Saturday, December 27, 2008

Your father-in-law could be a nutty liberal if... (Hint No. 15)

...he buys you a hand-made crèche from Naples featuring an Obama wise man.

What Italians eat for Christmas

A proper Italian Christmas meal varies by region. Seeing as we were in Le Marche for the 24th, we decided on a brodetto, a thick fish stew that contains (usually) shrimp, squid, coda di rospo (monkfish -- pictured above), sgombro (mackerel), gallinella (Gurnard) and, if you can find it, scorfano. We couldn't find the scorfano, but there were still cheers all around.

Here's our version:

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Wrong number

At least once a week, we get a wayward caller dialing our apartment. For all I know it may be the same wayward caller (here he is again, in fact, twice now in the last three minutes.... Ok, fatto. He'll call back no doubt.)

I realize the etiquette for handling mis-dialed calls varies greatly by country, but I cannot quite get my head around how it works here in Rome. For example, in the US, the person who incorrectly rings is usually the apologetic one. In the US, once you've mis-dialled and disturbed someone else it's not customary to ask any more questions. Just apologize, hang up and go about your business. Often the one on the receiving end makes it painless. They hang up before you have a chance to apologize. Perfect in my book.

In the UK, I found, whenever I mis-dialled it was the person on the other end who was apologetic. Terribly apologetic. And they would rarely hang up first. Perhaps hearing my American accent they would linger on the phone thinking I was in need of help, some direction maybe. But what? It was always me who would mutter an apology and hang up on them.

Here in Rome, it's completely different yet again. Whenever I pick up the phone and respond "pronto" (I love how the national phone greeting here is "I'm ready"), I get a terse "Chi e'?" snapping back at me. They are speaking formally but the tone is anything but. Here's how it plays out from there:
Me: "Chi e' Lei?" Who are You? (formal)
Caller: Giovanni?!?
Me: No, mi dispiace, pero Lei ha sbagliato. No, I'm sorry (I can probably drop the "I'm sorry" part but after four years of misdialed phone calls in London it's now permanently wired into my synapses). You have erred.
Caller: CHI E' LEI?
Me: Lei ha...
Me: (cue: rolling my eyes)
Caller: (rattles off a sequence of numbers -- either the last four numbers or the last seven numbers)
Me: No, Lei ha sbagliato. No, you (formal) have erred.
Caller: oh. (click)

Two minutes later he/she rings back.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

White men can't...

...make a proper sugo di cinghiale. Or can they? Lo chef famosissimo inglese Jamie Oliver heads to Le Marche (I believe this was aired in the UK at the end of the summer) and enters a wild boar pasta contest. Can he impress the townfolk?


And, a note to Jamie Oliver, if he happens to be poking his head around this blog. If you are back in Le Marche in mid-May, I hereby invite you to Amandola for the annual "pizza festa" competition. The participants are hardcore, but there's plenty of wine and sunshine.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

She comes in colors in the air

And just hours before I snapped this photo I was getting some playful grief from Xtina about rainbows. Evidently, the sister's boyfriend, maybe the most conscientious Italian on the planet, constructed a rainbow for the sister's birthday. "Now, whenever she enters the room," Xtina informed me, "she's greeted by a rainbow... Where's my rainbow?"

Presenting... your rainbow, baby.

Monday, November 24, 2008

*Never the same soup

Five years ago this month I picked up a woman at a train station. The Ancona train station. It was a Friday night. Kinda foggy. She'd never seen me before. I'd never seen her either. But we sorta felt as if we'd known each other our whole lives. (A month of email courting and long distance phone calls will do that, I reckon). She was expecting me. I was late, too late to pick up flowers or even memorize some nice words to say in Italian without screwing up the syntax.

I broke the ice with a question: "hai fame?" Hungry?

Yep, she nodded, and I drove us off into the gloom in search of a trattoria (whose name I still can't recall) maybe a hundred yards from the port. They serve brodetto all'anconetana, a famously rich soup of all the goodness that the fishermen can round up each day in the Adriatic. I'd eaten there once before and I couldn't stop smiling for days afterward. I figured the brodetto would calm our nerves. It did. She approved, and of me too.

I don't want to think it was the brodetto that brought Xtina and me together. But it certainly smoothed the awkward culture clash. Whenever I sit down to brodetto marchigiano I think of that meal. And smile.

Why am I thinking of this now? Because The New Yorker's Mimi Sheraton in the recent food issue goes in search of il brodetto migliore, and of course she settles in Le Marche. Abruzzo too (which for some crazy reason the line-editors allow to call Abruzzi, which hasn't formally existed since the Kennedy Administration. Whatever. Who cares.) A worthy dish gets a nice write up. Smiles all around.

*btw, one of Xtina's more famous lines is "always the same soup" to describe anything that quickly becomes habit. Never brodetto of course.

Move over "Conjunction Junction"

This little ditty is from the gang at The Big Money, with Jim Ledbetter on vocals.

Monday, November 10, 2008

On the trail of...

... truffles, white truffles to be exact (aka Tuber Magnatum Pico). Those pictured above (that's Stefano's hand) are black truffles, not quite as good, but still pretty damn tasty.

It may not feel like it here in balmy Italy, but we are in the middle of white truffles season, the perfect excuse every October and November to go foraging through the woods in search of this ridiculously expensive tuber. But worth every penny! Last year, we went with Alberto and Marcelo, two local tartufaii, in the woods below my house in Amandola. Yep, Amandola is one of the few places on earth where these blessed organisms grow. I wrote about it for The Guardian. The story is out today. You can read it here.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

News quiz

Who wrote...?

Business, financial institutions, and investors throughout the economy rely upon derivatives to protect themselves from market volatility triggered by unexpected economic events. This ability to manage risks makes the economy more resilient and its importance cannot be underestimated.

