Tag Archives: Assisi

Sotto Voce

1 Apr

What is there to say about Italy that hasn’t been said before?

Roma

Let’s be honest. Not much. Italy is a beautiful cliché. But, since saying, “I have nothing to say because it’s all been said before,” makes me a lazy writer, I’m going to give it a go.

The Forum

Italy is gorgeous. No, really it is. It takes your breath away. The sky. The earth. The trees. The buildings. The rocks and stones. The vegetables. The flowers. The puddles. The birds. The rain. The sun. The doorknobs. The ceilings. All of them. Breathtaking.

Assisi

The Italians sure know how to celebrate Easter. We were in Florence, where they detonated an oxen cart packed full of fireworks in front of the Duomo. The detonations went off for 15 minutes, ricocheting and echoing off all the stone, until we felt like we were in a WWII battle. By the end our faces were covered in ash. It was very cool.

The Duomo, Florence

That said, never fly into Rome on Palm Sunday. You have been warned.

Absurd

Italian cars are gorgeous and Italian drivers are insane. We rented a Smart ForFour. I loved it. It’s teeny tiny on the outside, but feels like a normal-sized car when you’re in it. Isaac said it handled well, it got great gas mileage and had pretty good giddyup. Regardless, it was no contest for nearly everything else on the Autostrade. Some of the cars that passed us were going so fast they produced doppler effects. They were usually Audis for some reason.

Roma

Archaeological sites are more interesting to the archaeologists. I studied Etruscan archeology in college. Unfortunately, it’s been a long time since my sophomore year; I’ve forgotten almost everything I once knew. This makes walking around an old Etruscan city little more than walking around and looking at a pile of rocks. But, stalking wild asparagus while glancing at those old rocks is really fun! So is stumbling on gaudy green lizards and breathtaking views of the sea while worrying about being charged by a wild boar and peeking into old graves cut into solid rock. I’m sure you will agree that it was all very Indiana Jones.

Run Away!

Pizza. The pizza I remember from my trip to Italy 15 or so years ago doesn’t seem to exist anymore. It was thick and doughy with a schmear of intense tomato sauce and a sprinkling of crispy cheese. I loved it. I could buy it on every street corner and I was happy. Alas, it has been supplanted by wurstel carts and paper thin, hyper-crispy pies.

Central Market, Florence

The absolute best I had was in San Gemini, the speck of a hill town in Umbria where we spent our first week. I can’t tell you the name of the place (I don’t think it had one), but I can tell you it wasn’t Happy Pizza and that it’s on the main drag. Seriously, it’s worth stopping if you have to drive past the town. It was extraordinary. The plain slice was covered in the thinnest whisper of milky fresh mozzarella and delicious sauce. Remembering the mushroom slice, with specks of sausage and a flurry of pecorino is enough to bring tears to my eyes.

Assisi

Also worth mentioning: a slice Isaac got at the Antico Forno dei Serpenti, a bread and pastry shop near the intersection of the Via dei Serpenti and the Via Panisperna. The slice, a sliver of focaccia topped with olive oil, fresh basil and prefect, oozing, hopefully dioxin-free fresh buffalo mozzarella, was perfection. The one bite I got made me sing and hum with happiness. All pizza should do that.

Art, Florence

I found eating in Italy more difficult than I would have imagined; there are so many rules and different classes of restaurants, and it’s so easy to be duped by a nasty, tourist-trap trattoria masquerading as an honest, delicious, seasonally-driven neighborhood osteria, and it soon became obvious that I’m not quite as familiar with Italian food terms as I had thought I was. But, don’t cry for me just yet. Because despite all these roadblocks, we managed to eat very well.

