Saturday, September 30, 2017

Sardinia - Part I Arrival


Sardinia - Part I

      A long few days of travel had ended while another phase was just beginning.  Without fanfare, its completion had been heralded by modest puffs of smoke as still wheels rapidly spun-up on contact with the runway’s tarmac.  What lay ahead in this reportedly primordial world would all be new to us for we’d arrived in a totally unfamiliar part of Italy, the raw pristine island of Sardegna (Sardinia).  To its west lay the Sea of Sardinia, while washing its eastern shore, all the way to the coast of the Italian boot, rolled the Tyrrhenian Sea, both constituents of the greater Mediterranean Sea.  If you drew a line from Lake Como, close to the origin of my bloodline, due south, it would pass first through Corsica and then Sardinia, a rock of a place bordered by world-class sandy beaches.  I wondered what else we’d find at the end of this line upon our arrival. 
A quick scan on Internet uncovered some interesting information 1.  First off, after Sicily and before Cyprus, it is the second largest island in the Mediterranean.  Like so much of Italy, it has seen its share of occupiers.  Phoenician merchants followed the arrival, centuries earlier, of “sea peoples” who first populated the island from present day France to the north as well as the Italian peninsula.  At various points in time, it has been home to colonization, invasion, foreign occupation, plagues and revolutions, seemingly a steady diet for early Italy.  Among the earliest occupiers were the Carthaginians and then the Romans who dominated the island for 694 years. 
In contrast to mainland Italy, it is surprisingly earthquake-proof with terrain characterized by granite mountain ranges and plateaus separated by wide valleys and flatlands edged by generally high, rocky outcroppings, particularly in the north. 
This geography makes it ideal for raising sheep to the point that today it hosts nearly four million sheep, giving the island one of the highest density of sheep in the world.  The “baa, baas” easily outnumber the number of “ciaos”.  I’m so glad Maria Elena and I like lamb, even mutton.  And there are additional bonuses.  With millions of sheep, in addition to all the flavorful meat, just imagine the amount of pecorino cheese!  Italian word pecora, from which the name derives, means sheep!  Along with the meat and cheese, we only need add the vino, of which there is reportedly no shortage.
As to their wine, there isn’t an objectionable plonk among them for they’ve had time to get it right.  By as early as the 16th century, Sardinia had already earned the moniker, insula vini, wine island.  A mild climate, plenty of good limestone and crumbled granite soil, and a dozen indigenous grape varieties had all conspired to make it one of the Middle Ages’ vinous landmarks.  Some of the island’s wine jewels include grape varieties like Cannonau, Carignano, Malvasia Nera, and Bovale Sardo.  Ruby red Cannonau, the most popular wine found on Sardinian tables, is their standout masterpiece, while white Vermentino, best drunk young, makes a great pick-me-up especially when served cold.  The wines, the bottles, the labels, but why stop there?  To top it off further (keep reading to catch the intended pun) this insula vini also produces about 80% of Italian cork.  Made from
Italian Cork Oak
cork oak trees, it is the primary renewable source of cork used for wine bottle stoppers.  You can believe that we’d confirm all this in due time. 
Additionally, while anchored in the past, Sardinia continues its advance into the 21st century.  The Sardinia based aerospace manufacturer Vitrociset is involved in the production of the U.S Air Force’s new F-35 “Lightning” stealth fighter.  Back on earth, construction is underway of a Sardinian factory for fabrication of the “AIRPod”, a vehicle fueled surprisingly by compressed air.  Forget about the “Tesla”!  Be the first in your neighborhood to have one, for as we understand, advanced sales are already underway.  We’d definitely arrived on a busy island that should prove interesting as the days ahead unfolded. 
Far removed, our journey kicked-off first with a drive to New Jersey.  There was a flux in the air.  While we’d decided on our day, the weather hadn’t.  It was unsettled.  Everything was wet from a late-night storm, a pewter sky shrouded the sun, and the road, itself undecided whether to dry or not, lay streaked with stripes of wet and dry.  The leaves were also beginning to change colors.  While on this trip, we would be missing their red and orange blush to peak color.  Hopefully, it would be a fair trade for the sights that lay ahead.  Once in New Jersey we’d overnight with friends, Jack and Dotty, who’d accompany us on our Sardinian trek.  Jack is a former Navy Captain and fellow aviator.  His wife, Dotty, should have the rank of Admiral for following him around throughout his career.  Together they have seen much of the world, but like us, never Sardinia.

