Monday, December 24, 2007

Natale a Roma

Some more images of Xmas in Rome for those curious about how the holiday is celebrated here.

Above is the city's version of the Rockefeller Center Xmas tree, with a different backdrop, Il Colosseo.

As decreed in the Italian bible (page 45, I believe), it is tradition on the 24th of December to serve fish. The queues at the fish market were longer than usual this morning, but everybody was in a civil mood. No well-aimed elbows or sneers from the little old ladies. We're preparing a zuppa di pesce for this evening (details in the post below).

For the zuppa, you need proper tomatoes. And so it's on to the tomato stand where they sell the most expensive tomatoes in the EU - 6 euros/kg. But they're so damn tasty, you always go back for your weekly fix. This morning was no exception. (This photo taken 2 months ago)

Buon Natale, tutti. Merry Christmas, everybody.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Serpente and the Italian guide to Christmas gluttony

What do Italians eat for Xmas?


More specifically, it depends on the region. Here in Rome, the favored dish is Abbacchio alla Romana, a leg of lamb roasted in the oven with potatoes. In Bologna, it's a heaping plate of tortellini. In Naples, it would be capitone, or yellow eel (pictured opposite), served in a red sauce in a very lengthy dish. (I've never eaten capitone, but I believe the trick is to wait until it gets confused, trapping itself in a corner of the dining room. Then, everybody stabs at it with their tridents... Don't have a trident? Try a sturdy frying pan. Aim for the head.)

This year, we're having natale in Rome. We've decided to play around with the menu for the marathon of eating that begins some time tomorrow. First up, is a zuppa di pesce (fish stew) for the night of the 24th. The stew will include palombo (dog fish), calamari, prawns, triglia (red mullet) and sgombro (mackerel) in a tomato sauce.

For Christmas dinner, we are having a Perugian delicacy: roasted pigeon! And, for the 26th, roasted pheasant. Non vedo l'ora, as the Italians say. (Can't wait!) Meanwhile, the house is already filling up with Umbrian specialties - prosciutto and a type of soft pecorino cheese from Foligno, which we've greedily devoured, home-made cappelletti (to be served in brodo, a favorite of Francesca) and a mountain of cakes, pastries and biscuits.

Perugia is famous for its sweets. Chocolate, to be precise. But they have a fine tradition of biscuits and cakes too. For Christmas, they serve serpente, an almond sweet pastry shaped like a coiled snake. I'm looking at one sitting on my table.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Nevicata! (updated)

Winter arrived with authority this weekend in Central Italy. Well, it did on the eastern side of the Apennines. (Here in Rome, it's still sandals-and-shorts weather. With scarf. And mittens).

Back to Amandola, here's a photo courtesy of Michael, who estimates a half-meter (foot-and-a-half) has fallen since Saturday. I'm grinning. I hope to get up there for New Year's to do a little skiing.

And, the next day: Bright sunny skies.

Monday, December 17, 2007

K2. Conquered. Filmed.

For this post, I'm going to shut up and let somebody else do the talking. The entire NBC Sports K2 expedition is now online here. (Yep, that's the incredibly impossible gradient of the mountain pictured here).

Thursday, December 13, 2007

You think your country is falling to pieces?

Today's New York Times dedicates 4 pages to Italy's spiraling decline. Decades of soaring debt, ineffective government, stagnant competitiveness, and on and on have generated a type of malaise over the young people of this country. (What the Times refers to as "malessere"). They're angry. They want change. They want it now, if not sooner.

This story breaks little ground. Time wrote a cover story in 2006 about Italy's disaffected youth. The Economist was even more harsh in 2005. I too wrote a column about this topic a few months back and was flooded with emails and comments from Italians around the world. (One Italian asked me if I thought the UK would consider invading Italy. Not unless they get the OK from Washington, I'd say.)

Today's Times article does a brilliant job of capturing the tension and despair felt from north to south, the stuff I hear at dinner parties in Rome, walking along the streets of Perugia and read about every day. The best part of the NYT piece is the video they produce about Beppe Grillo. Classic stuff!


