Saturday, June 21, 2014

Chopped, Italian Style

Our first night here, Fabio announced that he had offered my services as a judge in a local cooking competition and all he needed was my assent to confirm my reservation for Wednesday night at 8:30 at a well regarded local restaurant.  Sandy was naturally invited as well and would have free rein for her photography, as was Fernando.  I find the idea of an American telling an Italian of any stripe, much less an Italian chef, how to cook, pretty ludicrous, as I suspect you do, but who could pass off an offer like that?  So at 8pm on Wednesday night Fabio drove us from the villa to the Centro of Agropoli for the big event.  We arrived under threatening skies, and Sandy wondered whether she should bring an umbrella to which I responded in my typical flippant way that it wouldn’t rain.  Big mistake to flout the weather gods that way.
But first we ducked into the beautiful new Agropoli Commune, or city hall, where Fabio has his office and out from an office ran Katiruscea!  Hugs and kisses and laughter and much banter from our beautiful, funny, affectionate friend who, sadly, was on duty (Katiuscea is also a muncipal police officer) and so couldn’t come with us.  We strolled up to the main piazza and scooted down a side street to Ristorante da Ciccio, an elegant looking place where I was delighted to see my friend Dottore Luigi Crispini, a local academic who wrote a wonderful book on the Mediterranean diet, first studied here, and popularized in the West by American physiologist Ancel Keys, who lived here for many years.  I've happily bumped into Luigi several times over the years in our role as foodies.  Unlike me, Luigi definitely had the chops to judge this competition.  We schmoozed for a while (de rigeur in any such Italian gathering), met the lovely organizer of the event, Signora Anna Noviello, who directs a local consortium called Informagiovane di Agropoli, as well as the emcees, Gianni Petrizzo and his wife Raffaella Giaccio.  These two operate a local cable channel and were as good looking and charming as you might expect from two such Italian media figures. 
Eventually we got down to the business at hand, and the judges were seated at a large central table and other invited guests seated around the periphery.  Signora Noviella began a brief video to introduce the event....and the heavens opened.  I mean, it poured the rain, buckets, sheets, tons!  I’ve never seen rain like that in Italy and rarely in North Carolina except during a hurricane.  Forgive the crude expression, but this one went way past frog-strangler status to an actual turd-floater!  And all the while, Signora Noviella and our dauntless emcees soldiered on!
Next came a comedy skit by two talented local wits.  It was difficult to hear their routine, the rain on the roof was so thunderous.  Unfortunately we were in the part of the restaurant which was really a sort of pavillion.  You see them in many Italian restaurants, basically large tents to extend the seating and take advantage of the lovely weather in summer.  But not tonight.  First I felt one drip on my head, then another, and before long there were large puddles in several places on the floor and guests were frantically backpeddling to find higher ground.  And still our emcees battled on!  The comedic banter was so rapid that I could not have followed the Italian had I been able to hear it, but the comic timing was spot on and the locals seemed to enjoy it immensely.  And then we got down to the serious business of judging some food!
Actually I was relieved to hear that these were not professional chefs at all, but young Agropolitans who were beginning their training as Chefs a Domicilio, personal chefs.  You know, the kind that rich yuppies hire to come in and cook for them.  One of the goals of Informagiovane di Agropoli is to promote employment among young people in this area where unemployment among kids 19-25 is a staggering 47%.  Noble work indeed.  These youngsters (they seemed to range from about 17 to 24 or so) had spent several months under the tutelage of local chef Antonio Cedrola, learning basic cookery and developing recipes, before they went off to more advanced training.  Presumably they will eventually find work here catering to groups of tourists who rent apartments by the week in this popular resort area.
