Thursday, October 25, 2007

Day 8 - Todi-Foligno-Ponte San Giovanni

It is difficult to imagine that only 24 hours has elapsed since I last updated you as to our progress. When we were last together, Suzy and I were drifting off to a peaceful sleep at the beautiful Villa Tre Grazie near Todi in southern Umbria, having spent the day lurching from a wonderful cooking class, to a difficult real estate negotiation to a meeting with the villa’s caretaker to pick up the keys.
Since we left the cooking class, we had constantly been running behind schedule. A couple of hours behind, to be precise. That frenetic pace was to continue today.

We wake up early at the villa to a cool morning, the temperature much higher than the previous few days and patches of welcome blue sky visible in the distance. We set up shop in an enormous sitting room, so large and elegant that it must be called a drawing room, to do our morning’s work. Continuing the trend from the day before, this takes much longer than expected and despite our early start, before long what we expect to be a leisurely day begins to back up against the 4:00 appointment we have made with the real estate agents back in Ponte San Giovanni.

When we met with our friend Paula Hughes several weeks ago in Washington, the meeting at which she offered us the use of her villa, she suggested that we have lunch or dinner at one of her favorite area restaurants and proceeded to show us a lengthy article in a recent issue of Food and Wine magazine profiling the restaurant and its eccentric chef/owner. We had puzzled over when and how to fit this restaurant into our itinerary, as it is closed on Mondays (which would have been an ideal time for us), so we call the restaurant for a lunch reservation today. The owner answers and affirms our reservation, his cheery demeanor evident in this short exchange.

So we hastily close up shop, jump in the car and head to Foligno, a thirty to forty minute drive through the mountains to the other side of Umbria. Our reservation is for 1:00. It is 12:55 as we step out the door. History is repeating itself.

Until now we have navigated by the seat of our pants on this trip, relying on our memories, maps and our familiarity with this area to find restaurants, hotels and appointments. Tomorrow we are heading to new territory – Citta di Castello, north of Perugia, for a truffle cooking class and then onward to Bologna – so I have brought a GPS unit to help guide us our next adventures. We have used this unit here in Italy before, the erudite voice of Mark, a computer generated Brit, always guiding us to our destination, albeit sometimes in circuitous fashion.

We will need Marky Mark’s assistance today. Getting across the mountains that bisect and separate one side of Umbria from the other has been a nightmare for us in the past. Several years ago, on one of our first trips to Umbria, we altered our plans to spend the day in Deruta, a town we had discovered on our previous Italian sojourn and were sent instead on a wild goose chase by our former Italian partner in search of olive oil. Our search landed us in the town of Trevi, a beautiful hilltown on the east side of the ridge, a fair distance from our original and ultimate destination of Deruta, which lies on the other side of the mountains. The valleys on both sides of the mountain are served by excellent highways and the two highways converge both at the north end (outside Perugia) and south (near Terni), forming a sort of squashed oblong shape, like a football. The smart thing to do that day would have been to drive north from Trevi to Perugia and then south down to Deruta along the main highways. It is a route we have taken many times since, and would have taken about a half an hour.

But the very short line on the map, roughly connecting the two towns and making a nearly straight line over the mountains proved, much more enticing than the boring highway route. Pride, one of the seven deadly sins, reared its ugly head, and not even the presence of Saint Francis, in nearby Assisi could protect us. So into the mountains we headed, toward the aptly named town of Bastardo, where, according to our map, we would pick up a small local road down the mountain and connect with the highway to Deruta. We did indeed reach Bastardo but somehow managed to descend the mountain on the exact same side we started. Nonplussed, we scaled the windy passage back to Bastardo only to once again be expelled back down the east side of the mountain from whence we came. Over and over we reached Bastardo, but bad karma simply prevented us from finding a road that went down the other side of the mountain. At last a promising road took us down and toward the west, but as we got lower and lower the track became narrower and narrower until it simply ended. We retraced our steps to Bastardo before somehow lucking into finding the only route through the mountain. When we arrived in Deruta that evening the shops were closing and our day was shot. Fortunately Suzy blamed our partner for having sent us to Trevi nearly as much as she blamed me for stubbornly trying to cross the mountains. Perhaps if we had had elephants, like Hannibal.

So today Marky Mark provides the miracle of safe passage across the mountain, taking us through Bastardo and down the other side until he directs us to the door of il Bacco Felice (Via Garibaldi, 73, Foligno, tel. 335.662.2659, Thanks to his help we arrive in Foligno only 45 minutes late, a minor miracle these days. Fearing our reservation might be cancelled, we have called ahead and received permission for our lateness from Salvatore Denaro, the quirky and charismatic chef/owner of this little hole in the wall. If the Food and Wine article is any indication, Salvatore has made quite a name for himself as a result of his outstanding cooking and his promotion of the ideals of the Slow Food movement, of which he is a member and a zealot. Slow Food, an international organization started in Italy and which still counts Italy as its biggest supporter, supports the idea of a slower pace of life and enjoying the company of one’s fellow man around the table, where shared experiences and enjoyment of food and wine can enhance our interactions. Salvatore’s website trumpets this philosophy, announcing that the restaurant is

Per chi ama il vino.
Per chi ama sedersi a chiacchierarecon un bicchiere in mano.
Per chi ama mangiare.
Per chi ama dimenticarsi del tempo che scorre.

