Vedi Napoli e poi muori!

It was my birthday a few weeks back and to celebrate the Upstairs Vegetarian and I went to Naples for the day. Highly recommended. The origin of the phrase ‘vedi Napoli e poi muori‘ (see Naples and die) is unknown but it probably dates back to the 19th Century when Naples was the capital of the Kingdom of Two Sicilies. At that time, it was the largest, wealthiest and most technologically-advanced of any city in Italy and the third largest city in Europe after London and Paris. The idea behind the phrase is that once you have seen what Naples has to offer, you don’t need to see anything else. Later it came to have a more literal meaning. During World War II, Naples was bombed more than any other Italian city. There were about 200 airstrikes by Allied troops between 1940-1944 and an estimated 25 000 civilians died. These days, Naples faces an economic crisis due to record unemployment, a low birthrate, industrial decline and the out-migration of people looking for work elsewhere. None of this is helped by the fact that Naples has a tragic and enduring association with an organized crime syndicate, the Camorra.

In 2006, hero journalist Roberto Saviano shone a massive spotlight on the business dealings of the Naples mob in his genius book, Gomorrah. Then came the death threats. For nine years he has been living under police protection, changing residences every few days and traveling with seven bodyguards and two armoured cars. I cannot begin to imagine how terrible that must be.

In the 1980s, the Camorra, decided to branch out into the lucrative waste management business. Instead of paying a lot of money to have the waste disposed of legally, the mobsters dumped it in the fields, rivers, wells and lakes around Naples. The dumps and waste burn-offs have been blamed for abnormal levels of cancers and other diseases among locals. Although the Italian army has been sent in several times to try to fix the problem, waste management is still a big issue for Naples. The European Court of Justice recently ruled that Italy had failed to act against the illegal dumps dotting the countryside.

Despite all of that and the tendency of the foreign press to characterize Naples as a dirty, chaotic city teeming with mustachioed mob widows and burly fellows hiding in alleyways with knives between their teeth, it’s well worth a visit. Only some of those things are true and, on the plus side, there are tons of things to see and do (and eat) and Naples is no more dangerous than any other major metropolis (I’d suggest keeping a weather eye on your wallet and leaving the car behind however).

Naples is only an hour from Rome by train so it’s a very feasible day trip. Having been there several times, I didn’t feel compelled to run around re-seeing all of the sights. There were just three things I wanted to do. Let’s bullet point!

  • Visit the National Archeological Museum
  • Eat pizza
  • Walk down the Street of the Crèches

In addition to that modest menu, we rode the art subway a couple of stops to the museum so that counts as thing number four. A while back, the municipal government started putting art installations in a number of Neapolitan metro stations. It’s pretty great. The U.V. wrote about it in her fancy newspaper a few years ago.

Mosaics by Richard Kentridge in the Toledo subway stop

Mosaics by Richard Kentridge in the Toledo subway stop

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We stopped off for a coffee at the elegant Gran Caffe Gambrinus on the Piazza del Plebiscito. Gambrinus dates back to 1890 and apparently Oscar Wilde and our old pal Gabriele D’Annunzio used to hang out there when they were in town. 

The elegant Caffe Gambrinus is located in Piazza del Plebiscito.

The elegant Caffe Gambrinus is located in Piazza del Plebiscito.

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San Francesco di Paola on the Pizza del Plebiscito. Springsteen did a concert on this piazza in 2013!

The National Archeological Museum, established in the 1750s, is one of the most important archeological museums in the world. It has one of the planet’s best collections of Greek and Roman antiquities, including mosaics, sculptures, gems, glass and silver, and a collection of Roman erotica from nearby Pompeii. I first came here when I was a young aspiring archeologist and it’s been one of my favourite places ever since. Unfortunately, the English language signage is as obfuscatory as ever. Why oh why don’t they ever get a native English speaker involved in translating the displays? This is from an exhibit on the life and death of Augustus: “The Augustus dead body from Nola was transferred to Rome traveling at night to avoid the heat while the day was standing in the main cities on the Appian route…the body was exposed in the most popular basilicas and temples.”

Below are some of the treats in store for you at the museum.

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Here are some of the things you will find at the National Archeological Museum in Naples.

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I love these girls. They are so fierce.

I love these girls. They are so fierce.

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Around since ancient times, modern pizza evolved in Naples in the 18th or 19th century. It is unclear when pizzaioli started putting tomatoes on top. Legend has it that baker Raffaele Esposito baked three different pizzas for the visit of King Umberto and Queen Margherita of Savoy in 1889. The queen’s favourite was the one featuring the colours of the Italian flag: green (basil), white (mozzarella) and red (tomato). So Raffaele named the pizza in her honour. Sadly, it’s probably not true. These days Naples is famous for its pizza, which is thicker and soggier than the Roman variety. There are oodles of great pizzarias to choose from. We went to Da Matteo, which President Clinton visited during the 1994 G7 summit in Naples. A picture of Clinton with his  mouth full is prominently displayed.

