Italy


To be clear – the Pope and the Date Lady were only together in my day. Not literally.

I spent an October Wednesday morning at the Papal Audience with Papa Francesco. And a couple thousand other souls. It’s a Happening. It took a long bus ride and about 30 minutes – maybe more – to get through security and into the public pens.

And then, you’re in.

It’s very exciting. Everyone is buzzing. It is a cacophony of tongues. Nuns, priests of course. Families. Large groups of Catholic school teens with their banners. Coveys of seniors following the ubiquitous guys with flags on sticks: tours of tourists who I suspect don’t know that the tickets are gratuito!

The veterans know to sit anywhere around the periphery next to the barriers. Picture thousands of people squeezed around the edges, and hundreds of empty chairs in the center.

You look up at the Jumbotrons, and see his white garb. A Popemobile eye’s view as he climbs aboard. The buzzing gets louder. People craning their necks as they see on the screen that Il Papa is moving.

And then. Then. Arriva! Arriva! He’s here! We all rush to our spots, elbowing the aggressive few, backpacks in our faces, banners in front of our lenses. To Get The Shot.

SNAP SNAP SNAP

At that point, major denouement time. Mind you – he hasn’t even started talking yet. It’s not a mass. Francis welcomes us in Italian. The message is repeated in many languages: French, German, Spanish, English (which oddly covered everywhere from the Dominican Republic to Japan), several others.

The day’s Homily played off the scripture on divorce and “let no man tear asunder…” it was more about integrity of love and commitment – than you damn well better stay married.

First delivered by the Pope – then summarized by the foreign speakers.

At the end – (as forecast and promised) he blesses the crowd. Plus, all of the religious objects we carried. My bag was bulging with wooden crosses, medals and one stunning rosary. Gifts for the folks back home.

THE DATE LADY

The Date Lady

She’s a recurring figure in my stories of Rome. For seventeen years, I have been buying big, succulent Medjool dates from the stand where she works at the Campo dei Fiori. She’s got just a few teeth. And, she’s friendly enough. Date, date, signora.

I held my breath this year that she would still be there. She was. What a delight. Until this one moment:

The Date Lady Turns

Some hapless tourist fails to see the sign on her mushrooms that boldly states DO NOT TOUCH. And she turns!

Date Lady goes full-on funghi fierce.

What a moment.

What a day!

I am smitten with the idea of the life of the person or people behind that window across the rear courtyard here in Roma.

It caught my attention because of the candle. Plus, everything else I could see in the space below was inanimate. This promised a story.

The table was simply, but elegantly, set. It didn’t have the quotidian feel of just another dinner.

I first saw a youngish woman setting something down – maybe she had just finished setting the table. Then a man – her partner, roommate, friend? (Probably not just friend – the candlelight after all) – sat a pan down with something sizzling. Maybe it was veal scallopini – but more likely chicken breasts (unlike Jimmy Stewart – I had no binoculars plus hey!! I wasn’t spying or anything).

I had just finished washing my day’s undergarment- and hanging it out to dry on the little clothesline outside my kitchen window – in time to catch them eating their meal together. He seemed rapt with attention, pouring her sake – and I imagined her elusive. Like maybe they were just courting.

That’s it. I walked away from the window. Watched 007 (Sean Connery) in Italian. Then went to bed.

In the early morning hours, I peeked to see what I could see. I saw shutters. In the awake time of the day, a laptop and papers on the table.

Though it struck me that I had invaded their privacy by looking, I also considered that they could be staring at my window. And seeing my Hanky Panky® on the clothesline.

Just one day in Rome – and I managed to pack in two helpings of gelati, cacio e pepe, countful glasses of vino – and a new word.

Grandini. But that comes later.

My flight from JFK to FCO was, as they say, uneventful. It started a little disappointing but quickly sequed into an unexpected treat. I booked Finnair – hadn’t paid that much attention because I did it months ago and on Expedia. One thing I could never figure out how to do was pick my seat. Until the last day when they wanted to charge me about $150 to choose. Which pretty much negates getting a great deal now doesn’t it!?

I ended up in a middle seat in the third row from the back. I reacted with a groan. The flight attendant heard me and pointed out that the entire row in front of me was open. I quickly moved to the aisle seat. And three hours later when it was time to sleep – I stretched out over four seats and entered into the Land of Nod. Made a big difference for this traveler who doesn’t take altering substances to sleep on overnight flight.

We landed 90 minutes early and within an hour I was settling into my Casa Piccola. The woman who rented to me – the lovely Clotilde who has been renting me a place to lie my head for years here in Rome – described her other place as a “small house” on Via Urbana. First, she meant small apartment. Secondly, it is about the size of a medium-sized Manhattan apartment. It is lovely – with the miniature clothes line out the kitchen window, pots and pans stored in the living room, and the sounds and cooking smells of people living all around me.

