Monday, December 19, 2005

Christmas in Italia

The Romans don't exactly do Christmas cheer. It's true the city is a bit more festive than normal, but uninspiringly so. Yeah, there are white lights streaming overhead on the main shopping drags, a glowing evergreen sits in Piazza Venezia (to me, there's nothing warm and festive about Piazza Venezia, but I appreciate the effort) and you'll see the odd shopwindow xmas tree display. Santa Claus (Babo Natale to bambini Italiani) is around town too. But he's not nearly as grand when you are reminded (more than once) that he is nothing more than a marketing icon invented by Coca-Cola in the 30s.

In contrast, the Londoners were stringing up lights on Regent and Oxford streets on the first of November. And, Paris was all asparkle and aglitter on my trip there a few weeks ago. Ditto, New York (where I will be later this week) will be decked out in holiday cheer. I understand it's more of a northern European/American tradition to lavish street corners with lights and fill the air with Xmas tunes, but it's not exactly an evil import. Ok, not entirely evil.

This was my state of mind last night when, in search of a little Xmas spirit, we went off to a Protestant carol service. When I heard Christmas carols I was sold. This is strange for me. I have a limited pain threshhold for Xmas carols. But you have to hear them at least once or twice in December. The Italians don't do Xmas carols either. Christmas is to be joyous, by Catholic decree, but song is not guaranteed. I didn't know this though. Had I known it, I wouldn't have found it surprising when Xtina pointed out to me that I was humming "Away in a manger" during the service.

You know this song?
, she asked accusingly.


You know Protestant songs?

I think they're traditional xmas songs,
I whispered back uncovincingly. Not necessarily Protestant songs.

Actually, I'm not sure of the origin. But I do know they weren't dreamed up by the Coca-Cola marketing department.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Now showing: German comedy

This weekend I caught a great film -- a German comedy, actually. Yes, the Germans are capable of comedy. What made this one all the more audacious was the subject matter: it's about a Jewish poolhall hustler and his Orthodox Jewish in-laws. To earn the mother's inheritance the two feuding brothers have to sit shiva for a week and reconcile. Zucker, the main character and poolhall hustler, concocts a series of gags to sneak out and get down to the pool hall. It's not quite Woody Allen, but it has some classicly funny scenes.

In Italian, the movie is called " Zucker!...Come diventare ebreo in 7 giorni" or "Zucker, how to become Jewish in 7 days". With a title like that, who wouldn't be intrigued? Director Dani Levi really has a set of palle to go with such a controversial title, I thought. And so I went poking around to see what's being said about the film. The answer: very little.

There's two reasons for the radio/Net silence. Firstly, the film came out in Germany in 2004. Secondly, only the Italians (as far as I can find) have given it this how-to title. In the U.S., it's called "Go for Zucker". And, in Germany "Alles Auf Zucker" ("Everything on Zucker" or some such).

What I can't understand is why the Italian distributors would make such a radical name change. On second thought, I like the Italian title. It's funny, bold, a bit controversial...just like the film. It's what immediately perked my interest. I dunno. Go for Zucker just doesn't quite do it.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Are you a "single"?

The next time I step outside, I will no doubt be struck by lightning for cracking on somebody else's polyglot skills. But I just can't resist pointing out this outfit from Piemonte, known as Italiafor2. (Thanks for the head's up, Jim).

It begins:

Are you a “single”? Do you want to “astonish” someone? Aren’t you a single but do you want to get in touch with someone or a group of friends in a “relaxed” and “charming” moment?

Perhaps the best meeting you can organise is an “Italian dinner” at your home!

If you answered an enthusiastic "si!" to any of these questions, then click Italiafor2

Friday, December 02, 2005

The "ask" of evil

I think it's time we considered abolishing the word "ask" from everyday usage. It's structurally unfair. The "sk" sound is just too difficult to pronounce for most people. (Thankfully, I've got it down. Start with an open "ah" then follow with a hissing "sssss", then tongue-on-roof-of-mouth-"kkkk"-kick.) See what I mean? This word is far too much work. In a language like English where we are constantly making accomodations for new words, why can't we find a simple substitute for this pesky word. Consider this: with just three letters we are asking the jaw, tongue and entire dental arcade to go through a rigorous gymnastic routine. Open mouth wide. "Ah". Thrust tongue forward. Hiss. "ssss". Now roll up tongue and click. "kkk". Exhausting.

If you invert the letters so that the "kkkk" precedes the "sss", you are cutting the number of movements in half. How many times have you heard somebody pronounce this little fellah as "axe"? They're not stupid. They're just conserving energy. They're onto the direct object in one fluid motion. True, "axing" somebody something leaves behind a gory image, but if we use a little less imagination we'll get through this.

Now, why am I bringing this up? Me, a traditionalist when it comes to the spoken word. I'm doing it for my Continental European friends. If you think those tongue movements are difficult for those of us reared on English and its Germanic cousins, it's an absolute axe slaying for those whose mother tongue is a Romance language. Italians, in particular, cannot pronounce either "ask" -- they give it an extra "uhhh" after the "kkk" -- or worse, the past tense, "asked."

