Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Eat, Pray, Bug (Part II)

“Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine. ....”

Thus in the movie “Casablancadid Humphrey Bogart lament (though maybe secretly relish) his meeting Ingrid Bergman once again. In similar fashion, the world proved to us just how small it really is. Life has a tendency to twist and turn, and like a Mobius strip, tread back upon itself in deja-vu episodes.

It happened to us while exploring the medieval “San Pellegrino” district of ancient Viterbo, once a home to Popes. Interestingly, but understandable for the times, a bridge separated the papal district from that of the common “contadini” (peasants). So we crossed the 'papal bridge' in this ancient hamlet ourselves, seeking the residence of forgotten popes but instead discovered a paradox. The irony of it was that although our paths in time and space hadn’t crossed, in fact they had. Let me explain.

It was in the garden of the “Il Paradosso Ristorante”, which in error I’d translated to mean “Paradise”, where we met Andrea. We’d been through the papal district by then and though everything looked closed for the afternoon rest period, we were lucky to find the Il Paradosso open. We were looking for something to drink, seeing it was a hot afternoon. A peek through the door of the Paradosso encouraged us to enter. Besides a main dining room, overlooking an extensive garden, we found a winding labyrinth of halls which make for those especially confidential and romantic moments we sometimes seek. We were soon in the garden, below and to one side of the once exclusive bridge, where paupers were transformed into princes. It was early in the season and things still needed to be set up and the area made ship-shape, but even then you could tell how this green island-garden of vegetation, set in the midst of grey stone arches, reminiscent of Bologna, and a fountain, home to a family of geese, was a pearl of a place. With drinks in hand, in company with a basket of chips, we settled in for a relaxing few minutes when our host, Andrea, came and sat with us. At the moment we were his only customers.

We learned that the name "Paradosso" is taken from the name of the valley in which his ristorante (restaurant) is located. This valley, indiscernible today, served as a boundary in medieval times between two quarters "Pianoscarano" and "San Pellegrino". He explained how he and his wife were the new owners of this restaurant and were making a go of it. They had some help, but from the looks of things, needed more. I can say that in general Italians don’t seem to be as concerned with the look of their surroundings as much as I happen to be. Out on a street, being a more common, public space, it can look at times as if you were in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, ravaged by years of war and thus neglect. Yet once inside a private Italian residence, no matter how fine or simple the home, orderliness and attention to detail are sources of pride. It helps me understand why Italians are so willing to invite you in, show you their homes and offer you coffee, unfortunately, something foreign to America these days where even eye contact is ill advised. I’m not the type willing to stomach an old refrigerator on my front porch or a derelict car the precious space of my yard, as opposed to some of my Americans countrymen. For better or worse, I’m just not comfortable in un-kept surroundings. For example, one of the first things I do after rolling our suitcases inside our home in Calitri is to pull weeds and sweep up the little cortile (courtyard) outside our doorway. Honestly, this syndrome has to be some sort of gene defect, which both I and my sister share. I can even recall my aunt Anita once emptying an ashtray and cleaning it while the last ash from the first cigarette still smoldered in the fingers of a surprised visitor! So with palm fronds lying about on the grass, ladders, hoses and broken planters scattered amidst overturned lawn furniture, I felt Andrea needed help and experienced a strong urge to help straighten up the garden right then. Thankfully, this passed when Andrea arrived.

He asked us where we were from and where we had been. I mentioned our stay in Bologna and he remarked that he’d lived there once. When I inquired if he knew where Via de Gombruti was, where we had stayed as guests of Sabrina, he laughed and said indeed he did, for he’d spent five years on this street as a soldier guarding a synagogue located there! The coincidence was just too much to dismiss and then when he explained that “Il Paradosso” meant “The Paradox” I almost fell off my chair to join the fallen palm tree branches. That’s about when that line from Casablanca about all the gin joints in the world slipped into my mind. How ironic that fate would bring our fleeting paths through life so close together. Or had divine intervention played a hand here by having us pick this particular door among all the doors available to walk through? You decide, but with all this papal and hopefully spiritual influence about, it seemed that in crossing that bridge we’d bridged an enigma bringing disparate travelers together, if only briefly.

Getting back closer to earth and onto a more familiar topic, that being food, I want to mention what I consider to be the best deli in the world. It is “La Vecchia Malga” on Via Pescherie Vecchie in the bowels of the Bologna market district. There is another deli touted on the Internet that my notes told us not to miss, but on inspection, it wasn’t in the same league. The boys with the white hats (recall that the good cowboys always wore white hats) in this delicatessen, just visible in the photo above, were more than helpful at serving-up bountiful plates of mixed cold cuts, cheese and marinated vegetables like olives, artichokes, sundried tomatoes all while surrounded by dangling legs of prosciutto, hefty salamis, massive wheels of cheese and crates of Italian wine. Beginning with the street-side window display and extending inside, it was difficult to take it all in. “Two of these” and “four of those” – no request was too small or out of the question. It was difficult to leave but we had reason to. We took our delicious purchases just a few streets away to an earlier discovery, the L'Osteria del Sole (on Vicolo Ranocchi, http://www.osteriadelsole.it/html/storia.htm) and what a find this place was.

While I have heard of “BYOB” (Bring Your Own Booze) before, “BYOF” (Bring Your Own Food) was something new. This tavern, wedged between the more traditional Bologna medieval flavored shops, remains much the same since its beginnings in 1465. The passage of time has seen ownership pass from proprietor to proprietor down to today's third generation of the Spolaore family. We were fortunate to become part of this history and join the thirsty troops at Bologna’s oldest inn, where you can eat whatever you happen to bring. We had stopped there earlier and were advised to come prepared and come early for a trip back in time across a glass of wine. Their 500-year history has enshrined some hard-core drinking, with regulars filling its pews from 8.30am on and with the liquids offered now whittled down to just four choices: red, white, still or sparkling.

