Rome Central Market

Anyone who has ever been to Rome has probably passed through Termini Station. Until recently it’s not been a place you would want to linger.  There were a couple of coffee bars, newspaper kiosks and a McDonalds or two. The station was rife with pickpockets and drunk homeless folk. Those guys are still around, truth be told, but there has been a big effort to jazz the place up over the past several years. Now there’s a nice department store, Sephora, a Moleskine store where I get my notebooks (used by Hemingway, Picasso and van Gogh among others, doncha know), a two-story bookshop (Borri Books) with an excellent English language section, a huge Benetton, a bagel store (I haven’t tried this yet — has anyone? The bagels look authentic enough but Italian bagels are usually just round bread rolls with some seeds strewn on top. Like brunch, of which bagels are a critical part, Italians just don’t get it), a whole load of decent burger, sandwich and juice bars, a fancy chocolate store and much else besides. I have to say this about Italy: it eventually catches up with America’s great innovations (e.g. microwaveable popcorn, train station malls), it just takes about 20 years to get there. In fairness, Italy was several decades ahead of America in the racist/misogynist/sexual assaulting/fascist/orange/criminal/money and fame whore head of state sweepstakes.

Just over a month ago, restaurateur Umberto Montano opened Il Mercato Centrale in a former piano store at the Via Giolitti entrance of Termini. Isn’t that a weird store to be in a train station? I can imagine purchasing many items as I’m waiting for the 6:52 to Torino — coffee, magazines, maybe some fancy chocolate or stockings (which kind of makes it sound like I’m an American GI going to Torino in 1943), but a piano is definitely not one of them. The Rome merket is a follow-up to Montono’s hugely successful Florence Central Market, which gets three million visitors a year.

The Rome Central Market is like a foodie’s food court on steroids. About 15 artisanal stalls are arranged around a square on the ground floor. The market floor is dominated by the ‘cappa mazzoniana’, a gigantic marble hood designed by architect Angiolo Mazzoni in the 1930s. Many of Rome’s foodie superstars are here: famed pizza/breadmaker Gabriele Bonci, Beppe the Cheese King of the Ghetto, the Galuzzi family, which has been selling fish in Rome since 1894, the so-called ‘Guru of Meat’, Roberto Liberati and Stefano Callegari, the inventor of the much ballyhooed trappizino. This is a triangular pieces of dough, which is baked and stuffed with fillings like chicken cacciatore, meatballs, braised oxtail, cuttlefish or tripe. There are places to get pasta, super fresh local vegetable dishes, ice cream, chocolates, truffled everything. You can take out or eat at the market:communal tables in the middle of the hall seat 500 people. The first floor of the market is occupied by a restaurant overseen by multi-Michelin star-winning German celebrity chef, Oliver Glowig. The second floor is for conferences, events, etc.

Whether or not you need to pass through Termini Station next time you are in Rome, check out the Mercato Centrale. It’s worth the trip.

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Bonci’s pizza is a must when in Rome.

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His bread is pretty great too.

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All these dishes are full of truffles.

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Rome’s Central Market

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This is the stall of famed butcher Roberto Liberati.

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Lunch was a succulent sliced steak and potatoes.

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Morgan waits patiently for a handout.

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Chefs have to eat too!

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Have you ever seen such beautiful cheeses?

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And fish?

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This whole bucket is filled with discarded artichoke leaves.

Via Giolitti 36, Rome. mercatocentrale.it

A Very Roman Day

I have often observed that accomplishing any task of note here in Rome takes half a day. Note the ‘of note.’ I do not mean to insinuate that everything takes half a day. I am quite sure, for example, that you can buy a stick of gum or a slice of pizza in less time than that. But the moment you have to go anywhere or get involved in any kind of process, you might as well pack a good book and cancel your appointments for the rest of the day. Doctor’s visit? Half a day. Need a new checkbook? Half a day. Have to pay some bills? That’ll take half a day. The crazy thing is that such services are about a million times more efficient than they were when I arrived here back in the days of mimeograph machines and no cell phones. Took a half a day then. Takes a half a day now.

