Monday, June 29, 2009


Meet the Bellinos. They're cooking up a batch of Sunday Sauce, aka Gravy in certain Italian-American enclaves. This is real "down home cooking," and nobody is putting on airs. This scene cracks me up. This sort of homemade ethnic food is discovered by foodies and tarted up in expensive restaurants, but there is no comparison with the real family recipe perfected over generations. Foodies will tell you all about osso bucco, say, or risotto, or polenta, as if it's something new--and in all fairness, maybe it's new to them. Bite your tongue. Smile, don't wince, when they mangle words like "gnocchi," "biscotti," "ricotta," and even "marinara." (Not to mention "bruschetta," which is pronounced "brew-Sketta" by the way, not "brew-SHETTA.") Oh, and by all means avoid correcting their mispronunciations; they'll only think you're a snob or a know-it-all--even if you first heard these words pronounced in Italian. That is, correctly. "But everyone says biz-SCOTTY," they'll say, feeling bruised. Or my favorite, "I've heard it pronounced both ways."

I know, I know. Enough talk. Now let's sit down and eat.

Sunday, June 28, 2009


Just over the Tuscan border lies Umbria, a region of hilly countryside settled by the Etruscans long before Romulus and Remus suckled at the teats of the she-wolf. The region is bordered by Tuscany to the west and la Marche to the east, and locals hunt the hills for wild boars and delicious mushrooms. They also grow grapes, which are made into world famous wines.

Asissi is an Umbrian town famous for St. Francis, a monk who challenged the materialism of the all powerful church and founded an order of monks known for their vow of poverty. The 12th century mystic is perhaps the most beloved of the Catholic saints and visitors come from around the world to pay their respects.

We stayed in at an Umbrian agriturismo. "Agriturismo" is an Italian term for "agricultural tourism," or what we might call a farm holiday, where rooms are provided for travelers as a way to help family farms survive. We stayed in a cabin on the farm overlooking the vineyards. It wasn't as rustic as you might think--we didn't exactly work on the farm. In fact, there was a swimming pool and a bocce court. Playing bocce in this setting made up for losing. Wendy's all-women team defeated every men's team that dared challenge it.

This is wine country. The grapes growing outside our door were used to produce six different wines, three whites and three reds, and we tried them all. We ate hearty Umbrian food and had a wine tasting one evening. We were near the border of Tuscany, and a local noted that the hill we facing a hill we faced was Montepulciano. Montepulciano, home of the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, one of Italy's best wines (for a cheaper, but excellent wine, try the Rosso di Montepulciano). Another nearby hilltown is Montalcino, famous for it's remarkable Brunello. Wine snobs could go ape here, but the Italians seem to appreciate wine as part of the meal, which is part of la dolce vita. To them, it's excellent, but it's the local wine. Of course it's good!

Orvieto is a beautiful Etruscan town that rests like a crown on a mountain of volcanic Tufa rock. The high position helped it defend itself against marauders. Orvieto is famous for its beautiful church, covered with frightening apocalyptic visions, and its gorgeous fortress-like town. We walked through the town and soaked up the local beauty, touring the church and thanking God we weren't suffering the eternal torment of the damned.

We had lunch at a remarkable little spot, Trattoria dell'Orso, where we ate homemade tagliatelle served with wild mushrooms--and with cherry tomatoes, basil, and scamorza. The secondo was roasted chicken stuffed with truffles. Ciro Cristiano, the kindly co-owner (with Chef Gabriele di Giandomenico), recited delicious details of the food they were preparing (as opposed to breaking out a menu) and was an extremely gracious host.

We chatted about our travels. He asked if I was Italian, and I told him about my ancestry (Southern Italian, and Sicilian) and he told us about his trips to those areas further south (he is originally from Napoli) and insisted I visit them. After each course, he asked if we were full or if we'd like to hear what else was cooking. Afterward, we exchanged business cards, and he laughed at my cartoon self-portrait. The food, by the way, was extraordinary, and I had no better in Italy. It's not surprising this little out of the way trattoria was written up in the New York Times.

