Sunday, December 12, 2010

Another View of the Real Bologna

Again I'm gonna steal from my old junk, this time a profile I did of Biba Caggiano, the great Italian cookbook author, for The East Bay Monthly back in June 2001. I was delighted to interview her in her restaurant, the food was great, but the tastiest treat was the comment she made to me, and I am sure she meant it: "This has been a great pleasure today. Unlike most so-called food writers, you actually know something about food!" I melted when she said that, and was on a cloud for days afterward.

Here ya go:


The Real Bologna

Biba Caggiano
    In the not-too-distant past, when Chef Boyardee and Kraft Grated Parmesan set the standard for Italian food in this country, a young woman, recently arrived from Bologna in northern Italy, traveled, after a short stint in New York, to the then-hinterlands of Sacramento, California to start a new life. If you think it’s hard to find a decent Italian meal today, imagine the withdrawal Biba Caggiano felt when she found herself drowning in a raging cesspool of Spaghetti-Os.

    But the relentless Biba pulled together her memories of the amazing cuisine she grew up with, and has since then assembled an empire worthy of any Caesar—but we’re not talking salads here. With the sixth in her series of authoritative cookbooks behind her (Biba’s Taste of Italy, William Morrow, 2001), Biba Caggiano’s domain also includes thousands of hands-on cooking classes, countless episodes of television instruction including two years on the Learning Channel, and the showcase for her crusade: Sacramento’s Biba, one of the finest Northern Italian restaurants outside of Italy.
Biba's Taste of Italy, 2001

    “We’re talking 1969,” recalls Biba, “if I wanted to eat the foods I grew up with, I had to learn to duplicate what my mother used to do. What led me to the food I am known for today was my palate and my eye. When I looked into that pot, I could tell if it was almost right or not, too liquid, too light, too whatever. But it was my tastebuds that really guided me. For the first 23 years of my life I learned how the food should taste.”

    And Biba was lucky enough to grow up in Bologna, the center of the region known as Emilia-Romagna, respected by most Italians as the ne plus ultra of a country already considered by the world as a food paradise. Imagine the flavors that trained her palate (and which constitute the focus of her new book as well): Emilia-Romagna is the home of Parmigiano-Reggiano, the most majestic of all cheeses; prosciutto di Parma, the most heavenly preparation of a pig’s hind leg imaginable; balsamic vinegar, the much abused curative and syrupy magic condiment; paper thin handmade pastas, filled and unfilled, regarded as Italy’s finest; ragù bolognese, which, when done properly, transcends any notion most of us have of what a pasta sauce can be; and of course mortadella, the true bologna, a melt-in-your-mouth treat that will permanantly erase all thoughts of Oscar Meyer you might be harboring.

    “When you are young growing up, if you are lucky enough to live in a place like Bologna, you really don’t understand how lucky you are until you find yourself out of your homeland. That’s when your find out how different the world can be. When I first arrived in this country we were living in Queens with my husband’s parents, we were so broke. I went out one day to buy some bread and saw women on the street with rollers in their hair and slippers on their feet and there I was with my heels, my stockings, my good outfit, as we do in Italy when we go out. I looked at these women and thought, ‘Wow!’ And that’s when it hit me. I was really in a different place, I became really homesick for everything I left behind,” Biba remembers.

    And the food memories?

    “The first thing I wanted was the aroma of that broth on Sunday mornings when we kids would sleep in and my mother would get up early to put on the pot with all those bones and mixed meats; that is what used to wake us up,” says Caggiano. “The aroma was fabulous, and she would make these tiny tortellini which my brother and sister and I would help seal, or she would roll out a very thin delicate pasta, tagliolini, to go into the broth.

    “We were raised in that kitchen, that nice large kitchen which was the center of our home, it’s where we did our homework. I stirred the sauces, I tasted, I would do things to help my mother. All these things came back to me, and as I thought about them, I gained a new appreciation of how wonderful it was to have had all those things. Lots of phone calls from Sacramento to my mother in Italy helped me remember all the correct ingredients, but, like I said, my palate and my memory guided me.”

     In no time, her reputation as a cook spread through the capital city and she began giving cooking lessons in her home, eventually growing into the facilities of William Glen, a major source for things culinary in Sacramento. She started out with what she knew, the recipes from her hometown of Bologna, but eventually expanded her course to include other parts of her region as well.

    But to Biba, one dish shines as the most exemplary of Bologna, and it is the dish that launched her career as a messenger of Bologna’s riches: lasagne alla bolognese.
Lasagne alla Bolognese

    “I remember the first time I served lasagne to friends at one of our dinner parties. I saw people eating and they would stop and look at each other and I thought, ‘Gee! What did I do?’ So I asked, ‘Is anything wrong?’ They said, ‘No! This is wonderful! Why is it so delicate?’ Because you know, this was the time when the only lasagne they new were those thick packaged noodles, that’s what was in the stores. They had never had the real thing from Bologna. I was so pleased that the lasagne delighted them so.”

    She adds, “It’s the classic, it’s so good. It’s not the type of food you eat every day, it is so rich, but when you eat it slowly, savoring every bite, and it goes down slowly, you know you are eating something special.

    “It is one of those rare dishes that is perfect, but you have to do it right. You have to have the pasta that is transparent, you have to have the bechamel that is creamy, you have to have the meat sauce that is simmered slowly so you have just the meat essence.”

    Dear reader, please notice there is no heavy ricotta, mozzarella, or sausage.

    She will not stand for anyone trying to mess with such a perfect formula. “Years ago I had a friend in catering who wanted to serve my lasagne recipe. But he said it was not complicated enough for his clients. He said, ‘It’s kind of simple, can I jazz it up? Can I put some mushrooms in the meat sauce?’ I said, ‘WHAT?! You do not understand a damn thing! DON'T TOUCH THE DISH! It has stood the test of time over centuries. No,  you may not alter the recipe.’ ”

    Her devotion to her roots is evident in her Sacramento restaurant where I was lucky enough to have had lunch recently. I was transported back to Italy in a way no other Bay Area eatery has been able to do for me. The food was achiote- and kiwi-free, but instead, redolent of the purity of the simple, spare, and elegant ingredients found in each dish. Italian food ain’t necessarily some spicy meatball.

