Archive for the ‘Italy’ Category

Perfecto

Osteria

Third in a series from Europe…

[Siena] – I have found my perfect restaurant.

I have been fortunate to visit Siena – I think perhaps Italy’s most manageable and possibly most charming city – on three different occasions. The first time, 15 years ago, we just stumbled on Osteria Le Logge by accident. The second time we searched out the intimate little restaurant on a tiny, pedestrian-only street just off the magnificent Piazza del Campo. This week I felt like a regular.

The genial fellow in charge worked hard to accommodate a party of six without a reservation, while Siena crawled with visitors. A big party of American bicyclists seemed more intent on joking with each other than on soaking up the atmosphere. Still the pasta must have loaded them up for the next hill climb. As for me, I wanted to enjoy my return trip to the perfect restaurant.

As the photo accurately indicates, the place is marinating in old style, understated class. Lots of wood, old wine bottles, white table clothes and a sense that Francis Ford Coppola might walk in and take the table in the corner. You can wear your biking shorts here, but linen trousers and a pair of Italian loafers would be more in keeping with the style. Four huge floor to ceiling doors open up the small dining room to the street and a half dozen tables, under the umbrellas that are mandatory during a warm June day in Siena, spill out onto the cobbled stones. Even if the food wasn’t superb, which it is, the setting would help stoke any appetite.

Too often Americans treat lunch as an after thought. Grab a quick sandwich at your desk. Go for a noon time run and skip lunch altogether. Worst of all too many lunch from a too processed, too fat-laden fast food joint where they pick up the chicken-Mcsomething at the drive through window. Little wonder why too many Americans are seriously overweight and tragically lacking in appreciation for the fine art of really enjoying a meal with other people who make a choice to take time and smell the vino blanco and the fresh bread.

Unfortunately, Italians apparently are catching up with us in the “blow off lunch and eat something out of a plastic container,” but thankfully there are still many places like Osteria De Logge where an Italian – and an American – can pause, relax, consider and enjoy one of life’s great pleasures – a good meal in a handsome setting.

The menu is hand written in Italian, as it should be, and indicates that the kitchen is very much in tune with the ingredients of the season. The wine list is extensive and heavy on, of course, Chianti from up the road and Montalcino from a bit further south. The waitress is business-like, her English excellent and her understanding even better. She patiently explained what was what, something she must do a hundred times a day. I opted for the tagliatelle, but I could have closed my eyes and pointed to any item on the menu and been a very happy fellow.

If you agree with Stephen Colbert that “there is nothing American tourists like better than the things they can get at home” Osteria Le Logge is not your place. Oh, you can find superb restaurants anywhere in the world – particularly in the United States – but Europeans, and perhaps particularly the Italians, have a certain respect for a meal as both a time of sustenance, but also a time for relaxation, companionship and conversation.

In the wonderful 1996 film Big Night two Italian brothers are trying to make a go of their struggling restaurant. That settle on an audacious public relations plan to create a great meal to serve when the bandleader Louis Prima is scheduled to visit the restaurant. The resulting publicity will save the day, or perhaps not.

The older brother is a talented chef who insists on creating his food by the book. He refuses to serve two pasta dishes to the same customer. The younger brother is the practical businessman who seeks to always please the customer and, if necessary, tradition be damned. At one point the businessman brother suggests they drop the risotto since it is expensive and time consuming to create in the style that the chef insists upon. Fine, the chef brother says, we’ll substitute hot dogs that will please the customers.

At another point, Primo, the exacting chef, presents one of his dishes to a girl that he has a crush on and offers a truism: “To eat good food is to be close to God.” Exactly.

As the great film critic Roger Ebert wrote of Big Night,”It is about food not as a subject but as a language–the language by which one can speak to gods, can create, can seduce, can aspire to perfection.” Exactly.

Put on some Louie Prima, open another bottle, smile and talk and laugh. Eat in the good life that comes when good food serves as the catalyst for good living. Find your own perfect restaurant – I found mine in Siena – and savor the memory of a visit. Then start planning to return.

Buon appetito!

 

La Dolce Vita by Rail…

NTVSecond in a series from Europe…

[Near Radda in Chianti] – Probably the best way to really enjoy and appreciate the Tuscan countryside is on foot, trekking from one charming hill town to the next. Or you might ride a bicycle, but considering the very narrow, twisting roads here that could be hair raising. Most folks opt for a car or, for the very brave, a motorcycle. Any mode of transportation could work in the Italian countryside, but you first must get here and there is a good chance – unlike the United States – that you will arrive by rail.

Italy is many things: an agricultural and wine mecca and a center of history, culture, fashion and design. Italy is also a country hampered by a truly inefficient political system that produces a new prime minister about as often as Chianti produces a stellar vintage. Next to the Italian political process our own dysfunctional Congress looks like a well-oil machine. Most Americans would say we could teach the Italians something about the importance of hard work. The Italians might say Americans could learn something from them about la dolce vita – the sweet life.

Italians can also teach us something about trains.