The queue outside of Da Matteo. Luckily most of these guys wanted takeaway and we only had to wait a short while.

The queue outside of Da Matteo. Luckily most of these guys wanted takeaway so we only had to wait a short while.

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The U.V. digs into her Pizza Margherita.

Nativity scenes date back to the 2nd century and were popularized by St Francis in the 1200s when he created a living crèche for Christmas Mass, placing a donkey next to a manger full of hay. In wealthy 19th–century Naples, crèches (presepi in Italian) became super popular and elaborate. They evoke a dramatic scene, full of minor characters that have little to do with the Bible story. On Via San Gregorio Armeno, you can see the artisans designing entire villages, with butchers, bakers and candlestick makers all going about their daily business while the newborn Jesus sleeps nearby. We spent most of our time — as urged by our friend Elizabeth — at Ferrigno, a family business that dates back to 1836. There are loads of pictures of the current Ferrigno hanging with movie stars and being kissed by popes so I guess he’s a sort of rock star of the presepe world.

A sampling of the presepe figures on display at Ferrigno.

A sampling of the figures on display at Ferrigno.

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You can spice up your nativity scene with some modern characters, including Berlusconi and his dog Dudu.

You can spice up your nativity scene with some modern characters, including Berlusconi and his step-dog Dudu.

Italy and World War I

I’ve not posted in a very long time and I am sorry about that. I just needed a little break. But now I’m back and, to celebrate, we’re going to have another history lesson! Oh boy oh boy.

Last year, World War I was much in the news on account of it being 100 years since the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist set off a chain of threats and mobilization orders that led to the outbreak of war in August 1914. Italy’s involvement in World War I is a pretty interesting story and, as in Germany, it laid the groundwork for what was to come a generation later.

But let’s back up a bit. In 1882, Italy joined the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary. Each of the three countries promised to help each other in the event of an attack by a great power or, in the case of Germany and Italy, by France, which I don’t really understand because France was a great power. At least until it turned into a nation of cheese-eating surrender monkeys. Anyway, when the war started Italy said to the other two, “Hey, we ‘support’ you but we’re not going to war because the Alliance is a defensive pact and you guys started this mess.” What was really going on was that Italy was holding out to see which side would give her the most stuff for coming on board with them. By stuff, I mean territory, and by territory I mean Trieste, Istria, Dalmatia and Zara, all Austrian possessions inhabited by ethnic Italians (making it unlikely that Alliance would support Italy’s thirst for lebensraum, a concept that became known as spazio vitale under Fascism ). The Triple Entente (England, France and Russia) wanted Italy in the war so that they could open up a third front, spreading the Central Powers more thinly.

Growing Italian nationalism and expansionist aspirations fanned the flames of pro-war sentiment, helped along by lots of impassioned speeches from people like Gabriele D’Annunzio. I recently started reading a biography of D’Annunzio and man, that guy was nuts. As it happens, one of my very first posts on this blog was about D’Annunzio. Here it is if you’d care to have a look. I’ll wait right here. Or if you’d rather not, here’s the short version: D’Annunzio was a novelist, playwright, poet, aviator and sailor, war hero, narcissist, drug addict, orator and debt-evader. He was short, ugly, bald and skinny with extremely bad teeth but that didn’t stop him from being a notorious womanizer, apparently driving more than one of his rejected paramours to attempt suicide.

D'Annunzio looking dapper.

D’Annunzio looking dapper.

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And in his army outfit.

In April, 1915, Italian customs officers at the Italian-Austrian border suffered casualties when they got into a fight with Austrian soldiers who were trying to burn down a nearby bridge. Her honour besmirched, D’Annunzio leapt into action and started giving lots of haranguing speeches urging Italy to enter the war. Here’s a bit of one of them: “The cannon roars. The earth smokes…blood is spurting from the veins of Italy! All these people, who yesterday thronged in the streets and squares, loudly demanding war, are full of veins, full of blood; and that blood begins to flow…We have no other value but that of our blood to be shed.” Meanwhile, Mussolini was engaging in similar theatrics in his newspaper, Il Popolo d’Italia, which he established with French money after he was kicked out of the Socialist Party for preaching war.

Italy signed the secret Treaty of London with the Triple Entente (which promised her everything she wanted) and declared war on her former allies on 23 May 1915. Always one to exaggerate, D’Annunzio ended up serving in the army, the navy and the air force, at one point losing an eye in a plane crash (but even that didn’t slow him down for long).