    The spring-inspired menu I sampled offered a light pasta punctuated with prosciutto, asparagus tips, and fresh peas, all bound and contrasted with a slightly sharp, yet smooth parmigiano cream sauce. A lamb loin was simply grilled and framed with asparagus—no chef-ego-boosting lemongrass-crème frîeche sauce to weigh it down. And the torta di noci was the perfect, not-too-sweet walnut cake. Readers take note: this is a place you don’t want to miss, and is no farther than many of the trendoid joints up in Napa, of which Biba, not surprisingly, has a view (which I wholeheartedly share):

    “These cooks are one of my pet peeves. There are several in Napa that are always being touted in magazines as serving wonderful Italian, let’s call what they do California-Italian, then I can understand that. But the thing is, if you do a dish, and you call it, let’s say, spaghetti carbonara, okay, then do that dish. We all know what goes into that dish: the eggs, the parmigiano, some put in a touch of cream, some don’t, pepper, and of course pancetta. I ordered that dish in one of these places, supposedly so great, and it came with how many other ingredients on top I don’t know. There were peas, tiny carrots. Okay, it was spring, the guy wants to put something seasonal on the menu, I have no problem with that. But don’t call it with that name, spaghetti carbonara, because it’s really a misrepresentation if you call a dish with a certain name that is classically made a certain way. If you have eaten it in Italy, that’s what you think it is; but people here change recipes all the time, they think they can improvise on them, but these recipes have been around for generations.”
Biba's Northern Italian Cooking

    These are the standards, then, that you can expect when you pick up one of Biba’s books. You will get the real deal, nothing more, nothing less. Her first book, Northern Italian Cooking, was an offshoot of her early classes in Sacramento. Around 1981, after five years of teaching, she had amassed enough material for a book and wanted to do one about the cuisine of Bologna. “The publisher said, ‘Uhh, Bo-? Bo-bo what?’ I said, ‘Bologna.’ They said, ‘Where’s that?’ I explained it to them and they said people will never be able to pronounce it, they will never know where it is, they will never be able to pronounce it. ‘Do a book on Northern Italian cooking,’ they said. This was a time when people thought Northern Italian meant just cream sauces and Southern meant red sauces. That book is still out there and has been selling well forever.” It has helped define the cooking of Northern Italy for more than 400,000 book buyers. Quite a feat for a cookbook.

    Twenty years later she has finally published the book she could only dream about in the beginning. Biba’s Taste of Italy paints a delectable portrait of the most edible region of Italy. The book compiles recipes gathered from small trattorie, restaurants, at the market, from friends, family, all over years of travel back home, though it took her two and a half years to do the specific research for this volume, discovering along the way the essence of her native cuisine. “I know my region pretty well, she says, “but it was only when the book came together that I realized the dominance of Bologna as the center of the region—luckily, that’s where my gustatory gift came to life. It was nice doing this work, it was a good thing.

     “I talked to anybody who seemed to know about food,” Biba explains, “I remember we were at the market one day selecting beautiful fresh fennel and there was a beautiful, elderly woman dressed so well picking up the fennel and I asked her, ‘How are you going to cook it when you get home?’ And she said, ‘I don’t know. I’ll figure it out when I get home.’ And that is really the essence of Italian cooking. Go to the market, get what is fresh and in season, take it home and then figure out how to cook it.”

    Biba, who admits to having a weakness for potato chips and honey-roasted peanuts, sums up her career in a philosophical manner: “I am a mother. [Her own daughters have not strayed far—Carla, a new mother herself, lives blocks from Biba and her husband Vincent, and Paola, an avid cook herself, is a lawyer in Oakland.] I think I have always been a mother, even when I was young. I like to nurture people, I like to take care of people. And as I began to work with food, I found great joy.
    My daughters would come home from school with some friends in tow and they would go into the kitchen where I would always have something ready for them. I was taking over what my mother had done without knowing it. That time around the table with family and friends is still one of the best things you find in Italy. It’s a wonderful cultural thing; so this is what I do now, it’s what I’ve been doing all my life.”

    Biba Caggiano has educated thousands, if not millions, in the way of the one-true lasagne. Through her books, her television exposure and her admittedly Big Night-like travails leading her restaurant patrons to an authentic Italian trough, she has labored long and hard to maintain the memory of the food and techniques she learned at her mother’s side, that her mother learned from her mother and her mother from her mother. That’s the way it used to be. Might still be in some places. But if not, at least we can adopt Biba as our foster mom to show us around the kitchens of Bologna so we might start our own traditions in the shadow of Sacramento.


Biba’s Domain

Northern Italian Cooking, HP Books, 1981—A quick survey of the classic foods found north of Rome. Lots of photos and illustrations make this an ideal book for beginners.

Modern Italian Cooking, Fireside, 1992. This is a reprint of her second book. Just what it says—she takes a slightly modern approach to tradition and lightens things up a bit and includes a slew of pasta dishes ready in 20 minutes or less.

Trattoria Cooking, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992. A fantastic survey of simple recipes found in some of Italy’s most charming eating establishments. I love this book.

From Biba’s Italian Kitchen, William Morrow, 1995. This was published to accompany her program on the Learning Channel and concentrates, naturally, on recipes from the north. Another good starting point.

Italy Al Dente
, William Morrow, 1998. This is a close-up look at first course items: pasta, risotto, gnocchi, polenta and soups collected primarily in the north, but includes some great stuff from Naples and Sicily.

Biba’s Taste of Italy, William Morrow, 2001. A fantastic, detailed survey of Emilia-Romagna, with special emphasis on Bologna and surrounding areas. If you can’t make it to Italy in person, this book will take you there.  


Biba's, Sacramento
Biba, 2801 Capitol Avenue, Sacramento, (916)455-2422. Open Monday-Friday for lunch and Monday-Saturday for dinner. Friday and Saturday nights can be jammin’, so call ahead. Biba is there most of the time, unless she is working on a book in Italy. This is one of the few restaurants in this country that does Italian the Italian way. And of course, the menu changes with the season, and the many rotating specials come out of her ongoing book research. On the Web at:

Mike Quinn, associate editor of The Monthly, has traveled to Italy 12 times since 1992 to research food, eat, drink and be merry. His attempt to buy a restaurant in Montalcino near Siena was thwarted by a stack of liens against the place, taller than the tower of Pisa.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The SambaMaster's Rio de Janeiro

I'm gonna cheat again. I want to add some additional thoughts on Rio and Italy soon. I have to bring my Italian sojourn up to the end, from Montalcino to Alba, via the amazing butcher shop of Dario Cecchini in Panzano north of Siena, the crazy, Dante-spouting butcher. But that will be a few more days.

In the meantime, I am posting a piece I wrote in 1986 for the Austin American-Statesman, back when they had a reasonable travel section. This was a "service piece" in part because it has, at the end, specific recommendations for restaurants, bars and clubs. Some of these are now out of date, but I may leave them in. Or not. Always check before traveling or venturing out. The Internet is your friend.

So, here is my still timely take on one of the greatest cities in the known universe. Rio de Janeiro.


My soul is singing,
I see Rio de Janeiro,
I am dying of homesickness.
Rio, your sea, your beaches
All in all, Rio, you were made for me.
[With] Christ the Redeemer,
Arms open over Guanabara Bay,
This samba was written just for you,
Rio, because I like you!

—Antonio Carlos Jobim, Samba from the Plane

Rio de Janeiro
    Unfortunately, the international traveler no longer flies into Rio as described in this Jobim classic.  Instead of gliding into the tiny downtown airport nestled snugly between Sugarloaf Mountain and the ever-present Christ the Redeemer on top of Corcovado, today’s 747s and DC-10s land at an old air force base about 15 miles out of town. 