We ‘experts’ were introduced—local doctors, businessmen and women, Luigi, Sr. Alfonso Rotolo, who operates a local vineyard which produces wonderful wines which I have had the pleasure of sampling, and immediately to my right a beautiful young woman named Federica Voza.  Federica was probably the most qualified of all of us.  She was born in Paestum and grew up in the tourism industry; her family owns an agriturismo, a sort of Italian bed-and-breakfast on a working farm.  The Vozas also own a family farm where they grow grapes for another excellent winery, Polito.  And like the young competitors here, Federica found opportunity stifled by the Italian system but in her case fled to London as do so many bright, bilingual young Italians.  And like so many of them, she finally had had enough of the miserable continental weather (and I suspect of British stuffiness, though she was much too genteel to say so) and came back to mother Italy, settling in Rome where she promotes Italian luxury products, including foods and wines, to foreign importers.  Most important for Dave was that her English was impeccable and she was assigned translation duties for the idiot American.
Each student brought out and served one dish and then was briefly interviewed about the dish and the idea behind it.  These were obviously the dishes of talented novices, all quite good though lacking in a few technical areas.  Judges graded on presentation and taste.  Our antipasti were cute litlle skewered ciliego, cherry-sized mozzarella balls encircled by a wedge of sun-dried tomato and a basil leaf, a riff on the famous Caprese; another classic, melone con prosciutto, thin wedges of cantaloupe draped with the wonderful Italian cured ham; my personal favorite, squash flowers stuffed with the local goat-milk ricotta, but in this case a ricotta affumicata, smoked cheese.  The salty funk of of cheese perfectly balanced the sweetness of the flowers.
Primi, the traditional Italian pasta/starch dishes, were a vegetable puree covered with black Thai rice, very pretty but also very bland with a slightly bitter taste (which is not necessarily a bad thing in Italian cuisine); spaghetti draped with roasted slivers of eggplant, topped with chopped roasted tomatoes and served with a classic pesto on the side; and hand-made fusilli served with a zucchini puree.  Secondi were another local classic deconstructed, this time little fillets of uncured alici, the anchovies for which these waters are famous, stuffed with more local ricotta; and a Neapolitan specialty, pizza dough rolled around slices of sopresatta and mozzarella and baked, then slced into wedges.  The one dessert was a cute little bon bon composed of ricotta cheese, chopped local almonds and dried fichi bianci, the white figs for which the region is also rightly famous.  These last served with slices of local oranges.  We are in citrus heaven here.
With these delights we were served two famous local wines, a white Fiano, easily my favorite white grape in the world, an undiscovered treasure in most of the world which I am convinced has enormous export potential, and a red Piedirosso.  In an earlier blog I made some catty remark, I think, about Piedirosso being a ‘pedestrian’ grape.  Mea culpa!  Mea maxima culpa!  In my defense the only samples I had tried were decidedly, well..pedestrian.  But this guy was incredible:  huge nose, huge aromas of berries, coffee, pipe tobacco, huge tannic structure—God, how I miss tannins in modern wines—huge everything.  I noticed the bottle made its way around the table to Signore Rotolo, the winemaker, where it stayed.  I finally had to threaten him with a table knife to get it to come back my way.
Happily the judging was a simple 1-5 scale and none of the snarky comments of the television shows were required. Nor were they indicated.  All the food was good, and often better than good, the presentations were imaginative if not inspired—in short, these young folks have the potential to go places with cookery and I hope they do.  The winner, perhaps unsurprisingly, was the dessert, presented by Severio, who was as unaffected but attractive as his entry.  His victory prize was a chef’s hat with stripes of the tricolore.  Gotta score one of those babies before I leave.  The rain subsided, the crowd was congenial, the hosts delightful and the kids were irresistibly charming to a one.  As usual with Italian dining, the company was the most delicious dish of all.  The highlight of the evening for me was being allowed to present their diplomas to some of our young chefs.  But, oh, what a faux pas!  I didn’t realize the kissie-kissie thing was part of the protocols and so all they got from the Americano was a handshake and hearty congratulations.  I bet those Italian kids were just crushed.

