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