Monday, May 23, 2005

Under the Marche sun Posted by Hello

The Marchigiani appeal

Is Le Marche the next Tuscany? This is the question posed by the New York Times' Sunday Travel section. If that was the original assignment, the reporter came up a wee bit short. But Bravo for trying. You can't fault him. He seemed a bit overwhelmed by the Marchigiani hospitality, the Verdicchio, the L'acrima di Moro, the local bounty to clear up Italian existential dilemmas in a 3,000 word article. The place can be deceptively charming and disarming to the best of reporters, my neighbor Michael is always saying. And Michael, the always reliable authority on all things Marchigiani, knows his reporters. What's the appeal of Le Marche?, the NYT asks Michael. The Marchigiani are slow, slow in a good way. (psst, psst, Marchigiani...I know where Michael lives.)

Grazie, vicino.

I can only imagine how Gina the shopkeeper in Sarnano would respond to such a question from a NYT reporter. She'd insist he try this piece of pecorino and this bottle of wine and this bottle of olive oil and this hunk of salami, then pay him outrageous complements and then stand back and watch him buy too much wine and cheese and oil. Then complement him some more.

And, for those wondering, is Le Marche the next Tuscany? Nope. It is a different world. A true slice of old-time Italy that never fails to disappoint. Even the Italians who visit Amandola for the first time are a bit overwhelmed. I've been gone a week and I miss it already.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

pizza delivery! Posted by Hello

Habemus Pizzem!

Pizza, to Italians, is a serious dish. It's not meant to be devoured at your desk, bent at angles to keep drippy globs of cheese in place, and never never lavished with citrus fruits. Each region has its own signature piece. The Napolitani insist on mozzarella di bufala, the Venetians may argue the virtues of gorgonzola. As with football, music and God, every person on the planet has an opinion of pizza. And every person is most certainly right.

So, from time to time over the past few years, I've been rounding up friends in the Marchigiani hills of Amandola -- to be precise it's Sant' Ippolito, a hilltop hamlet of maybe 12 people and 450 sheep -- to shut up and cook. The rules are simple. Each person must come to the house with a pizza recipe. I supply the pizza oven, a stone structure that sits proudly behind Casa Chiocciola. (Apols for the Chiocciola plug). The pizza entries are then judged by the other amateur chefs. Originality is valued as much as taste. For example, a pomodori pizza has rarely ranked in the top 5, and our friend mozzarella has never ever been a winning topping.

The creations have evolved over the years -- they are as artistic as they are gourmet. In the first year, the winner was a gorgonzola-speck combo. The following year was rucola (rocket to the Brits) and parmesan. This year was perhaps the finest bit of pizza-engineering ever. It was a pine nut/raisins/salt/olive oil with garnish of fennel number. It beat out a strong field: a potato-onion (my best attempt yet), a curry pizza and a sausage/onion/salt trifecta. A straight pesto number by 5-year-old Charlie, the youngest and clearly most lucid chef ever to enter the competition, was also worthy of consideration.

But the taste/texture combination of raisins and pine nuts was the clear winner. Or, so we thought. My neighbor Michael has tried to organize a last-minute revolt and is now sullying the vote, calling it a rig. He claims his kitchen sink offering (asparagus, mushrooms, tomatoes, oil, salt, you name it) was robbed. For the record, the vote stands. And this American will not stand for claims that democracy, as Michael claims, is no way to establish peace and order in the pizza cosmos. The pine nut-raisin is pizza of the year, 2005. Press releases are being drafted. Celebrity endorsements will follow.

Sorry, vicino. The people have spoken. Better luck next year.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Primavera a Roma Posted by Hello

Ciao, ragazza

Across Rome, doors are slamming. Red-faced and baffled, women are muttering Romani! as they scurry off the streets, seeking sanctuary from an onslaught of pick-up lines. It's spring. It has been for weeks. But the weather is now warm enough for springtime attire. And the sight of a little extra leg, a hint of tan line has stirred the primal and the perverse in the men of Rome.

I never tire of hearing women retell their latest encounter with wouldbe Roman suitors. When Cristina was living in the center of Rome, her local butcher would plead with her to take him home, allow him to cook her dinner. He's a fabulous cook, and his wife, gesturing to the unpleasant woman in the back of the shop, no longer appreciates his genius, he'd deliver with a let's-sail-around-the-world-together wink. To Xtina's sister, the same butcher enquired once: why only three slices of salami? Lonely? Do you want company?