    Perhaps the romantic drama is gone, but the excitement can never be dissipated—a viscous vitality peculiar to this city of eleven million still permeates the air.  Undulating samba blaring from the cab on the ride into town, towering palms lining the road, motorists ignoring traffic lights and lane markings, the ever-present Christ on Corcovado, a noise level above normally tolerable limits, these signs could indicate one place, and one one place only—Rio de Janeiro, one of the most beautiful and fascinating cities in the world!
Brazilian flag, Cinelândia, Rio de Janeiro

    Rio, situated on Brazil’s east coast, with the Atlantic on one side, and the more tranquil Guanabara Bay on the other, is scattered among numerous verdant hills, better described as stubby, overgrown obelisks.  It is the compartmentalization of the city by these rather imposing, at times sheer rock peaks, combined with the contrasting openness created by the sea and the resulting beaches which gives Rio its unique physical character.

    And its unique cultural character?  That is not quite so well defined or explained.  But the carioca, as anything from Rio is called, is clearly a world apart from fellow Brazilians:  the speech is different, the food is different, the pace is different, the music is different and the party, the party, like the Christ on Corcovado, is, in some form or another, ever-present.  If the Paulista in São Paulo dedicates the day to work and business, then the carioca dedicates the day to living life to the fullest and sucking every drop of enjoyment from the daily grind whether it be work or play.
Carioca spirit in action

    A few observations of regularly recurring events reveal much about the city and it inhabitants:  the daily procession to the beach between 8 and 10 a.m.; the voracious consumption of quick snacks on the run, especially tiny cups of very strong and sweet coffee, the ubiquitous cafezinho; driving habits which appear to be anarchical and self-centered and in total disregard of anyone’s personal safety; a helpful and courteous smile for the tourist (Rio has yet to be truly discovered as the tourist mecca it could be); a healthy disregard for the clock resulting in one to two hour delays for any marked encounter (remember that when setting social meetings); and a profusion of ceremony and social grace never imagined in the the U.S.A.

    All this and more is typical of the carioca.  One could safely summarize the resulting whole as r-e-l-a-x-e-d

    It all works, but in a way that can sometimes be mystifying and frustrating to the ever-efficient and organized North American tourist.  Rio forces you into a very different approach to the rest of the world, somehow illogically logical.  You soon get used to the mayhem in the streets where red lights are mere suggestions, and pedestrians targets.  Walking to the beach, you find yourself stopping for a steaming hot cafezinho and a fried something or other in 95 degree weather.  Lyrical and strongly rhythmic music pervades the night, much like the constant ocean breeze as you show up for an 8:30 p.m. dinner at 10.  Before you go into the restaurant, look up and you’ll see the ever-present Christ atop Corcovado, now illuminated.

    Welcome to Rio, now you’ve arrived!


The Arcos da Lapa, the old aquaduct, Rio de Janeiro

    The history of Rio and its people is a long and complicated one.  The site, thought to be the mouth of a large river, was discovered on January 1, 1501, thus the name, River of January.  First settled by the French, Rio was won by the Portuguese in 1567 and grew in importance as gold and other riches passed through its port on the way to the crown in Lisbon. 

    By 1763 the seat of government was transferred to Rio, and as the city grew, spreading among the hills, Europe began to boil and the Portuguese Empire transferred its center to Rio de Janeiro, an event that would cast a behavioral influence well beyond the pure historical and political aspects of the move.

    Eventually the Portuguese throne returned to Lisbon leaving remnants which were soon transformed into the independent Empire of Brazil.  The fact that Brazil was ruled by a royal family with its ceremony, formalities and ensuing bureaucracy can still be felt in day-to-day life throughout the country. 

    As a result of the abolition of slavery, in 1889 the Empire fell.  By that time several million blacks had entered the country, greatly influencing the cultural makeup of the nation in such basic areas as food, language, music and religion.  Africanisms are much more obvious in Brazilian culture than ours owing to the attitude of the Catholic Church which was more tolerant than the repressive puritanism of our South’s Anglo forefathers.  By the turn of the century, cosmopolitan Rio was a fantastic racial and cultural mix, brimming with a Paris-like exuberance which spawned the samba, Carmen Miranda, the bikini, and eventually bossa nova.

    In the early 1960’s, the capital of Brazil was moved once again, this time from Rio to the newly constructed city of Brasília.  With the government out of the way, Rio could get on with its job as the cultural heart of the world’s fifth largest nation.  
     Early in 1986, the Brazilian government instituted a tough series of economic reforms to fight the 300 percent inflation of previous years.  A new monetary unit, the cruzado, and frozen prices for everything, have so far produced the desired results:  inflation is down and buying power is up.  More importantly, the morale of the people has skyrocketed from rock bottom to a new high, returning the general atmosphere to its former optimism.  [The money is now the real, and the economy is booming and most folks are much better off. China, USA, look out!]
Cold Brazilian "chopp", tap beer

     The carioca’s pace and zest for life creates an ability to appreciate the mundane as well as the spectacular.  The merits of a particular street snack and a cold Antarctica beer are argued as hotly as those of a tender cut of expertly grilled beef and cold Antarctica.  For, in addition to great coffee, Brazil is a beer lover’s paradise boasting some very fine German-style lager delivered up in icy twenty-ounce bottles, just perfect for a hot day in Rio.

    And yes, there are plenty of those in this Cidade Maravilhosa (Marvelous City).  The daytime high averages around 80, climbing past the 100 degree mark in the summer (remember our seasons are reversed) and plummeting into the upper 60’s in July!  Nights can be cool from May to October, so a light jacket or sweater is recommended. 
Rio juice bar

    Other drinks to beat the heat in Rio are not to be overlooked.  An amazing variety of fresh tropical fruit juices can be found literally on every street corner:  try the refreshingly different maracujá (passion fruit), the peculiarly delicious cajú (cashew—the nuts we know are seeds from this fruit) or the strange, but tasty abacate (basically an avocado milkshake!). 

    Brazil has its own national soft drink, guaraná, originally an Amazonian Indian refreshment.  It is highly carbonated and satisfying without the overpowering sweetness of our sodas. 

    And if the beer didn’t offer enough of a kick, sample one of the several concoctions based on cachaça, basically a Brazilian rum.  The simplest and most potent is the caipirinha, nothing more than crushed lime, cachaça, sugar and ice.  It packs a punch, but one simply does not go to Rio without trying one.  The batida, usually served “up,” is cachaça blended with any available fruit juice.  Standouts are the batida de côco (coconut milk) and the batida de maracujá (passion fruit).


     One of the great bargains of Rio is the food which can be had in great quantity and great variety for very little money.  Rio, remember, is a very sensual city, so the attention to food is legendary.  Every restaurant features an army of helpful, white jacketed waiters, laden with tray upon tray of gastronomic and olfactory delights.  It seems as though, no matter what kind of place you eat in, the tantalizing aroma of sauteing garlic wafts through the air every five minutes or so.  Luckily, “mouth watering” is translatable into Portuguese! Dar aqua na boca!!!!!!!!

