Perugia: Italy’s chocolate capital a sweet spot to celebrate the dying profession of journalism

Perugia on one of the few times it didn’t rain. Photo by Marina Pascucci


PERUGIA, Italy — If Italy was a gelato cone, Perugia would be the hot chocolate syrup they dip it in.

It’s the chocolate capital of Italy. It’s home to Perugina chocolate (Baci chocolate kisses, anyone?), the annual Eurochocolate festival and more chocolate shops than Dublin has pubs. Thus, my heart — and my dentist — have huge sweet spots for this hill town in the heart of Umbria.

It’s not just chocolate that brought me here recently. The International Journalism Festival had five days of lectures and conferences, including the intriguing and newsworthy American topic, “Beyond Fake News: What’s Next for Tackling Online Misinformation.” Perugia is the capital of Umbria, pushing Sicily as my favorite region in Italy, with fantastic local cuisine and wine and an unspoiled persona. As the only one of Italy’s 20 regions not bordering an ocean or another country, Umbria has been the least vulnerable to outside influences.

Oh, I also won an award.

Perugia is the birthplace of Perugina chocolate. Photo by Marina Pascucci


The Camera di Commercio Perugia takes such great pride in its town and region it bestows awards to journalists shedding light on a place oft overlooked on tourists’ well-trodden pilgrimages across Italy. I won the Umbria del Gusto (Flavor of Umbria) award for the January blog I did about American transplant Ev Thomas buying an 800-year-old farmhouse in Umbria and turning the few grape vines into a fledgling winery. The Local, Italy’s only English-language news source, picked it up and while it didn’t go viral, it did go Umbrian.

The town put up my girlfriend and me for two nights in the four-star Sangallo Palace Hotel, wined and dined us and feted us like the celebrities that we aren’t.

No, Umbria del Gusto isn’t the Pulitzer. But it’s in Perugia, and that’s award enough. Plus, it’s always fun trying to explain what “Dog-Eared Passport” means in Italian.

Perugia (pop. 165,000), 100 miles north of Rome, always gives me the early impression that I’m walking onto a science fiction set. To reach the centro storico (historical center) from the hotel, you must walk up through a complex of dark, eerily lit tunnels, lined with huge, high-ceilinged rooms used for everything from a souvenir shop to conferences. I remember sitting blindfolded in one of them during Eurochocolate 2008 and having a blind chocolate taste — run by blind people.

Rocca Paolina was built by Pope Paolo III Farnese in the 1540s. Photo by Marina Pascucci


The area is called the Rocca Paolina and built by Pope Paolo III Farnese in the 1540s as a fortress over a very wealthy neighborhood. In 1983 the city conveniently outfitted it with escalators, making the steep climb into darkness a lot less taxing. Nevertheless, I still always feel like I’m in a subterranean, prehistoric cave waiting for a T-Rex to step around the corner.

Escaping from the tunnels you come across a compact centro storico that is tranquil until the hordes of university students hit the piazzas and bars at night. The town is home to the University of Perugia, founded in 1308, with 35,000 students and the University of Foreigners with 5,000 foreign students, most of whom are abroad with mommy and daddy’s money for the first time. It was this atmosphere that Perugia received its most fame in recent years.

Amanda Knox, a Seattle native studying in Perugia, was arrested and convicted of murder in 2009 when a roommate had her throat cut during what many have termed a group sex game that went bad two years previously. The attractive Knox became a media sensation. “Foxy Knoxy” spent nearly four years in jail and was eventually exonerated after evidence emerged of the police’s colossal series of screwups.

On one past trip through Umbria, some friends and I stopped by the roommates’ old house on the downslope of the hill. The long, two-story home has become as big a tourist attraction as San Lorenzo, Perugia’s 1,100-year-old cathedral. After many conversations with locals, who don’t seem to mind the persistent question, I’m firmly convinced the only people who think she’s innocent are in the city of Seattle.

Speaking of Seattle, Perugia felt like it all weekend. It poured nearly the entire time. I emerged from the tunnels to a tempest making the cobblestone streets empty and slick. I walked past the Perugina outlet store and to Palazzo dei Priori, the 13th century palace that looks more like a small castle than the city’s main art gallery. I managed to find a staircase that wound down into a dark alley to a small sign reading “LA TAVERNA.”

Pappardelle with Umbrian ragu at La Taverna.


This hidden, elegant diner is THE place to try Umbrian cuisine. This region is known for four main foods: cinghiale, wild boar that so over runs Central Italy even animal lovers don’t protest its hunting season; tartufi, black truffles that are considered a delicacy all over Europe and without question the most overrated food in Italy; lenticchie, lentils made into a thick soup terrific in winter; piccione, pigeons, cooked whole and once the diet staple of locals while under attack in the Middle Ages.