Oh – and two flights of f’ing treacherous unevenly-spaced stairs.

Via Urbana is in Monti — known as Suburra in Ancient Rome. It was the red-light district – and home to both the lower class workers, and Julius Caesar. Never really spent that much time here. Lots to explore. It’s a pretty happening strada. Where I got my first helping of cacio e pepe. And gelato at a place that trumpeted some gorgeous macarons (follow nyproducer on Instagram for some of this). And hours later some celestial gelato next to a charming little piazza. I had “avocado, lime and vino bianco” and “apple, almonds and cinnamon”. Uh-maze-ing. think I shall return and try pumpkins with its seeds and cranberry. And call it Thanksgiving in Rome.

Grandini is the Italian word for hail. Not as in “Hail, Caesar” but as in holy shit who knew it was going to storm tonight!?! While finishing my second glass of Primitivo and my little bowl of cheese and salami, a dramatic boom of thunder cracked the night. And the downpour began. First pelting rain. Then grandini. I, of course, had no choice but to order another glass of vino and switched to misto verdure. A dish of caponata, dried tomatoes perfectly softened in olive oil and some treatment of zucchini I am going to have to figure out before I leave.

I made it home, had the veg with my eggs the next morning. And must simply meet who was playing Volare at 4 this morning.

My first 24 hours in Roma.

So, I set out for a lake adventure on this sunny Spring day in Italy – getting an “open ticket” on the ferry, allowing me to stop in one of six towns on Lake Como, including Bellagio. 

I realize once I am on the boat that wherever I start – I would have about a two-hour wait until the next ferry departure because it was lunchtime. That’s okay – I am going to need something to eat anyway. 

I make my first visit at Lenno – walk along the waterfront. See a few tourist places – and head up the hill to find the center (il centro) of the tiny little town. And a restaurant not for tourists – which, of course, I don’t regard myself as — but a place to eat for the townsfolk. 

I stop at a post office and buy some stamps (francobolli) for my postcards (cartoline). I ask the dude behind the counter – in Italian (of course: hey, I’m no stinkin’ tourist!!!) (which is ridiculous because I am. But I digress). 

Where can I find a restaurant, I inquire. Oh, we have hundreds of restaurants, tanti (many). 10 kilometri. 

I know enough to know I am not walking 10 kilometers to find a non-tourist restaurant. Pizza would be fine. At this point. Tic toc – lunchtime is almost over. My ferry departure is closer. AND I needed a toilette!

I return to the restaurant I’d  rejected. Order a nice salad and a glass of vino bianco and ask the waitress. Scusi. Dov’è il centro?  Oh madame, she answers: here! This is il centro!!

Ha! Serves me right. 

Lunch was perfect, by the way. 

It comes to the table – steam, redolent of garlic, warmly wafting from the plate. 

A mosaic of buckwheat pasta, melted cheese and green vegetables.  Where to start?  With a bite of potato? Or some kind of perfectly cooked green vegetable: the leaf of a romanesco cauliflower, a slice of – I don’t know – perhaps fennel. Subtle little greens – maybe broccoli – maybe spring vegetables. 

And that pasta! Humor me as I wax poetic over this pasto di pasta. A thick, not wide, noodle – with that hearty bite of buckwheat, delicately covered with sauce. 

It may triumph over Cacio e Pepe.

Maybe.  I haven’t spent any real time in Roma, yet. 

My very first pizzocchere. Accent on the second syllable: pea-ZOCK-uhree. 

Oh – did I mention dessert: la meringa con fragole?
Soft and crunchy. Meringue. With strawberry sauce and a kinda squishy, gelato-like layer. 

Burp!

Janet Eats, indeed. Better head out for una passeggiata up and down those steep and narrow hilly streets called contrada.

Italy awaits and I am venturing out of la bella città di Roma for the Lake District. A little village described as “if you want to do nothing, go there.”

Oh boy!

I am very excited to try this dish called pizzocchere – though it kinda sounds pizza-like – it is not. It is buckwheat pasta with melted cheese, potatoes and greens.

Yum!

I will be sure to report in.  More foods to explore, paths to walk, people to meet. More anon! 

 

 

This little apple faces extinction in Bagnacavallo – the small Italian town not far from Bologna. It is called a Florina. It tastes like the essence of appleness: crisp when bitten, juicy but not slurpy, the perfect combination of sweet/tart. Like an apple, only better. 

I met Florina while visiting the home of Anna Tazzari – the creator of Signora Maria. Her husband Massimo explained to me that you could not buy this apple in a store – you could only pick it off a tree or buy it at a farm stand. 

Sad, this little Florina – I hope she makes it in the world of Honeycrisps. 

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