The best story of this season goes to my friend Lara, a tall, elegant Audrey Hepburn-esque woman hailing from Bologna. The other day while driving her motorino through the center of Rome, a young man on his motorino pulls up alongside her at a traffic light. While waiting for the light to change, he turns to Lara and breaks the ice. Nice stockings, he purrs over the hum of the engine. Lara thankfully doesn't need to consider this for too long. The light flashes green. She's off. Heading into Piazza Venezia now, another red light. And again, Casanova pulls up alongside. More casually now, he pounces. Would you be interested in a foot massage OR a cup of coffee?

A day later, Lara is now retelling the story to a table full of friends. (Italians born elsewhere find Romans to be a strange life form, and thus discuss them incessantly as if hoping to sum up a sociology experiment long abandoned.) Heads shake. Why stockings? Why foot massage? Why coffee? Why foot massage OR coffee? Why? Why? Why?

I hate to admit it, but I think this young mystery man made an impression.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

TV Italia

It's comforting to know that you are never alone in Italy. For whenever you set foot into a trattoria/bar/train station/book shop, your friend the TV will be there to greet you, warming you against the effects of the cruel outside world, entertaining you with a 1-2-3-4 dance-kick, a medley of show tunes, an eyefull of cleavage. Anyone who's ever channel-surfed in Italy can confirm: Italian TV is humanity at its worst. And yet, even well-cultured Italians will insist on wheeling the idiot box up to the edge of the dinner table. It is the honored guest that always has the first and last word. You can speak ill of Zio Silvio, but you cannot disparage TV, the medium that made him his billions, the device that helped him march to power (twice) and, ultimately, keeps him out of trouble.

Every once in a while, il tubo flashes with potential. On Monday and Tuesday nights, RAI's TG1 -- one of the state-run channels that insist I pay it 121 euros each year while it still runs a gaudy amount of ads -- features a two-part made-for-TV drama. Last week, it was about a wrongly framed Turin man. The Turin story was based on true life events, hence the need to cast a soft porn actress to play the heroic prosecutor who bucks the system (in impossible heels) and frees our hero. This week? A timely yarn about KGB smugglers operating out of Ferrara, a city home to still more attractive protagonists.

Something meaningful can always be gleaned from watching a nation's primetime television, particularly when the broadcaster draws compulsory funding from its citizens thus obliging it to produce programming that reflects the tastes and values of its citizenry. Thus the Brits, one can rightly deduce from their BBC, value historical documentaries (preferably ones involving in this order: anything about WW2, Hitler's dubious sex life and anything about the late, great British empire, oh, and more military victories against the Germans, please, because we're British.)

Italy famously values variety shows. Lots of dancing girls in showgirl outfits. Awful pop covers we can theoretically clap along to at home. Sweaty, portly male presenters well past their prime flanked by the fine new fleshpot of the season. Call it a broadcaster's homage to arete -- perfection of mind and body. When that fails, bring out more dancing girls.

But something odd is happening at RAI. They now regularly show docu-dramas, each with a wholesome, uplifting message: through perservance, ingenuity, honesty you can overcome adversity. Racism, sexism, needless red tape? Forget it. They don't stand a chance under this new empowering formula. Say it with me, italiani. Through perserverance, ingenuity...

I'm still afraid of the women at the post office though.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The island prison of Santo Stefano looms over Xtina, as always, on her telefonino. Ischia is beyond that.Posted by Hello

Ventotene, birthplace of the EU Posted by Hello

Island manifesto

Benito Mussolini, at the height of his power, was a paranoid man. As fascist dictators are wont to do, he rounded up political dissidents and sent them far away where their catchy ideas couldn't catch on. One such troublemaker was the Communist Altero Spinelli. Banished to Ventotene, a volcanic island between Rome and Naples, Spinelli got to thinking about a unified Europe -- not the kind of unified Europe that Hitler and Mussolini envisaged. Spinelli thought a federalist model of government, not unlike that of the United States, would keep the continent from tearing itself apart with wars. And thus Spinelli's Ventotene Manifesto, written on the island in 1941, became a charter document for the European Union -- the superstate that drafts important rules about the proper curvature of the banana and identifying knock-off handbags.

Today, the only manifestos being penned in Ventotene are in the form of postcards. The island, just 2km long, is a true Mediterranean idyll. It resembles more a tiny Greek island. But there it is, just over 2 hours from Rome by train, then boat, the perfect place to brush up on EU history without having to go anywhere near Brussels.

Ventotene is a rare piece of undeveloped island paradise, overrun with wild artichokes, asparagus, fennel trees (yes, trees!) and a thick carpet of flowers. The restaurants serve whatever the fishermen catch, and the locals can pluck from the fields. The ancient Romans settled the island back in the day and thus there's remnants of a humble 2,000-year-old settlement. And looming creepily in the distance is the island of Santo Stefano, a jail built by the Bourbons in the 17oos, Italy's Alcatraz. The Bourbons designed it to keep both criminals and mentally unwell people stuck there so their wanton ways wouldn't disturb mainland Italians. It was only shut down in the 1960s.

