Saturday, June 26, 2010


Before we left I had to prioritize the things I wanted to see while here. Southern Italy is an embarassment of riches to an archaeologist. Hands down, my highest priority was to see the Villa Rustica at the Villa Regina section of the Vesuvian town of Boscoreale. Brother, did I have my priorities straight!

It’s a good news/bad news scenario. There have been some 147 ancient Roman villas excavated in the region of Mt. Vesuvius on the Bay of Naples, all of which were buried under 15 to 90 feet of volcanic debris during the cataclysmic eruption of 79 CE. Of those, there is precisely one villa which has been excavated to anything approaching modern archaeological standards and is still available for study. One! And the news gets worse: something over half of these villas were discovered in the process of some latter-day construction project, were quickly examined for any treasures which could be taken, then destroyed or reburied. Even when antiquarians and later archaeologists were brought in to study the sites, the reports they left were cursory at best and disastrously incomplete at worst.

The good news is that everything about the Villa Regina dig was done not only correctly but in exemplary fashion. First the Superintendant of Cultural Properties recognized the irreplaceable value of this site and convinced the private land owners to cede the property in exchange for another site. Secondly, a shadowy group which operates in the Naples region and is well known, but which I for private reasons will hereafter refer to as They-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, kept their ravening maws out of the way for once. Third, the excavation was carried out in the 1980s under the brilliant direction of Stefano de Caro in exemplary fashion, was minutely documented, and—God be praised!—was written up and published in a timely fashion. De Caro’s excavation report is a pleasure to read, even for one like me who struggles with Italian. American archaeologists, take note.

Finally, the site was preserved by the state government of Campania and opened to the public for visits and study, and a beautiful antiquarium (a small museum tied to a specific archaeological or historical site) has been constructed adjacent to the villa to house many of the artifacts recovered as well as many others from the Bay of Naples.

Unfortunately, finding the site was a nightmare. Italian signage is simply abysmal, inexcusable in a region that so desparately needs to wring every last dollar possible from tourism. The trip from Agropoli was surprisingly easy, considering traffic. We had figured on a two-hour commute door to door, and felt rather smug when we exited the autostrada at an hour and twenty minutes. Driving the last three miles to the museum was another thirty, after becoming lost at least five times and driving past the entrance to the museum three because the sign was so unobtrusive. If it had not been for my trusty, eagle-eyed navigatrice Sandy I doubt we would ever have found the place. And this was one of a dozen instances where she’s kept us out of a muddle.

Once there, however, we were first invited by a stylish woman to examine the collection in the antiquarium and within minutes were offered tiny cups of delicious espresso. That’ll kick-start your tour! As so often, the bella signora went far beyond the call to make our experience enjoyable.

The collection is simply exquisite, small, but chosen with incredible discrimination. Of course I was entranced by such lovely things as Roman shovels and vinedressers’ knives, but there is plenty here to make a visit memorable to any American tourist. Just to mention one thing, the museum contains the plaster cast of a juvenile pig that, along with the human occupants and other farm animals, was not able to escape a powerful surge. I know the little guy was destined for pancetta and prosciutto anyway, but somehow I find his fate more affecting because he was so helpless and obviously terrified. That’s how detailed the cast is.

Next, to a traveling exhibit of plaster and resin casts from all over the Vesuviana. Some were copies, but many more were originals, including several that you see all the time in the history books. Way cool, if gruesome.

But the highlight was the villa itself, which has been re-roofed to protect it and carefully conserved. In the background of the picture you will see why it was so perfectly preserved; some 18 feet of volcanic detritus. The amount of material that eruption generated is simply inconceivable, but when you consider it covered a hundred-square-mile area with that much stuff or more, you begin to get some notion.

The real stars of the show were the pressing rooms and the open-air wine cellar containing 18 of the huge terra cotta wine vats which were typically buried up to their shoulders to maintain a constant cool temperature. This villa was devoted almost exclusively to wine production, and the cellar at full capacity would have produced a bit over 10,000 liters of wine.

In the foreground of Sandy’s picture you’ll note that part of the farm’s vineyard has been replanted, and therein hangs a tale. Everybody knows about the plaster casts of the humans and animals of Vesuvius. But way back in the seventies a professor named Wilhemina Jashemski from the University of Maryland had the clever idea to fill root cavities of plants in the same way, and as luck would have it the Smithsonian had a database of root patterns of several thousand plants. Thus Jashemski was able to identify hundreds of plant species from Pompeii, Herculaneum and a number of other Vesuvian sites including this one. And her work has dramatically altered our perception of how things worked in Pompeii, where we now know there were vineyards, fruit orchards and market gardens in many places, right there inside the town. From this site and others we can even tell how the Romans spaced their vines and trellised them.