On the cusp of hurricane Jose sliding up the east coast, it was decidedly fair the next day as our troupe arrived at JFK Airport.  We’d not been there since the days when the TWA potato-chip like terminal with its tube-shaped departure-arrival corridors
was still in use.  In the intervening years, we’d relied instead on Boston’s Logan Airport.  While the terminal has since been declared a historic landmark, we thankfully remain without such a designation.  With TWA long gone, our intrepid group would board a Meridiana Airlines flight direct to Naples.  There didn’t seem to be any hurry, however.  Boarding was delayed well past its scheduled time with the takeoff slipping over an hour.  Maybe this was routine at JFK but it only added to the nine-hour flight time.  Outside the providence of man, we’d have to hope for a tailwind, a strong one at that.  This general disregard for time buffered a gradual shift to an Italian mindset.  There was no hurry, the sparkling seashores dotted with crescent-shaped bays with beaches lapped by the bluest blue seas would wait for us.  They had waited centuries and would be waiting still, no matter the conga-line of
seven aircraft ahead of us on the ramp for takeoff.  We needed to slow down regardless of a tailwind.  Our acclimation to Italy began to seep-in shortly after takeoff when Italian wine was served.  Even the bagged chips were labeled “Made with 100% olive oil”!  Lifestyle adjustments were already underway as we headed off to the Olbia Costa Smeralda Aeroporto.  Interestingly, it had the distinction of being the home base to Meridiana Airlines founded by British business magnate, Aga Khan IV, one of the world's ten richest royals.  His millions aside, our magic number was ten, ten days of relaxation, exploration, and hopefully mutton, cheese, and some rebellious wine. 

We had two hiccups in the departure terminal.  One was on my part for not taking my laptop computer out of my backpack before it was scanned.  This faux pas highlighted my satchel for additional scrutiny, which took time.  Mare’s gaffe was more comical and hardly caused the delay mine had.  She was trying to scan her boarding pass at a security checkpoint without success.  Watching her repeatedly try, I realized that she was scanning the bar code of our luggage receipt, not the correct code on the opposite side of her ticket.  Though interested in seeing what she would eventually do, I was in too much of a hurry to get through the maze of security checks not to interfere.  Nevertheless, if either hadn’t happened, we’d not have gotten to Sardinia a second earlier. 
It was while waiting for our luggage, following our landing, that the bus from Olbia to Palau departed.  We were going from one island to another in what is referred to as the Arcipelago de La Maddalena, a series of seven major islands within a grouping of 62 all total, off the northern coast of
Sardinia.  In the ensuing two-hour interim, we had lunch in the terminal along with our first Aperol Spritz’ in celebration of our arrival.  There had been an elderly gentleman in the Naples Capodichino terminal that Jack had helped out when our departure gate changed.  He hadn’t realized there’d been a change, which resulted in a long walk to another gate.  While it seemed an alphabet away, it was only from the “C” to the “A” concourse.  Following our arrival in Sardinia, I recognized him when he arrived at the bus stop.  Luckily, like us, he was also going to
Palau to catch the ferry to the island of La Maddalena.  He lived in Maddalena now and had worked for the Italian consulate system and, small world, had once been assigned to the Boston Consulate, which recalled memories of endless days involved with our Italian passport application.  All we needed was to stick close to him and we’d get there.  His name was Franco.  Once arrived in Palau, Franco told us which ferry to take.  He already had his ticket, no doubt a resident pass of some sort.  We, however, needed to get ours.  We hustled to the ticket office, but although Franco delayed the crew for us enough to keep the loading ramp down, foolish me purchased tickets for a different ferry.  Emerging from the ticket office the realization dawned on me and with a negative shake of my head, the ramp pulled up, the ship departed, and that was the last time we saw our guardian angel, Franco.
But it seems that when one angel disappears, another soon arrives. 
- To be Continued -
From That Rogue Tourist (while on the road)


