Monday, July 31, 2017

I Am The Menu


   I Am the Menu

    Half the fun of eating out is finding that special place where the food, the atmosphere, and the company come together to form an exceptional memory.  We had already experienced one such place in Asti where we’d so enjoyed Osteria L’ermite.  As was the case there, we’d not found this new place on our own:  a chance conversation in the Pro Casa store in Lioni had done it.  Another couple happened to overhear us talking in English there among the stacks of shelves and that’s all it took.  One thing led to another and they shared their secret pizzeria with us.  A few days later, we ventured off to find it.  It was located in an out-of-the-way village on the back-side of neighboring Cairano, somewhere between now and then.  Just finding the town, let alone the eatery, was tricky.  It was evening, just about sunset.  Trailer trucks loaded with hay, soon with the change of season to be replaced with crates of tomatoes, zipped down SS7 along with us until we exited into the back country.  There was a wildness to the rolling countryside, felted in green.  There among the hills, as we meandered along through switchbacks of abrupt hills and pockets of deep woods, I commented that later, on our nighttime return, we’d probably see an animal or two.  It happened much earlier, however, for on rounding the next corner a family of wild pigs (cinghiale) had us stop and wait as they crossed the road.  Although part of our hesitation was simply to stare, this was our first ever encounter with cinghiale though we knew there were plenty about.  Mischievous things, the wild boars raised havoc with vineyards even when guarded by electric fences and brazenly foraged close to homes.  Things were out of balance.  With their natural prey, the wolf, decimated by local farmers, the cinghiale population had exploded.  Judging from the size of the litter accompanying mother sow, it could approach exponential growth very soon.  Though difficult to hunt, their only compensation was in the form of tasty ragu, sausage, and the like.  As we continued along, I wondered how a town so far off the beaten track could sustain itself with so little in way of economic development.  Other than field after field dotted with plastic wrapped rolls of hay the size of gigantic checkers, there was little about to account for the town we sought.  This miniature hilltop town, dating back to 1000 BC and the Bronze Age, with just shy of 2000 souls today, was ostensibly agrarian in nature and for the most part, self-sufficient.  Like the dark side of the moon few have seen, it was a place that had
always been there, but hardly noticed.