Friday, June 20, 2014

My Other Life

Earlier I mentioned ‘my other world,’ and it is becoming increasingly apparent over the years that my other world is the setting for another life as well.  Sandy and I are happily balanced between two lives, interconnected and mutually reinforcing but very distinct and separate.  And this at a point chronologically when we are about to step over the threshhold into a transitional phase as well.  That can only be good, I think.

One of my lives, one which I have cherished for 42 years now, is the life of a teacher, in three secondary schools and two universities.  And, despite the fact that North Carolina’s progressive government has been hijacked by what can only be described as a redneck element, my last few years of teaching have been among my favorites.  At Cary High I have had, quite simply, some of the nicest young folks I have ever had at any level.  I have been asked several times if I don’t become bored with teaching the same subject year after year.  Never.  That is because at this level, far more than at the college level, I am not teaching Latin, I am teaching students Latin.  There is a huge difference.  Am I intellectually challenged by teaching first-declension Latin nouns for what must be the 432nd time?  Frankly, no.  But do I find it competely engaging to teach it to this new crop of kids, with all their hopes, apprehensions, intellectual challenges and strengths?  Absolutely.  The first declension hasn’t changed much since crusty old Palaemon was flogging it (literally) into Gaius Iulius Caesar two thousand years ago.  But kids are infinite in their variety, and finding the right buttons to push to make them learn—and more importantly love—this old, dead language—that is endlessly challenging and fascinating to me.  People who hold up a corporate model as a way to ‘reform’ public education have missed the boat entirely, in my opinion.  Any corporation which tried to operate with the tremendous variation in the raw components of their intended product that any teacher in America confronts on a daily basis would be bankrupt in six months.  Kids aren’t widgets.  God made them all different for a reason.  And this ridiculous obsession we are currently experiencing on testing and data is, in my opinion, unequivocally the most pernicious trend in pedagogy (as opposed to teaching) that I have witnessed in my long career.  Here’s a simple truth:  teaching is an art, not a science.  Always has been, always will be.  And it is among the noblest of arts.

So I’m eagerly anticipating a few more good years in the classroom before I toddle off the stage and close my Ecce Romani for the last time.  But I wonder if that eagerness is not largely due as well to my other life, where I can give free rein to the scholar, archaeologist and writer, one who is fortunate enough to live in Italy in the summer.  Here is scope for as much intellectual pursuit as my limited intellect will allow.  Here the subject of food is actually considered a perfectly legitimate one for academic research and is actually understood and applauded by ethusiastic amateurs.  Here all that prehistory, protohistory and history of ancient wine and food springs to life before my eyes, not just in the form of archaeological remains but in the topography, the climate, the very air of the place.  Here are artisinal foodways that have a proven history of well over two millennia and a presumed prehistory of at least another thousand in some cases.  And here still, the finest artisinal products are made in the age-old ways—not more cheaply or more efficiently, just better.  

Here, too, the lifestyle seems to touch something deep inside us, to slow us down, make us enjoy the simple pleasures, make us more human, in a way.  Look, I don’t want to romanticize this land; there are enormous problems here.  Unemployment is rampant, especially, sadly, among the young.  And even those lucky enough to have a job find advancement through merit and hard work difficult because of a rigid, obsolete seniority system.  Here government is ridiculously inefficient, duplicative, inert, bureaucratic, enough to make the degree of gridlock we experience from our American elected officials actually look like a functional government.  And here those same politicians are, with depressing regularity, not only corrupt and venal but corrupt and venal at the behest of Camorra, the local version of the mafia.

But there is so much that is good, as well:  a delectable climate, the incredible beauty of the mountains, the sea, the vineyards, the olive groves, the little farms, the wild places with clear, racing streams and wildlife in abundance.  Here families are still the center of life, not just in theory but in fact.  Here work is a means to provide for those families, not an end in itself, where even professionals make no apology for going home to be with family and several generations still often live happily under the same roof.  Here the people, a bit shy and reserved at first around strangers, soon warm and show incredible generosity, kindness, humanity.  Here little girls at the beach still go topless until they are prepubescent simply because poisonous popular culture has not sexualized them.  And call me a dirty old man if you will, but I find that absolutely charming.  Here I may be a bit concerned about pickpockets, but I can walk the streets at almost any hour of the day or night without fear of being shot to death by a thug or, worse, some schizophrenic with an assault rifle.  Here good food and wine are not just a sign of wealth and priviledge but a birthright and a passion.  Here traditions are still honored.  Here we find tranquility.