    The average tourist, for some reason, does not think of pizza while in Rio which is a mistake.  Many pizzerias still utilize wood burning ovens and the pizza is excellent and very different; much lighter than we are used to eating, often dotted with sliced tomatoes instead of a heavy sauce.  The calabresa sausage pizza and the pizza portuguesa (sliced onions and tomatoes, crumbled boiled eggs and ham) are not to be missed. 
Churrascaria Majórica

    Another culinary highpoint in Rio is the churrascaria, or Brazilian barbecue.  With all due respect to the great BBQ chefs of Texas, the Brazilians really know how to cook meat (their beef is world famous also) and serve it in portions that would choke the average Texan.  Meat is grilled quickly over white-hot coals without losing its tenderness or one drop of flavorful juice.  And no dry brisket or chewy fajitas are to be found.  Brazilians prefer filet mignon, tenderloin and other substantial cuts of beef about which the average American can only dream.

    But the crowning glory of the carioca kitchen is the feijoada.  The best insight into the lifestyle of Rio is to experience this traditional Saturday lunchtime feast.  The way to do it is to spend the morning at the beach, returning about 1 p.m. to locate a busy restaurant serving feijoada (hotel employees can recommend a good one since there is no bad feijoada in Rio).  Be prepared for a leisurely three hour meal which will transform anyone into a Carioca with a capital CEEE.
Feijoada Completa

    Feijoada is a dish built around black beans (feijão) and rice originated by slaves to take advantage of whatever scraps of meat they were allowed.  Today it is a hearty mix of beans stewed with dried beef, ribs, sausage, bacon and other cured and smoked meats.  Accompanied by rice, tender collard greens heavy with garlic, manioc flour toasted in butter, and mountains of orange slices (included to help digestion), the meal should under no circumstances be rushed, but slowly absorbed along with the passing carnaval of life and ice cold Antarctica (estupidamente gelada, stupidly cold!) or the more traditional caipirinha.  Anyway, speeding through a feijoada can be potentially dangerous, leading to a blimp-like feeling for several days following.

    Though the temptation exists to spend an entire vacation eating one’s way through Rio, the city is rich with other attractions ranging from its natural features and colonial churches to quaint, historic streets and stark contemporary edifices, in sum, much more than a two-week stretch can safely contain.

    To understand the lay of the land, the first half-day should be dedicated to visiting the ever-present Christ atop Corcovado.  From this vantage point, the entire city of Rio can be seen and, with the aid of a map,  understood, at least in geographic terms; your mileage will vary on understanding anything else!!!!  Sugarloaf (Pão de Açúcar), the many beaches including Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon—Rio’s crown jewels, the crisscross of streets through plush vegetation, the gigantic lake almost pushing Ipanema into the sea, the somehow optimistic favelas—Rio’s ubiquitous slums, it can all be taken in from Corcovado.  No better orientation could ever be devised. 

    The trip to the summit should be made not by auto, but by the charming cogwheel train (the trenzinho) which cuts through thick jungle on its way to the top.  Once there it will be impossible to believe Rio could be a city of eleven million, it’s simply too beautiful.  Before or after the climb, investigate the Largo do Boticário, just up the street from the station.  It is a small square surrounded by charmingly restored colonial homes, a world unto itself only one block off the busy street.  If you are lucky, the woman responsible for the restorations will come out and give you a little tour in English. 
Largo do Boticário

    The complementary peak on the other side of the city, Sugarloaf (Pão de Açúcar), should be done in the afternoon, say, taking off in the cable car from the Urca station at the bottom at about 2 p.m.  The trick is to be at the top of Sugarloaf as Rio, just across the yacht basin, turns on its lights for the evening.  A lovelier, more enchanting sight would be hard to imagine.

    Rio’s downtown (Centro) is dotted with colonial churches, traversed by charming narrow streets lined with 18th century architecture and studded with history.  This is where the city started; wandering a bit in this area, it is easy to imagine the city as it once was.  Investigating its mysteries for a few hours would be time well spent.
Ipanema, Spring 2010, Rio de Janeiro

    Beaches are the reason many people travel to Rio, and with great reason.  Rio is practically surrounded by some of the best beaches in the world, they seem to be endless and the show available at the beach is like no other anywhere.  The growth of the city in the the last thirty or forty years has followed the beach, forcing the reigning trendy stretch further and further out. 

    First there is Copacabana, the widest and still most crowded section.  It remains Rio’s quintessential beach.  Around the point from Copacabana are Ipanema and Leblon which appear to be one beach, but are very definitely two, each with its own particular character.  Ipanema continues to set the trends in beach fashion while Leblon tends to serve as a “neighborhood” beach, attracting few outsiders which is just fine with the area’s celebrity population.  Several miles down the road is the current “in” place to build a home, the Barra da Tijuca.  This beach is over nine miles long, starting out residential like the others, it becomes progressively more and more deserted. 
Ipanema Beach

    Going to the beach is a carioca specialty.  It is done about 9 or 10 a.m., but not at all if there is more than one cloud in the sky!  Another secret to a happy vacation in Rio is to leave everything in the hotel when going to the beach.  Don’t take anything to the beach you wouldn’t want to give away to a perfect stranger.  (In fact, generally speaking it is a good idea to always leave valuables and excess money in the hotel safe.  Be sensible.)  A morning at the beach can be an incredibly effective universal cure, both spiritually and physically healing, and relaxing beyond one’s greatest expectations.

    Still, the best thing to do in Rio is hang out in sidewalk cafes and watch the world go by—cheap, unbeatable entertainment.  But some people still want to sightsee.  
Rio sidewalk cafe, Bar Picote, Flamengo

    The Jardim Botânico (Botanical Garden) was founded in 1808 by the Emperor of Portugal, at that time, himself a carioca.  Its collection of flora from all over the world is unbeatable.  The Imperial Palms alone make the visit worthwhile. 

    The Carmen Miranda Museum offers a fascinating view of this legend of the stage and screen.  Oddly enough, she spent most of her career in Los Angeles.  The entry fee is twelve cents.

     If it can be arranged, a soccer (fútbol) game at the gigantic Maracaná Stadium, where crowds of 100,000 are common, should not be missed, especially on Sunday.  Dozens of drum-based samba bands and spontaneous fireworks punctuate the game in a rhythmic and driving way that Dallas cheerleaders will never achieve.  The game is more than exciting; exciting is the trip out of the stadium!

    And every traveler is interested in bargains and shopping.  Brazil has plenty and the current exchange situation puts the visitor with American dollars at a real advantage.  The aforementioned economic reforms included a freeze of the official exchange rate at13.77 cruzados to the dollar.  For one reason or another, there is a “parallel” rate which offers an advantage of about 35-45%, or Cz$18-21 to the dollar, depending on current conditions. [This is not the case in 2010...the dollar has crashed and the real is hot...prices, in ten years, have doubled for gringos bearing the almighty (!) dollar!)