Finally arrived, and definitely on the wrong street, we got
help from a few residents on the pizzeria’s location.  The musical stream of lyrical Italian of their directions, though I’m sure each was complete, were too long to absorb with our fragile Italian skills, but each sempre drtto (straight ahead), sinistra (left), and girare a destra (turn right) got us closer to our destination until we finally found it.  The place was in my estimation, classic Italian with a Greek twist.  A Greek flag gave that away.  His entry sign was also somewhat unique considering we were in the outback of relaxed Italy, not some big city..  It was an easily recognized artwork by Leonardo da Vinci entitled “Vitruvian Man”.  This well-known anatomical sketch of a man with outstretched arms superimposed in a square and circle blends art and science in a Renaissance attempt to make a connection between man and nature.  The pizzeria was off the street, set back a way, allowing for a walkway leading to the main entrance.  An arched stone opening to the side of an outside covered dining area festooned with climbing grapevines and hung with hand-tools of a bygone era gave it a rustic charm. 
An assortment of extra wooden chairs held session along one wall, ready to receive the spillover from one of the long tables, themselves covered with red and white checkered tablecloths layered with white linen toppers.  It already felt like home, although hopefully, we wouldn’t have to do the dishes. 
We met our host just inside the doorway.  He was tall, lean, closer to sixty than seventy, sported a receding hairline,
appeared sprightly energetic, and according to Maria Elena, was definitely handsome.  Not shy in the least, he’d sized us up instantly and spoke to us in English.  How could he tell so quickly?  He proceeded to give us a tour, first of the kitchen with an introduction to his wife, Giovanna.  Her apron tunic announced that she was the chef and who knew what else when you run a restaurant.  I was struck by how much younger she was, maybe by 25 years, but who was counting.  She was apparently busy getting ready for the evening rush, which that night included a birthday party for about 30, not counting walk-ins like ourselves. 
When he introduced himself, I thought there was something special about him beyond his exceptional command of English.  Not an ordinary item.  There was a flair to him.  He oozed a keen sense of confidence, a definite worldliness.  He mentioned that his inclination for seeing the world prompted him to leave home at an early age but that lies farther ahead in my story.  We soon learned he’d explored the world and returned to his hometown to build a home, establish a business, marry, and have a family.  His name was Signore Rocco, Rocco Miele to be exact. 
I couldn’t help but notice his dress.  It was just a little off from normal Italian garb.  A white outer shirt ended below his waist.  It was layered by the formality of a shorter black vest.  At first, I took it for middle eastern but it turned out to be not quite that far to the east.  Besides he wasn’t flipping any beads.  The flag out front should have been the tip-off.  His years in Greece had significantly influenced him, down to his clothing.
We had brief snippets of conversation beginning that first night we met.  When he found time to visit our table, I picked-up morsels and excerpts of the bohemian life he’d led as he traveled the world.  Even in our brief time together, I learned that his was a coming-of-age tale, a journey in search life’s meaning.  I had glimpses of a life that had been one of rebellion, relationships, travel, tears, loves, and causes.  He was a fascinating soul and I honestly did not know what to make of him.  His appeal may have stemmed from just how opposite we were, our experiences so different.  His life had been so much the reverse of my regimented military and engineering careers where I’d found my niche in society and worked within the system.  I still don’t know what to make of him, even after returning weeks later for more of that special atmosphere.  Yes, for the food of course, but more so to learn his story.
At times he played a harmonica, conveniently cubbied in a vest pocket.  In Pied Piper 
fashion, he would stroll among the tables in way of unofficial entertainment, the reedy, shaky sound of his instrument wafting along with him.  He was much like a Jack Benny or Henny Youngman (I’m dating myself here but I swear I was just a kid) with their violin shtick, where many tunes were begun but none ever concluded.  It didn’t matter, he was entertaining enough even without the harmonica for his charisma ricocheted around the room.  He was a combination Zorba the Greek and Toto comedic character and who knows what else, but you get the idea, he created a lively atmosphere in his own master of ceremony style.  
When it came time to order, we asked for a menu.  “I AM THE MENU” he announced, but it had been a very long journey to those words, both for him and would be for us.  I smiled at the irony of the statement for to me it cast a liturgical image of the Last Supper with Christ offering up his body and blood.  He certainly was a menu, yet I wasn’t sure what it might symbolize.  He did not seem religious in an organized sense but certainly appeared spiritual.  I got this sense because in many places along the walls, in addition to a large photo of his mother kissing his father, there were photos of native American Indians, along with poetry that Rocco had written expressing a oneness with nature.
My interest had piqued.  With nothing written down, it was unscripted, both the food, the man, the entire evening.  As for the fare, it seemed to exist with the half-life of a day.  He had to be the menu but what else?  The full significance of his words were elusive.  We’d order-up whatever he suggested to eat and whatever he’d share about his life.