While I waited for Marina to get off work and take the train up, I took a seat alone at a table with a white tablecloth and looked up at the vaulted brick ceiling. Eating inside what seems like a cave has its own romance, especially when Umbrian food is added. My pappardelle with Umbrian ragu (long, flat noodles with wild boar meat sauce) was thick, fresh and fantastic. Topped off with a glass of Umbria’s Morcinaia wine, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese and Merlot, it was a great bargain for only 23 euros.

Works by Gerardo Dottori


The award ceremony was a two-day affair beginning with an evening guided tour of the Museo Civico di Palazzo della Penna which hosted weird, haunting works of Gerardo Dottori, a Perugia artist famous for his futuristic works from the early 20th century. Later, the other seven award winners and I joined the organizing committee and judges for an aperitivo of local meats and cheeses followed by an Umbrian feast. Besides my tender manzo, I had a dish called sfornato, kind of a local polenta but much thicker and tastier than the bland polenta I’ve had in the past.

I sat next to one of the judges who read my work. Dennis Redmont is a retired former Associated Press bureau chief in Rome. Amazingly, we had met before. In 2003, nearing the end of my first 16-month stint in Rome and deeply in the throes of love with my adopted city, I went to him hat in hand opening I could land a part-time job and extend my stay. He sat down with me and said that AP was in the process of shedding about 15-20 percent of its workforce around the world. It was foreshadowing of what was to become in my news industry.

Since I returned to my old job at The Denver Post in 2003 to today, The Post’s newsroom has gone from more than 350 reporters to 60. The staff is so small the paper moved from its cool downtown location to the suburbs where it shares space — with its printing plant.

Yes, I did get out at the right time.

The award winners. (I’m the tall one.) Photo by Marina Pascucci


But events like Perugia makes me glad I keep a hand in it. I dressed up in my toned-down gray Italian suit. Marina talked me out of one of the shiny silk suits that make me look like a flunky for the Irish mob. Before the ceremony at Centro Servizi G. Alezzi conference center, we escaped the rain across the street at Caffe Perugina. It’s one of Perugia’s beautiful bars (cafes are often called “bars” in Italy), with ornate furnishings and brass tabletops. Over a cappuccino, it felt like we stepped into Perugia in 1920s. I was taken aback when the barista said Caffe Perugina began in 1997.

During my career, I was never big into awards, mainly because I didn’t win many. I was more of a grinder journalist, a sportswriter who plugged along day after day, seeking news and sprinkling my coverage with the occasional long human interest story. When I branched out into food and wine, things changed. You don’t really break food news. What, “TOMATOES SEEKING MORE RESPECT IN SUPERMARKETS”?

Instead, I wrote the weird (I tried eating a 72-ounce steak in Amarillo, Texas), the trendy (restaurant boom in Moscow) and the disgusting (animal penis restaurant in Beijing). I always tied it to the local culture. This was the second award I’ve won for food and wine writing. Maybe I missed my calling.

The conference room was packed with observers and photographers. I sat in the front row with the other winners, all of whom walked up to the dais for a question and answer period. Notified shortly beforehand that the session would be in Italian, I nearly fled the room. I can answer any question in Italian; the problem is I likely won’t understand the question in Italian.

I told Redmont my dilemma, who said he would do the Q&A in English and translate.

“It’ll be more exotic,” he said.

Most of the awards were for videos, showing Perugia at its majestic best, catching sunrises from the hilltown and the monuments glistening in the city’s soft lights at night. Two guys traveled around Umbria talking and capturing video of the region’s underrated wineries.

I felt so old school. It was merely a blog. How boring. But Redmont asked me about the theme of Dog-Eared Passport and a recent blog I wrote about my three travel stories from hell. I talked too long and talked too fast and hardly anyone understood. I had to wait for Redmont’s translation to hear any laughter about my bout with typhoid in Northern Thailand.

Later, we all gathered for group photos, standing in front of a phalanx of photographers as if we were standing on a red carpet instead of a concrete floor.

Afterward, Marina and I dashed back to the hotel to change clothes more appropriate for early flooding stages and waded back into Centro Storico. The journalism festival had 275 different conferences. We had time to choose one. Appalled by Pres. Trump’s attack at the free press and labeling every critical sentence “fake news” drew me to the lecture “Beyond Fake News.” James Ball is an English journalist and author of “Post-Truth: How Bullshit Conquered the World.” He was part of a London School of Economics commission that did a report on misinformation.

I met him outside the Arcivescovado conference room, sharing the same piazza as Palazzo dei Priori. Late 30ish and casually dressed, he talked to me about how news coming out of Brexit is getting as scrutinized as much as it is out of Washington. Ball is a level-headed, highly intelligent journalist with a quick British wit and an analytical bent.

