Category Archives: History

Brazilian sushi?!

Manioka, Viale Aventino

Romans are major bandwagon jumpers. Meaning that if somebody stumbles on a good thing, before long everyone is doing it, at which point it is arguably no longer such a good thing. Here are some examples: Back in the 1990s, someone thought it would be a good idea to open an Irish pub in Rome (actually there were a couple around prior to that). Before long there was an Irish pub on every street corner. Now most of them are closed. Electronic gambling parlours, smokeless cigarette stores, hamburger joints, Dutch-type french fry joints, dollar stores (mostly run by Chinese people), late night convenience stores (mostly run by Pakistani people) followed suit. I have no idea whether bandwagon jumping is a strictly Roman proclivity (the last two examples would argue that it is not. Or perhaps it’s something in the water?) but it is definitely a thing here. So I wasn’t particularly surprised to find that Rome currently hosts no fewer than five Brazilian sushi restaurants. What surprised me was the Brazilian sushi part. 

Japanese immigrants working on coffee plantation, Brazil

It shouldn’t have. The phenomenon is akin to the myriad Cuban-Chinese restaurants that dotted Manhattan’s Upper West Side when I was in grad school. That weird combo was due to the fact that Cuba imported hundreds of male contract workers (‘coolies’) from China in the 1850s to work in the sugar fields. Likewise Brazil, which today has the largest Japanese population outside of Japan. Japanese immigrants began arriving in the early 20th Century, enticed by a labour shortage on the coffee plantations. Interestingly, the shortage occurred when Italy passed a law in 1902 forbidding subsidised immigration to Brazil. When the slave trade was outlawed in 1850, the Brazilian elite decided to offer virtually free passage to European immigrants, both as a source of cheap labour but also to ‘whiten’ up the population, which included large groups of African ex-slaves and native American. Millions of Europeans — mostly Italians — migrated to Brazil in search of a better life but once there they were abused and cheated and paid practically nothing by the Brazilians who hadn’t quite lost that slave-owning mentality. Hence the Italian law. Meanwhile, the end of feudalism in Japan caused enormous poverty in the rural areas, which led many people to emigrate. The Japanese weren’t allowed in the US thanks to a nifty little law banning non-white immigration from certain parts of the world (Yes, it is true. We have always sucked).  But Brazil welcomed them with open arms, except for the massive racism and forced assimilation part. But that’s another story.

Edamame with fresh ginger, rice vinegar and soy sauce.

Salmon and avocado with sweet and sour sauce and cassava mayonnaise.

So, Brazilian sushi. The notion confused me at first since I have always associated Brazil with feijoada and big chunks of meat from the churrascaria. But, as it turns out Brazilians eat a lot of fish– especially in the north and coastal areas — and they eat a lot of sushi. Brazilian sushi is a fusion thing, which brings together the raw fresh fish we all love with typical Brazilian tastes. Think salmon with mango, yuzu and a spicy passion fruit sauce. Or tuna with coriander, cucumber and a spicy gazpacho sauce. Or tempura shrimp with guacamole, cashews and teriyaki sauce. And samba. And caipirinhas. Trust me, it’s pretty great. And available at a rapidly growing number of restaurants throughout Rome.  The one on Viale Aventino is highly recommended.

Salmon and tempura shrimp with spicy mayonnaise.

Manioka, Viale Aventino 123. Tel: 06 5742149. Open 7 days a week, 12:00-2:30 & 7:00-11:30.

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.

International Holocaust Remembrance Day/Italian Heroes

In 2005, the UN General Assembly designated January 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Brief aside: when I was doing the research for this story, I was struck by how many Holocaust remembrance days there actually are. Some of them relate to national history, e.g. Poland’s falls on the day of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, France’s falls on the anniversary of the round-up of more than 13 000 Jews in Paris in 1942. In the US, it actually lasts over 8 days, starting on the Sunday before the Jewish observation day, known as Yom HaShoah. This is usually in April or May. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum — located on the National Mall in Washington, DC (Go.) — organizes events and sends out informational materials to schools and such.

The International Day, which seems to be observed by most European countries, including Italy,  falls on the anniversary of the 1945 liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in Poland by the Russian army. To remind you, around 1.1 million people died at Auschwitz-Birkenau, including 960 000 Jews. Other victims included approximately 74 000 Poles, 21 000 Roma, 15 000 Soviet prisoners of war and at least 10 000 people of other nationalities. The Russian army found about 7 000 starving people in the camp, those who were to weak to walk; as Soviet troops approached Auschwitz in January 1945, the SS evacuated the camp, forcing about 60 000 prisoners to march 30 miles to board trains for other camps. But first they destroyed four crematoria, burned written records and demolished many buildings. About 15 000 people died on the death marches.

