to us have eschewed donkey for their main course, opting for a thick steak instead. We make a mental note to try it next time we are in town.

We arrive a few minutes later in Alberobello, a small town bisected by a wide main street from which smaller pedestrian streets rise. On one side a colony of perhaps a hundred white painted trullo rises in the zona turistica (how appealing is it to enter a place with a name like that?). The trulli have been built for city dwelling, not the tough country life, and are much bigger than their farm counterparts and the effect of this dense concentration of them is a little surrealistic, dissipating the charm one feels when seeing a single trullo in the countryside. The fact that nearly every trullo in the zona turistica has been converted into a shop selling tourist junk further reduces the effect. We walk through the zone for a half hour, having lost interest in the trullo themselves within about 10 minutes, but amazed at how lacking in charm most of the shops are and enjoying the opportunity to walk off lunch, despite the freezing temperatures.
Angelo takes us across the street to a small park, where we wind our way up narrow streets also lined by white painted trulli. But his residential zone is much more picturesque than the commercial zone on the other side of road. The handsome lowrise trulli are maintained in very good condition, but with one trullo giving way to another the effect is of Smurfville and reminds us vaguely of Georgetown, with tourists gawking in residents’ living room, as if expecting to catch a glimpse of Papa Smurf. When we finally reach the top of the hill, the view across the town of hundreds of little white houses is truly worth the climb.

Our final stop for the day is Grottaglie, a little town on the Ionian side of Puglia, just outside the town of Taranto. Grottaglie is known for its ceramic production, which it has been engaged in for centuries. We have some difficulty getting to Grottaglie from Alberobello, even though it is not far on the map. Angelo admits that he has never visited the town, interestingly noting that there is some tension beween the people of the province of Bari (where he is from) and those from the province of Taranto, where we are not. Not so much dislike as chauvinism, but strong enough that Angelo has never had the urge to make a casual visit.

We arrive as the sun has set and the temperatures have dropped another few degrees. We want to explore some ceramics shops and examine the quality of the work in Grottaglie and see if there are any typical patterns. In our brief visit we are impressed by the quality of workmanship and product here, buying a few pieces bearing a rooster on a plain background to show off at Bella Italia. The shops, which are all concentrated in a quartiere delle ceramiche are easy to find and bear a return visit in the future.

With our shopping done we head back to Gioia del Colle, satisfied with our first excursion into the Puglian countryside, which has left us eager for a return visit. What we have decided not to visit, at least for tonight, is any type of eating establishment, so after being dropped off at our B&B by Angelo, we take another digestive stroll and head back to our room for a dose of the Olympics and a good night sleep, counting donkeys to help us nod off. Goodnight Pappa Smurf.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Day 5 - Gioia del Colle

We rise a little late this morning, unaware of the whirlwind of activity that is yet to unfold on what will be our busiest day yet. We shuffle from our room at the B&B, a comfortable room with, as the name implies, a bed and attached bathroom, that shares an entry foyer with three other similar rooms. The almost embarrassingly low price of €40 per night includes a continental breakfast, an even bigger bargain when we consider that the room is as large as most of the hotel rooms we have stayed at in Italy. We are greeted by the owner, Franco, as we enter the breakfast room downstairs. Waiting with Franco is Angelo, who is ready to show off his native land.

We quickly eat and head outdoors, where the temperature has failed to rise significantly from the frigid cold of the previous night, despite the welcome addition of bright, clear sunshine. We stroll for a few minutes from the centrally located B&B to the Norman Castle, located in the center of the historic district, where we purchase tickets for entry to the Castle and its museum as well as to the nearby archaeological site, which is our first destination.

We return to Angelo’s car for the brief drive out of town to a nearby hill, Monte Sannace, site of an archaeological park and nature preserve. Uncovered a couple of decades ago, Monte Sannace was the center of a flourishing pre-Roman civilization of the Peucezi people, who came and went from the scene over the course of a thousand years, beginning in the 9th Century B.C. Conquered by the Romans in the 1st Century A.D., all that remains is this excavated town and some fragments of their civilization displayed in the museum back in town.

We wander around the ruins of the old town walls, large stones made of tufa, a manufactured stone cut into large blocks. The walls enclose a large area of the hillside, chosen for its strategic defensive position above the plains below and because of its fertile ground and plentiful water supply. At one time perhaps a thousand Peucezi lived within these walls, some in simple two room houses whose foundations we can still see, others in the upper class enclave of the acropolis, the high portion of town, where the houses sport more and bigger rooms and such amenities as wells, bathrooms and, for your deceased relatives, indoor tombs. The simple, rough stones that remain give the impression of brutish people living in skins and dragging their women around by the hair, an impression that is dispelled later when we discover the beautiful artwork, delicate jewelry and see the impressive clothing worn by these people on display at the archeological museum in town.