Tuscany and Umbria are absolutely beautiful, but Umbria is more remote and untouched. Umbria is probably what Tuscany looked like before it was "discovered" by Frances Mayes and "Under the Tuscan Sun" brought people in droves. Now the world has caught on, so it's not surprising to find "Tuscan-style" pizza advertised at Pizza Hut, or "Tuscan Tacos" at Taco Bell. As terrible as that may sound, this area will endure. It has survived countless invaders and it will survive the latest wave of tourists and tacky Americanized imitations. Still, you should get there as soon as you can because it would be a shame to miss this for too long.

Saturday, June 27, 2009


Melanie Griffith, Jeff Daniels, and a wicked Ray Liotta make this Jonathan Demme road movie turn from screwball comedy to nightmare thriller faster than you can say "psycho ex-boyfriend." A brilliant and entertaining film that surprises you at every turn, and one of the best films of the 1980s.

Charlie (Daniels) is a timid square who thinks he's a rebel (so many of those around, eh?) and punky femme fatale Lulu (Griffith) pulls him into a wild ride of sex and madness. You could go on about Demme's critique of middle class values, American violence, subcultures, and high school reunions, but that would spoil the fun and give you the wrong idea. If you've never seen this, watch it here in its entirety.

Live a little, Charlie!

Thursday, June 25, 2009


Sita Sings the Blues is a beautiful animated feature film written, directed, produced and animated entirely by American artist Nina Paley.

The film weaves together events from the Ramayana, illustrated conversation between Indian shadow puppets, musical interludes voiced with tracks by Annette Hanshaw and scenes from the artist's own life. The ancient mythological and modern biographical plot are parallel tales, sharing numerous themes.

a note from the artist, Nina Paley.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


Why visit Rome? The Eternal City is chaotic--but a beautiful chaos. This isn't Kansas, Toto. Vespas buzz circles around Bernini statues, pick-pockets work the Metro, beautiful women catch a glance, Swiss Guards cross spears, businessmen in Armani suits squeeze past fat priests, skinny nuns, Africans selling purses on blankets, dodging the caribinieri and the outdoor tables of world class restaurants where oblivious lovers dine before strolling arm in arm in the passeggiata. Rome has had visitors for thousands of years. It can handle travelers--just as it's handled the Roman Legions, numerous religious pilgrims, Celtic and German invasions, Mussolini's March, Junior Year Abroad, Japanese tourists on photo tours, history buffs and art hounds, Americans searching for the roots of Western Civilization or just their own families, and chilly Northern Europeans searching for warmth of every variety--weather, culture, food, romance.

Watch Rossellini's Open City, or Fellini's La Dolce Vita, and try to resist this city's charms. Fellini used to hang out in the Piazza Navone, formerly a chariot track in Roman times built by Domitian in the 1st century and now a lovely piazza lined with palaces and outdoor cafes and good restaurants. The centerpiece of the piazza is a Baroque masterpiece by sculptor Bernini, la Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (the Fountain of the Four Rivers-- a detail is shown above). At night, there is a lively crowd, and this is the social heart of the city. As Fellini says in I, Fellini, "Rome became my home as soon as I saw it. I was born that moment."

The Pantheon is antiquity's best preserved building, and remained the world's highest dome until the Renaissance came along (also in Italy, of course, but up in Florence). As everything else in Rome, it exists in a time warp--you can imagine Hadrian's slaves hauling slabs of marble two thousand years back, or Romans strolling past as they do now, since the Pantheon has been in continuous use since its construction. Nowadays, it anchors a neighborhood of shops and cafes, with plenty of foot traffic. Across a narrow street from the imposing "house of the gods" is the brilliant Cremeria Monteforte, where they make impossibly delicious gelati in the traditional style. This unlikely combination "explains" Rome as well as anything.