    Hotels will usually exchange close to the “parallel” rate as will many businesses, but the best rate is usually found in travel agencies.  Newspapers quote the current rate in the financial section and, as long as you can get within one or two cruzados, don’t fret and waste time running around the city looking for a better exchange.  Brazil is already a bargain.  But the best arrangement is to use credit cards only in emergencies and take advantage of the “paralelo.” [Brazil ain't no bargain any longer, still can't beat if for it's beauty, complexity, music and people.]

    Aside from several pounds gained from eating, what does one take back from Brazil?  Leather goods, anything from shoes to bags, are very affordable, as are precious and semi-precious stones.  Brazil’s rich musical resources offer an endless variety of recordings and fine, very stylish clothing can be a very good buy.  For those interested in visual arts, the Galeria Jean-Jacques (Rua Ramon Franco, 49, two blocks from the Sugar Loaf lift) offers unique, high quality Brazilian naive paintings and prints at reasonable prices ($20 for prints,  paintings range from $50 to over $1000). [I think they are now out of business.]
Afro-Brazilian Folk Art, Pei de Boi Gallery, Rio de Janeiro

    Combined, Rio’s treasures create an irresistible magnet the attraction of which very few can overcome.  Although the city can present what seems to be an insurmountable series of frustrations and a division between rich and poor capable of pulling at the toughest heartstrings, visitors to Rio fall in love with its romantic charm and addicting daily rhythm.  The contrasting, multiple layers of its culture never cease to amaze foreigners.  An example:  Brazil is the world’s largest Catholic country, yet a very large percentage of the population lends some form of credence to the religious beliefs brought from Africa by the slaves.

    Rio is its own city; world-class in its sophistication and manner, yet timeless and singular in the character it has developed over the last 400 years.  A classic great escape, Rio, you were made, not just for Antonio Carlos Jobim, but surely for tourists as well!

    The first-time visitor to the Cidade Maravilhosa with a desire to experience the “real Brazil” in Rio is faced with a very difficult task.  Places offering Brazilian food or Brazilian music or both can be quite evasive.  Afterall, the upper class Brazilian who regularly frequents the better restaurants and clubs wants continental cuisine and American music.  So why wouldn’t the American tourist, obviously wealthy with dollars, want the same?

    But the charms of Brazilian cuisine and music can be uncovered with a little patience.
Casa Rui Barbosa, Botafogo, Rio de Janeiro

    The mid-town neighborhood of Botafogo is jammed with little restaurants and bars, many of which dedicate themselves to preserving the Brazilian-ness of Rio.   For a good introduction to home-style cooking try the daily special offered by the charming Botiquim (Rua Visconde de Caravelas, 184 in Botafogo).  A restored 19th century home, the specials, served on rustic, heavy clay plates, feature such treats as carne de sol, sun dried beef served with black-eyed peas and greens, and cozido, a hearty stew chocked with every imaginable vegetable as well as meat and sausage.
Acarajé, Yoruba, Rio de Janeiro

    Also in Botafogo is the very handsome Chale Brasileiro (Rua da Matriz, 54) where one can sample a variety of very well-prepared Brazilian dishes.  The Chale specializes in the unique food of Bahia, Brazil’s original capital, which emphasizes seafood and the African ingredients found in the region.  Try muqueca, a pungent stew featuring fish, shrimp, lobster or other seafood in a sauce of coconut milk, tomatoes, cilantro, peppers and palm oil; its rich flavor will never be forgotten.  Carurú is shrimp, okra and tomatoes: gumbo with a Bahian flair.  [This place is gone, but search out a place called Yoruba, also in is great!]

    For churrasco (barbecue), there are two methods:  a la carte or more-than-you-can-eat.  Very high quality meat can be had from the menu at the Churrascaria Leblon (Rua Adalberto Ferreira, 32 in Leblon) while the adventurous might want to try the rodizio (translate as “never ending parade of every grilled meat imaginable) at Máriu’s (Avenida Atlântica, 290 in Copacabana) or the Porcão (Rua Barao da Torre, 218 in Ipanema).  Brisket will never taste the same.

    On the exotic side, experiment with the Amazonian food at Arataca (Rua Figueiredo Magalhaes, 28 in Copacabana).  Pato No Tucupí (duck simmered in a unique broth) is the regional specialty, but also try the great variety of fresh water fish from the Amazon.  Arataca also serves a variety of very exotic fruit juices from the region and uses them as a base for the famous batida, a drink fired by cachaça, Brazilian rum.
Cafe Lamas

    A better feel for the Rio Thing can be had at Café Lamas (Rua Márques de Abarantes, 18 in Flamengo) or Amarelinho (on the Cinelandia plaza, Centro).  Lamas is a hangout for bohemians and journalists and features the best filets in town; the Filet á Oswaldo Aranha is covered with crisp bits of garlic and thinly sliced fried potatoes.  The Amarelinho (Little Yellow Joint) is a sidewalk cafe where the passing parade of life is utterly fascinating and the food is very good.  Snack on the Frango a Passarinho, chicken cut into bite-sized pieces and fried crisp with, that’s right, bits of garlic.
Amarelinho, Cinelândia, Rio de Janeiro

    For a mix of food and (usually) Brazilian music try a late dinner at one of Botafogo’s new bars:  Barbas (Rua Alvaro Ramos, 408),  Beco da Pimenta (Rua Real Grandeza, 176) or Bambino D’Oro (Rua Real Grandeza, 238).

    Brazilian music can best be located by combing through the “Show” pages of the daily papers, Jornal do Brasil and O Globo.  But a few places that usually have quality acts are Canecão, and the Circo Voador whose Sunday night program with the Orquestra Tabajára should not be missed. (Sadly, the wonderful Tabajára no longer does the Sunday thing, but the Circo continues!)

    It is worth planning a day’s activities around the remarkable programming of the two “Six-Thirty Projects.”  Referred to as the “Seis e Meia,” these are government or corporate sponsored shows downtown, Monday through Friday, at the Teatro Carlos Gomes and the Sala Sidney Miller which feature the best of Brazilian music at 6:30 p.m. for the very reasonable price of a buck. (These are few and far between these days, but still exist at times.)
Forró in Catete, Rio de Janeiro

    Several working-class nightspots have recently become fashionable and are worth investigating for their down to earth ambience and dance-provoking music.  The Gafiera Elite (Rua Frei Caneca, 4) and the Gafiera Estudantina (Praça Tiradentes, 79) are downtown dance clubs dating back at least fifty years.  They are both legendary and national treasures.  Forró Forrado (Rua do Catete, 235) offers regional music from Brazil’s Northeast which will sound very familiar to Cajuns traveling in Brazil.  These three places tend to operate weekends only, though Forró Forrado gets started on Thursday nights. (FF is gone, but there is forró in Catete on Sunday nights at a local dance studio...check the newspapers.)
Samba at Beco do Rato, Lapa, Rio de Janeiro

    For samba, the only sure thing is the Clube do Samba (Estrada da Barra, 65 in Barra da Tijuca).  It is a long cab ride and the headliner will not take the stage until 1:30 or 2 a.m., but it is well worth the trouble for a real taste of Rio’s most famous musical form.  If possible, stick it out to the end at 4:30 a.m.; the rhythms and excitement will be an unforgettable remembrance of Rio to take back home and savor for years to come.  (Clube do Samba is a thing of the distant past. However, there is samba galore in the revitalized Lapa neighborhood...check the papers, or ask around, or just wander after will hear the music pouring out of every other window for many blocks around...)