Included on the grounds of the park is a trullo, one of the stone farm houses that dot the Puglian countryside. These conical white structures were favored by local farmers as secure, warm places for them to live, sleep and eat with their families, sometimes numbering in double digits. Resembling stone igloos we enter the transplanted trullo and appreciate how it protects us from the outside cold, where we have alternately been treated to freezing winds and light snow.
We return to Gioia del Colle and visit the Norman Castle and museum, the former of which was built in the 12th Century and home to Emperor Frederick II, one of a series of Norman defensive fortresses built across the Puglian peninsula to protect his empire. The castle is one of the best preserved Norman castles in Italy and its massive weight attests to its impregnability. Speaking of impregnability, we are treated to the somewhat gruesome story of Bianca Lancia (Bianca of the spear), a local woman from Gioia del Colle who was the first woman to steal the heart of the king. Unfortunately, he jealously thought her to be unfaithful and locked her away in a dark dungeon in the castle, whereupon she cut off her breasts and had them presented to the king to protest her innocence. According to Angelo’s version of the story, overcome by admiration and swayed by her action he married Bianca, but either she died soon after. (The English brochure says that she committed suicide by cutting off her breasts). In either case, the story brings to mind the idea of "cutting off your nose to spite your face."

It is Sunday, which is market day, and we stroll along the main street of the historic center browsing the antichita (Italian for junk), old postcards, record albums (even an old victrola) being sold by locals undeterred by the cold wind and occasional snow showers, when we spot a contraption we recognize as a chitarra, a wooden plank with metal strings strung across, resembling a guitar, used for rolling out and cutting spaghetti alla chitarra. We express our interest to the seller, a man who either loves Americans or loves to rag on them, who, between serenading us with lines from the Beetles or Frank Sinatra ("Meester, I love America") gives us a special American discount which no doubt consisted of jacking up his bottom line price by a few euros. Against Angelo’s advice we pay for the chitarra and move on, only now wondering how we will manage to get it home with us.

It is now lunchtime and Angelo has invited us to have Sunday lunch at his house with his family, an honor and treat for us. The family lives nearby, just outside the historical center and we ride the elevator to the fifth floor and enter a warm multiroom apartment that houses Angelo, his parents, his older brother Armando and his younger sister Maria Grazia. We meet the family, including Armando’s girlfriend Anna Rita, and their warmth and smiles put us immediately at ease, despite the minor language barrier. After some moments of final preparation of the meal we take our seats for the upcoming production, where the main characters are food and family, and the curtain rises. We are treated to an appetizer of tomato bruschetta and a plate of marinated anchovies. Next, Angelo’s mom presents a baked pasta with meat sauce, which Armando declines to eat, claiming to be a vegetarian. When the next course arrives, thick, succulent slices of polpetone, a giant baked meatball, Armando’s vegetarianism deserts him, and we can see why, as it is delicious. Desert includes local mozzarella (we are told that mozzarella from Gioia del Colle is the best in Italy and we cannot disagree), cream filled pastries and a delicious homemade torte, the handiwork of Maria Grazia. The family’s entire liquor cabinet is offered to us for after dinner (lunch) drinks and we politely oblige. When the curtain falls two hours later, we give it a standing ovation, thankful for having been given front row seats to the best show in town.

As we crowd into the elevator with Angelo, worried that our increased weight might crash the lift, we thank him once again, remarking how much we enjoyed being included in his close knit family and he replies that "the most important thing," expecting to hear him talk about the importance of family to him, "is that you are enjoying yourself and learning about Gioia del Colle and Puglia." Surprised by this surprise ending, it actually makes sense. It is obvious that the most important thing to Angelo (and his family) actually is family. The previous two hours have made that abundantly clear. But this is a man so passionate about Puglia and even more passionate about his home town of Gioia del Colle that our wellbeing and satisfaction consume him. He is evangelical about creating converts to his cause of making Gioia del Colle known to the world. Like the protagonist in Field of Dreams, he fervently believes if they know about it, they will come and he is hoping to enlist us in his effort.

Angelo shrewdly takes us next to a local winery, perhaps realizing that the quickest way to our hearts is through a wineglass. One of the many hats worn by Angelo is export manager for Tenuta di Viglione, run by the magnetic Gianni Zullo. The tenuta produces the D.O.C. wine Primitivo di Gioia del Colle, one of two D.O.C. primitivo wines produced in Italy. Primitivo, like many Puglian wines, has suffered from poor quality in past decades and is only now breaking into the popular consciousness but the primitivo grape, which is the same grape that is called zinfandel in California, is capable of producing extraordinary wines. Gianni guides us through the production process, showing us the four wines he produces, including a D.O.C. primitivo and a riserva. There is no indoor cantina for tourists and it being a cold day, gives us a bottle to try when temperatures warm up.

