Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Italia With and Without

By Meredith Phillips

JUNE 1, 1999:  Last month, I went to Italy for two weeks. For one week, I was with a strictly guided press tour, among journalists from vast and varied places like Seoul, São Paulo, Toronto, New York, Berlin, and Shanghai, I served as an emmisary of the illustrious, if internationally underrepresented, Austin Chronicle. The purpose of the trip was to explore the food culture of Northern Italy. The schedule was rigid, the hotels plush.

My second week of travel was one of slow and deliberate wandering; on my own time and my own budget, I stayed in rented rooms with ragged blankets and ocean views, eating street food and watching waves crash, hiking amid grapevines, olive groves, and lemon trees.

Professionally, I went to explore the food customs of Italy. Personally, I wanted to overcome apprehension of traveling alone in a country where I didn't speak the language, a country that I knew from past experience could be a troublesome place for a lone, young, fair-skinned, and foreign woman.


Week One: The Tour

Arrive in Milano, 10am

Before I even managed to leave the Milano airport, I ate lunch twice -- prosciutto panini and salmon on white bread -- and a look at the clock told me it was only 9am my time. If I hadn't been forced to wait around for the rest of the journalists and chefs for six hours, I might not have had to eat so many sandwiches, but as it happened, this set the tone for the trip. Finally, all of the foreign chefs and journalists had arrived, and the translating staff of the Italian Culinary Institute for Foreigners (the school that organized the tour and henceforth ICIF) herded us to our hotel.

We spent the next few days in the Northern region of Lombardy on the Lago di Garda , one of the largest lakes in Italy, scented with pine and fresh lemons, in view of the gloriously snow-capped Alps. This put us a comfortable distance from Verona, the site of the VinItaly wine expo, one of the largest in the world.

Jet-lagged but full of delicious coffee, we left for VinItaly at what should have been the middle of the night, and we were up to our elbows in wine one hour later. Unfortunately, the tasting presentations were being translated into a tangle of English, Chinese, and Japanese. For our group, there was no forum for tasting notes, no opportunities to look at the bottles, and no spit buckets. It would have made more sense to just smile, nod, and blink at the Italian presenters than have every word of welcome translated. We did get to eat lots of salami though (rich meats counteract tannic or fizzy wines, which in turn counteract rich meats), some fresh, runny gorgonzola, and a bright red, thinly sliced, raw salted beef called Bresaola. I have a photo of myself exhaustedly, proudly, and perhaps even a little drunkenly, holding up a strip of creamy strutto (fatback) we were served with a young and plummy, richly purple, foamy wine from the Lombardy region called Bonarda dell'Oltrepó Pavese, made from the Croatina grape.


The author before touring the Grana Padano
cheese factory in Northern Italy

One of the first things to learn is that Italians have limitless capacity for food and drink. Whether in the north or the south, a meal is structured around several courses -- antipasto, primo piatto, secondo piatto, dolce. Lunch might begin with prosciutto and melon, move to a salad or vegetable, incorporate a pasta or risotto with vegetables and a light, creamy cheese, then move to a cut of meat or fish before having a sweet. A cheese course can be added first or before dessert. In a formal setting, each course requires a different beverage -- sparkler to start, white for antipasti, more white for primo piatti, red to stand up to meat, a sweet, clingy wine to finish, then grappa to make you forget the whole thing ever happened. Though this style of eating is exhausting when you aren't used to it, the different components add a balance which our culture lacks. Food is fresh and simple, suiting both the region and the season.

Italian art and architecture give the country a feeling of antiquity, but the fact is that the regions of Italy -- which, collectively, are equal in size to the state of Arizona -- have been united under one government for less than 150 years. Differences in geography, climate, and culture dictate that each region of the country have its own cuisine. Soft cheeses (fontina, gorgonzola), buttery sauces, and fresh egg pastas abound in the agricultural north, herbal flavors crop up nearGenoa, and "yard food" like snails, eels, and frogs figure in the cuisine of the eastern areas. The hotter, drier south relies more on dried pasta and other easily preserved foods, like garlic and onionsand anchovies. But every style that is represented grew out of home kitchens, and even now you are at least as likely to have a glorious Italian meal in a home as you are in a restaurant.

But I wasn't to learn that until later. We ate highbrow food in highbrow restaurants all week: zucchini blossoms with ricotta and basil, tender squid salad with asparagus and potatoes, tiny fried whitebait, beef braised in Barbera, and veal tongue pâté.

Really, we ate every part of a veal -- testinas (little head) included. It makes you feel less guilty about the concept of veal if you at least eat the whole thing, and it contrasts the American squeamishness about texture with the European ability to relish almost anything, as long as it's good. I managed to be a good sport about the idea and the flavor of the veal head, but I was left with a sizable pile of stiff and chewy bits that no self-respecting Italian would bother to leave behind.

And then we ate risotto, that starchy, sticky, firm-to-the-bite rice dish that composes much of the staple diet throughout Italy. For three days, we lived risotto. We visited rice fields, rick picking quarters, rice processing plants, and rice packing plants. At every stop we were fed risotto: risotto with salami and cheese; risotto with peas and carrots; risotto with marrow and saffron, and risotto with pancetta and asparagus, until the week finally culminated in the Italian Rice in World Cooking contest (see sidebar).

The contest was to be held at the ICIF castle, in Costigliole d'Asti in the Piedmont region (so named because it lies at the foot of the Alps), so we spent the second half of the week in Torino, just north of Asti.