Dinner began with a hot thin flatbread the size of a pizza with a bubbly top crust accompanied with a sprawling antipasto.  The rather large appetizer tray included prosciutto crudo (raw dry-cured ham), spicy salami, cheeses, mozzarella slices, leaves of lettuce, and surprisingly slabs of roast pork (porchetta).  The plated roast pork brought back thoughts of the cinghiale we’d passed earlier.  The antipasto, along with the water, wine in the label-less bottle, and a basket of bread would have been sufficient but “I AM THE MENU” hadn’t hinted at how much food this beginning would include and unwittingly we’d ordered even more.  Apparently our new find was famous for its pork.  The rather thick, mahogany slices of pork of the antipasto indicated as much.  Apparently, they had plenty of the stuff around, some still on foot.  While we were more than familiar with sausage pizza, we’d never seen, thought, or heard of a porchetta pizza.  This was Rocco’s specialty, we had to try it, and it came next. 
As with the flatbread, the pizza featured a crispy thin crust.  I like thin crusted pizzas for the simple reason that I imagine they keep my intake of carbs down (though I more than make up for
them elsewhere ... with wine for instance). When grapes transform into wine, only a few carbohydrates remain.  I guess I make up for the pizza carbs with the wine, glass by glass of low carbs, but at a calorie cost of about 80 a pop.  The idea of squeezing a balloon only to see it grow larger somewhere else easily comes to mind, when shrinking the balloon is the idea.  Oh well, the diet comes later when not in Italy and subject to the temptations of such amazing food, but let’s not let the pizza get cold.  Just drawn from a woodfired oven, it had our attention at that moment far more than the low carb wine in the label-less bottle.  As advertised, it was topped with hunks of pork in a lava bed of melted cheese.  Not a feigned scattering either, more like a serious attempt to cover the entire pie with pork.  Topping it off were leaves of crispy, cool lattuga lettuce, on the order of iceberg lettuce.  Like Rocco, here was something special, definitely a change of pace from conventional pizza.  It was well after midnight by the time we walked the thread of a lane from the pizzeria’s entrance to the road and our car.  Right then, I knew I had to return, not just for more information about his intriguing life, but for the porchetta pizza as well.
How do you describe a soul?  On our second visit, and even though there was another crowd in attendance, this one celebrating a 50th birthday, we got to
talk more.  The shock of it was that, little more than a child, he’d left family and home behind for self-emancipation at age 14, on what became a nascent journey of discovery.  In life’s pawn shop, he traded-in all he’d known and walked away seeking answers as well as insight.  Like anyone striking out for the first time, if not solely for the sake of freedom, he must have had visions of glory, romance, adventure, self-discovery, even riches in his head.  While to a degree he may have felt hampered by his village and family experience, he boldly sought to see more of the world.  A deep conflict, bordering on rebellion, must have been growing inside him and within his family.  It reached a critical level and exploded in 1968 when he finally departed, without any real plan.  While the counterculture lyrics of the time and expressed ethos of idols like Joplin, Hendrix, and Joan Baez crowded his head, the words of Dylan possibly on his lips … “All I can be is me, whoever that is.” … he’d try to find out.  His first stop was in nearby Salerno where he worked for three months before moving on to explore the length of Italy.  Still hungry for adventure, his liberated soul hitchhiked the world for over 30 years to places like Greece, Israel, France, Switzerland, Russia, Canada, South America, India, Syria, Pakistan, and Iran to name a few.  He showed us pictures of himself as a young man.  They reminded me of scenes straight out of the legendary Woodstock Music Festival, an event that changed rock-and-roll history, happening about the same time in far off Bethel, NY on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm.  He’d have fit in well there for in the photos he struck the hippie, anti-authority mold … sex, drugs, rock-and-roll, and everything else be damned. 
One thing he shared with me was that in the beginning he was wild and unbridled, a rebel at heart, with the temperament of an unridden stallion.  He and his father were at odds, conflicted, their views irreconcilable, and life quarrelsome.  He apparently saw recourse only in the freedom of the road.  He was looking for meaning in the broader world beyond the local hillsides, while his father sought a stay-at-home lad like the other boys in town.  Escape would serve as his catharsis, if not a salve, for it would show him the world and how he’d make his way in it.  And so, without a smidgen of trepidation, he left.  Travel and exploration would become his diet as he globetrotted the world. 
Years later, he returned to his roots upon learning that his parents were in failing health.  He would express his emotions in a series of poems, unfortunately much of it in local dialect and difficult to interpret.  Some if not all of them hang on the walls of his pizzeria.  In his verse, which he
