Thursday, October 12, 2006

Day 3 - To Your Health

In a strange coincidence, three separate Italians told me on my last trip that drinking grappa is "important" for your health. If they are right, and I hope to God that they are, I should probably live to 170.

We have a fairly simple itinerary today. I am taking Jeff to Deruta, the ancient hilltown of ceramics that lies about 15 minutes south of Perugia. I hope to show him a few of the dozens of little independent ceramics shops cum studios that comprise the town. Other than that, the day is wide open. We’ll let fate take us where it may.

We alight from the hotel quite late, having slept late and then struggled with modern technology so that you, dear reader, would be able to read the travel logs you have come to love so much. Twenty first century Italy is way ahead of America in some respects technologically (glance around any piazza and see everyone, and I mean everyone, even the dogs, sporting tiny cellphones) and I am fortunate that la Rosetta has a high speed ethernet connection available for my use. The only drawback is that it is in a sterile conference closet off of the main lobby, necessitating the carrying of a laptop and about two and a half miles of cables, cords and adaptors. All goes well, however, and the blogosphere is updated with new stories of adventures in Italy, and we depart for Deruta.

After the obligatory coffee stop it’s off to the Mercato Coperto ("Covered Market") car park where the previous evening we left our brand new rental car (0 kilometers), including keys, in the hands of two men we assumed to be parking attendants because of their sporty blue jumpsuits and hand gestures. As the elevator lowers itself to the parking level I feel a tinge of fear that these men are doing donuts ("doughnuts") in a parking lot somewhere in Rome, laughing at the Americans who simply gave away their new car. I find another blue jumpsuited attendant and ask him how we go about retrieving our car, which we left the previous night and for which I draw a complete blank as to make, model, size and color. After a brief search, our car is located – unharmed -- and we are off to Deruta.

According to Jeff’s research, Deruta stands for "of Ruta" or "of Roots," referring to the roots of the rutabaga that are used to tinge the earthen clay is the basis of the bisque of the ceramics. It appears that the ceramics grow from the earth, and that the workers merely harvest God’s bounty. According to Jeff, how the ceramic bushes – themselves approximately 5 meters in height and surrounded by prickly, broken ceramic berries – know to grow, say, a plate with a logo of a hotel already etched onto it is a matter best lest for the scientists. His research is, of course, completely erroneous and made up.

We arrive in Deruta just before lunchtime, traveling up and down the via Tiburtina, the main drag through the lower part of town, in the shadows of the old town which dominates the hill above. There are dozens of small and not so small shops along the via Tiburtina, most of them selling similar designs and shapes and struggling to differentiate themselves from one another. Most of the shops on the via Tiburtina have a second shop in the old town above.

We drive back and forth a number of times looking for Ceramiche Cama, established in the 1950’s and one of the shops that has been able successfully to differentiate itself from its competitors through a combination of unique designs and unrivaled quality. Without doubt, Cama ceramics are among the finest in all of Deruta. As we trace and retrace our steps, following outdated signs to the former location of Cama, we see a familiar face along the street. It is, of course, our buddy Javier Casuso, in Deruta on business. How odd to bump into someone you know so far from home.

We have no appointment or any real agenda at Cama, other than to stop by and say hello to Andrea, the youthful son of the founders and manager of the family’s operations. We finally find Cama and fortunately Andrea is in the shop where we spend a delightful time catching up with him. Andrea is proud to show us a video clip of his parents’ and his audience with the Pope during the Jubilee, during which Andrea presented il papa with a commemorative plate in a design developed especially for the Jubilee.

