Customer Service – Italy vs US

I’ve mentioned this topic in several different pieces, but I think it’s important enough to have its own blog.

To reiterate:  Most of the businesses we see in our area are small, family owned and run…..whether they’re restaurants or clothing shops or the little grocery stores called alimentari that were surely the inspiration for our 7-Elevens. Even most of the hotels in the smaller towns are family owned.

If you go to a hotel regularly in the US, I can pretty much guarantee that you will never see the same face twice. In Umbria, you would become alarmed if you didn’t find the person you expected behind the counter because it could only mean that they were dead. You would probably know them by name, as well as the names of their children. They would have your passport information on file and know which room you preferred. The closest we get to that in the US are our B&B’s.

The same goes for restaurants. The waiter in the first restaurant where I ate in Orvieto 21 years ago is still there. It’s not a place we go to often, so I’ve never gotten friendly with the man, but I’m sure that when we do eat there, it clicks in the back of his mind, as it does in mine, that we’ve been seeing each other for an awfully long time.

The service people in Italy have pride in what they do; it’s a respected career, not something to fill the time and wallet while waiting for “real” life to begin. Whether or not they are a family member, they still treat you like a guest in their home, because where they work is their home. And like a good guest, you should give them the courtesy of a greeting when you enter, and patience if they can’t get to you immediately.

Occasionally, however, you will run into a family member who truly should NOT be in the service business. We have one near us who is legendary for his lack of hospitality. Anyone reading this who has spent time around Orvieto knows this man well. Upon entering, he will immediately make you feel like an unwelcomed guest who has ruined his day by your very presence in his restaurant. His body language lets you know that he considers you totally unworthy to eat the delicious food that comes from his kitchen, and if he could, he would return to watching TV with his back to you in hopes that when he turned around again, you would be gone. Fortunately, the rest of his family members are incredibly nice and the food is so good that the restaurant warrants the return customers and packed house that it has most days.

While this man is the exception to the nice-people-in-small-business rule, his ilk can be easily found in the larger chain stores – particularly those in the shopping malls that seem to have mysteriously appeared along the autostrada recently. I’ve never found the kind of department store in Italy that I’ve seen in the US, England, France or Germany, but the closest is a chain called Coin. I’ve been to Coins from Torino to Palermo, and not once have I ever gotten the correct information about whatever I was looking for. If they are out of something, it would never occur to them to see if more might be coming in at some future date, or if they have an alternative. It seems their training stopped right after: “We’re out of those”. In the US, department stores have a disarming number of people whose only job is to ask if they can help you. At Coin, as soon as the sales people see customers, they scurry away to an agreed-upon hiding place, where they stay until the customers get tired of waiting and leave.

Large grocery stores are the exception to the big-store rudeness; people there are always helpful and they know what they’re doing.

So….what’s the bottom line on all of this?

– Smaller places are more fun than big ones.

– Be courteous to the people in small businesses. They work long hours in their shops and appreciate a greeting and patience.

– You will probably be disappointed in a large store, so if you must go, set your expectations low.

– You can raise your expectations up if the large store is a super market.

– It is possible to overlook rudeness, but only if there’s REALLY good food at the end.

Which just goes to show you that somehow, whenever you’re talking about Italy, it almost always comes down to food……

Cent’ Anni

In Italy, the common toast to accompany clinking wine glasses is salute, meaning: health.  You can also say cent’ anni, which wishes all the clinkers 100 years.  When you do that, however, you don’t really think all the gathered people will actually live 100 years.

Any of you who happen to see my Facebook page might recall that I always recommend you read my friend Liz’s blog called My Village in Umbria whenever she gets around to writing about life in Allerona — about 10 miles outside of Orvieto.  A couple of weeks ago, I suggested you read her wonderful homage to Nonno Gino (her grandfather-in-law) -– cleverly entitled “Nonno Gino: The man and the legend” (http://myvillageinumbria.blogspot.it/2012_02_01_archive.html) — and if you haven’t already done it – I REALLY suggest you do now…..just as soon as you finish this…..

…..Because Gino took all those cent’ anni toasts along the way seriously, and this past Saturday celebrated his 100th birthday.  I could say it was just a family affair because Gino, in one way or another, is related to almost everyone in Allerona, and all of the town showed up….100 years’ worth of family and friends.