explained to me, he described in metaphor how he must have hurt his mother, being her only child, by leaving.  Her tears pursued him as he, a self-made “immigrant”, sought answers.  One poem centered on the significance of the beloved land about him, how it must be protected.  Another concerned his village.  By far he takes pride in the poem he entitled “The Immigrant”.  In it he compares an immigrant to one of three baby lambs, who because the mother ewe has only two nipples for the two lambs she habitually delivers, has nowhere to feed and must move on.  If the lamb is to survive, it must go away.  He had become the lamb.  With his departure, he had to decide what to bring with him.  They were not items that fit easily in a small suitcase, however.  Where for instance would the fragrance of the jasmine and genestra flowers go or the games of leap-frog and hide-and-seek that had given him joy?  At the door his mother waited, wanting something to happen to prevent her son’s departure, but for a mother and an immigrant such things don’t happen, “the hour always comes”.  He described how when they did part, how their wet faces slipped across each other as she whispered that they would see each other once again in paradise.  In moving words, for the long departed “immigrant” son, Christmas’ came and went alone, while news of the death of a family member went unheard.  He concluded with the thought that “only God knows how much it costs an immigrant to stay away”, year after year.
Was he the land, the lamb, the village or the wolf?  Maybe he was all these and a poet as well.  Though an itinerant traveler all those years, he continued to honor his roots by providing for his estranged family with a portion of what he earned.  When he finally returned his fellow villagers did not welcome him with open arms.  There was suspicion and jealousy when there should have been welcome, for the prodigal son had returned.  Who was he for instance to ask for young Giovanna’s hand in marriage?  No doubt, feelings ran high when her parent’s objection to their union saw them elope.  Indeed, he was different from the average   
villager.  That much was clear.  To make a living, he started out as a street vendor who sold (what else?) roasted pork, even entire roasted pigs.  I now understand his affinity for pork!  Later, he opened a pizzeria for take-out only (what Italians refer to as “take-away”).  Continued success led to further expansion of his business to the full-service operation we enjoyed on our evening of discovery.  Today, he and Giovanna can also claim success for the two model sons they’ve raise; a teenager, John Maria, and an eight-year-old, John Luc.  Son, lamb, and immigrant, he’d become father as well.
Throughout, he had his causes and followers as well.  After his return, he resisted the construction of a trash processing plant near his hometown.  The perceived threat of pollution of his pristine countryside, in view of the rampant corruption related to the industry, was his motivation.  He was more than an errant voice.  For three months, he occupied the site of the
proposed trash plant in protest.  He was alone, sleeping out in the open on his beloved terra until others took up the cause as well.  The developers eventually went looking elsewhere.  He was equally passionate in his campaign against the installation of wind turbines that he ardently professes have not lowered the cost of electricity one cent.  Eventually his actions here  made a difference, becoming the subject of the documentary DVD, “La Terra dei Lupi”, and stopped the initiative.
In that unique series of life events that came together to compose Rocco’s life, … with each place Rocco visited, each person he came to know, each experience he’d had throughout his travels … each had been a separate string, like the strings of an instrument.  And as in mathematical theory, where small causes can have large effects, the “vibrations” of one string effect the others ever so slightly, but nonetheless have their cumulative effect, setting a tone (something like music), if not determining his course in life.  Some may call it the three Fates presiding over our lives, but I prefer to imagine it as one’s life controlled by the hand plucking the strings, Rocco’s hand.  Worn down by life, the years having shadowed his youth, Rocco has mellowed some and is understandably tired today.  Though still a force younger than his age, still on a search, trying to figure out life, he will admittedly tell you so.  How will Rocco’s search end?  Is he content with the answers he’s found?  Has he reached his transcendent nirvana or some epiphany?  Were that it was so.
I am glad that our paths crossed, that an overheard conversation led to our meeting, to these impressions, however flawed, and to what may follow as we get to know each other in years to come.  Our path, as his, is yet to be fully defined and thus far has led us to Rocco’s door and not to be forgotten, his fabulous pizza.  It’s funny how one thing cascades to another, how our lives evolve from seeming chaos and travails to one of order, as we each find our way in life.  Some settle for a life-by-rote on a well-trodden trail, while others like Rocco, pursue a less-traveled nomadic existence to soothe their souls.  As a famous poet once wrote, “… and that has made all the difference”.  Oh, and as for the name of the place, you will have to ask me - for it is an unknowable place - a secret location where even the menu is not entrusted to paper but only to the one I call, “I AM THE MENU”.