The second main phase of this trip took us to the other extreme of life in a villa. The so-called Villa San Marco in Castellamare, some 10 miles west of Boscoreale, is a luxury villa, a villa in the sense that most Americans think of when they hear the word (the Latin villa simply means ‘farmhouse’). Again, horrible signage, again, any number of helpful people, and again, people at the site who obviously took tremendous pride and joy in showing us an element of their past. This villa is so totally over the top that it’s a bit disturbing; wealthy Romans were very wealthy indeed, and they took obvious pleasure in flaunting it. Sixty-two rooms uncovered so far, not one but three atria, two peristyles, one with fountains, decorative pools and a swimming pool the size of four Olympic pools. All with a panoramic view out over the Bay of Naples. Another peristyle just for ornamental plants and a different vista. Lavish frescoes in almost every room. A private bath suite with hot, tepid and cold baths. A kitchen with a cooktop thirty feet long. I could go on, but you get the idea. The guy lived like a god, and probably had ambitions.

Driving back home I was struck by the contrast of our two villas, the villa rustica and the villa maritima. It is so easy to extrapolate from the sensational sites such as the Villa San Marco. But we suspect that something like 95% of all ancient Romans were farmers, most of whom probably operated pretty close to the subsistence level. Our farmer at Villa Regina was considerably above that level, but he was still far more typical of ‘real’ life in ancient Rome than the plutocrat at San Marco. That may be yet another reason I have fallen in love with the Cilento; so many of these people are so much closer to the ‘real’ if rapidly changing Italy of today.


Agropoli is a gorgeous little cliffside town, but I think I’ll let Sandy’s photos (and Fernando’s posted on the blog) tell that story. This is definitely a case of one picture, etc. But Agropoli also has a history that stretches back as far as 2500 years.

Most historians think that Agropoli started as a Greek city, perhaps founded in the seventh century BCE. I should explain that the southern part of Italy was known by the Romans as Magna Graecia, ‘Greater Greece’ because the whole of the coastline, from Tarentum (Taranto) on the heel, along the bottom, the toe of the foot, along the top and then up the shin as far as the kneecap, was settled by Greek colonists, either directly from Greece or from Greek colonies in Italy that had outgrown their infrastructure and colonized in turn, subcolonies, as the archaeologists say. In any case, because of the abundance and fertility of the land, there were probably more Greeks in Southern Italy by the mid-fifth century BCE than there were in mainland Greece. Think of the Irish in America.

A famous Greek settlement, about 6 miles northeast of Agropoli, is Paestum, which was Poseidonia, City of Poseidon, during its Greek heyday. It is nothing short of spectacular: a series of Doric-style temples in an incredible state of preservation, an ecclesia (assembly hall), agora (marketplace) and a substantial residential sector. These are the best preserved Greek ruins in Magna Graecia and among the best in the world.

Now, we know that Poseidonia was founded by Greeks from the city of Sybaris, but no one knows who settled Agropoli, and that’s a bit of a mystery; archaeological evidence suggests that this was an important site. A number of scholars, including Fernando, think it was actually settled by the same people who settled Poseidonia and was in fact part of the same city-state. Agropoli would have been the harbor, citadel, and main urban center, Poseidonia the temple complex. If it sounds a little weird having your commercial district 6 miles from the religious center of your city, that’s actually not that uncommon in the Greek world. Remember your world history class, all classical cities were really city-states (poleis) composed of an urban core (astu), usually along the coast, and the main settlement area (chora) further inland. At Metapontum, for example, a Greek city we hope to see, the temple complex is 9 miles north of the port city. Why didn’t they settle closer to the coast? Simple technology; ancient plows were simple ards which were incapable of turning dense alluvial land, even though it was far more fertile than upland soils.

In any case Poseidonia and Agropoli suffered a series of invasions, first by the native Italic tribes from the interior, the Lucanians, then by the Romans. In 273 BCE Poseidonia was refounded as a Roman colonia, a settlement for Roman veterans who were given land and political status (the Roman equivalent of VA benefits) in exchange for settling down out in the boonies where they could keep an eye on any restless locals. Meanwhile the future Agropoli became the thriving little Roman port of Ercula.

