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.

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