From That Rogue Tourist

Paolo


Friday, June 30, 2017

Ode to Asti



Ode to Asti
It’s funny how things change, and then again how they don’t.  After a six month hiatus, we were once again home in Calitri.  You wouldn’t expect things to remain as they had been while we were gone, in some sort of suspension, and they hadn’t.  There were those little changes and others, much bigger, like a death or two.  Though the world may not have noticed, Benito was gone from his newspaper shop, a victim of that indiscriminate reaper, Alzheimer’s.  And then, quiet Rosalie was missing from her corner in Mario’s Caffé, having surrendered to a stopped heart.  A favorite watering hole of ours, Roxy Bar, had also vanished.  The rent had been raised and Massimo and his family had pulled up stakes and gone off to Sicily seeking other opportunities, most certainly at lower cost.  I will miss him behind the counter serving up those crimson Aperols.  He was Roxy Bar.  Like them, we’d find a way to cope, for another establishment would be sure to open somewhere and the Aperol would once again flow there instead, though unfortunately without Max.
      A coherent continuum, however, remained.  Father “Don” Pasquale still said mass to the haunting chant of the parishioners, where on Pentecost Sunday “tongues of fire” took the form of blessed red rose petals, which he threw into the air as he transited the nave among the soon to be petal anointed parishioners to the chagrin, I’m certain, of
whomever would soon be sweeping the floor.   There had also been some progress.  A street, once lost to the 1980 earthquake, had reopened leading from Piazza delle Republicca, in zig-zag fashion, down to the market street and the Immacolata Concezione Church.  While it made for a convenient route, some finishing touches were missing, seemingly so typical of southern Italy, where a “something is better than nothing” attitude prevails.  While new to the pedestrian, it already had an abandoned look about it, for weeds carpeted the pavement as the tongues of fire had covered the church floor.  For some strange reason, and quite contrary to the situation in the church, if the walkway was occasionally plucked of its weedy mess and made presentable, it was apparently on a cycle that allowed every form of weed to grow to maturity and seed well beforehand. 
The disappointment of the weeds aside, we’d been pleasantly surprised when we’d stopped off in Asti while making our way from our French river cruise to Calitri.  Both Asti and the train ride required to get there were new to us.  With our own car, Bianca, in Calitri and little reason to rent any longer, mass transit by bus and train was trending for us.  Even if we wanted to rent a car, to do so in France would have required us to return it to France, which was out of the question.  Besides this basic sort of
inconvenience, the whole process is tougher on us.  Beyond having to accommodate the schedules, especially when transferring from one mode of transport to another, there are the physical aspects.  Though we try our best to keep our luggage count down, since we are our own porters, a few months in Italy still attracts a lot to bring along and thus lug around.  What gets us are the impediments in the form of stairs we must traverse, up and down, between binari (train tracks), since we find the elevators, if they exist, are invariably out of order at the moment, though sure to work again someday.  The Greeks, maybe the Romans, must have had a god who oversaw these matters, kind enough from yon Olympus to have inspired the soul who invented suitcase wheels!  I pray to this divinity every time I find myself bouncing our suitcases down those staircases, each loud boom a supplication that they not break right then and there.