The Roman phase at Paestum is also impressive; the agora became a forum, the ecclesia a comitium, and a number of huge, impressive houses of Roman style went up. Paestum was obviously a prosperous place for some.

Agropoli’s next incarnation was as a Byzantine port in the seventh century CE. It was from these Greek speakers that it received its modern name; the word Agropoli is simply ‘acropolis’, ‘high city’, a fortified citadel on a naturally defensible spot. Over the course of the next 900 years Agropoli was attacked and/or ruled by a number of raiders and invaders, among them Saracens, Bourbons, and Angevins. Through it all it has maintained its equilibrium, and now it is a quaint little town overlooking a spectacular harbor which caters primarily to yachts and sport vessels. The invaders these days are most welcome; instead of swords and spears they carry beach towels...and cash!


Yesterday was a good example of how lucky I am to do the kind of work I do. When work is this much fun, I almost feel guilty to call it work.

We went to a local caseificio, an artisinal cheesemaker, which specializes in cacio di capra, goat cheese.

The creamery was located in an agriturismo in the seaside town of Castel Velino, about an hour’s drive south of here. The drive itself was a treat. We entered the Strada Statale 18 here at Agropoli. Number 18 south is a superstrada, not an interstate with four lanes, but a two-lane, limited access highway with higher speed limits. As we headed south we left the seacoast for a while and headed through a ‘gap’ as we say in the mountains of North Carolina and into the Vallo di Lucania, the heart of the territory once conquered by the Italic peoples, the Lucanians. Beautiful mountains, which remind us so much of our southern Appalachians, rise up on both sides, to heights of four to eight thousand feet. The mountains are covered with deciduous and evergreen forests, and on the lower slopes you will see vineyards and olive and fruit orchards. Every five miles or so you will spot another picturesque hill town, with houses clinging to the slopes of the upper reaches and always the silhouette of the mother church of the town, with its campanile (bell tower) reaching to the sky. Often you will also see the ruins of a castle and a tower, reminders that even here in the interior the ‘dark ages’ really were a time of constant turmoil.

We left the highway at Vallo and snaked our way over the southern shank of a mountain and into the valley of the Fiumicello, a branch of the Alento. Back down at the coast we came to Castel Velino Maritima, the seaside port of Velino, and turned back to the east and up a mountain to the sleepy town of Castel Velino Vecchio. Another fairly common phenomenon in this land, cities with an upper and lower section, the lower to facilitate trade and agriculture, the upper behind the powerful ramparts that provided protection from Saracen pirates or the enemy forces of Byzantines, Anjovins, Lombards, Bourbons...the list is too long to complete. Here the lower town has a much less sinister purpose: tourism.

We wound through the sleepy village of Castel Velino, stopping once to ask directions and receiving the simple response, “Sopra, sopra!” (“Up, up!”) Our agriturismo was almost literally at the end of the road at the summit of the mountain, so there was no serious danger of becoming lost. We were lucky enough to take a turn into the wrong driveway and wound up at ‘Il Panorama’ restaurant. Never was a business more aptly named; the restaurant has a huge terrazza and a stunning view of the Gulf of Velia. I counted six different shades of blue, from turquoise to deepest azure. After several minutes of utter confusion (we kept asking for the caseificio and the kitchen staff were understandably mystified) the proprietor offered two glasses of Prosecco and the chance to enjoy that view. Then we were sent on our way.

The Agriturismo I Moresani actually faces north, away from the sea, but has an equally beautiful prospect toward Monte della Stella, one of the tallest peaks in the Cilento. The agriturismo is a family-owned and run farmstead which caters to the tourist trade and includes rooms to let, a huge ristorante with not one but two terrazze, the caseificio, the goat paddock, a horse paddock with equipment for dressage, stables for both kinds of animals, a large vineyard and an olive orchard. The Moresani family is obviously busy. Fortunately, besides grandparents, there are sons, daughters, their spouses, and assorted grandkids. All apparently living in the same household and working together.

We were shown the basic cheesemaking operation by Gino, a son-in-law, whose English was good. Gino explained that the operation was as traditional as they could reasonably make it and still make a profit. For example, the goat herd is a bit more than 100 does from two breeds, but when I asked Gino if they were traditional Cilentane breeds he explained that these goats, of Swiss and French extraction, were literally ten times more productive than the local breed and so the latter were disappearing fast from the Cilento.