Was it....

a) Ken Lay, ex-Ceo of Enron
b) Dick Fuld, ex-Ceo of Lehman Brothers
c) Alan Greenspan, former Fed chief
d) Lex Luthor channeling Ayn Rand

The answer is "C". Mother Jones has the full story. Warning: objectivists may object.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Behold, pizza inglese

Word of warning: if you're in London and you ask for a mozzarella di bufala pizza, you're more likely to get this. Mozzarella di bufala + Margherita Pizza = Pizza Ingelese

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Subterranean Dow Jones blues

A reader at The Big Money authored this brilliant Dylan-esque number, Subterranean Dow Jones Blues.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Boiled tongue action

And you were expecting an analysis of, what, the fall of global capitalism? The end of Wall Street? The undefeated NY Giants (or, "Giganti," as Xtina says)?

Nah, this post is about food, and, yes, it will circle back to include all the themes above, metaphorically speaking. Xtina and I were in the northern reaches of Piemonte (Piedmont) this weekend, not far from the Swiss border, or, if you're keeping score, the French border too. Armed with our trusty Slow Food guide we made our way on Friday night to Biella, a city that was at the center of Italy's industrial revolution, famous, back in the day, for its textiles factories. These days, it's famous for, non lo so. No matter, we were hungry, and the guide book highly recommended Ristorante Baracca. Sold.

To the uninitiated, I should say here, Piemonte is one of the true culinary gems of Italy, a place I first read about in one of Jeffrey Steingarten's zany journeys to find the meaning of life in a dish of pasta. Close to the French border, Piemonte specializes in richer, heavier dishes than we get here in Central Italy. Comfort food, as they say. Risotto in buttery, cheesy goodness, for example. And the wine? This is Big Red country. Barolo, Nebbiolo, Barbaresco.

We booked a table as we zipped up the superstrada and miraculously found the place without any help whatsoever from the proprietor. ("Go to the Questura. And park," were his instructions.)

Once inside, the first shock is the prices. There was not a single item on the menu priced above 10 euros. And the wine, all excellent, was equally reasonable, cheap even. We each picked an antipasto, primo and secondo and then a 40-euro-bottle of '97 Barolo (a can't miss-year if you happen to find one) and the check came to just 72 euros. Try that at home. A bottle of '97 Barolo, if you are so lucky...ok, you get the point.

I'm going to zip through the first two dishes. L'antipasto locale was, in a word, squisito. For a primo, I had the agnolotti dripping in a meat gravy. Xtina had a heaping dish of risotto that she had difficulty finishing. For the main course, I ventured into new territory: lingua bollita. Yep, boiled tongue. There are people who walk this planet, I was told before ordering, who rave unintelligibly about the virtues of boiled tongue. Who? My father-in-law, Xtina informed. Again, sold.

Boiled tongue is a bit of an experience. It stews in a deep pan that sits on a wheeled cart. And, when it's on the menu, it goes fast. The waiter and waitress push the cart back and forth across the restaurant to beckoning tables and slice up the tongue as select diners gurgle in delight. They then serve the meat - it's grey, tender, slightly spongy - with a selection of condiments: spicy mustard, pickled fruits, garlicky pesto, tangy mayo, and so on. My explanation here, I realize, does not do it justice. It's like a really tender Sunday roast, if oddly shaped. It's just that when the tongue emerges from the stew, speared by its handler, it looks completely out of context. It's unmistakable: it's a massively inflated slithery tongue with a knob of meat on the wide end. But, I have to say, lingua bollita is really worth the culinary adventure. If you are a bit squeamish, buy yourself a nice bottle of Barolo to wash down the first few bits. Afterwards, you'll be licking your plate. It's that good!

And here are a few more tips:
1) The trick is to get a table and order early. My advice: don't order the tongue after 10 pm. Who knows what you'll get as the carving knife edges closer to the tip.
2) No matter how tasty, don't get carried away. For example, it's never polite, mid-chew, to stick out your tongue and ask your date: "Can you guess which tongue is mine?"
3) Be careful: when chowing down on such a dish, even polite gestures can be misconstrued by your date. Regardless of the context, "would you care for a little tongue?" just doesn't sound right.
4) If your date is an anti-vivisectionist, it's probably wise to skip this dish altogether. (I once dated an anti-vivisectionist. Turns out it was the only thing she was opposed to... You're right, bad joke.)
5) Don't ask where the cook sourced the tongue. Does it matter?

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Big Money launches

Today is launch day for's The Big Money. Bookmark it. Blog-roll it. RSS it. Post it to your Facebook profile. Sign up. And, no, I'm not just saying that because I am one of the contributors (and, yes, this explains my terrible blog posting record here of late.) For more details, check out today's NYT profile on Jim and TBM.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Caption contest

This friendly sign greets visitors at one of the more popular entrances to Yosemite National Park in California. It's just screaming for a caption. I'll start:

"I'll give you my little Rocky when you take him from my cold, dead hands!"

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Today's Business on Slate/The Big Money

Here's a better link for those looking to get a quick jump on the big business stories of the day. It's called Today's Business Press, a daily feature of the soon-to-launch biz news site, The Big Money.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Fannie whacked!

My first column, a co-effort with Matt, for The Big Money's daily business round-up appears today.

Love the headline, but the credit goes to Jim, our editor. It's great to work with you again, amico.

Dear readers, please bookmark/RSS/spread the word about The Big Money which will be launching in full in a matter of weeks. For those of you who are unaware of The Big Money, it's the new Slate business news site, headed up by Jim Ledbetter.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Sideways: the movie (Lakewood edition)

Xtina, the one-time avante garde filmmaker, shot this short clip a few weeks ago from a recent family gathering. The game is called "Texas horseshoes", I believe. It's older brother Greg's creation (who else?), my rival in this particular clip. If I can get the instructions on how to build one of these out of PVC piping I'll post it online.