Gianni and Angelo show us to the property next door, where Gianni is renovating an old farmhouse into an agriturismo, a guesthouse on a working vineyard which he hopes in several years will draw tourists to the Puglian countryside, much like tourists have flocked to California’s Napa Valley. The building is bursting with possibility, and in time this will be a magical spot, with large rooms and terraces looking out onto the lush, green Puglian countryside, dotted with grapevines and olive trees. We can hardly wait for a return visit.

We say our goodbyes to Gianni and begin the drive back to Gioia del Colle through these green fields and we are struck by the overwhelming beauty of it all. This is a beauty different from that of Tuscany or Umbria or Piemonte. In place of steep hills or rocky cliffs, this area of Puglia is mostly flat, punctuated by gently rolling hills. For those used to seeing grape vines crammed into small terraces, the arbors that here and there dot the open countryside give a sense of openness and calm. The sense of bounteous nature is heightened by the sight of birds in flight, a rarity in northern Italy. There is a pleasant country feel to this place, with large farm houses (most of which are built around a trullo that predated the emergence of the larger farmhouse) that evoke not peasant dirt farmers, but rather a comfortable choice in favor of country living in a land of bounty. The ride back to Gioia definitely feels like a journey home.

We part with Angelo for a couple of hours and reconvene later for yet another meal. He is visibly excited to be taking us to il Borbone, a restaurant just outside the city center that, according to Angelo, serves the best pizza in the region. Although we have nothing to compare it to, we have to agree. Angelo struggles to finish a pizza capriciosa, piled high with various meats and vegetables, swearing to order a simple pizza margherita next time; Suzy manages well with her pizza fume, topped with speck and smoked scamorzza cheese and Bill finishes off his pizza with arucola, bresaola and lemon juice. Dessert is a molten chocolate filled chocolate torte, that, when punctured, bleeds gooey chocolate into a pool of crème anglaise. An obligatory grappa finishes the meal and puts an exclamation point on a day that has introduced us to Angelo’s Gioia, a true jewel that adorns Puglia and our Italian experience.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Day 4 - Amalfi to Puglia

We arise once again to bright sunshine streaming through our windows, signaling the beginning of another beautiful day on the Amalfi Coast. We have breakfast sent to the room and carry it out to the upper terrace, the one with the more expansive view of the town of Amalfi but it becomes quickly apparent that a cool ocean breeze has dropped the temperature about ten degrees lower than yesterday. We struggle to enjoy the outdoor experience but within ten minutes we give up and move indoors, having breakfast just inside a large set of sliding glass doors that afford us nearly the same view, but free from the cold winds.

After puttering around and enjoying our room, we pack up and hit the road for our drive from Amalfi to Bari, variously estimated for us as a three, four or six hour drive. We avoid being struck by cars as we cross the coastal highway to our car, which is wedged in a spot smaller than the car itself in front of the steps of a Saracen tower, across from the hotel. On the right is a perilous drop down the stairs and into the entryway of the bar/restaurant. On the left is an Italian police car, occupied by a baby faced traffic cop who, despite his youthful looks exudes the same menacing air projected by all Italian police. We definitely do not want to stray right or left as we back into the buzzing traffic of the coast road.

We head back toward Salerno (or was it Sorrento, or perhaps Sapporo?) where we will pick up the A14/A16 toward Bari in the heart of the southern region of Puglia (or Apulia). The drive is uneventful but for the dozen or so times we nearly sideswipe oncoming cars or motorcycles, a number of which seem to think it a good idea to overtake slower moving vehicles on blind corners. On the other side looms the immovable but eminently scrapeable barrier wall that seems to be itching rough up Earl Schieb’s best paint job. A moment of levity punctuates the white knuckle, oath filled journey as our progress is slowed by a SITA bus, the local passenger bus company, in front of us. As the bus runs interference for us, scattering oncoming traffic and pedestrians like a 16 wheeled Pamplonan bull, we wonder out loud how two oncoming buses can manage to pass when one of them takes nearly 2/3 of the roadway. Then, as if on cue, rounding the next bend is another SITA bus. The answer to our question is simple – they nearly meet in the center of the road and then proceed to loudly scrape their other sides along the cliffs or guardrail. This works well for those inside the buses needing to get somewhere quickly. For those of us who cringe at the sound of chalk or fingernails scraping on chalkboards, it is not nearly so good a solution. In any event, we had noticed the previous evening that most parked cars’ traffic-side side mirrors had been folded in (those that hadn’t been were snapped off or shattered) and now this self defense strategy seemed to make perfect sense.

We finally leave the bus and the narrow, winding roads of the Amalfi Coast behind as we make our way onto the autostrada, headed for the town of Bari on the other coast of Italy. The drive, although a couple of hours long, goes quickly, as we pass through mountain tunnels along the coast and emerge in a flat region marked by nothing higher than gentle rolling hills. This relative flatness contrasts with the jagged contours of the coast but even more noteworthy is the greenness of it all, where before the predominant colors had been the grey of the cliffs and the blues of sky and sea.