When we arrived at the laboratorio a batch of cacioricotta was in the stainless steel fermentation vat and had already been treated with rennet. This is not the ricotta we know, a true ‘ri-cotta’ (re-cooked) cheese made from the whey of another cheese, which still contains considerable protein. This is a whole-milk ricotta. The milk is gradually heated to about 115° F as bacteria of lactobacillus and streptococcus (no, not that streptococcus) species do their magic. Gino explained that the family uses a culture from a previous batch as an innoculant but have it analyzed by a chemist regularly to be sure it is maintaining the desired mix of bacterial critters. Since it would be a while before this batch was ready to cut, we took the time to try sample plates of the cheeses at different stages of ripeness. On the terrazza of the restaurant we were offered five different cheeses from the family, plus a dish of aqua sale, a bread dish which Sandy loves. It consists of nothing but twice-cooked bread (the name biscotto also means re-cooked) which was been dipped in water, salted, and allowed to dry. That’s it! But it puts any saltine to shame. Over this are sprinkled herbs, especially oregano and basil, a tiny bit of garlic, olive oil, and halves of the little grape tomatoes that are so incredibly sweet in this area. To accompany our food we had the family’s vino bianco.

A bit later Antonio, Gino’s brother-in-law, called us back to the creamery. The coagulum had already been cut by an electric agitator and the curd and whey were quickly separating. Antonio used a clever strainer in the form of a large, perforated bowl to push down into the curd and allow whey to collect in the bowl, then deftly poured it onto a sloped platform attached to the fermenter. This platform had a hole at the end to allow whey to drain into a food-grade plastic bucket below. Antonio poured several scoops of whey onto the platform, then several more into other buckets arrayed around his feet as the drainer was emptying.

Before long it was time to form cheeses, and Antonio had several dozen little plastic forms about the size of a small plastic margarine container which would eventually create a fresh cheese of one-half kilo, about a pound. He scooped a container of curd, placed it on the platform to drain, and when the platform was full of such forms went back with a stainless steel scoop designed to channel curd neatly into the forms and refilled each form, now only about two-thirds full because so much whey had already drained, until each was neatly rounded at the top. Then he deftly put them onto a large draining table behind him and went back to filling forms. This table also sloped and channeled whey to a bucket. All this whey, some seven buckets ultimately, will go back to the farm animals as food.

The batch eventually produced about fifty cheeses, and halfway through the process Antonio was already able to flip half the forms to evenly distribute the drainage of whey and create the attractive ‘wicker’ marks that seem to denote artisinal cheeses. Earlier Gino had showed us the aging chamber, cooled to about 48° F, where cheeses from one to eight weeks old were ripening. By the time the cacio stagionato (fully ripened) cheeses were ready for sale, they were about half the size of the original and had a dense, cream-colored rind. This cheese is so dense that it is used for grating like a Parmeggiano-Reggiano.

Of course the highlight of the excursion was when Antonio allowed me to ‘help’ with the process, so I now call myself an honorary cheeseman. I don’t think I slowed him down too much.

Back home at the apartment, fortuitously, Fabio and Fernando dropped by to show me the proof copy of a Cilentane journal devoted to the promotion of the Mediterranean diet, and each had an article about the goats and cheese of their beloved Cilento! Quite a fitting end to a wonderful excursion.

As usual, Fernando is an amazing font of information, scholarly and otherwise. Last summer as I prepared a talk on ancient fermentation, I used for illustration of a modern analogue the little goat cheeses made on the Greek islands which are drained in wicker forms. Fernando sent me a picture of several terra cotta forms of household objects on display at the Museum in Paestum. Among these is a replica of just such a little cacio di capra. And then he explained that as a boy he had himself made such cheeses out on the farm! Amazingly, these little cheeses have a continuous history in the Cilento of some 2600 years, and probably a history in the Greek motherland that goes back another 1200. That is a tradition worth saving, it seems to me.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


Yesterday was a good combination of work and play. In the morning Fernando and I headed back to Paestum, this time to the Museo with its incredible trove of artifacts from Neolithic to Byzantine. When I was in the museum last summer, I was so nervous about delivering my talk in my bad Italian that it was hard to concentrate. Plus it was insufferably hot in the building. I’m talking 30° C and no circulation at all. The next day I asked Oshri, our wonderful tour guide, if this beautiful, modern building had been built without air conditioning. His reply reveals a lot about the dysfunctional way the Italian governments at all levels work so often. The building has a perfectly good climate control system, but the directors refuse to allow its use. Why? Too expensive. Why too expensive? Because they don’t have enough paying visitors. And why, pray tell, don’t they have enough paying visitors? Well, for one thing, because they keep the building so bloody hot during the height of the foreign tourist season that nobody can stand to go! Word does get around.

