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.