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Now For Something Completely Different

Ok, enough ranting about food and wet towels.

Here is some fantastic samba I videoed in Rio in October. There is more like it on my YouTube channel.

This is Nei Lopes, a fantastically talented man who started out as a lawyer and is now Rio's principal advocate and chronicler of Afro Brazilian culture: music, language and other aspects. He is also a talented writer of creative fiction. And one of the best sambistas of the last 40 years, having written a string of hits that have mostly been popularized by other perfomers.

This is one of those:

What Is A Foodie? Not Me!!!! Puhleeeze!

If you've read some of my older posts, well, with the rather exaggerated focus on food matters, one might surmise that, to use the colloquial term, I am a foodie.

Let me assure you that I am not.

I would never, ever refer to myself in that way, and cringe with others choose to do so.

"But you seem to love food so much, how could you NOT be one of those?"

Hmmmm. Here it's gonna get sticky, and I'm gonna end up sounding even more screwy and snobbish than any foodie could possibly be. So what's the difference?

Well, in my humble opinion, a foodie is someone who wants people to think they know a lot about food, that they care about food, that food plays a big role in their lives. However, it's been my experience that folks who accept this label usually don't really know all that much about food, their true passion is making themselves appear puffed up and knowledgeable among their friends, and anyone within audible conversation distance at restaurants, markets and so on. Gag me with a spoon.

The website which I frequent, or used to, when looking for what is going on in cities I am about to visit, or even those in which I have lived, has an interesting way of delineating true chowhounds. (Portland, Oregon has about the worst local forum I have seen, which is amusing to me since the city is constantly lauded as being the new mecca for food and dining in the USA. If chowhound is any sort of indicator, I'd have to say that Portland is more like a food cesspool. But I digress...)

Chowhound, as defined by the website, is one who lives to eat, as opposed to those who eat to live. A chowhound will travel hundreds of miles to sample some esoteric food, or the best fried chicken. You see, even lowly fried chicken can be 'hound-worthy. But will a foodie get a virtual hard-on over some amazing yardbird?  Not likely. For the foodie, the chicken must be prepared in a far more sophisticated manner. You pick. But fried? Not a chance. No balsamic involved, no kiwi, no exotic peppers.

Here is a great example of a foodie in action.

My House in Providence
About ten years ago I moved to Providence, Rhode Island where I bought a nice old home built in 1890. First thing I did was re-do the kitchen to make it functional—in 110 years, no previous owner bothered installing kitchen cabinets or counters. After the work was done, and it didn't take long because the kitchen was so small, the neighbor from across the street came over to introduce herself. When she saw the kitchen, she said, "Oh, you need to meet my husband, he loves to cook and has remodeled our kitchen like this, only bigger!"

So she dragged me immediately across the street to meet her man.
My Providence Kitchen
When I saw his kitchen—decked out with an eight-burner commercial range and a ten-foot long stainless steel dish washing "station" that had no business being in this smallish kitchen. I mentally slapped my forehead, and then again when he finally started on his tour around the place. This guy was totally full of himself and his own shit. The kitchen also featured a rather useless "commercial" refrigerator, meaning it had no freezer and, being only about twelve inches deep, was incapable of hold anything of any size. His freezer was a couple of rooms away. The dog and pony show ended with a glass of iced tea, sweetened with, not sugar, but with his specially prepared simple syrup...which is what? Sugar dissolved in water. Gimmie a break.

As we talked about HIS cooking, at some point he said, "Why don't you come over sometime when I'm cooking. You can be my sous chef." WTF?!?!?!?!?!!?!?   Are you kidding, you pretentious motherfucker?  But I let that slide. Then he said, "What do you cook? Like a bunch of one-dish meals?" WTF Number Two!!!?!?!?!?!??????  I let that slide too, but I was mentally honing my knives for future use in his kitchen....

During my time in Providence, I routinely hosted dinner parties for the handful of great friends I had there, and often included Mr Chef and his poor, sad, suffering wife (can you imagine living with an asshole like this???).

One evening, I made some of my well-regarded fresh tortelli (ravioli in Tuscan lingo) which I served  with my equally well-regarded tomato sauce. After everyone had nibbled a bit on the tortelli, Brandon the Food God said, "Mike, this sauce is great. What's in it?" I quickly and deftly responded with this: "Brandon, YOU are the food expert, why don't you tell us what you think is in it?"

So this foodie asshole took another bite and began his proposed ingredient litany: "Let's see. Onion. Garlic. Oregano. Basil. Olive oil. Rosemary....How'm I doing?"

With a giant smile, I said, "Wrong. Wrong. Wrong." Oh God, that felt good.

"It is simply tomato, with fresh, uncooked butter and a few basil leaves. Salt, pepper. Done."

(The recipe comes from my Italian food guru, Giuliano Bugiali's book, The Art of Italian Cooking, perhaps the best single book on Italian cooking. See it here. Sorry, Marcella.)

His need to over-complicate everything he, or anyone else, cooks is part of his foodie creed. American "chefs" suffer from this same syndrome, and it is why most Italian restaurants in this country are awful. They just can't leave stuff alone. Italian food is all about a few prime ingredients combined in an artful way to create an amazing dish. American chefs don't understand this, and have to, like a dog pissing on a fire hydrant, mark the dish as their own.

Never mind the fact that, for example, so many classic Italian dishes are the result of centuries of honing technique and recipe. But that isn't good enough for the American foodie and macho chef. Oh no. "I'm gonna make it better, you just watch."  Bobby The Asshole Flay is a great example of this on his Food Network "Throwdown" show...throw up is more like it. He is so cocky, he knows he can make any time-tested recipe better by adding all sorts of needless, but oh so trendy, ingredients that really have no business going into the dishes at hand. What self-indulgent, ignorant arrogance.

And that, my friends, is what makes self-proclaimed "foodies" tick. Self-indulgent, ignorant arrogance.

I may be stupid, and I may be ignorant, but I will admit to all of these delightful qualities. I usually admit to what I don't know. But, in the long run, I truly respect food and tradition. Foodies do not. They want to wear balsamic vinegar on their sleeves and on their ultra trendy salads, even though they have probably never actually had REAL balsamic vinegar, and don't know that it exists. Foodie-ism is a badge, like driving a Lexus.