They had a special church service for him in late afternoon and then the party began in the town hall.  There was enough food to feed everyone in Allerona for the entire month of May; the dessert table alone was so long that you couldn’t see the other end.  This was all washed down with an endless supply of carafes full of red and white wine from the vineyards surrounding the town.  The mayor presented him with a plaque and short speech, as did a few other organizations…..some with slightly longer speeches.  Music?  Of course!!!  And there can never be a gathering of more than 2 people without Gino serenading them.  I’m not sure if the microphone helped or hurt his reputation as a “song stylist”, but the old songs from 80 – 90 years ago are always sung with great gusto, and he has passed them down to the younger generations  – all of whom revere him.

The day’s schedule was supposed to be the mass in the town’s Duomo, which sits in the top piazza, and then he would walk down to the town hall, accompanied by the Allerona marching band.  You would think that after 100 years, the least the gods could do was give him a beautiful day, but instead – at that EXACT time, the heavens opened up and it poured.  My first thought was how unfair it was after enduring 100 years, but I then reconsidered when I realized just what it was they wanted him to do.  That walk from the Duomo to the town hall is a very steep downhill, and let’s face it – spry as he is, that “spry” word is always followed by “for his age”.  100 IS, after all, 100.  So I concluded that the gods — continuing to look out for him as they have for all these years — sent the rain to make sure he was driven in comfort to the festivities.  The marching band accompanied the car.

It is such an honor to know Nonno Gino, even though we’ve never been able to communicate…..that language thing again.  Actually, it’s not just the language.  I really can’t talk to him because every time I see him, I cry, and who wants to talk to someone with constant tears streaming down her cheeks.  There’s something about his enduring enthusiasm for life, his almost totally toothless grin that lights up the room, his determination to live his life on his own terms, and the fact that he’s every bit as adorable as a puppy that just brings tears to my eyes.  On Saturday, Liz was standing next to a friend when Gino entered the hall.  She said to her friend, “Somewhere in this room, Susan is crying right now.”  She was right.

You deserve to know Nonno Gino, too.  So really – read Liz’s piece.

Nonno Gino with Liz's husband Paolo, just after he (Paolo) broke his foot in 2010.  Don't ask how.

Nonno Gino with Liz’s husband Paolo, just after he (Paolo) broke his foot in 2010. Don’t ask how.

Gino at 99, singing at Liz's daughter's baptism with 3 of his "students".

Gino at 99, singing at Liz and Paolo’s daughter’s baptism with 3 of his “students”.

Gino at his party -- 100 years and still going strong.

Gino at his party — 100 years and still going strong.

Umbria vs Tuscany

As you know – I live in Umbria and I absolutely adore it.  However, I do consider us the simple country cousin to the more upscale Tuscany.  Think of us as Melanie Wilkes in Gone with the Wind — kind, but plain — compared to the show-stopping looks of Scarlett O’Hara.

It would be difficult to find fault with the beauty we have around us here in Orvieto.  For instance, when I get out of the elevator to go to the parking garage, this is my view:

Just one of the many gorgeous views as you look out from Orvieto. Let’s just say it ain’t Kansas.

However, Tuscany is the place people picture in their dreams when they think of Italy…. perhaps even before The Big 3:  Rome, Florence & Venice.  And even though I spend quite a bit of time in Italy, I’m still one of those people.  The Tuscan border is no more than 30 minutes from us, and I certainly know how beautiful it is.  I tell everyone how beautiful it is.  I have a gazillion photos of my favorite places in Tuscany that show how beautiful it is.  And yet – whenever I go there, it turns out to be MUCH more beautiful than I expected it to be.  This happens EVERY time, and I go there A LOT.  Surely by now, wouldn’t you think that my expectations would be more in line with my reality?

I must tell you right up front that when I say “Tuscany”, I’m not talking about the whole region, which is really quite large.  My “Dream Tuscany”, for those of you armed with Google Maps, goes roughly from the A1 Autostrada in the east to the Cassia (SS2) in the west, and from Florence in the north to San Casciano dei Bagni in the south.  (San Casciano dei Bagni is only about 22 miles from Orvieto, and should not be confused with San Casciano in Val di Pesa, which is just a few miles south of Florence, meaning it, too, falls into the “Dream Tuscany” area.  Italians don’t seem to have a problem with 2 San Cascianos less than 90 miles from each other.)