Campo de' Fiori (Field of Flowers) is another favorite spot in Rome, a great place to eat outdoors (I remember a twenty-something gallery attendant at the museum where I work saying she couldn't get decent food in Rome--and I had to shrug and bite my tongue) and we ate at La Carbonara (where they invented the dish) under the watchful gaze of Giordano Bruno, a man who dared suggest the Earth was NOT the center of the Universe and was burned on the spot in 1600. This has always been a lively place. The painter Caravaggio killed a man here in a sword fight (Today, he'd be on Prozac and would probably paint a lot less). The Campo is a Roman street party at night, with kids hanging out, joking, making music, and most likely convinced that they are the center of the Universe.

Rome at night is magical, and lit dimly as if by torchlight. Stroll to the heartrending Trevi Fountain--where an iconic scene in La Dolce Vita was filmed--and toss a coin over your shoulder, assuring that you wll return. Walk to the Spanish Steps, where romantic poets swooned--Keats is buried here. Lord Byron lived across the square. Walk to the Roman Forum, if you really want to feel history.

The Roman Forum is ghostly. You feel the history as you trod the smooth stones of what once bustled with power and empire and the height of Roman splendor. The day we visited the Forum it rained, the only rain on our entire trip, and somehow that added to the experience, as strange as it may sound. These weathered ruins have withstood Time itself. As it sprinkled, we stood under grey skies before The Temple of Julius Caesar (Tempio del Divo Giulio) where Caesar was stabbed (though he never uttered "Et tu, Brute," those words were put in his mouth by an Englishman) and Mark Antony hailed friends, Romans, and countrymen (further elaborated by Shakespeare). Down the stone path, we walked among wildflowers and broken marble and visited the House of the Vestal Virgins, the Palace of Caligula, The Temple of Saturn, and the Curia, or Senate House. Rome is fascinating, and after so many swords-and-sandals epics we feel we know it, but there is no experience that compares with being there, among the broken columns and shattered temples of the Roman Forum.

Vatican City is a tiny independent country containing some of the greatest treasures on Earth. We saw them all--or nearly. There is such an abundance of riches you need to skip paintings and objects that would qualify as another country's greatest masterpieces, but time is limited so make your way through the crowds to see the Raphael stanza and the glorious ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The cleaning has been controversial, but I saw it before the restoration, dark with soot from candles and layers of oil, and now it's absolutely luminous and as close as we can get to the way it looked to Michelangelo. The walls of the chapel were painted by other great painters, Ghirlandaio, Perugino, and Botticelli, so don't overlook these, but the frescoes overhead and accompanying lunettes by Michelangelo are truly overwhelming.

And to think, Michelangelo didn't want the job. He told Pope Julius II, "I'm a sculptor, not a painter!"

Down the way, probably jammed with tourists and priests and pilgrims from around the world, is the Basilica Papale di San Pietro in Vaticano, commonly called St. Peter's Basilica, the largest church on Earth. The basilica is unbelievable. Even by today's standards, in the Age of Special Effects, this place is a mind blower, and you can only imagine what a simple peasant must have felt five hundred years ago. There has been a church on this site since the 4th century, but construction of the present basilica was built over the old Constantinian basilica started in 1506 and continued until its completion in 1626. The dome and floor plan were designed by Michelangelo, who also contributed the sculpture, his Pieta, which he completed when he was just 24 years old.

The Colosseum is a remarkable feat of engineering, a muscular combination of a four story Roman facade decorated with all three types of Greek columns (remember? Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian?) representing the best and worst of Rome. The display of might and raw power captivated commoner and aristocrat alike (entry was free, and the same with the wine and food) as gladiators, criminals and wild animals fought to the death. The Roman poet Juvenal called this sort of display panis et circenses (bread and circuses) and the name has come to refer to entertainment used by politicians to distract the public and to gain popular support. Keep the people amused, goes the reasoning, and they won't rebel.