Yesterday afternoon was an excursion to the ipermercato with Fabio’s parents, Rolando and Filomena, easily two of the nicest people God ever put on the planet. Both appear to be a bit past retirement age, very handsome people, Filomena all warmth and enthusiasm, Rolando quiet and reserved but the very soul of gentility.

It was fun just to walk around this huge facility and shop with two natives who can afford just about whatever they want, but don’t. The reason they can afford is that they, like so many other Italians, are and always have been very frugal people. But generous to a fault. I can’t count the number of times Filomena called us aside to warn us away from some product that she could and readily would provide us from her home supply. Hard to argue with that; the home supply is always of the highest quality.

The market itself was interesting. Ultramodern (it’s called the Maxi Futura), with huge aisles, bright lighting, an incomparable selection...and not a truly artisinal product in the place. Plus the quantities proffered are bulk items, and two people who’ll be traveling long-distance in four weeks can’t really justify a twelve-pack of TP. The prices seemed good, from the little we could tell. The place just didn’t have the right feel.

Afterwards we trundled into the trusty Fiat Panda and were off to the Supermercato Deco for comparison. This one was more to our liking, moderate in size, with an excellent but not overwhelming selection of local and processed foods, a good deli section, and friendly, efficient staff. Plus it is literally five minutes from the apartment.

Watching Rolando and Filomena shop at the two stores was an education in itself; from the iper- they bought almost exclusively bulk items such as laundry detergent, from the super, primarily processed foods but ones of high quality worthy to be offered to la famiglia and even the cani (dogs), who adore Filomena, and ought to. In my next life I want to come back as one of Filomena’s dogs.

So how did these two individuals attain such relative comfort? A beautiful villa in a beautiful town, food in whatever quantity and quality they desire, a comfortable lifestyle all around? Were they the lucky aristocrats who, even in this region of relative want, have traditionally been indulged? Not a bit of it! These two people have worked their fannies off for everything they have.

Rolando and Filomena were both born here in the South but moved to Torino, in the north, a relatively prosperous area. Bright and ambitious, they obtained an education and when the opportunities were not there for them in their adopted state, they simply made their own. Rolando worked for years in the tour industry, primarily with German tourists. Both learned (and taught to their sons) the German language; so often here, proficiency in a foreign language is the key to better opportunities. Filomena eventually opened her own furniture shop. And they skrimped and saved and dreamed of a villa in the south of Italy. Finally the chance came at an attractive piece of land, and Rolando and Filomena's brother bought it and marked out their adjoining plots. Over the years they built their houses in stages, as so often happens in Italy. As you drive around the countryside, you will occasionally see the pillars and concrete pads which mark the foundations and two or three floors of a house. And that’s it. Abandoned? No, just waiting for the next installment. Elsewhere, the slabs have been filled in with the ceramic blocks and concrete which are the standard material here for walls. That is the stage which Rolando’s brother has reached. And on and on. The system has other advantages as well. After a minimum of four pillars you can add as many others as you think you can afford and the house expands exponentially if it is multistory. Plus, only the pillars are load-bearing, since the floors are tied to them. No bearing walls. La Mama wants a bigger kitchen? No problem! Break out a wall and off you go!

So Rolando and Filomena built their house by stages, as finances allowed, and avoided the massive debt that so often marks the real lawn ornament of an American trophy house. The grounds were gradually transformed into some twenty acres of vineyards and orchards, all immaculately kept. And when the couple retired, they moved with their two sons, Fabio and Domenico, into their dream house, now furnished with two apartments, one for each son. And Fabio (and I have no doubt, Domenico) is every bit as intelligent, ambitious, and kind as his parents. “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” That’s a metaphor I think Rolando would appreciate.

As we strolled the orchards yesterday and Filomena filled our fruit bowl with huge ripe figs direct from the trees, it was easy to see the pride these two people feel in what they have achieved. I commented to Rolando that he had created a real paradiso. But that it must also be molto, molto lavoro. He laughed and answered that he never had difficulty falling asleep at night.

Sleep well, Rolando and Filomena! You have certainly earned it.

Monday, June 21, 2010


We have discovered the perfect food here in the Cilento. The bad news is that there is an evil impostor in the US masquerading under the same name. And it’s a noble name. The name is pizza.