Vacanza finita

Bad news for us, but, for you, my (3) loyal readers looking for workplace distractions, this could be a good sign. Yes, I'll be posting again more regularly, starting in the coming days. But, for now, I leave you with this explanation as to where Xtina and I have been over the past few weeks. I wrote it up for my Times column this week. (btw... I purposely left out the link for Casa Chiocciola, our rental cottage, in the article, but will plug it in here for those of you who are curious.)

Friday, July 25, 2008

Dateline: Flushing, Queens

have to be quick here as the battery is running out on my computer. Here are some fotos from our outing at Shea Stadium today to see the Mets beat the Phils in dramatic fashion. It likely will be our last ever family outing at Shea. Incredible to think of all the good times we've had there: watching the Mets clinch the division in '86 and then storming the field to rip up a piece of outfield turf (that's still prospering in the backyard of 31 Ford Court no doubt); two 18-inning games including one where I saw Rusty Staub play his final game in the outfield. Today tops them all as we got to pass off the tradition to the next generation. In winning style, no less.

Go Mets!

Monday, July 07, 2008

Table stakes

Here's a tip: if you happen to be dining out with your Italian in-laws it's always best to stifle your urge to look skyward and thank the gods for the dish you are eating. If you have a favorite table dance, drop that routine too. Obvioulsy, keep the mmmm, mmmm-ing to a mmminimum. Why? Because otherwise you'll have to answer the most frightening question an Italian mother-in-law can fire at you: "You seem to be enjoying that," she'll point out, followed by a chilling pause, and then......."How does it compare to how I make it at home?"

When you find yourself in this crossfire, one should:

a) Si faccia finta che non capisco la sua lingua. Translation: Feign stupidity. Play the language gap card.
b) Create a diversion. Quickly draw her attention to your father-in-law who is no doubt doing something irksome at this very moment.
c) Wipe the stupid, ecstatic grin off your face and lie through your teeth. Learn these words: Assolutamente no!
d) Come clean and admit your dish was sent directly from the gods.
e) anything but d.

If you answered "d", you just bought yourself a lifetime of twice-boiled pasta and last week's meat loaf whenever you come to visit. Oh, and forget about ever sleeping with her daughter again.

And, here I was the other night, gnawing on a rabbit leg, cooing a bit too audibly for my own good, when I got hit with the full interrogation.

You need to understand what a bind I was in. My mother-in-law's specialty is roast rabbit. (She also makes a sinfully good pigeon and pheasant). She's proud of her rabbit prowess and is secretive about every aspect of its preparation from her supplier to the spices. But it's pretty clear she can source the best coniglio in Central Italy. But she only makes it on special occasions like a Sunday dinner when we come to visit them in Perugia or big holidays.

And so, this weekend on the island of Ischia, for July 4th we went to Il Bracconiere for a nice meal to celebrate American Independence. I told them the tradition was barbecue, conveniently leaving out the hotdog and hamburgers part. Acting on a tip from a chatty bartender who knows his roasted game, we circumnavigated the island until we got to its highest point and arrived at Il Bracconiere. (Here's the chef on YouTube reading poetry.) Bracconiere too is famous for its coniglio. And, so it was like a clash of greats: Liliana on someone else's turf to sample the rabbit that the Ischitani in the know rave about.

A few bites in, she turned to me and dropped the bomb. And so....?

I immediately looked to Massimo for my diversion. There was none. He too was distracted by the coniglio, as was Xtina. I decided to face my inquisitor. It was different, I stammered. She let me off easily. We agreed the rabbits of Ischia are different from Umbria and we tucked into the rest of our meal. We then moved on to another 4th of July tradition: the cinghiale, or wild boar.

Monday, June 30, 2008

ISB mail bag

Here at Il Sette Bello we get the occasional piece of reader mail that we endeavor to answer as promptly and comprehensively as possible. This means every 18 months or so. You can send your mail to ISB's editorial offices in Rome. With Poste Italiana, it should arrive in by December when we will put off running our next installment.
Eccola, la posta

Dear Sir,
In the U.S., the 4th of July is a major holiday when the Americans celebrate Indepedence Day. I'm thinking of taking off both Friday and Monday, but I've already used up my vacation days for the year. Any advice on how I can duck out without the boss knowing?
-- G. W. Bush, Washington D.C.

Dear Mr. Bush,
In Italy, a Friday holiday is an excuse to invoke the "ponte," or "bridge". This means if the holiday falls on a Friday you take off Monday too as there could be traffic on Sunday night. Plus, you need a day of rest after three days away from work. Oh, and no respectable worker shows up at work until 11 a.m. on the following Tuesday. Getting out early on Thursday is also permissable... Confused?

Is Italy ready for some Wham-Bam-Thankyou-Maam!-Change, the kind American voters are going to open up on the Republican Party this November?
- M. Obama, Chicago

Dear Ms. Obama,
Italy is on its 63rd government in as many years. Voters here detest change. That's why they vote in the same band of criminals every 10 months.

I'm in my 70s and am considering a position as the next leader of the free world. The problem is people see me as, you know, old. How does Italy, a G8 nation, manage to keep the same band of crooked old guys in power running the country for so long?
- J. McCain, Phoenix, Az

Dear Mr. McCain,
Only in your 70s!?! Write back in ten years and we'll talk.

Dear Sir,
My family and I run America's largest beer brewery, one that is particularly beloved by America's future: college kids. The problem is everybody else seems to think our beer is pretty undrinkable, except the Belgians who now want to buy us. Can a Belgian with a thirst for Budweiser be trusted?
- A. Busch IV, St. Louis, Mo.

