Monday, October 31, 2005

A hunting we will go...

Back from truffle hunting in the hills north of Acqualagna, one of just a few places on earth where the mysterious, tasty and very rare white truffle can be found a few below the earth. We were graciously escorted at one point by Jack, a part-pointer pooch, and his spear-carrying owner Iulis. How'd we fare? Check out the photos! (And apologies if the blog today smells a bit like musty old shoes. That would be the truffles.)

For the uninitiated, truffles are an acquired taste, like powerful mushrooms. (No, not those powerful shrooms.) The black truffles are more common and not altogether remarkable. The white truffles are heavenly. I would gladly pay a fortune for a nice pasta dish dripping in white truffle sauce. Luckily, in Acqualagna you can get a dish, served on plastic plates for a tenner.

Black gold!!! Four summer truffles unearthed in the Marchigiani hills Posted by Picasa

Jack hones in on a truffle! pant, pant pant Posted by Picasa

Jack, the truffle-hunting wonder dog Posted by Picasa

Thursday, October 27, 2005

When tubers kill

Nothing says haute cuisine like tubers. Not just any tubers. I'm talking white truffles, a delicacy that has fetched more on the open market (per 100 grams) than gold! Last year a London restaurant bid 28,000 pounds (over $52,000) for a kg-sized hunk of the white gold.

I've never seen nor tasted white truffles -- probably because I haven't dined in enough Michelin star restaurant that serve them. I've had the black truffles. They taste like pungent, earthy mushrooms. The white truffles are said to be aphrodisiacs, and well worth the price of a $900 dish of pasta in white truffle sauce.

They are indeed rare, found only in remote mountain areas in Alba (northern Italy) and dotted around Umbria and Le Marche in Central Italy. This weekend I am off to Le Marche, truffle hunting in...well, I can't say where. It's a secret. Apparently, truffle secrets go to a man's grave. In years past, truffle hunters or trovatore have poisoned the truffle-sniffing dogs and pigs of rival trovatore. Murder is a small price to pay for the joy of eating a hideously formed creature that grows under trees and smells like old running shoes left in the rain.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Cinema Italia bravissima!

Italian cinema, I have been known to grumble, is just not what it used to be. Where are the Vittorio di Secas, the Federico Fellinis, the Sergio Leones of today? It seems there is more tension, drama and theatrics at an Italian coffee bar than there is in a good many of the flicks being rushed to screen here. But last night all was redeemed. I saw the new gangster movie, Romanzo Criminale. Che fantastico!

It's the true life depiction of the rise and fall of la banda della Magliana, Rome's most vicious street gang of the 70s and 80s. It was written by an Italian magistrate (CORRECTION: he was not the one who sentenced these guys) and so the Italian media has used it as a wedge to once again open up new inquiries into all the unsolved crimes of the time. In my humble opinion, this is the best gangster movie since the original Godfather flick, with a killer soundtrack -- up there with Boogie Nights or even City of God. Il Sette Bello's crack movie review team give it our highest rating of four meatballs.

I highly recommend it. But first you'll need to know the back story. I suggest you find an Italian, buy him or her a ticket and don't be afraid to ask them for mid-movie explanations. Saving that, print out this next paragraph:

The tale goes as follows: neighborhood punk criminals grow up to be ambitious gangsters (in a neighborhood that's spitting distance from my apartment). They knock off drug gang after drug gang. Their empire expands: drugs, prostitution, lots of murders. One day their capo gets hauled into jail. He's later sprung by a mysterious government agent with one very large string looming. The capo and his gangsters must find the kidnapped politician Aldo Moro, abducted by the ultra-leftists The Red Brigades. They go on the hunt for Moro and seem to generate a solid lead on his whereabouts, but then.... well, it's best said here that a series of top-level cover-ups incur, and, as we know, it's not a happy ending for Moro. This is where the movie takes off. Members of the gang are asked to pay off favors to shady government officials and this street gang from Rome becomes implicated in massive government intrigue and some of the biggest domestic terror incidents (the deadly Bologna train station bombing) of post-war Italy. They splinter into warring factions and there's more death on the cobbled streets of Rome.

Rome is a spectacular backdrop for any movie. But it always seems a bit contrived, a scrubbed-up version of a city with dark secrets. This is the first movie I can recall in which the raw, pulpy side of Rome is portrayed. Imagine Goodfellas cast on the set of Roman Holiday. There are drive-by (on motorycle, of course) shootings just off via de Coronari, stabbings at the Spanish Steps and Santa Maria a Trastevere, assasinations on the dunes of (what appears to be) Fregene and steamy bordello scenes in Monte Verde Vecchio.

Thursday, October 20, 2005


News flash! Italian men are lazy and irresponsible, says a new study funded no doubt by Italian women.