Friday was a Very Roman Day — a VRD if you will. I was supposed to meet my lawyer at the big post office near Piazza Mazzini to turn over the documentation for renewing my permesso di soggiorno or residency permit. I’ve done this a couple of time before and here is what’s supposed to happen. 1) I give the permit forms plus backup documentation (every contract I’ve signed over the past year; all of my bank information; a photocopy of my complete passport, empty pages and all) to the grumpy postal worker (GPW for short. They are always grumpy — going postal appears to also be a  thing in Italy). 2) The GPW checks that all the necessary papers are present and accounted for and puts stamps all over everything. 3) I give everyone a whole load of money and go home to wait and see whether I get to stay on for another two years. Pretty straightforward, no?

Here’s what actually happened. The first challenge was getting there. Piazza Mazzini is about 15 minutes away by car, 20 bus stops or a €20 taxi ride. I don’t really drive in Rome anymore — long story — and normally I am all about public transportation but — of course — there was a transport strike on Friday. That was annoying, but strikes aren’t exactly rare or surprising in this part of the world and one adapts. The transport strikes usually run from 8:30 am to 5 pm so they only really inconvenience people who oversleep or leave work at a reasonable hour. When I used to commute to work (before my commute was a gentle amble across the hallway from the bedroom to my study) I used to be inconvenienced all the time because I usually did both. My appointment with the lawyer was at 10 so I took a cab.

We met up and idly chit chatted in the queue until the GPW called us forward. He flipped through my information with a telling lack of interest before looking me up and down and asking for my passport. Ulp. I didn’t bring my stinking passport.

The lawyer and I started protesting at the same time. Nothing in the application materials said anything about needing to bring my official passport (as I said, a photocopy of my full passport was one of the papers required). I had done this twice before and no one had ever asked for my passport. My lawyer had done it dozens of times for other clients and nobody had asked them either. Was this a new rule? Not a new rule, sniffed the GPW. Those other clerks had obviously not been doing their job correctly: seeing the ‘true’ passport was THE MOST IMPORTANT PART OF THE PROCESS.

No amount of cajoling, gnashing of teeth or rending of garments could convince him to let it pass (sometimes that works, but rarely in the post office). So I had to take a taxi home. €20. Grab the passport and come back. €20. When I got to the head of the queue again, the first GPW fobbed me off on another GPW, whom he had clearly warned about me because the first thing she said was, “Do you have your passport? SEEING THE TRUE PASSPORT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT PART OF THE PROCESS!” The rest of the interaction, i.e. the money-paying part (money for the lawyer; money for the various bits of paper that needed stamping) went off without a hitch (that part generally does). Next, I will have to go to police headquarters with photos (and passport presumably) and confirm that I’m me but that’s not for another couple of months, fortunately.

Before embarking on my fourth and final €20 cab ride of the day, I decided to treat my frazzled nerves to a nice lunch. It was about 1:30 at this point. I stumbled onto La Nuova Fiorentina, an old-fashioned Tuscan trattoria with a local clientele. I had a very nice veal cutlet with tomatoes and arugula and spicy greens with garlic. I could have done without the many African gentlemen lining up to sell me kleenex but after all that queueing I was just happy to sit down. thumb_img_2241_1024thumb_img_2242_1024

When I got home it was, you guessed it, half a day after I’d first left the apartment. In fairness, part of the half a day was taken up by lunch. I do, however, consider lunch to be a necessary reward for successfully dealing with Roman errands and thus a legitimate part of the errand-doing on a VRD.

La Nuova Fiorentina. Via Angelo Brofferio 51. Tel: 06 37516181

Hostaria Pamphili

Last week was ‘Treat Yo-self Friday‘ and it was grand. First, I had my nails done.

Love this color!

Love this color!