Throughout our Italian holiday, the entire country was riveted to the Giro d'Italia, a three week bike race throughout Italy that nearly paralleled our journey. We saw the signs and banners in the mountains and on the coast, we passed their staging areas in Florence and the hills of Tuscany, and now finally was the last day of the Giro and the finish line was at the Colosseum the day we visited. Beside the quiet, muscular ruin, sportscasters and fans ran around, televisions crews jostled for coverage, news helicopters flew overhead. The Colosseum stood its ground, having seen everything. At first, the bike race was a distraction, then I realized this is probably the same beautiful chaos that attended events at the Colosseum in days of old. Sure, this was a modern version, but I bet 50,000 drunken Romans attending gladiatorial combat on this very same spot also made a hellish racket. We walked through the arena, through passageways that honeycomb this iconic symbol of Imperial Rome where an estimated half million people and a million animals lost their lives, and looked up to see helicopters passing overhead. The crowd roared at the finish line. The stones remained, as always, cool and silent.

Saturday, June 20, 2009


Something fun for the weekend. The Delta Rhythm Boys were hep cats who made their first public appearance in the summer of 1936, and performed in 15 films from the early 1940s to 1956. Here they sing "Give Me Some Skin, My Friend" in a Soundie from 1940.

The Delta Rhythm Boys

Here's another clip from the 1940s, with Abbott and Costello dropping in to see the Andrews Sisters, who want the very same thing as the Delta Rhythm Boys.

The Andrews Sisters in uniform

Maybe people aren't that different. I'll avoid making any easy comment about race, or how "race records" were co-opted by mainstream white artists. And I'll skip remarks about "cultural colonialism," about class, or how tough economic times tend to bring about a resurgence of racism and scapegoating. Oh, and I won't mention how people (white people?) assume racism is a thing of the past, since, after all, we have a black president.

Nope, my lips are sealed. I'm a paragon of restraint. Oh...and I won't congratulate us all for coming such a long way, either, and I certainly won't ask you to check your attitudes about whites, blacks, Asians, Mexicans, Jews, or people from the Middle East. Nope.

We're just talking about "skin."


In a related news story, some clowns (yes, clowns) kicked the KKK's ass at a hate rally in Knoxville, Tennessee. This is truly creative organizing. Kudos to the clowns!

When the white supremacist group VNN Vanguard Nazi/KKK tried to host a hate rally in Knoxville, Tennessee, they were foiled by … clowns!

Unfortunately for [VNN] the 100th ARA (Anti Racist Action) clown block came and handed them their asses by making them appear like the asses they were.

Alex Linder the founder of VNN and the lead organizer of the rally kicked off events by rushing the clowns in a fit of rage, and was promptly arrested by 4 Knoxville police officers who dropped him to the ground when he resisted and dragged him off past the red shiny shoes of the clowns.

“White Power!” the Nazi’s shouted, “White Flour?” the clowns yelled back running in circles throwing flour in the air and raising separate letters which spelt “White Flour”.

“White Power!” the Nazi’s angrily shouted once more, “White flowers?” the clowns cheers and threw white flowers in the air and danced about merrily.

“White Power!” the Nazi’s tried once again in a doomed and somewhat funny attempt to clarify their message, “ohhhhhh!” the clowns yelled “Tight Shower!” and held a solar shower in the air and all tried to crowd under to get clean as per the Klan’s directions.

At this point several of the Nazi’s and Klan members began clutching their hearts as if they were about to have a heart attack. Their beady eyes bulged, and the veins in their tiny narrow foreheads beat in rage. One last time they screamed “White Power!”

The clown women thought they finally understood what the Klan was trying to say. “Ohhhhh…” the women clowns said. “Now we understand…”, “WIFE POWER!” they lifted the letters up in the air, grabbed the nearest male clowns and lifted them in their arms and ran about merrily chanting “WIFE POWER! WIFE POWER! WIFE POWER!”