After our visit with Andrea, we wander down the street to Tavola e Favola, a local restaurant at which Suzy and I spent a memorable lunch with Andrea last February. In fact, the three of us had so much fun that we began plans to bring Roberto, the owner, to Washington for a special serata italiana event. Planning continues for a series of cooking classes and special dinners, together with a talk and demonstration of the art of ceramic making by Andrea. We are all looking forward to the event, but for today at least, we will simply enjoy Roberto’s fare.
Roberto welcomes us with open hands and points us to an outdoor table where we are seated across from some southern-tinged diners from the USA. Paolo, our waiter, confirms that bistecca fiorentina is on the menu today and we order one (yes, only one) and a primi piatti ("first course") of pasta, along with some bread, olive oil, wine and acqua minerale. The pasta would have been sufficient, but as this is Italy, it only whets the appetite for the bistecca. If you look at the pictures, you will see why only one was needed. It is a massive cut, perhaps half a stone in weight when you include the mastodon-sized bone. And, of course, it is brought to us bloody red.

Paolo then begins the carving and filleting of the bovine bounty. At this point, lunch has crossed Rubicon and there is no return. What follows is a blur of knife and fork, pepper and salt, olive oil and much chewing. How long this continues is completely unclear. Somehow and at some point, for some reason, Paolo emerges from the dining room with a grappa bottle large enough for a real ship to fit in, for those so inclined. As I mentioned earlier, Italians truly seem to believe that grappa is "important" and this bottle clearly makes Paolo the most important man in Deruta. He certainly is the most important man at our table at the moment and adds to his luster by bringing two additional bottles a short while later, one with homemade limoncello, a syrupy lemon liqueur and a frosty bottle of a nameless red liqueur that has been made on the premises from wine, grappa and cherries. All three bottles seem extremely important and Paolo checks in on us frequently to see how we are doing and to top off his glass.

It is during this bacchanalia that Jeff comes to a startling revelation, developing in an instant the Italian food pyramid (a la the USDA food pyramid). Like many of society’s greatest inventions, it is scribbled on a placemat and using his ubiquitous blue pen. A copy of it is attached as a photo and you can read Jeff’s complete account of the pyramid here. Suffice it to say that there is a prominent place in the pyramid for grappa.

We finish lunch and emerge from under the canopy which has shielded us from the blazing sun. It is then that we realize that here, on Day 3 of our journey, we have yet to see a cloud in the Italian sky.

We spend a while letting our eyes adjust to the sunlight and then head off for a quick visit to say hello to Gerardo Rigibini, owner of Geribi Ceramics, another of the handful of truly distinctive ceramicists in Deruta. We walk in unannounced to Gerardo’s studio, a large hangar-like building next to a supermarket and see Gerardo and an army of painters hard at work filling orders from customers around the world. Gerardo is happy to see me and me him (is this grammatically possible?) and we chat for a while. Jeff is amazed by Geribi’s beautiful and unusual designs, which Gerardo explains are the result of much research into the designs and colors used by ancient ceramicists, even predating the development of such renaissance classics as ricco Deruta and Raffaelesco. Gerardo is a serious man – serious about his art and his work – and he is seriously good at it.

We bid Gerardo adieu and head back to Perugia, stopping off to see Javier in Ponte San Giovanni for a brief stop. We then begin the winding return from the valley into the center of Perugia but instead of returning to the hotel, decide to practice the route from the hotel to Perugia’s central train station, from which we will depart before the crack of dawn in two days. The route is even more harrowing than the trip into Perugia, with sharp turns down streets that seem to be less than a car width wide, dropping at angles that make us fear that we will pitch pole down into the valley. But despite the complexity of getting to the train station (a "mini-metro" is being built that will soon whisk passengers from the station in the valley to the historic city center), the challenge is in getting back up into Perugia, as the approach is from the other side of the hill than I am accustomed to. We weave and circle and climb for nearly an hour to make the 15 minute drive into town, finally arriving at the Mercato Coperto, tired and drained and nearly ready for dinner.

The evening plan calls for meeting Javier at one of Suzy and my favorite Perugia restaurants, the Osteria del Ghiottone. But tomorrow’s plan looms even larger – a visit organized by our good friend Giuseppe Fioroni to visit the azienda Arnaldo Caprai, Umbria’s premier winemaker. So tonight’s dinner will have to remain forever undocumented, yet another great meal in the land of great meals. Suffice it to say, it was a very important dinner.

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