I cringed when I read this recent mini profile from the New Yorker on Gianrico Carofiglio, an Italian anti-Mafia prosecutor and mystery writer. Here's Carofiglio on his early doubts about getting into crime novels from the New Yorker interview:

“If somebody asked”—Carofiglio pronounced the word with two syllables—“me some years ago what is my most absurd dream, I would have said presenting a book, my book, in translation, in New York City.”

Don't snicker, Yanks. "Asked", I would say, is not nearly as butchered as the word "gnocchi". There are only 10, maybe 12 Americans, (and even fewer Brits) who can properly pronounce this dish even though everybody loves it. The "gn" in Italian is pronounced "nnnn-yuh" like "yuck" with an an "n" in the front and no "ck" in the caboose. So, gnocchi would be "nnn-yuh-aw-key". Americans have destroyed all kinds of Italian words. You cannot tell me Schiavo is pronounced "Shy-voh". Nope, sorry. All credibility ends right there. If I was covering that story, that's the first question I'd....erm, raise.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Dating tips from the church

Here's an interesting dating tip for us Catholics: don't marry a Muslim. According to Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the president of the Italian Bishops Conference, the children of a mixed Catholic-Muslim marriage may grow up to shun Christianity.

In Ruini's words:

“In addition to the problems that any couple encounters when forming a family, Catholics and Muslims have to reckon with the difficulties that inevitably arise from deep cultural differences.”

Ruini went on to say that if you absolutely must marry Muslim then you should make arrangements to keep the family in Italy. With such an open-minded attitude towards multi-culturalism, why go anywhere else?

The Church's decree comes at a bit of an awkward time. Italy has poor relations with its growing Muslim population. And so, in a gesture of inclusiveness, the government this week has formed an Islamic body that will help Muslims integrate themselves better in Italian culture. Sounds as if this will be hands-off consultation in the strictest sense of the term.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Farewell, Economist?

There's a palpable sense of pre-Xmas anxiety on the streets of Rome this week. And it might have to do with The Economist. In this week's issue, the Economist published a bruising 18-page analysis of Italy entitled "Addio, Dolce Vita." (Farewell, Dolce Vita).

In it, the paper, a notoriously harsh critic of Berlusconi, sums up the country's myriad problems in numbers: zero growth + zero competition = little hope. There's nothing new in this assessment, but the analysis paints a sobering picture: Italy is a country operating under a 19th Century economic system of small, independent companies barely able to compete with cheap Chinese products and materials, and it is paralyzed by an unwillingness to privatize national assets, a move that has proven so successful in other EU dynamo countries like Spain and the former Baltic countries. On top of all this, politicians and govt ministers are obstructionist and protectionist. And, don't get me started on Bank of Italy governor Antonio Fazio, a man who's only redeeming quality amid his scandalous record of patronage and backhanders is that he goes to church every day. The Economist, if you're wondering, let the Catholic Church off the hook entirely in this article. Barely a mention, in fact.

Now, to the anxiety. Turns out the Economist this week is an awfully difficult mag to locate. (A general strike on Friday has fouled up the mail system; my copy finally came yesterday). Still, neither of the two nearby news stands near my apartment have it this week. And, my Italian teacher, also a harsh Berlusconi critic, says it took her a few days to find the magazine after she canvassed nearly the entire Prati neighborhood. She, for one, thinks something's amiss. Has Berlusconi bought up all the available copies and thrown them in the Tevere? Are their confiscated stacks at border stops and airports? E voi a Milano, Firenze, Genova, Venezia? C'e Economist?

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Bel sole

One good thing about an early season blizzard in Central Italy is that once the storm blows out the weather can be pretty nice, even warm. This photo is courtesy of my neighbor, Michael, a fine photographer. I'm not sure which day he snapped it. It may have been on Thanksgiving day when the snow let up for a few hours and the sun came streaming through. As for us, we headed to the coast on Saturday to visit the Capecci clan, makers of some of the finest Marchigiani wines I've ever tasted including my favorite white, the Pecorino. We got to stroll around the hills in little more than sweaters and t-shirts as a warm wind kicked off the nearby Adriatic. Afterwards, we went into the tiny community of San Savino for a fantastic Marchigiani meal that had even the Romans among us swooning. A good time was had by all... until, that is, later that night when we started playing cards.

Monday, November 28, 2005

The Thanksgiving that almost wasn't

The tricky part about celebrating Thanksgiving abroad is just how conspicuous you appear to the locals. In most countries, harvest celebrations are finished by the end of October. In Europe, I presume, such festas are off the calendar to give everybody the proper prelude to Xmas. (They've had electric snowflakes and blinking Santas on London's Oxford St for over a month now...the Brits really need more public holidays.) As for Thanksgiving in Italy, suspicions run particularly high whenever word spreads that American expats are mobilizing for some type of ritual feeding. And so, I couldn't help but feel at times a bit under the microscope this weekend in Amandola.