Then I took myself to lunch. I’ve been wanting to try Hostaria Pamphili since it opened at the end of 2015. I have had quite mixed feelings about the restaurant since it took over the space left behind when my beloved Le Coq shut down a few years back. Actually, that’s not quite true. You see there was another restaurant in that space before the Hostaria Pamphili opened its doors: a place with the unlikely name of Pie Bros. The Upstairs Vegetable took me there for my birthday two years ago and we asked about the name. Apparently it came from the fact that, of the three owners, one was named Pietro and two were brothers. I have always maintained that Italians are crap at naming. Anyway, silly name notwithstanding, Pie Bros was just meh and didn’t last long. thumb_img_2135_1024 Hostaria Pamphili is a seafood place, although they are happy to scare you up a steak if you so insist. Like Pietro and his brothers before them, the restaurant’s owners chose not to redecorate so the place still has the light and airy front room and the back room that is so cosy it could be your living room (if your living room was covered in fairy lights and weird art) that I loved so much about Le Coq.

And, oh, the food. I am generally more carnivore than whatever fish eaters are called. But this was really great. First was appetizer of raw fish: shrimp, ricciola (yellowtail) and ombrina (umbrine in English. I have never heard that word in my entire life). The yellowtail was diced up with tiny pieces of strawberry and something else. Bacon bits?  Dunno, but yum! The umbrine was sliced up with radishes, dill and caviar. A few leaves were artfully tossed about. So fresh and delish. Take a look for yourself. thumb_img_2128_1024

My main course was a mix of fish and vegetables fried up tempura-style. It was super light and not a bit greasy. There was shrimp, cod, umbrine again, zucchini, stuffed zucchini flowers and some other things I don’t recall. Oh yes, and fried oysters that made me purr audibly (the waiter looked at me quizzically but he must have seen it before). thumb_img_2131_1024There were also roast potatoes that achieved the rarely-seen feat of being super crunchy on the outside and super creamy on the inside. thumb_img_2132_1024The service was just attentive enough and the friendly owner came over to check on me and have a chat. All in all a super-pleasant treat for mo-self. Can’t wait to go back. thumb_img_2134_1024

Hostaria Pamphili. Viale di Villa Pamphili n.35 Tel: 06 581 6474. Open 12:30-3:00 (except Monday); 7:30-12:00.

Caffè Propaganda

If you come to Rome, chances are that you will at some point find yourself in the vicinity of the Colosseum. It well might be that you find yourself in the vicinity of the Colosseum at or around a mealtime (if, like me, you define mealtime as any moment between 10 am and midnight). When that happens, you can fall prey to one of the many smarmy Italian men or bored Japanese girls waving menus in your face (“Meece? You want dreenk? I make you good price.”) in front of the line up of sad and overpriced establishments across the street. Or you can nip around the corner  to Caffè Propaganda. thumb_img_1980_1024

Caffè Propaganda is very cheese-eating surrender monkeyish — think early 20th Century Paris bistro. If you like the idea of hanging out in a cosy zinc bar, with overstuffed chairs, Métro de Paris tiles on the wall and blackboards advertising the day’s specials, while you sip your café au lait and nibble your macarons and pretend to be Ernest Hemingway, then this is the place for you. Also, it’s air conditioned, which is very critical to one’s happiness (and very rare in Rome) as the dog days of summer limp towards the autumn, tongues lolling.

Caffè Propaganda is well-known as a cocktail venue with a large, cosy bar area (which would have been a bit more up Hemingway’s alley I warrant) and while I can’t speak to that, I have eaten lunch here a couple of times and enjoyed the experience greatly. The menu is decidedly Italian (with the exception of the odd hamburger and the aforementioned macarons); the clientele is chic and tends towards the local. Most recently I had fine, fat, fried anchovies resting on a bed of panzanella (a Tuscan summer salad of bread and tomatoes, sometimes with onions and basil), which in turn rested on a limpid puddle of pecorino cremathumb_img_1976_1024

My main course was a perfectly fine Caesar salad with chicken — very good if a fairly uninspired choice on my part. I do love me a good Caesar salad, which did you know was invented by an Italian immigrant/restauranteur in Mexico? thumb_img_1978_1024Next time I’ll be a bit more daring and choose from the oyster menu or the ‘eggs of Parisi’ menu. Paolo Parisi, also known as ‘The Egg King’, is greatly renowned for the quality of his eggs. So renowned that his name can be found on various egg menus around Rome, including that of Caffè Propaganda. But seriously, I’d eat this: ‘poached egg of Parisi with crunchy asparagus in a parmesan cream sauce’. Poached egg in Italian is, by the way, ouvo in camicia, meaning egg in a shirt.