(For those who love wine. For those who love to sit and chat with a glass in hand. For those who love to eat. For those who love to forget the march of time.)

We near the restaurant, or so we think, and Marky Mark announces that “you have arrived at your destination.” So we pull into a municipal parking lot, lock up the car and begin to look for the restaurant, which, despite Marky Mark’s tone of certitude, is actually about five blocks away. We walk in circles for a while than arrive in front of the restaurant nearly an hour and a half late. Pausing in front of the restaurant, we consider the two entry doors. One appears to be the main entrance, but there are tables directly in front of it inside blocking any hope of entry. The other appears to open into the kitchen, but we decide to step in there anyway, finding a disheveled counter, bookcases full of books stacked haphazardly and two tables, several men at each, deep in animated conversation with one another. Charging down the hallway, apparently from the kitchen, a bearded man with a protruding belly and a white apron, jeans and a chef’s hat, and in general disrepair thrusts his hand out to us exclaiming “benvenuti, sfortunati, welcome to il Bacco Felice.” This, we surmise, must be Salvatore.

He has of course recognized us from our plaintive phone call asking for his indulgence for being late and assuring him we would be at the restaurant by 2:00. It is 2:15 and while the restaurant is emptying Salvatore insists that we sit and allow him to serve us lunch. We are glad to be in his company and under his care.

As far as we can tell, one does not order a meal at il Bacco Felice. Salvatore and his staff suggest what you will have and bring it to you. Within a few moments after we are seated our waitress asks us what we would like to drink. When I reply that I would like to see the wine list, she replies simply “white or red.” We would like red, but I don’t seem to get through to her when I tell her that we would like a bottle, not simply a carafe of the house red. A few moments later she comes back a very nice Rosso di Montefalco from Ricceri and pours us two glasses. Perhaps there is no wine list. Simply state your preference for color and they will bring you what you should have. Works for us.

Salvatore returns tableside a few moments later, greeting us once again and offering us a basket of warm focaccia and prosciutto, which are delicious separately and together. He fills our wine glasses, then grabs a spare glass from another table and helps himself to a glass of our wine. “Salute from il Bacco Felice,” he exclaims, clinking glasses with us and downing his glass. Then he “suggests” that we start with a nice zuppa di cecci, chick pea soup, with fresh pasta of which he is obviously very proud. Sounds good to us, and when the waitress brings us our soup a little while later we once again agree that our decision has been a wise one. If only all of life’s decisions could be made so simple.

Roasted chicken diavolo is the next course that is ordered for us. It is brought out on a small plate with a simple salad. The chicken is crispy outside, with scorch marks from the grill and seasoned with rosemary, peperoncini and salt, giving it a light kick. We eat it with our fingers, breaking bones apart and gnawing all the meat we can find between ribs and under the cartilage. We have lost all inhibitions in this place and are simply enjoying a relaxing, no worries meal that happens to taste great.

By now we are the only diners left in the restaurant and Salvatore chats us up some more. He seems pleased to see Americans here, but we can only imagine that his exposure in Food and Wine has increased his flow significantly. A shameless self promoter, an enormous reprint of the article appears in the front window along with a menu board proclaiming (in English), “Free glass of bubbly if you mention Food and Wine.” We have not stooped for the free bubbly, but we don’t feel cheated. This, simply put, is the reason we have come to Italy. And our Italian experiences are full of Salvatores.

As he walks away from our table he says to himself, “I think a rocciata.” A few moments later our waitress returns with two plates, each with an almond cookie and a streudel-like pastry that we learn is the traditional Umbrian dessert, a rolled pastry filled with apples, cinnamon and walnuts. It is, apparently, the only dessert served at il Bacco Felice. We are in a hurry to reach our next appointment, which we are already resigned to being late to, so we decline the offer of coffee, instead asking for two glasses of Sagrantino passito, a sweet dessert wine made from the sagrantino grape. We are brought the entire bottle, which we apparently must pay for, so we resign ourselves to being even later.

The sweet wine is a wonderful finish to this fantastic slow food lunch. Carlo Petrini, founder of Slow Food would be proud. Our couple of hours at il Bacco Felice have slowed down time, despite our frenetic past couple of days. We have enjoyed each other’s company, our souls and our stomachs have been filled by Salvatore, and we are ready to re-emerge into the fast world that waits outside il Bacco’s doors.

We say our mille grazie a thousand times and emerge into the bright afternoon sun, our breaths deep, slow, cleansing and refreshing. This shall pass, as we re-enter the fast world and rush back to Ponte San Giovanni for what will prove to be nearly seven hours of meetings with the real estate agents before submitting a written offer to purchase a beautiful villa outside Assisi. We arrive about an hour late, the delay augmented by our inability to recognize the building, which we drive past several times. Soon we will be back on schedule.

The experience of making an offer to buy land in this foreign country is at once both stressful and enervating. We want this property but are clear what it means to us and how much we want it. Perhaps a meal and a slow food experience helped put this, as it can put all of life’s seemingly intractable problems in perspective. I shudder to think what our experience at the real estate agent’s office would have been like without il Bacco Felice.

We head back to Todi after our marathon meetings, the night turning into morning and our next round of appointments only hours away. Our last act, after signing the purchase offer? A two hour dinner with the real estate agents and Javier, breaking up after 1:00am. The modern world, with all its stresses, seems to need this excuse to slow down. Perhaps we should heed the warning.

A presto,
Bill and Suzy

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