James Ball


One point was fake news involves more than Donald Trump. Before Trump started defecating on the First Amendment, journalists wrote wildly hilarious headlines just to get the reader “clicks,” the new media measurement for economic success. He mentioned some headlines from that day:

“BIBLE SHOCK! WHY EXPERT CLAIMS JESUS RESURRECTED THROUGH ADAM’S BODY AFTER CHURCH FIND!”

“NH370 SHOCK! DATA FROM MISSING MALAYSIAN AIRLINES FLIGHT SHRUGGED OFF AND IGNORED!”

“TIME TRAVEL SHOCK! TIME TRAVEL FROM 2018 SHOWS PHOTO OF DINOSAUR FROM THE PAST!”

He said they were all from that day’s edition of The Sun, the United Kingdom’s top-selling newspaper.

“So if fake news is this terrible threat to journalism then why is our biggest paper putting it out? If fake news isn’t the problem, what is? … What we have is a bullshit problem and a misinformation problem and that’s a lot harder than fake news.”

He brought up the story in Breitbart, American journalism’s equivalent of “Mein Kampf.” It wrote that a Muslim mob set fire to Germany’s oldest church. What actually happened was a protest march of recent Muslim immigrants seeking asylum. There were some fireworks and one hit a tarpaulin on a boundary wall of the church grounds. It started a small fire and the protesters helped put it out.

“There was a fire. There was a church and it was a majority Muslim crowd,” Ball said. “Is it fake news to turn it into what Breitbart did?”

And it’s not just the rags that are guilty of this, Ball said. Take Russia’s meddling into the 2016 election.

Marina and I near Palazzo dei Priori


“They put those emails by Wikileaks but that’s not where the public saw them,” Ball said. “They saw them through Fox News, through CNN, through The New York Times, The Washington Post. We don’t self search. We shout at Facebook. We shout at Twitter. We shout at the public. We shout at Russia. We ignore the fact that we’re the agents for all this.

“We’re not good at not being played.”

Travel tales from hell: Disease, machetes and the lessons we learn

Eating insects in Phnom Penh with my Cambodian friend and insect advisor, Samnieng Bee.

Eating insects in Phnom Penh with my Cambodian friend and insect advisor, Samnieng Bee.


To truly travel, one must truly suffer.

It’s a backpacker’s creed, one I’ve preached throughout an international travel career spanning 41 years and 100 countries. Break out of your comfort zone like it’s a prison cell. Stroll through new, unfamiliar worlds that make you wake up wondering, “What could possibly happen today?”

When you see the crowd walk one way, walk the other. Enter bars where no one else has your skin color. Go white-water rafting past crocodiles. Eat an insect. Take chances and go through Door No. 2.

Then lose your earphones and take in the sounds of your new surroundings. The arguments of Cairo cab drivers. The music in the streets of Havana. The eerie growls from a pre-dawn jungle in Belize.

Playing it safe is for vacationers, people going on holiday. I knew a woman in Colorado who every year went to the same all-inclusive Mexican resort. She only left the compound on her last day to shop. I don’t think she ever met a Mexican.

Outside my ger in Mongolia.

Outside my ger in Mongolia.


I once asked a travel writer — writers who travel in packs with other writers taken by the hand by tour guides — to give me her worst travel experience. She said one time her flight out of Nairobi was cancelled and she had to spend the night in the city alone.

Come on!

Travel without surprises is like a margarita without tequila. It’s refreshing but there’s no kick. Take a chance. Make an effort. Sometimes Door No. 2 opens up a whole different world.

A deserted, exotic beach in Sri Lanka. A fantastic home-cooked meal in a rural home in Yugoslavia. Watching the sun rise above Africa from the top of Kilimanjaro.

Keep in mind traveling off the beaten path is much easier for a guy. The New York Times recently ran a story chronicling some horrid attacks women have suffered traveling alone. These women travelers suffered too much.

Men don’t get sexually attacked. Hookers do take no for an answer. Then again, men still can suffer. While I’ve experienced all the above, I’ve also walked through the new doors and fallen face first in a pile of Third World trouble. Odds are if you spend enough time off the beaten path you will lose your way.

In cooking class in India.

In cooking class in India.


In other words, I’ve suffered.

Yet, I’ve also learned. I’ve also laughed. It becomes part of the fabric that is travel abroad. It puts your own life in perspective. It helps you handle mundane problems such as the flu and a flat tire. No date on Friday night? Who cares?

I have talked to groups about travel and I always ask, by a raise of hands, how many have had bad experiences on the road, or, as I call them, travel tales from hell? Then I ask what are the travel stories they most often discuss around the dinner table or bar? It’s the time they got shaken down by cops in Indonesia or spent the night in a brothel in Malaysia or thought you got kidnapped in Iron Curtain Hungary. That has all happened to me, too. Yet I rarely tell those stories.

I have better ones.

With spring here and travel season approaching, this is a good time to share three favorite travel stories from hell. Try not to read while eating. Parts are disgusting. Parts are funny. All are enlightening — I hope.

