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 fun. So 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. 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 agricultural site that the government ran out of money to dig. So farmers came in and grazed their sheep there. Villa Pamphilli 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.

Dining out in Umbria

My birthday was a few weeks back and to celebrate my friend Susan kindly invited me and some other friends to her spectacular country house outside of Orvieto for the weekend. It’s seriously bellissima — and available for rent. I stayed there with my whole family several years back and have very fond memories, except for the part where my dog ran away but that’s another story. Susan had planned the weekend like a champ and we did many memorable things, most of which — surprise, surprise — centered on food.

Here are some highlights.

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Play with meeee!!

Baby goats! We went to the Fattoria Il Secondo Altopiano to taste some cheeses and play with the world’s most adorable baby goats (there were also sheep, donkeys, a handsome rooster and a Little Sebastian-style mini-horse but the goatlets were the cutest). We also tasted (and bought) some delicious and super fresh goat cheese and yoghurt made right on the premises. Whenever I am fortunate enough to O.D. on cheese, I always think of this (from the 1.30 mark).

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Yoghurt tasting at the Fattoria dell’Altoplano. There is no comparison between this and the store-bought stuff.

Dinner the first night was at Trattoria del Conte. Unpretentious local spot with unpretentious local food with a twist. Really great. The first thing we ate was fagottini al formaggio e pere al burro ed erbe cipolline – little pasta sacks stuffed with a creamy cheese and pears in a buttery sauce. They were exceptional — and that really should mean something coming from me because I’m no great pasta eater. The most impressive thing was how they managed to tie up the tiny sacks with a sprig of chive. I’d never have the patience — or the dexterity — to do that.thumb_IMG_0921_1024

Next, I had guanciale al’aceto and puntarelle in salsa di alici. Guanciale is hog jowl (la guancia is cheek in Italian) and is a major ingredient in such things as carbonara. In this instance it was cut in long slices, like bacon, sprinkled with balsamic vinegar and draped over toasted bread. Very melt in your mouth stuff, the richness of the guanciale offset by the tang of the vinegar. thumb_IMG_0927_1024Puntarelle, a member of the chicory family, is named for the pointy-tipped stems hidden within spiky outer leaves. It’s super crunchy and fresh tasting and I love it but it usually comes swimming in a sea of anchovy vinaigrette. My salad was perfect: just enough dressing to give it a flavourful punch, not enough to weigh it down. thumb_IMG_0931_1024My dining companions were more reserved (but, hey, it was my birthday weekend) and ordered plates of greens for their next course. I know, good for you, but kinda boring, right? Jane, bless her, had a giant pork chop. Jane loves pork chops.thumb_IMG_0930_1024

The next night we went to La Locanda di Colle Ombroso. Open on the weekends, this tiny restored farmhouse has only about five tables. And a roaring fireplace. It was enchanting. All of the ingredients are either produced on the farm of the restaurant’s owners — a charming young couple, Igor and Eleonora — or sourced locally. thumb_IMG_0979_1024

First, they brought out an array of meats and cheeses. A particularly delicious thing was the carpaccio di lombetto (cured pork loin). And some boring little chickpea cake that I gave to the Upstairs Vegetarian in exchange for some porky bits. The bread (which I don’t have a photo of, sorry) was homemade using wheat from the farm. thumb_IMG_0981_1024

Lombetto with fresh goat cheese and chickpea whatnot for trading.

Lombetto with fresh goat cheese and chickpea whatnot for trading.