There are many wonderful Tuscan areas outside of these boundaries that I also love – Lucca, The Maremma and Cortona, for instance.  But just a few weeks ago after our great stay in Lucca, which is west of Florence, we decided to have an overnight in the Chianti region.  As soon as we got south of Florence, I was once again absolutely blown away by how gorgeous it was.  Worse yet for the people with me, I found it necessary to practically bludgeon them with my euphoria.  I’m like a teen girl whose friends must duct tape her mouth shut in order to keep her from mentioning her boyfriend One More Time.  Shouldn’t I be more jaded by now?

I first discovered the Chianti area (between Florence and Siena)

Chianti. Need I say more?

and the Val d’Orcia (south of Siena)

Val d’Orcia. Please do double click on this picture to blow it up so you can really see the terrain.

on bike trips.  I haven’t biked in either for almost 10 years, but that hasn’t stopped me from visiting them whenever I can.  While Chianti is a bit far to go for dinner, the Val d’Orcia is a lovely drive – AND we get to dine in our good friend Daria’s restaurant, which is one of our most favorite places to eat, and just happens to be in one of the valley’s loveliest little towns.  To sit on the terrace in the Spring, enjoying the company of friends, wonderful food and wine, and having a breeze stir the grain growing on the gently rolling hills that spread before you like green velvet waves is…….well……I DID warn you way back in my first blog that I was a “rolling green hills” person, so you shouldn’t be TOO surprised that I just can’t shut up about what a fabulous experience this is.

Lunch on the terrace.

My off-the-cuff advice has always been to go to the Val d’Orcia in the Spring when the hills are so green they almost hurt your eyes, and Chianti in the Fall when the grape vines have filled out to their fullest.  But in fact, both of them are wonderful ALL year.  And then when you get tired of all that unrelentingly gorgeous countryside – head over to Umbria. Alan’s favorite beauty right now is Charlize Theron.  Consider Umbria Charlize without make-up:  still beautiful, but just not quite so polished.

The Italian Green Card

The Italian equivalent of our Green Card is called a Permesso di Soggiorno – Permission to Stay.  It sounds so much friendlier than Green Card, doesn’t it?  And it’s a lot easier to come by.  But “easier” is a relative term and in no way should it be confused with the word “easy”.  After all – this is Italy…..land of the happy bureaucrats.

Your first step in being able to stay here legally for long periods of time is to get a codice fiscale, which is like our Social Security number.  And this was indeed easy to get….in fact so easy that we were immediately lulled into a false sense of security – thinking the whole process would go this smoothly.

Next, back in the US, we had to apply for an “elective residence” visa.  This means all we wanted to do was “reside” in Italy – not work – and it seemed like this process would be equally effortless.  Italy’s official website had a list of the necessary information, and then we just had to take the paperwork to our nearest consulate, which was in Philadelphia.

In fact one day when we were in town, we actually stopped by the consulate to make sure that what they had on their web site was all that they needed, and they assured us that their website was absolutely correct.  That was our first trip to the consulate.

Our second trip was when we took all our papers.  Shockingly, it turned out that the website didn’t include quite everything.  But the very pleasant woman behind the desk solemnly swore that things would go smoothly once we submitted the missing information, which we did on our third trip.  After approving our new information, the same pleasant woman told us the visas should be ready in a couple of hours, but that proved to be a bit optimistic on her part, thereby requiring a fourth trip, which turned out to FINALLY be successful.

Back on Italian soil, we had to go to the post office to pick up a very thick form within 8 days of our arrival.  Even more amusing than the fact that they insist you must do this within 8 days is that you must buy a special stamp that goes on the front of the completed form before returning it to the post office, but that’s the stamp I mentioned before — the one you can only buy at the tobacco store.  In addition to your now stamped and filled-out form, you must include copies of all the papers you had previously submitted to the consulate back in the US.  The post office then gives you a receipt, which turns out to be very important because IF you ever needed to prove that you were trying your very best to be a legal guest, this would be your only proof until you get your actual Permesso – which even under the best of circumstances would be months away.