Thursday, August 31, 2017

A Walk Along Via Positanesi d’America

A Walk Along Via Positanesi d’America 

There are times when we have the urge to retrace our steps along familiar routes.  It can lead to returning to our favorite haunts from time to time.  Motives vary from once again enjoying a particular hotel, restaurant, venue, or can simply be to confirm that things have merely remained the same, as we want to remember them.  For us, there are many worthy of a return visit.  Take Paris for instance, not to the Louvre, but in our case to the not as renowned Musée d'Orsay.  It is there that a painting by Fernand Cormon entitled “Cain Flying Before Jehovah's Curse fills a wall-space the size of a highway billboard.  Its size goes
along with the scope of the bleak, pre-historic scene captured in the brushstrokes.  In epic detail, as if it were an actual photograph, it presents an old and haggard Cain, condemned to perpetual wandering, leading his stone-age tribe, the future Cainites, through the desert.  Possibly because the wheel hadn’t been invented yet or due to the sand, they lug a stretcher loaded with women and children.  I wouldn’t call it a schadenfreude moment but I’d certainly enjoy seeing this struggle for survival again.  
Another return visit would include reviewing Rome again from the top of the Vatican’s Saint Peter’s Basilica where around us stretched eternal Rome, a study in beauty and abundance, cradled within the palm of the distant Sabine Mountains and Alban hills.  However, to repeat the three hundred twenty-seven step climb along a spiraling staircase inside the tallest dome in the world to the gallery at the base of the Lantern 500 feet above the Eternal City is wishful thinking, certainly these days.  We did it once which will have to suffice, for I doubt our tired knees would consider ever cooperating again for a repeat performance.  Let that one occasion stand as we enjoy the reverse view looking up from Saint Peter’s Square at the Lantern instead.  
   Indeed, our wish for repeat visits are especially plentiful in Italy, where we have tramped around enough to know what we like best. One especially alluring place, beckoning as did the mythical Sirens, first to come and find and later to return and explore, lies along the coastal extension of Salerno to include the ever-popular, ever- crowded Amalfi Coast, the Costiera Amalfitana.  Convenient, we can get to this much-celebrated coastline from Calitri in just over an hour.  The peninsula is a pleasing freak of nature.  A series of huddled stunted spurs jut into the sea from ominous cliffs to be fondled in return by a probing sapphire sea, beckoning from the knurly chasms far below that we joint with it.  Fjord-like, these ins and outs of land and prying sea account for the spectacularly picturesque coastline and its twisting, turning thread of a road, cleaved from the ridgeline that travels its length in serpentine fashion.  It takes a steady hand and focused mind to run the gauntlet from Vietri sul Mare all the way to Sorrento where a soothing libation, possibly two, may be in order to shore-up the nerves. Along the way, the pronounced awe of nature is everywhere - round a bend to some gorgeous flash of scenery where selfie’s come easy if only there were room enough to stop and click.
We returned to the Costiera Amalfitana  
recently on an excursion from one of our favorite hotel haunts, Hotel Olimpico, in nearby Pontecagnano.  The hotel occupies hallowed ground, once the focus of world attention during “Operation Avalanche”, the 1943 WWII amphibious invasion of mainland Italy.  For the most part, I’ve given up on making the drive on my own, although I’m still all for the end of journey libations.  Not willing to tame the roads that day, we opted for the hotel operated shuttle bus, where throughout the day, its driver faces the demands and congestion of the road as he ferries guests to and from Salerno.  The choice of drop off (or pick-up) is either the train station or the
port.  It’s a great service and keeps me off those crazy congested roadways.  Along the way we got to see some of the back streets of Salerno without having to pull in your mirrors.  It was mid-morning and with the demands of driving traded for an opportunity to enjoy glimpses into big-city Italian life, the exuberance of Italians on the street was palpable.  Oh, we’d seen it before, many times, yet watching the action … storefronts coming alive, motorcycles flowing every which way, double-parked delivery trucks, pedestrians oozing onto the street to join the melee, and the discord and cacophony of it all … was at least entertaining, if not mesmerizing.  In the past, we’ve walked Salerno from the train station but that day our destination was the port and the ferry to Positano.