There were a few moments last Wednesay when I thought there wouldn't even be a Thanksgiving. My mischievous neighbor Michael was phoning me with panicky weather reports from the front. From the relative safety of Rome, the radio was crackling most of the morning with updates of snowfall in the Apennines, but nothing too alarming. Michael, true to form, added a little color (white) to the reports, likening our little hilltop to a scene out of the end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it flick "The Day After Tomorrow". Surely, the sybills were not pleased with the spectre of Yanks on a 4-day weekend in Le Marche, he seemed to infer. I thought I could hear him grinning on the other end, but I couldn't be sure. In the end, we did get about 10 inches of the white stuff, but thankfully the worst had come and gone by the time we set foot in the slushy town center Thursday morning to pick up the bird. Still, we had no idea what unpleasantness we were slowly driving into Wednesday night as we took the most circuitous route imagineable to avoid the mountain passes. The radio by 8 p.m. was filled with silly DJ chatter about this odd American pasttime called Thanksgiving. This was an informed forum. The talk show host threw out a statistic that 46 million turkeys would go to slaughter to feed the Americans, hoping such a sum would invite from callers moral outrage or worse, recipes. But no such luck. Like Michael, the callers wanted to talk about the November blizzard instead. The topic of American's conspicuous consumption habits would have to wait until the weather improved, perhaps next spring.

Thankfully, Mario, our village butcher, was all business Thanksgiving morning. We were his only turkey customer that day and so he tried one last time to sell us the biggest bird he had -- (20 kg/44 lbs now. What are they feeding the turkeys in this town?) -- but we wouldn't hear of it. We got one that weighed in, on the imperial scale, at about 15 pounds. I then went off to the bank to check on my solvency. Here too the topic of Thanksgiving was, on cue, circulating around the bank like a generous drumstick with plenty of takers. A roast turkey in November. On a Thursday no less. Pazzi Americani, everybody agreed. I was just relieved to see I was still in the black. The turkey chatter clucking around would continue long after I left, no doubt. We all had a lot to be thankful for.

Back home, Michael and Lili joined us, giving a third nationality (the Brits) representation at the table. In the end, the only person who wasn't impressed by Thanksgiving was our 83-year-old neighbor Fiore. I invited him over to join us. No, no, no, he insisted. He had plans. Plans?, I gasped, spying his Fiat Panda half buried in snow. Yep, cards. The fellas were coming over for a game of Tre Sette. If the weather cancelled their evening, then, he said, he would consider stopping over to say hello. He then shut the door to keep the heat inside.

Fiore missed out. The meal was the best Thanksgiving feast in memory, and not just because we could not source Brussel sprouts nor any of its Belgian cousins. The turkey was sumptuous. As was the homemade stuffing and roasted veg (thanks to culinary maestre, Helen and Kate). The wine was in abundant supply. The fireplace was crackling. Snowflakes streamed past the window. The conversation, always lively, zipped across the planet at times including these imponderable moments: Judy Garland and her legacy from the Wizard of Oz to the Stonewall riots (courtesy of Jim), a few NY restaurant tips the next time I am in town (Helen), do all Americans really celebrate Thanksgiving? (Cristina) Something about how the good weather leaves the region whenever I come to Amandola and thus, the farmers want to know, if I could strategically arrive next year 2 weeks before the harvest (Michael).

Next door, Fiore and his pals played cards well into the night. As I turned out the lights around midnight I could see they were still going at it. We were in a tryptophan-induced fog. Turkey, I muttered.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Autumn in Amandola

The mist, a classic feature of Central Italy in autumn, clings to the low-lying valleys behind my house. This weekend the forecast isn't nearly so idyllic. We're getting snow! Posted by Picasa

Thanksgiving in Italia

Ah, Thanksgiving, my favourite American holiday. I like it even more so these days because the Italians, the original feast day champs, are so flummoxed by the concept. Why, if this is the biggest feast of the American culinary year, do you insist on eating turkey, peasant food? Surely, a roast or cingiale would be more fitting for a super power, I can hear them thinking as I again get grilled on the significance of the tradition.

To my Italian amici, please note: Thanksgiving is a celebration of the earth's bountiful goodness, recognition for generous local hospitality (in other words, a feel-good myth that delicately skirts any mention of syphilis, the systematic slaughter of the indigenous population, nor the inevitable winter starvation that set in after the hangover wore off) and good laughs among friends.


This year, I am celebrating my first Thanksgiving in the land of gustazione. That would be Amandola, in the Marchigiani hills of Central Italy. Joining me and Xtina will be three Yanks (2 of which, Jim and Kate, hail from London) and a couple friend from Rome and their little boy, Davide. Yesterday, we started on the arrangments. Our local butcher extraordinaire, Mario, informs us he can source a nice bird. Very proudly, he announces he has a 16 kg (35 lb) turkey -- enough to feed the entire village. We pass. We're looking for something in the 4-5 kg range. Perfect, he says. He's got one that weighs in at 8 kg. Sold! We'll have turkey til Xmas, Xtina says wearily. The rest of the menu will be a snap, though I'm guessing cranberry sauce and sweet potatoes with marshmallows, a family tradition, won't get through Customs in time. There won't be any American football either, but I can live with that.