So you can doubtless imagine how, toward the end of a long year of teaching, the prospect of this other lifestyle lightens the load and keeps a bit of spring in our strides.  We just keep saying the mantra:  “Italy, Italy, Italy soon...”  And perhaps you can see why we have seriously considered semi-retirement here, at least on a part-time basis.  When we’re here, we love this country and especially this litlle corner of the country, but we still sorely miss the best parts of good old Stati Uniti.  And when we’re back home, we love our native country, but we yearn for the best parts of the Cilento.  Being poised between two lives, two countries—that keeps us focused on the best parts of both, and perhaps that focus, in turn, vibrates somehow in the best parts of us.

Thursday, June 19, 2014


       It’s the first morning in Agropoli after a hard day of travel, a joyous arrival, and the first deep, sound sleep I’ve had in weeks.  I’m on the terazza, it’s a glorious day in the Cilento, and all’s right with my world.  My other world, increasingly.

The trip was about as trial free as it has ever been, with the exception of one glitch, but at our age, a solid day of stress associated with the logistics of moving from one continent to another across an ocean, not to speak of the physical strains of moving luggage, chugging through airports, breathing toxic airline air for eleven hours, etc—that’s tough on old bodies.  Our flight from Durham to New York was a bit delayed, but basically on schedule and comfortable.   A two-hour layover in New York allowed ample time to say goodbye to Sandy’s new friend, Brittany, a first-year teacher at Fuquay-Varina Middle School, hit the potties, and find our gate.  The flight from New York to Paris departed the gate on schedule—a near miracle at any of the New York airports—and only sat in the taxiing queue for thirty minutes.  The flight to Paris was remarkably short (a bit less than seven hours), reasonably comfortable, and as smooth as it could be.  Bad airline food left us both with grumbling stomachs, but nothing too serious.  We arrived at Charles de Gaulle on time, but waited for a gate to open for so long that our comfortable layover turned into a knuckle biter, especially since at de Gaulle, as at several other European airports, you have to go through security again when changing from one terminal to another even though you’ve never left a secure area.  We headed for the gate a mere 15 minutes before scheduled departure, Sandy optimistic as usual, Dave resigned to the fact that Air France had boarded 30 minutes before and it was all over but the crying, and as we scooted down the terminal, heard “Final boarding for Air France to Naples at Gate 49!”  Good old Air France.  It was another 40 minutes before we actually departed.

We had a pleasant flight across the Alps, two hours to Naples Capodichino, and at last we were in God’s blessed land.  But our luggage was not.  Now, I confess I had jinxed us at Orly by commenting to Sandy that we had made the flight but I bet our luggage never would, so I was quite prepared for the worst.  But there were a good 30 people standing with me in the line at the lost luggage office, and that’s impressive even for Air France.  But 10 minutes into the queue, and, Mirabile dictu!, an announcement that a whole container of luggage had been located and was even now being routed through another baggage line.  And guess whose luggage appeared first on the carousel?  Relief hardly suffices for my emotion; it’s a two hour drive from Agropoli back to Naples on a good day, and Naples traffic makes Italian traffic elsewhere seem almost tame. 

When I had reserved a car back in April I had paid $200 more to go through Herz rather than  Europe Car because Hertz was ‘in the airport’ and Europe Car involved a shuttle ride, a ridiculous waste of money for which I have paid my penance.  What a clever ruse!  “In the airport’ meant exactly the same shuttle ride as all the other rental agencies, and the Hertz office was, you guessed it, right next to Europe Car.  Mild irritation, but nothing compared to that generated when I discovered Hertz could not find my reservation and the best offer they would do was a solid $500 euros more than my reserved price.  I think I’ve had my fill of European Hertz.  But, in the scheme of things, it’ll all be washed out in the laundry, and I will gladly forgo a few luxuries over the course of the next year for the luxury of having a car for the six weeks we’ll be here.

The drive to Agropoli was remarkably pleasant, even taking the A-3 autostrada through Salerno.  I don’t know if I’m becoming a hybrid Italian or what, but even the hair-raising curves and that precipitous stretch 600 feet above Salerno—straight down—I was able to negotiate with the loss of only a few years’ aging potential, probably because our timing was good and traffic was light.  The stretch down the ironically named Superstrada 18 was terrifying as usual, but we arrived a good hour before we had estimated, and I owe the travel gods big time for that. 

