Monday, October 31, 2005

Entirely the Wrong Witch

La Befana, Babbo Natale, and the shifting focus of Christmas traditions in Italy

It is around 9pm on the last day of October, All Hallow's Eve. Back home, in America, it is Halloween, and everywhere kids are looking forward to the end of the school day when they can dress up and hit the streets to fill pillowcases with candy begged from the neighbors.

Here in Venice, it is simply October 31, the day before the Feast of All Saints. In Italy, the time to play dress-up isn't for another four months and the moveable feast of Carnevale, that Fat Tuesday of partying before Ash Wednesday ushers in the 40 austere days of Lent.

So why is it that the pizzeria I just left is packed with babbling kids, their faces smeared with makeup, pointy hats on their heads and gauzy or silky capes tied at their necks? Why did the marble fountainhead on Campo Santa Maria Formosa have a gaggle of costumed youths sitting upon it, laughing and eating candy?

What, in short, the Hell is Halloween doing in the very capital of Carnevale?

(Before you get confused: Yes, this story really is about Christmas; Halloween is just the setup.)

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Good Night, Sleep Tight...And That's All

I'm a confirmed one-star hotel man.

I get a quirky, self-satisfied thrill every time I snag a railroad narrow room with creaky wood floors, a wobbly chair and table rejected by a finer hotel back in 1963, a bare 20-watt bulb dangling on its wire from the ceiling, and a bathroom down the hall I have to share with the rest of the floor.

Good night

I downright revel in my thrift. I mentally lord it over people who can afford better hotels than this one-star in Ravenna. In fact, I picture the poor saps shelling out three or four times as much for a room with TV and minibar in the three-star joint around the corner, and I think: suckers!

Sure, they don’t have to put on pants and grab their keys every time they want to nip out to the bathroom, but I look at it this way: I could stay here for three or four nights at the price they're paying for one. (I say "could stay" because I can't; I've got to dash off to Modena tomorrow, Parma the day after that, then Milan... more than one night in a city is a luxury we working stiff travelers cannot afford.)

I stand here in my gloriously drab one-star hotel room, stripped to my undies, smugly washing my clothes in the sink (even rooms without baths in Europe usually have a sink).

As I round-robin my camera, Palm, laptop, and cellphone battery chargers though the single outlet available, I reflect on my wisdom for preferring one-star hotels—"wisdom" sounding so much better than the slightly more accurate term, "poverty." I am one who appreciates that a comfy bed is all one really needs from his lodgings; anything more is downright slothful. Or maybe avaricious. One of the Deadly Sins, at any rate.

Saturday, October 8, 2005

Bologna the Fat

A walk through the culinary side of Bologna—street markets, specialty food shops, pasta boutiques—plus cooking classes and a killer recipe for traditional tagliatelle al bolognese

Coils of tagliatelle, tagliolini, fettucine, and other freshly made pastaCoils of tagliatelle, tagliolini, fettucine, and other freshly made pasta Every Italian region is justifiably proud of its own cuisine—considers it in fact to be the best in the whole world. But ask any Italian to name just one region, one region in all of Italy, that's known above all for its culinary prowess and he'll admit: it's Emilia-Romagna.

In Modena they make the world's best balsamic vinegar; in Parma the best aged sheep's cheese (parmigiano) and cured ham (prosciutto di Parma). And the regional capital? Ah, you must mean Bologna the Fat.

Bologna is the birthplace of tortellini—little rings of pasta stuffed with savory meats and gooey cheeses. This is the land that invented the ragu sauce atop tagliatelle alla Bolognese. The local cured meat named mortadella remains so wildly popular the world over (particularly in school lunches) that most culture call it simply "bologna"—or, if you prefer, "baloney."

Saturday, October 1, 2005

Up the Blue Grotto without a paddle...or a boat

An ill-advised swim into the famed Blue Grotto of Capri

It's the seventh wave that'll get you.

Oceans and seas across the world all craft waves the same way. They come in a simple sequence: each wave is larger and more powerful than the last. This sequence builds in a set cycle: the number of waves in each cycle is seven.