The UN urges member states to honor Nazi victims during the remembrance days and to develop educational programs to help prevent future genocides.  To do my part (and only 6 days late), I thought I’d tell you about three brave Italians who risked their lives to save the lives of their neighbors.

Padre Niccacci

Padre Niccacci

The first is Padre Rufino Niccacci (1911-1977). Niccacci was a Father Guardian of the Franciscan Monastery of San Damiano in Assisi. The Internet does not reveal what exactly a Father Guardian is, but it must be pretty important because after the Germans invaded Rome in September 1943, the Padre protected 300 Jews taking refuge in Assisi, hiding them in 26 convents and monasteries that were under his direction. He dressed many of them as monks and nuns and taught them Catholic rituals. Others lived in parishioners’ homes and, with fake identity cards, found jobs and blended into the community. The town’s printing press, which during the day printed posters and greeting cards, printed false documents at night that were sent by courier to Jews all over Italy. Not a single refugee was captured in Assisi. No one involved in the rescue operation ever betrayed it. After the war, Niccacci established a small settlement for destitute Christian and Jewish families in Montenero, outside of Assisi, and served as a parish priest in his home town of Deruta. In April 1974, Yad Vashem — Israel’s official memorial for the victims of the Holocaust — named him as one of the Righteous among the Nations. The Righteous are non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.

Giorgio Perlasca

Giorgio Perlasca

Giorgio Perlasca was a former fascist who fought for Franco during the Spanish Civil War. But he went very sour on Mussolini. He hated Italy’s cosy relationship with Nazi Germany and the Italian race laws of 1936. Many of his friends were Jewish. During WW2, Perlasca avoided military service by working as a livestock agent supplying meat to the Italian armed services. In 1940, he was sent to Zagreb and Belgrade and travelled widely in Eastern Europe. Here, he observed the massacres of Jews, Serbs and other minorities. He was sent to Budapest where — tall and handsome — he enjoyed a busy social life until the fall of the city to Hungarian Nazis in July 1943, when he was interned as an enemy alien (because Italy was at this point on the side of the Allies). Escaping, he went to the Spanish Embassy in Budapest where he assumed he would be given asylum, having fought for Franco. He was correct: within a day, he was given a Spanish passport with a new Spanish name — Jorge.

Perlasca learned that the Spanish Consul was issuing ‘letters of protection’ to Hungarian Jews to keep them from being deported to Auschwitz. The Consulate also employed Jews as clerks, and housed them in eight apartment blocks under its control. Perlasca volunteered to help. In November 1944, with the Russians approaching Budapest, the last remaining Spanish diplomat fled the capital. But the diplomat forgot to take the embassy seal with him and Perlasca got busy stamping documents that proved that the embassy was still open and that he was the charge d’affaires. He used the seal to issue thousands of letters of protection to Hungarian Jews and organized food, medical aid and protection for the Jews in the Consulate’s apartments, which had extraterrorial conventions that gave them sovereignty. An intelligence network tipped him off so that he could fend off Nazi searches. More than once he used his false identity to throw Nazi gangs out of the houses, when they threatened to murder or deport the Jewish residents. Perlasca saved at least 5 500 Jews from the gas chambers, constantly risking his life to do so. After the war, he returned to Italy. He did not talk about his actions in Hungary to anyone, including his family. In 1987, a group of Hungarian Jews related to people he had saved finally found him, after searching for years. In 1988, Yad Vashem recognized Giorgio Perlasca as Righteous Among the Nations.

Last but not least is the story of Andrea Albisetti, the station master in Tradate (a town between Varese and Milan). One of Albisetti’s tasks was to receive the mail that came in from Rome and Milan each day. During the war, this included arrest orders for dissidents and Jews. Albisetti routinely held the envelopes containing the arrest orders against a lightbulb so that he could read the names on them. He warned the potential arrestees before the envelopes were opened by the authorities, giving them time to escape. Albisetti’s story seemed doomed to disappear in the mists of time; like Perlasca, he never talked about what he had done and although there were stories out there about the station master, no one could remember his name. It was only recently that Federico Colombo, a young educator and the president of the Tradatese Historical Society, uncovered the truth while doing research for a Holocaust commemoration ceremony. Colombo had been told the story of the station master by an old man he interviewed for a high school project. He stumbled upon similar stories twenty years later while doing his research. He put  two and two together and — finally — revealed Albisetti’s role in saving the dissidents and Jews of Tradate.