On our first night here we were taken by Fabio and Fernando on a quick tour of Agropoli and to a famous restaurant, the Bar Ristorante Barbanera. As we snaked our way through the narrow streets of the town, a young woman strode up to the car, opened the door and hopped in. Sandy was startled at first, but as it happens it was Fabio’s girlfriend Katiuscea, Tuscea or Katia for short. Ladies, earlier I suggested what an attractive find Fabio would be. Perhaps I spoke too rashly. Not only is Katia gorgeous, she could charm the birds right out of the trees. And rumor has it she’s a dead aim with a Baretta. Katia is a poliziotta, a municipal policewoman, and I would consider it a privilege to be ticketed by her.

We parked the car and strolled up an ancient street toward the summit of the Rocca, the towering rock which gives Agropoli (acropolis) its name and served as the citadel of the Byzantine town. We were more and more excited by the spectacular glimpses of the harbor we were seeing below. Besides having the Rocca as natural fortification, Agropoli lies next to a natural harbor in a small bay. In other words, an ideal location for early settlement. Today, an ideal location for a maritime resort.

We strolled under the gates of the Byzantine town and arrived at the ristorante. The main seating for the restaurant is a large terrazza along a retaining wall at the edge of a cliff. On the other side of the wall, the beautiful Golfo di Agropoli. The main course for any good meal at the Barbanera is a spectacular view.

We each ordered a different pizza which we agreed to share, in addition to several small bottles (mezzobottiglie) of the local red and white wines, bottled under the name of Paes, dialect for Paestum, the nearby archaeological site.

The pizza was a revelation. We’ve had pizza before in Italy and it’s been good. We’ve even had pizza in the Bay of Naples, the reputed home of the item. But nothing to compare with this. The bread was thin, with a crackling crust on the bottom and a soft, melting crumb. Little areas of darker crust around the perimeter left no doubt that this pizza was cooked in the only way a pizza should ever be cooked, that is, in a forno a legna, a wood-fired brick oven. I remember how, on our first excursion to Italy, as we drove around the countryside, everywhere we’d see signs for ‘Forno a Legna’. Geez, what’s the big deal? Then we tasted the bread. No more argument. And it is a treat to watch a good fornaio (oven man) take his pala (peel) and maneuver the breads into exactly the right spot. Of course the walls of the furnace retain more heat, so an adept fornaio will position his pala under one edge of a pizza crust or a bread and with the mere flick of a wrist spin it around and leave it in just the right spot to see that every side of the bread gets the right amount of caloric love.

The toppings were delicious as well, though there was no doubt who the star of the show was. Sandy’s pizza had a traditional salsa di pomodoro, a thin layer of tomato sauce made fresh on the premises and topped with a local goat cheese and herbs. Katia’s pizza had quarters of tiny grape tomatoes, impossibly red and sweet, cheese and arugula. Fernando had a local sausage and pepperoni. No, not two different kinds of sausage; to an Italian a pepperono is a bell pepper, usually allowed to achieve its full glorious red color and sweetness. My pizza had the local formaggio di capra, the goat cheese, and flowers of zucchini.

All the freshest ingredients on a delicious bread, none of which really explain the wonder of Cilentane pizza. Because the secret is the perfect balance of perfect ingredients. At the risk of offending my friend Mike who operates a pizzeria back home, most American pizza is to the Italian article as chipped beef is to ribeye. Why do we feel we have to glob on more and more sauce, a huge mound of rubbery cheese, so many slices of ‘pepperoni’ that a layer of grease floats on the surface? And put all this on a thick, gooey crust which has, more often than not, been delivered to your door in a cardboard box absolutely guaranteed to make the crust even more gooey?

Believe it or not I don’t really mean that as a criticism of American pizza. We associate pizza with Italian-Americans, as we do such foods as lasagna and all forms of pasta swimming in tomato sauce. We also associate Italian-Americans with olive skin and dark hair and eyes, even though millions of Italians are blue-eyed and fair skinned. The reason is, of course, that a large proportion of Italians who immigrated to America in the latter decades of the nineteenth century and first two of the twentieth derived from the Mezzogiorno, the south of Italy. And the reason for that was painfully simple: economic opportunity has been lacking for so long in this area that an ambitious young person might well decide to risk all and head for greener pastures in the new world.

I don’t mean to disparage at all the sorts of economic hardships those people faced when they arrived, but for the most part they weren’t starving. In fact, they found themselves in a paradise of food, at least relative to the literal starvation they had faced at home. And so their foods became a sort of parody of those they remembered at home, the same thing only completely over the top. Lasagna, for example, in Italy strictly a holiday food that most Italians eat once a year at Easter if at all because it is so luxurious, became a staple of the Sunday dinner.