What we will have plenty of is snow. Winter has cruelly invaded these parts in the last few days. It went from the lows 20s (mid 70s F) a week ago to freezing in a span of 24 hrs. Now, the forecast in Amandola is for three days of coperto neve: an ambiguous term that means "covered snow", but more often than not resembles blizzard conditions. We have plenty of firewood. And we'll stack up on local wine, good food and music. And, I'm sure if there's any break in the weather, we'll do a gran giro around the countryside, a gaggle of Americans and indigenous peoples paying homage to the beauty of Central Italy.

We'll slaughter them on another day.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Mamma mia

The Italian mamma's boy is back in the headlines today. Socially, he is the scourge of Italy. Church and government officials blame him for the declining birth rate and the encroaching pension time bomb. Le donne blame him for stretching out relationships for 10 years or more without commiting. The media mock him as an anachronistic loser. Only mamma loves him.

According to pollsters at IStat, 40 percent of Italian men between the ages of 30 and 34 still live at home. (Perhaps this explains why on Friday night so many aging boys pull up to the bars and night clubs of Testaccio in grandma's Cinquecento). Forty percent is shockingly high. I could see 10-20 percent. But 40 %? These statistics scream that this is not so much a social problem as an economic problem.

The reality is there is a startling lack of decent-paying jobs for this generation. This observation, no doubt, will become a campaign issue in the coming months as Romano Prodi takes on Silvio Berlusconi in national elections next spring. Prodi has added to his platform the ambiguous, but promising, phrase of more opportunity for Italy's young. Berlusconi hasn't told us yet how he intends to address the problem. You can bet that the mamma's boy and mamma herself will be put on public trial here during the campaign season.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Why state-run healthcare sucks: Reason 989

A few years ago, I jammed my finger in a basketball game in the east end of London. Writhing in pain, I brought the L-shaped digit to a nearby NHS (National Health Service) hospital, where the Doogy Houser MD promptly broke it trying to jam it back into place. I have a deformed hook of a pinky now on my right hand, one of two cocktail party deformities I like to show off. As for free healthcare, I learned that night, you get what you pay for.

More recently, I come across this post from my pal Adam in London reaffirming the above paragraph. He has been living large in a private hospital room recovering from successful back surgery. He has a TV, mini-bar, wifi access and wine list. But the best feature: morphine PJs.

Gelato shocker! New top prize awarded in ice cream contest

Regular reader(s) of Il Sette Bello will no doubt recall a little competition I conducted this summer, a search for the best Italian gelato. I set an ambitious goal: to travel the length of the boot, sampling as many pistacchio/caffe cones and report a regional best, followed by the nation's best. Since the best ice cream on the planet comes from Italy, we could all safely call this year's winner the best ice cream on the planet. Does this ring a bell?

As you may recall, I crowned the best gelato of 2005 honors to Venezia. There's a tiny little gelato stand on the Lido that wowed me back in August. Well, I am here to tell you today that Venezia was stripped of the title last night. I was introduced to a new gelateria last night that was so spectacular that I am unapologetically changing the results. The new winner is -- a second drum roll, please -- Gelateria Alla Scala in the Roman neighborhood of Trastevere. The maestro, Cristian Carlostella, has concocted the richest ice cream flavors I've ever sampled. The cinnamon/pistacchio mix was a revelation, and the chocolate truffle was decadent. Bravo Maestro Cristian!

For those of you worried about the credibility of this contest -- in which I have changed the results well after the original deadline lapsed -- I have one important reminder: this is an Italian contest. Live with it.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

My midlife crisis will involve a Ferrari

Cars salesman and Italians in suits, ordinarily, are two species low on my credibility scale. I say ordinarily. This weekend Xtina and I traded in the ol' Fiat Lancia -- una macchina piccola that gets Zamboni-like car mileage -- for an economical, dependable, used, VW diesel. In ridding myself of the dreaded Lancia, I pray, I have forever severed all ties with the Agnelli automotive dynasty. We went to the Perugia dealership where wink, wink Xtina's family has some pull. For me, I still have to hang my head a bit low there for introducing the phrase "Fix it again, Tony" to this ancient hilltown community.

Today, with check in hand, all was forgiven. While papers were being shuffled and keys located, I peeked my head around the showroom floor. Maseratis, Ferraris, a vintage Vespa were all on display. I was, to the say least, a bit distracted when it was time to meet the capo of the dealership. "American? What are we buying today?" he inquired by way of introduction. "Ferrari? Maserati?"