The port is sheltered behind a breakwater just off the seafront “Lungomare” tree-lined promenade, a wonderful place to stroll at night with a gelato topped cone.  Walking in along the breakwater causeway, we passed the local fleet, a mix of fishing boats and private craft just shy of the chichi yacht class (save that for Capri or Sorrento).  You quickly get the sense that it is a working port, busy with motor repairs, net-mending, fish mongering, and the application of the latest bright-color paint schemes.  It’s a walk to the far end where the ferry boats to the various ports tie-up and tickets to ports-of-call are sold.  Right on time, our ferry arrived and while most passengers clambered to the top deck for the most unrestricted view and most sun, we sought out seats on the fantail under a sheltering overhang
for the least sun – Dr Watson, our dermatologist, would have been proud!  
It was a beautiful day, just right for cruising the Amalfitana coast.  Our destination, Positano, was a little over halfway out along the underbelly of the peninsula.  There was plenty to see beside the white frothy wake shooting out like a contrail behind us.  From the sea, it was easier to appreciate the rugged spine of mountains that form this headland.  Passing along the ins and outs of the coastline, we caught glimpses of the heights of Ravello, the narrow cleft of Amalfi, ancient watch towers peppering the shore, terraced grape vineyards clinging to the ridges, and multi dollar sign hotels and fabulous homes perched atop seemingly unsurmountable precipices.  Though we’d made this run before, there were new sights that day, spectacular vistas afloat.  
Like an apparition from some Pirates of the Caribbean movie, there appeared alongside, what I later learned was the largest, most fully-rigged sailing ship in the world.  This 439 foot tall-ship, Star
Clipper Limited’s Royal Clipper, was at anchor with the sails of its five towering yellow masts tightly furled.  When underway, there is room for a total of 42 sails sporting 56,000 square feet of canvas, some of it as much as 200 feet above the deck.  Its sleek white hull had a blue strip running its length at the level of its deck and another at the waterline.  Interspersed between the two were blue squares that from a distance looked like cannon ports.  It was an amazing apparition that surpassed every other vessel we passed to include the massive Oceania cruise ship, Riviera.  This mega-liner was busy disgorging passengers ashore with its fleet of orange tenders skimming along, ship-to-shore, like water bugs.  Positano would be busy this time of year and
no doubt crowded with eager tourists, but we’d anticipated that.  
The flotilla left behind, the dense cluster of Positano, filling one of the ravines that breach the mountainside, loomed into view.  It spreads wide along a V-shaped gash in the coastline that runs up from gravelly-gray Spiaggia Grande beach.  Soon we could make out its wharf, and as we docked, caught sight of the ever popular Chez Black restaurant flanking the beach.  I imagined Signore Black, the owner, already
sitting there as he does every day surveilling his empire.  But saying “Ciao” to Signore Black or strolling downtown Positano was not in our immediate plans. We had a different plan.
Stepping onto the marina’s wharf, we headed toward the ticket booth directly ahead.  Beyond the booth, circling around to the left of the fashionable, five-star Covo dei Saraceni restaurant and hotel, was a ramp walkway leading west along the coast away from downtown Positano.  This short, paved pathway, that I’d estimate to be less than a quarter mile long, leads from the main beach of Positano, the famous Spiaggia Grande, to a lesser known beach, Spiaggia di Fornillo, tucked away from the crowds of Positano.  More than a simple path, however, this walkway affords some breathtaking views and interesting stops in addition to a respite from the hectic rhythm of Positano.  Corkscrewing our way through the wharf crowded with those coming and going, we made for it.
The name of this seaside trail is Via Positanesi d’America, a name that clearly associates Positano with America.  Positanesi” refers to the people of Positano, while the concluding “d’America” is easily decipherable as “of America”.  In fact, the appellation is a reference to the town's large number of 19th-century emigrants to the United States and is dedicated to all those who moved to the USA in search of a new life.  Following that 1943 invasion mentioned earlier, the retreating German army destroyed the bridges that made travel possible along this mountainous peninsula.  The people faced starvation, if not tough times.  It was the American GI, especially General Mark Clark, who stepped-up and helped these people, something they have not forgotten.  Following World War II, Positano virtually survived thanks to the money and packages the descendants of these expatriates sent home from the States.  America had and retains a positive image among these people and Italians in general.   