All of which is perhaps quibbling, but I think perhaps they (and we) have lost something in the bargain, and that is, once again, balance. To coin a phrase, “As a man eateth, so is he.” The balance in Italian foods carries over to their lives. Italians work, and they work hard, but they don’t make a religion of work like so many Americans do. They eat and drink, and absolutely demand to eat and drink well, but always in moderation, except for the occasional splurge. In fact, the only area of their lives which they seem to approach with reckless abandon is in the love of family, where their devotion seems boundless. And it’s hard to argue with that particular vice.

So, does a lack of balance in lifestyle carry over to their cousins in America as well? I’m hardly qualified to say, but based on the little I’ve read about a popular American reality show which centers on Italian-American families in New Jersey, the unfortunate answer seems to be, yes.

I have heard on the cooking shows at least five different Italian-Americans claim to be the originators of pizza, and perhaps one of them is right, as it applies to the American version. But in book 11 of the foundational myth of ancient Rome, the Aeneid of Vergil, the Trojan immigrants who are fated to establish a new Troy in the form of Rome are told by an oracle they will know they have reached their destination when they will be so hungry they will “eat their plates.” Typical oracular mumbo-jumbo. But in fact, when Aeneas and his men reach the central coast of western Italy and are famished, they decide to have a modest banquet to celebrate their safe arrival in this strange new land and to dutifully thank the gods. Unfortunately they have lost all the plates in a terrible storm. And so they take their flatbreads, their pitas, as it were, and put upon them fresh vegetables and local herbs as well as the cheese they have brought with them, and roast these over a wood fire.

If that’s not pizza, what is it? And how else would a good Italian know he had finally arrived home if not when he had invented the perfect food?

Sunday, June 20, 2010


We’ve been pure tourists for the last two days and having a ball at that. We’ll have to do some serious work next week to justify the expense of this trip. We’re fortunate to have the two best tour guides in southern Italy in the form of Fernando and Fabio. Not only are these two guys experts in classical studies, but they both dearly love the area and have an encyclopedic knowledge of it, from neolithic times right up to the present.

Friday evening a group of graduate students from the University of Salerno came over to talk to the ‘food guy’. These bright, charming young people have the notion to start a sort of institute to promote archaeotourism, particularly in the form of traditional foods. It’s interesting that four of them come from families which produce food either for home consumption or commercially. Rita, for example, the attractive young woman who acted as translator since her English is almost flawless, comes from a household which produces peaches commercially. But her family also produces its own wine. Allesandro’s father, from Basilicata, produces a form of Lambrusco.

Needless to say I gave them all the encouragement I could; Besides the incredible beauty of this area, it seems to me that their food traditions are some of the most valuable ‘commodities’ they can share with the world.

After the students left, Fernando and Fabio drove us to a restaurant in Castellabate, a seaside cliffhanger with spectacular views where a small castle was built in Medieval times next to the Benedictine abbey which was attracting the pirates. Thus the name of the town, Castella alla Abate, ‘Castle-at-the-Abbey, Castellabate. By the time we arrived it was almost 10 pm and the lights of the northern Cilentane coast were spread out below us for thirty miles and in the far distance we could make out the silhouettes of the Amalfi Coast and Capri. The weather was perfect and a half moon floated over a calm sea. Magic. After a spectacular meal on the terrazza, the beautiful proprietress was kind enough to give us a tour of the inside of the restaurant, ‘La Calesse’ ‘The Shay’ named after a nineteenth-century gig prominently displayed in one of the main dining rooms. The restaurant is actually in the rear of a beautiful if somewhat down-at-the-heels palace, the Palazzo Perotti, and the Signora has made her home in the rooms surrounding the courtyard. Afterwards a quick tour of this ancient town. I hate the word, but it’s inescapable: quaint.

Yesterday we were up early and off to Paestum, an incredible archaeological treasure which is only about 10 miles from Agropoli. Fernando and Fabio were far too ambitious for that foolishness! Paestum lies in the plain of the River Sele and is flat as a pancake, but ten miles inland mountains rise precipitously to heights of several thousand meters. We made the loop through the western flank of the mountains so that we could see the Grand Canyon. The Cilentane version, that is. Perhaps it’s not on the scale as its American cousin, but it is spectacular nonetheless, a deep gorge, carved by a mountain torrent, the Solofrone, through towering tablelands which Sergio Leoni and Clint Eastwood used as backdrop for some of their famous ‘Spaghetti Westerns”. This was also most likely the area where Spartacus made his last stand against the combined forces of Crassus and Pompey.