My 2003 Honda
I'll stick with my rather modest Honda, thank you very much. It will get me the 500 miles cheaper in that quest for great BBQ than any Lexus...

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

If The Shoe Fits...

I am a true numbskull.

I have been wearing New Balance shoes for several years, and always more or less the same style, now called the "409" if I am not mistaken. Size eleven and a half.
New Balance 409s

Right before I left for Italy three weeks ago today, I bought a brand new pair of these to give my feet more support and comfort than the six-month-old pair I've been wearing lately. Great, easy purchase. Even wore them for a day or two before leaving to help start the break-in process.

After a day or two in Italy, I noticed my feet were in slight pain, and that the shoes were feeling a bit tight. Ok, a few more days of break-in and all will be fine.

Well, after those days, the pain didn't go away. And the shoes continued to feel too tight, as if they were about a half size too small. And instead of getting better, my feet just hurt more and more with each passing day.

I know that there is not always total size continuity from batch to batch of shoes like this, so I figured this eleven and a half was not true to the last few pairs I've had.

Walking around Florence, Bologna, Montlacino, Alba, New York never got easier, and in fact, was often very painful. Buying a new pair of shoes once I got home was tops on my list of things to do once back in Portland.

So, today, after getting home and unpacking a bit, I got ready to go out to get a nice hot bowl of Chinese soup. As I poked around for my shoes, I saw my new pair of New Balance resting in the hallway. But I wanted to wear my old pair since the shoes I wore on my trip were headed to the Goodwill pile.

But wait, these new New Balance shoes looked strange. They were darker, with more blue stripes all of a sudden.

And then it hit me. They were NOT the shoes I took to Italy! I was in such a hurry to get out the door on time when I left three weeks ago, I didn't notice I put on an old pair of shoes I bought last year, Adidas, that were, in fact, about half a size too small.

What an idiot!  My feet suffered for three weeks of walking eight hours a day or more because I wore shoes that were too fucking small to begin with!

So, my New Balance are absolutely brand new, unworn, and un-Italianated. I really screwed up big time on this one.

And I've been apologizing to my feet profusely for the last few hours. Please forgive me, feets!

If the shoe fits...but if it doesn't, well, get rid of them as soon as possible so you don't do what I just did!

What a lame mo'fo!!!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Montalcino Redux (What does 'redux' mean?)

Click on the photos to make ’em larger...

I'm gonna cheat here. I wanted to write more about Montalcino, but can't do better than this piece I wrote in about 1997 or so for the Austin American-Statesman (which now as a rather useless travel section, unfortunately...). It pretty well sums up my feelings about the place, or at least, if you read between the lines (or some of them), you should get a decent feel for my love of this town.

I may sneak a few more recent thoughts into my previous post about the food, but not sure what they might be that could better the following, of which, I am very proud....


Please don’t read this.
Montalcino from below

If you insist on continuing, please don't tell anyone about our little secret. When word gets out, the peaceful tranquillity of one of Tuscany's finest hilltop jewels will certainly be shattered. And Montalcino will never be the same. Please let me discourage you from visiting.

Montalcino is located, geographically speaking, in the Italian province of Siena, an hour south of Florence and three hours north of Rome. But in every other sense it is truly in another world.
The world's most photographed cypresses, near Montalcino
In Montalcino the concept of time disappears. The crowding, noise and bustle of other Italian cities vanish. Sorry, no Campari neon, no flashing Odeon theaters, no Benetton billboards. Not even a single taxi: the 10-minute walk across town makes them superfluous, and besides, there is only one street that runs Montalcino's full length. Sounds horrible, right?

Streets of Montalcino
In Montalcino you'll have to make do with a well-preserved example of a sixteenth century Italian città (city) where life adapts a different pose, not unlike a visit to the past.
Beyond the fact that the architecture has changed little in four hundred years – massive rough hewn stone walls of every building in this town of five thousand citizens, the classic Tuscan bell tower of the city hall, the imposing castle-like ramparts of La Fortezza (the Fortress)–the basic rhythm of daily living is not a particularly modern one.

When the day begins, the ancient bakery does its best to pollute.

The hot, sweet smell of bread and cookies baking wafts through the otherwise crisp, clean mountain air. And the chop chop chopping clatter of the biscotti-cutting machine echoes relentlessly along the cobblestones as another wicker basket fills with Tuscany’s unwitting contribution to the trendy accouterment of the caffè latte-obsessed in the United States.

Sant'Antimo Abbey, Montalcino
The morning also offers one of the best ways to melt into the timelessness of Montalcino. Five minutes down the road is the abbey church of Sant'Antimo where, at nine o’clock sharp, the six or seven Cistercian monks celebrate Mass sung in Gregorian chant. The building itself is sufficient for time transport, constructed of travertine in classic Romanesque style and adorned with whimsical animals carved from local alabaster.

But add the element of ancient music and ceremony and the atmosphere changes sufficiently to move even the most skeptical.

Interior, Sant'Antimo

This church was founded in 781 by Charlemagne as thanks for his troops being spared that year's raging plague. It was enlarged to its present state in the twelfth century when it was the center of one of Italy's richest and most influential monasteries.
Interior, Sant'Antimo, Montalcino

Stick around after Mass and, for a small tip, the caretaker will show you some of the church's highlights. If you increase the pay a bit, and you just come out and ask, he might let you go into the otherwise forbidden upstairs level that, on one side, was the Sienese bishop's home-away-from-home and, on the other, was the women's gallery; of course they were not allowed in the church proper.
From the sacristy fresco, Sant'Antimo
On the way up, pause to admire the original Carolingian chapel that now serves as the sacristy, and notice the fresco depicting the bucolic farm life of the old abbey, including a pair of copulating pigs.
From the sacristy fresco, Sant'Antimo

By all means, buy yourself the hypnotic recording of chants recorded in this awesome structure.

In the early afternoon, forget about making any stock market trades. The entire town shuts down for a three-hour lunch break.Walk through the twisting, cobbled lanes. They're deserted, almost spooky. Quiet is everywhere. Even the few cars allowed within the town walls are still. Maybe the silence makes you uneasy. Maybe you really miss the honking, belching traffic of the city.

Trattoria il Pozzo, San Angelo in Colle (Montalcino)
The best way to escape such quiet is to avoid it. Find a family-run trattoria and do as the Montalcinesi do. Linger a couple of hours over some of the area’s rustic cuisine and world-famous wines (more on which later). Chances are, you'll stumble into conversation with a fellow traveler, or with one of the friendly locals. And, in no time, you've wasted an entire afternoon, wasted it savoring good food and good company, the way mealtime used to be in the United States, a long, long time ago, before advanced technology gave us so much extra leisure time.

By the time lunch is over, the city will have sprung back to life.

But be careful back on the street. In Montalcino, strangers sometimes approach visitors on the street. They approach, and then—and then—they say hello! Buona sera, indeed. The nerve! So,go forewarned: This will happen to you in Montalcino.

