Saturday, January 31, 2015

Hometown Calitri

Hometown Calitri

          I still recall the first time I left home.  It was just three days after graduating from a small New England high school.  I'd never flown and there I was winging my way west to Colorado and the Air Force Academy.  Alone for the first time, my strength lay in my beliefs, my family support, my memories, my dreams - everything that had come together to make me the person I was.  Fearful, nervous and excited, all at once, I headed off on my first adventure.  All the time I was away, especially that first tough summer, I was buoyed by memories of back home.  In my mind's eye I could visualize my home under the oak trees where I’d grown up and my hometown with Main Street branching at the record shop onto North Main Street.  One after the other, all along these thoroughfares were banks, little sandwich places, bars and store after store, all crowded together in single file.  I knew them well because there was a time when I'd delivered their newspapers.  They were of the mom and pop verity, long before the debut of "Starbucks".  Other than our "McDonalds" and a "W.T. Grants", I guess the chain store hadn't caught on yet for it took about an entire street to equal a "Bed, Bath and Beyond" of today! 
          Little by little, with each infrequent return, however, I’d notice changes along Main Street.  Eventually, with a sweeping slogan as large as its ambition, “Urban Redevelopment” obliterated the core of my hometown.  With the sweep of a bulldozer, my grip on reality had been shaken.  The talisman of our classic Post Office with its massive granite blocks and Roman pillars, where I'd first received word of my appointment, had been raised.  In their stead the ugly urbanization of the "mall" had been born in the middle of what had once been a pedestrian community.  Yes, we Americans used to walk around then!

          Every town experiences change.  You can’t help but notice little changes, here and there, with each visit.  It may take being away to even notice them.  For some, as was my experience, they can be monumental transformations, with no going back.  More often, they are subtle.  A doorway may appear the same but now we wonder what lies inside?  This phenomenon is no less apparent in Calitri, where businesses come and go – one door closing while another opens.

          For instance, although I’ve not yet seen it myself, I understand that Cafe del Corso on Corso Matteotti, across from Baby Boom, has closed its door.  It’s a wonder all the cafes, some only doors away from another, could survive to begin with.  At least in this case it closed with the retirement of its longtime owner.  I’ll miss her.  Turn the corner onto Corso Garibaldi, walk past the San Canio Church and just a little farther on past what long before my time was a movie theater (now remodeled as the center for the town's band) and right where the street bends right was New Bar, a men’s hangout.  New Bar is now gone.  I’m not sure the cause of its demise but already its space has been taken over by what appears to be a coffee shop, though not the kind you’d normally think of.  I’m not even certain you can purchase an espresso there.  Instead, it deals in coffee machines, and if I’m correct, the raw coffee beans themselves.  Little changes to the fabric of the town’s landscape, but changes nevertheless, for better or worse.

          Only a few doors ahead you 'll come upon another establishment, this one as exciting as it is modern.  Italians seemingly prefer brightly colored interiors of modern design and here that’s what you’ll find.  Located an ally away from a convent of more traditional design is what has become a thriving pasticceria (pastry shop) and more.  I can’t recall what was there before it arrived.  Outside, its shingle announces that you’ve arrived at Idee Golose (Tasty Ideas).  Here you will definitely discover some tasty treats along with a bar that can go from Havana Club and Coke to an Aperol Spritz and more, and oh yes, there is also coffee.  This center of local excellence is run by a brother-sister team and their spouses, good people all.  Depending on the hour, you will meet and soon appreciate Francesco and Julia along with Rosa and Davida.  I love to stop by in the morning to see what’s up over a frothy cappuccino and a sweet delicacy.  Like many a Calitrano, I’m gradually developing the habit of moving from one favorite haunt to another in a social meet and greet pattern. 

        Idee Golose opened in 2011 following Francesco’s completion of culinary studies at the Boscolo Etoile Academy located in Viterbo, Tuscany, where he became a patissierHere in his shop's basement laboratorio (laboratory) pastry chef Francesco Pastore has gone beyond Calitri's classical notoriety for pottery, needle point, delicious cingul and cannazze pastas and of course caciocavalli cheese to affirm his vision of a veritable art form.  The beauty of art here is not only in the eye of the beholder but also in his stomach!  

          By summer, Golose is also a gelateria.  However, through and through, all year long, it is known for its excellent pastry. With meticulous attention to quality, Frank crafts classic Italian sweets, local favorites and modern pasty interpretations.  Customers can treat themselves to sweets ranging from cakes and local favorites to classics pastries like clamshell shaped sfogliatella and modern pastry.  His is another hidden resource that affords this ancient Irpinian region the right balance between the food and wine industry, crafts and tourism.