We drove through two beautiful hill towns with spectacular views, Trentonara and Capaccio. The latter was the headwaters of the Roman aqueduct which serviced Paestum, and its name derived from Latin, Caput aquis, ‘Source of water’. The Romans were not especially known for their poetic temperament. When they created an artificial harbor at the mouth of the Tiber River, for example, they named it Portus, ‘Port’. Perhaps in the case of Capaccio they showed good judgment; no amount of poetry could do justice to that stunning view.

Finally to Paestum where we were joined by our young friends of the night before, all of whom had been here countless times before and were doubtless bored out of their minds but graciously had offered to accompany the Americans. About Paestum I will have to say much more later, but let it suffice to say that it contains the best-preserved Greek ruins in all of Magna Graecia and some of the best in the Greek world. And it’s a textbook example of the sort of cultural fusion that this area represents. There is evidence of Neolithic settlement here, then Archaic Greek, Classical Greek, Lucanian, Greek again, Roman, and Medieval. Fortunately for us the last-named was minimal; the area silted up and malaria invaded and the city was abandoned and all but forgotten, to lie in wait for rediscovery in the twentieth century.

Lovely Rita acted as interpreter again. The language barrier is something we have struggled with since we first started coming to Italy years ago. It is especially painful this time, however, because I really feel I’ve found kindred spirits in Fernando and Fabio. Fernando and I refer to each other as ‘Gemello’, ‘Twin’, since we share so many interests, scholarly and otherwise. And yet their English is almost as bad as my Italian, and that’s saying a lot. We’ve finally reached a sort of accommodation where each speaks his own language and if the other fails to comprehend then we struggle along in the auditor’s language. I am coming to the point where I can understand quite a lot of an Italian conversation, unless it’s in dialect. And there’s always Latin in reserve.

Written communication is not much of a problem, thank goodness in this time of easy worldwide internet access; Fernando and I each read the other’s language with some proficiency. But that issue brought up an interesting discussion last night when we were invited to a party at the home of one of Fernando’s colleague, Francesca, and her husband Jim. Both spoke flawless English, as did their friends Maria and Antonio, and it was a real luxury to ‘bathe’ in English for several hours on end. Maria and Antonio are native Italians, she from Florence and he from Puglia, and they both spent two years in California where they were initially overwhelmed by the demands of conversational English. Francesca is an expert in Medieval art who chooses to publish in English because, as Fernando says, “No one reads the Italian journals.” The upshot is that she is internationally known and in demand as a lecturer...but is practically ignored in Italy. Few Italian scholars can or will read English. Jim is a native of southern Turkey who grew up in Istanbul, learned German, fell in love with an Italian, and took a three-month intensive to try to learn the language when he was posted to Italy as part of his job as an executive with an export firm. He must communicate on a daily basis in at least four languages. And then there are the dialects! Jim swears that sometimes some of his salesmen deliberately use impenetrable Italian dialects just for the pleasure of imagining him scratching his head.

And then there’s the whole issue of learning to ‘think’ in a foreign language and how that may alter your whole way of processing the world. Look, you can know all the vocabulary in the world, but there’s just no way to translate by the book; every language has its on idiosyncrasies and peculiar patterns, and there’s nothing for it but to muddle through until you ‘hardwire’ your brain to think in the new language. For example, here’s a simple conversation as it would be rendered literally from Italian to English:

A: Good day, Sir! How stands it?

B: Well. And for thou?

A: All well, thanks to thee.

B: Has hot, no?

A: Is true! But not such hot as for yesterday. And is a good breeze.

B: Is true! Yesterday I have been traveled to the Castellabate-for-the-sea and almost I have been scalded.

A: Sir, where thou wantests the my parking?

B: As thee wishest. But not for this space. Is for Fabio.

A: It goes well. Here? Is well?

B: No. He is for the tenant.

A: But here?

B: Is well. Now I owe to go to the my work. Thee I will see after, perhaps?

A: Yes. Soon we will make the touring for Paestum. We are here again at the seventeen hours.

B: Goes well. To the early!

A: To the early! At the arrival, Sir!

You can see why it’s a bit of a struggle. And yet we struggle on, and somehow the human contacts that we make are so much dearer for the effort.