We pass by Avellino, home of the Campagnian white wine Fiano di Avellino and settle on Benevento as our choice for lunch. This requires a little work, however, as the town is ten minutes or so off the autostrada. We double back through countryside dotted here and there by a building, but largely unpopulated until we reach Benevento. We had imagined it to be a charming, sophisticated little hamlet, as it, like Avellino, is home to one of the region’s other excellent white wines, the Falanghina. Instead, we find a rather unattractive town, seemingly uninhabited and devoid of any apparent character, its drab architecture dominated by ugly brick boxes built by the government as work projects for its impoverished populace. We circle the town several times before finding an acceptable looking trattoria, park and have a utilitarian lunch of crostini and pasta, washed down with a pitcher of local wine that does improve over the course of the meal.

We return to our car and make our way to the Adriatic coast, arriving just north of Bari, the one of the principle towns of Puglia and an important port and ferry destination. But we pass on by Bari, our destination the close by town of Gioia del Colle, where we are to meet our host for the next several days, Angelo Coluccia.

We call Angelo by cellphone as we arrive in town and he drives across town to escort us to the bed and breakfast that will serve as our home in Puglia. We greet Angelo, a young man who passionately promotes all things pugliese and who we have been importing a line of Puglian food product from for several months. Despite our commercial relationship, we have never met Angelo, who tracked us down through some canny internet research and convinced us to take a chance selling some of his delicacies of Puglia. His high quality samples were very compelling.

We instantly take a liking to this energetic, smiling ambassador of Puglia. Not a sentence goes by where he is not extolling the virtues of Puglian extravirgin olive oil or its wine or its culture or its history. He shows to our room in the B&B and we arrange to meet later for dinner.

We drop off our bags and decide to invest the hour and half break in exploring Gioia del Colle. Our B&B is around the corner and run from by the owner of the trattoria/pizzeria "Ciocco," which we learn later is a character from Dante’s Divine Comedy known for his excessive appetite. The room is a simple bedroom with bath in an apartment building with several other such rooms. It is comfortable and warm (an important fact, as the temperature is a good 40 degrees colder here than when we left Amalfi in the morning) and will serve nicely for the next couple of days.

The street on which Ciocco is located is the main street of Gioia del Colle, an attractive, wide street lined with nice stores. We stroll down the street and then begin making our way along adjacent streets, struck not just by how clean and orderly everything is, but how much bigger and more developed than we had imagined. For while our expectation of Puglia as a somewhat impoverished rural province will be tested over the next days, it is obvious that Gioia del Colle, while not on the American radar screen, is a prosperous jewel of a town.

And as we re-connect with Angelo a couple of hours later for a guided walking tour of the downtown area, which largely retraces our steps, we learn that Gioia del Colle is indeed a jewel; its name is Puglian dialect for the jewel around the throat, symbolizing a lost jewel of an ancient queen that was found in this place. As we wander the streets it is apparent that to Angelo all aspects of Gioia and greater Puglia are priceless jewels and we are eager to discover all that it has to offer.

We finish our walking tour and settle into the trattoria Ciocco, where we meet Franco Colone, the genial owner who is also our host at the B&B. The restaurant is mostly below street level and we are seated in a large vaulted room that at one time served as a wine cellar. Very fitting indeed.
We impose on Angelo to order for us, to ensure we experience the typical Puglian foods and he does not disappoint. We start with a mixed antipasti platter which arrives at the table in waves of small plates, coming and coming until there is no more room on the table, despite the fact that there is an empty seat. Puglian fare, Angelo tells us, is based on several factors, most importantly extravirgin olive oil. Beyond that, however, the bounty of the farm, especially an abundance of vegetables, plays a central role and the antipasti is tilted largely toward succulent vegetables and local oil. Several different preparations of eggplant tickle the taste buds, while lightly grilled zucchini glisten on the plate, reflecting the light with its thin layer of green olive oil. Marinated peppers, salty with fresh capers are a delight and small chunks of polipo, or octopus add a delicate, tender final act. We clean nearly every plate, punctuating bites with a foccacia baked in a woodburning oven and lightly flavored with olive oil and are ready to leave.

Our waitress will have none of our attempt to escape, however. She insists that we try some pasta and within minutes Angelo and Bill are enjoying a plate of orrechietti with rape, a slightly bitter and pungent green that slides down the throat. Suzy orders a sublime cavitelli with ceci (chick peas) pasta that is her favorite of the trip.

We are not allowed to leave now until we try some meats, so a small plate of zampinelli, a local sausage that in local dialect means "little cats’ feet" because of its resemblance to them is presented, along with a thinly shaved meat stuffed with fontina cheese. No cats were harmed in the making of this meal, and at least three humans are extremely happy.