Flower

In Umbria, my step-dad decided to hire the cook offered with the house so there would be no arguing about where to go for dinner or who should cook each night. This was a very wise choice. Daniella’s cooking is extraordinary. I’ve never eaten so well, so consistently, in my entire life (sorry Mom!). On fresh cheese crostini arugula leaves were pushed into the cheese like the design on a filigree brooch. It was beautiful and tasty, as was the lamb stew with olives, gnocchi con salvia e burro, fresh local catfish in puttanesca sauce, fried squash blossoms, local cheese with truffle honey and oh, the homemade tiramisu. All of them, delicious.

The Pantheon

One night she also made me artichokes in the Roman-Jewish style, because, yes, that’s right, March is carciofi season in Italy. I ate as many of them as I could everywhere we went. I had them raw, sliced paper-thin over a salad of arugula and parmigiano cheese at a wonderful neighborhood trattoria in the Oltrarno in Florence, where I also had them tossed with a delicious, flaky white fish and farfalle. I had them poached and served with a tangy, zippy salsa verde with tarragon at Florence’s central market from the trippa stand. I had them on pizza and as an antipasti more time than I can count. In short, I ate so many carciofi in 12 days that I think I may be turning a little bit green. It was heaven.

Vegetale

I didn’t have any in Rome though. Rome was the toughest city to eat in. We couldn’t find any restaurants with daily specials (this is my new rule of thumb to ensure that the restaurant is buying produce based on the season), but we did stumble upon a Sardinian ristorante who’s menu had a notation that I wish every restaurant in the world should be forced to adopt. They used an asterisk to let you know which proteins were being cooked from the freezer. For example: Scampi* ai Ferri o a Piacare? *Frozen. Scallopine al Vino o al Limone? Not frozen (and in case you were wondering, crazy delicious).

The Coliseum

The restaurant also happened to be next door to the only place in Italy where we got good bread, Panella. Wait, what? Bad bread? In Italy? Oh yes my friends. I always thought that Italian bread would be amazing, but at least in the parts of Umbria and Tuscany that we travelled through, the bread is not so bene. Apparently some folk way back in the 15th century got into a fight with a Pope about salt taxes, and ever since, no salt goes into the bread.

Central Market, Florence

Can you imagine? 600 years of unsalted bread? One of our guidebooks tried to make the claim that the lack of salt makes the bread bland and unassuming, the perfect foil to all of the regions’ spectacular culinary specialties; the cured meats, the cheeses, the truffles, the olive oils! Good try guys, but no salt in bread just makes it boring with bad crust. I’m all for traditions, but people, you’re only hurting yourselves!

Tuckered, Orvieto

And finally, walking. We did a lot of this. Going to the hilltowns of Italy with a man obsessed with climbing hills is an amazing way to lose five pounds while eating every ort of each multi-course dinner for 12 nights. We climbed every damn hill we could set foot on. We climbed to the top of Assisi, and Perugia, and Orte, and Narni (yes, it used to be named Narnia), and Orvieto, and San Gemini, and Montelpuciano, and Piombino, and Populonia, and Florence, and Rome.

Rainbow, Tuscany

Assisi and Narni were the most difficult, and therefore most rewarding, but it was our first day in Rome that nearly broke me. I’m pretty good at getting a bead on a city, but Rome still eludes me. Rome felt very much to me like New York must feel to thousands of people; dazzling, dizzying, confusing, loud, dirty, grey, cold, exhilarating, spectacular and heavenly all at once. Two days were not enough. We saw all the greatest hits, but kept getting lost (in a bad way) which made it difficult to really get a feel for the town. I must go back.

Angel

Since I’ve been back, everyone I know has asked, rather logically, “So, how was Italy?” It seems like a simple question with a predictable answer, but I can tell from the way their faces fall that there’s something amiss when I answer, “Not bad.”

Me

I’m torn about our trip to Italy. Obviously, I loved it, I mean, I’ve already prattled on for over 1,400 words about it, but at the same time, I didn’t come back as relaxed and annoyingly enthusiastic as I did from our trip to Croatia. I’d go back in a heartbeat, of course, but like so many others before me, I didn’t leave my heart there.

My heart’s still on Hvar.