Dear A. Busch IV,
It's true. Your beer is pretty undrinkable. Our advice: sell it to the Belgians who have a terrible track record doing anything constructive other than making very drinkable beers. Also, if you have any pull, please have the Coors family sell out too.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Watching Azzurri fans turn blue

Triple-digit temps is not helping the mood of most Italians today who watched in anguish as The Azzurri crashed out of the Euro 2008 tourney last night with an anemic 4-2 penalty shootout loss to Spain, the first loss to Spain in 88 years.

Tension was high when the two sides went into the penalty round. Here's how the drama played out from our perch at Piazza del' Gazometro last night.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Portrait of the artist as a young man

That, of course, would be Michael.

Through the 29th of June he has an exhibition in Perugia at the former Chiesa di Santa Maria della Misericordia on Via Oberdan in the centro storico. We were there on Sunday for the grand opening where Michael was feted by Perugia's unstoppable art critic Massimo Duranti... I shot this video before the crowds arrived with my N95 phone.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


Italy goes up 1-nil on Pirlo's penalty. Shot on my N95 huddled in the rain this evening at Piazza del Gazometro, a nice little event thrown by Partito Democratico. A rare win for il PD.

It was a pretty lacklustre match. No head-butts. No scandalized national heroes. But Italia lives another day.

What!? No Dan Brown!?

So says the Vatican, which will not permit Ron Howard and his crew to film the impossible adventures of symbolist extraordinaire Robert Langdon for the upcoming "Da Vinci Code" prequel "Angels and Demons" on its property here in Rome, The Times reports.

Father Marco Fibbi, a spokesman for the Diocese of Rome, told The Times: “Normally we read the script but this time it was not necessary. The name Dan Brown was enough.”

Apparently, Don Fibbi's not a fan.

[End of post. Insert cliff-hanger here.]

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

London: surveillance city

The Tate Modern is having an exhibition on street art with massive wall murals outside. This one captures a bit of the flavor inside (tho I didn't get in.) Yes, I'm in London for our Social Media Influence Conference. Come by!

Sunday, June 01, 2008

lettera d'amore

The other night after dinner Lara proudly presented us with her son Davide's first (of many) love letters. Davide, whom I mention from time to time here, is 5-and-a-half. He and I build drippy sand castles together at the beach. He knows my Italian is not so sharp and so it's usually me who builds the sand castles while he barks out instructions and keeps an eye out for anyone in a bikini who might stomp on it. After a few bikinis walk well past he usually stomps on it himself.

That's Davide. He's a typical boy. He loves his plastic monsters, The Gormiti, his Power Rangers and gelato with panna. He is mad for DVDs like Monsters Inc. and Wallace & Gromit (sub-titles don't matter to him) and race cars. Now he's old enough to get love letters. Or una lettera d'amore.

I have to admit, before I'd even seen the letter, I was a bit dismissive. Sappy love letters are for girls. And love letters written by small children with shaky penmanship and poor grammar is the stuff only a mom could swoon over. So when Lara handed it to me, already safely sealed in a protective laminate, I wasn't expecting much.

How wrong I was. Our deconstruction of the letter went on at least a half-hour, and could have gone even further, but everyone at the table shut me up. This love letter was a piece of genius, twisted, sappy genius. Call it Shakespeare meets Wes Anderson.

Davide's admirer is six, a full six months older than Davide. The maturity shows. Let's call her C. (It's only fair.)

With your typical love letter, of course, the formula rarely changes. You get a single narrative line, particularly with those who've mastered only the present tense and cannot go more than three words before mistakes pile up on the tracks and those unsightly scribble corrections start to mar the narrative flow. Between the blotches there is the address to the object of the desire ('Dear so-and-so' or 'My dearest so-and-so'); feelings are communicated ('When I see you I feel...'); wishes and hopes are expressed ('I want us to live together forever...') And, an x-filled salutation seals the compact.

C ripped up the old formula and started at work on an incredibly detailed plea that was dripping with symbolism. Firstly, she took the sheet of paper and turned it landscape-wise and divided the sheet into separate message boxes for the full effect. In one of the message boxes she wrote (and I am translating here)

Dear Davide,
I want us to have three, or six!, small children. I love you. C

C repeated the "ti amo" elsewhere, which is a sweet touch because Italians usually use the less specific term of endearment "ti voglio bene" ('I want you well'). Don't get me started on "ti voglio bene". It could be the least romantic line in any of the Romance languages! When I hear it I cannot help but feel the recipient is being cheated, like the speaker is considering his or her options. The proper response to "I want you well" should be, "You damn well better!" which translates roughly to "lo dovresti!"... In any case, C doesn't fall for the banal trap that her Roman classmates might. Nah, she poured out her heart using the most literal, unambiguous term of endearment there is. You go, ragazzina!

The rest wasn't so clear. C took a piece of wool material and sewed a pocket, which she glued to the lower right hand corner. Inside the pocket she placed, naturally, a single die and a plastic Spiderman wristwatch. The die, Stefano believes, symbolizes that her feelings for Davide is a game of chance. A roll of the dice. Yep, pretty much sums it up. The Spiderman watch could be a reference to "forever" or to the promise "I'll be waiting for you to turn 6 like me". To Davide, it meant Spiderman! In fact, Davide went right for the wristwatch when the letter was presented to him after school. He didn't bother with much else, which had us all feeling the poor girl has cruelly learned far too quickly in life that Roman men are more interested in fancy wristwatches than expressions of "ti amo". We all sighed in unison.

We're not finished with the letter though. The capper, for me anyhow, was the paper itself. The letter was written on the back side of a page that had been snared from an instruction manual. On the flip side was a photocopied page -- Chapter 23 of an instruction guide to Lotus Notes, it read.

The symbolism? We had no explanation.

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!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Mobile journalists

My journalism students at JCU have been working hard over the past few weeks, developing broadcast reports shot entirely with their mobile phones. Specifically, the Nokia N95. It's called "mobile journalism" or "mojo" for short. Check out their work here on our YouTube Channel.