Italy was not at all prepared for large-scale warfare. The country was not yet industrialized and it only had enough equipment for about half of the 1.2 soldiers that were recruited to fight. Luigi Cadorna, who hailed from the Upstairs Vegetarian’s ancestral home of Pallanza on Lago Maggiore, was the chief of staff of the Italian army when Italy entered the war. He was, not to put too fine a point on it, a disaster. During the course of the war the haughty and autocratic Cadorna dismissed over 200 officers, and ordered the execution of any officers whose units retreated. About 750 soldiers were executed for one reason or another under his leadership.

Luigi Cadorna

Luigi Cadorna

Over the next two years, Cadorna’s troops engaged Austro-Hungarian troops in 12 battles along the Isonzo River on the Italian-Austrian border. They made very little ground: the terrain was snowy and mountainous and the river prone to flooding. The last battle — at Caporetto in October 1917 — was a total rout thanks to the intervention of German reinforcements with some fancy new battle tactics. French and British troops had to come rescue what was left of the Italian army. The one-sided battle resulted in 10 000 Italian soldiers being killed, 30 000 wounded and 265 00 captured. Cadorna — who had been on vacation for most of October and fled to Padua during the battle — was given the sack. Bouncing back quickly, he was named the Italian representative to the Allied Supreme War Council  in Versailles and awarded the title of Field Marshal (Maresciallo d’Italia) in 1924 after Mussolini came to power. That was apparently a very big deal.

In other how badly do you have to screw up before there are repercussions news, our old pal Pietro Badoglio also led forces at Caporetto. Although he wasn’t found guilty of anything by the military commission that examined him after the war, he did  get himself promoted to positions in the army that allowed him to change all the documents finding him at fault. Sound familiar Silvio? Badoglio was named Chief of Staff of the army in 1925 and became Marshall of Italy in 1926. He employed chemical warfare during the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. He’s also the guy that was named Prime Minister in July 1943 when Mussolini was fired by the Fascist Council  and  who ran away to Pescara with the Italian King, Vittorio Emmanuele, when the Germans entered Rome in September of the same year. Jerk.

Pietro Badoglio

Pietro Badoglio. If you ask me, these guys all look pretty much the same. 

Anyway, getting back to Caporetto. The retreat brought massive shame and humiliation to Italians. To make matters worse, Italy received little of the territories she had been promised in the Treaty of London, British and French leaders feeling she had not really pulled her weight in the war. That seems a bit unfair: by the end of the war, 600,000 Italians were dead, 950,000 were wounded and 250,000 were crippled for life. Mortified and heavily in debt, Italy was primed for the rise of Mussolini, who soon came along promising to restore Italy to glory and rebuild the Roman Empire of yore.

At long last #Reina/Torrimpietra

Here’s a yarn with a nice backstory so I’ll start with that. Many years ago, not long after I moved to Rome, I got a call from a couple of new friends asking if I wanted to go for a drive in the country, maybe grab some lunch. It was Sunday, obvs I agreed and off we went. We drove about 40 minutes in some direction or other (southwest as I later learned) and happened upon a little restaurant hidden in a valley surrounded by woods and agriculture. There was some sort of medieval castle next door and a load of old men playing bocce in the square.  (There’s also, as it turns out, a cantina downwind selling eponymous wine, honey and pasta made from farro). Aside: I hoped to impress the non-bocce enthusiasts amongst you with some skinny on how the game is played — to me it just looks like a bunch of beardies throwing balls at another ball — but I couldn’t be bothered to read all of the millions of pages that the Interwebs devote to the subject. Suffice it to say that bocce dates back to the Ancient Romans, who played with coconuts brought back from Africa, and — this tidbit alone is worth the price of admission — according to legend, Sir Frances Drake refused to defend England against the Spanish Armada until he finished his bocce game. He proclaimed, “First we finish the game, then we’ll deal with the Armada.” Hee.

Getting back to the backstory: as I remember it, the day was perfect; dogs and cats snaked their way around the outdoor tables, searching for handouts; the food was simple and delicious; lunch lasted for hours. It was — as a colleague was to remark much later — like being in an olive oil commercial. Afterwards, I drove back to Rome with my friends and fell into my normal routine, which, believe me is nothing like being in an olive oil commercial. I thought about the restaurant often, but since none of us had paid any attention to how we got there, we had no idea how to get back.

Some years later, I was sitting in my office when a colleague rushed in, overwrought. By that time my job had moved from central Rome to Maccarese, an agricultural estate on the sea. “I have just found the most amazing restaurant,” he cried. “It’s in the middle of nowhere and it is everything you imagined Italy could be.” Another expatriate craving the perfect Italian experience, needless to say. We went there the next day and, you can probably guess what I found. Yup. It was my olive oil commercial. It hadn’t changed a bit.