Trekking in Borneo.

Trekking in Borneo.


Just keep in mind that suffering on the road isn’t usually tragedy. As I so often heard from coaches in my sportswriting days, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” To travel is to suffer.

This is how I suffered (Unfortunately, there is no photographic evidence. Read on and you’ll see why.):

Typhoid in Thailand. There’s a saying among old Asian hands that if you travel long enough in Asia, you will get sick. It just depends on what disgusting disease you get and for how long. I met a guy whose girlfriend picked up, at the same time, hepatitis and ringworm. Lovely.

In 1978-79, during a year-long solo trip around the world, I spent four months backpacking through Southeast and East Asia. After a freelance writing assignment in Bangkok, I spent the beer money trekking in Northern Thailand. I was hiking through thick jungle among the Lahu and Lisu hill tribes north of Chiang Rai, heading toward the Golden Triangle, back then the world’s leading source for heroin.

One night, I woke up with nausea, a blistering temperature, a serious migraine and the worst thirst of my life. I would’ve given five years off my life for an ice-cold 7-Up. But I was about a two day’s hike from the nearest road and figured this was just my time. I didn’t know until later what I had contracted.

Are you familiar with typhoid? It is a disease of the digestive tract. It’s when all your bodily functions simultaneously say, “FUCK IT!” and quit working. Soon vomiting attacks and diarrhea joined my own personal torture chamber.

I spent two days walking back to civilization, accompanied by a local guide who didn’t have a clue what I had or what to do. I could keep nothing down, not even water, particularly boiled, purified water that had the same temperature as some of the more cooler Jacuzzis. The air temperature was in the 80s with humidity more appropriate for African violets than human life.

When we finally reached a village, I sat down at an outdoor table. I was so weak my head crashed atop my folded arms. I hadn’t eaten in 24 hours for fear of food coming back up again. I had vomited so much my stomach muscles hurt. I was spitting up bile.

I ordered a bowl of soup. I took three sips and the slow groan familiar to Third World travelers began growing in my stomach. The little cafe had one outhouse. I stumbled in and it was nearly pitch black. The lone light was the searing sun piercing through holes in the bamboo.

Then came the double whammy: vomiting and diarrhea at the same time. I was a human volcano. Oddly, I started feeling pain in my feet. Now what? I looked down and would’ve screamed if I had the energy.

Slightly illuminated by the fractured sunlight, rats had crawled out of the hole in the floor and were biting my feet.

Dizzy, weak and disgusted to the point of vomiting more than I already was, I managed to open the door and escape back to my table. A young girl of about 12 or 13 walked in with a mop. I tried to warn her but was too weak to even raise my hand. A few seconds later, she flew out of the outhouse screaming.

A horror film director couldn’t get this scene past any studio in the world.

I eventually took a bus to Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand’s major city, and the clinic pumped me full of glucose, penicillin and antibiotics. No help. I spent New Year’s Eve 1978 throwing up my guts in my guesthouse’s outhouse.

I finally reached Bangkok. Keep in mind the late ‘70s was pre-AIDS and the sex industry left over from the Vietnam War was still alive and very well. Every guy (except me) had sex; every guy got VD. Bangkok, particularly around the backpackers’ neighborhood of Lumphini, had a VD clinic on practically every corner.

I walked into one hoping to get a cure for a disease that’s a lot less fun to catch. I looked like I’d spent a week on a slave ship. My skin had an orange tint, my long hair was everywhere, my eyes were bloodshot, my tongue was swollen. I stumbled into the office and slumped onto a plastic chair.

A Swede waiting to get checked looked at me and said, “My God! Who were you with?”

The doctor diagnosed it as typhoid. He told me that the innoculations I got in Athens earlier that month doesn’t prevent you from getting typhoid. They merely keep you alive.

His dose of glucose, penicillin and antibiotics kicked in the next day. But the end of the ordeal, I had lost 20 pounds in eight days and stood 6-foot-3 and 138 pounds.

Postscript: When I returned to the States and settled into my first job, I got a checkup at my local clinic in suburban Seattle. The doctor said typhoid may build up my immunity system. She was right. In 40 years, I never missed a day of work due to illness.

Machete in Morocco. The Third World has great shopping. However, bargaining is often the rule and you’d better know how to do it. At 22, I didn’t. I learned in a hurry.Thankfully, I was able to bargain again.

I was in Fez, Morocco, home to North Africa’s biggest medina, a marketplace filled choc-a-bloc with everything from fragrant spice stalls to smoky cafes to carpet dealers of various repute. Back then it was a dark and mysterious place, lit mostly by candles, making night shopping like lurking through a haunted house. I’d heard stories of tourists wandering in and never coming out.

It’s a labyrinth covering 540 acres. No accurate map existed. I spent one day taking continuous right-hand turns as I explored only the outside rim. Wanting to delve deeper, I reluctantly hired one of the plethora of men offering guide services.