Wednesday, December 12, 2007

High altitude drama

This Sunday (16 Dec) at 2 p.m. EST, NBC in the US will be broadcasting an hour-long program about Chris' successful summiting of K2. It's a nail-biting tale, one that involves scandal and death.

I was with Chris last month, shooting interviews here in Italy. The footage is incredible, the story even more gripping. Tune in. You won't be disappointed.

For those of you outside the U.S., I'm told NBC Sports will be broadcasting the show online. As of now, the place to see the *Web simulcast is:

*The site is not operational yet. In the meantime, check out this promo:

Thursday, December 06, 2007

The Sopranos: after the finale

Last night, the glorious six-season run of The Sopranos (or Soprani, as Xtina calls it) came to a subdued end here in Rome. It was just the two of us, the last of our DVD sets, and some mixed feelings. At the close of the final diner scene, Xtina stood up and said, "Pfft, I'm going to bed", eloquently summing up a recurring Italian criticism of the most misunderstood American TV import to ever reach il bel paese.

Not fair, I later pointed out. These are complex characters, in a demanding world called Jersey. There's no neat Hollywood ending here. Tony Soprano is a character plucked from the battlefields of Homer, racked with the doubts of MacBeth, as Journey's "Don't stop believing" plays in the background.

E poi?, she asked. What's next? How will these characters live on after The Sopranos?

The Soprano's legacy? Tough one. After much thought, I say, The Sopranos characters will live on, in roles the Italians can finally understand.

Here's my Fall 2008 TV lineup here in Italy:

1. Tony Sirico (Paulie "Walnuts" Gaultieri):
Takes over the role of Don Matteo (Father Matthew), the crime-fighting priest from Gubbio, one of Rai's top-rated shows. With his trademark shark-fin-sideburns and white loafers, Don "Paulie" solves crimes in this splendid Umbrian hilltown, that, despite its designation as an EU cultural heritage site, is plagued week after week by nefarious two-bit crooks. Each episode, Don "Paulie" overcomes his phobia of germs to solve complex capers. The final scene each week climaxes with a humorous misunderstanding between Don "Paulie" and the bumbling, but lovable, Carabinieri officers, usually over Paulie's shoes.

2. Edie Falco (Carmela) & Federico Castelluccio (Furio)
Falco plays Suora (Sister) Maria Elisabetta Grazia Angela, a crime-fighting nun from Benevento in a made-for-TV movie on Berlusconi's Canale 5, airing opposite Don "Paulie". To spice things up, Sister Maria Elisabetta Grazie Angela, or Suora "MEGA", has a dark secret. Her nemesis is a Napolitano cigarette smuggler played by Federico Castelluccio (Furio Giunta) with whom she may or may not have deeper feelings for. After a series of twists and turns, accompanied by an emotive score, she has a chance to put the sly smuggler away for good, but reconsiders only after he promises, in a tight profile shot that accentuates her chin and his nose, that he'll go legit. Alas, he goes back on his word (there's a larger metaphor here about the worthiness of Italian men, the critics insist, but the show's producers deny it), and he leaves Benevento for the coast. On Easter Sunday he secretly returns though, leaving a wad of cash in the offertory basket. Suora MEGA looks to the sky and smiles.

3. Dominic Chianese (Uncle "giu" Junior Soprano)
Plays senator-for-life on Telecom Italia's La 7. The government is particularly fragile. The left and right are deadlocked on everything, from troops in Afghanistan to funding for Alitalia. The paralysis is creating unrest on the streets. Each week, the wise and practical old senator builds consensus on both sides of the aisles, defeating young idealogues and the protected interests alike with a rousing speech on the floor of the Senate. Each week, the unkempt Communists are foiled and the sun shines on Rome.