This is what the restaurant looks like if you get there early (or, in our case, stay late).

This is what Trattoria da Maurizio looks like if you get there early or stay late.

The restaurant is called Trattoria da Maurizio. It’s located in a tiny town called Torrimpietra. The aforementioned castle — as I learned during subsequent visits — dates to the 13th Century. Apparently there was also once a fortress built in ye olde Roman times.  Not sure why that was — the sea is close by, but not that close. Back then, my office was only a few minutes away and we went there whenever we could afford to take a nice long lunch — not an everyday thing in Italy I assure you.  Usually a nice long lunch coincided with a birthday or some other occasion that was particularly worthy of note, e.g. summer.

Aside #2: In September 1943, the Germans having occupied Rome and the towns to the south, some SS forces were camping out near Palidoro — the next town over from Torrimpietra — in an old Italian military installation. I also heard a story that those guys were staying in the castle at Torrimpietra and they used to get drunk and ride their motorcycles up and down the stairs and shoot at the birds on the frescoed ceilings. Anyway, on 22 September, these knuckleheads were poking around in a box of abandoned munitions, which blew up in their faces, killing one German and wounding another two. They immediately rounded up 22 random locals and got ready to carry out the reprisals of which the Germans were so fond.  They demanded the cooperation of the local branch of the military police or carabinieri, which was located at Torrimpietra and under the temporary command of 22-year old Naples-born Salvo d’Aquisito. That’s him below.

Salvo d'Aquisito

Salvo d’Aquisito

BTW, has anyone noticed how many 22s there are in this story? 22 September; 22 locals; Salvo was 22. Coincidence? Anyway, Salvo stood up to the Germans, insisting that the explosion had been an accident and trying to persuade them to let the prisoners go. The Germans roughed him up and tore his uniform, which is pretty much the worst thing you can do to a carabiniere. Especially these days when the carabinieri uniforms are designed by Valentino — true story. Next the Germans made the prisoners dig a big mass grave for themselves. Just in the nick of time, Salvo ‘confessed’ to the crime. He was executed and the prisoners were set free. Today, Salvo is celebrated as a big carabinieri icon. The young hero was posthumously awarded the Golden Medal of Military Valour. He was buried in the church of Santa Chiara in Naples, alongside the odd Neapolitan king and the brains of St. Louis of Toulouse. There have been movies, stamps and apparently Salvo just lacks a few miracles before he is named the first World War II soldier saint.

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Salvo’s stamp – 1975.

A few weeks ago the Upstairs Vegetarian suggested a day out in the country and off to Da Maurizio we went. I’d not been there in about four years. We had a lovely lunch.

What's for lunch?

What looks good?

Bruschetta, three ways.

Bruschetta, three ways.

Spaghetti with porcini mushrooms for the U.V.

Spaghetti with porcini mushrooms for the U.V.

Maurizio's wife is Cuban and makes this delicious been dish with pancetta.

Maurizio’s wife is Cuban and makes this delicious bean dish with pancetta.

Scamorza, aka melted cheese for the U.V. I believe that I ordered a hunk o'meat for myself but apparently was distracted from taking a photo by what came next...

Scamorza, alias melted cheese, for the U.V. I feel sure that I ordered a hunk o’meat for myself but apparently I was distracted from taking a photo by what came next…

So, you ask, what did come next? That would be Ms. Reina Jaymes (alt spelling, Rayna). I should preface all of this by saying that the Upstairs Vegetarian has been angsting and kvetching about getting a dog for ages. I have been in favor of the plan, mindful as I am that the Morgster could use a bit more canine company to help overcome his conviction that, much like Pinocchio, he is a real boy. Yes, I know that he spends endless hours in the dog park but most of that is spent preening around the grown ups, looking for strokes and treats. I have sent her dozens of photos and adoptions pleas over the past year culled from the many many dog shelter sites that I somehow subscribe to but she’s never paid much attention. She insisted that she was looking for a Dog of Destiny who would appear at just the right time, in just the right way, ringing the doorbell and crying “Mama.” I don’t really believe in that sort of nonsense. But then, just as our lunch was drawing to a close, we looked over at the next table and there she was. The world’s cutest tiny puppy. And she was looking for a home. Destiny Dog.

The Morgster meets his new BFF.

The Morgster meets his new BFF.

