Monday, July 22, 2013

Molto Gentile!

Molto Gentile

       I know it sounds smarmy, but again and again we discover that the most memorable thing about our trips here is the Italian people themselves—so warm, genuine, helpful.  I can’t even number the times I have said, sometimes several times a day, in my bad Italian, “Tu sei molto gentile! (You are very kind!) in response to some act of generosity on the part of some total stranger who took the time to help a struggling foreigner and did it with a  quick smile and a gladdened heart.

     That started the first time we were here, way back in 1995.  We had our five-year-old daughter Amy with us, and we had heard how much the Italians dote on children, but we really had no idea.  Now, Amy was an adorable tot by any objective standard: cute little redhead in pigtails, sweet disposition, a melting smile, and a sweet little voice that could charm the angels.  And of course the people in Malmantile, in Tuscany where we were living, could tell at a glance that we were foreigners, although they automatically assume still that we are Germans.  Lots of Germans drive across the Alps to Italy to enjoy warm weather, good beaches and a respite from their uptight, rigid social norms.

     But it was still a bit of a shock, frankly alarming, the first few times that total strangers came up and offered Amy a pastry or stroked her hair.  They just wanted to take a few minutes and dote on a little girl and let her (and us) know that she was very welcome in their country.  One encounter was especially memorable.  Malmantile was about 13 miles from downtown Florence and we often rode the bus in with the locals to tour in the morning.  By noon it was far too hot even for Americans to be abroad in that torrid river bottom, so we’d hop the bus back home to the cool, breezy hills for lunch, a nap and a relaxing swim in the pool at the agriturismo where our apartment was located.  But by the time we boarded the bus my little fair-skinned redhead was always flushed and sweaty.  On one occasion the bus driver stopped in a little hamlet half way back to Malmantile, ran inside a bar, and proudly emerged with a cold Fanta which he smilingly handed to my daughter.  Naturally we were charmed and grateful but a bit alarmed; after all, there were lots of other people on the bus.  But as I glanced around to catch the mood I saw nothing but smiling faces.  That, my friends, is Italy in a nutshell:  not so busy and self-absorbed to enjoy vicariously a simple act of kindness to a little girl.

That trip was when we, including Amy, fell in love with this country.  I cannot tell you how many kind strangers took the time to say hello to her, make her welcome, ask about her constant companion, her little stuffed squirrel named Squirrelly (Scurrili for the struggling Italians).  And of course they were almost as generous with us, what with our struggles with the language, with customs, with the protocols of shopping, garbage disposal, flushing the toilet (don’t laugh; it’s a challenge sometimes), even mopping the floor of the apartment.
Over the years we have learned that a smile and a badly pronounced “Buon giorno!” is about all you need to gain an introit with most Italians.  Oh, there are stinkers here, don’t get me wrong.  But they are few and far between and most of them are behind the wheel of a car.  I suppose it’s something about the anonymity of that position which invites a certain amount of rudeness.  But there are so many more kind ones that worrying about the few is quibbling.

This trip has been no exception.  Here’s a sampling of the many.  There was the municipal policeman Maurizio in Agropoli who patiently explained that there was no reprieve from my parking ticket on grounds that I didn’t understand the byzantine system because these are handled by a semiprivate consortium, but then sat and filled out the forms for me, left his office and the building it is located in to go outside and point me in the direction of the post office, where, believe it or not, fines, utility bills, phone bills, you name it are paid.  I was tempted to ask if I should take my postcards to the pharmacy to mail, but I was so grateful for the help that I didn't.

There was Annibale, a wonderful young man in Buccino.  We had traveled eastward for an hour to see this beautiful little hill town situated on the site of an ancient city, only to discover that the archaeological museum was closed.  But a local policeman made a phone call and ten minutes later Annibale was there to let us in and turn on the lights, after which he proceeded to give us a two-hour, guided tour of that incredible facility, housed in a Medieval monastery!  And it wasn't too shabby either being instructed on the Roman period by a guy named Hannibal.  After offering profuse thanks to Annibale, we had a delicious lunch of orecchiette and fusilli, both lovingly handmade there at the local trattoria.  I asked our waiter Ciro (who had made the orecchiette, by the way) how we could find the castle and the archaeological site and he patiently explained the route, left, and two minutes later came back and announced that he and Nina, the owner’s daughter, would lead us to the sites.  Which they did, after which they gave us another two-hour guided tour!  We grinned like lunatics all the way home, basking in the sheer kindness of those young people.