We finally convince our waitress that we will return tomorrow and that she can force more food on us then. But for now we depart, take an evening stroll through the historic center of Gioia and discuss tomorrow’s itinerary with Angelo over caffe and grappa at a local coffee bar. Our introduction to Puglia is complete and we return to our B&B with an ambitious itinerary ahead and settle into a comfortable night’s sleep, with dreams of little cat’s feet dancing in our heads.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Day 3 - Amalfi-Ravello-Scala-Atrani

The chill of the previous evening and the late night rain shower have given way to bright, piercing sunshine that streams through the pointed arch windows of our suite, the "Special Suite" at the Hotel Luna Convento in Amalfi. When planning the trip we had attempted to book a lavish room at off season rates at one of the great hotels along the Amalfi Coast – the Sireneuse in Positano, the Santa Caterina in Amalfi, the Palazzo Sasso in Ravello. Unfortunately the off season rates were not yet in effect. None of the flagships is open for the season. Our research identifies the Luna Convento, an ex convent established in the 1200s by St. Francis of Assisi, as the best of the bunch.

We pull out all the stops and book the "Special Suite," hoping to hit the jackpot, but are mildly disappointed when we check in, not so much with the room, but with the ordinariness of the welcome. Parking, typical for the tiny towns along the Amalfi coast, is non existent and we essentially have to stop our car on the coastal highway, a ribbon of asphalt bounded on one side by a low stone wall beyond which lies certain death in the form of a plunge into the ocean. The other side is flanked by a rocky, craggy mountainside, into which the road has been hewn, jutting and protruding out in order to disfigure the vehicles of tourists who have the audacity to shift their gaze for a single instant from the perils of the road (which come in form of oncoming Italian drivers, impossibly large busses, pesky motorscooters and, I am not making this up, pedestrians deep in discussion with one another) to the allure of the ocean. Perhaps the coast road is the devilish construct of the sirens for whom the Sireneuse was named and whose name graces hotels and restaurants along the coast.

In any event, parking had been been an adventure the day as we checked in, and there was some intramural grumbling as we were forced to return to the car, crossing the highway of death at a completely blind hairpin turn, in order to fetch our bags and roll, drag and curse them back to the hotel lobby. We then were shown to our room with the promise that our bags would arrive later.

The "Special Suite" is indeed special. A smallish sitting room with couch, easy chair and television (did we mention yet that we have seen no English language television, including the ubiquitous CNN) lead to a staircase to the bedroom, a tower loft completely covered in windows on two sides, revealing views of the monastery and, beyond, the town of Amalfi and the ocean. It is a beautiful view that is only surpassed by the view from the two enormous terraces, a smaller one reached through sliding doors from the main floor, overlooking the cloister of the convent, a larger one, completely covered in blue tile that is reached from a door in the bedroom, that faces Amalfi. The larger terrace, with a dining table in the middle is large enough to host a gathering of 30-40 people, and our minds begin to race where we might find such number of new friends. It seems a waste to let such a fine space go unused.

Anyway, we are awakened in the morning by bright sunshine that not so much jolts us awake as it caresses us awake. Warmed and energized by its rays, we get off to a productive start, managing to sit at the table on the blue terrace and spend several hours eating breakfast (the fare provided by the hotel supplemented by an enormous ball of mozzarella di buffalo we had purchased the day before) and staring at the ocean.

We have an 11:00 meeting scheduled in nearby Ravello with Pasquale Sorrentino, owner of Ceramiche d"Arte and one of our favorite suppliers. Acclimating ourselves to the rhythms of Italy, we climb into our car at 11:05 for the 15 minute drive up (and up and up and up) to Ravello, abandoning earlier plans to walk up the special walking paths or take the public bus.
We drive around Ravello, or rather back up and down the mountain, as the road does not actually go in a loop, finally coming to rest in a parking space the maximum distance from the main square, only slightly closer to the square than our original parking spot at the hotel. We get out and walk to the square, relying on finely honed instinct to find it, as, surprisingly, there are no signs marking the way to centro.

We find the main square and make our way a few meters down one of the pedestrian streets to Ceramiche d’Arte where Pasquale is waiting for us. We have met him once before, two years earlier, and since then our only contact has been by phone and fax, mostly with his extremely efficient manager Rosanna. As we approach on foot, there are glances back and forth with cocked heads as each of us sizes up the other to before taking the plunge and pretending to be excited to see the other after so long. We give in first and reintroduce ourselves, hoping that the man whose hand we are shaking is indeed Pasquale Sorrentino.

It is and for the next several hours we slip back into the easy familiarity and bask in the warmth of his hospitality that had mesmerized us two years earlier. The man is the genuine article, a gifted manager of a ceramics studio (he does not paint himself), an astute judge of quality, a shrewd, hard bargaining businessman, a talented student of the market and a genuinely interesting, engaging and warm personality. He shows us some new patterns, talks about and listens to our assessment of the success of other patterns, sells us some patterns and warns us off others. His shop is exceptional. While many ceramic shops are the retail store for a single studio, or feature a selection from a small number of artists, Pasquale’s shop is packed with an incredible variety of patterns, shapes and sizes, not just from his studio and other local Amalfitano artists, but from across Italy, as Pasquale spends many days each month driving to ceramic hot spots such as Deruta, Gubbio and Sicily.