Caffè Propaganda, Via Claudia 15, 00184 Rome. tel: 06/9453425,  06/94534256.  http://www.caffepropaganda.it/. Warning! The website incessantly plays a song by some froggie or other, which gets old very quickly. There is a hold button in the bottom left hand corner of the site. You will want to use it.

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Levanzo

Levanzo is one of the three Egadi Islands off the western coast of Sicily (the other two are Favignana and Marettimo). A 20 minute hydrofoil ride from the port of Trapani, Levanzo is super tiny, with a total area of 5.82 square kilometers (2.25 sq mi). About 65 people live on the island year round. I spent several days there last month.thumb_IMG_1761_1024

This is how it happened. I was having dinner with the Upstairs Vegetarian and our friends Marzio and Giulia one night in the dead of winter when Giulia started rhapsodizing about this island where she had spent a lot of time when she was younger: Levanzo. She described the island as a paradise: beautiful, unspoiled, quiet and super-undiscovered. My buddy Jane and I had been talking about a beach holiday this summer and when I sent her the name of the island she snapped into super-organized holiday planning mode and quickly made all the arrangements.

As it turns out, I probably should have asked Giulia a few more questions. My idea of the perfect beach holiday is lying on a sunbed with an umbrella, a book and a big bottle of water. Every so often I’ll wander down the sandy beach to the water’s edge and have a little paddle. Levanzo is not a place of white sandy beaches and lazy long days with a good book. There are three beaches on the island — Cala del Faraglione, Cala Tramontana and Cala Minnola. Two of them are very pebbly and unprotected from the blistering hot sun; Cala Minnola is a sort of concrete slab once used for landing boats. The concrete beach is backed up by a copse of trees, which provides some shade but getting there requires scrambling up a rocky hill. I tend to be clumsy and to fall down a lot (loyal readers may remember the Great Broken Back Caper of 2015) so I’m pretty unenthusiastic about rocky hills. Getting into the water is also a challenge — more rocks, many more rocks. Great for snorkeling though, which is Jane’s thing. It’s possible to rent boats to take around the island and swim from the boats, neatly avoiding the rock issue, but three of the five days we were there were windy and the boatmen wouldn’t take us out. On the plus side, the ferry couldn’t cross from Trapani, cutting down on the number of day trippers. On the other hand, by the end of the three days, the island had nearly run out of supplies — Levanzo has no agriculture to speak of and completely depends on Sicily for produce and water.thumb_IMG_1757_1024

Levanzo has just one tourist site: the Grotta del Genovese, a cave containing prehistoric cave drawings (we didn’t get there). I understand that there are lots of nice hikes to be taken but that’s not really my thing. There is a tiny grocery store and an excellent bakery. If you are looking for lots of restaurants and nightlife, this is not the island for you. I don’t care much about nightlife but I really, really care about food. As you know. Fortunately, Levanzo did not let me down. There are two restaurants, one of  which is attached to the slightly down-at-heels Paradiso Hotel, and one of which is a bar/superb lunch and dinner spot: the Romano Bar, Pizzaria and Restaurant. We ended up having breakfast and dinner there practically every day (we tried the Paradiso but it was just so-so). At lunch we went to the bakery for a cabucio (also known as pane cunzatu), an amazing Sicilian sandwich on a soft bread loaf with fillings like tomatoes, oregano, anchovies and different kinds of cheeses.

Here’s some of what we ate.

Stuffed mussels

Stuffed mussels

Roasted squid

Roasted squid

Mixed fishy antipasto, mostly variations of marinated anchovies, squid and shrimp rolled up in marinated veggies. So good.

Mixed fishy antipasti, mostly variations of marinated anchovies, squid and shrimp rolled up in marinated veggies. So good.