Five minutes later, the U.V. had a new puppy and Morgan had a new best friend. Finding the right name took a bit of doing. But the U.V. finally settled on Rayna Jaymes, named after the main character on her favourite TV show, Nashville. Only it’s spelled  Reina, which means ‘queen’ in Spanish, so as to be maximally confusing. Rayna Jaymes, in case you don’t know, is played by the magical Ms. Connie Britton, who played Tami Taylor on Friday Night Lights and whose hair has its own blog. So there you go. Stay tuned for many doggy adventures to come.

Introducing Ms Rayna (spelled Reina) Jaymes!

Introducing Ms Rayna (spelled Reina) Jaymes!

The bandwagon

Italians take a very long time to jump on the bandwagon of any fad sweeping other nations. But when they do jump — and they always do — they jump hard and all at once. It’s like there’s a memo that goes out:

Dear Italians

Take all of your savings and open an electronic gambling and bingo parlor. Do it now. It doesn’t matter if there are two or three on the same block. The demand is there. We promise.

Signed

The Bandwagon Gods

And then a few months later:

Dear Italians

Sorry about the electronic gambling and bingo parlor thing. We really thought that would take off. No matter. Now we want you to put all of those empty storefronts to good use by opening up electric cigarette stores. Do it now. This is going to be great.

Signed

The Bandwagon Gods

For years there were only a handful of Irish pubs in all of Rome. And then, overnight, there were hundreds. Rome recently discovered sushi about 30 years after the rest of the (non-Japanese) world and BAM! Now there’s a sushi bar on every street corner and you can even buy it in the supermarket (which also didn’t really exist a decade ago. Today there are four supermarkets less than five minutes from my house).

So what makes Italians such late (but enthusiastic) adapters? (BTW, this doesn’t really seem to apply to fashion). No idea, but if I had to hazard a guess, I’d say it has to do with the economy, which has forced many people — especially young people — out of their comfort zone of caution and has made them willing to take more risks than their parents ever did. Youth unemployment is nearly 44% here so when a bandwagon shows up, everyone jumps on without thinking about the dangers of opening up an electric cigarette store when everyone else is doing the same thing at the same time. That’s how the youth do. It’s a theory. Even if I’m wrong, it’s probably about the economy. It’s always about the economy.

The reason I bring all this up is that I noticed something recently that surprised me. I used to work at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations — better known as FAO (pronounced FOW). FAO’s headquarters is in Rome, right across the street from the Circus Maximus. And, since I know you are longing for your Mussolini fact of the day, I’ll add that the HQ building was optimistically constructed by Il Duce to house his Ministry of the Colonies (in 1937 it was renamed the Ministry of Italian Africa). After WWII, the Italian government leased it to FAO for 1 lira per year. FAO employs nearly 3 700 staff, a little over half of whom are based in Rome. The international staff hail from all over the world plus there are interns and consultants and people constantly coming in for meetings. You get the picture: big melting pot.

Despite the existence of thousands of international mouths to feed, Viale Aventino (where FAO is located) has always been wanting in the restaurant department. The restaurants range from good (Taverna Cestia, a classic Trattoria Romana. I used to live next door and I ate here every Sunday night for years.) to Meh (Da Rino) to bad (La Viletta dal 1940). And, with the exception of a halfway decent Asian place (Court Delicati), there was nothing non-Italian to be had for love nor money (a condition that was mostly true for all of Rome until relatively recently). Not anymore.

Sorry this is so boring. It's August and al of the restaurants were closed!

Sorry this is such a boring photo. It’s vacation time and all of the restaurants were closed when I was nosing around. The restaurant is good though.

Over the past couple of years, in rapid succession, Viale Aventino has seen the opening of a greek diner, a French eatery, a burger joint, a Japanese place, a Mexican restaurant (which quickly closed and is set to reopen soon as something else. I’m hoping Thai), a couple of high-end sandwich joints, a cute Italian bistro with a tasting menu, a fancy gelateria (celery ice cream, anyone?) and probably some other stuff that I’m forgetting about. I’ve tried the gelateria (two thumbs up), the Greek (very good) and the Japanese (excellent sushi and I am still dreaming about the spicy eggplant). I’ll let you know about the rest in due course. Sorry I have no photos of food. Here’s a dog instead. IMG_0725

I think I have written about this before but while I’m in the neighborhood… On 10 September 1943, two days after Italy surrendered to the Allies, partisans and Italian soldiers tried to stop the Germans from entering the city at Porta San Paolo, just down the street from FAO. There were 570 casualties. You can still see bullet marks on the facades of some of the buildings (including the place where I used to live). There’s a nice little park dedicated to the Italians who died that day. I used to take my dog there for walks and always parked my car just outside the entrance. Once I came home from a business trip to find that a homeless man had taken up residence in my Volvo. He had broken the window to get in. There was a bag of bread rolls and his clothes were neatly folded on the back seat. Fortunately he was not at home when I stopped by. I never parked there again.