   Beyond the name, this prettiest of seaside paths has the added distinction of being the most romantic lane in all of Positano.  Daylight or starry night, it makes little difference but for the distance you can see out across the sea.  But if romance is the intent, choose a moonlight night.  For the most part, a rustic timbered handrail following the contour of the trail is all that separates the path from a nothingness down to the sea, busy hurling itself onto the rocks far below.  Stone walls, some with convenient built-in stone benches, occasional replace the railing and allow travelers to sit a spell and take in the vistas from their cliff-side perch.  Impossible to fully remove yourself from the commercial aspect of Positano just a few turns away, we came upon a peddler.  He’d taken-up a convenient spot under a shading pine to offer his merchandize laid-out on a rock outcropping beneath ledges lined with racket-sized prickly pears.  The elderly gentleman was offering doilies hand-made by his wife, not as he explained, by machine.  Maria Elena, unable to resist, needed only to decide. 
I find this walkway far more picturesque than the Via dell’Amore seaside path which connects Liguria’s Cinque Terra town Riomaggiore with neighboring Manarola.  While both meander along the coast, here we found a panoramic beauty far more dramatic and composed.  In addition to cliffs and the sea, this terrace vista takes in the Li Galli Islands (once home to Russian ballet star Rudolf Nureyev), includes colorfully umbrella beaches, former watchtowers that once warned of Saracen pirates, a shrine hollowed into the hillside, a family run hotel, and what I consider one great restaurant.  Additionally, its perfectly paved surface twists and turns through a natural landscape of trees and vegetation that urge you to relax a moment at this or that turn or on an occasional bench and take-in its many camera-ready vistas.
    It is only a short walk along the path before we arrived at the first stone watchtower, Torre Trasìta (Trasìta Tower), the most distinctive of Positano's three coastline defense towers.  Here is an example where echoes and ripples, left behind by past events, collide with the contemporary.  For over 800 years, towers such as this one warned area inhabitants of an impending pirate assault. Pirates plundered coastal villages like Positano with incredibly ferocity, leaving behind a trail of blood, devastation, and imprisonment.  The tower, sitting as it does suspended over the sea, affords unobstructed views. 
 Today it has been transformed into a luxurious private residence occasionally available for summer rental.  From its base, one can only imagine the views of the sea and Positano that fill every window and the magic of the circular spaces that follow the perimeter of the tower.  From its fashionable tower-top terrace, for renter and owner alike, it continues its warning mission, but these days, only of the arrival of another cruise mega-liner and the impending assault on Positano’s narrow streets.
Just steps beyond the tower-turned-villa, we came next upon another not to be missed site that we first stumbled upon in 2003.  It is an open-air restaurant that combines the unique charm of a restaurant and a tree-house.  Back when we discovered Via Positanesi d’America, we also came upon jovial Massimo and his wife, Reneta, owners of Lo Guarracino Bar, Ristaurante e Pizzeria.  While not Michelin rated, it oozes atmosphere and wonderful food.  This treasure of a place is a perfect spot to sit both during the day and on those romantic evenings.  Try the mussel soup, stuffed squid, fish grilled on lemon leaves or simply enjoy the view and any of the pizzas once the pizzaiolo (costumed pizza chef) has arrived and enough embers have been scooted to one side of the wood-fired oven.   In addition to the extensive menu

offerings, you can pick your dining environment from a variety of available rooms (new since last we visited).  The ‘Great-room’ of Lo Guarracino, is a large capacity room in a white tablecloth traditional décor.  The ‘Garden-room characterized by olive trees and magnificent prickly pears, is fresh, rustic and cozy.  Finally, and best of all, is the romantic ‘Privé-room’.  It is dedicated to those who want quieter intimacy, but for the waves colliding on the rocks below, boats bobbing at anchor, or the occasional meteor that has traveled some thousand-thousand years to add its special ambiance. 