On the afternoon stroll, forget the local museum. It's closed for renovation. But do admire some of the backyard gardens full of grapes, olive trees and artichokes. Compared to Florence or Siena, Montalcino offers little in the way of grand displays of Renaissance art anyway (actually, all of Montalcino is a living monument to the Renaissance).

Sputnik image, San Pietro Church, Montalcino
But there are some gems if you look. For something completely different, visit the church of San Pietro, just a short walk from the main drag. Inside this charming edifice is one of the most amazing paintings in all of Italy. It features the usual iconography of the period with one exception. At the feet of Christ is what appears to be a metal sphere, and the metal sphere appears to have several antennae sprouting from it. This is not an object we normally associate with the Italy of the year 1600, when this work was painted. No wonder some refer to this place as the Church of the Holy Sputnik.
Town Hall, Montalcino

The late afternoon sun, except during summer, casts long shadows down Montalcino's steep, narrow streets. (Referring to the web of medieval alleys and stairways that connect the various sections and levels of this mountain-perched town as "streets" might be stretching the truth; but their meandering design keeps the auto population under control.) Anyway, those shadows signal a time to sit down at a caffè on the main square, the Piazza del Popolo, and have an espresso, a bottle of mineral water, or another glass of the area's world-famous wines (more on which later).

The sun's last rays always paint the Tuscan sky as majestically as the finest fresco in nearby Florence, and that purple-pink cloak sweeps an even greater calm over the city. A quick walk through town offers a glimpse of the last few market transactions of the day: a wedge of local sheep's cheese, some brilliantly colored long-stemmed artichokes, a basket full of wild mushrooms. Then the night takes over.
Sundown, Montalcino

Dinner mirrors lunch, and by ten the city buttons up tight once more, tucking you in for the best night's sleep you've ever had. If you like that sort of thing.


Like the valley below on many early mornings, the origins of Montalcino are obscured by a fog. Though Etruscan and Roman artifacts have been found in the area, the site of the current city was probably not established until the ninth or tenth century. But once underway, the growth was fast and furious, so much so that Montalcino has grown little since the 1300s.
Montalcino as seen from La Fortezza

Its strategic position on a hilltop overlooking the all-important route between Rome and Paris, the Via Francigena, placed Montalcino in the middle of much intrigue and warfare involving at one time or another Siena, Florence, several popes, the Medici, Spain and others. Finally, in the 1550s, the town surrendered to the powerful Medici of Florence and disappeared into that ubiquitous fog of time once again.

But the soil and climate of this fortuitous spot have provided another renaissance for Montalcino, a rebirth brought about by the international discovery of Montalcino's legendary ruby gold: the wine known as Brunello di Montalcino.
Brunello vines in Fall, Montalcino

Hailed as one of the world's best reds and quickly becoming one of the most expensive, Brunello is bringing new wealth to this formerly sleepy hamlet. By law, Brunello can only be produced within a very small region surrounding the town, thus controlling the quality and the price. In Montalcino the price for a bottle is roughly half that in the U.S.A., so if you enjoy wine, stock up. It will last. Brunello from 1888 is still being consumed, though not often!
Brunello on display, Montalcino

Also try the “baby Brunello”, Rosso di Montalcino, made from the same grapes, but without the four years of aging required for its big brother. For a wine redolent of flowers and honeysuckle, try the other wine exclusive to Montalcino, Moscadello. It comes in two varieties: a slightly frizzy young treat enjoyed before dinner, and a slightly more "tangy" dessert-style wine (termed licoroso).

La Fortezza, Montalcino
La Fortezza, Montalcino

Honey on display, Montalcino
A good place to sample these is in the enoteca of the Fortezza. This incredible structure was built to protect the populace during times of siege, and the walls make for a great morning of sightseeing.On a clear day you can see much of Tuscany. Siena, thirty miles to the north, is that reddish smudge on the horizon. The friendly staff will allow you to sample the wines they have open, and will be happy to answer questions about the wine, pecorino cheese, olive oil and other local products they sell.

With these samples as an appetizer, head straight to one of the fine local restaurants for some delicious country cooking. This area is well known for its cured meats, its sheep's milk pecorino, the hand-rolled rustic spaghetti known as pinci, and dishes made from wild boar and other game, as well as a heavenly, hearty soup made from beans and local produce and drizzled with some of Italy's best olive oil.

Some other goodies to look out for are local specialties from the bakery including biscotti (called cantucci) and the crisp meringue almond cookie, ossi di morto (dead man's bones!). Dip either in a glass of Moscadello after dinner for a traditional and delightful dessert.

Honey is another of the area's principal products, and every store in town features at least 10 varieties, each flavored by a specific type of blossom; the beekeepers move their hives from place to place to capture the essence of particular flowers for these honeys. Don't forget to grab some ceramics, olive oil and dried porcini mushrooms before you pack your bags!

Clearly, the problem with a visit to Montalcino is the tendency to eat too much, sleep too much, relax too much, walk too much,breathe too much clean air. Obviously, this is not a vacation.Vacations are supposed to provide a difficult and tense week or two so that returning to work will be a relief. Why on earth would anyone want to spend any time in such a place as Montalcino?

If you go:

Tourist Information: Montalcino Tourist Office: 011-39 (577) 849 331

Arriving: Because Montalcino is not well served by public transportation, the best way to see the area is to rent a car in any major city: Rome (three hours), Florence (one hour) or Siena (30 minutes) are some logical choices. There is much to see within a short driving distance of the city, and a car allows for such side trips. Otherwise, there are regular buses from Siena, an hour's bus ride away.

Lodging: Reservations are a good idea, especially in the summer. Lodging in Montalcino is wonderfully comfortable and homey. The Tourist Office can send a complete list.

Here are a few choices:

Hotel Il Giglio [011 39 (577) 848 167] is run by members of a friendly family who restored this 13-room gem; they also rent rooms in a private residence which are immaculate, replete with fresh flowers and a complementary bottle of local wine.

Food: In town there are many options. These are just a few: Osteria di Porta al Cassero (Via Libertà, 9) offers great home-style cooking and stays open late.

Taverna dei Barbi (Part of the Barbi Winery, four kilometers south of Montalcino on the road to Sant’ Antimo) features some of the most traditional food around, including hand-rolled pinci; the manager, Giovanni is a hoot.
Trattoria il Pozzo, San Angelo in Colle
Trattoria Il Pozzo (10 minutes away in the small town of San Angelo in Colle) offers a changing menu of unusual but traditional dishes, and the respected winery Il Poggione is next door, so try their wines at bargain prices.

When to go:

Any time is a good time because the weather is always nice. Winter offers few tourists, cool temperatures and clear skies, lots of mushrooms, truffles, new olive oil and other fall/winter delights. Summer temperatures are mild, the sky is hazy and the tourist load is heavy, but the hills are straight out of the Mona Lisa. The Festival of the Thrush featuring Renaissance costumes, music, spectacle and an archery contest is celebrated during the last weekend of October.