Porta San Paolo, where Italian soldiers and citizens fought to keep the Germans out of Rome.

Porta San Paolo, where Italian soldiers and citizens fought to keep the Germans out of Rome.

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#augustinrome/Il Giardino

It’s August and no one is around. Well, not no one. I imagine (although I keep a healthy distance at this time of year) that central Rome is currently teeming with tourists and the folks that feed, water, lodge and tour guide them. But out here in the ‘burbs, it’s very quiet. Which I like very much. And because it’s been a weird summer, with tons of rain and not so much beastly heat (although that’s in turnaround at the moment), the park across the street is lovely and green. Villa Pamphili  in August normally resembles Oklahoma in the era of the Joad family. This year there is usually a cool breeze of an evening and not many people in the park so I’ve been enjoying hanging out there with the Morgster and a book (or if I am being totally honest, QuizUp).

Villa Pamphili on the evening of the 'super moon.'

Villa Pamphili on the evening of the ‘super moon.’

August in Rome can be really quite pleasant. Unless you have something to do. Which I did one day last week. Three somethings, to be exact. I had to make photocopies of some papers. I had to mail them to my landlord. And I had to pay a bill. None of that sounds very difficult or complicated. But we’re in Rome, where even the simplest of errands takes half a day. And it’s August. Much is closed. It used to be worse. When I first came to Italy, shops and restaurants tended to close down for the entire month of August. They take turns now and, by law, there has to be at least one restaurant, pharmacy and food shop open in every neighborhood at all times. And now there are big supermarkets all over the city and they pretty much stay open all summer. Back in the day there were only a couple of these and they were mostly outside of Rome so when your neighborhood mom and pop store closed down in August, unless you had a car, times could be very lean indeed.

First I went to the photocopy store. My printer/photocopier is broken and the repair shop is closed. The photocopy shop was also closed. So I kept walking down the big road near my house, hoping that I would eventually come across an open photocopy shop. Which I did, right next to the post office. How convenient! I did my photocopying business and moved on to the next order of business — mailing the documents and paying my bill, both of which could be accomplished at the conveniently located post office next door. Which had closed at 12:30. It was 12:32.  The sign on the door informed me that the nearest open post office was on Via Ozanam, about a 30 minute walk from my current location. Did I mention that it was 8000 degrees in the shade? And that’s what it’s like to get things done in August in Rome.IMG_0811

To fortify myself for the long journey ahead, I stopped into a restaurant that I had been very curious to try. Il Giardino is unprepossessing and even dingy from the outside (also from the inside), but I’d heard good things and it was always crowded when I walked by. Also, it was open at lunchtime, which is somewhat of a rarity around here. The place was packed with locals. I had pinzimonio and a veal chop. Pinzimonio is an antipasto dish featuring cut up fresh vegetables (in this case, carrots, celery and fennel) with a dipping sauce of olive oil, salt and fresh black pepper. So good. The veal was perfectly cooked and served with a wedge of lemon. Really simple, no pretense. I do like the fact that Italian chefs are increasingly playful and creative. But sometimes it’s nice to just go the unadorned route. Il Giardino is a family restaurant with an extensive fish and meat menu. Pizza is served a lunchtime — another rarity. The antipasto buffet includes homemade cheese.  Check it out if you are in the nabe.IMG_0809IMG_0810

Il Giardino. Via Circonvallazione Gianicolense, 119, 152 Roma, Italy
Tel: 06 535951

Vitello tonnato and a life-changing mayonnaise hack

A few weeks back I got a craving for vitello tonnato. A Piemonte dish that probably dates to the 19th Century, it consists of cold, thinly sliced veal slathered with a tuna-flavoured mayonnaise. I know. It sounds weird but it is incredibly delicious: a combination of textures and tastes that is perfect for the hot summer months. Pellegrino Artusi — Italy’s most influential cookbook writer (he lived from 1820-1911) included a recipe for vitello tonnato in his masterwork, La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiare bene (The science of cooking and the art of eating well). Artusi’s recipe did not feature mayonnaise, which I wish I’d known sooner, but we’ll get to that.

Pellegrino Artusi with some mighty impressive mutton chops (cue food joke)

Pellegrino Artusi with some mighty impressive mutton chops (cue food joke)

Artusi included recipes from all of Italy’s regions in his book. It was only 20 years after the unification of Italy and he’s often credited with using food to forge a sort of national identity (as well as with giving the hegemony of French cuisine a run for its money). Pellegrino was born to a well-off family in Forlimpopoli, in the region of Romagna. In 1851, 40 years before the publication of the cookbook, a brigand named Stefano Bonelli (better known by his nickname, ‘The Ferryman’ after his father’s profession) and his bandits took hostage the Verdi Theatre, where a bunch of richies were enjoying a performance of the dramatic oratorio, The Death of Sisara. Thanks to the help of his spies (In some circles, he was seen as a sort of Robin Hood who was sticking it to the man), The Ferryman knew the identity of Forlimpopoli’s fattest cats. His men escorted them home, beat them up and robbed them blind.