This first-time application process in Italy started in June.  Alan got his official card in October (a record in the expat community), at which time they told me that mine was lost somewhere between Rome and Orvieto.  When I said I wouldn’t be back until March, they said they hoped it would be in by then….but no promises.  The good news when I went back the following March was that it had turned up; the bad news was that even though they held it up in their hand, I couldn’t get it that day because it was a Monday, and the official person whose job it is to give it to you only works in Orvieto on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  Since the first time you get a Permesso it’s good for 1 year from the date you first apply, the end result was that mine was only good for 3 months before I had to start the whole Italian side of the process again.

However, during that small window of being officially legal, I dashed to Orvieto’s anagrafe office – the town’s registrar of whatever it is a town might want registered — since they’re the ones who hand out the Carta d’Identita’, and the Carta was my real pot of gold at the end of this bureaucratic rainbow.   You must have the Carta in order to open an internet bank account.  As usual – it always comes down to money…..

But first, the town must make sure that you’re an actual resident.  This can take an unlimited amount of time, because the town policeman must personally come to your door to make sure you live where you say you do, and you never know when he’s home with a cold or off on a 2-week vacation.  In my case this took about a month.  It would have been longer, but his vacation was only 1 week.

And so — a year after this whole process started back in the US, I had my Carta d’Identita’, meaning I was a Legal Alien in Orvieto — FINALLY.  Needless to say – throughout this whole ordeal, everyone I knew heard about my struggle with the system, to the point where they would avoid me on the street and not return my phone calls.  But when it was all done, a loyal group of friends gave me a surprise party where they presented me with an Italian flag.  Since the ONLY time Italians care about their flag is during World Cup, I am probably the sole person in Orvieto – or perhaps even in all of Umbria….or Italy, for that matter – with an Italian flag in my living room.

Doug, Colette, Candace, Carol, Frank and Alan.....the friends who stood by me during a whole year of whining.

My flag and I. (If I had known there was going to be a party, I might have dressed a little better......)

Local Pride – Part III: Seasonality

Since the topic of food is never far away with Italians – let’s talk seasonality.  Back in my Category 2 days, I was normally in Italy during the prime weeks of Spring and Fall in order to take advantage of good biking weather.  However, now that we start our stay in early March and might leave as late as November, we’ve discovered totally new tastes.

For instance, there are punterella and agretti – two vegetables that we had never seen in either Italy or the US.  Punterella comes first in early Spring, and I don’t even know how to describe it.  While it sort of looks like you had taken a stalk of celery and peeled off lengths of it, the taste has nothing to do with celery.  It’s a popular Roman dish, and the fact that they always prepare it in an anchovy sauce means that I don’t care for it and Alan adores it.

Agretti, on the other hand, is easy to describe because it looks exactly like a handful of grass.  When you buy it, it still has the dirt clinging to the roots of the blades.  It arrives sometime in April, and is best cooked quickly in a little olive oil with garlic – after getting rid of the roots and dirt, of course.

Agretti (Salsola soda)

Agretti with the dirt cleaned off its roots.

Both of these vegetables have very short growing seasons, so if you’ve always visited Italy in mid-May, you’d definitely never see punterella.  You might catch a glimpse of agretti at that time of year, but it would probably be limp and unappealing.

Next come carciofi (artichokes) and asparagi (asparagus).  You can enjoy carciofi all year long because they also sell it preserved in oil.  But if you want it fresh – something I highly recommend — you must be there at the right time. (See below)

English: Stacked artichokes in a fruit and veg...

When it’s asparagi season, it’s everywhere.  Unlike punterella and agretti, you can even buy it out of season, but that supply comes from Peru, and in the store, it’s relegated to a small box hidden in with some other foreign-grown, out-of-season vegetables.  People might buy it for having at home, but a restaurant wouldn’t offer it.  It couldn’t possibly have the same fresh flavor as the local asparagus in season, and that could cause a huge downgrade from the restaurant’s local customers – a fate no restaurant wants to suffer.

Porcini mushrooms are a specialty of our area. Since they cannot be successfully cultivated, locals-in-the-know tromp through the woods to gather them at just the right time.  I always thought they were a seasonal Fall food.  However, we had a friend who planned a September trip around cooking fresh porcini and he found the supply was very limited.  As with most of those independent foods that refuse to let man dictate their availability, it turns out there are more variables than just season.  Rainfall is also key, and that particular year there were many more porcini in June than in the Fall.