-Asheville Indymedia

Thursday, June 18, 2009


Christopher Plummer plays Nabokov delivering his famous lecture on Franz Kafka's tale "Metamorphosis."

You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.

Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov, the tragic ironist whose work is riddled with puns, puzzles, butterflies, chess stratagems, etymology and entomology, scowls severely from the bookshelf. Why bother reading his work? Why bother going to class?

Watch Nabokov, Part 2 here.

Read the Paris Review interview with Nabokov.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


Angry Sarah Palin supporters calling for the resignation of David Letterman. What's wrong with these a-holes?

Letterman responds to the hullabaloo.

Monday, June 15, 2009


Yes, yes, it's June 16th Bloomsday and we raise a pint to James Augustine Aloysius Joyce that difficult language-drunken Irishman and author of many a puzzling tome and riddle including one he stole lock, stock and barrel from a blind Greek named Homer called Ulysses which all takes place in one single day, I kid you not, and that day is today, June 16th, and pinch-nosed readers with spectacles emerge nearly blind from every nook and cranny worldwide to celebrate and every crook and nanny clatters pots and pans and hoists jams jars for he's a jolly good fellow and so say all of us.

Read Joyce here.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


Siena is simply beautiful. The archrival of Florence has lost none of its grandeur since the height of its glory--roughly 1260 to 1348, when the Black Death killed a third of its population. Watching the sun set in the medieval Piazza del Campo is akin to having a religious experience. Il Campo is the home of the most celebrated festival in all of Tuscany, in which Siena's 17 contrade (neighborhoods) compete in a no-holds barred bareback horserace called the Palio that dates back to 1283. The contrade have their own flags and pageantry, and each is represented by a mascot, such as the wolf, porcupine, giraffe, and eagle.

We were lucky to visit the chapel of the eagle contrada, something not open to the general public but a favor to our local guide. The eagle chapel is small and ornate, with the brilliant banners of the contrade hanging beside the jockey's silk shirts, everything quiet and respectful in contrast to the thundering, bare-knucked race I imagine circling the Campo. These Sienese take the Palio very seriously. We hush ourselves like children in church. The representative of the Eagle contrada is subdued, and our guide--who hails from the Seashell contrada--ribs him good naturedly about not winning a race long? He smiles and folds his arms.

We leave the chapel of the Eagle contrada and stroll a ways to the studio of Massimo Bracciali, Maestro Vetratista (stained glass master). Massimo is a wonderful artist, and he shows us the tools of the trade. He cracks jokes as he handles sheets of red glass I'm afraid he'll drop. "Don't worry," he says, "I could juggle these." He first sketches a "cartoon" and then matches and cuts glass. His work is splendid, and he is commissioned by churches and universities around the world. I ask how long the shop has been making windows. "My grandfather's grandfather made stained glass windows. Before that, I don't know. Who knows?" He laughs.

At lunch, I have Massimo's flyer on the table and the waiter stops to stare at the religious images. I speak a few words of Italian, and he speaks a few in English. "Beautiful," he says, pointing to a Madonna in reds and blues, "are you going to the Duomo?" The Duomo is one of Italy's greatest cathedrals, a treasure of Romanesque-Gothic architecture filled with sculpture and paintings. I tell him yes, we are planning to visit the Duomo. "Then you must pray for the chiocciola," he said.

The Chiocciola?

"I will explain," he says, grabbing his pen and a waiter's notebook from his apron. He sketches a snail. "Chiocciola!" The drawing is crude but I get the idea and laugh. "Pray for the snail? Ahhh...The snail is your contrada!" "Si, si!"

