Saturday, July 4, 2009

La Dolce Vita

There is an idea that life in Italy is somehow slow paced and easygoing, and many decades ago they coined a term for this attitude: la dolce vita, which roughly translated means the sweet life. As Jack riepe would tell you marketing is 99 percent bullshit, so when the common belief tells you that Italians live life in the slow lane, don't believe the hype, because it ain't necessarily so. I have no regrets about running away as a youngster and spending most of my adult life in the States, and when people from my childhood ask how it goes in the land of milk and honey and I say; "Great!" they shrug as if to say "Of course it does- you're in America!" My relatives view America through their own tinted lenses, a sort of 1950s fairy tale of massive wealth and abundance for all populated by Dean Martin and a Chevrolet Bel Air in every garage. So when the Uncle from America shows up at my sister's grandchild's third birthday, fresh off the plane he has to bring some sort of a gift. In Flavio's rugged rural environment I thought a large Tonka toy might do the trick:

We ate abundantly at the family gathering. They killed a pig and roasted it with rosemary and salt and it was quite delicious. You'll notice these traditional Umbrian roast pork sandwiches come with no mayo, no mustard and no fixings. These are sandwiches as Umbrians have eaten them, presumably since the days of the Etruscans. They forced two on me and they went down a treat. I do not suffer from indigestion, happily: The next day my brother-in-law went for a walk with me through the woods and up the hillside that overlooks their farmhouse. Vincenzo has been in love with my sister since they were fifteen and even now 47 years later they spend a large part of every day together. Theirs isn't an outwardly emotive relationship, in defiance of that other stereotype that puts Italian's hearts on their sleeves and when he and I are together we don't talk about our feelings. But it made me glad he wanted to share his mountain fastness with me. We used to come up here with my sisters on horseback forty years ago:Umbria is the land of pork and grilling and mushrooms and truffles (which I love, but my sister the Phillistine, can't stand) and it's been a wet Spring so without even looking we stumbled across what turned out to be toadstools. If in doubt press the fleshy underside of the cap with your thumb:If it turns black throw it away (or feed it to your enemy, if you have one). Mushrooms are risky eating but I'm pleased to say I did find the only edible fungus on our walk. I enjoyed ribbing Vincenzo endlessly that the townie in the family found the 'shroom. This is the only picture I have of Giovanni at the age I remember when our lives were the halcyon days of moped riding and Tom Sawyer adventures during the summer holidays. When I go to visit him nowadays I know I am an honored guest and they put on an effort for me. The fact that his wife is an excellent cook doesn't hurt:My wife dreams of meals at Rossana's diner and were you to read my brief e-mails home during my time away they look like menu cards for the Italian traveler. Pork medallions, preceded by home made gnocchi (potato dumplings), preceded in turn by cheese and salami.
Their daughter may look glum in the picture but Eleonora is fifteen and that's an age when life tends to look critical from all aspects. Home made gnocchi from their housekeeper's expert hands make no difference to her. Especially when the honored guest is pointing a camera all the time...On an afternoon ride we stopped off to visit his parents at their summer home and his elderly mother whipped up an enormous impromptu spread that Giovanni tucked in to without any apparent surprise. We had cured ham (prosciutto) a vegetable omelette (frittata)followed by chicken breasts sauteed with sausage rounds and sage, served with rice stuffed tomatoes. Not surprisingly Giovanni's 22 year old son prefers to stay with his indulgent grandparents while he "studies" for his law exam, though it is quite surprising he isn't gaining much weight during his retreat in the country. We gathered informally in the kitchen as they rate me a family member:Giovanni's eighty three year old father got on with the important, manly work:It was a cool damp June night in the mountains and faced with a forty minute moonlit ride back to the city we huddled round the fire, digesting our dinner, which wrapped up with slices of cake and Belgian liqueur-filled chocolates.When Giovanni and I took off for a tour of the Alpi Apuane, a ring of mountains that separate northern Tuscany from the Po River Valley,an important part of the ride were the good eats. Breakfast in Italy is a heathen meal taken mid morning and usually consisting of sweet cakes and a coffee, all gulped down while standing up at the counter:Working nights like I do, I don't eat breakfast much anymore, but frankly I like a nice plate of eggs and potatoes and meat for breakfast, washed down with several cups of weak American coffee ("brodo" Giovanni calls it contemptuously-"broth." He likes Starbucks' espresso as he thinks it's not bad and reliably drinkable). Eating pastry and sucking down an ounce of coffee isn't a meal in my opinion. This is though:Truffle pasta......pork chops in a balsamic vinegar sauce (this was in the province of Modena, home of balsamic vinegar) with slivers of Parmesan cheese on top to offset the sweet sauce. Giovanni always orders fries for a vegetable ("My wife won't cook them for me!" he laments), and we washed this lot down with a slightly fizzy Lambrusco red wine (good for the heart). Finished off with a slice of meringue in a hot chocolate sauce:I took the remainder of the Lambrusco to the sidewalk table and finished it off while Giovanni lit up his customary cancer stick as we watched the evening passeggiata, the stroll down the main drag of Pievepelago, the small mountain town we had washed up in. These were the local lads eating ice cream and waiting for the passing talent of which there wasn't much (else I'd have photographed it). A reminder of our youth, we said as we reminisced about our childhood. It didn't rain that day which was icing on the meringue, as it were. It rained the next day though, in a down pour that wouldn't have looked out of place in Key West in the summer:We had a few miles to ride to the Passo del Muraglione when we spotted Da Sergio, a fine terraced restaurant overlooking the main road through the Tuscan village of Dicomano. Naturally Sergio, not being raised in the American tradition of the customer always being right, declined to seat us outdoors. "Then everyone will want to sit out and it will be a mess when it starts to rain!" he lamented. We laughed to ourselves at his pig headedness, laughter that turned to consternation when the heavens opened up as we sat snug indoors savoring another fifty dollar lunch:We shared a plate of tortelloni, what an American might call ravioli, pasta that was so undercooked, by North American standards, it was almost crunchy, filled with creamy mashed potatoes, a first for me. We then sucked down some red wine while waiting for the grilled pork kebabs (spiedini) to appear. I ordered mine with Navy beans while Giovanni had the inevitable, and very good, roast potatoes. The rain did not let up:The indoor grill warmed the entire room that was rapidly filling with Saturday lunchtime locals:"Merda!"we shrugged and ordered a dessert each, a ricotta cheesecake for me, and a sweet pine nut cake for Giovanni. He has a very sweet tooth and a backhoe-like capacity to woof his food that outstrips even my capacity for fast eating, which I developed in English boarding schools:I was reading last month's Vanity Fair on the plane and there was an interview with Johnny Depp who bought Hall's Pond Cay in the Exumas, in the Bahamas, a place I visited by sail boat before he put it out of reach of ordinary mortals. In the article the author described the food served by Depp's chef, a feast he said of tacos, guacamole, cheese steak sandwiches and other foods that one can only describe as veering towards the fast food end of the scale. I am no gourmand, but it did occur to me that were I ever to have a personal chef, these are the foods, pictured on this page, that I would order, and grow old and lazy on, day after day. That, and espresso and conversation:As it was we faced a 200 mile ride home in the pouring rain, cold and damp with me screaming out for large cups of warming American "broth-coffee" while Giovanni lamented his freezing wet feet in what was almost July, in formerly-sunny-Italy. I had on every scrap of clothing I possessed:These are the adventures we grow old on, not all that frou-frou eating and drinking and sitting around reminiscing. We are men after all, not gourmet foodies.