Monday, April 14, 2008

A little help from their friends

It was almost a year ago, at a cocktail party, when I heard the most incredible story about a project to restore an endangered bird species that, to put it kindly, hasn't evolved well. The Waldrapp ibis over the centuries has lost much of its motivation and its sense of direction, problematic if you are a migratory bird that needs to get to point A down south to wait out the winter and point B up north to breed.

The birds are one of the most precarious in the world. Just a few hundred survive in the wild, and none in Europe. To be sure, the birds haven't helped themselves. They are pokey flyers, have poor motivation and are tasty, evidently. They are true slackers. Still, the Waldrapp Team is heroically trying to revive their numbers. All of this perhaps raises the question: are some species simply not fit for survival in this cruel world?

Before you answer that, read my article in today's Guardian about a determined group of biologists attempts to teach them how to migrate, and, ultimately survive.

And, for more on the research team's efforts, click here.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Italian politics and TV: in vicious decline

I don't often write about life in Italy for my Times column. Maybe every 6 months or so. Today, with the elections looming, I stuck to what was once the big trifecta in Italian life: TV, politics and Silvio Berlusconi. Even now, on the eve of his anticipated victory, it sounds quaint. Here's the column.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

If it's April it must be time to elect a new government

For the 62nd time since 1946 (yes, 62 years ago), Italians head to the polls next weekend to elect a new head of state, replacing the center-left government that collapsed earlier this year. The former mayor of Rome and media luvvy, Walter Veltroni, goes up against former PM and media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi in a race that few Italians seem to have the stomach for. My dispirited lefty friends debate whether or not to even vote while my right-leaning friends are suspicious of a Berlusconi bis accomplishing anything other than kick-backs to his friends and squashing more criminal investigations into his past.

The Economist, in what's becoming a regular "leader" article, once again weighs in, imploring Italians not to vote for Berlusconi. They're not too high on Veltroni, but, crucially, he's not Berlusconi. (Berlusconi isn't the only one getting the cold shoulder from The Economist edit board this week, mind you. It's time for Robert Mugabe to go too, they write. Europe's richest man and Africa's most craven. Nice company).

Meanwhile, Italy narrowly averted a headline writer's dream this week. A small party, the Christian Democracy Party, threatened to hold up next week's election in a legal dispute over the vaguely similar party symbol used by the much more prominent rival, Union of Christian and Centre Democrats Party. The DC verses the UDC. The head of the DC is named, and no, I am not making this up, Giuseppe Pizza. Good old Giuseppe withdrew his legal challenge a few days later, and now the election is on again, robbing us all of the following headline:

Pizza Party delays Italian election

(The Guardian came the closest. Anyone else want to take a stab?)

There's just no joking about Italian politics.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Dental adventures in the Eternal City

I'm not an avid reader of the dental trades, but I'm fairly convinced that what happened here in Rome this week was a first for the profession. The local media is calling it la chronica del falso dentista.

On Tuesday, police were called to an apartment complex to investigate the sound of gunshots, telephoned in by a concerned neighbor. The carabinieri were directed to the apartment where an incoherent man, after much knocking, answered. Enter: the victim of the shooting. At first, he told police nothing was wrong, that it was merely an attempted robbery. They could go home. Suspecting more, the carabinieri started a grueling line of question that revealed:

1) the man they were questioning was bleeding right there in front of them.
2) The blood was from a gunshot wound.
3) He'd been shot in the leg.

Woah, now this is a different matter altogether. This is no attempted robbery, the carabinieri no doubt informed him. This is now attempted murder. Attempted murder of you!

After more lame protests from the bleeding man, he cracked. Yes, he was bleeding. And, yes, it's a gunshot wound.

No doubt impressed by their sleuthing, the carabinieri persisted with their line of questioning, the victim weakening under the strain. The man then recounted what happened:

His attacker, an irate man in his 50s with an excruciating toothache, a toothache apparently so bad it reduces you to thoughts of vigilante justice, approached the victim. He drew his revolver and began firing, right there in the apartment complex.

Ok, but why did he fire at you?

Here's where the confession comes in. The bleeding man had for years been running a dental practice. Except, he has no qualifications, he confessed. You see, our man spent years as a dental assistant. He watched intently, no doubt, filling after filling, handling the sucky straw thing while the dottore did the glamorous stuff: the drilling, the bonding, the scraping and cleaning. One day, looking into a mouth full of crooked teeth, he figured, eh, this ain't so tough. I could do this. So, he bought the reclining chair and the interrogation light and the drills and the sucky straw thing and opened up his own practice, and started working on his neighbor's teeth.

It was all going perfectly well until one patient opened fire.

The police eventually tracked down the gunman and charged him with attempted murder. The falso dentista recovered in the hospital and then was arrested too. For good measure, his ex-wife, son and nephew have also been charged for helping the man open up an illegal practice.

Another day. Another happy ending here in Rome.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Over on The Matthew Online...

... the student newspaper I edit, one of my young ace reporters has a fine write-up on the latest Berlusconi gaffe. You can read it here.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Cross-town traffic

As you know, I haven't posted here in ages. So, here's a quickie to tide you over.

I'm nicking this from Michael's blog. It's a photo from late February of morning traffic on the dirt road between our houses. Here's the full story.

I'm so glad I don't have to commute any more.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Seinfeld celeb sighting in Amandola!

Here's one to ponder: If you were to go truffle hunting in the wilds of Le Marche -- Amandola, to be precise -- which Seinfeld character would you take along? Kramer? Hell no. Jerry, George, Elaine? Nehhhh.

It's a short list, indeed.

Ok, what about J. Peterman? Ah, now you're talking. The intrepid outdoor clothing designer would surely be the perfect companion as you slide down a mucky hillside into a dense forest following over-excited hounds (possibly sporting a wine-induced hangover).