And more

And more: raw shrimps and some fried stuff

Fried squid and some local (bony) fish

Fried squid

Gigantic shrimps

Gigantic shrimps

And the very excellent Sicilian salad of tomatoes, onion, capers and basil, which we had at every meal

And the very excellent Sicilian salad of tomatoes, onion, capers and basil, which we had at every meal

Even though Levanzo might not be my first choice for a beach holiday in future, we did have a lovely time. We stayed in a very clean and comfortable little apartment (La Plaza Residence). The main drag along the port is about two blocks long and practically everything you need is there (there is a bank machine up the hill a bit). Everything else is dirt roads — virtually no cars on Levanzo. Very quiet and relaxing. And because there are so few people, it only takes a few days to pretty much know, or at least, recognize everyone. It’s a friendly place. Everyone pulls their weight: the guy who sold you coffee in the morning might be taking you out for a boat ride at noon, unloading the ferry at four and waiting on your table at night. So that was fun.

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Ten things to know about Italians

It has been my observation that virtually every expatriate with access to public media eventually writes something along the lines of “Ten things about (country X) you need to know before you go” or “Ten things about (the natives of country X) you need to know before you go.” I totally understand the impulse. I mean how much fun is it to reduce an entire nation of people to a stereotype? How much fun is it to make blanket generalizations from the pedestal upon which tourists (American tourists at least) tend to place themselves when abroad? So much fun. Now it’s my turn!

TEN THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT ITALIANS

1. They HATE to be next in line. Queues in Italy reflect an insane need to be done with whatever one is doing. Instead of quietly standing behind the person who is actually first, they all stand side by side, creating confusion as to who is really first. Heaven forbid if the clerk calls on the wrong person to come forward. When that happens, everyone starts yelling at the clerk and each other (see #4). If the queue is forced into vertical formation by space or other considerations, Italians spend the entire time massively invading your personal space, trying to sneak in front of you or just stepping in front of you, pretending they never saw you were there. I suspect this is why so many banks and supermarket deli counters now use the take-a number-approach. The deep-seated queue aversion is particularly annoying at traffic lights, where the microsecond the light turns green everyone starts honking their heads off. The Italian obsession with getting there first seems very counterintuitive in a country that is supposed to epitomize the Mediterranean penchant for chillaxin’.

2. They love milling around and getting in the way. Even when Italians are not deliberately trying to jump the queue, they’re in the way. Every conversation in the out-of-doors — no matter how lengthy or how many people are involved — has to take place either in the entrance of the shop you are trying to enter or in the middle of the sidewalk you are trying to traverse. Every one. I do not know why this is.

3. Italian teenagers are very polite. That doesn’t mean they are not as loud and obnoxious as teenagers anywhere else. They are. I live across the street from Villa Pamphilli, Rome’s largest park. There is a water fountain right by the entrance and, in the summer, every day the dog and I have to run the gauntlet of 20 or so teenagers filling up water balloons and throwing them at each other while the girls run around squealing and the boys strut around with their little hairless chests on show. If their mothers knew about this they would totally freak out (see #5). Italian teenagers do a lot of screaming on buses. Singing on buses is another favorite activity.  But they always open the door for their elders and give up their seat on the bus on which they are screaming or singing. It’s Italian family values or something.

4. They loooove the drama. It’s no coincidence that Italians invented opera. Pretty much any everyday experience can launch an ear-splitting aria. Here’s an example. The park across the street features exactly two (2) picnic tables, both of which are in the dog area. For this reason, picnics abound in and around the (albeit badly-signposted) dog area as do, obviously, picnic-loving dogs, one of whom — I’m not naming any names but it rhymes with Gorgon — believes the picnic table to be his own private throne. In the summer, this happens every day: some dog or other goes nosing around the picnics in the dog area. The picnickers yell at the dog owners, who politely point out that dogs are allowed to be off-leash here. The picnickers, not caring, yell some more at which point the dog owners yell back. This goes on for a while until everyone’s day is ruined.

But it takes a lot less than a picnic-sniffing dog to set off a good old-fashioned opera. I once saw a car driver curse out a woman on crutches for taking too long to cross the street. He wasn’t trying to be mean. He was just in a hurry (see #1). All of this yelling may explain the obsession of Italians with their livers — if an ailment isn’t being ascribed to a colpo d’aria (see #5), it’s usually the fault of a mal di fegato.  For an Italian, the liver is where all your anger is stored and it’ll hurt if you get angry.

Gorgon surveys his realm.

Gorgon surveys his realm.

