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 Caff√©, 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-√†-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