What I didn’t know is these guides guide you to their merchant friends. Whatever you buy, your guide gets a cut. It wasn’t long before “Abdul” led me into a copper shop. The place was beautiful, filled with plates of every size hanging from the walls. Abdul told me the merchant’s father designed part of the door on the king’s palace.

Now what in the hell would I do with a copper plate? I was backpacking. Where would I put it? Slip it in my shorts? The merchant showed me a gorgeous, shiny, highly embroidered plate about two feet in diameter. It was obviously out of my price range and he confirmed it.

It was the equivalent of about $40. That was more than four days budget for me. I didn’t even want it free. So I decided to insult him.

Five dollars.

I quickly learned you can’t insult a Moroccan merchant while bargaining. He scoffed, shook his head and told me to make a serious offer. I didn’t. He said $30. To make a long story short, in five minutes he had dropped his price to $10. I said sorry and started walking out.

“OK! OK!” he said as he began wrapping the plate in newspaper. “Five dollars!”

Then I made a mistake that nearly cost me my life — or at least a limb. I turned to face him. I told him I still didn’t want it.

Then he felt insulted.

He went behind a curtain and pulled out a knife the size of a Louisville Slugger. He began screaming in Arabic. I screamed in a language I didn’t know I knew and ran out, my guide in chase and so was the merchant’s right foot which barely missed me. He had the good sense to use a shoe as a weapon instead of a machete that could puncture the Goodyear Blimp.

I told the guide, “Why did you take me in there? I told you I didn’t want a copper plate!”

He said, “Sir, he could’ve killed you and there would be nothing anyone could do about it.”

Lesson learned: If you shop in the Third World, you’d better want it before you price it.

Wharf rats in Indonesia. Speaking of rats …

… no, they are not omnipresent in the Third World. They’re omnipresent everywhere. New York. Las Vegas. Rome. You just don’t always see them. And some places they grow bigger than others.

Take any waterside village with lots of garbage and you’ll see rats the size of dachshunds. Which brings us to Tentena, Indonesia.

Tentena is on the island of Sulawesi, the dragon-shaped island just east of Borneo. Sulawesi is an exotic, beautiful island with gorgeous beaches, terrific scuba diving, fantastic food and interesting culture.

Tentena was none of these things.

In 1995 I spent five weeks traveling the island and after about seven hours in a bush taxi through the Sulawesi interior found myself in Tentena. Tentena had no refrigeration, no cold water, no beer and sits on the edge of Lake Poso.

Dead tired, I checked into a budget hotel and after a simple dinner went to bed on a hot night. I left the window open to get a breeze off the lake. Closing my eyes, I heard a thump from inside the room. It sounded like a fallen atlas. I turned on the head lamp. Sitting on the floor wasn’t an atlas.

It was a rat, a giant wharf rat, almost two feet long without the tail. It raced across the room and through a hole in the opposite wall. My threshold for Third World squalor is pretty high. Give me a door lock, clean sheets and a shower and I’m pretty happy. I once stayed in a hotel in rural Egypt where the shower drained doubled as the toilet.

But I draw the line with rats that must drop weight to go three rounds with my cat.

I went to the manager, who spoke no English, and pantomimed my problem. I used a “TSEE! TSEE! TSEE!” sound to mimic the noise rats make and bared my teeth.

“AH!” he said, “TIKUS!” I then added the word for “rat” to my growing Indonesian vocabulary. He indicated he’d find something to get rid of it. He didn’t respond when I asked if he had an Uzi.

I went for a short walk and returned to the manager who put me up in another room. Too tired to ask if he nuked the rodent, I went to sleep — with the window closed and my eyes open. Suddenly, like the ominous music of a Grade B horror film, I heard the noise again.

“TSEE! TSEE! TSEE!”

Oh, my God. It’s back!

Then I heard, “TSEE! TSEE! TSEE! TSEETSEETSEETSEETSEETSEETSEETSEETSEETSEE!”

There’s more than one! There’s more than two! I can’t count them! I can’t see them! Then it dawned on me.

They’re mating. Rats wildly copulating behind my walls! Well, I thought, at least they’re occupied.

I rolled over and after what must’ve been a mass orgasm of the rodent orgy — one sexual fantasy I somehow missed growing up — the room grew quiet. I could not sleep, especially after I glanced at the window. Behind the frayed curtain was a long shadow that wasn’t there before. It looked as long as the rat’s tail but much thicker.

I precariously approached the window. I suddenly related to the guy in the movies who opens the door at the frat retreat before the disfigured psycho disembowels him with a power tool. I turned back the curtain and hanging down was some kind of insect, about a foot long, brown and red with thousands of little feet.

It raised its bulbous head at me. I didn’t need a translator or an entomologist to tell me what I thought it was about to say.

“GET OUT!”