Yes, J. Peterman himself was in Amandola this fall about the same time Eric, Michael and I , accompanied by local experts, went foraging through the woods in search of the elusive Tuber magnatum pico. That's white truffle to you and me. We came up empty, but were later rewarded with a memorable feast.

And J. Peterman. Well, he writes here:

I was waiting out in the cold and humid air for a couple of minutes when an oversized and scruffy white poodle with an expert pink nose came loping toward me ahead of the local truffle hunters. Soon we were off to look for all-but-impossible-to-find white truffles, known for their sharp, distinctive peppery flavor.

(You can almost imagine actor John O'Hurley narrating this to a completely bored Elaine)

Now some setting:

This time I'm in
The Marches, the part of Italy due east of Florence. It's true that Piedmont, far to the north, is the best-known white truffle region in the world. But with more and more of the forests where these addictive tubers thrive turned into vineyards, the region is becoming more of a market for truffle buyers and sellers than a territory for hunters. I admit I'm a buyer when that's my only option. But I prefer the hunt.

and how'd he fare? Being J. Peterman, eureka!

She [the dog, Dora] finds two smaller ones before we call it a day. The nearby town is called Amandola, and a few hours later it's dinnertime at one of the village's trattorie, a fire raging in the corner. Soon, the plain cooked fettuccini we ordered will arrive and we'll transform it with a few delicate shavings from our afternoon hunt. There's a bottle of the local Sangiovese on the table between us. Dora's owner ordered the wine, saying it was simple enough to get out of the way and let the truffles be the star. As if anything tonight could upstage our hard-won treasure.

And what about Eric, Michael and I? Nuthin! We'll score some next year. Promesso

A special shout out to ISB reader, Tigers fan and fellow hunter Eric. He spotted the article yesterday while on his daily giro through the celebrity gossip pages.

This just in...

Congratulations to author/journalist/ISB reader Jim Ledbetter appointed Editor this week of "Big Money", Slate's new business news site. More details here from Reuters' Ken Li. Slate picked a fine week to announce the launch of a business news site.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Don't want to work on Graziela's farm no more

This past weekend we were in Amandola, the first time we'd been up there since the New Year. It was another example of Marchigiani propaganda at work: crystal clear blue skies (perfect for BBQing Mario's famous ribs), a Saturday night feast at the always reliable Da Priori in Monte San Martino and some fine local wine to top it all off. By my calculations we ate cow, pig, lamb and various critters from the sea, my idea of a perfect get-away from an otherwise crazy work schedule.

We (Xtina, Lara, Stefano, 6-year-old Davide and me) also paid a Sunday morning visit to Graziela's farm to say hello to the rabbits and chickens and roosters and cows and pigeons.

I'll tell the rest in pix. Graziela took us on a brief tour of the farm to see days-old rabbits (cradled in Stefano's palm at left) and weeks-old calves (posing for a picture here at right, giving us her more flattering side). Another one of her cows is pregnant, expecting around September.

We then went on a long walk to check out the latest progress on abandoned houses being rehabilitated for new homeowners. Sant'Ippolito has plenty of case abandonatte lining the hills around the house. Some even have dirt tracks leading up to them. It sometimes takes a bit of a hike to get anywhere near these properties, but the views are spectacular and always worth the effort. Here's a view (at left) of the Sibillini National Park, a perspective I've flashed up here before. But this time, with the blue skies and the snow-peaked tops, I couldn't resist snapping another one. And finally, a view of Casa Chiocciola from down the hill at Graziela's farm (the big picture at the top of this post).

Friday, February 15, 2008

Are Americans hostile to knowledge?

The NY Times posited this question yesterday, stirring quite a buzz from readers. The article begins with the anecdote of Kellie Pickler, an "American Idol" contestant who wonders on a nationally televised quiz show whether Budapest is in France, whether Europe is a country and then seems incredulous when she's informed there is such a place as Hungary. "I've heard of Turkey," she spouts.

Ms. Pickler is hardly a spokeswoman for the U.S. education system, and yet there she was proudly displaying her ignorance for all the world to see.

To be sure, classifying Americans as thick and insular is the height of ignorance, as is judging America based on what you see on TV. If TV content were an accurate reflection of national character, Italy would be squarely at the bottom of the intellectual scale. But chances are the typical Italian would know where Budapest was. It's not in Turkey.

Friday, February 08, 2008

My first film

I've been playing with iWeb over the past few weeks, a few minutes here, a few brief dinners there. Here's the result: a video compilation using snaps and videos pulled from my Nokia N95.

Warning: it's vacation propaganda. Lots of scenes of sunny skies and magnificent scenery. It may not be suitable for workplaces that require full productivity.


Friday, February 01, 2008

Democracy speaks

If Tuesday's Democratic Primary run-off in New Jersey comes down to a single vote, you can blame ten Italians, a Brit and yours truly. You see, my ballot, which hopefully arrived Stateside today, was a collaborative effort. I took a straw poll among friends over the past week; the candidate with the most votes, I informed them, would get "my vote". My choice would be worth 1/12th in the end, a worthy sacrifice, I figured, for a people living in a corner of the world that gets swept up in American foreign policy far too often. (That is a 1/12th vote it is even counted. I realize absentee ballots are only counted when it's close. I failed to mention this to them).

But if it is a close call I have full trust in the good people at Ocean County Board of Elections with whom I am on a first-name basis. (I cannot say enough good things about Ocean County Board of Elections. Really. They send me e-mail reminders and are quick to respond to even the most mundane question. Some of you may be rolling your eyes when our Prez talks about the importance of spreading democracy, but these fine people take it to heart.), who did I/we vote for?

John Edwards.

Kidding. Though he did receive a half-vote for him from Franco.