As we finish our business with Pasquale, he summons Rosanna to meet us. A young, attractive Italian woman who has worked for Pasquale for years, she brings order to the chaos that is his constant whirl of energy and activity. He then leads the four of us outside and up a staircase into his house where his wife, Lara is busily preparing lunch for all of us. Their beautiful house is filled with ceramic tiles and pieces, some of them nicked or chipped here or there, which makes us a tad homesick, as our own home is similarly filled with the unsellable and the expired.

We sit down to a delicious plate of spaghetti alla vongole which is followed by simply grilled fish, the secret ingredient being its incredible freshness. Salad and tomatoes from Pasquale’s garden are swimming in olive oil that is not only local, it is homemade. We finish off with a plate full of almond cookies and other little pastries that Pasquale has scrambled down the street to purchase while we are finishing our fish. And Pasquale insists that we cap the whole affair with a small glass of grappa, reputedly from Romania, Pasquale telling us that there is irrefutable scientific evidence that only grappa provides the therapeutic benefits of reducing cholesterol and fats from the blood while cleansing the digestive system. Amazingly useful information from a ceramicist who does not even play a doctor on TV.

After we say our thank yous and good byes to Lara, we head back to our car with Pasquale and Rosanna to view a couple of apartments that Pasquale owns and rents to visitors. He shows us to connected apartments, perched on the high hills of Ravello in the shadow of the Palazzo Sasso and looking over the Amalfi gulf, a panorama that stretches for miles and miles (or kilometers and kilometers, depending upon your nationality). The modern, comfortable apartments seem like they would be a great place to relax and take in life on the Amalfi coast.

We then drive to nearby Scala, just across a craggy valley from Ravello and also overlooking the sea. While development and wealth have been attracted to Ravello, it is odd that Scala, a mere two minutes away and literally in the shadow of Ravello, seems to have escaped modernity. A billboard in the town square displays a photograph of the entire population of Scala, perhaps 30-40 souls with the caption "Scala. Little town. Big Family." Pasquale shows us his latest project, an immense abandoned shell of a building which he plans to renovate into a small hotel, perhaps one that will cater to American weddings. Each of us agrees to get married there the next time around.

As we return to our car Pasquale asks us if we are interested in walking back to Amalfi along the pedestrian walkways that make their way up these steep hills. As we had been considering the walk that morning we take him up on his generous offer to drive our car back to the hotel and so we say our goodbyes to he and Rosanna and set off down the mountain for what he promises to be a ½ hour walk.

An hour and a half later, calves mooing, dogs barking and knees aching we arrive at sea level, having made a couple of disastrous wrong turns that take us off the 10 foot wide, gently sloped walkway on to private paths a foot wide, with treacherous drop offs and slopes that nearly require climbing gear. In fact one turn takes us past the Amalfi Rock Climbing Association. We persevere, however, as the only thing worse than going down these steep narrow paths is the prospect of having to turn around and climb up them, but as we return to civilization we begin to think that perhaps the missed turns were not really so disastrous, as they afforded us the opportunity to wander among orange and lemon groves, walk alongside waterfalls and generally escape the cobblestone and dog poop covered streets of the city.

In any event, we finally end up in an unfamiliar square and plop down on two chairs, ordering the largest available bottle of water and the coldest white wine, where we remain for a half hour, wondering where we are. Bill finally sets forth through an archway to the beach to determine in which part of small town of Amalfi we have landed. He returns a few moments later to report that we are not in Amalfi at all, but the village of Atrani. Fortunately, this settlement, which exists nearly completely underneath the Amalfi highway, is the next town over from Amalfi and our hotel is visible, and reachable from there.

We pay up and head back past the hotel to Amalfi proper for some last minute shopping. Returning to the hotel the manager asks us if we are interested in making arrangements for dinner and suggests a "special" place in, you guessed it, Atrani. He is amazed that we know exactly where the restaurant is, as apparently not many Americans venture to walk to Amalfi from Scala and fewer still get totally lost and emerge in Atrani.

Dinner is at a small restaurant called A Paranza a few meters from the square where we were nursed back to life. Seafood is the order of the day again today, as it is every day on the Amalfi Coast. After closely reviewing the menu we ask the waiter to decide for us and he recommends a mixed seafood antipasti and a local fish served with potatoes. The seafood antipasti is a neverending flotilla of small plates, the first with marinated tuna, swordfish, anchovy and a delicious firm white fish called flag fish. Next comes a flag fish filet rolled around scamorza cheese, which is followed by anchovy parmigiano, a fried anchovy filet stuffed with cheese, followed by a mixed seafood gratin served in a scallop shell, tiny prawns in a fava bean puree and finally a deliciously tender grilled squid stuffed with potatoes. America may be a meat and potatoes kind of place. Amalfi is definitely a fish and potatoes kind of place and they have hit on a winning combination.