In 2012 a new, private high speed rail operator began service to many of Italy’s largest cities. The sleek Chianti red trains operate on an open access system that provides the private rail company – NTV or Italo – with access to state-owned high speed corridors. I rode the very comfortable train this weekend from Rome’s sleek and stylish new Tiburtina train station to downtown Florence. Once we cleared the Rome suburbs we flew along at 250 km per hour (about a 155 miles per hour) on a trip that lasted hardly long enough – an hour and 20 minutes. You could drive from Rome to Florence if you were crazy enough and maybe – depending on traffic – make it in three or so hours. Flying seems unthinkable. Considering the speed, comfort, convenience and cost the train is really the only way to go.

While the rest of the world plunges ahead to make new investment in a new generation of high speed rail, back in the USA we can’t find a way to link even the most obvious destinations – San Francisco and Los Angeles, Seattle and Portland, Chicago and St. Louis, Atlanta and Charlotte. The mere mention of investment in high speed rail is likely to set off a Tea Party-like rant against wasteful government spending. Governors in Wisconsin and Florida put the hex on projects in those states and California – if ever there were a state that needed high speed rail it is California – continues to battle over costs and routes and the Los Angeles Times reports this week that more lawsuits around the initial $9 billion project are all but certain.

Meanwhile, China – no kidding – has floated the idea of constructing a high speed line from China to the United States that would include a tunnel beneath the Bering Strait. At first blush that seems like an outrageous idea, but the Chinese have invested billions and billions in their own fast train system and they have begun to corner the market, like many other markets, on high speed design, engineering and finance. New analysis in Australia, a country without high speed rail, says a system there would not only be heavily utilized, but would be good for the environment.

Britain, Japan, Spain and France are all moving steadily ahead to improve their rail systems – high speed and more conventional rail – while the United States, virtually alone in the world in this regard, continues to spend its often inadequate infrastructure dollars on more pavement. Opponents of rail often cite the “vast public subsidies” needed to build and maintain a modern rail system as their chief argument against making passenger rail transportation a national priority. It’s a silly argument since governments at every level spend lavishly on roads, bridges, freeways and airports. The U.S. air transportation system simply wouldn’t exist without the truly vast public investment made, usually with little controversy, in airports in any city of any size in the country.

I was in Winslow, Arizona a while back, a place that once was a stop on the route of the Super Chief, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad’s deluxe train that, as recently as the 1960’s, ran from Chicago to Los Angeles. The railroad boasted that the Chief was a “deluxe hotel on wheels.” Now days one Amtrak train a day stops ever so briefly in Winslow. On a starry night I sat outside the grand old La Posada railroad hotel in Winslow watching the BNSF freight trains roll past and on into the night. An Australian visitor took a seat nearby and we shortly struck up a conversation about trains. With true wonder he finally posed the question that must seem incomprehensible to a visitor to the United States. “Why,” he asked, “did you Americans do away with virtually all of your passenger trains?”

Slightly embarrassed I could only shake my head. Why indeed.

 

 

The Benefits of…Lunch

Over the last decade American workers have increased their productivity by something like 16%. Most of us aren’t getting paid any more for all that increased output, but we can take pride in the fact that we show up early, stay late and skip lunch to get the work done.

Americans, by most accounts, consider themselves the hardest working people in the world. Well, maybe. But, at what cost and at what benefit?

On Thursday in Casteillina in Chianti, a delightful little place in the rocky Tuscan hills, a restaurant favored by the locals was packed at one o’clock in the afternoon. Many shops, even those catering to the always-in-a-hurry American tourists, closed for a couple of hours for the midday meal. (The tagliatelle in wild boar sauce was superb, by the way.) I doubt whether the local Chamber of Commerce measures productivity in Chianti, unless it’s a measure of grape production. And the grape harvest was underway with what appeared to be great precision, but with a certain sense of pace and an appreciation of just what could be done in a day, given the necessity of stopping for lunch.

Lunch in Chianti is a little like a slow, old fashioned family holiday dinner in the United States, but without the football game on the television in the other room. You can sit down for lunch at your leisure, but the cook will tell you when you eat. Mom never served the Thanksgiving turkey, after all, until SHE was ready. In Italy, lunch is a little glass of wine, a bit of bread, some conversation, a laugh and always some waiting. The soup or salad arrives and time stops. The spinning world slows down. Lunch is both a ritual and a restorative. Take your time, the Italians seem to say, life is too precious to rush. You have work to do, you say, or places to go and people to see – relax. All things in time. Have a little more wine. La dolce vita.

There is no ritual associated with the American lunch. Hit the food court near your office. Grab a sandwich and snarf it down at your desk, while checking the email and reading the Twitter feed. Relax? No way. Have a casual conversation with a co-worker? Hardly. Eat and run. Work, work, work. Life is too short to relax over lunch. You have 113 emails to get through before that meeting at one o’clock.

Many Americans traveling in Europe seem exasperated that they have to catch the waiter’s attention and ask for the bill at the end of the meal. We expect the dirty dishes to be removed immediately upon the last bite of food clearing the plate. In Italy the meal is all about the lingering. The espresso arrives. The waiter disappears. You talk and think and relax. A charming waiter gently corrected an American visitor who requested a cappuccino after lunch. Not a good idea, the waiter said. It will not help your digestion. Espresso is better. Indeed. So, too, is taking time to enjoy the espresso.