The next course was a cream of leek soup (the Italians call it vellutata or ‘velveted’) with a gorgonzola cream and a hearty chickpea one. Both super yum. thumb_IMG_0984_1024

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Next up was thinly sliced roast beef with two sauces (one béarnaisey, one more of a vinaigrette); roast pork with a creamy sauce involving mandarins and, for the U.V., a flan involving lentils with a curry sauce. thumb_IMG_0990_1024

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Dessert was a chocolate torte with sour cream. Yes, we did push the boat out that night. thumb_IMG_0993_1024

Dinner was lovely, but it is really the atmosphere that makes La Locanda di Colle Ombroso such a special place. thumb_IMG_0978_1024

The next day, we visited Cività di Bagnoregio, which if you haven’t been, hie you hence at the first opportunity. It’s beautiful and dramatic and also reminded me how incredibly unfit I am (much walking uphill is required to get there). thumb_IMG_1010_1024After visiting the wonderful painted egg museum, we moved on to Orvieto to check out the shop of Marino Moretti, a friend of Susan’s, who does the most extraordinary ceramics. Check this out (you might want to turn off the sound, which gets old fast).

Then it was lunchtime. I have to say that by this time I was fairly convinced that I need never eat again (of course, in between the meals I’ve described there was plenty more eating of cheese, and bread  and cake). However, I bravely gave it the old college try.  We went to Hosteria Posterula, which was suggested by Marino Moretti. A cosy family-owned joint. The food was excellent and not pricey. I had a delicious dish of prosciutto over melted mozzarella covered in black truffle shavings. thumb_IMG_1076_1024Another offering was gnocchi with truffles and cacio and a third was umbrichelli with egg yolk, truffles and anchovies. There was a bit of a truffle motif, true. But it was a great place for lunch and I will go again for sure. thumb_IMG_1077_1024thumb_IMG_1078_1024

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Bye Orvieto! We’ll be back!

Trattoria del Conte. Localita’ Buon Respiro, 18. Orvieto. Tel: 0763 217046

La Locanda do Colle Umbroso. S.P 55, km 4.8,  Porano. Tel: 340 2714727

Hostaria PosterulaCorso Cavour 312, Orvieto. Tel: 0763 341245

Ovo Pinto

Easter greetings, my peeps (get it?)!wpid-20120223__120226-peeps

One thing I love about Italy is the weird and wonderful museums. I’m not talking about the typical ones that everyone comes here to see like the Capitoline Museum, Villa Borghese, Palazzo Barberini, etc. etc. forever. No, I’m talking about museums that are a bit off the beaten track and decidedly lacking in Caravaggios. I’ve written about some of them in Rome, like my beloved Museo delle Cere (featuring what appear to be department store manikins and only one female figure — Sleeping Beauty — whose chest moves when she breathes); the Criminology Museum (known to its chums as MUCRI and highly recommended); and Il Piccolo Museo del Purgatorio (the Little Museum of Purgatory, also highly recommended). Today, fittingly as it’s Easter, we’re going to talk about Ovo Pinto — the Museum of the Painted Egg.

Before we go on, let me just point out that I am not saying that Italy is unique in having offbeat museums. I am sure they are everywhere (she said, harking back to Graceland — been twice, it’s awesome — and that big ball of twine in Kansas). It’s just that there is soooo much art here and the Italians are so serious about it. Kinda makes the offbeat feel a bit more unusual than it normally would.

We all associate painting eggs with Easter but apparently the pursuit has been around a lot longer than Christianity. Decorated ostrich eggs have been found in Africa dating back 60 000 years! The ancient Egyptians, Persians, Phoenicians, and Hindus believed that world hatched out of an enormous egg and saw the egg as a symbol of new life. Also death. Also kingship. It’s confusing. But some of them put decorated ostrich eggs in graves 5 000 years ago.

It appears that Christianity may have pinched yet another pagan custom. The early Christians of Mesopotamia  dyed chicken eggs red to symbolize the blood of Jesus. And so on down the centuries. That’s enough history for today!

Now, on to the Egg Museum. It’s basically two rooms in a tiny building in a tiny medieval town in Umbria, Civitella del Lago-Baschi. The whole thing started with an egg painting competition between schools, back in the 1980s. Twenty-five years later there were about a million painted eggs in someone’s basement (I’m guessing) so someone got the bright idea to put the best ones in a museum.