Our waiter then brings us the main course, a grilled local white fish whose name we are told at least a dozen times only to forget immediately. It is served with soft cubes of potato and dressed with an oil and butter sauce, which necessitates us ordering a grappa afterwards in order to cleanse our blood of this offending fat. Whether the grappa achieves its desired effect, it unquestionably signals the end of a glorious meal and another glorious day and we bid our waiter adieu (or ciao) and head back to the Luna Convento to prepare for tomorrow’s departure from Campagnia and our drive to the south and the mysterious region of Puglia.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Day 2 - Rome-Salerno-Vietri sul Mare-Amalfi

As we arise on day two, yesterday’s grey dampness is replaced by blue crispness, and the masses walking past our windows are noticeably less bundled than the previous day. It’s February in Rome and our desire for a mild Roman winter seem to have been fulfilled.
We eat the obligatory cheese, prosciutto and bread washed down by exceptional coffee (in Italy, it seems, everyone is a barista, capable of making the best coffee), check out and, with a sense of dread of impending disaster if not financial ruin, board a taxi for the Stazione Termini. The stazione is Rome’s main train station and from the map it looks like a close call whether we can wheel the luggage armada there on foot or throw financial caution to the winds and go by taxi. Taxi wins out and 15 minutes and what seems like a dozen kilometers later we arrive at the shiny, modern station. Note to self: take taxi to station.

We have reserved tickets and seats on a Eurostar train, something we highly recommend. Tickets are available on www.trenitalia.it, which, if you are able to navigate rudimentary Italian, displays timetables on the dates between the locations you select. Ticket delivery options include ticket by mail (which is not available for those living outside the country), pickup from a ticket dispensing machine or e-ticket. If you choose the latter, you print out your confirmation, written entirely in Italian, of course, and bring it on board with you. Fearing that we may not have fully understood all of the legal disclaimers, we have chosen to print out our ticket from the automatic ticket machine. We select the prepaid internet ticket option (instructions in English), type in our confirmation number and a single ticket, with the number of passengers and seat number printed on it is dispensed. We head to track 9 with several hundred cubic meters of luggage in tow.

The Italian national train system is designed to punish those who refuse to travel light. We board the train, groaning, grunting and straining to lift bag after bag, seemingly hewn out of granite up stairs that, like the cable cars in San Francisco, seem to go halfway to the stars. A small but growing mass of scowling Italians, not appreciating American excess, waits "patiently" behind us as we complete our rock climbing adventure. We have completely screwed up our seat reservations as well, selecting seats that are cattycornered from on another in separate rows that don’t as we believed, face each other, but rather face the same way. Taking the only possible option, we simply sit in the seats that we want, figuring we may be mistaken for Italians. Unfortunately our loud English and boorish manners betray us and an Italian gentleman informs us that one of us is in his seat. He generously offers to change with us when he realizes that we are not only foreigners, but incredibly stupid.

The Eurostar train hurtles through the countryside toward Naples, except at random stations where there must be a pretty woman standing on the platform, because here and there we slow to a crawl, only to speed up again. The effect makes Suzy change colors like a chameleon, her obvious favorites being green and white.

We alight in Salerno two and a half hours after we departed Rome. Or did we alight in Sorrento? There seems to be some confusion here. Our tickets say Roma a Salerno. A quick check of the rental car confirmation says EuropeCar Salerno city office. But all of Bill’s crack research regarding what to see and where to eat centers on the lovely coastal town of Sorrento a hundred miles and, by windy coastal roads, several hours away. Salerno, too, is a coastal town, but from our vantage point that is where the similarity ends. We ease out into traffic and reacquaint ourselves with the adventure that is driving in Italy, starting off on our hourlong journey from Salerno to Amalfi, via the tiny village of Vietri sul Mare and along the famed Amalfi coast road.

We settle in for a short drive from Salerno to Vietri sul Mare but we were not expecting the drive to be under two minutes. Perhaps it will take some getting used to the scale of the map, but we expected at least five to ten minutes of twisty coastal road, the glimmering sea on the left beyond a sheer dropoff, towering mountains on the right. Instead, we leave Salerno (or is it Sorrento?), make one or two twists, enough to bring back memories of the Eurostar, and nearly shoot past the town of Vietri sul Mare. Having visited it a couple of years back we recognize a horribly ugly ceramics factory/showroom apparently designed by a disciple of Gaudi who either has no architectural ability or so hates the profession and mankind that he left us this monument. Fortunately it is not missable and we avoid completely passing by Vietri sul Mare.