Its appearance is deceiving. Out front, the marquee simply proclaimed “vino”. The “V” wasn’t even capitalized. You either knew where it was or you weren’t invited! We resorted to an old man sitting outside to help vector us in and confirm we’d arrived. I couldn’t tell if he was just arriving himself or had already been. Jokingly, I’m sure, he asked for five Euros when I took his photo. As he explained in respectable English, "I'm a businessman after all"! Inside we found an L-shaped bar, which boxed-in one corner just in from a double set of entry doors. The rest of the space saw a long narrow room shoot to the rear while a few side room spurs made up the rest of this ancient shrine.

Traffic was brisk with people coming and going, especially from around the bar. It soon filled with old patrons and with the young, no doubt curious of their traditions. The paraphernalia of centuries filled the bar shelves helping it retain its old world atmosphere. There were ragged-edged family photos, hanging long-dried laurel wreaths, flasks of all types and a relic of a wall-mounted cork extractor that had caressed legions of wine bottles. Avenues of upside-down wine glasses of every size and style prepped for their next customer’s wants. The rest of the décor was simple ‘plank table’ of the kind the Last Supper may have been served on, which spilled over to foster an atmosphere reminiscent of some Dickens novel, if not some smoke-filled bohemian café serving-up poetry readings in Montmartre. Each table sported benches and for the needier of us, an assortment of wooden chairs. Some movie memorabilia, posters, postcards and oversized demi-johns stuffed with corks filled the walls and denied the existence of corners.

Maria Elena loved this place as much for its physical atmosphere as for the characters that frequented “del Sole”. We slid onto a bench at a still unoccupied table with our backs to a wall partially clad with wooden slats from long consumed boxes of port and wine. Above our heads, glass windows with frames encrusted with years of paint allowed us to glimpse into a small courtyard. We sometimes say “location, location” as key to business success but here it was “atmosphere, atmosphere”. Opposite us, a solitary woman sat accompanied by a Mona Lisa smile and at times a much younger male escort, whom we so wanted to believe, for her sake, was not her son. We sipped our red and wondered what her story was. Not far down their bench a younger couple sat, he with a profile the cross between a Roman god and GI Joe. They flirted in an apparent nascent romance. The final length of table found two men in serious discussion, their fingers and hands flailing with Italian insistence. Munching our 'take-away' fare from “La Vecchia Malga”, we sat between Rumanians to one side of us and a university student celebrating her graduation from nursing school. She sported a laurel wreath festooned with multicolored ribbons atop a wig of dreadlocks (see photo album). Queen for but a day, this was her moment, reminiscent of a triumphant Caesar entering Rome, signifying her not as the “First Man of Rome” but “First Woman of Bologna”. Together this assortment of travelers, under the watchful gaze of an Al Pacino “Godfather” poster, struck the fleeting pose of life as it was meant to be, at that moment, in this, a very special place.

With our days in Bologna coming to an end, we decided that last evening to opt for a pizza. By then, we’d consumed sufficiently of the city’s formal culinary hospitality and a pizza sounded like the appropriate finishing touch before leaving for Orvieto. Our B&B hostess, Sabrina, recommended that we try a nearby pizzeria, a favorite of hers. We had a preset image of what to expect but were surprised at how far beyond our expectations this place went from the local, beer-joint pizza parlor stereotype back home … usually run by a Greek! Here we were escorted to a linen covered table preset with dishes, silverware and fine stemware. It was only the presence of a nearby wood-fired pizza oven that made us realize this wasn’t a restaurant, yet from the extensive contents of the menu, it was indeed that too. Other customers were enjoying full course dinners. Our pizzas were wonderful. Maria Elena had a 'white pizza' (void of tomato sauce) with pine nuts and 'rocket' arugula while I enjoyed mine doused in sauce and crowded with salsiccia e fungi (sausage and mushrooms). To bring it all together, we also ordered a liter of the house’s red wine. We had almost finished our meals with just a few bites remaining and the last of the vino trying desperately to hold out and cover the very bottom of our glasses when I experienced a true “Victor Victoria” moment. Do you recall how in that movie a starving penniless Julie Andrews introduced a bug into her salad in an attempt to avoid paying the bill? That thought occurred to me shortly after I lowered my now empty wine glass and noticed something foreign in my mouth. On close inspection it was obvious, at least to the two of us, that here was a dead bug, legs and all! My suspicion is that when filling our carafe the little critter had somehow followed along. Management, however, insisted it was sediment from decanting. I know a bug when I see one and this wasn’t wine sediment! In the heat of the debate with the manager, the little fella fell into the dark abyss under our table. There was no further interest from this point on to provide a flashlight, find the evidence and continue. They took up a “let sleeping dogs lie” attitude. Our attitude was mostly “who da thunk it” humorous. Our waiter, a meaningful look on his face, as if trying to tell us something, most likely realizing that it had really been an insect, offered us Limoncello apparently in compensation. Thus we toasted to our final Bolognese meal, the completion of a wonderful visit and to our deceased drinking companion. And thus you have it, a fleeting glimpse of Bologna from an 'Eat, Pray, Bug' perspective.


Written on the road in Bella Italia,

By that Rogue Tourist, Paolo

For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy. Look for and click on a photo album entitled “Eat, Pray, Bug - Part II”.