5. They have an extreme fear of drafts. Tell an Italian that you have a headache, sore throat, stiff neck or pretty much any ailment and they’ll explain that it’s the fault of a blast of air or colpo d’aria.During the winter (meaning from November to May, no matter the actual air temperature),  they wear puffy coats and wooly undershirts (maglia di salute or shirt of health) and wrap scarves around their necks. In the summer, they stay away from air conditioning, no matter how blisteringly hot it is outside.  If you are lucky enough to find a restaurant with air conditioning, some group will inevitably come in and ask for it to be turned off (for their health). No one but a tourist would dream of opening a window on a train.

I'm not sure if it has anything to do with digestion, but if an Italian goes swimming less than three hourr after they have eaten, they will die.

I’m not sure if it has anything to do with digestion, but if an Italian goes swimming less than three hours after they have eaten, they will die.

Being sweaty or getting wet only worsens the effect of the colpo d’aria, which is why Italian mothers wait nervously by the edge of the pool, waiting to swaddle little Guido in a towel the second he emerges from the water. It’s also why total strangers yell at you if you go outside with a wet head or walk around barefoot (even inside) and why Italians whip out their trusty umbrellas the instant there’s a drop of rain.

6. They assume that they won’t understand you. I’ve lived in Italy a long time and my Italian is pretty fluent, if riddled with grammatical errors. I certainly speak the language well enough to be understood, even over the phone where I don’t have the added advantage of being able to wave my hands around and point to things. But my accent totally gives me away and, because so few tourists speak Italian, the person I am speaking to assumes that I don’t (EVEN THOUGH I’M BLOODY WELL SPEAKING IT) and that they won’t be able to understand me. At that point, they either stammer out a few words in English or run away. In fairness, I should point out that my Italian friends and acquaintances do not do this at all. They are super happy that I am are trying to speak their language and do their best to understand me.

7. They are every bit as bad on the road as you’ve heard. I don’t think that Italians are inherently bad drivers. They are just always in a hurry and hate to be next in line (see #1), which makes them do crazy reckless things like run red lights and make left turns from the right hand lane while going 80 km/hr. It’s a wonder that they are are not constantly crashing and dying but it does explain why every single Italian car has at least one dent in it. Oh, and they also quadruple park and drive and park on the sidewalks.

8. They are obsessed with their digestion. For an Italian, the notion of digestion relates specifically to the process that occurs after a meal when the stomach content settles. It is deeply influenced the combination of foods, when they were eaten and at what temperature. So cappuccino is off limits after 10 am because milk supposedly inhibits digestion. Icy liquids are also bad for digestion and may even cause the dreaded congestione – an abdominal cramp – that will apparently kill you. Salad comes at the end of the meal because it helps you digest. An Italian host will typically offer a digestivo at the end of your meal. A thimble of this typically bitter mix of herbs, roots, plants, spices and alcohol is supposed to hurry along the 3-5 courses you just consumed. If that doesn’t work, there’s always Brioschi, a digestive aid like Alka-Seltzer, which can be found in every Italian kitchen.

Eat your salad after the meal to help you digest.

Eat your salad after the meal to help you digest.

9. They care a lot about appearances (yours and their own). You can always tell the tourists, slobbing around in their shorts and flip-flops, baggy pants halfway down their backsides, baseball cap a la Luke Danes. For an Italian to dress like this would be to dishonor la bella figura. The way you dress and carry yourself indicates your social status, your background and your education level. An Italian may not have a lot of money to spend on clothes but the clothes they have will be fashionable, of good quality, clean and well-pressed (even if they have to wear the same thing every day). Anything less and they will be judged as a lowlife by all they meet. And so will you.

Looking good is very important.

Looking good is very important.

10. They appreciate food and they know where it comes from. I know. Duh. It’s not exactly a secret that Italians are into food. But the second part of that sentence is actually more interesting (and important) than the first. Most cities around the world are totally delinked from the rural roots of agriculture. For most people, food comes from supermarkets. This is only going to get worse with runaway urbanization — by 2020, an average of 70% of all people will live in cities. Urban growth is particularly affecting developing countries, where 50 years ago most people lived on farms. Losing our ties to the countryside has all sorts of implications, such as the demise of the smallholder farmer, loss of food traditions, over-dependence on highly processed, fatty processed foods with delightful spin-offs like obesity, malnutrition and related problems like cardiovascular disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes. This is happening all over the world, the Western Foodie’s love for the farmers’ market notwithstanding.