This was “Terminator” Indonesia. I didn’t get out. I had nowhere to go. I eventually went to sleep and the next day at the bus stop, I met an Aussie who was sleeping in a nearby room at my hotel. He said he heard through the walls me say three things that perfectly captured Third World travel.

“GET THAT RAT OUTTAHERE!”

“OH, MY GOD! THEY’RE FUCKING!”

“WHAT THE HELL IS THAT?!

Thursday I leave for my birthday in Beirut. In May I spend three weeks in Central Asia (Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, etceterastan).

Bring it on.

In an Italian housing market reaching a crisis stage, this man is raffling his Abruzzo home for $65

This 1,300-square-foot house is at 850 meters on the edge of Gran Sasso National Park. Jamie Abbott photo

This 1,300-square-foot house is at 850 meters on the edge of Gran Sasso National Park. Jamie Abbott photo


Owning a home in rural Italy is as romantic as it sounds. Wake up to sunshine nine months a year, see rolling green hills above pretty, undisturbed meadows. Shop for fresh food every day in open-air markets and walk along millennium-old, cobblestone roads meant only for foot traffic. If you’re lucky, as I chronicled about a California man who moved to Umbria with his wife, you’ll find a house with a small vineyard and turn it into a fledgling wine business. Yes, buying a house in Italy is the stuff of dreams.

But try selling one.

In the last few years, that has become a nightmare. Italy is one of the few countries in Europe where property prices are going down. According to ISTAT, Italy’s national statistical institute, last year Italy’s property prices dropped 0.8 percent, the most in Europe next to Sweden’s 2.1. Doesn’t sound like much? Italians have price envy of Slovenia (up 15.1 percent), Holland (10.2) and Ireland (9.1).

Well, one man has found a way to beat the market: a raffle.

Jamie Abbott, originally from Colchester, England, is raffling off his three-story house in a village in rural Abruzzo, maybe the most underrated, prettiest, unspoiled region in Italy. He is selling raffle tickets for 50 pounds (about $65) and will hold the drawing in October.

A raffle is a long shot? Maybe but how often can one buy a 250,000-euro house, his asking price before the raffle, for $65?

Like so many homeowners in Italy, Abbott has become a victim of the housing crash. Somewhere between the time writer Frances Mayes made a house in Italy cool with “Under the Tuscan Sun” in 1996 to Italy’s current recession, a house in Italy went from cool to ice cold.

“The property market is so bad, that even for a gorgeous house like (this) … it was getting a lot of interest in property circles,” Abbott said by phone Wednesday. “People loved the house because in this particular area it’s almost impossible to find a detached house with a garden near the historical center of the village. So it was getting a lot of interest but people just weren’t going any further than that.”

The house is 120 square meters (about 1,300 square feet) with three bedrooms and two bathrooms. It features curved brick and stone ceilings and vines stretching over the door frames. It has great views of the surrounding countryside, situated near the southern Gran Sasso mountains and just under 8,400-foot Monte Prena.

Carapelle Calvisio (pop. 90) is the smallest town in Abruzzo. Jamie Abbott photo

Carapelle Calvisio (pop. 90) is the smallest town in Abruzzo. Jamie Abbott photo


It’s located at 850 meters in the village of Carapelle Calvisio, just 18 miles from the Abruzzo capital of L’Aquila on the edge of the Gran Sasso National Park. With only 90 inhabitants, Carapelle Calvisio wears the crown as the smallest town in Abruzzo. The former Roman village is known for its truffles and is so picturesque it was used as the setting for “Ladyhawke,” a 1985 medieval fantasy film starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Rutger Hauer.

Abbott, 42, and his wife Lea went all out in making this raffle happen. He hired a web man to put together a lovely website, complete with video and is spreading the word by strategically leaking publicity on Facebook group pages and travel websites such as mine. They have a Facebook page and Instagram account (your_italian_house). As a fellow expat, and a lover of Abruzzo, I’m helping him.

Financially, it makes sense. Abbott has 6,000 tickets available. If he sells all of them for 50 pounds each, it will earn 300,000 pounds (about $400,000). That’s more than the property is worth. He is also raffling a second prize of 10,000 pounds ($13,200) with five third prizes of food and wine hampers. First prize also includes all notary costs, car rental and flights from anywhere in Europe.

The garden. Jamie Abbott photo

The garden. Jamie Abbott photo


Launched last April, they’ve sold just under 3,000 tickets and must reach 4,000 to cover costs.

“We’re just being as open and transparent as possible,” Abbott said. “We want to give the raffle authenticity to make it personal.”

House raffles have been successful in Great Britain for years, but in desperate Italy they’ve gone past raffles and are practically giving away houses. Last year the dying village of Sambuca, Sicily, announced it would sell houses for 1 euro. Two catches: Buyers had to commit 15,000 euros for renovations and put up a security deposit of 5,000 euros.