Very coolly I told him prossima volta, io pense che, sara un Maserati. "Next time, I think, a Maserati". I was kidding, of course. I can't even afford the used VW Polo I drove out of the lot today. The capo, fancy suit and all, looked me up and down, and shook his head. No. Hai una faccia da Ferrari, he said with genuine sincerity. "You have a Ferrari face." Suddenly, I'm seeing Italian car dealers in a different light. Perhaps I had it all wrong. Perhaps Italian car dealerships are the final bastion for honesty, dignity and professionalism in Italy.

Moments later, I was looking back at my reflection in the driver's side window of a candy apple red Ferrari. Why hadn't I noticed it before? Una faccia da Ferrari. Of course! Sadly, when I look in the window of the VW, I see almost the exact same reflection.

Monday, November 07, 2005

The History Unwired -- creators and participants -- assemble for the big debut. Posted by Picasa

Touring Venice, multimedia style

A few weeks back I had the opportunity to meet some true Venetians -- a ska musician, a glass blower, a fisherman and art critic -- and write up the experience for Wired. The brilliant minds at MIT and the U. of Venice's Architecture School have conceived of a multi-media walking tour of the fascinating neighborhood of Castello, just beyond Piazza San Marco and the pigeon feeders. The story is here.

And, speaking of Venice, I am 3/4 way through "The City of Falling Angels" by John Berendt, author of "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil." If you are intrigued by the lagoon city, its gripping history and the wonderful characters that inhabit there today then I highly recommend picking up a copy.

If you are planning a trip to Venice in the coming weeks and months, look up the History Unwired gang. It's worth the trip!

Sunday, November 06, 2005

On the vino beat

Yesterday evening I attended SensofWine, a showcase of Italy's vinicultura held here in Rome. Wines from around the boot were opened for sampling and every major variety was represented. I registered at the desk as a journalist and went around the showrooms tasting, asking questions, scribbling a few words on the back of the program, informing everybody I was a journalist, scribbling some more, and tasting a bit more.

In a completely unscientific and unobjective move, I stuck with Central Italy: the wines spanning from Abruzzo to Tuscany. I am intrigued by the idea of the latest wines from Basilicata, but not when there are DOCG Tuscans downstairs. I had the rare opportunity to conduct a little taste test, pitting a Brunello di Montalcino (Tuscany's best red) against a Sagrantino di Montefalco (Umbria's best). My humble opinion? The Sagrantino. Further afield, I sampled an overpriced and uninspiring Syrah-Merlot mix, Ippolito from Vinci. (I bought a bottle of this wine for 20 euros a year ago around Xmas, and it was vinegar. Because I like the name, I thought I'd try it again. It was much better the second time around, but not worth 20 euros. Sorry, Leonardo.)

I then headed off for Le Marche to nose around. The Moncaro table was popular. They have a fabulous Rosso Conero Riserva. I had read recently that the Rosso Conero will be Le Marche's first DOCG red, maybe as soon as next year. When I asked the Moncaro rep, he just shrugged and waved his hands. "Non lo sappiamo", was all he could say. Guess not in '06. I then headed over, at the suggestion of one of the Marchigiani staffers, to AnticoTerrenOttavi, a vintner from San Severino Marche that I'd never heard of. They specialise in a grape called the Vernaccia Nera, which makes for a disinctly, deep, flavorful reds. I sampled the Pianetta di Cagnore. It was very good, and very different from any other wine from the region. In fact, it tasted a bit New World to me. But that's because the grape is bursting with flavor, not because the barrel was peppered with spices as they sometimes do in other hemispheres. This vintner also has a chilled vino dolce called Lisa di Cagnore. It was a bit too sweet and sassy (no doubt like her namesake) for my liking, but I could see it being popular with the ladies. The color is "cupreous pink", the brochure reads.

I ended my little giro dei vini with the odd little Marchigiani grape, il Pecorino. I met Simone Capecci, who runs Poderi Capecci, one of the vineyards that specializes in this fine white wine. He told me the the grape can be found in the valleys between the Adriatic and Ascoli Piceno and in sporadic zones south in Abruzzo. The origin of the grape, he says, is the hilltop village of Arquata del Tronto on the slopes of the Appennini. He tells me they have just begun exporting the pecorino to the United States, mainly the NYC area. He invited me to his vineyard in late November. I will have a full story then.

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.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Summer's over: back to U.S. bashing

It's official. Summer is definitely over in Europe. We know this because EU parliament is back in session and European lawmakers are going after their favorite target: the U.S. This time, U.S. winemakers. Without saying as much, the Europeans are building up to some kind of protectionist policy on the beloved winemaking industry as the market here dips into crisis.

Intense competition from Australia and South America, overproduction in Spain, France and Italy, and flat demand here, all mean there is a glut of cheap wine on the market, crippling the little vineyards. At the same time, the U.S. winemakers are seeking open access to the European market. What to do? Cue the McDonalds and Coca-Cola cliches (French Liberal Democrat Anne Laperuze testifies: "I don't want a McDonald's type Chardonnay.") and harken back to some common ancestral rite (in this case, the Romans taught us to cultivate wine) in explaining a rationale to limit U.S. imports.