4. Steven R. Schirripa (Bobby Bacala)
(Also on Telecom Italia's La 7) The pride of Italy, the Azzurri, is in trouble again. The national soccer squad is under investigation for match-fixing (an act that does not involve phone taps conducted by Telecom Italia's security team), blood-doping, tax evasion and strong-arming its way into the sale of counterfit Adidas products in the Pugliesi port city of Bari. The Italian national team faces disqualification from international competition, FIFA rules, unless they completely overhaul the front office and remove half the starters and the coach from the roster. Desperate, CONI, the Italian sports federation, turns to Coach Bacala, an unlikely choice indeed. Bacala is a butcher (macellaio) from Bologna and former anti-trust chief during the Berlusconi administration. Now that the Left is in power, Bacala is out of work, out of shape, but not out of inspiration. He accepts the offer and teaches his inexperienced squad how to be winners. They finish with a surprising third place finish in the European Cup, losing a 2-1 heartbreaker to the cheating Croatians. Bacala emerges as the big winner. Impressed with his masterful coaching, Senator "Junior" asks Bacala to come back to Rome and mediate a labor dispute with Alitalia. Bacala accepts. In last act as coach, he picks up his telefonino and calls a macellaio from Testaccio. Send a case of your best sausages to the union chief, he says. Senator "Giu" responds, "you still got it, my boy. Still got it."

5. Robert Iler (AJ Soprano)
Iler is asked to reprise his role entirely for Italian audiences on MTV Italia. Iler plays an Italian nearing 30, still living with mom and dad, spending the majority of his waking life in front of the TV and grousing about the fact there are no opportunities in Italy for guys like him. Every time his weary parents suggest he look for an entry-level job or call that nice girl whom they always see at church (and when are you going back to church, Mister!?), he testily responds, "how can I go to work or to church if I cannot afford to put gas in the car?!" Mom hands him a twenty. He spends it on 19-euro haircut. It draws the highest ratings ever among the 18-30 demo, but is canceled due to lack of advertiser interest.

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

My failed music career

It was 17 years ago that I, a dirt poor college freshman, took a part-time job at a local Sam Goody music store in the mall. Never mind that I was clueless about any genre of music that did not include Jethro Tull and Blues Traveler; I had a car, a pulse and I walked upright. Plus, I was too poor to refuse the Friday night shift. I was hired on the spot, earning something like $6.30-an-hour. I was handed a Sam Goody "hello, my name is..." badge and set loose on customers. My career in the music industry was underway.

Mercifully, it lasted just a few months. I was terrible, maybe the worst salesman Sam Goody ever hired. I had never even heard of Coltrane or Miles Davis, and don't even think of asking me anything about Brahms or Handel. Whenever somebody would ask if we had something, I would mumble "yes" then lead them around the store in concentric circles hoping one of us would spot something vaguely familiar along the way. Most of the time I'd lose the customer along the way. Every once in a while they'd walk out the door, never to return again during my shift.

My manager, fresh out of prison (or so it seemed to us), had little patience for me. He would station me further and further away from the music and the customers. After a while, I was required to stand outside the door and hand circulars and other propaganda to customers as they ventured into the land of overpriced CDs. I recall customers back then, starved for choice, would think nothing of paying between $12 and $15 for a new Mariah Carey or Pearl Jam CD. This truly was the heyday of the industry.

I left the job around Christmas time, 1990. Despite its insistence on hiring clueless, unmotivated dolts like me to help sell product, the music industry went on to have a solid decade of ever-increasing sales. I finished my degree, got a job in a newsroom paying $10.65-an-hour, and rarely gave any thought to my short stint in the biz. Until this week. It was the inspiration for my latest column.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Sunday morning wine tips

It's Sunday morning and I am procrastinating. I am behind on a series of deadlines, but basta that for the moment. I am distracted by the new edition of "I vini d'italia 2008", the annual wine guide from L'espresso.

I'll just rattle off a few of their conclusions:

Best value: A Collestefano 2006 Verdicchio di Matelica, costing about 8 euros, but scoring an impressive 18.5/20.

The decadent splurge: Verona-based Giuseppe Quintarelli's Amarone della Valpolicella Classico 1998 will set you back about 280 euros. Scoring a 19.5/20.
The canny buyer, however, might opt for Mastroberardino's 2001 Taurasi Riserva Radici (22-26 euros), down Avellino way. Also scoring 19.5/20.

When I get off deadline, I'll spill a few of my own more populist views, picked up from a few hours poking around Sensofwine the other night.