  How can I describe for you the joyous arrival in this blessed spot?  Around the Via Fuonte we went,  with those beautiful Cilentan mountains to the south, up the ridge, and there is the gorgeous Villa Astone, its creamy stucco exterior and orange terracotta roof nestled into a hillside rampant with a profusion of color and perfume from roses, geraniums, zinnias, petunias, laburnums, jasmine, trumpet vine, bougainvillea—I could go on—and down on the ground floor the shady terazza of our little casa secunda.  A quick glance into the apartment, spotless and inviting as ever, and then a quick trip upstairs for hugs and kisses with Rolando and Filomena (Fabio, sadly, was at work), several delicious minutes of exchange of news, a riotous welcome from our canine buddies, Cioppo, Ettore and Lacchi, and then into our cool, breezy bedroom for two hours of blessed sleep.

At 6:30 I call Fernando, who’s been at the University all day giving exams but is right now on his way back and is in Battipaglia, 30 minutes away.  Hmmm, a quick trip to the grocery for tomorrow’s necessities, or will it take too long?  Two years ago, no question, our ignorance of the logistics of daily life here forced us to build an 25% more time into any plans.  But this time, three minutes to the Maxxi Futura, a quick stroll through this ipermercato where we now can place hands on exactly what we want almost at will, and then a quick trip home, and as we put away the last of the staples, there is gentle Fernando at the door.  More hugs, kisses, and excited chatter and up strolls dear Fabio for yet more laughter and affectionate banter.

Sadly, both Fabio and Fernando are otherwise committed for the night, but there’s no doubt in our minds that a pilgrimage to Agropoli’s Centro is an absolute necessity, and so at the ripe old hour of 9:30 off we go for dinner.  The first night here, no doubt what food we’re both craving. The only question:  Pizza Borelli or Pizza Barbanera where the views are spectacular but the wait is long?  Pizza Borelli.  Our American stomachs are already complaining about these ridiculous Italian dining hours, plus Signore Borelli is a particular favorite whose food is incredible.  We sit outdoors to enjoy the cool and the hundreds of locals strolling up and down the corso in the passsaggiato, the Italian version of ‘cruising’.  Best floor show ever.  And, dear Lord, the pizza!  I order a Calabrese with local mozzarella—the real kind—and a delicious, funky little salami, Sandy orders the Ortolona topped simply with thin slices of eggplant and squash and dressed with olive oil.  Every year I wonder if my expectations will be met by the food here.  You know how sometimes you’ve invested so much in the idea of a thing that, after the romantic glow wears off, the reality is ashes in your mouth?  But, no, there really is a huge qualitative difference in the food here, not just in taste but in balance and healthfulness.  This pizza is quite simply some of the best food we’ve ever eaten, simple but perfect in its simplicity.

Aching muscles protest, but up the hill we go to the acropolis which gives this beautiful town its name, to the Piazza di Santa Maria di Constantinopoli, where the mother church overlooks the twinkling lights of the marina and the ridges behind.  And we just drink in the sensory explosion—the sights, the smells, the ravishing, cool breezes (sweater weather here still), the sounds of this place we have come to love so well.  A quick visit to the gorgeous little church to thank the blessed Mother for bringing us here safely, and then the drive home for 10 hours of deep, restorative sleep.  Jetlag, shmetlag!  It took our bodies exactly 10 minutes to put themselves on Italian time.  Is there a message there?

Sunday, June 15, 2014

How can you NOT adore this land?

Back to Agropoli

     It’s exactly twenty-four hours till we head for the airport for yet another summer in paradise.  At least, as close to paradise as I’ll ever come on this side of the Great Divide—or the other, in all likelihood.  The last few days have been filled with the usual chaos of finalizing grades, putting the classroom in some semblance of order, getting the finances in order, preparing the house for some summer guests from American Dance Festival, Amy’s old alma mater, and packing for six weeks in a foreign land.

But increasingly more a homecoming than a venture into the unknown.  Oh, there’s still enough of the nervous excitement to keep me awake half the night, as before, and frustrated by my inability to sleep at the very time this sixty-four-year-old body most needs rest.  But this year the anticipation has far more to do with seeing dear friends who’ve been sorely missed.  Not to speak of the food, the climate, the spectacular scenery, the archaeological treasures, and the thousand other things we love about the Cilento.

