Thursday, June 27, 2013


It’s a rainy morning in Agropoli,  the dark clouds rolling over the ridges, even a few rumbles of thunder farther to the north over Paestum.  But it’s a good rain, gentle, slow, nourishing for the riot of plants around here, promising a bit of relief for the hours of work Rolando and Filo often have to expend to water their crops from the well.  It’s one of those maritime showers that rolls in off the sea and erupts when it hits the thermals from these mountains and quickly dissipates.  Even now there is far more than enough blue sky showing to the south to make cat’s pajamas, so it won’t be long before it’s sunny again.  And is it really possible that the Cilento is even more beautiful in the rain?
Yesterday was memorable for an invitation to pranzo (lunch) from the Astones, and Filo was promising Spaghetti alla vongole, Spaghetti with clams, one of our favorites.  And Filo is an incredible cook, even by Italian standards.  
As often with all things Italian, the time for lunch was a bit nebulous.  We’ve just learned to chill out and wait for the signal.  But as the hour approached 3 pm our appetites were raging.  The delay was well worth the grumbling stomachs, for Fabio had gone to town to retrieve Katiuscea, and this lively, intelligent, funny young woman is the best sauce for any dish.  We entered the house upstairs to find lunch service laid out beautifully in the living room next to the terazza, the doors open to admit that ravishing brezza we’ve had lately.  Hugs and kisses all around and then we settled in for a feast.
The first course was not, in fact, alla vongole, but Spaghetti con frutte di mare, spaghetti with a mixture of seafood.  But not just seafood.  The freshest possible seafood, bought less than three hours earlier at the Astones’ favorite local seafood market and pulled from the sea less than 24 hours before that.  I hear lots of people say they don’t like seafood, but I have to believe that if they ever tasted seafood this fresh they would be converted.  Not the slightest hint of ‘fishiness’, just the pure, sweet essence of shrimp or crab or whatever plus a subtle soupçon of the sea.  I once had a waiter in Rome advise me not to order a seafood dish there because the sea was too far away and the fish could not possibly be fresh.  You understand that Rome is all of 18 miles from the sea!  But he may have been right; here we are less than a mile from the port as the crow flies and the seafood is impossibly fresh.  It should be possible, thanks to processing at sea and flash freezing, for North Carolinians to have seafood almost as fresh, but again and again at my local grocery I am appalled at the fetid mush that is proffered.  All it takes is a modicum of care and love for one’s product, but it seems many American purveyors can’t even muster that.  
Strange to say, however, Filo herself doesn’t eat seafood!  How does she cook it so masterfully and yet not eat it?  Obviously the instincts of a naturally talented cook.  The spaghetti was perfectly cooked thanks to the ministrations of Fabio.  About two minutes before Filo anticipated the pasta would be al dente, Katiuscea began bringing strands of pasta from the kitchen for Fabio to sample and he rendered his verdict.  Finally I heard, “twenty seconds!” and out came the spaghetti and into the sauté pan with the seafood to ‘marry’.  The seafood itself was a rich mix of tiny shrimps, beautiful little pearly orange mussels, oysters, strips of calamari, and tiny little tails of the cicale, 'cicadas' (actually a type of mantis shrimp) which yield very little meat but impart a rich flavor.  All dressed with exquisite simplicity with parsley, a few bits of cherry tomato, and Rolando’s priceless olive oil.  With it we drank a crisp, dry white from Puglia which Fabio explained was made on the estate of a daughter of the American actor Tyrone Power.
As usual, the primi piatti would have been a feast for most American meals, but we knew we had only begun so we were canny enough not to ask for seconds.  And predictably, for the entree out came a platter of fittura di merluzzi, beautiful little whole hake battered so lightly you hardly realized a batter was there and perfectly fried so that there was not the slightest hint of oiliness.  These little beauties had backbones that were almost fused so that they could be filleted with ease.  The flesh was beautiful, white, firm but yielding and absolutely delicious.  I ate two and was trying to be abstemious but Katiuscea cheekily put two more on my plate.  My protest was very perfunctory.  Those little guys disappeared in a hurry.  With these we had a simple salad, perfectly dressed with oil and the juice of the wonderful lemons that grow here on the estate.  Fabio  brought out some thin-skinned lemons he had procured while in Sicily recently, ones which looked like the ones we have in the states, and we compared the taste of these to our knobbly local ones.  The taste was identical.  But Fabio explained that it was the oils in the skins of Campanian lemons which are used in making the local specialty, limoncello, a powerful, sweet liqueur, and the larger the lemon the more oils can be extracted.  Ergo lemons the size of grapefruit.
The best part of the meal, of course, was the banter that enlivened the room.  When I compare how awkward and shy we all were that first year to how comfortable we all now are I am amazed.  Much of that, of course, is simply the ease of communication.  Sandy’s Italian is still rudimentary but she is making steady progress and uses her pictures as a way of bridging the gap.  My Italian is far from good, but it is coming along nicely and there are times when I would swear I was having an actual conversation.  And it’s so easy to feel comfortable with these gracious folks.  
We talked about Fabio’s trip to Sicily in May to deliver a talk on the subject of his dissertation, soon to be completed.  We have longed to see that beautiful island and Fabio explained that the train, when it reaches Reggio-Calabria at the toe of the boot, is simply driven onto tracks mounted on a ferry and then ferried across the Straits of Messina to the island, where it proceeds to Syracuse and beyond!  The whole trip to Catania, where he gave the talk, was a matter of four hours and 30 euros.  Tempting.  Very tempting.
At another point the conversation turned to matters of gravest import, namely, where to find the best pizza in the area.  Ah, but nothing so simple as the best purveyor.  It seems that this issue is a seasonal one.  In the winter there is a local pizzeria where the forno à legno (wood-fired oven, de rigeur in every Italian pizzeria) is cheek-by-jowl with a raised hearth where a roaring fire heats the stones of a huge fireplace.  Great pizza in a cozy, warm environment.  In sprIng the Astones prefer a pizzeria south of Agropoli up on the flank of Monte Tresino.  Here you have great pizza with a spectacular view of Agropoli, the Bay of Salerno, and on a clear, spring day, the Amalfi coast.  In summer, no contest, Pizzeria Galleone, where we have eaten twice.  It’s down at the port on a large terrace overlooking the sea and if you wait till the appropriate summer dinner hour (somewhere between 10 and 12 pm) you will enjoy the cool sea breezes, the twinkling lights of the port, and a view of the Rocca where the Centro of Agropoli is situated, the stones of the cliffs lit up suggestively in red, white and green, the colors of the Italian flag.  In autumn, Fabio insists, one buys one’s pizza at a great pizzeria in Paestum, home of the fabulous Greek ruins, and then has a picnic out among the temples of Hera and Athena.  Not too shabby, eating pizza with the gods.
The next course was the fruit course, in this case slices of fresh, sweet watermelon.  Fabio experimented with a syrup of Limoncello over the top, but I think we all agreed it was gilding the lily.  A fine, simple dessert, right?  Wrong!  Just another course. Out came a tray of dolci brought by Katiuscea, similar to the one we had brought two days before.  With these Rolando served one of his masterpieces, a mandarinetto, similar to a limoncello  but in this case made with tangerine skins instead of lemons.  I can tolerate limoncello if it is served ice-cold as it so often is here to blunt some of the excessive sweetness, but I can’t say I really like it.  But Rolando’s magic elixir is something else indeed, subtle, wonderfully perfumed and perfectly balanced.  The peak of citrus season here is December and by May the fruit itself is past its prime, but the skins are still good, so that is when Rolando makes his liqueur.  He explained that he had experimented for years to perfect the formula and technique and would write down the recipe for me.  I will definitely try my hand, this stuff is nectar of the gods.  And before we left he offered me one of his precious bottles, a gift so generous I almost teared up. Rolando is a quiet, reserved man who is such a sweet, sensitive soul underneath.  Still waters really do run deep.
Finally we had little cups of good, strong Italian espresso, a great deal more laughter and loud, affectionate banter, and finally we were off to our downstairs snuggery for a nice, long riposo.  It was a meal we will always remember; the food was almost as delicious as the company.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013


Our first full day in Agropoli has been filled with logistics and lolligagging, both equally delightful.  There are those practical matters which must be attended to, especially after a ten-day whirlwind of action, but in repose they take on a sort of pleasant, comfortable familiarity. Good medicine for tired souls and bodies. Groceries, laundry, personal grooming—all those mundane matters which can be huge hurdles when one is in a foreign country with limited language skills.  But, I have to say, we’re becoming old pros.  
There was one minor tragedy. Sunday evening I had run out to the grocery store for enough supplies to get us through breakfast Monday and had bought a small Bialetti Moki, one of those little biconical coffee pots that make remarkably good espresso.  Plus some Illy espresso grind, my favorite.  My favorite grocery store, Carrefour, was closed on Sunday so I was forced to resort to the Maxxi Futura Ipermercato, one of those huge superstores that carry items in bulk.  I hate them in the states as well, they’re just so darned big that you waste way too much time just finding what you want.  But I have to admit the quality of food we’ve found there is not bad.  Not great either, of course.  Our first year here a closed store would have been a minor catastrophe as I tried to wrack my brain how to find another store.  This time little Franco whipped us around two roundabouts, out the diversorio and into the Maxxi parking lot in less than five minutes.  In and out in another ten and home from there in five.
          But when I took out the Illy can to put it in the cabinet I heard a strange rattling sound.  What the—?  Espresso grani, ‘espresso granules’ not espresso powder.  And what, pray tell, are espresso granules, a patent contradiction in terms?  Surely not INSTANT espresso?  In Italy?  An abomination before GOD!  Fortunately I told Fernando about the situation and at the pizzeria where we ate he asked Mr. Borrelli’s beautiful daughter for a small loan and she smiled in bemusement and obliged.  So the next morning, in my fog, imagine my shock when I discovered the gas had not been turned on.  Sunday closings, remember?  No cooking.  But I’m pleased to report that Sandy and I have discovered we can function, barely, without that first blast of caffeine in the morning.  For a while.  By nine we were both as into our ‘jones’ as many of my students are when that dismissal bell rings and they immediately start frantically texting, I swear, mostly for the pure rush of moving those twitching thumbs for the first time in hours.
So we headed for a bar on the road up to the Centro in town.  In Italy a ‘bar’ will not serve alcoholic drinks, or at least not primarily, but the many permutations of caffé, plus a small selection of pastries.  We stopped at such a bar with typical sidewalk seating, got an espresso, a cappuccino and a cornetto pastry and complimentary bottled water (total cost 3 euros, about $4.00), sat on the sidewalk and just basked in the sights, sounds and air of Agropoli.  I know this sounds like an exaggeration, but even the air here has a special, sensuous charm.  Yesterday the temp reached all of 75°F and there was a constant, luscious breeze and in the air floated all the scents of a riot of flowering plants plus the subtle saline funk of the sea.  Absolutely delicious.  A quick detour to a farmacia for cough medicine for Dave,  The Augmentin is doing its magic but at night I have such coughing jags that sleep is difficult, and sleep is the best medicine of all.
Back home I did some writing and Sandy some pictures, we tidied the apartment, the man from the gas company came, turned on the gas and lit the pilots for hot water so we could shower our grimy bodies (A sign of Sandy’s desperate need for caffeine:  she actually went out in public without her usual toilette!  If any of her friends are reading this, I swear it’s absolutely true!) and start some laundry.  Rolando and Filomena stopped by and took us out into the orchard where they collected for us and other friends a stunning assortment of fresh, organic fruits.  I had feared that the first crop of figs was now gone, but, no, the trees were positively laden.  I should explain that figs fruit twice a season, one crop maturing in June, the other in late July and into August.  The first crop, what the Italians call the ‘Fior de Fichi, “Flower of the fig” are huge monsters.  And we both adore figs.  Added to them were gorgeous, tiny little tawny pears blushed with pink, tawny and purple plums, cherries, the exquisite little kumquats that you pop in your mouth and eat whole, skin, pips and all.  Tons of lemons, some as big as a softball.  And one long, wrinkled monster that I took for a citron but which is in fact what I think Filomena called ‘Lemon Bread’ because you slice it and eat the whole thing here, too.  Cooks will recall how bitter the pith of most citrus fruits is, so much so that you must be careful not to include it when you zest a lemon, for example.  But here the skin and pith actually had a soft, subtle sweetness for which the tanginess of the juice acted as counterpoint.  Filomena explained that there had only been a few of these gems and we were receiving the last one  Grazie mille, Carissima!  
After that excursion, lunch was a forgone conclusion.  I zipped down to the local alimentari (mom and pop grocery) and bought an etto (eighth kilo) of prosciutto crudo, some boconcini, the tiny little ‘mouthful’ balls of mozzarella di bufala, and some good crusty bread.  Halve a fig, drape it with prosciutto, put some boconcini on the plate with an assortment of fruit, and you have a lunch fit for royalty.  And a struggling digestive system.  Look, I don’t want to be graphic here, but after eight days of almost constant movement, climbing mountains and walking anywhere from 8-10 miles per day, try sitting still in a car or chair for one solid day and see what the inevitable result is.  It’s a problem all travelers face and one for which the solution is obvious:  fruit, fruit, fruit!  What a delicious cure!
A brief nap after lunch and then more practical stuff, especially laundry.  This shirt I’ve been wearing for two days is becoming a bit too fragrant for comfort.  Up to the Centro for cash from an ATM.  My bank had graciously offered to up my limit for a single withdrawal to $500, but I didn’t reckon on Italian conservatism in financial matters, so I’ll have to collect my sum (I have one rather large sum to turn over this week) in smaller increments over several days.  Minor glitch.  At about six the Astones brought down the tray of dolci we had brought plus a bottle of Gancia Grand Reale sparkling dessert wine from their beloved Piemonte.  My words are strictly inadequate to describe how delicious are Italian pastries, especially paired with a sweet sparkler, so I’ll defer to Sandy’s picture.  But I will say I think I love them most because, unlike so many American sweets, they are not too sweet.  Balanced.  And so imaginative!  A thousand ways to combine sugar pastry cream, nuts and fruits.
Back to Maxxi Futura where a bemused assistant manager took pity on the gonzo Americano and allowed an exchange for real coffee and I collected a more substantial supply of groceries and then back home for a quiet evening, interrupted delightfully by visits from Fernando, returning from administering masters’ exams at the University of Salerno where he teaches, and Fabio, back from work as a police sergeant, a huge promotion for a most deserving young man.  We’ve sponged off of Fabio’s Wi-fi upstairs for two years but for some reason the signal is now anemic and sporadic, so we’ll need to tackle that issue tomorrow.  I couldn’t haul 300 pounds of reference materials to Italy, so without access to online sources my academic writing is dead in the water.  That’s a bit concerning.  But all in good time, I’m sure.
A late dinner, not a very good one, I’m afraid, since the pantry is so poorly stocked and at the grocery my feeble brain forgot all those little frivolous items like salt and pepper that make food palatable.  Still, perhaps the bland food was also good medicine; we’ve been eating some pretty elaborate meals lately.  And so to bed for the best medicine of all, eight hours of sleep in a room where the temperature gradually settled into the low 60s and I was ‘compelled’ to seek warmth from my lover and bedmate of 29 years.



Yesterday was our day for returnings, the tour group back to Stati Uniti, Sandy and I to our sentimental second home.
As often, the return to the states began uncomfortably early.  Wake-up call was 2 am.  But my troopers were up and ready to go by 3.  This has been without a doubt one of my favorite groups to lead in the 17 years we’ve been doing this, partly because the students are so bright and cooperative and fun, partly due to the fact they were so dependable at a time when I was least able, due to sickness, to ride herd on cats.  We were taken by a charter bus to Fiumicino, formally, Leonardo da Vinci Airport.  The nickname derives from the canal the Romans constructed from the Tiber River to the artificial harbor they had constructed at Portus; flumen is Latin for ‘river’ and the diminutive suffix makes it the ‘rivulet’.  With our wonderful tour guide Reena’s invaluable help we fought the total incompetence of the Alitalia staff and and computerized boarding system and finally were forced to wait for more ticketing desks to open so that we could be ticketed the old fashioned way.  Every female there (and they were all female) under the age of 30 was a total bimbo.  We had two who directly contradicted each other, standing less than ten feet apart! But at last a quiet, competent woman in her fifties had us checked in in less than five minutes. At 5:30 or so, the group, minus the Fussels whose adventure now continues in Switzerland, bade Reena a fond farewell and Sandy and I put them in the capable hands of Darlene Adams, Sandy’s colleague and my new friend, to shepherd through Paris and Georgia and back to RDU.
Sandy and I had a bite to eat and some coffee while we waited for the rental car agency to open at 7.  Mirabile dictu, the Hertz Rome office unlike the one in Florence actually sets hours to accommodate travelers and opens on time!  And no more than 10 minutes after we began the process a pleasant, competent young man names Steffano had us booked and keyed and ready to roll.  I suppose anyone too lunkheaded to make it as a Hertz counter agent simply strolls on over to Alitalia to find a job.
Our car is a cute little black Fiat Panda hatchback, named Franco in honor of the world’s best little American truck, now in semiretirement.  Franco is worthy of his namesake, I’m happy to report.  Wonderful driveability, an efficient little motor which is still powerful enough to pull the hills and mountains around here, a state-of-the-art stereo system to keep Sandy happy, and best of all, a bangin’ air conditioner.  Accessing the road system from the car lot was a dream, and after toodling east for about 15 km we accessed the Gran Rolantare, the Grand Ringroad.  Think outer beltline on steroids.  We zipped around to the southwest of Rome and entered the A-1 autostrada, known as the Strada del Sole, ‘Highway of the Sun’.  And then, something totally shocking, we were driving the A-1 autostrada, Italy’s busiest intersate, with no traffic!  At least none by Italian standards.  And wall-to-wall gorgeous scenery from the thigh of the boot all the way down to the shin.  There are advantages to traveling on Sunday in Italy, especially if you start out early.
The disadvantage became apparent later.  After all the stress of seeing everyone off and the cumulative stress of a rigorous if wonderful tour, I could relax a bit and just enjoy the experience.  But that’s deadly for a guy who’s had only 3 hours sleep.  Twice I almost nodded off.  Nope, no way I’m going to just ‘soldier on’ and kill us both.  We pulled into the Autogrille (the Italian Howard Johnson’s for you oldsters), I parked in the shade, put back the seat and snoozed for 10 minutes while Ms Sandy fiddled with her photography files.  Then into the Autogrille for a quick espresso.  Where we confronted a scene straight from Dante’s Inferno.  It seems that all the locally owned rest areas were closed for Sunday, so by default it was here or nowhere. The place was jam-packed with tour bus groups of every description, all yelling at the tops of their lungs, pushing and shoving through the crowds, the Japanese tourists in their typical fashion often shoving their way to the front of the line or at least attempting to do so until someone screamed at them to maintain their place in line (at which, by the way, they simply smile blandly and stare blankly into space with never a word of apology).  Why is it that these people believe with absolute certainty that they are entitled to first position in any line simply because of their ethnicity?  Isn’t it unspeakably sad that the two nationalities whose racism caused incalculable suffering in the 20th century are once again reverting to type in the 21st?  Or am I being paranoid?
In any case, the brave Sandy fought her way to the front of the biglietto (ticket) line and again to the front of the service counter while I battled my way to the toilets.   We drank our coffee, ate our snacks, and scooted out of that place ASAP.  The good news was that my poor nerves were so shattered from the trauma that I wasn’t the least bit sleepy for the rest of the drive.
Meanwhile, around 10:30 we received a text from Darlene that the group had arrived in Paris but that the flight out had been delayed to wait for the Delta flight bringing the Georgia group we had toured with.  I should explain that the Air France flight and the Delta flight carrying our two groups to Paris departed and arrived 10 minutes apart.  Now, Delta and Air France are partnered airlines, and if someone can explain how that sort of scheduling makes any sense at all I’d be most grateful.  But thank God on behalf of our Suwannee friends it was Delta flying from Paris to Atlanta; had it been Air France they would have left those kids stranded just for spite.
Sandy and I motored southward, past Cassino, Capua, the western flanks of Vesuvius, through the series of tunnels that takes you through the Monti Lattari and from the Bay of Naples area to the Bay of Salerno area, exited the autostrada onto the SS18 and meandered through several towns before stopping for lunch at a small town.  Lunch at a local trattoria specializing in sea food.  Sandy’s farfalle con salmone was excellent, as was my scialiatelli con frutte di mare. Thank God I can actually begin to taste food again!  We called Fernando to tell him our ETA, then began to search for a florist or nursery for presents for our Agropoli buddies.  No luck.  So we decided to ditch the susperstrada, a sort of hybrid between an interstate and a state highway, and travel the local roads for the rest of the way to look for presents for our friends.  Meanwhile, the text I most wanted to see from Darlene, the group had boarded at Charles de Gaulle and was awaiting departure.  I don’t know whether it’s just me or if every American feels this way, but I always feel like the airlines are conspiring to delay my return home to America but if I can just get airborne they will have reached that point of no return and will have to deliver me to my homeland despite all their nefarious schemes to the contrary.  Delays once we hit American soil?  I can handle it.  Just get me to my country.
Not much luck in our search for potted plants and we were becoming a bit alarmed as we passed through Cappaccio Scalo and Paestum and approached Agropoli. Gifts to a host are pretty much de rigeur in Italy, not necessarily expensive ones, but sentimental, and of course this was no ordinary visit so it would have been positively rude to show up empty-handed.  But it was Sunday and most places were closed.  We remembered a local florist in Agropoli and were headed there when we turned a corner and saw our favorite pasticceria (pastry shop).  And, could it be?  The beads in the doorway used here to discourage flies while maintaining airflow were gently beckoning us in.  A quick check by Sandy and a motion to come on in, and there before us were two huge display cases filled with an incredible assortment of dolci.  Not just a gift but a perfect gift for these dear friends!  Hardly expensive, but from the heart, a special little treat.  The gods were smiling on us.
As were they when we hit the roundabout and accessed the Fuonte highway.  A left at the Via Ludovico Ariosto, up the side of the ridge, progressively steeper, a quick dogleg right-left and hell-for-leather up that last ultra-steep slope to the driveway.  But brave little Franco couldn’t quite make it.  So down we go, backing slowly down the ridge to the bend where the ground is flattest, then, air-conditioner off, hell-for-leather again in second gear and, twenty feet from the driveway a lightning quick shift into first so as not to lose momentum, and up the driveway we go!
And there are our dear ones on the terazza, making last-minute preparations.  And then nothing but excited shouts and laughter, and this time none of that kssie-kissie semiformal stuff (which I adore, by the way) but good old tight embraces and kisses.  Home.  Frost famously says that “Home is where, when you go there, they have to take you in.”  Perhaps in some sad regions of the heart, but not in this place.  Home here is being with some of your nearest and dearest and knowing with certainty that they feel the same way.
After much excited exchange of news and some practical matters, Fabio is off to work and Fernando promises a trip at 8:30 to a wonderful new pizzeria tradionale he has discovered in the Centro and he is off too.  Sandy and I settle in a bit and then I’m off to the bedroom for a short snooze which turns into three comatose hours.  After I’m at least half conscious I take a stroll along the terazza to look at the fruit trees and out into the orchard and vineyard to the north to see the tiny little olives destined to make Rolando’s magic elixir this fall and full clusters of Nebbiolo grapes he has naturalized in a new southern home and I look out over this gorgeous little farm and across to the ridge beyond the highway.  Villas nestle in clefts in the hillsides.  On the lower slopes, serried ranks of olive trees create glaucous little puffballs.  On the upper slopes of the ridge, forests of chestnut and rowan and holm oak cloak the earth in a green mantle.  Down further south in the distance I see the imposing mountains of the Cilento.
I’ll never make a fortune from my writing.  I remember after the book on Roman foodways was published, one of my students, all wide-eyed innocence, asked if I would be rich and famous.  From an academic book!  But the book has brought me other riches, far greater to me: the chance to mingle with others who value good, natural, healthful food as much as I, the chance  to travel to this formerly blighted, now blessed part of Italy where it is still made largely in traditional ways, sometimes dating back more than 2,500 years.  The chance to live in this beautiful place, not once but three times, and to be with some of the dearest people in the world.  There is no price for such things.  As I looked across to that ridge I don’t mind confessing that tears started to my eyes and I stood happily crying like the doddering old fool I probably am, and I kept repeating to myself, “Dave, Dave, did you ever in your wildest dreams imagine....”  
Before we  left North Carolina, a bank clerk called our sojourn a once-in-a-lifetime trip.  When Steffano saw our return date for the rental car his response was also a bit shocked and as we left his response, obviously based on a preconception that there was a nonno some generations back in our history who had crossed the big water, said so much about the best of Italy:  “Enjoy your family!”  Perfect.  Not strictly true but absolutely correct.