Friday, March 31, 2006

...a bit further upriver

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The mighty Tevere was once an unruly torrent that for centuries made life in Roma a malarial death trap. Long ago, Garibaldi, the great unifier tamed the river and life in the metroplis thrived. Today, there's a bike path that runs alongside this wet beast. Word of caution: do not take the path on the first nice day of the year. Mountain snow melt turns the river into a muddy mess, silting up the bike paths with a tire-popping substance. Garibaldi never finished the job! Posted by Picasa

On assignment (with hard hat)

Am back from a quick trip up north to Emilia Romagna, best known for fantastic cuisine, all the town's peoples cycling to the store/work/church, the capital city of Bologna, etc. etc. What did I do while there? Made a daytrip to a distillation plant, of course. I paid a visit to Faenza and the distillery of Caviro, a company famous for turning wine-in-a-box into Italy's top-selling brand. I was there to report another story entirely though. In creepy fashion, I cannot say for whom or what just yet as it won't be out for another few weeks. But I leave you with this photo to guess. I'll give you a hint: that's not a mountain of earth you're looking at.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Berlusconi: Turns out Communists don't eat babies...

...they boil them!

The election season has not been kind to Il Cavalieri. Pres. Silvio Berlusconi in the past two weeks has gone from losing the pre-election polls to losing his mind. Evoking the ghosts of Mao in attacking his opponents on the left is one of the more lucid election trail stump speeches he's made.

There's an explanation behind the madness of King Silvio. Big business is desserting him. Film directors are lampooning him. The U.S. State Department -- once a cozy ally of Berlusconi -- warned last week the bel paese is just not safe under his watch. And there's talk of even the ultra-nationalist Northern League cutting ties with him.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Slow Food and the secret to country cuisine

I try not to utter religious metaphors when eating fabulous Italian cuisine. It's not polite to speak with food in your mouth. And, to reference the Lord mid-mastication, well, that's just doubly wrong. But this past Saturday night I was commiting all kinds of sins, breaking all kinds of rules as I savoured my linguine con coniglio and praising my new bible, the Slow Food's restaurant guide "Osterie d'Italia 2006".

Dining out in Rome is fine. But it's not until you get out into the countryside where the cooks dote on you, and the portions are suitably substantial (in case you have to work the land the next morning), that you begin to appreciate proper Italian cuisine. It's country food or cibo dei contadini, as the locals call it. It's usually a fraction of the price of your Roman fare and the helpings are gut-busting. It's usually high on value, but not always on taste. But, there are a few trattorie that tick both boxes. And when you find them, the meal can be nothing short of a religious experience. But these special roadside shrines to degustazione are difficult to find. Hence, the need for the squat red guide book. How difficult are these restaurants to locate senza the guide? I have now discovered over a dozen fabulous restaurants scattered throughout the hilltowns around Amandola that have changed my opinion entirely of the local cuisine. And all thanks to this guide book. In fact, without this book I would have no idea these villages even existed.

So, hats off to The Slow Food people. They have been doing this for years, scouring Italia for little establishments that meet their criteria for specially prepared dishes, cheeses, olive oil, breads and wines. The emphasis is on local ingredients and local recipes and local libations. For example, your waiter will tell you not only which town the wine is from but whether the vineyard is set on a hill that faces southeast and thus you get a mental image of a sangiovese grape soaking up the sun, sugars dancing, alcohol content bubbling higher.

This weekend Xtina and I found another gem in the tiny town of Ortezzano, an obscure hilltown in the Val d' Aso, halfway between the sea and Comunanza. Ortezzano has two restaurants currently in the guide and a third that received special mention in another guide. Making this all the more improbable is the fact that this town seems to have a population of only out-of-towners coming to sample the incredible dishes prepared by these genius chefs. It's not for the faint of heart, however. The walk to the restaurant -- this time of year, anyhow -- is an eery affair: the streets are desolate, filled only with your doubts that there is any commerce conducted in this backwater whatsoever. But then you turn a corner and there's a glowing light and some fabulous smells and you begin to consider the presence of the divine in this world.

What did we have?
A starter of linguine con coniglio or...linguine with rabbit in a hearty meat stock replete with Ascoli olives and pomodori. For the piatto secondo, it was grilled lamb on the bone cooked over a wood fire. Dessert was a chocolate tort with braised bananas that must have been smuggled out of a Parisien bistro. The wine was a local Rosso Piceno, from the can't-miss cantina Cocci Grifoni.

Stay tuned for the next adventure in dining.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Cha-ching out your dead

Two funeral homes in the southern Italian city of Bari have been busted for bribing nurses at one of the city morgues to speed the fresh stiffs to their place of business. According to ANSA, the parlours paid 100-200 euros per body. But wait, there's more...

Apparently, this is an old scam in Italy. In the Tuscan city of Arezzo, undertakers would pay anywhere from 50 to 200 euros for a dead body. Why the price discrepancy? Everyone knows the market price for a dead Tuscan is among the lowest in Italy.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Is your name Colombo?

