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!

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