Today, Ventotene attracts mainly scuba divers as the waters around the island are crystal clear. We just took it easy on the beach, marveling that we were so close to Rome and yet seemed to have the island largely to ourselves.

As for Spinelli, there's a monument to the man erected last October in a shabby courtyard off the island's port town. The municipal building also flies the 25 flags of the EU. But that's about it. No special dishes named after the man, no beach towels bearing his likeness. Still, Mussolini wouldn't be happy with what the locals have done to his old island of exhile.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Justice you can bank on

Italians, or more precisely Tuscans, invented modern retail banking some 600 years ago. The Bank of Siena proudly advertises on its Bancomat slips "dal 1472", putting it in the select company, along with some Belgian beers, of one of the world's oldest brands. The concept of lending money at one rate and collecting at a higher rate is a business that will be thriving 600 years from now no doubt. There will always be people like me needing money to borrow from a bank and happily willing to pay them back a bit more for the priveldge. This concept works (or has the potential to work) everywhere. That is, except in Italy. Today, Italian banks treat customers they don't know with outright suspicion. My personal dealings with Unicredit, Italy's largest lender, have taken years off my life. This is the most risk-averse institution I've ever encountered. They have a newly minted policy in which they will not lend to non-Italians (a brilliant maneuver in this booming property market). Now, of course my problem (and theirs, apparently) is they have been lending this scary foreigner money for the past 3.5 years. So when I tried recently to amend the terms of my mortgage they flatly declined on the basis of my said foreignness and then heroically informed me that I should consider myself lucky that they continue to conduct business (code for take my money) with me at all. End of negotiation. Basta cosi.

When I retell this tale, by the end, I can see the listener shrink back uneasily. I'm not sure if it's the bulging veins in my cranium, the wild gesticulations, the don't-fire-I'm-on-your-side tone, or perhaps, just perhaps, profound sympathy for my plight.

I'm thinking of taking my story to Amsterdam where I know I will find some sympathetic listeners. Dutch bank ABN Amro is trying to buy a regional bank in Northern Italy, Banca Antoniana Popolare Veneta, or Antonveneta for short. ABN Amro made a generous cash offer for the significantly smaller Italian bank, one, that on paper, the Italians could neither refuse nor beat. So, what did the smaller bank do? They cooked up a classicly Machiavellian scheme in which they called on the assistance of a neighboring bank, Banca Poplare di Lodi (BPL), to thwart the deal. BPL marched in and bought up 29 % of Antonveneta shares and then wham replaced the board of Antoveneta with cronies who refuse to do business with the Dutch. In stickball parlance, this would be akin to the losing team walking off the schoolyard with the ball, bat, the opponent's shoes, their moms' car keys, and declaring "thanks for playing. We'll inform you later if you've won or not." The Dutch, as would the winning stickball team, protested. The nah-nah-nah-nah answer could come as soon as today, and the response may be the final slap in the face for the Dutch. Apparently bank regulators Consob will find that si BPL and Antonveneta were in cahoots to derail the higher bidder. The penalty? BPL must pay cash for Antonveneta, at a remarkable discount of course, if they want to keep the bank in Italian hands. Italian justice at its finest. Your crime and punishment is you acknowledge you broke the rules. Basta cosi. The Dutch, of course, are still in the hunt, probably more as a matter of pride, and hopefully, I can say with the fingers-crossed dispassion of a jilted customer, revenge.

Regardless of the outcome, the birthplace of modern banking is again expressing its preference for the stone tablets and chisel approach to business. So don't be surprised if you encounter some day a raspy-voiced Dutch banker, veins bulging, hand gestures flying saying, "Let me tell you a story about an Italian bank..." At least hear him out.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Wipe your feet, drink some wine

Was Romulus man or myth? The story goes that Rome was founded around 750 BC by Romulus, a homicidal, wolf-raised man who killed his twin brother Remus and then laid the foundations for the city on the banks of the Tevere. As founding stories go, it has everything. But could it be true? Italian archeaologist Andrea Carandini says Certamente!

Not far out of town is another archeaological wonder, Ostia Antica. It was Rome's port city, heaving with a population of 50,000 back in its prime in the second century. Amazingly, much of the city is still intact -- and yet it attracts, by my obersvation, only the intrepid visitors. Ostia Antica (note: modern Ostia is the Coney Island of the Med, minus the Cyclone and hotdogs) was the original party town. Along the main boulevard are bath houses, taverns and a gym. Further on, is a magnificent amphitheater, then apartment buildings, followed by more baths and, yep, more taverns. When you walk into Fortunatus' tavern, you are greeted by a serious message inscribed into the tile floor. Vinum e cratera quod sitis bibe..."Since you are thirsty, drink wine from the crater" (a type of goblet).