We enjoyed the views along the flat coastal route as we sped along first to Genoa, then with a change of trains, north for an additional hour’s ride to Asti.  In the process we learned that there were multiple train companies involved, both state run and private, which added to the thrill of train travel.  Although Europe is integrated under an EU flag, the rail systems apparently aren’t, at least when it comes to tickets.  It seemed just one ticket won’t do.  Starting in Antibes, France, our first train ride took us to nearby Nice.  There we were told we would find a Thello office in order to purchase tickets in the Italian system.  We had 45 minutes to track down our tickets before the train left for Genoa so all seemed manageable until, surprise, the Thello office never opened.  We patiently waited counting down to ten minutes before departure before making the dreaded dash through the underground, down and up the stairwells, and got aboard ticketless.  We were counting on the fact that there were a few of us without tickets, something like a flash mob, too difficult to stop.  I was relieved when I saw that the conductor didn’t seem to mind at all and proceeded to sell us tickets.  Just maybe the Nice Thello office had a reputation and this was a common occurrence.  I suspected as much.
Asti was a magnificent surprise.  We knew of its sparkling Asti Spumante wine made from Moscato grapes but little more.  It is located in the Piedmont region of Italy about 30 miles from Turin.  The city dates from 123 BC when it was founded by the Romans and known as Hasta.  It was mentioned by the Roman scholar, Gaius Plinius Cecilius Secundus, “Pliny” for short, as one of the most important Roman towns in the ancient Liguria region.  By the 11th century it had become the most important free city in the region.  In the 12th century it had grown to one of the richest and most powerful cities in all of Italy.  Nine centuries later, it was waiting for us.
It had been arranged that we stay at the Rainero, a three
star hotel on Via Cavour (seems every town has a Via Cavour) not far from the train station.  Normally, a hotel close to a train station is not a good idea for it is usually noisy, heavily trafficked, and in tougher neighborhoods especially for the uninitiated like ourselves.  However, being across a piazza, around a corner, and down the street some, we never knew we were close to the station.  In a big city like Rome or Naples, I’d think twice about it though.  It sure made for a short walk with our bags, which was a relief in the noonday heat of the day.  We were honestly bagged-out by then.  We arrived on Saturday and would leave on Monday morning, so there was much to see with little time to spare.
Our friend and hostess during our stay, Concetta, had strangely not arrived to meet us.  We knew there had to be a good reason.  It was later that we learned that her husband had suddenly taken ill.  At the time of our arrival in fact they were at the hospital.  She still found time to call the hotel and insisted we meet for dinner.  That being much later, we took the opportunity for an early peek at the city ourselves.  There didn’t seem to be any pattern to the layout to the city, undoubtedly a reminder of its past medieval heritage.  Appealing to the bicycle enthusiast, it was also wonderfully
flat.  The beautiful Corso Alfieri, their version of Rodeo Drive, lined with stores from O-bag and Lacoste to outdoor cafes, was already busy with early evening strollers.  Their many piazzas like Piazza San Secondo and Piazza Medici were laid out with tables, some in fine linens, others beneath canopies of hanging vines, each awaiting the evening dinner rush.  We found it to be a wonderful city shrouded in a pleasant medieval atmosphere, with ancient towers much like Tuscany’s San Gimignano, noble residences, and fortified houses.  We also used our brief foray to renew our Vodafone 
plan for the duration of our stay in Italy.  Our earlier phone plans concluded, neither of our Italian cellphones operated.  Somewhat annoying, it was something we found we couldn’t do during our time in France.  Here again, like the train system, borders seemed to work against complete integration.
Asti also hosted its own Palio each year on a Sunday in September.  While there are many in Italy, such as that most famous Siena Palio (begun in the 1600s), Asti claims the oldest recorded bareback horse race in all of Italy, beginning in 1275 1.  The pageantry begins when one thousand two hundred participants in medieval costumes, along with flag-wavers representing twenty-one competing neighborhood parishes, set off with much pomp to the drumbeat of marshal style music.  They gradually make their way through the city.  Unlike Siena, you get we see more than a single race.  With so many competing parishes, three heats of seven horses each are conducted.  The top three horses of each heat, “Win”, “Place” and “Show” it seems, a total of nine horses, then race again in a final deciding race around Piazza Campo del Palio.  But the fun starts much earlier.  Days beforehand, the local neighborhoods host meals held in honor of each district’s horse and jockey.  When someday we attend, it will be difficult to decide which to join, let alone who to bet on.  You certainly get your money’s worth and could possibly parley it to a sizable cash prize if you had your tips, odds, bookies, and bets just right. 
A few hours later Concetta arrived and we headed off in a different direction.  She wanted to show us a festival that was underway on the Campo del Palio grounds.  Every year a foodie affair
was hosted there where vendors offered dishes from around the world and this was the weekend.  It was mobbed with hungry patrons.  For me it was like a pilgrim reaching that shrine he’d traveled so far to see, the food choices, like prayers, difficult to decide upon.  It appeared like something from The Food Channel, and my eyes, bigger than my stomach, wanted to watch.  I could have stayed there all night and still not have sampled everything that caught my eye.  I couldn’t have anyway, for the saucy French cuisine on our cruise had already overly added to my girth.  Keeping to the religious semblance, it would have been a sin, but sinner that I am I had a difficult time passing the Polish stand crowded with people jockeying there on the Palio field for the next giant mustard coated sausage saddled deep in a bun.
While I could have stayed there in contrite, prayerful, foodie mode, traveling from country stand to country stand, I’m reminded that Maria Elena is not fond of infield racetrack food.  In any
case Concetta had another place in mind, the L'intingolo Astesano (the name translates to something like “The Tasty Dish Artist”).  It was attractively modern and accommodating especially since we did not have a reservation and was just about full.  It was a boutique size place, maybe twenty table all told on two levels.  Luckily they found room for us and soon, over glasses of Melvira wine, we were scanning the menu.  The choices were a blend of innovation and tradition.  The former was especially evident in the presentation, apparent when our starters, primo, and secondo dishes arrived.  Mare enjoyed little rolls of salmon sitting on edge intermingled with sprigs of basil and slices of mozzarella. Later, she did her beef thing - grilled, sliced, tagliata steak with a salad.  I went with a serving of meaty Bolognese on pasta fresca followed by grilled lamb almost too pretty to disturb.  Concetta, definitely not a big eater and far more conservative, was satisfied with a single dish of seafood, sliced octopus tentacles as I recall on a bed of tight wavy pasta that had a look similar to (but I'm sure they weren’t) ramen noodles.  In a way the entire affair was a “starter” for us since this was, after many years, our re-introduction to Piedmont regional food.  The L'intingolo Astesano had been a fine choice, DELIZIOSO in fact!
At midmorning the next day, Concetta, along with Vincenzo, her recovered husband, Alessandra Gallo, a city guide, and Concetta’s business associate, Francesco, arrived to show  