The Gardens of Ninfa Hack


thumb_IMG_2028_1024My mom was here for three weeks and we had many adventures, which I’ll be telling you about in the coming days (unlikely) and months (more likely). The first thing I’ll be telling you about is our outing to the Gardens of Ninfa. According to the Upstairs Vegetarian’s big fancy newspaper, these have been called the “most romantic gardens in Italy.” I don’t dispute the sentiment but I tried to find out who first called them that and everything referred back to the same 2002 New York Times story, sometimes mistakenly claiming that the Times called Ninfa the “most beautiful gardens in the world.” My point is that the Times didn’t call them the most romantic etc. It just made the observation that they had been called that. A guy called Charles Quest-Ritson — excellent name — wrote a book called Ninfa: The Most Romantic Garden in the World but it was only published in 2009 i.e. seven years after the NYT article came out. And that’s how facts are made, my friends. Anyway, the Times story is interesting and here’s the link.

I’d never been to Ninfa before. Mostly I was put off by the weird hours. It’s only open a couple of days a month during the summer. And you have to go in with a guided tour so they can keep an eye on you and make sure you’re not tromping around ruining all the romantic (or beautiful) flora and fauna. Ninfa is located about 40 miles southeast of Rome, near Sermoneta. It has a pretty wild and wooly history. The town dates back to Ye Olde Roman Days and probably got its name from a nearby temple dedicated to some water nymphs (there’s a lake on the premises). Ninfa did well in medieval times because people needed to pass by there on the way from Rome to Naples and the Ninfans charged them a huge highway tax. Pope Alexander III was crowned at Ninfa in 1159. I can’t seem to find out why but it was during one of those confusing Antipope times and he wasn’t all that welcome in Rome. Later the German Emperor Barbarossa (who was the Antipope’s big defender) came along and burned down the town because Alexander was hiding out there.

In the 13th century, Ninfa and a bunch of other towns became the fiefdoms of Onorato Caetani thanks to the intervention of his uncle, Pope Boniface VIII — a very bad guy (Boniface, that is) if you listen to Dante. Onorato put in the gardens. In 1382, two Caetanis had a big war over who should be pope and ended up destroying the town. Again. Poor Ninfa. The town was briefly repopulated during the 16th Century but that didn’t last because the Pontine Marshes, which Italy had been trying to tame since Roman times, began to encroach on the area and malaria, as they say, was rife. BTW, it was our old pal Mussolini who finally put paid to the marshes in the 1930s. But that’s another story (and a good one). I’ll tell you about it another time. The Ninfa gardens were (re)created in the 1920s by Gaetano Caetani in the English style under the guidance of his Brit mother Lady Constance Adela (Ada) Bootle-Wilbraham and — sorry Charles Quest-Ritson — if that’s not the best name you’ve ever heard I’ll eat my hat!

So here’s the hack part (see title of post). Everything is a hack these days so I thought I’d jump aboard that bandwagon. When we arrived at Ninfa in the late morning it was scorchingly hot and there were about a bazillion people ahead of us in line. I stuck Mom in a nice shady spot and queued up while the UV (who was our chauffeuse during Mom’s visit, thanks UV!) set off to get the skinny. Here it is: there is an English language tour twice a day, at 10:30 and 3:30. If you go on the English tour you can completely bypass the bazillion people in line and go sit in a nice shady spot to wait for your guide with the other nine people who know about this. Good, eh? Just don’t tell everyone or it will be ruined.

It not being anywhere near 3:30 we went off to troll for lunch. Nearby we found a fantastic spot called Il Casale di Nonna Lina. Very picturesque and brilliant food. Here’s what we ate:

Fagioli all'uccelletto (beans little bird style), with bacon and tomato sauce. Very Tuscan dish this.

Fagioli all’uccelletto (beans little bird style), with bacon and tomato sauce. Very Tuscan dish. I don’t know why it’s called this. Are the beans supposed to look like little birds? Did people used to cook birds in this manner? My favorite Campbell’s soup used to be bean and bacon. Maybe that’s why I love this dish so much. 

Lasagna with cherry tomatoes and burrata (Mom and the UV had this).

Lasagna with cherry tomatoes and buratta (Mom and the UV had this). Buratta, BTW, gets spell-checked as buritto!

An a big hairy steak with lardo casually draped over it. Obvs that was mine.

A big hairy steak with lardo casually draped over it. Obvs that was mine. I heart lardo

We finished by splitting a slice of strawberry cheesecake.

We finished by splitting a slice of strawberry cheesecake.

Cute, eh?

Cute, no?

Okay, now that I made you sit through all that historical stuff, not to mention lunch, with no further ado I present to you the most romantic (or beautiful) garden in Italy (or the world)! No waiting!

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Il Casale di Nonna Lina. Via Le Pastine 70. Doganella di Ninfa. Tel: 0773 310179.

www.ilcasaledinonnalina

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 million 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 few 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.

1975_b_salvo_d_acquisto

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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