I ask him for the pen. I'm a cartoonist and love to draw, and over our dessert I draw a picture of a galloping snail winning the Palio, leaving the exhausted horses far behind in clouds of dust. When the waiter returns, he can't believe it. He's clearly delighted with the drawing, and I give it to him as a gift. "July 2nd is il palio," he says. "If the chiocciola wins I will never forget this moment."

It's a wonderful exchange, and we're high as kites walking back to the Campo on the narrow medieval streets. Near the fountain, I spot a vendor selling googaws from a cart--postcards, ballcaps, pens, maps--and he has flags--small, nylon, not the glorious silk versions I saw hanging in the chapel. I rummage through them quickly and find the flag of the Chiocciola contrada. It's the perfect souvenir to remember this afternoon in Siena.

Here is a video of the Palio--the whole race lasts only a minute and a half, and it's so rough even a riderless horse can win. Pray for the snail.

Saturday, June 6, 2009


We hiked in the Alpi di Siusi area of the Trentino-Alto Adige region of Northern Italy. The Alto Adige (or Sudtirol) is a German-speaking area, and in fact used to be part of Austria till the end of World War I. It's a mountainous region, and castles perch on cliffsides poised to tax the medieval traveler making his way through a pathway between the peaks. Romans passed through here on their way to conquer and spread the empire. As in all of Italy, the sense of place and history is palpable.

It's beautiful up here. The limestone peaks of the Dolomites rise above alpine pastures, and further north they will attain the splendid heights of the Alps. Maybe it's the thin air, but it feels dreamlike. Armed with sunblock and canteens, we hiked up the zigzagging trails to the highest meadowlands in Europe. The hills were alive with the sound of music...but no yodeling.

Yodeling is verboten here (to curtail avalanches) but if yodeling is against the law then only outlaws will yodel, so I put my hands on my hips and let loose a feeble warble. The earth did not move. Two shaggy mountain goats stopped chewing grass to give me the evil eye, what the Italians call malocchio. (I don't know what the Germans call it.)

After all that hiking and yodeling, we dropped down to Bolsano (called Bozen by German speakers) to soothe our sunburns and thirst at a friendly Paulaner Bierstube with outdoor tables and sun umbrellas. You can always count on Teutons for a great beer.


Thursday, June 4, 2009


We just returned from Italy and I already miss this little breakfast nook overlooking the Ligurian Sea. From this perch in the Cinque Terre, the ocean is hazy blue and homes are scattered like dice on hillsides crowded with vineyards and lemon trees. Breakfast is the perfect capuccino and a flakey cornetto smeared with homemade lemon marmalade. Seabirds wing overhead, darting and singing. Fishing boats bob and fishermen haul in nets. A lone tower, medieval in cut and weathered by centuries of storms, stands watch for pirates.

I know how it sounds, but we're really not accustomed to paradise. Travel is a luxury, and we saved up and slipped into Europe through the back door. At first we felt like tramps in the palace, but the feeling passed with the first pitcher of vino della casa and platter of calamari, and soon we were enjoying la dolce vita of the cinque terre (the "five lands") with the best of them.

Life is good here. The locals catch fish and make wine and swim in the sea. There are a few family run places to stay but there are no major hotels and no roads between the villages (you can't get there by car) so most of your "ugly Americans" (or Germans, or French) stay away or head up the coast to Portofino where there are big, swanky hotels, traffic jams, yachts and cruise ships.

Not here. At night, we sip drinks by the water under faded yellow umbrellas lit by hanging lamps, and when the waiters inside put on a Billie Holiday record--softly, barely louder than the surf--it's too perfect. We're never going back.

The next morning we hike. The villages are connected by the Sientiero Azzurro, a steep goat trail carved out in ancient Roman times. This footpath hugs the cliffs and can be extremely narrow, so no pushing, please. The views are breathtaking. Start early in the morning while it's still cool--but first, enjoy the perfect breakfast.

Views like this, of Vernazza, make the steep trail worth the climb.

This short film might give you a feeling of the Cinque Terre: