Monday, January 15, 2007

Day 11 - Perugia - Deruta

Perugia is, in our minds, one of lesser known jewels of Italy. We wake early and decide to take a short walk before the city comes to life, stopping for a coffee at a small coffee bar. It is a slightly gray morning and because many of the shops take Monday mornings off, the streets are not crowded.

Clothes shopping, like many other shopping experiences in Italy, is a very different affair. It is not possible to go in and grab several sizes hoping to fit into the smallest one. Most shops display only a few items, in a single size, and everything else is boxed up and out of reach. If you are interested in buying, or even looking, you are at the mercy of the shopkeeper. He or she will tell you your size and what to try on. While this can sometimes feel humiliating it does avoid the humiliation of having a dressing room full of clothes that are too small. We find a men’s clothing store that we have walked by several times and Bill puts himself in the hands of an attractive young saleslady who is very comfortable checking everything for size. After a protracted sales dance, we purchase several items, say grazie and head back outside.

We meet Austin and Norma at the Locanda della Posta and walk a few blocks to the car park, the Mercato Coperto (covered market), a two storey structure that is built into the cliffs below the old town and which is accessed by an elevator that takes you from street level to the subterranean garage a hundred feet below. Our destination is Deruta, the spiritual center of the ceramics industry in Italy. The historic center of upper Deruta consists of studio after studio of artists painting and offering their pieces for sale to the mostly American public. While we see a few new studios it is sad to see that a number of studios that have closed down – and not just for the winter. The ceramics industry in Italy and particularly Deruta is facing hard times, mostly from cheap Chinese knock offs and other work farmed out to places such as Tunisia and eastern Europe. These new centers utilize cheap labor to paint in the Italian style. We are saddened because we strongly believe that there is something more timely and magical about the pieces we see being painted in Italy by Italian artists, many with generations of experience in their blood. Our sadness also stems from the fact that we consider many of the men and women we meet in the streets of Deruta as our friends.

Despite a house that is bursting at the seams with ceramics, Suzy finds several new pieces that we have shipped back home. Our shopping spree in upper Deruta is too short and we make plans to return at the end of the trip, or at least on our next trip.

Maybe we do eat too much in Italy. One dead giveaway is that restaurant owners always seem to recognize us and seem delighted when we return. We have planned to meet Gerardo Rigibini, the owner of Geribi ceramics at Tavola e Favola, one of the best restaurants in Deruta and one where we have dined a few times in the past. In what is becoming an all too frequent occurrence, as we enter the restaurant the waiter leaps up, runs over and shakes Bill’s hand. He doesn’t speak much English, but it is clear that he is thrilled to see him again and that he will take very good care of us. No need for menus – he knows what Bill would like to eat and proceeds to bring us lunch, announcing each course before he brings it, but not putting up his selections for discussion. We start with an antipasto platter with some sliced meats that are the specialty of central Italy – braesola, prosciutto and salami, as well as some local cheeses. Next he brings each of us plates with two pastas – a ravioli with black truffle sauce and a fettucine with tomato sauce. While these are delicious, it is the beef that the restaurant is known for and Paolo brings us tagliata, rare slices of grilled steak served with arucola and tomatoes. It is to die for. We have little time to linger today, so we have to say no to the jeraboam of grappa beckoning us, but we make a mental note to have two glasses of grappa when we return later in the week.

Austin has college applications that are due at midnight and Norma still has a shopping list of shopping a mile long, so we drop them at the Locanda della Posta in Perugia and head back down to Ponte San Giovanni to meet with Walter, the man whose house we are negotiating to rent. It is a difficult finale to our earlier negotiations and everyone seems to be unhappy, even though we seem to have come to agreement. Such is business, whether it is in America or Italy.

This has been a wearying day, from our early start to the quick visits to Deruta, Gerardo, Walter and a brief visit to Javier’s studio. We return to Perugia late and without definitive dinner plans. We decide to try a new trattoria, highly recommended by our good friend Michele Fioroni. We enter the elegant but empty entry and an engaging Italian woman greets us, immediately warning us that their credit card machine is not working. No worries, as our son Austin is flush with cash. Over the next two hours we proceed to have a wonderful meal, although it is unlike most we are used to. Instead of the traditional Umbrian pastas and meats served in a home-style environment, typically by members of the owner’s family, this is a white tablecloth affair, with nouveau Italian cuisine. But the service and friendliness of our waitress, who had greeted us earlier, bridge the gap from a sterile, formal affair to the warmth of the traditional Umbrian trattoria. The result is a comfortable, enjoyable evening with a very different cuisine. It is not something that we would choose every night, but this night it seems to work.

We start with a nouveau selection of first courses. Austin has a chocolate cannoloni stuffed with cheese, prosciutto on a potato puree. Suzy has half moon pastas made with quail eggs stuffed with duck in an amatriciana tomato sauce with cappellini with black truffle. Bill opts for the traditional stringozzi (a thick homemade spaghetti) with norcina sauce, a creamy sauce made with sausage and truffle. Austin follows with tagliata di bue grilled sliced beef with black truffle sauce, Suzy has a turkey breast stuffed with sausage on a dried fig compote and Bill has rabbit with pistachio crust. For desert we share a foot long tray of little pastries, which Austin devours and Suzy cuts in half, proclaiming, without trying them, whether they are good or not. Coffee and a tray of cookies follows, putting a cap on the day.

It has been a long day, but a good one. A cumulative fatigue seems to be settling upon the travelers and we have an early start planned for tomorrow so we can spend a day in Rome before Austin and Norma return home. So it is off to sleep, hoping to delay the hour when the alarm clock squeals its admonition to rise once again.

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