Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Tron meets Dante

That was my little metaphor for Perugia's Mini Metro project, which I wrote about for The Guardian this week. The Perugini don't understand the reference. That's Ok. They're not thrilled with the Mini Metro either. I was mightily impressed with the futuristic project. If you are going to be in the city this summer, get on and give it a ride.

And certainly not to be missed is a fantastic exhibition of new work by the English painter Michael Eldridge; a truly exceptional body of work by this innovative master. At the ex-Chiesa di Santa Maria della Misericordia. A whamma! From June 15 through 30th.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

This post sponsored by the letters k,w & y

Who knew three simple letters could kick up such a fuss?

The Portuguese government on Friday voted to add 3 new letters to the alphabet -- k,w and y. The measure will also phase out hyphens, eliminate silent consonants and standardize the use of accents. Thus, from here on in, it's spelled "otimo" (and not "optimo") to say "great" in your next flirty chat session with a Portuguese beauty. Capite?

Why the sudden changes? Because the Portuguese language is under siege by globalization, Google searches and the ascendancy of its former colony, Brazil. Thus, the humble Portuguese decided last week to adopt Brazilian Portuguese as the official state language, to be phased in over the next six years. Defenders of the original Portuguese collected a rather underwhelming 33,000 signatures protesting the move.

Never mind that Brazilian Portuguese is spoken by at least 190 million of the world's 230 million Portuguese speakers. For linguists, this is an historic moment: one of the original Romance languages is ceding its position as an "official" language to its upstart former colony. Could other languages be next? British English maybe?

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Pizza bash fotos

I'm a bit late in getting these pix online. These are courtesy of Michael who is already disputing the results of the pizza festa. I hope to have more online shortly (from less disapproving participants). The top one is Michael's impressionist wonder. He called it "fantasia".Usually, manning the fires of the pizza oven is a man's job, but Giulia (above) and Eugenia (below) taught me a thing or two about handling the pizza pallet. Che brave!

Simone's piccantissima pizza. He finished in the bottom five, but I thought it was a fine effort.
Mangiamo! I don't recall whose pizza we're eating at this stage, but you can see, if you squint tight enough, what's on the judges' minds.

My sausage/raisin/pecorino romano trifecta. It was the last pizza of the day and came out only half-cooked. Next time.

Friday, May 09, 2008

In town and ready for a good time

For those of you following the story of the endangered bald ibises (I wrote about it a few weeks ago for The Guardian), I have some good news to report: Medea, the most wayward of the bunch, has finally been located. He's been ensnared and transported to the breeding area in Fragagna, Northern Italy by members of the Waldrapp research team. He had been unaccounted for since early April when he and his flying partner, Aurelia, separated on the northerly migration.

Now in Fragagna, Medea (pictured above; he's the one on the left) will clean himself up, don a fancy new robe, practice his best come-on lines and will find himself a nice female. I hope he finds a female soon. Evidently, when the male ibis is stimulated for breeding -- like NOW! -- hormones trigger a noticeable reddening of their neck and head, removing all mystery from the courtship.

Ladies, count yourself lucky!

For more on the Waldrapp team and the incredible work they are doing, check out their site here.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Exorcising pizza demons

For three years now, a dark cloud has hung over a certain pizza oven in Central Italy. On an otherwise pleasant May afternoon in 2005, a champion was crowned for her pizza prowess, claiming for the second straight year the crown of "Best Pizza, regione Marche, provincia di Ascoli Piceno, EU-approved, Il Sette Bello-sanctioned" at the annual (well, not including 2006 and 2007) pizza festa in Sant'Ippolito (pop. 12 max; 400-plus pecore). The problem was the winner was known to be intimate -- nods, winks, nudges -- with the organizer. Worse still, that organizer is a not-to-be-trusted straniero, an americano, me.

That year's winner was Xtina who whipped up an, objectively speaking, revelatory pizza: a pine nut/raisins/salt/olive oil with garnish of fennel number. She toppled a strong international field. (Details are here). But once the ballots results were in, charges of favoritism, nepotism, pizza-ism were sounded, reaching even the capital here in Rome. Italians who missed the 2005 pizza gara ganged up on the winner and poisoned her coronation. People even questioned whether pine nuts + fruit belong on pizza.
Would Xtina's good name ever be restored? Would the pine nut become the pineapple of pizza toppings? Would there ever be peace again in Sant'Ippolito?