Unfortunately, Massimo had managed to sprain his ankle and wasn’t about the day we popped in.  Instead, we met is son whose smile was as broad as his family’s sense of hospitality, home-like atmosphere, and courteous attention to detail attained from nearly forty years of business.  

   As we continued farther along Via Positanesi d'America, we came upon a tiny sandy inlet in an emerald cove before the broad span of Spiaggia di Fornillo beach came into view.  We’d never before ventured this far along Via Positanesi.  Right about there, the path turned toward the sea, down a staircase that served to separate the tiny from the larger beach.  It was the kind of scene reserved for travel brochures, the kind with great pictures of alluring beaches you’d love to visit, if only they gave their names.  Sun drenched Fornillo Beach, in fact this entire area, is far more laid-back and less trendy than Spiaggia Grande beach at the doorstep of Positano.  It offers the advantages of being isolated from the hordes of tourists in Positano, has clearer cleaner water, less boat traffic, is less costly, and to make getting there easier, there is a water taxi service you can use to transport you to and from Positano’s Spiaggia Grande if you rent a beach spot from the Fratelli Grassi Lido Ristorante & 
 Bar when you arrive at Fornillo Beach.  Like any Italian beach, we found it lined with umbrellas painstakingly arranged as though a surveyor had laid them out.  Their green, orange, and blue tops sprout from the sand to distinguish one bathing establishment from another.  
It has its drawbacks of course, the greatest being its tumbled, sea-washed, rocky surface that would suggest the use of water shoes when moving around, in and out of the water.  This rather long scree of large pebbles will slow you down, but there is really no hurry in this calm sanctuary by the sea.  I imagine it more like Positano once was before it made a splash for itself on the world travel scene.  Not prepared to rent a space for a refreshing dip in the sea, we instead chose to refresh ourselves, especially after our walk, with a cooling drink.  For that drink, we chose the Da Ferdinando Beach Club set just behind their umbrella farm, a family-run business with a fun atmosphere tucked under a shading thatched bamboo roof.  From the palapa umbrella decorations you might think some Caribbean refreshments in order, but this definitely being Italy, we sipped on Aperol Spritzes as we took-in the view.  
For a lunchtime treat, a piatto del giorno (dish of the day) from one of the beach bars like Da Ferdinando or the Fratelli Grassi will do the trick or go large at Albergo Restaurant Pupetto.  We found this secluded hotel at the head of Spiaggia di Fornillo in the midst of a wonderful seaside setting overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea. 
This quiet slice of heaven sits in a huge green space that was once a lemon garden.  The garden borders the sloping mountainside and features an inviting panoramic terrace beneath a thick twining arbor where you can savor various seafood specialties as well as tasty pizzas toasted in a wood burning oven.
In the May 1953 issue of Harper’s Bazaar, John Steinbeck put it best when he wrote, “Positano bites deep”.  As we discovered, Positano has more to offer, bites deeper yet, than its glitzy maze of shopping streets.  For that “Made in Italy” moment, many moments in fact, spend a carefree afternoon relaxing to the soft sighs of the wind and the murmur of the waves, while from a lounge chair watch boats dwindle in size as they move off to distant ports.  It’s to be found along Via Positanesi d'America, that magical path carved from mountain cliffs edging the sea, considered the loveliest of seaside walkways on the entire Amalfitana coast.  Walking along this trail from touristy Spiaggia Grande to Fornillo Beach, afforded a pleasurable escape into nature and its historic past from the crush of Positano’s crowds.  It’s a place where feelings can’t be properly expressed in words and must be experienced.  It is a setting that assaults our senses - the aroma of seafood and the smell of briny sea-air, the refreshing feeling of shade as you pass from brilliant sun to shading umbrella pine, on hearing the caw of soaring gulls over the crash of the sea to the tattoo of your footsteps scuffing along the stone pavement, and above all, with every turn, the sight of those stunning coastal vistas.  They are all here for the taking when we slow down the parade we call life by simply taking a walk along Via Positanesi d'America.

From That Rogue Tourist

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