Our anticipation is perhaps greater this summer given the fact that this year’s trip was not really on the agenda.  If you’ve followed this blog before, you will remember that Sandy and I take tour groups to Italy every other year and then piggyback off that travel to extend our stay.  Ergo, we still have to pay a chunk in air fare, but not nearly so much.  But this past year our twenty-five-year-old, professional dancer, NYC-loving daughter broached the subject to her mom of spending some time in Agropoli with the old geezers.  How many more times can we expect that to happen?  So we began laying the groundwork to make it so.  Then, as luck would have it, Amy was offered a permanent position with a dance company.  And soon discovered that the troupe she had just joined would have a major showing in July, typically a lull in the performance season.  And obviously couldn’t even consider jeopardizing her future with the company to ask for time off at the height of rehearsal time.  We finally begged her just to approach the director, lay the cards on the table, explain that if her absence would even remotely imperil her prospects she would cheerfully cancel the trip, but since the plans were made, if by chance, maybe.....  Which she did.  The director looked at the calendar, said, “Sure, here’s a block of time when we won’t be rehearsing, so go with my blessing.”  Or words to that effect.  The upshot is that we will be introducing our American carissima to our Italian carissimi, a dream come true for us sentimental saps. Next year we start on the other three!

Actually, there are some fairly compelling reasons for making the voyage this year anyway.  Last year I finished the first draft of my second (third if you count the dissertation) book, this one on ancient Roman viticulture and winemaking, and began making revisions.  That process went well until I bumped into the fourth chapter, which, wouldn’t you know it, was based largely on a chapter in the previous book.  I don’t know what it is, but trying to assimilate the new material with the old has been like trying to graft a third arm onto a human body; the stitches are holding and the arm functions perfectly well, but dear God, that’s one ugly dude!  Painful as it is to admit that your baby is butt ugly after they just underwent plastic surgery, that’s where I am.  In the event, I’ve just decided to start over and rewrite the whole darned chapter.  Which will take a chunk of the summer.  Dave is not looking forward to the prospect—and, understand, I adore writing—but if you’re facing an intellectual slog, it might as well be where the inspiration is right outside the door.

Then, too, Fernando messaged several weeks ago to let me know that the Italian translation of the first book, undertaken by a wonderful young woman named Irina Balbi, is now complete and we need to finalize a version for publication.  We’ll need to decide whether to go with a straight translation or to incorporate new material and remove some of the warts (of which there are many) from the original.

And then there are those palmenti, the open-air treading vats for wine, chiseled into native rock at some indeterminate time in the past and increasingly abandoned and forgotten in Italy.  We want to make sure that doesn’t happen by finding, describing, and plotting the GPS coordinates and altitudes of these little beauties.  I say ‘we’ loosely, since my Italian colleagues are really doing the work here. But what magnificent work they are doing!  Over the course of the last nine months my Cilentane friends have located three new sites, and a new colleague over the border in Basilicata has apprised us of several more.  Nothing revs my motor more than boots-on-the-ground archaeology. To say I am eager is an understatement.

Finally, there’s the delightful prospect of just hanging out with those so dear to me—Fernando, the Astones, Katiuscea, and most of all my precious Sandy, with whom I’ll be celebrating thirty years of wedded bliss come June 23.  I could blather on maudlinly about this incredible woman, but I’ll let it suffice to say, we may very well be celebrating the big day in the back seat of a Range Rover, trundling up the side of a mountain to gape at a hole in a rock.  And she’ll be loving it as much as I.  That, my friends, is a keeper.

And the icing on the cake will be our other adventures into the rich cultural and natural treasure of this region.  In a previous blog I mention Roberto Pellecchia’s book, The 100 Wonders of the Cilento and Vallo di Diano.  Now, I am thrilled to say, in a beautiful English translation.  Last year at the end of the summer we counted up the sites we’ve visited and the number was a respectable 37.  

But that leaves 63 unseen!  So much to see and only six weeks to see them!  What a glorious prospect!  Hope you’ll come along for the adventure.