Fast-forward to this weekend. A collection of promising rookies, vengeful veterans (and no, their pizza is not served cold), me and the reigning champ went at it in the hills of Sant'Ippolito in this the fourth crowning of best pizza. Three countries, five Ph.ds and nine pizza philosophies were represented. Regionally, we were a diverse group too. You had the liguri duo, Simone (pictured above) and Luca, who trash-talked the competition in an odd dialect throughout the afternoon and smuggled in their ingredients from former Genovese colonies. Then there was the charming romane, Giulia and Eugenia, who were whisking pizze in and out of the oven like the famous pizzaioli of l'obitorio. The most imposing force was the perugini 3: Xtina, younger sister Francesca and Fra's boyfriend Daniele. Rounding out the nine were the Peroni-swilling barbarians, me and Michael. Michael and I are the original pizzaioli of Sant'Ippolito, a community founded by wayward pilgrims in the dark, pre-pizza years of the Middle Ages. We'd like to think that in organising this annual pizza festa we are bringing a little more sunshine to this part of the world. That's what we tell ourselves anyhow.

With such a proud bunch, you might expect the recipes to come from wise aunts or grandmas. Not so. Only Luca and Simo stuck to regional fare of Liguria. Giulia and Eugenia snared ingredients from across the bel paese - speck and funky cheeses; Fra whipped up a pesto number, certainly not a Perugian speciality; Daniele went to the shores of Sardinia for a savory bottarga topping and Xtina headed north, almost to France, to source her topping. Me, I went local -- Mario's sausages. Michael went around and pilfered everybody's ingredients when they weren't looking.

And which pizza would emerge the victor from such a varied field? Which combo would be crowned pizza of the year, 2008?

It wasn't Xtina's asparagus/fontina valdoastana. What can I say. The people demanded change this year. Instead, it was a pizza rossa, the first time in four tourneys that the winner was "red" (politically, this is a rare bit of inspiring news for the Left.)

Here's the rundown in reverse order:
No. 9: Me. Yes, I came in last, falling from 2nd overall in 2005 to dead last. It was a sausage/pecorino romano/raisin trifecta. I firmly believe in this trinity, however. It will be back. Xtina gave me a 2.5 out of 10. grumble, grumble
No. 8: Francesca. Pesto/pomodorini/mozzarella di buffala/basilico. It was a sloppy entry into the oven, but was quite tasty once extricated. It's Italy. Looking good is as important as tasting good.
No. 7: Simone. pomodoro piccante/ salame piccante. I liked this one a lot. The rest of the field thought it was too piccante. Cowards.
No. 6: Xtina. Asparagus/fontina valdoastina. In another pizza bake-off, on neutral ground, this could have won it all. The asparagus, matched by the sharp cheese, was a real standout. But another year of Xtina's pizza rule appear to have sunk her chances from the beginning. Democracy speaks. Again.
No. 5: Michael. This pizza was a brand new category in the world of pizza. The name? Fantasia. (There'll be a Disney trademark dispute, no doubt). It had speck, asparagus, pomodorini and various cheeses arranged, Dada-esque, on his doughy canvas. It looked better than it tasted. But it's the kind of pizza you'd be proud to hang on your wall. Bravo, vicino.
No. 4: Giulia. Speck, provola fumicata. A nice combo, and just narrowly missed out in the top 3.

And the bronze medal goes to Luca. He created a pizzata, a type of double-decker pizza. The bottom layer is focaccia with stracchino. The thin top layer is pomodoro/mozzarella.

Silver goes to Eugenia with a radicchio/gorgonzola/mozzarella. Squisita!

And the winner?

Daniele. He blew away the field, outscoring everybody by 6 points with a bottarga/pomodorini/mozzarella masterpiece.

Tune in here to ISB. Later in the week I hope to have a short video up about the pizza festa.

Buon appetito!