It didn’t put off many. Tens of thousands responded, including U.S. lawyers who wanted to do business and a Dubai woman who wanted to buy dozens of houses. The local mayor had to put up the town’s first stop sign — in the form of a No piu! (No more!)

Looking out onto the patio. Jamie Abbott photo

Looking out onto the patio. Jamie Abbott photo


Another mayor in Bormida, Liguria, posted an announcement of 2,000-euro bonuses for anyone relocating there. After 17,000 applications buried his office, he quickly removed the proposal, saying it was only an idea to the regional government. In January 2018 the town of Ollolai in Sardinia sold 200 uninhabited houses for a euro each. Gangi, Sicily, has sold homes for 1 euro since 2014.

Sound desperate? You’re right. This is the Italian real estate market’s equivalent to global warming. Italian authorities predict half of Italy’s smallest towns will become deserted in the coming decades. Abbott is aware of the skepticism. It’s one reason he’s avoiding the mass publicity by advertising in the big European dailies.

“People are like, It must be a scam,’ because it’s too good to be true,” he said. “We’ve published this on many group pages, like Facebook. But before they even look at the site they instantly come back with a cry of ‘Scam! Be careful.’ I personally reply to every single one of those saying actually it’s not. We’re trying to be open and transparent. Fifty percent come back and go, ‘OK, my apologies. My bad. Because I didn’t read it.’”

Living room. Jamie Abbott photo

Living room. Jamie Abbott photo


He set the price at 50 pounds to insure people are willing to make the commitment if they do win. Unlike the homes in Sicily, this home needs no renovation. In fact, because the national park is between the house and L’Aquila and its foundation is natural rock, the house suffered no damage during the 2009 earthquake that destroyed much of L’Aquila and killed 308 people in the area.

Unfortunately, despite the evidence, not many want to buy in regions where people get buried in their own homes. Combine that with a general downturn in the foreign market to buy second homes in Europe and you see what Abbott is facing.

I asked him, so why sell at all? He has an online rustic Italian antique business and wanted to sell the house to start another project. He currently rents it out as an AirBnB and lives in the nearby village of Caporciano.

He does not want to leave Abruzzo. We both agree it’s one of Italy’s best-kept secrets. He first discovered it about 15 years ago when he rode an old Italian Vespa motor scooter from London through France, Spain, Corsica and Sardinia onto the Italian mainland and then to Abruzzo, the region just east of Rome’s Lazio.

The kitchen. Jamie Abbott photo

The kitchen. Jamie Abbott photo


He fell in love with Abruzzo and bought the house in Caporciano. His parents followed him and bought a small apartment as well. Three years later, they bought the house they’re raffling.

“There’s so much to do here,” he said. “It’s like going to Tuscany but it’s completely undiscovered. You feel you’ve got something to discover and explore. It’s not overrun with tourists, even in the height of high season in August. You can hike on your own. There are lakes. You can ski in the morning, you can swim in the afternoon in the sea. You’ve got massive diversity of landscapes and within half hour of the house there are four national parks, one of which the house is literally on the doorstep.”

The bathroom. Jamie Abbott photo

The bathroom. Jamie Abbott photo


Ticket sales end Sept. 30 and the raffle will be held sometime in October depending on the notary.

AO! M’HAI SENTITO?! Roman dialect is the language within the language on the streets of Rome

Photo by Marina Pascucci

Photo by Marina Pascucci


People the world over swoon over the Italian language. Next to French it’s the most romantic language in the world, a conversational song seemingly written for lovers and poets. Nearly every word ends softly, with a vowel, like a feather landing on a four-poster bed.

But buried under the Dolomite-high pile of frothy adjectives and illuminating nouns sits a local dialect few outside the streets of Rome know. If you heard it, you wouldn’t swoon. You might cringe, just from the sound. Then you might gasp from the meaning.

Take this phrase that is creeping more into my daily conversation: Li mortacci tua!

That loosely means, “Your entire family is dead!” It even sounds evil, doesn’t it? The word mortacci sticks in my throat, like a dagger getting ready to be flung across a room. Where does the phrase come from? No, it’s not Italian.

It’s Roman. That’s the local dialect, one I often hear as much as classic Italian. It’s distinct, often crude with a sub-dialect that’s devoted entirely to profanity. No, “Your entire family is dead” carries no dirty words. But in Italy, where the nuclear family remains as tight as layers of lasagna, it is not good to say someone’s family got hit by a Fiat.

It’s part of a street slang that I’m picking up after five years living in the heart of Rome. Classic Italian is hard enough. Blend in dialects, ranging from regional to some varying from village to village, and it’s no wonder one part of the country doesn’t know what the other is doing.

When Marina and I travel around Italy listening to locals, she often has the same blank expression as when we were in Hungary. In Naples, the dialect seems so violent, added by the Neapolitans’ nature to scream when merely asking for the parmesan, every conversation sounds ready to end in a knife fight. The Sardo language in Sardinia has more apostrophes than commas.