Rome and many other Italian cities have a closer connection to the origins of its food than do many developing countries where agriculture remains the most important economic sector.

Rome and many other Italian cities have a closer connection to the origins of its food than do many developing countries where agriculture remains the most important economic sector.

But it is happening less quickly in Italy. In Rome, at any rate, there is almost a continuum between city and country. Drive a half hour in any direction and you are deep in agricultural country. And there are agricultural pockets all through the city. I used to live in an apartment in central Rome that backed up onto an archeological site that the government ran out of money to dig. So farmers came in and grazed their sheep there. Villa Pamphili is dotted with blackberry bushes and fig, lemon and orange trees and there are always oldies out there gathering wild greens and mushrooms in plastic shopping bags. Supermarkets only became a thing about a decade ago and there are still tons of fresh fruit and vegetable shops, about eight in my immediate neighborhood alone, not to mention a big farmers’ market up the road. I also count four butchers within a five-minute walk.

Are things changing here? Of course. There are fast food places everywhere (although quite a few MacDonalds have closed down in the past few years), supermarkets are supplanting a lot of the mom and pop groceries of yore and there are a lot more microwaveable options than there were five years ago. But most Italians still believe in the importance of a regular home-cooked family meal based on fresh ingredients. And as long as they understand and connect to the roots of the food they eat, that’s not likely to change completely.

Museo Piana delle Orme

My continuing quest to visit Italy’s nuttiest museums brought me to this place a few weeks ago and I can’t wait to tell you all about it. But first, some backstory. The Upstairs Vegetarian has a friend (who is now my friend too!) named Stephanie Malia Hom who is a professor of Italian, anthropologist, Italophile and many other things too. Her latest book is The Beautiful Country: Tourism & the Impossible State of Destination Italy. Doesn’t that sound interesting? Can’t wait to read it. Anyway, a few years ago Stephanie was visiting from the US and we all had dinner. She started talking about this museum she had gone to in Latina, which is 43 kilometers from Rome. As Stephanie described it, the museum seemed like the most interesting and eclectic place and the UV and I decided we must go there IMMEDIATELY. That was like three years ago and we never did go. The subject came up from time to time but we could never quite remember what the place was called or where it was. Fortunately, Stephanie came back to town and was happy to go again.

First you need to know a little bit about Latina. Mussolini founded the city in 1932, calling it Littoria. That name comes from the fasces lictoriae, a bunch of wooden sticks and usually an ax (fasces means bundle in Latin) that symbolized a magistrate’s power in Ye Olde Roman Days. Mussolini, a great hearkener back to the days of Empire, liked the image so much that he named his political party after it. Other people liked it too and tons of things feature the image of the fasces, including the Great Seal of Harvard University and the seal of the US Tax Court. I will make no further comment than to say “Isn’t that interesting.”

Renamed Latina after the war, the city’s catchy motto is Latina, Olim Palus (Latina, once a swamp). That’s because Latina was located smack dab in the middle of the Pontine Marshes, swampland since Roman times (today the area is known as the Agro Pontina). Fascist ideology was all about the noble farmer and Mussolini orchestrated a huge land reclamation project (the bonifica integrale, 1922-1935) to free up more agricultural land and combat malaria, by the way, destroying a whole load of wetland ecosystems in the process. The marshes were drained, homesteads were built and land parceled out, mosquitoes were killed and health services were established. About 2000 (Fascist, mostly from the North) families received a farmhouse, some land, a plow, tools and a couple of cows.  That all sounds pretty good, but this being Mussolini, it was all done a bit brutally.

The project employed 124 000 men at its peak. Workers lived in overcrowded  camps surrounded by barbed wire. Wages were terrible, hours were long, the food was bad, sanitation was poor and there was no healthcare. Many of the workers were infected with the malaria they were trying to eliminate.

Welcome to Il Museo Piana delle Orme. That's me on the left trying to look as short as everyone else.