And it's the seventh wave that'll get you.

Counting waves

I've been counting waves for a good ten minutes now, and my arms are aching from hanging off the precipice so long, peering into the darkness of the tunnel. Is it my imagination, or is the sea getting rougher? I know the sun is getting lower and lower, and I can't hang around forever—nor, for that matter, can I hang on all that much longer, physically.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Big Brother Berlusconi

Italy's new Internet laws take a turn for the Facist

Even at public internet terminals, you have to let it snap a photo of your passport before you can use it.
At public internet terminals in Italy, you have to hold up your passport and let it snap a photo of your vital info before you can log on.
You think Bush has got the U.S. press well tamed (Katrina outrage notwithstanding)? He's got nothing on Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's wily master of corporate greed-turned-Prime Minster.

Berlusconi: The one-man media empire (and thoroughly corrupt Prime Minister)

Back when he got his country's top job, Berlusconi refused calls to divest himself of some his businesses, claming to see no conflict of interest between his companies' holdings and the greater good of serving his country.

No conflict of interest? Before he was P.M., this media mogul was Italy's Ted Turner, Rupert Murdoch, and Disney Corp. all rolled into one.

Italy, you see, has seven main national television channels: the three state-run RAI networks—inventively named, in the great tradition of the BBC, RAI 1, RAI 2, and RAI 3—the three private channels owned by Mediaset—Italia 1, Rete 4, and Canale 5—and tiny little Telemontecarlo, which a few years ago, apparently feeling left out of the number club, re-branded itself as "La 7."

Two guesses as to who owns Mediaset. I'll give you a hint. It's the same man who now, as Prime Minster, has direct control over the three RAI stations as well.

Yep, Sivlio Berlusconi personally controls a whopping his 98% share of Italy's national television market.

Did I mention he also happens to own the nation's largest publishing house, and as a sideline publishes several of the country's most widely-circulated daily newspapers?

Well, apparently this near-lock on the flow of information in Italy wasn't enough for old Silvio. I can only imagine him sighing with envy over the kind of control exercised by Kim Jong-il in North Korea. Which is why, this fall, Silvio has set his sights on the last great bastion of information available in Italy: the Internet.

Friday, July 1, 2005

Enzo and his Hot Love Liqueur

The tragedy of the best trattoria owner in the Sicilian resort town of Taormina

U Bossu, a great trattoria at Via Bagnoli Croci 50 (Tel. 0942-23-311) in Taormina, Sicily, ItalyU Bossu, a great trattoria at Via Bagnoli Croci 50 (Tel. 0942-23-311) in Taormina, Sicily, Italy. In 1998, I had a fantastic dinner at U Bossu, and accordingly gave this seven-table restaurant on a forgotten Taormina side-street a star rating in the Frommer's guide I was researching at the time.

The proprietor, Enzo Alberelli, was gregarious, friendly, jocular, and overall a genuine impresario for his little trattoria—and the food was excellent, especially for a moderately cheap joint.

At the end of that meal, he poured me (and everyone else in the place) a shot of a fiery pepperoncino liqueur of his own invention—on the house, he insisted. I love spicy things, and I love sugar, and Enzo's homemade hooch was a perfect marriage of the two tastes. Also, it packed an alcoholic wallop.

So I left with nice, warm feelings about Enzo and his little trattoria tucked away from the crush of Taormina tourists. These sorts of overcrowded resort towns are plagued by a surfeit of perfectly passable but uninspired eatiers (along with, usually, one or two excellent but overreaching restaurants where the chefs garnish their dishes with Michelin stars, the tables are booked by celebrities and riche gourmands, and the appetizers along cost more than a full meal elsewhere in town).

That's why I'm doubly happy to find just a good, hard-working, local joint like U Bossu that I can look forward to returning to on future research trips.

Seven years later...

Fast forward to last night. For years, Frommer's had been hiring other people to update my coverage of Rome and the south in their Italy book while I rewrote and updated the Central and Northern Italy material. I hadn't been back to Taormina since.