The bandits also did a home invasion at the casa di Artusi (who seem to have not been at the theatre). Pellegrino was pistol-whipped; his mother was knocked down; one of his sisters was stabbed; another was brutally gang-raped (the father had fainted with shock when the bandits showed up, thus saving himself the indignity of a beating). The family fled to Florence the next day. The sister who had been raped went mad and spent the rest of her life in an asylum. Isn’t that horrible? Anyway, Artusi’s cookbook is delightful and if you care about Italian food, you should have a look.

Il Passatore: The Ferryman

Il Passatore: The Ferryman

Vitello tonnato is one of those traditional dishes that you used to see on menus all the time and now hardly ever do. If I wanted to appease my craving, I was going to have to make it myself. The problem is that this involved a multi-stage and somewhat fiddly process and I am an accomplished but extremely lazy cook. There are many different ways to make vitello tonnato but the one I used involved browning and then braising the veal; letting it rest overnight; and composing an elaborate mayonnaise made from tuna, capers, anchovies and other yummy things. Ah. Mayonnaise. I had forgotten about that part.

I have tried (and mostly failed) to make mayonnaise on several occasions in the past. I love homemade mayo but I just have never had the knack. I was determined to do the vitello tonnato thing though so I forged ahead, guns a’blazing. Gigantic fail. Gigantic. Before starting, I consulted about a million mayonnaise recipes, each of which was, of course, different. They differed in the order in which to add the ingredients, in whether to use the egg white as well as the yolk and in which beating implement to use. They all agreed that the eggs should be at room temperature and that the oil should go in drop by drop until emulsification was achieved. Or not.

I had the opportunity to use each of the suggested beating implements (blender, food processor, mixer, whisk) and all the ingredients in every possible configuration because I MADE FIVE ATTEMPTS before I (sort-of) got it right. FIVE! What on Earth was I doing wrong? How do the Frenchies do it? The hardest bit is the drop by drop part but I managed to master that with the help of a drinking straw (patent pending).

Okay, well that sorry incident finally passed and, in the end, resulted in a very nice vitello tonnato. By then, my stubborn gene had kicked in and I knew that would not rest until I was able to make perfect mayonnaise. Mayo had become my labours of Hercules, my search for Moby Dick, my cutting down the mightiest tree in the forest with a herring, so to speak. And then I found this at The Healthy Foodie. It’s simple; it’s foolproof; no need for room temperature eggs; no need for any beating implement but the minipimer (meeniepeemerrr) a.k.a. the only kitchen tool you will ever really need; and it takes about 30 seconds. Thank you Healthy Foodie, for changing my life!

Perfect!

Perfect!

 

Cinecittà!

People sometimes think that because Rome was declared an open city during World War II it was safe from attacks. That is very far from the truth. First of all, the open city status didn’t come off until an awful lot of damage had already been inflicted. After Mussolini’s downfall, the government that replaced him — led by the craven Pietro Badoglio — announced that Rome was a demilitarized zone, hoping to safeguard all of its precious treasures. The Allies didn’t necessarily agree and continued to lob bombs at the city until mid-August 1943 when they agreed to lighten up (probably because they were already in surrender talks with the Italian government). Bombs continued to fall from time to time even after the open city declaration was confirmed (including on the Vatican, twice, although Germany was responsible for one of those). All told, the Allies dropped 60 000 bombs on Rome during World War II. 

On September 3, Badoglio surrendered to the Allies, who had already landed on the toe of Italy’s boot and, sensing that Hitler would not be pleased by this development (he was not, although he had been expecting it), he buggered off (at dawn) to Brindisi with his buddy King Victor Emmanuel III. Hitler promptly took control of most of Italy, including Rome, disarmed tens of thousands of Italian troops (so the Germans wouldn’t have to fight them), busted Mussolini out of jail and set him up in a puppet regime known as the Repubblica di Salò on Lake Garda, near Brescia.

The head of Venusia from Fellini's film Casanova greets you at the entrance to Cinecitta.

The head of Venusia from Fellini’s film Casanova greets you at the entrance to Cinecitta’.