The proof? Apparently, Italy has the world's oldest first-time fathers. According to the report, Italian men have their first child at 33, roughly two years later than men in France, Spain and Finland. And, to boot, they're no good around the house.

But, as any Italian man would tell you, it's not entirely his fault. It's mamma. Why start your own family when mamma cooks, cleans and irons so well? Need further proof:

Part of the problem was that many Italian men lived with their parents for longer than elsewhere in the world, with 40 percent of 30-34 year-old Italian males still staying at home,
said Reuters citing figures from the report.

I can't wait to mention this one at the next dinner party. Cue sinister laugh.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Who killed God's Banker?

Did Roberto Calvi, aka "God's banker", make a last-minute plea to Pope John Paul II to save him from financial ruin shortly before his death in 1982? Does the church know something about his mysterious murder in which his corpse was found hanging from underneath the Blackfriars Bridge in London, bricks stuffed into his pocket? Was Calvi executed by disgruntled shareholders for running the former Banco Ambrosiano into the ground? Or, was it Communist mobsters?

The Calvi case will go to trial next month, and hopefully we will get some clarification on one of the biggest murder mysteries of the past Century. Accused in his death are his former girlfriend, two shady businessmen and a Sicilian mobster known as "The Cashier". Church officials of course have not been asked to testify.

In a new book, one of Calvi's final statements was recently revealed. Two weeks before his death, Calvi wrote JP2, saying: “I have thought a lot, Holiness, and have concluded that you are my last hope.”

According to the Times, Calvi is said to have given warning to the pontiff that the collapse of the Banco Ambrosiano would “provoke a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions in which the Church will suffer the gravest damage”. He reminded the Pope that he had helped to fund many political and religious associations in both East and West that the Vatican supported, and had created banks in South America to fund the effort to halt the expansion of Marxist ideologies.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

How many Romans does it take to change a lightbulb?

Actually, that's the wrong question. What will thieving Roman electricians charge in installing a new light fixture? The answer: 168 euros. It adds up this way: 40 euros for the phone call, 40 euros an hour for labor (in this case 2 hours, if you count the two espresso breaks and 45 mins driving around looking for a parking spot before double-parking out front), 20 euros for materials (electrical tape and wire), and the topper of course -- the customary 20 percent VAT, an EU-imposed sales tax in case you've yet to be fleeced by this acronym. Capite?

I am grateful for the light. I couldn't have managed it myself, mainly because it required installing a new wall-mount switch. And, I am generally clueless about do-it-yourself electrical work. But 168 euros!?! I've been muttering the sum all morning. At the news stand, at the barber shop, in my office (as I stare up at a ceiling fan that is now more expensive than a new air conditioner).

Of course, I must put this into perspective. Thieving electricians are a universal scourge. In London, if an electrican charged me the equivalent of 168 euros for anything, I would annoint him a saint and hand out his business card all over town. In New York, I'm sure I could haggle down to 100, but the obligatory all-inclusive tip/bribe/anti-voodoo spell would run me at least another 68 clams. What would it cost me in say Lima, or Bangalore or Freetown? (I bet Freetown is a haven for reasonably priced electricians) .

This is a worthy of an economic study, methinks. Now, that I have proper lighting I may start it myself. How much does an electrician charge in your town?

And the world's best ice cream is....

Autumn e' arrivato a Roma, which means I am long overdue in announcing a winner for the world's greatest gelato contest. Seeing as Italy has the best ice cream on the planet I set myself the task this summer of sampling as many cones of pistacchio/caffe as I could and crowning a victor. And, the winner is ..... drum roll, drum roll ...

First, I should explain something. I didn't travel nearly as much as I thought I would this summer. You know, the price of benzina, traffic, etc. Turns out I only ventured south of Rome once and that was because my BA flight was re-routed to Naples, a gelato-free detour.

I have sampled the goods in the following regions though: Le Marche, Lazio, Umbria, Abruzzo and the Veneto. This gives me a strong representative sample of the ice creams of the northern top of Italy. (No doubt, the Piemontese, Lombardie and Liguriani will quibble with their exclusion). So, I've changed the rules. This year, we will have a Northern winner; next year a Southern winner and in two years' time an all-Italy, and thus all-world winner.

Ok, ok. The top gelato of 2005 honor goes to Venezia!...There's a little no-name ice cream stand on the Lido (a few paces from the vaporetto stop). 1.50 euros buys you an ample cone of creamy goodness. Not too sweet. Smooth and rich. And when it's 1,000 degrees and 100 percent humidity as that town is wont to be in August, it really hit the spot. It's well worth the trip to the posh isle. Tony's from nearby Monte Verde is a close second, but who wants second-best? Actually, I wouldn't mind a cone of second-best right now.

I would like to thank all the people who made this worthwhile giro di gelato '05 a success. You know who you are.