Precious fresh porcini being offered to our table.

And then during certain seasons, you will see people in what looks to me like fields of weeds, bending to pick…..something.  I have no idea what that something is, but it’s obviously something that, like porcini mushrooms, can’t be commercially produced.  As an American who has only a vague idea of how vegetables grow, I believe you have to be born into the right family to have the secrets of plant whereabouts and preparation passed down to you.  That knowledge is the agricultural version of the family treasure – a precious gift to be passed on to future generations.  I could always ask what they’re looking for, but then the sight of people in fields would lose its mystery, and when you’re a Dreamer – it’s not a bad thing to keep at least a little mystery in your life.

A Quick Tour of Orvieto

It seems like I should tell you a bit more about Orvieto than I have so far.

Its big claim to fame is its gorgeous Duomo, which I’m sure I’ll talk about in more detail at some future date. For now the important things to know are that it has a top-of-the-line art treasure, it truly IS gorgeous (see below) and it brings in hordes of tourists.

The Duomo. Didn't I tell you it was fabulous?

(An important aside: Every town has a church designated as its Duomo, which is its most important church. Occasionally it won’t be the showiest church, but in that case, it probably has some kind of historic precedence over the grander one. In Orvieto’s case, Duomo and showy are one and the same.)

The other thing that brings in tourists is the town’s proximity to the Autostrada. All the tours going from Rome to Siena, Florence and other points north must drive right by the base of the town. From the tour’s standpoint it’s the perfect way to amuse the clients for a few hours before herding them back on the bus. It satisfies the religious, the art-lovers, the shoppers and those who just want to sit with a cappuccino and get away from their fellow tour-mates, with whom they’ve already grown weary.

There are 2 main streets where the guides usually direct the tourists. If you picture Orvieto as a long oval sitting high above the valley floor, Corso Cavour runs lengthwise down the middle, though it changes its name a couple of times along the way just to confuse you. About half way along the Corso is Via del Duomo off to the left, which leads you to Piazza del Duomo, and I’m betting you can guess what you’ll find there.

At the intersection of these 2 streets is the Torre del Moro – a high clock tower that you can climb (240 steps) and enjoy the incredible view over the town, out to the surrounding countryside. At the top are bells that ring every quarter hour. The big, masculine bell tolls the hour, then there’s a slight pause after which a more feminine bell will ring once for the quarter hour, twice for the half, and three times for three quarters. The one time you definitely do NOT want to be on the top is 12:45, when you’d have to endure 12 masculine rings, a much too short pause, and then 3 feminine rings. Often I won’t pay attention to the chimes until they’re in the middle of the hour tolls, so I end up wondering if it’s 15 minutes past 5, 6 or 7 o’clock.

Torre del Moro -- 240 steps up.

For shopping, the Corso has the major clothing stores (though you shouldn’t confuse “major” with “large”), while it seems that every other shop along Via del Duomo is a ceramic shop. Of course there are many other stores, but most tourists just stick with these 2 streets.

View from the Torre showing Via del Duomo snaking up to the you-know-what.

If you turn right at the Torre del Moro instead of left to the Duomo, you’ll find Piazza del Popolo, where the outdoor market is held on Thursday and Saturday mornings. Yes, there are fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish, cheeses (98% of which are, of course, pecorino), roasted chickens and flowers, along with an incredible array of what I’ll call junk. No — you won’t find 10 interesting kinds of mushrooms or 7 varieties of potatoes — and definitely not 25 totally different cheeses like you would at a French outdoor market, but as Italian ones go, this isn’t bad.

Our humble Thursday and Saturday morning market.

Driving and parking in town are almost impossible for visitors. You would have zero chance of figuring out where you were on the one-way, incredibly narrow serpentine streets because so many of them are pedestrian only, and then it would take a modern miracle to find a legal parking spot. The best thing is to park in the lots on the edges of town and walk to the center.