us around Asti.   Our two probes had been just that, probes.  Now we listen as Alessandra pointed out the finer details of Asti’s history and architecture.  We passed close by the Campo again, its stalls closed that Sunday morning, and entered Piazza Vittorio Alfieri where a large second-hand fair, featuring some antique bric-à-brac, was underway.  We have nothing like this in Calitri where it seems nothing other than recyclable items are ever discarded.  There are no thrift shops or second hand stores to comb through, looking for that special piece of furniture - that elusive Savonarola chair in my case for the corner of our bedroom.  Loath to part with anything, items however unwanted they might be to their owner are simply stored away, apparently for the next generation to use, if ever.  Alessandra knew her stuff, pointing out details as we strolled along quiet streets past fortresses, monuments, shops, even a closed synagogue that helped define Asti in time and historic relevance for us.  Chiesa Collegiate di San Secondo, overlooked by city hall, and the gothic Cattedrale di Asti Santa Maria Assunta, simply known as La Cattedrale, were especially noteworthy. 
The Collegiate church, so old that it combines Romanesque and Gothic architecture, is dedicated to San Secondo, patron of the city, who is interned
there in a IX century crypt.  According to tradition, the church rises above the site of his martyrdom and burial.  Its simple bricked exterior is deceiving, for inside, its humble uncluttered interior invited prayer.  A doorway just inside connects to the adjacent city hall.  I did not notice anyone protesting the evident close link between church and state, however.   Better to say a prayer before paying your taxes or one afterward to beg forgiveness for the curses voiced or just thought while doing so!  In a side chapel, possibly the oldest flags in Asti, dating to the1600s are on display.  They are from earlier Palios, the first of which began in mockery of the

inhabitants of neighboring Alba then under siege by Asti as they devastated the surrounding Alba vineyards, apparently far shy of today’s harmony.  Could this explain why today we refer to Asti Spumante and not Alba Spumante? 
As our group moved along the ancient old town streets we rounded a corner and there before us rose La Cattedrale in a piazza of the same name.  As evident from its formal title, it is  
dedicated to the Assumption of Mary and remains a centerpiece of Asti to this day.  Its ornate grandeur began outside where decorative, brick-accented windows soared in harmony with a monumental side entryway inset with saintly statues.  This towering shell encapsulated a cavernous three nave interior.  It was especially memorable for every surface and vault was decorated, adorned, embellished, or otherwise heavily frescoed.  With so much to look at, it just may have been overdone and distracting to the solemnity of prayer.  Mass was underway inside where we remained respectfully quiet.  I was particularly taken by a series of terracotta statues (1500-1502) donated by
the once powerful Malabaila family arrayed in a sort of diorama inside a barred side chapel.  This representation of life-sized statues is known as the “Fallen Christ”.  It depicts Christ lying on the ground moments after being removed from the cross.  He is surrounded by seven mournful figures, one apparently his mother, their expressive grief and pain evident on their faces.  La Cattedrale is the alfa and omega of Asti.  It is part of its historic fabric, where good and bad times have unfolded mirrored in the baptisms, marriages, and funerals that have taken place there through the centuries.  It is history and at the same time it is surrounded by history.  While outside its doors the Palio procession begins, seeking the glory of man, inside everyone from jockey to parishioner can seek, if not appreciate, the glory of God.
Our tour completed, we sought refreshments and then made our goodbyes to Alessandra and 
Francesco.  We were surprised when Concetta and Vincenzo then took us to the outskirts of town
for a wonderful lunch at Osteria dell’Eremita.  It is named for a hermit (eremita) who had apparently frequented the place.  His picture adorns the wall behind one of the tables set just as it is shown in a photo of him, shepherd’s crook and all.  This was a hidden place in a pile of buildings along the side of a sun-baked piazza.  Call it a mom and pop place, I liked it immediately.  The friendly hospitality of the actual “mom and pop” only added to a homey atmosphere, which unlike the L'intingolo Astesano from night before was innately rustic, tastefully cluttered especially with regional wines, and absent any attempt at being something other than thoroughly Italian.  All that may have been missing was a soothing Caruso or Lina Sastri melody in the background. 