        Ask Francesco and he’ll explain that it is essential to use top quality ingredients throughout.  He's never willing to settle on using one ingredient over another just because it may be difficult to obtain or due to its higher cost.  When quality demands, he is clearly unwilling to accept compromises whether on an ingredient or method of preparation.  He reaches out.  For instance, he looks for his butter from far off Belgium.  Other ingredients come from France.  This matrix of ingredients, in a mix of yeast, cured with a love for what he is about, a spirited passion and professional expertise, are among the main elements he says allow him to bake the noble Panettone and Pandoro cakes during the Christmas holiday.  His is a new twist on the Panettone cake so strongly linked in origin to Milan.  Despite a production level nowhere on the order of Milan’s mass production, Calitri’s master confectioner produces a wide range of Panettone along with its cousin, the Pandoro (Pan d'oro, literally "Golden Bread"), the Venetian version of the timeless Panettone.  Interestingly, Pandoro was the last meal eaten by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini before his execution, in of all places, Milan, home to the Panettone!

           In his special brand of these Christmas treats our pastry shepherd has integrated honey with candied fruit, chocolate with locally produced extra virgin olive oil and others featuring almonds or raisons.  He also employs an early grain called kamut.  With its exotic name, kamut happens to be something new to us.  It certainly doesn't sound like something found in your normal pantry.  Yet these days it should, for it is a highly nutritious whole grain rich in protein, vitamin E, thiamin, riboflavin ... you name it.  Definitely ancient, it is rumored that kamut at one point was nearly extinct. The story goes that 37 seeds (no 40 or 50 but 37) were once found in an Egyptian tomb.  Did I mention kamut goes way back?  The story gets better.  The seeds were mailed back to the United States by an Air Force pilot (go Air Force) who had family in Montana.  And here I can’t even sneak a salami into the country when we return from Italy!  The kernels looked like wheat, but were twice as big.  After a few years of planting and reseeding, this once old and now re-discovered grain has make a veritable comeback.  Notwithstanding the caloric intake of kamut, Belgian butter, and almonds, it is our plan to be there next Christmas.  Along with everything else happening about then, we'll surly snatch one, maybe more, of these scrumptious, Calitrano style Christmas treats!

         Eat enough sweets and you’ll definitely need some exercise.  A jaunt, though only a brief walk, up Corso Garibaldi finds us in the company of partners Vito and Maximillian, owners of the relatively new Roxy Bar.  I’m uncertain how they settled on the name Roxy?  Maybe it had something to do with the movie Chicago, where accused murderess, Roxy Hart, sings her way to

freedom.  I should ask.  The Roxy took over a space that I recall was previously a political headquarters used during a recent election.  That group happened to lose but Roxy Bar has since become a big winner.  Here again, a modern motif is favored.  A simple curving bar festooned with beer and wine taps greets you at the door.  Pub tables with high backed chairs flank the opposite wall of exposed stone and brick.  Follow along this wall to its far end and duck through the doorway into the adjacent room.  This attractive space with its large screen TV serves as both spill-over and party room.  The sense of being in a bar ends at the entrance, however, for this is a room of classic charm starting with a tiled brownish floor that resembles a rug and a fireplace all surrounded by beautiful stonework.  I love sitting in there surrounded by the stonework.  Translucent chairs, cube shaped coffee tables and suspended high intensity micro lights clipped to bare wires immediately catch your attention.  Late night affairs, attended by a younger set, occasionally have it hopping.  We haven’t made one yet, though we intend to.  Maybe it’s because instead of arriving at 11pm, we usually make an appearance around 11am, sip a Nastro Azzurra and check our e-mail via their WIFI.  Ah, what could be finer just before all the town closes down until late afternoon and we return home for a lazy lunch and nap? 