And speaking of parking lots, I’ll leave you with a story about one of them. The town built a lovely 2-story underground lot, utilizing the top as a soccer field and little park for people to enjoy. It took well over 2 years to build, with all the usual din and dirt of workmen hammering away and trucks transporting cement and huge steel beams. It was finished several years ago. To date, the only time there have ever been cars in it or people enjoying the top was this year when they needed extra parking for one day because the prestigious Giro d’Italia bike race was coming through town. Why has it been used only one day? The word is that after all the construction noises finally stopped, someone pointed out that the city didn’t actually own the land. It’s quite doubtful that I have enough years left in my life to ever see the untying of this particular bureaucratic knot. Yes, I adore this place, and I don’t expect it to be perfect…….but sometimes you just have to wonder……

Local Pride – Part II: Cheese

Getting back to Italians and their food – I’m going to once again make gross generalizations based on where I live in Orvieto.

While Italians say that they have just as many different cheeses as the French, in my little tri-region area (Umbria, Tuscany, Lazio) local pride once again dictates what’s available to us, and therefore it’s difficult to get anything other than pecorino (sheep cheese).  Now I must say that it’s quite good, and they’ve been incredibly inventive as to what they do with it.  For instance, it can be fresh and soft, medium-aged or aged long enough to harden and take on some of the qualities of Parmigiana.  Then they might age it wrapped in grape leaves, or packed in ash or straw.  They can wash its rind in red wine.  They might sprinkle red pepper flakes or whole black peppercorns through it, or even pieces of black truffle.  These are just 10 of the many different things that can be done, but to me the bottom line is that it’s still just 1 cheese:  pecorino.

I guess I needn’t tell you that the people around here ADORE their own pecorino.  I’m sure they’d be able to tell you the difference between cheese made in the Pienza area (48 miles north) versus the Pitigliano area (32 miles west) versus what’s made here in Orvieto.  In the US, 48 miles is considered pretty much in our own back yard, but not in Italy when it comes to local food. Actually, I have to admit that even I can tell the difference between our pecorino and pecorino Romano (from Rome) or Sardo (from Sardinia).

Pecorino on display in Pienza, trying to look like at least 8 different cheeses.

Up until a couple of years ago, when a restaurant offered a “cheese plate”, it usually consisted of three pieces of pecorino done up in different guises.  And then a young woman with refined tastes had the audacity to serve – are you ready for this??? – GOAT cheese on the cheese plate in her restaurant!  It was the cheese equivalent of finding chicken in green curry sauce on the menu.

Goats!!!!!

What had happened, speaking of audacity, was that two families of foreigners (people not from Umbria) had gotten together to start a goat farm in the beautiful countryside about 15 miles from Orvieto, and after tasting their cheeses, the refined young woman realized that they made great stuff.  Of course word got out and now lots of restaurants are offering these goat cheeses.  I suppose it’s justified because at least the goats are grazing in Umbrian fields.

I’m assuming that in Puglia, Italy’s heel, or Piemonte in the northwest, or any of the other regions, you will find a similar number of variations on whatever their local cheeses are. Just as we’ll probably never see these in Orvieto, they might not have even 1 pecorino.

The three exceptions to this local-cheeses-only rule are, or course, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Gorgonzola and mozzarella.  And let’s face it – those three really DO deserve to be universal.

Baby water buffalo who will grow up to give us delicious mozzarella di bufala.

Local Pride – Part I

Several years ago, a co-worker of Italian descent came back from his first trip to Italy and asked if I could explain why the worst meal he had in Italy was better than his best meal in an American Italian restaurant.  OF COURSE I had an answer.  I’m the master of broad, over-encompassing generalities based on limited evidence, and this question fell right into my hands.

The flip side of my on-going complaint that it’s almost impossible to get good foreign food in Italy is that this loss is the result of the strong local pride which demands that the ingredients come from close-by and be prepared to semi-rigid standards.  So while a good red curry sauce is out of the question, the food on the menu of even the most modest eatery will use the freshest ingredients available if it wants to maintain its business with local customers.  The beneficiaries are tourists like my co-worker who are lucky enough to find those restaurants where the locals eat.

When I say “local”, I mean pretty darn local.  To Italians, food from the next town could be considered foreign and the next region is definitely uncharted territory.  I live in an area where Umbria, Tuscany and Lazio are packed right against each other.  The relationship between Tuscany and Umbria can best be summed up by saying that the Umbrians think the Tuscans are snots, and the Tuscans think the Umbrians still go around in animal skins.  The only thing they can agree on is that Lazians are philistines and certainly don’t deserve to be considered in the same category as Umbrians and Tuscans.