Here was a place one would find on an  old-time, black and white postcard.  It would be a meal to remember and began with a menu void of English.  Instead, Concetta and Vincenzo translated what “mom and pop” verbally offered us that day.  This was after all a true osteria where the fare changed daily. 
What they proposed, course after course, was an assault on the senses.  It began, like any classic Italian meal, with an antipasto but this one just wouldn’t end.  In fact, trying everything threatened my ability to eat what I knew was to follow.  Being a hungry good sport, especially after a long morning walk, I somehow drew on an inner strength to continue!  We were confounded with the arrival of an especially unexpected item.  We were presented with a small
cake, about the size of a tuna fish can, composed of raw meat, with the shiny red consistency of minced hamburger.  At first I hesitated to try it, for it definitely looked foreign to my digestive tract.  I guess you might call it Tartare di Carne.  Honestly, was I that hungry?  We had never seen this in Italy before but then the cuisine of northern Italy was a lot different from the south.  This close to France, it was apparently a French influence.  Then again, I’d not had escargot until our French River Cruise, so why not? I’d categorize it along with the other exotic foods we’d tried like rattle snake, horse meat, bear, turtle soup, moose, and lime marinated conch.  Raw meat, possibly held together with a raw egg, might have meant taking a chance.  At the moment all I could seem to recall were those warnings about cooking temperatures and the attendant dangers of raw anything.  But then Americans are inundated with big brother warnings and cautionary labels, not the least of which is “the hot coffee is hot”.  Caution to the wind, bacteria, parasites and whatever else be damned, we plowed in.  After all, “when in Rome …” or better yet “when in Asti do as the Astinians do”.  Hadn’t I heard that somewhere?  
I think just about every Italian eats pasta at least once in a day.  Not large portions like an American restaurant might plate, but a serving, nevertheless.  My friends in Calitri certainly expect to
and do.  It is in many respects a type of comfort food.  Not one to be denied either, the pasta soon began to flow.  While I’ve no recollection of their precise names, mine was a bowl of square noodles complete with serrated edges that had the appearance of postage stamps.  Much like ravioli style squares they, however, were not filled.  The missing filling, or in this case a red meat ragu, instead coated the outside as would be the case with spaghetti.
If I have it right the sauce included tiny bits of rabbit.  As far as it went, it was excellent down to the last hippity-hop morsel.  Across the table from me, Vincenzo was making short work of his pasta too.  His was a similar dish.  Telling from its green color, it may have featured a pesto type sauce beneath a blizzard coating of cheese.


Then there was that dolce episode involving panna cotta (cooked cream) and coated with a 
caramel sauce, all homemade.  I’m not as discerning as Maria Elena when it comes to desserts or tastes in general.  Her buds can distinguish gradations of finery far better than mine.  So when she raises that little finger of hers, while holding her spoon, I listen.  Her description of it as not overly sweet, considering the caramel, was spot on. 
After this blur of decadent delights, which also included a secondo dish for each of us if only I could remember them, came a grappa digestivo.  This I recall!  I know there are some, possibly many out there, who dislike grappa.  However, after nineteen plus years of sipping the stuff, I’ve grown fond of it.  At first it was on the level of what a castaway might be forced to drink if it were the only thing to drink on a deserted island.  In that circumstance, I might have compelled myself to indulge, but now I’d willingly look around the island to find it.  There are those who may call it Italian firewater, and maybe some grappas are, but this was a smooth distillation.  They presented us not with cordial glasses of grappa, but with the entire bottle, and it was special … per the label, “Vendemmia 2004 Grappa di Moscato Riserva from the Antica Distilleria di Altavilla Monferrato”.  I’m glad Vincenzo was driving!
Judging from the honor shown the hermit, there was no arrogance of rank or confidence of privilege here, just mom and pop.  In the annals of good times, it will be long remembered, which was something I tried to express in the dining room’s guest comment ledger as we departed.  I’d scribbled how it was “to die for”, an idiom that confused Concetta.  She was probably shocked, having interpreted it to mean the food there might kill you!  Easy to make that mistake.  Quite the opposite, however, it meant something so desirable it was worth the risk of dying to obtain.  There in the Eremita, and Asti as a whole, life went on regardless of the brouhaha over Korean missile tests, Brexit, terrorism, the level of the Dow, or any of those external matters that so pre-occupy the outside world and keep it in perpetual uncertainty.  In its stead, in the confines of those walls was a relaxed Italy with its greed for the good life – family and friends, the essentials of what to eat and where to eat, and little else.  Bravo Vincenzo, Brava Concetta.

From that Rogue Tourist
Paolo