Here's how it went down:
By Tuesday night (the final night of the polls), turnout was pretty weak. We had set up a "virtual caucus" on a friend's blog and the responses were coming in slowly. No doubt, this bunch of intellectuals was in no mood for further democracy after the fall of the Prodi government last week. So, we took the polls to the constituents. Over a dinner at Lara & Stefano's, we collected two more votes. For Obama.

That swung the count in his favor, unsettling Xtina. She immediately started working the phones (mine and hers) from the dinner table. Xtina is stridently for Hillary and was trying to bring sympathists on side. Sensing unfairness, I sent out a series of SMS messages myself, votes I thought that would blunt Xtina's neo-Marxist, pro-Stiglitz, pro-Philip Roth sensibilities.
They came in one-by-one.

Michael: Bill Clinton. Close enough. That's a vote for Hillary.
Luca: Obama
Giovanni: Obama
Franco, being Roman, voted twice: Edwards and Obama. That's another for Obama.
Mauro: Obama
Manuel & Martina: Hillary & Hillary
Me: Hillary

The tally? six for Obama. five for Hillary. Xtina pulls out a ringer: her dad, Massimo.

Massimo, ever since I've known him, speaks to me about two subjects: life in Umbria and Hillary Clinton. As early as Easter, 2005 he wanted to know whether Condi had enough juice to derail Hillary. Or EE-lay-ree, as he says. I told him Condi has no chance to win the Republican Party nomination. Bah!, he replied with suspicion. Massimo is a loyal Christian Democrat. Hillary would get their party nomination easily, he seemed to be saying. She would probably even get her chance to run the country for 10 months.

His wife, Liliana, on the other hand, still grumbling about the break-up of the Papal States, uses her vote to cancel out Massimo. She is definitely a McCain woman.

So, as Xtina dialed home, I stood ready, blue helmet on, to prevent anything, let's say, fraudulent happening between Xtina and Massimo to put us in a difficult situation. I grabbed the phone once Massimo started speaking.

Massimo, what's your vote?

Kennedy, he started. Massimo has a habit of speaking in circles when he's asked to go on the record.

Kennedy?, I asked.

Ted Kennedy. That's important. He just endorsed Obama. That's big. I'm going with Obama.

Incredulous, I took down his vote and hung up the phone.

In the end, it was 7 for Obama, 5 for Hillary.

10 Italians, 1 Brit, me and Ted Kennedy have spoken.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

No country for young men

You leave the country for a few days, and what happens? The government collapses. It's moments like this when you really wonder why some world leaders would continue to make such a fuss about "spreading democracy". Romano Prodi served 20 months on the slimmest of margins, narrowly avoiding ouster last February. As the Guardian points out, 20 months is an admirable showing in post-war Italy, which has now had a staggering 61 governments in 60 years. If Italy were a stock it would have been delisted long ago, its shareholders in the red.

What happened this time? It all started with Prodi's justice minister Clemente Mastella pulling his support for Prodi last week in a juvenile protest. The protest? Magistrates arrested Mastella's wife on corruption charges and announced he too is under investigation. Mastella, a good Catholic, had no choice but to respond by pulling a Judas-like revolt, forcing a do-or-die vote of confidence vote for the Prodi government, which he of course lost. Let's recap here: the justice minister topples the government because an independent judiciary decides to investigate their boss (and his wife) for an ongoing corruption ring in the Naples area that is costing taxpayers a fortune. Does any of this make sense? Of course not. It's Italian politics.

Now, the Prodi government, which already was largely powerless to push through any meaningful reform, is no longer. Instead, we have political chaos just as the global economic picture is looking bleak. But Italy's wealthiest man, Silvio Berluconi is gleeful. He will no doubt be re-elected.

Ordinary citizens look at Italian politics with incredulity. All politicians all over the world are self-serving. But Italian politicians operate in their own world. They are answerable to no-one but each other. They go into power for one thing: to enrich their friends, family and lovers, and more and more these days, the Catholic Church. Where have you heard of such a political system before? Open your sixth-grade history text books. Yep, it's modern-day feudalism. You have a ruling elite consisting of old men with a disproportionate amount of wealth and power, a powerful church that dictates to them and a pitiful peasantry (with university degrees).

Of course feudalism ended in a moment of enlightenment just a few hours north of Rome. And today? Nope. Disaffection rules. The most sensible Italians are telling me they refuse to vote in the next election. Why should they?!, they snap. We deserve Berlusconi, Xtina tells me. At least he was transparent in his aim to pass laws designed solely to save his ass and assets from various criminal investigations. That's understandable. But what's the alternative?

Italy, a G8 member, has turned back the dial to a previous millennium -- or, if you think about it, a good 400 years further back in history than where the Taliban would like to set up shop. The country is losing its best minds increasingly for a life abroad where there are more opportunities and fewer Italian politicians. Unlike a millenium ago, the brain drain is robbing this country of its next Galileo, its next Leonardo, its next Michelangelo.

If modern-day Italians are lucky, the church/state hydra will push the country back even further, back in time to say the fourth century. Evidently, between 300 and 400 A.D. were good times in the Roman Empire, an era of prosperity and promise. A lot of Italians could live with that.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Football Americano, Americano

I'm a bit groggy today. I stayed up til the blessed hour of 4:18 a.m. to watch i giganti, The NY Giants, win an overtime thriller last night/this morning against the Green Bay Packers. The NFL's muddle-headed policy of scheduling early evening games in the U.S. all but kills any potential to draw new fans in more distant time zones. Not wise when you are trying to cultivate an international following. Don't send us two grumbling teams to play in the mud in London. Just schedule some meaningful games at an hour where a greater percentage of the planet can follow along.