To many Americans, the name Vietri is recognizable, for it is a well known brand name for ceramics imported from the town of Vietri sul Mare. The distinctive patterns include vibrant primary colors with primitive designs of fish, rabbits, pigs and the like painted around the rims of plates, bowls and mugs. A group of women in North Carolina so liked the designs that they began importing them and selling them across the country. This is a success story we certainly are all in favor of.

We park in the town’s main square. Vietri sul Mare consists of about 3 streets carved into the cliffs facing the ocean. One street reaches down to the sea, one tilts up toward the "highway" and the third meanders around in a loop, a few tributaries splitting off of it and petering out into dead ends. Incredibly we get lost on the main street, unable to find any signs of civilization or commerce, drawing stares from a few locals as we head toward what we think is centro, the town center, only to dead end at the local duomo, from which the only exit is to retrace our steps.
We finally reconnect with the main street and find a couple of restaurants. February along the Amalfi coast is definitely off season, however. The hordes of tourists that pack the streets, shops and restaurants of Vietri sul Mare, Amalfi, Positano and Capri are simply not here in February and, consequently, the hotels, restaurants and nightclubs that cater to these tourists are for the most part closed during the winter months. Fortunately even the locals need to eat out occasionally, so we find an small restaurant, la Locanda, open for lunch.

La Locanda seems to be run by a husband and wife team and the only other patrons are an American mother-daughter-grandmother (this is not a word game, there are three people there), which, surprisingly, we don’t find the least bit annoying. Being on the coast we opt for the mixed grilled seafood entrée, enjoying another grilled artichoke and a huge ball of delicate mozzarella di buffalo, a specialty of this region of Campagnia. The grilled plate is so simple yet so sublime, an indifferent grilled shrimp that is flanked by a light white fish filet that is made for the olive oil and lemon dressing that is spread over it and in which it bathes. The crown jewel is a smoky grilled squid, which is flattened and lightly grilled, which renders this often tough frutto di mare a tender sensation. Wash all of this down with a bottle of local falanghina white wine and life seems to be pretty good.

After lunch we wander from store to store (to store to store to store . . .), each displaying a small twist on the famed Vietri designs. We stop in our tracks, however, when we pass an alleyway with a few ceramics pieces displayed on the corners of the recessed building. It is the home of Ceramiche di Klaus, whose real name is Claudio. Inside his studio there is a collection of some of the most original and beautiful designs that we have ever seen. Combining modern designs evoking Picasso on unusual shapes, we immediately fall in love and express that love through commerce, buying piece after piece. (We’ve include this to see if you are reading, Wendy.) According to the delightful old man minding the store (who turns out to be Claudio’s brother), Klaus is in Paris at a trade show. The old man and his young son are basically acting as caretakers while the maestro is away and, with few tourists in town, no one can be expecting a big day at the till. We hope and think that we made their day the same way that Klaus made ours.

We leave Vietri sul Mare bound for Amalfi, the principle town in a once powerful maritime republic. The road to Amalfi is the stuff of legends (I will find a link to our previous writing on the subject) and we narrowly avoid several incidente along the way, some peace of mind deriving from the mandatory collision insurance that is included in all Italian car rentals. A half hour later, we pull up in front of the Hotel Luna, an ex convent founded of St. Francis of Assisi and converted into a hotel hundreds of years ago. We are shown to the "special suite" with two private terraces, one that overlooks the convent, the higher one off of our bedroom that overlooks Amalfi and the ocean. More on the hotel tomorrow.

We unpack and head into town which is deader than a vampire with two wooden stakes through his heart, taking an hour to find a decent place to sit and enjoy a glass of wine. We try a promising spot, a beach bar with a couple of dozen locals standing partially inside and partially on the beach. When we arrive we discover the commotion is the result of the fact that the beach bar is also the off track betting parlor and lottery ticket distribution center. The crowd definitely looks like the horsey set – gamblers, not breeders.

We walk the town, eying potential dining spots and settle on Risto, named after the owner/chef. The menu talks about Risto’s facility in making and adorning sciacatielli, a local hand made pasta and that is enough to seal the deal for us. We enter, are seated and begin a several hour adventure as the only diners in the restaurant that evening. Signore Risto brings out two beautiful fat red fish with enormous clear eyes, explaining to us that he wishes to prepare a special fish dish using these beauties, which are called occhio bello or pretty eyes. We agree and a little while later he brings us a pasta dish with a local sauce called acqua pazza (crazy water) that is a light, tomato based sauce, with potatoes, capers and shellfish. It is the perfect food for this place and we follow it with the occhio bello in a similar acqua pazza sauce, which Risto claims to have invented. A local white Fiano di Avellino completes the meal, which comes to a close when Signore Risto brings us a plate of local monaco cheese and pears, drizzled with raspberry sauce and two grappas. We celebrate 36 hours in Italy with full stomachs and sweet memories as we return to the Hotel Luna and fall asleep in the same spot that St. Francis did centuries ago after he, too, dined on seafood acqua pazza and drank the local grappa.

Sweet dreams, St. Francis.