           Our next stop at Double Jack's Gasthaus will take more than a brief walk.  Plan on a long walk in fact, most of it uphill.  It's a right turn out of Roxy's front door then up along Corso Italia until it becomes Corso Europa.  Sorry to say you're just starting.  Along your way you'll pass another town
standout, Bar Pizzeria Manhattan.  This longtime institution, as its name implies, features excellent wood-fired Neapolitan pizza, even take-out, or as they say in Italy, "take away".  We usually go there though for two things, pasta (at least for me), and would you believe, karaoke.  Though while I wouldn't be caught singing karaoke in the States, here my alter-persona is a sort of Sinatra phenom.  As the lyrics proclaim, "I want to be a part of it, New York, New York", I'll take the liberty to croon it as "I want to be a part of it, Manhattan, Manhattan", much to proprietor Michele's delight.  If I'm allowed to pat myself on the back, even though I've only appeared there twice, it was to resounding applause!  It seems to go from the projection screen, to my mouth, to the mike and then to my head in that order.  But when the song lyrics from "New York, New York" or "I Did It My Way" aren't in my mouth, it is either a bowlful of Bolognaise or Puttanesca, doused in a blizzard of cheese and a oily sort of drizzle that approaches hot acid.  I love how it brings my mouth alive!  As you might guess that it's not really the spot for a romantic dinner, for it can be a very, very lively place.  Continuing our walk, when you eventually reach the Art School, head left when you spot the Double Jack's Gasthaus sign on the corner of Via delle Paludia and follow the signs onto Corso Risorgimento.  You'll find DJs up ahead along with the cold beer you'll need to cool off.   Better yet, drive there.  Either way, it's well worth the trip.  DJs is something different for a small town deep in the interior of southern Italy.  Blindfold yourself, go inside, spin around five times and poof, you’d think you’ve materialized in a Bavarian Pub!  Double Jack’s is owned and operated by the Germano family.  The patriarch, Guiseppe Germano, worked for many years in Germany and when he finally returned to Calitri, he took a piece of it along with him.  Its decor sets a Bavarian mood.   Dark wooden panels throughout, hunting scenes on the ceilings along with wall accents of German script and a bar crowded with beer steins, jugs and crockery, along with other paraphernalia, all make it convincing.  Long handled throttles on the various taps sport names like Munich Spatenbräu and Paulaner, with many other names I not only can't recall but couldn't spell if I did.  All that is missing is an Oktoberfest Oom-Pa-Pa band featuring the baritone boom of at least one tuba player in lederhosen!  While Guiseppe and Santina may greet you at the door, it is their son, Bruno, who serves as barman and sometimes as pizzaiolo (pizza maker).  Depending on the particular night, you'll also find wonder-woman Donatella.  She is the wait staff, all of it, which in her case I'd guess is about 110 pounds!  I was hoping that if she was a good-girl this year, Santa would hopefully bring her roller-skates to ease her travels back and forth from table to kitchen and bar.  Thankfully, she is now equipped with a digital devise of sorts so she no longer has to write out orders.  The appetizers are delicious, the pizza great and mixed drinks, like Maria Elena's favorite, a Black Russian, conspicuously large, though she doesn't complain.  Strangely I prefer the combination sauerkraut and sausage pizza.  Try it if you dare but what else would you expect from a Bavarian Pub run by Italians!  Times can be lively here especially when the Naples soccer team is playing anybody.  When exactly the Double Jack's Gasthaus opened its doors, I'm not sure.  In any case it has not been many years, and in that time, it has flourished and become a wonderful meeting place for both young and old alike. 
            The economy in the Campania region, and Irpinia in general, where Calitri is located, isn't wonderful.  It remains anemic with unemployment in double digits.  Evidence that the recession is supposedly over hasn't arrived there yet.  People remain worried, many still suffering from the downturn are anxious about their careers and their tomorrows.  However, in both up and down times the appearance of places like Idee Golose, Roxy Bar and Double Jack's Gasthaus are testaments to the vitality of Calitri.  They are part of its fabric and a reflection of their cultural framework.  Just about everyone has a favorite place, some more than one.  Whether brand spanking new, recently new or still fashionably new to the scene, these bars and cafes afford residents a place to relax, unwind, meet, chat, vent, share views, even sing if they must, all of which may go toward explaining why there are so many of them.  Be it a quick jolt of morning espresso, a warm cornetta alla crema (cream filled croissant), a stop-off for a crunchy biscotti or slice of pizza, an afternoon caffe corretto or to share a cool Moretti beer with the mustached gentleman on its label, the continued renewal of old doors into new haunts is reassuring.  As the American television classic about an American bar, "Cheers", conveyed to all its viewers ...
Making your way in the world today takes everything you've got.
Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot.
Wouldn't you like to get away?
Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
and they're always glad you came.
You wanna be where you can see,
our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows
Your name. 

Just as I'd once been fearful, nervous and excited, all at once, as I headed off on my first adventure, we all take with us the comforting strength of our memories.  For the Caltriani, however far they may wander, it is no different.  The fabric of family and the strength of "home" is always with us.

From That Rogue Tourist

For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy.  Then look for and click on the photo album entitled "Hometown Calitri".