Umbrian countryside view from Orvieto as I go to the parking lot. Thought you'd like to see that none of these squabbling regions has the monopoly on beauty.

Local cooking traditions are every bit as important as locally available products.  Probably THE standard for any family is the food nonna (the grandmother) used to prepare.  They might permit a bit of fiddling, but I’m betting that if a dish doesn’t have enough fennel in it, the family will let the cook-of-the-day know in no uncertain terms that the meal was subpar, and nonna would have been both displeased and disappointed.

Tuscan countryside in Spring, looking toward Pienza

The locals are more generous with restaurants, since they probably figure that the chef is using his/her nonna’s recipe.  They might allow for that difference, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be noted.  To our undiscerning pallets a plate of pasta with cinghiale sauce (wild boar) tastes pretty much the same in all 3 regions.  But I’m betting the majority of the locals would be able to tell you the sauce’s origin.

Lazian countryside, looking toward Lake Bolsena

And I’m not talking about only the gourmets. We were in a VERY nice restaurant in Perugia one night and much to our surprise for a restaurant of this caliber, a team of soccer players in their late teens or early 20’s was at a long table in the middle of the room.  Rather than yelling back and forth about their latest victory, we could hear them quietly discussing the food as each course arrived. They had wine on the table, but it was used to complement the food, not to over-imbibe.  The young guys actually swirled it!  In Italy, EVERYONE takes food seriously.

Orvieto

Unless you’ve chosen one of Italy’s Big Three – Rome, Florence or Venice – people will always ask you why you live wherever it is you live.  I must admit that I do the same thing (although I also ask why about the Big Three) because there’s such a variety of reasons that push people to a particular town.

I chose Orvieto, which is in Umbria.

My first few times to Italy were via bicycle trips, the very first of which included Tuscany. Like millions of people before me, I immediately fell in love with the Tuscan countryside.  I couldn’t imagine finding anything I liked more than its beautiful vistas.

My second bike trip was across Italy — from Fano, in the province of Le Marche on the Adriatic, to Porto Ercole in southern Tuscany on the Tyrrhenian Sea — passing right across Umbria.  This middle-of-Italy swath is littered with picturesque hilltop towns, and I’ve seldom met a hilltop town that I haven’t adored.  We stayed in Urbino, Gubbio, Spello, and Todi – all gorgeous and waiting for us in the sun at the end of our day’s ride.

And then we got to Orvieto.  My introduction to the town was via a 2-1/2 mile winding uphill at the end of a difficult 30 mile bike ride in the rain….hardly the stuff Italian Dreams are made of.   To add to the dreary welcome, the dark gold indigenous volcanic rock that forms the plateau on which the town sits is also the material of choice for the buildings, and this monochromatic look can most charitably be described as “melancholy” on a rainy day.  In addition, much of the town was laid out during medieval times, meaning narrow streets and not much visible greenery.  All of these pieces should have fit together to complete a somber picture of a fairly gloomy town.

However, here we must apply what I think of as the Charles/Camilla Syndrome.  People were just amazed that Prince Charles could possibly have preferred the rather plain Camilla over the younger and more outwardly lovely Diana.  But the fact remains that Camilla always had a certain inexplicable something that Charles absolutely adored.

That’s exactly how it is with Orvieto and me.  As you can see from the photos above and below, it is actually quite lovely  — particularly on a sunny day – but you couldn’t call it the most beautiful town around.  I tried to love other places.  I spent many vacations staying 3 or 4 days in a wide variety of perfectly polished hilltop towns in both Tuscany and Umbria.  But I eventually noticed a pattern:  I somehow managed to always fit in a couple of Orvieto days after I had tired of those other “pretty faces”.  And I always felt “at home” when I arrived in Orvieto.  I kept waiting for the day when a visit would be disappointing, but it never happened.  Yet even today, I can’t put a finger on just why I think we go together so well.

I’m reminded of a winemaker in California who told us that of all his wines, his favorite was one of his whites.  We asked why he liked it so much, expecting the usual wine-speak answer containing words like honeysuckle or ripe apricots, but he answered simply: “I don’t know; I just do.”  So far, that’s better than any other answer I’ve been able to come up with — just in case you ever ask me why I love Orvieto.

Side view mug shot of Orvieto