It is also better to have a little more time to consider that maybe – just maybe – the pace of modern life is just too hectic and demanding; unhealthy, in fact. Maybe we can slow down just a bit. Have a little more ritual in our lives. Relax while waiting for the waiter to return. Notice the charming family at the next table. Enjoy the setting of the ritual. Linger over the espresso.

Maybe we can take time to just – live. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll live longer and grow old enjoying the fact that few things in life should interfere with lunch.

 

 

Exceptionalism

It’s fashion week in Paris. The skinny models are parading around with stern expressions and too high heels. What, they can’t smile while wearing the latest weird creation? Maybe their feet hurt.

More importantly, every week is fashion week in Siena; a city that is to style what Boston is to baseball meltdowns. The old city, sitting atop a Tuscan hill and, considering its age, a remarkably well preserved place, was once a rival to better known and more visited Florence. But for my Euros, Siena is the classier place. Walking back to the car after a day spent wandering Siena’s cobbled streets (wide paths in many places) we overtook an elegantly dressed, elderly Italian woman who seemed to be heading home from her shopping. She was dressed for the opera – tailored blue suit, stylish blouse and handsome and very correct Italian shoes. Just what most Americans wear to do the weekly marketing at Winco.

Rome’s bureaucrats were on strike – or perhaps just taking a long lunch – last week to protest government austerity measures, the central bankers struggle still with the debt of many European countries and unemployment in the 17-nation EU countries is over 11% – yet, the cafes are jammed, the hotels are booked and life goes on, while sophisticated Italians walk home from the market.

One story line his opponents have advanced against Barack Obama this election year has been the ominous threat that the United States, in a second Obama term, will slip farther in the direction of “the European socialist model.” Even if I believed, and I don’t, that Barack Obama harbors some real or determined socialist agenda, the American drift toward socialism on the European model just isn’t going to happen. Americans are fundamentally resistant to change and the elements of the European model we would have to embrace are so foreign – pardon the pun – that it just can’t happen here.

Two examples make the point. Virtually every automobile on Italy’s highways is a high gas mileage, high performance vehicle. You can drive the Renaults or the Opels for days while passing every petrol station you see. When you need to refill the tank the gas is, of course, much most costly in Europe than in the U.S., but you can go so much farther on a tank, or in most places you can walk or ride efficient public transport. Americans have been fighting over fuel efficiency in our automobiles ever since Mitt Romney’s dad made the American Motors Rambler, a fuel efficient alternative to Detroit’s gas guzzlers. The cars in Europe are smaller, lighter and extraordinarily fuel efficient. Obviously a socialist model we reject.

Or consider public transportation. The intercity train from Rome to Florence, as comfortable as any living room (except for the noisy and overly opinionated Canadian up the aisle), zoomed through the Tuscan countryside and deposited us, one hour and 27 minutes later, in the heart of city where automobiles are more trouble than they are worth. We couldn’t have driven or flown as fast, as comfortably or as cheaply. One can go almost anywhere in Europe on a train, often in great comfort and at high speed. Back home, we continue to debate the disinvestment in such infrastructure with governors in Wisconsin and Florida actually putting an end to spending on just the type of high speed rail Europeans take for granted.  Public investment in transportation – other than the car and the airplane – have taken on the stench of socialism in the U.S. American addiction to the automobile will never allow us to embrace the public option and, besides, the private sector should undertake such investment just as it did when Eisenhower built the interstate highway system. OK, not a good example.

Europeans, as a rule, are skinnier, eat better, live longer, have better health care outcomes, lower poverty and infant mortality rates and – I have to say it – dress better than Americans. Further proof for radio talk show hosts, no doubt, that the European socialist model threatens the very existence of America’s manifest destiny to lead the world with half of our citizens overweight, many lacking health care coverage and more living in poverty than a decade ago.

Europe with all its troubles is neither a socialist mecca or a government-centric basket case. The United States with all its troubles is still the world’s economic engine – an engine that could be even more powerful if we could see our way clear to pick and chose from among the best of the rest of the world. Call it socialism lite.

Republicans Living Abroad ran an ad in the International Herald Tribune this week urging their countrymen and women living in Europe to vote for president. The message was simple and so American – “No Apologizes for American Exceptionalism – VOTE.” The United States is a truly blessed place, divinely inspired some suggest, but true exceptionalism might also mean that we take a break from telling ourselves how great we are and focus on what the rest of the world is doing that we might learn from.

The elegant Italian woman we saw heading home from shopping would, I suspect like most Italians, be very reserved, but also very generous to any American visitor. More and more Italians speak English very well and most tolerate a a level of American self assurance that we would find off putting in them if they were visiting our side of the world. I also doubt whether my elegant Italian woman has ever spent a minute, even while passing by the Burger King, reflecting on either American or Italian exceptionalism. The next time I head for Winco, I will remember her blue suit and elegant shoes and reflect on what she – exceptional as she is – might teach us about living well.