Case in point: a few weeks ago, for the Giants-Bucs game, Stefano and Luca joined me at a local pub around 8 p.m. Despite the foreignness of the game, they seemed fixed on the action. (Luca, by halftime, was asking me technical questions about the difference between NFL and rugby infractions. I made something up. All I know about the infractions in rugby is that you are to address the referee as "sir" or risk getting a few more yards tacked off against you.) After the game, energized by witnessing their first Giants victory, they wanted to know when the next one was. When I told them the kickoff would be 12:45 a.m., they simply responded "ciao. Tell us how it goes."

So how does a Giants fan in a strange land get his game day fix? The answer, as always: Rupert Murdoch. His Sky Italia pay TV service carries NFL games. Perfect, I thought. I'll splurge. I ordered a month of Sky and prepared to watch my Giganti play in frozen Wisconsin Monday morning. When I flipped on the channel I saw the normal Fox broadcast, but muted. Instead, we had two excitable Italians giving play-by-play from some studio somewhere. I grumbled. Call me a spoiled American, but I don't want to see NFL games dubbed into Italian. It's just not right. Xtina, who only gets excited about cartoons and political talk shows, brightened. It will be good for your vocabulary, she said.

Sacked by my polyglot wife.

But she was right in the end. Soon I was getting into the televised coverage, even if it felt as if these guys were calling the play-by-play of a completely different sport, or perhaps a gun battle in Fallujah. It certainly wasn't football - American or otherwise. They would get terribly excited anytime there was any type of ball movement whatsoever. Think John Madden. After a double espresso. Under heavy enemy fire. In tone, one-yard gains sounded like Hail Mary bombs. Down field passes were DOWN FIELD PASSES to BO-rrrrrrress. Long running plays were flowing with detail. Bradshaw's run went something like this:

Brad-SHOW prende la palla. (Bradshaw takes the ball)

Brad-SHOW cerche per blocchi. (Bradshaw looks for blocks)

Brad-SHOW cerche per LA LUCE. (Bradshaw looks for the light)

Brad-SHOW AVANZA! (Bradshaw advances)

then it gets interesting... The more jaded American announcer might skip a few yards on a long run, maybe counting off every ten. Not in Italy.

we then hear:

BRAD-SHOW. SULLA 40. SULLA 38. sulla 35. sulla 30. sulla 25. SULLA 20. SULLA 15.... and on until he scored, never once inhaling. The cigarette, no doubt, still glowing.

I was angry with the call, but I felt also as if it was the announcer who was truly robbed on the play. He recovered though. This man and his sidekick, wherever they were doing this play-by-play from (mysteriously, we never saw their faces), were professionals.

They powered on into the early morning hours. The last few minutes of the game was one crescendo after another. By the time Tynes lined up for the overtime field goal attempt, I was emotionally spent. I muted the TV, fearing the call of a winning field goal attempt would wake up the building and require me to explain myself at the next tennant's meeting. The kick sailed through the uprights. I checked my blood pressure, then my watch. 4:18 a.m.

pazzi giganti!, I thought. I have to do this again in two weeks.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

New Yorker in the room

Last night a few of us broke away from a wine tasting to catch a speech by The New Yorker's David Remnick, part of an ongoing Lezioni di Giornalismo series here in Rome. Never mind that none of us had tickets. The event sold out long before, and even my press credentials were proving useless with the organizers. So, we did the only sensible thing. The four of us - Mauro, Manuel, Niccola and I, all "professional" journalists -- sneaked in and inconspicuously took up an entire row in the center of the auditorium.

It was well worth the risk.

Remnick spoke about the history of The New Yorker, its philosophy, its colorful roster of editors and writers, plus regaled us with insights about the magazine. For instance, in the hours after the attacks on Sept. 11, Remnick, looking for guidance, went back in the archives to see how the previous editors covered the attack on Pearl Harbor. The magazine dedicated just a few lines to the event that sent the United States to war, squeezed into a story about a football game at the Polo Grounds. That was it. Just a few lines. Later, the magazine redeemed itself with courageous reporting on the beaches of Normandy, from Italy and an epic piece in 1946 on the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing that took up the entire magazine. The article, at 31,000 words, broke new ground (you can read more about here) in investigative journalism. The New Yorker has always been about going "deep" on a topic, as Remnick says, and it will continue to do so in the Internet age.

Sadly for me, book-length reportage is an art that's not at all common outside of the Anglo Saxon media world. There are a variety of factors for this; time (the readers') and money (the publishers') is the biggest culprit. In a pip-squeak media market like Italy (but certainly not only Italy), the emphasis is on short, easily digestible stories and lots of images. You can flip through most weekend news magazines here between lunch and nap time. In some weeks, you can wring out all the meaningful stuff while sitting in the smallest room in the house.

The point that drew the most post-speech discussion from our group was the idea that there exists a publication that still strives for independence and balance. In other words, a publication that makes editorial decisions based on news value, not based on the owner's pet causes nor on shareholders' returns. Remnick says he has never once received a call from Conde Nast brass seeking to influence the upcoming story lineup. And, he's never received a call afterwards either. Mauro, sitting next to me, gasped.

A truly independent commercial media, one could easily argue, does not exist. That's not really true. I have written for plenty of American and European publications. The difference is that Americans try their best to operate with a wall between the business and editorial side of the publication. In Europe, that wall fell down a long time ago. It certainly doesn't exist in the flag-waving world of Italian media where captains of industry and politicians (the same people in many cases) have turned their publications into propaganda sheets to manipulate public opinion and sabotage rivals. What's lost in such a scenario is credibility.

The press cannot function without credibility. It's as simple as that. In a world of spinmeisters, propagandists and elected liars, to paraphrase Remnick, a credible press is the only thing separating democracy from a tyranny of special interests.

Remnick was cautious in his assessment of the blogosphere. It's biggest failing too is credibility. I agree with this entirely. But I do believe blogs have created a powerful forum too, one that is capable of holding companies and politicians accountable, oh, and the press too. Yes, and me too.