You might wonder what any of this has to do with the largest film studio in Europe. I’ll be getting to that. But first let’s talk some more about Mussolini. It is no secret that he was massively vainglorious and blustery and that he loved to hear himself speak. So naturally, he went into the movies. In 1937, Il Duce inaugurated Cinecittà, handing the reins to Luigi Freddi, who had previously been the vice secretary of Fasci Italiani all’Estero, an organization that sought to convert expatriate Italians to fascism. So, lots of film experience there. Not.  But experience probably mattered less to Mussolini than Freddi’s fascist loyalty since a major purpose (but not the only one — he also wanted to boost Italy’s feature film industry) of Cinecittà was to roll out propaganda films disguised as cinema. For example, Scipione l’africano wasn’t actually about Scipio’s defeat of Hannibal at the Battle of Zama in 202 B.C.E. It was about the Italian military victory in Ethiopia in 1936. Meanwhile, the Istituto Luce was producing hundreds of newsreels a year showing Mussolini striding around in the snow bare-chested or fulminating from his office balcony in Piazza Venezia. Starting in 1926, every one of Italy’s 2 500 movie theatres was obligated to show one Luce newsreel a week. In 1929, an estimated 13 million viewers attended 1.2 million screenings. That’s some pretty powerful propaganda right there. BTW, Google has put 30 000 of the Luce newsreels on YouTube. They are pretty entertaining. 

Doesn't everyone go sledding with no shirt on?

Doesn’t everyone go sledding without a shirt?

In the summer of 1943, Allied bombs hit Cinecittà, destroying three of the studios. Yes, that’s what that long meandering introduction about the open city was leading up to.  Italy’s movie studios were bombed. Kinda anticlimactic, but the open city stuff is interesting I think.

Looters and the Germans did even more damage than the bombs. According to film historian Mario Verdone, “In the days that followed (the armistice), Cinecittà was ruthlessly sacked for its technical apparatus. The anonymous  looters even made off with the faucets in the bathrooms, while the Germans confiscated all the film equipment and carted it off to Germany.”

Starting in 1943 and until 1947, the Cinecittà opened its doors to about 3 000 war refugees, both Italians as well as displaced people from colonized Libya and Dalmatia. There was also an international camp, where the refugees ranged from Yugoslavia, Poland, Egypt, Iran and China. When the studios reopened after the war, the refugees sometimes worked as movie extras, receiving a token payment for their trouble. 

Neorealism and the Hollywood on the Tiber phases of Cinecittà’s existence are worthy of their own blog posts so consider this to be part one. The reason that I am writing about Cinecittà in the first place (apart from my WW2 in Italy obsession) is that I visited the place not too long ago and it was fun and interesting. You should go if you have the chance. There are two exhibitions, one permanent and one ‘current,’ which I suppose means temporary. The permanent exhibit tells the story of the building of Cinecittà and its history. Here are some fun facts to know and tell: Cinecittà consists of 73 buildings spread over 59 hectares. It was built by 1 500 workers in 475 days. It has produced over 4 000 films since 1937.

Another room is dedicated to Federico Fellini and contains photos, drawings, costumes and footage of the Maestro. The temporary exhibit, ‘Backstage,’ is all about filmaking’s main elements: direction, screenplay, sound, costume and fiction. The best was the costume room, which had touch screen tables to let you dress up virtual actors in costumes from famous movies. Paper dolls for the digital age!

The best part is the outdoor sets: Broadway (created for Gangs of New York) and Ancient Rome (created for the TV series, Rome).  There is also Florence in 1400 (created for the Italian miniseries, Francesco) but we couldn’t get in there for some reason. The sets are frequently adapted for reuse. The day we were there they were ‘directing’ a ‘movie’ set in Ancient Rome using some of the visitors as extras. Here’s Julius Caesar following his unfortunate incident in the Curia of Pompey.

Et tu, Brute?

Et tu, Brute?

I don’t even know what this is. Storm Troopers in Ancient Rome?  Anyway, the kids loved it. DSCN0127

Some sort of religious ceremony involving Vestal Virgins.

Some sort of religious ceremony involving Vestal Virgins.

Ancient Roman scenery.

Ancient Roman scenery.

The Great White Way, Roma-style.

The Great White Way, circa 1860.

Cinecittà has a nice bar and restaurant and a very acceptable book shop. If you are in Rome, you could do worse than to pay the studio a visit on a sunny afternoon.

Cinecittà, Via Tuscolana 1055

BOX OFFICE – open Monday through Sunday 09.30 to 19.00
EXHIBITION – open Monday through Sunday 09.30 to 20.00

GUIDED VISITS:

10.00 (In Italian)
11.30 (in Italian and English)
13.00 (in Italian)
16.00 (in Italian and English)
17.30 (in Italian)
19.00 (in Italian)

Closed on Tuesdays