Torino, which was once the seat of Italian government, is home to Fiat, and, of course, the shroud. Though it has a reputation as an industrial city, it seems chic, and it's full of fantastic things to eat, many of which involve chocolate. The most notable are the Gianduiotta -- small, chocolate- and hazelnut-flavored paste that has been hardened into the shape of a hat worn by Gianduja, the Masque of Turin (that's the story, though these chocolates look nothing like any hats I've ever seen) -- and bicerin, a drink commonly served at the Cafe Torino made from liquid chocolate, espresso, and foamed cream.

On the last night of the tour, we celebrated the winners of the contest in a hunting lodge outside of Torino called "Stupinigi." I envisioned a wood-paneled nightmare with low ceilings and foil trays of baked ziti without enough sauce. Of course, the "lodge" we spent the evening in was an actual palace, where we ate white truffle appetizers, drank an endless supply of champagne, and marveled at walls stacked with Renaissance paintings.

The honors were awarded, and the evening faded away. We said goodbye to new friends, and everyone on the tour got ready to travel back to Milano to fly home. Except me. I went back to my room in the Turin Palace Hotel, ostensibly to enjoy my last night of glamour before the reality of budget travel set in, but really to worry about the fact that I couldn't even order a coffee in Italian, I didn't know the difference between one thousand lire and one million lire, and I was about to be completely alone.


Week Two

Arrive Cinque Terre, 4:30pm

One of the best things about train travel in Italy is that you can see the coastline almost all of the time, especially along the Riviera. En route to the Cinque Terre, five teeny towns trapped between the mountains and the Ligurian Sea, the green and blue water slapped and foamed at the jagged coast. I disembarked in Riomaggiore, the furthest south of the towns, during a drenching rain. Sloshing from the platform to the station, I regretted the moment I decided that it doesn't rain in Italy -- the same moment the raincoat and umbrella got left at home.

The weather thus far had been warm and sunny, and I'd packed for this leg of the trip accordingly: jeans, tank top, T-shirt, long-sleeve shirt, sweater, jacket, and sweatshirt. All of it got soaked.

I asked for a map at the station and was told that there weren't any. Now I understand why: The towns, full of four- and five-story houses painted in warm colors, are laid out vertically rather than horizontally. There is one main street, leading to one main square, leading to one tiny harbor full of tiny fishing boats. Everything else is cramped passageways, hundreds of stone steps leading up and away to the terraced mountains, twisted with grapevines. All spaces in between are choked with flowers, trees, olives, and lemons. I climbed up and up, wondering and wandering, getting wetter and wetter. Finally, an old man led me down scores of stairs to someone who would rent me a room for the night.

Settled into a room without heat as thunder clapped down and snow swirled in the mountains, I got into bed, willing myself to dry off and warm up. Fourteen hours later, the rain had stopped, but the cold continued for days: I wore all my clothes, all the time.

Luckily, the allure of the Cinque Terre isn't the high-fashion attitude. And it isn't the food, either, though Liguria is the home of both pesto and slices of salty, oily, divine focaccia. It's hard to pin down -- perhaps the sense of families who have lived in the same houses for 400 years coexisting with a stubbornly lovely landscape, impossible to tame.

The towns are connected by both trains and walking paths, and driving is not an option. Carrying all I had, I spent the next days hiking from town to town along the achingly beautiful sea. Even when I accidentally missed a date with a sexy Moroccan -- he gave me a Fanta and spoke in slow, deliberate French -- I didn't care. Sitting in the town square of Vernazza, the most perfect of the Cinque Terre towns, the sun sunk, tiny birds stumbled for crumbs, and waves licked the pebble shore. I knew I had found my place.

This, of course, did not stop me from leaving. Toscana was next. A lush and hilly region in Central Italy, Tuscany is full of walled, medieval cities built by the Etruscans. Siena, San Gimignano. Old things, tall things. Lovely but landlocked. I headed back to the coast.

The Isola d'Elba is technically still Tuscany, and it's the place where Napolean lived in exile. More importantly, it's full of beaches and mountains, flat pad cactus and scrubby green shrubs. Getting there requires a mildly complicated train journey followed by a ferry ride, and after five days of navigating alone, I was wishing someone else were in charge, just for a minute.

Just then I met Alessandro on the train. Tall and broad-shouldered, with dark, tousled hair and warm, hazel eyes, he stood by the window, chain-smoking and sneezing. "You traveling lonely?" he asked.

No, not lonely, and no longer alone. Alessandro and I were just about the only two people going to Elba -- I didn't realize just how off-season April is on the Isle of Elba -- and he took over. A jazz pianist from the medieval city of Volterra, he had almost no English and a very bad cold. He was staying with his hippie zia and zio in their pink country house with a view of the mountains and a view of the sea, and tulips and basil and bamboo furniture in the garden. He found me a place to stay on the water, he fed me pasta with tuna and olives, and he took me to see the sea at night. He told me that I was beautiful when I tried to speak Italian and that my eyes would make any man fall in love. Ultimately, he gave me the flu.

When he announced that he was leaving his girlfriend to come to Texas, I got on the boat and headed straight back to Vernazza, home of my soul, for the rest of the trip.

Traveling alone isn't scary, it's terribly empowering. The language barrier was no problem; after I learned to explain, in simple Italian, that I couldn't speak the language, people made valiant efforts to help me. As for male attention, I'm much better at deflecting unwanted comments than I was during the last European trip, several years ago. Besides, being in a country where men like to tell women when they find them attractive isn't an entirely bad thing.

Two weeks of grassy green oils, confusing conversations, lemon gelato, and dark blue water -- stupenda. If I were in charge, every woman would be able to "travel lonely" to Italy when she is single, when she is hungry.


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