There is Aniello and his father, Signore Botti.  Aniello is a younger colleague in our search for palmenti, who lives about 25 miles away in Vallo della Lucania.  Aniello is a grad student at the University of Rome but is home this summer to work and be with his family.  Understand, Aniello’s dissertation concerns a Medieval manuscript in Naples, not some crazy open-air treading vats.  But he’s insisted on taking us to two of the local palmenti, once insisting on driving his own car because ours was new and the roads were bad (they were a bit bumpy but paved and perfectly fine), then heard that we also wanted to see a Lucanian city nearby, called work, called his dad, and before we knew it we were meeting Signore Botti at a local bar where we were treated to caffé and pastry and then whisked off to Civitella for, you guessed it, a two-hour tour guided by both of them!

There was the young man in Stio who, when we had tried three different restaurants in a 20-mile radius looking for some kind of lunch after a hard day of hiking and touring, only to discover all three closed, on hearing our plight, took out his cell phone, called a friend to confirm that he would open his restaurant for us, then insisted on leading the way in his own car!  Not to speak of the kind young man at Il Ritrovo Ristorante who saved the lives of two starving Americans (it was 3:30 pm by this time) with two delicious pasta dishes.  Then there was Angelo, a native of Stio.  As you may be able to tell from the photo, Angelo has some special mental challenges but like so many of those wonderful people he embraces the world with wide-eyed innocence and gusto.  Angelo knew instantly that we were strangers in this tiny town and he could hardly contain his beaming enthusiasm as he asked all about our home, our sojourn in Italy, our family.  By the time we left Stio, Angelo was my new best friend, insisting that I call him the next time I came to Stio so we could tour togther,  and as we waved goodbye pulling out of the parking lot he shouted repeatedly in Italian, “I love Americans!  I love Americans!”

There was another Angelo in the tiny hamlet of Valletelle who, when we became hopelessly turned around trying to find a Medieval church and mill, explained in great detail how to get there, then revealed that his grandparents had lived in New Jersey but had returned home for retirement and again insisted on hearing all about our native state and family.  A simple explanation turned into twenty minutes of delightful human interaction.  Before we left, Angelo and his mother agreed to a photo, one I will treasure because the kindness in their character is so obvious on their smiling faces.

There is Signore Borelli, owner of the local pizzeria, who treated us to incredible pizza our first night here and never fails to make us feel like celebrities when we show up for more, even sending his lovely daughter over once to announce in English that he hoped we enjoyed a wonderful holiday.

And then there are our wonderful friends, the Astones, and dear Fernando, and lovely Katiuscea.  But if I start detailing the thousand acts of kindness we’ve enjoyed from these nearest and dearest, I’ll be blogging the rest of the day and most of the night.  At some point “Molto gentile!” becomes “Troppo gentile!” At least, too many kindnesses to list.  But we carry them in our hearts, believe me.

An Italian Bakery

    This morning we were up and out early again, this time, mirablile dictu, at the instigation of Miss Sandy.  Meanwhile Dave was grunting in monosyllables and nursing a small cup of espresso.  What could prompt such a radical shift?  Nothing less than a visit to the pasticceria, the Italian bakery.

Last week as we were leaving the Centro we ran into Fabio while he was on duty, but he took the time to lead us down the Via Gasperi to the bakery of a friend, Signore Andrea, appropriately named the Pasticceria Carmen, after his wife.  Fabio introduced us to Andrea as well as his wife and son (it’s a family business, as so often in Italy), and we were treated to a delicious little sfoglietello, cheesecake, but in this case encased in crispy pastry and flavored with orange zest and (I think) orange water.  We had just finished eating at a local pizzeria where we had been porci, in the interest of research of course, and ordered two different pizzas.  Now, I’ve seen many an Italian down one of these pizzas, some 14” in diameter, and I confess I have myself on several occasions, but it was late by American standards, 9:30 pm, though still early for dinner by Agropolesi standards, and I’ve learned by experience that a stuffed stomach and sound sleep are not good bedmates for the Americano.  So we both ate several slices (in Agropoli the pizza comes unsliced and with a knife so you can DIY) and declared that we were finished.  And then ate another.  And another.  So we could tell that Signore Andrea’s sfoglietelli were delicious, but we really weren’t the best judges at the time.  
Fabio explained that I wrote about traditional foods and Sandy did the photos and Andrea generously offered to allow us to come back some morning to see the process.  Ergo our early morning visit.
Monday morning is a delight in Agropoli.  The hordes of weekend beach-goers have made their way back to Salerno, Naples, Rome, and points northward, jamming the superstrada with stop-and-roll traffic from 8 pm Sunday till some ungodly time I’ve never determined.  The air is cool and crisp in our little town, the streets are just beginning to come alive as locals make their way to work and stores begin to open.  Best of all, parking is a snap.
When we arrived at the bakery about 8:30, three young women were hard at work, one up front tending the counters where partially filled racks of gorgeous pastries were already displayed, and two in the laboratorio, the workroom.  Quarters were cramped and we were obviously in the way, but in the typical southern Italian way, these signorine gentili were incredibly generous with their time and workspace.  A large cooling rack held trays of assorted pastries fresh from the oven and the aroma was unbelievable.  Overpowering scents of freshly baked pastry, enough butter to resurrect Julia Child, and faint hints of almonds, orange, lemon, chocolate; Sandy was completely incapacitated for several minutes, not even able to take a photo.  In a large electric oven, sfogliatelle, the shell-shaped ‘many-leaved’ pastries for which this part of Italy is famous, were baking.  The spelling is not a typo; apparently the change of gender of the noun is enough to denote another kind of stuffed pastry. On the counter a tray of taralli were cooling.  Meanwhile, our two young artists were quietly, efficiently producing little masterpieces.  Maria loaded pastry cream from a generous bowl on the counter into a large piping bag and began to pipe cream onto little cookies, then covered them with a second cookie and quickly smoothed the edges before deftly pushing crumbled nuts onto the edges.  She explained that they were aptly named deliciosi.  
       Meanwhile her cohort Nina had filled another piping bag with chocolate cream and was filling little profiterole-looking puffballs that she said were called bigne, perhaps a cousin to the French (and New Orleanean) beignet.  Then she took two and glued them together with chocolate cream to create little pastry porcini mushrooms.  Maria checked the sflogliatelle in the oven (the little ‘leaves’ of pastry for which they are named are paper thin and easily burned), quickly rotated the tray to achieve even browning, and went back to work.
All quietly choreographed from some mental list that must have been ingrained from thousands of such mornings.  We never saw a list of items to be made, much less numbers of each, but there was never a wasted minute as these women whizzed through their routine.  Next Maria brought out little chocolate cannolini and piped cream into each end.  Behind her a stand mixer on the floor, big enough to make any Kitchen Aid in America die of embarrassment, some 4 1/2’ tall, rested quietly from its night’s labors.  Out came monster cannoli, 6” long, and were deftly filled with cream or chocolate.  Maria dusted both as well as her deliciosi with powdered sugar.  Nina laded what looked like eclairs with cream or chocolate.  Meanwhile, a special order:  Rita darted in from the front, grabbed two cornette, the huge croissants so popular in this area, as well as a big tub of apricot jam, sliced the cornette almost in two, smeared a generous blob of jam on each, and placed them in a bag.   Another young woman rushed in with motorcycle helmet in hand, was startled by our presence, retreated to the front of the store to deposit the helmet, then came back in, smiled shyly and quickly loaded a tray with fifteen sflogliatelle, wrapped them, and was out the door in a flash.  Italian bakeries deliver!  I assume to local caffé bars, since the whole population is not grossly obese.
Another special order, cornette filled with chocolate cream.  And out from the oven came the tray of sfogliatine, little cousins of the sfogliatelle that had recently left.  The aroma was amazing.  
I would continue, but I think Sandy’s pictures once again will tell the rest of the story better than I.  The display racks at the front held a gorgeous assortment of pastries of all sizes and descriptions: bocannotti, cassatine, zeppoline, crostatine, babá, ochio di bue, corteccie al cioccolato: even the names are delicious.  A cooler in the corner held equally beautiful torte, cakes.  We bought an alarming assortment of pastries, (mostly) as a gift, and the total bill was 12 euros, about 15 bucks.  
How in the world DO the Italians avoid obesity with that kind of temptation at such a price?  A few thoughts.  First of all, Italians enjoy their food and never feel guilty.  By not creating the allure of ‘forbidden fruit’ they seem able to place such indulgences in their proper place, an occasional treat to be savored without guilt. And then go back to their healthy Mediterranean diet. Meanwhile in America every other medical type in the country is screaming about our diets and we grow fatter as a nation all the time.  Could there be a connection?  Perhaps we need to quit shouting about the evils of food or, alternately, deeming it magic or medicine, and enjoy it for its own sake. 
Secondly, Italians rarely eat sweets as dessert.  The dessert of choice here is a luscious piece of fruit and perhaps a small piece of cheese.  Sweets are generally eaten at midmorning with a good cup of rich coffee, or perhaps as a spuntina along about four in the afternoon, with coffee or perhaps even with a tiny demitasse of Tio Nino’s homemade liqueur.  And then only in the company of friends and as a special treat.  
And that is perhaps the real key to the healthy Italian lifestyle.  Food is not just sustenance but an integral part of the social fabric.  Italians don’t just eat, they dine with family and friends, and the social interaction is more sustaining than the food itself.  As the ancient writer Plutarch said, “We come to the table, not to eat, but to share food with those we love.”
As more and more Italians are adopting the crazy American lifestyle, with family members grabbing a bite and rushing off in all directions, that healthy social system is starting to crack around the edges and, perhaps predictably, obesity is starting to become more and more common here.  But, grazie Dio, the majority of Italians still cling to their traditions, especially in small towns and here in the South.