All U.S.-bashing aside, there is one troubling element that came out of the testimony in Brussels this week. In Europe, doctoring the production of wine is verboten. But diluting wine with water or doctoring it with smoked wood chips (apparently, the perfect companion to BBQ potato chips) are practices carried out regularly by American winemakers. I don't know how common a practice this is, but I always wonder what those little specks are floating on the top of say, a, California Zinfandel. It's unlikely the Europeans will succeed in changing American winemaking practice. But they have succeeded in scoring major label changes (at least on imports into Europe). No longer will Americans be allowed to freely use names like Riesling, Champagne and Chianti.

I can't decide if this is an improvement for the average wine consumer, but I like the idea of more honesty in labeling. Maybe in the next parliamentary session, the Europeans will take on Budweiser and its "King of Beers" slogan. I can just see a Belgian lawmaker saying "We Belgians have been making beer for 1,000 years. Budweiser is no beer."

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Wine shopping

When I'm in Umbria, there's a no-frills co-operative wine press in a little town called Marsciano (near Montefalco) that sells Orvieto, Grechetto (two fine whites) and Sagrantino, a red wine that has fast become a favorite up and down the boot. I like this place because I can usually get a case of wine for well under 30 euros. Apparently, when Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich is in Umbria he shops for Orvieto too, (the hilltop city, not the bottle) or some other equivalent vast tract of Umbrian countryside. A 13 billion dollar fortune can go a long way in Umbria.

This is the difference between me and a Russian oligarch. If invited for dinner, I will bring a nice bottle of wine, compliment the chef, maybe crack a joke. Whereas, a party involving a Russian oligarch will likely mean he jets you out to his sprawling villa in Central Italy, showgirls in tow, to watch his football club Chelsea on a jumbo-tron widescreen TV sipping the inaugural batch of vino Abramovitch. Oligarchs have all the fun.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Our man in New Orleans

Andy Sullivan, Reuters' rockingest reporter, is in New Orleans on Katrina duty. His brilliant blog captures the tragic and sublime.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Ah, the beautiful game

Everybody likes the underdog-conquers-all sports story. The 2004 Red Sox finally beating the Yanks. The 1980 "Miracle on Ice" U.S. ice hockey team victory over the Soviets. The Puerto Rico basketball squad that smoked the U.S. in the 2004 summer Olympics by 19. We all want to see the David slay the Goliath, restoring our faith that on any given day we too have a chance to accomplish the unthinkable.

In Italy, this season's David would be Ascoli Calcio 1898 S.p.A. Ascoli is short for Ascoli Piceno, which happens to be the provincial capital for Amandola. In other words, this is my local team. This is the sixth pro soccer season for me in Europe and I finally have a home squad to support. Woohoo! Ascoli was promoted to Serie A, the big leagues, just a few weeks before this season started in dramatic, only-in-Italy fashion. Despite finishing sixth in Serie B, they entered a playoff in June to claim one of three spots to move up to the big time, Serie A football, erm, calcio. Ascoli played poorly and was eliminated immediately from the playoff.

But then the magistrates stepped in.

Torino, the club that one the playoff, was forced to stay in Serie B because they are teetering on bankruptcy. Insolvency also stung Perugia and two other clubs that finished ahead of Ascoli, putting Ascoli in the unlikely position of getting a promotion for finishing sixth. It all came down to Genoa. The Serie B outright victor, Genoa, was denied promotion on account of a botched match-fixing scheme. Police made a dramatic bust, stopping a tinted limo of Genoa club execs from making a dubious money exchange just before a match against Venice. The punishment: Genoa was demoted to Serie C.

Now that you know the back story, how couldn't you cheer on the boys from Ascoli?

So far, they've allowed just one goal in two games, good for two draws (or 2 points for those scoring at home). They did manage one of those draws against the mighty AC Milan, Silvio Berlusconi's well-financed squad. Next up is league powerhouse Juventus. Gulp. Is there a magistrate in the crowd?

Thursday, September 15, 2005

More sexy: French or Italian?

I got into a little trouble recently suggesting that the French are more sexy than the Italians. Actually, that's not so controversial. There are many Italian men who would back up that statement. What really got me into hot water was when I said French food is more sexy than Italian. I believe it came out like this over a meal in the Loir Valley last month.

Me: "Wow this is good," devouring a piece of duck confit.
Still me (after lots of mmmm mmmm noises): "You know, French food is sinfully good."
Xtina: "Pfffff"
Me, after sipping a fine Bordeaux: "Don't get me wrong. I love Italian food. But it's different. Italian food is prepared with amore. French food, S-E-X. And when the sex is this good..."
Xtina: "BEAR-NARD!"

I was not stating a preference, just making an observation. Rich sauces and gravies, butter-not-oil, medieval ways to torture ducks and then spread it on toast: this is what French cuisine is all about. If French food were a celebrity, it would have to be a beautiful French starlet, either Emmanuelle Beart or Paris Hilton. You know: decadent, possibly heart-stopping, all about beauty and presentation.