Don't mind if I do.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Decoding Dan Brown

Last week at Ciampino Airport, while waiting for my delayed flight to London, a man took the seat next to me -- the last one -- plopped open a book and started reading. Within a minute, his two young children appeared from the crowd moaning that they were tired, tired of standing around, tired of holding their bags, tired of staring at a flight board that never updated. They wanted to sit, but where? Without looking up from his book, the man waved them away, muttering in British English instructions that they should go find "a table top to sit on". Perplexed, the kids skulked off, vanishing in the crowd of pasty Ryanair flyers. Intrigued, I picked my nose up out of my book. Surely, this man cannot be reading the latest tough love parenting manual. Nope. He was mesmerized -- just starting Chapter 29, actually -- by, you guessed it, The Da Vinci Code. What kind of monster orders his kids to make themselves scarce among agitated travellers in a foreign airport? A person who reads Dan Brown.

I may be the only person on the planet -- the only one I know, anyhow -- who threw the book down in disgust halfway through a while back. I didn't mind the shoddy research, the baseless conclusions, the half-baked theological conspiracies. As Jon Stewart says, "it's fiction." I just had a problem with the bubble gum wrapper prose, the earnest dialogue, the shallow character development, the cliffhanger-on-every-third page, the three-page chapters. (My blood pressure is going up as I write this.) Why are people fascinated with this drivel? Tell me, what's the appeal? Is it the sense of accomplishment one gets from polishing off 16 chapters before lunch? Is it confirming suspicions you've always had about the church? Is it comforting to know that maybe, just maybe, a middle-aged American guy can seduce a French woman (actually, I abandoned the book before I could get to the steamy bits) and together they can solve a 2,000-year-old riddle? Will this give you something lively to contribute at your next dinner party/water cooler/prayer group/book club/political fund-raiser? Please, tell me.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Small talk with the big man

Lucky you! You've been invited to have an audience with the pope. What will you wear? Remember: dress conservatively. That's the easy part. Should you get close to the man, what then? How would you greet him? Get on one knee? Kiss the ring? And, how do you address the pope, anyhow? Your holyness seems so last millenium. Whatever you do, don't ask Italian first lady Franca Ciampi for a tip. Franca (wife of Italian Pres. Carlo Azeglio Ciampi) on Tuesday met with il Papa Benedetto XVI as part of an entourage that marked the first official visit between the neighboring heads of state. (Imagine if Brooklyn, a foreign nation of, well, mainly Italians, was a 1/4-mile closer to downtown Manhattan.)

When Benedetto and Franca met, there was that awkward hesitation all of us would dread. But like a true champ, Franca carried the moment, blurting out: "You've changed the curtains, Bravi!"

War, for now, has been averted.

 Posted by Hello

Foreign relations

Italian-American diplomatic relations hit a post-war low this week. U.S. soldiers killed Italian agent Nicola Calipari in a case of friendly fire on March 4. Now, Italian politicians are firing back. They issued a report saying American soldiers are unstable, trigger-happy, not to be trusted. Not a soothing assessment from an ally. Iraq is costing America some valuable friends. The acrimony no doubt will force Berlusconi to pull troops out of Iraq, probably by September.

On the street, the Italians are as gracious and welcoming as ever. (Don't test this by showing up to dinner with the Bush twins or John Bolton, mind you.) Still, they took great delight in discovering over the weekend that classified sections of the US Army report (including names and sensitive details about roadside bombing raids) could be read through a simple cut and paste technique. I interviewed an Italian sitcom writer/blogger Gianluca Neri who made the discovery. Some of his comments landed in the USA Today story above.

Neri's ingenuity earned him a call from Italy's Ministry of Defense Monday morning. In a Dr. Strangelove moment, they wanted to know more about this cut-and-paste technique. As he told me:
"This is the embarrassing thing for Italy, not just the USA. They had the document for three days," he said of Italy's MOD. "If I am a special agent and I received a digital document, I would do everything I could to reveal the words under the black spaces. They weren't able."


Monday, May 02, 2005

Have you seen this piece of art? One of the stolen Burri's Posted by Hello

A tale of stolen art

If you're on the south bank of the Thames and you have a few minutes, there's a fine new (and free) exhibit at the Tate Modern featuring post-war Italian artists, one of which is Alberto Burri. Burri, who did some amazing things with plastic wrap and burlap sacks, is in the news today for different reasons. A large cache of his works, never seen in public, was stolen, smuggled out of his country cottage in the south of France. The story is in Time today courtesy of a nice tip I got a few weeks back. Collectors, beware.