And it was a bright idea. Pinto Ovo is adorable and charming. The contest continues. In recent years it has been opened up to adults as well as the kiddies. and it’s international now — eggs come in from all over the world (that must be a bit nerve-wracking for the sender!). You can see entries from Bali and Brazil below. Any kind of egg can be used but it has to be real. No cheatin’ with plastic eggs. The contest takes place around Easter and each year has a different theme (for the adults, I think the kids can do what they want). This year it was the plays of Pirandello. I thought about entering but 1). I’m no artist and 2) I’d have to read the plays of Pirandello.

I took tons of photos, many of which follow. Some of these are pretty amazing.

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I love this one. It’s called ‘Free at last.”

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Ovo Pinto, Piazza Mazzini 9, Civitella del Lago – Braschi, Tel: 3408995074.

La Renardière

Whenever I am in the Circo Massimo area, which I often am because of work and also because my bank is there, I try to make it around lunchtime so I can keep up to date with the globalization of the Viale Aventino restaurant scene. I have written about this before. In a few short years, this major artery — overlooked by the headquarters of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations — has gone from hosting a decent Asian, a fly-by-night Mexican and a handful of so-so (and one very good) Italian places to being festooned with restaurants featuring cuisine from Japan, Greece, Mexico, China/Singapore, the US of A and France as well as a couple of high end sandwich places. I’ve been working my way through the newer additions over the past year and the other day it was the turn of France.thumb_IMG_0903_1024

I love French food. Probably because I love cheese and French cheese is the best, whether in its natural state or melted over something else. My chief rule for being a popular and in demand cook: fry it, melt cheese on it or dip it in chocolate and it’ll be a winner, no matter what it is. The Italians have a mad ordinance about not mixing cheese and fish in the same dish. Believe you me, I would not have made it through grad school without the help of the humble tuna melt and I’ll warrant the French would thumb their nose at the no cheese and fish rule themselves, e.g. to partake in mussels in a blue cheese broth spiked with white wine and garlic. Oh yum.

La Renardière (the fox’s den) is a friendly little bistro with about ten tables that features traditional French dishes (the owner is from the Champagne region). Here are some of the things on the menu: Quiche Loraine, escargot, oysters, raclette (melted cheese, yay!), onion soup with melted cheese (yay!), steak frites, steak tartare, coq au vin, plates of cheese and pates and various crepes and omelettes. The dessert menu includes the usual suspects: chocolate mousse, tarte tatin (spellcheck turned that into taste satin!), floating island and coffee with four mini desserts.thumb_IMG_0902_1024

I myself had the beef fondue (there was fish fondue as well, which sounds interesting). This was purely a nostalgic choice. In college, my roommates and I used to make beef fondue a lot. When one of us liked a boy we’d invite him and his roommates over for dinner so we could all check him out. The fondue was an easy but visually impressive dinner option. Wait, am I remembering this correctly? Is it possible that we had a fondue pot in college? Anyway, at La Renardière they bring a little fondue pot to your table filled with boiling peanut oil. Then your plate arrives: a pile of filet bits and five different sauces, each with a heavy cream or homemade mayonnaise base (gotta love the Frenchies for consistently throwing ze caution to ze wind on the cholesterol and waistline fronts). After you’ve cooked the meat in the boiling oil, you dip it in the sauce. Sacré bleu! Tasty and good fun! thumb_IMG_0900_1024

thumb_IMG_0898_1024Unfortunately I was on my own so I wasn’t able to try more than one main course (I draw the line at eating off the plates of total strangers). But I’ll be back. I’m excited about the coq au vin, the escargots and all that melted cheese. Not to mention the taste satin. Extra points for the real French dressing and pomegranate seeds in the tossed salad and the piping hot baguette.

La Renardière. Viale Aventino 31. Tel: 06 8778 5445. http://www.larenardiere.it