Italian cooking, in contrast, is a simple concept: it's all about the meat, the fish, the vegetables. No need to smother it with sauce. Keep all the pieces separated: no need to throw everything on one plate at the same time. No need for fancy names and gilded menus. Imagine a young Sophia Loren. In other words, a classic beauty.

This was my poorly articulated theory at the time. But recently, Luca, a Ligurian who makes a fantastic spaghetti vongole, explained to me that my hypothesis lacks insight. You see, he told me, the French use food as part of the seduction. For the French, the dinner table is the first stage of foreplay. For the Italians, the sex-food continuum runs in reverse. After sex, you eat, he said with a wink.

Which may explain why Italians eat so late.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The virtues of state-run industry

A few Saturdays ago Xtina and I boarded a 9:15 a.m. Alitalia flight from Rome to Stockholm, with a connection in Amsterdam. The two hour leg to Amsterdam gave us a solid 2 hours to catch my Stockholm connection. Piece of cake. Una passagiata. Right? Wrong.

Alitalia, the world's worst airline, loaded our plane with too many bags, oversold the flight and, in an aviation first, let everybody board the plane to claim the too-few seats. People stood in the aisles baffled that they had assigned multiple 13F's and 12A's. To diffuse this Fellini moment, the crew decided to march everybody off the plane and back to the gate. There, they scribbled a number on the back of our ticket stub and let everybody reboard again, somehow losing enough people along the way (probably at the espresso bar) for us all to have a seat. Our Alitalia flight left Rome airspace just as my Amsterdam flight took off for Stockholm. The *penalty for this blunder was a night in Amsterdam on the good people of Alitalia. Since the massively indebted Alitalia's biggest shareholder is the Italian government, I couldn't help but grin thinking that Italian taxpayers paid for my hotel room. Oh, what's this? Champagne in the mini bar?

( * similar airline screw-ups in the States gave me an opportunity to spend the night in such gems as Cleveland, Houston and Pittsburgh.)

I was excited to tour Amsterdam again. Xtina had never been. We met with a friend Lucas and his lovely wife and adorable kids. A few beers later, we parted, and X and I toured the town, of course stopping off in the red light district to see the hand-on-mouth naughtier side of town. What a let-down! Well, I shouldn't utter it in that way. But as far as titillation goes, the Protestant, state-regulated Dutch model of prostitution just doesn't compare to what you see on the streets or beaches of Catholic Italy. Not far from the Vatican, is a major thoroughfare, the Via Salaria (The Old Salt road, actually), that heads towards the Adriatic Coast. For a stretch, the Salaria looks a bit like Route 3 in New Jersey. There are non-descript office buildings, car dealerships, RAI's radio and Sky News' TV hqs. Oh, and the street is lined with young hookers. All day, every day. It's a tragic sight. These girls are all teenagers from Eastern Europe -- illegals, and quite likely, smuggled slaves. The Italians never seem to comment, or even question, the sheer volume of Czech cheeks or Latvian legs or Bulgarian b... (you get the idea) that grace both sides of the road. A journalist friend explained the Italian law on prostitution is ambiguous enough that hookers (or unofficially, le putane) can practice their trade with impunity. It's the pimps that are illegal. But they are there too. And so, the world's oldest profession thrives in Rome, not far from Benedetto's window.

There you have it...another insight into the Eternal City that the guide books censor out. Oh, and another tip: don't ever fly Alitalia.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Katrina and the waves

Invariably, my Roman friends pepper me with "how" questions. How can the United States...? Or, how could George Bush think that...? These questions typically involve the same central quandaries: did the Bush Administration have any idea what is was doing in waging war in Iraq? Do Americans give a damn about the environment? Why is it that the richest nation on earth has so many impoverished citizens (37 million) and citizens without health care coverage (45 million)?

For Europeans, the last question sums up the least defensible aspect of the American way of life. Europeans don't necessarily see universal health care so much as an obligation to provide a safety net for society's most sickly and vulnerable, but rather it is seen as a wise investment. It makes good economic, social, political and practical sense to invest in the health and vitality of your country. Plus, it's just a decent thing to do -- to look after your neighbor in a time of need. There is no so-called "European way of life", but if there was the central idea would be: everybody contribute to a state that looks out for everybody. Sounds kinda nice, particularly as we see images of some of the poorest Americans dying on the streets of New Orleans because of neglect from an inept and uncaring government.

Typically, I deflect questions about my country with a groan, an offer of more wine, or, if I am really desperate, I bring up the latest Bank of Italy scandal. But last night the questions were coming at me too fast and furiously. I was inundated with questions about New Orleans. Practical questions.

Why can't the United States evacuate all those poor people? It's New Orleans, not Bangladesh.


We grew up believing the United States could conquer all. We saw movies where you defeat space aliens, where poor, hard-working men and women become huge successes. But now we see on TV so many Americans neglected and left to die. How can this be?