Then can we have a swab of ear wax? Turns out scientists need a piece of DNA from the present-day ancestors of Cristopher Columbus in order to determine his true origins. Does he hail from Genoa? Could he be Portugeuse? Basque? Scientists are already busy at work trying to confirm whether it his bones that rest in a 500-year-old grave in Seville, Spain. But the big mystery is his home town. So far, 16 Colombos from Italy have come forward, in the name of science.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

When outlaws go legit

Once considered a demon technology, P2P has gone legit with some surprising boosters and practioners. For more, check out this piece by yours truly in today's Guardian.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The solution to poverty? Make more money, silly

We are just over a month away before Election Day here in Italia. If you happen to visit Rome, Florence or Milan between now and 9 April, you will be greeted immediately by enormous billboard posters featuring a smiling, plastic figurine-like character with the word "Forza" (strength) underneath. Staring across the square is the word "Serieta" (seriousness), characterising the challenger, a jowly-looking character whose nickname is Mortadella (the famous luncheon meat). It's Silvio Berlusconi versus Romano Prodi. Strength v. Seriousness.

Berlusconi, a media mogul, is the richest man in Italy. Through his ownership of the Mediaset TV channels and now oversight of the state-run RAI, his access to the tube is unprecedented for the leader of a modern day democracy. We're not quite talking all-Saddam-all-the-time Iraq of, say, the late 90s, but let's just say il capo Berlusconi can get 30 minutes or an hour of uninterrupted stump speech air time with little fuss. And when he's on the hometurf channels, prepare to be charmed. The picture of Italy evoked is one of mama's cooking and G8 influence.

Trailing in the polls, Berlusconi has been on TV almost non-stop the past few weeks, talking about, well, himself. It's a brilliant strategy. The Italian economy is stagnant, social services are feeling the pinch, and under Berlusconi there seems to be no real assurances for making Italy competitive again. But Berlusconi is tanned. He wears crisp suits. His teeth are pearly white. He is entertaining. And, while the country is sinking fast, Berlusconi's personal fortunes seem to be doing just fine, thank you very much. On the left-leaning channels such as RAI 3, the debate is fierce about national debt, rising production costs, a lack of jobs for the young and rising gas prices that put the puny salary growth into sharp perspective.

Back on a Berlusconi-friendly channel, viewers heard a different message last night. When asked how a worker earning 1500 euros per month could eke out an existence, the country's richest man said: It's simple. Just make more money. Like me.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Springtime: careful where you step

Ah, primavera! Nothing says new life and romance quite like toads and their annual slithery ritual of hopping to the local pond for rospo amore. According to Progetto Rospi (pics/info not necessarily suitable for workplace viewing), some 7,900 toads didn't make it to the mating grounds last year. The culprit? Italian drivers. But the good people at Progetto Rospi (aka Toads Project) are restoring nature to its original order -- by organising toad lifts and constructing a Froggy Acquaduct mainly in the North of Italy -- to ensure these amphibians gets across the road safely.

Frogger fans, click here.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Ladies and gentlemen, your graduate

My 5-week wine course is finito. At the end of class, I received a certificate (for perfect attendance, I think) emblazoned with the name GamberoRosso and an invitation to move up to the next level -- a 12-weeker at 600 euros. They obviously see potential. But I think my dream of becoming a sommelier ends right here with my certificate and my list of the best Italian wines for under a 20. I'd like to go back for an evening in October dedicated to Alto Adige wines. But on second thought, I'd prefer to just return to the region itself and pop into random cantine, Sideways-style. Who's with me?

Ok, what did we cover this week? Sparkling wines and vino dolce -- the drinks you have just before and just after the meal. Btw, drinking dessert wines on an empty stomach is not as bad as you might think. Until you get up from your chair, that is.

On to our final list... Don't be sad. I have a whole list of wine recommendaions from the teacher which I am determined to try. I will report back. Promise.

First, a word on these four wines. They were all exceptional. In previous weeks there was one or two that I didn't care much for. Not this week. If you spot them, particularly the Passito, on a menu one night, do yourself a favor and spring for it. You can toast me in absentia.

1) Prosecco di Valdobiadene from the Tanore vineyard in the Veneto region. Prosecco is the classic Italian aperativo. But in the bubbly category, it is leagues behind its French cousin, champagne. This one could change your mind if you think all Proseccos are the poor man's bubbly.

2) Franciacorta Brut from Ferghettina, a cantina half way between Milan and Brescia. This was a bit more flavorful than the Prosecco, and will run you probably twice as much: 12-15 euros per bottle probably. But then all wines with DOCG grade (the top in its class) will set you back a bit more. This one is a young sparkler that actually ferments in the bottle. We tasted a 2005. Che magnifico! More export details here.

3) Le Sponde, Recioto di Soave -- the first of two sweet wines, or vino dolce. This wine comes from the Coffele vineyard outside Verona. It's made from a perculier grape called the garganega. It's what they call a "creeper" because the vines like to stretch out their arms. In this area, the vintners tend to situate them on pergolas to get the most sun exposure. We tried a 2003. It was incredibly smooth with a powerfully fruity taste. According to the vintner, it's best with dry cakes and biscotti, but also with cheeses like Gorgonzola.

4) A Passito di Pantelleria Ben Rye from the Sicilian wizards at Donnafugata near Trapani. Check out all the awards this baby has won in the past few years. If your travels take you down to Trapani, they do tours and tastings. Or, if you're in Edison, NJ, check out their lone US distributor. (And then drive to the multiplex on the New Brunswick border and have yourself a nice picnic aside Route 1.)...This is a really fine dessert wine. It has a brandy-amber hue and an intense aroma and equally intense taste. It lingers long on the palate. You'll be yodeling zibibbo (the name of the grape) before the night is through. That's zee-BEE-boh!

Again, imbibe with care.

For my previous wine class posts check out:

Week 4
Week 3
Weeks 1&2