Welcome to Il Museo Piana delle Orme. That’s me on the left trying to look the same height as everyone else.

Which brings us (finally!) to Museo Piana delle Orme (Museum Plain of Footprints), which totally lived up to its rep of being nutso. First of all, the place is absolutely enormous (50 000 square meters). There is a lot of outdoor space but most of the park is occupied by 13 airplane hanger-sized pavilions devoted to different aspects of early to mid-20th Century Italian history. The museum was established in 1996 by Mariano De Pasquale (1938-2006), a grower and seller of roses. Apparently he somehow acquired the wreck of an old US Army jeep in the 1960s and caught the hoarding bug. He collected everything he could find about the lives of local farmers, the reclamation of the Pontine Marshes and the battles of World War II. Mariano may have had a bit of ADD. The museum grew out of his collection. (Can’t you just hear his wife? “Mariano, you have got to find somewhere to put this stuff! If I see one more tank parked in our backyard…”).

The pavilions are filled with life-sized dioramas. There are explanatory signs in Italian, English and German (the English is remarkably lucid for an Italian museum) as well as (fairly squawky, difficult to understand) audio displays. There are buttons to push in the war pavilions and explosions ensue.

Many photos follow (Lots of these were shot by the UV, duly credited, as hers were much better than mine).

An F-104 jet greets you on arrival.

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There was a pavilion devoted to toys and models (planes and boats, not the human variety).thumb_IMG_1125_1024

Two pavilions are devoted to the bonifica.

The high rate of malaria in the region was one of the reasons for draining the swamp (a task that by the way had challenged government leaders since Roman times). Malaria means 'bad air' in Italian.

The high rate of malaria in the region was one of the reasons for draining the swamp (a task that had challenged government leaders since Roman times). Malaria means ‘bad air’ in Italian. Credit UV.

The bonifica took place in three stages. First, workers drained the swamp; next, homesteads were constructed and land parceled out; the third stage, took measures against the mosquitos.

The bonifica took place in three stages. First, workers drained the swamp; next, homesteads were constructed and land parceled out; during the third stage, the government took measures against the mosquitoes. Credit UV.

Draining the swamp.

Draining the swamp.

There’s an entire pavilion filled with farm equipment. We scooted through that one — sorry, no photos. If you ever wondered whether it is possible to see too many tractors, I can assure you that a little goes a very long way.

The next pavilion is devoted to country life in the years after the bonifica.

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I guess it was common for farm ladies in the 1930s to walk around with turkeys on their heads. Who knew?

I guess it was common for farm ladies in the 1930s to walk around with turkeys on their heads. Who knew?

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Kickin' back at the local bar. Ah, country life.

Kickin’ back at the local bar. Ah, country life.

Then we moved on to the war years. Deportation and internment in concentration camps.
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Credit UV.

Credit UV.

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The names of all of the Italians sent to concentration camps are pasted on the wall.

The names of all of the Italians sent to concentration camps are pasted on the wall.

A pavilion full of tanks and the like followed (see above comment on tractors).

Two pavilions on Italy’s entry into the war, the Battle of El Alamein and the Allied landings at Messina and Salerno. thumb_IMG_1164_1024The Allied landing at Anzio rates a pavilion of its own as does the battle for Montecassino.thumb_IMG_1170_1024

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Apparently Mariano actually gathered actual rubble from the ruins of the abbey at Montecassino to use in this exhibit. Credit UV. 

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Finally, there is a pavilion devoted to the peacetime use of war paraphernalia, i.e. helmets attached to sticks can be used to dredge cesspools.

There were also some peacocks, ostriches and chickens hanging around (well, they were fenced in) between the various pavilions — I guess to keep the kiddies entertained.

Hello there!

Hello there!

In addition to the usual postcards and guidebook, the museum shop sells loads of uniforms and bayonets.

All your gas mask needs can be met right here!

All your gas mask and helmet (and cesspool deredging) needs can be met right here!

I didn’t go into the bar/restaurant because I was in charge of the dogs but by all accounts it was clean and served various hot dishes.

Remember this: Il Museo Piana delle Orme. A must see if you’re are in the ‘hood.