This last question goes well beyond New Orleans. The wonder is what if a Katrina-like disaster hit Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta or New York? Who would make it out alive? Looked at with this sense of bafflement it begins to explain (but cannot possibly forgive) the frustration and rage of the snipers and looters. Peering through this lens, systematic neglect -- a neglect that has its roots in the essential concept of the American way of life where your obligation of care is limited to your family, but not your neighbor -- is as indefensible as firing a gun at a rescue helicopter. Curiously, the italiani never asked me last night why a person would fire a gun at a belated helping hand extended from the government. Now, I wonder why do you think that is?

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Falco! Falco!  Posted by Picasa

Best of Euro pop music: Vol. II

Some of you have questioned my logic in formulating a list of top Continental European pop songs of all time. One anonymous poster wondered how I could possibly choose Macarana over Las Ketchup's cleverly named hit "The Ketchup Song"? (Another local communist friend wanted to know how I could exclude Manu Chao. My answer: does he represent France, Spain or North Africa?) Another wanted to know where is Austria's favorite son Falco, the genius behind "Rock me Amadeus"? And then there's the Sweden problem. A few of you wanted to know how I could choose something, anything, by ABBA over say Europe or The Hives. This is no contest. The Hives and Europe combined will never out-sell even Roxette, let alone ABBA.

Still, all these points merit consideration. Firstly, I must say I have been deficient. Falco should have been in the first installment, if only because of the classic Simpsons' episode in which they turn the Planet of the Apes into "legitimate thee-ate-er", set to the music of "Rock me Amadeus". Get your paws off me, you dirty ape... Doctor Zaius! Doctor Zaius!

And, I missed out on Bjork's contributions. And who could forget "Barbie Girl" by Denmark's Aqua?

So, I am adding three more to the list. But first, a reminder. The only qualification: these songs are chosen because they have staying power, meaning we are just as likely to hear them on the radio 10 years from now as we were 10 years ago.

Country: Iceland -- Song: Human Behavior -- Artist: Bjork (post-Sugarcubes) -- '93
Country: Denmark -- Song: Barbie Girl -- Artist: Aqua -- '97
Country: Austria -- Song: Rock Me Amadeus -- Artist: Falco -- '86
Already spinning:
Country: Germany -- Song: "99 Luftballoons" -- Artist: Nena -- 1984
Country: Norway -- Song: "Take on Me" -- Artist: A-ha -- 1985
Country: Italy -- Song: *"Gloria" -- Artist: Umberto Tozzi -- 1983
Country: Sweden -- Song: "Dancing Queen" -- Artists: Abba -- 1975
Country: Spain -- Song: "Macarena" -- Artist: Los del Rio -- 1993
Country: France -- Song: **"She" -- Artist: Charles Aznavour -- 1974

* redone in English by Laura Branigan with new lyrics
** while numerous French acts (Air, St. Germain, Noir Desir) of recent years deserve mention, only Chuck gave us a No. 1 hit in 1974.

Please help me find a better French single! And what about Portugal?

Friday, August 26, 2005

Bonnes Vacances, French style

Finally, I've posted photos from our tour of Northern France. The food, weather and hospitality were all incredible. I wish I could say the same for the Peugot rental car, which incredibly has a plastic chasis that we nearly left on some side street in Douarnenez one morning.

In ten days, we covered Normandy and Brittany in the north and then hooked due east for the Loire Valley before ending north of Paris. In case you're interested, we started in Calais (ferry landing) before heading to Dieppe in Normandy. From there, we visited Rouen (where the English cooked Joan of Arc) and surrounding countryside. Then on to Caen (home of the D-Day Museum), the beaches of Normandy and Le Mont-St-Michel. We stayed the next few days in the incredibly romantic fortified sea town of St. Malo where we visited Cancale (home of fantastic oysters) and Dinan. Then off to the magical red granite coast of Brittany and on to Aber Wrac'h, a fjord town that seemed more Nordic to us. Then south to Douarnenez and Pointe du Raz before further south still to Quimper and Concarneau. Finally, we swung east to Loire country to stay at Claude's.

The gigantic cathedral at Chartres Posted by Picasa

"Brought to you by the French Chamber of Commerce" Posted by Picasa

what does the bottom of a well look like? Looking up the shaft towards daylight Posted by Picasa

Claude's place in Ponce Posted by Picasa

more Loire Posted by Picasa

Loire Valley: chateau country Posted by Picasa

more of Brittany's red granite coast Posted by Picasa

the incredible Brittany coastline (Ploumanach) Posted by Picasa

Thursday, August 25, 2005

low tide as seen from the top of Le Mont-St-Michel Posted by Picasa

Le Mont-St-Michel; the abbey fortress at sea Posted by Picasa

Pointe du Ruaz: literally, the end of France Posted by Picasa

Crazy tides of Brittany -- again Cancale Posted by Picasa

Cancale: oyster country! Posted by Picasa