The Trentino dialect of Alto Adige in the north sounds like you’re in Berlin. Sicilian in the south is so different, Italian is almost considered a second language.

In Italy, you can’t tell the language without a linguist. It wasn’t until 1861 when Italy became united did Italian become the official national language. Benito Mussolini went so far to further unite the people, he banned German names for road signs in Alto Adige. Fat good that did. All signs today in Bolzano, Alto Adige’s capital, are bilingual.

Here in Rome, it’s even more complicated. People don’t even know what to call their dialect which goes in lockstep with everything else in this chaotic city. Depending on whom you talk to, it’s either called Roman, Romanesco or Romanaccio.

Its original name was Romanesco. Once considered closer to Neapolitan than Florentine, the dialect became more northern with the election of two Medici popes from Florence. After the Sack of Rome in 1527, a large immigration moved south from Tuscany, now considered home to the most classic Italian. Many Tuscans today sound like graduates of the Rai School of Broadcasting.

Poets and writers made Romanesco famous, particularly Gioachino Belli (1791-1863) whose collection of poems in “Sonetti Romaneschi” became a huge source of pride to 19th century Romans and their culture.

Still, until Rome became Italy’s capital in 1861, Romanesco was only spoken inside the walls of the city. Read Romanesco today, and it’s a mind-bending collection of doubled identical consonants, mangled nouns and weirdly placed apostrophes. One of Belli’s lines is “Io so’ io, e vvoi nun zete un cazzo.” (I am me and you’re not a fucking thing.)

You don’t see this much anymore. In fact, many scholars say it’s a dying dialect. I sometimes heard it in my old neighborhood of Testaccio, where many locals are as old as some of Rome’s monuments. But I never heard it from anyone under 60.

What you hear in its place is a modernized version I simply call Roman or, in Italian, Romano. You know those pretty little syllables that hang off Italians’ words and their tongues? In Roman, they’re gone. Romans eat their words, like they’re pizza slices and their pausa (afternoon break) is ending soon. Baristas often call my cappuccino a cappucc (pronounced ka-POOCH). Andiamo (Let’s go) becomes nnamo. Mangiamo
(Let’s eat) becomes magnamo. Che film vuoi vedere? (What film do you want to see?) becomes Che firm voi vede’?

Some call the dialect Romanaccio. However, I consider Romanaccio the sub-dialect that’s laced with dirty words. It’s what you hear when you see two cab drivers in an argument. When two lovers fight, you’ll need a Romanaccio translator. Marina, a third-generation Roman, is fluent in Romanaccio and has made me a convert. Amazingly, while my comprehension of basic Italian still lags behind my speaking ability, I seemingly understand everything she says in Romanaccio.

There is “Cazzo!” (Fuck!), “Che cazzo!” (What the fuck!) and the ubiquitous “Che cazzo fai?!” (What the fuck are you doing?) Again, the word cazzo is the perfect sound for Roman profanity as it comes from deep in your throat, like bile.

There’s also “Pezzo di merda” (Piece of shit) and “Non me rompe li cojoni” (Don’t break my balls.), both coming in handy in Rome’s post office, cell phone store and your landlady’s presence.

In lieu of a completely x-rated blog, here are a few examples of basic Roman you’ll hear on the streets. Notice I accompany them all with the appropriate hand gestures. In any Italian dialect, hand gestures are as important as the tongue. After a while, they become automatic, subconscious body reflexes, like when I clench my fist when reading about Donald Trump. I’ve seen drivers talking through their cell phone’s mike pull their motor scooter to the side so they can use both hands while talking to someone they can’t even see. (Italian and English translations follow.)

<strong><em>Ma che davero davero? (Ma veramente?)</em></strong> <strong>(But really?)</strong> Photo by Marina Pascucci

Ma che davero davero? (Ma veramente?) (But really?) Photo by Marina Pascucci


The hands are placed in praying formation as if to say, “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me?” Often seen in Olympic Stadium aimed at a soccer referee.
<strong><em>Ma sto a taja! (Sto morendo di risate!)</em></strong> <strong>(I’m dying of laughter.)</strong> Photo by Marina Pascucci

Ma sto a taja! (Sto morendo di risate!) (I’m dying of laughter.) Photo by Marina Pascucci


Don’t use this as a sarcastic gesture. Italians do not get sarcasm.
<strong><em>Se magna! (Finalmente mangiamo!)</em></strong> <strong>(Finally we eat!)</strong>Photo by Marina Pascucci

Se magna! (Finalmente mangiamo!) (Finally we eat!)Photo by Marina Pascucci


In a society based more on food than politics, this gesture is common.
 <strong><em>Ma che me stai a di? (Ma che cosa dici?)</em></strong> <strong>(But what are you saying?)</strong><br />Photo by Marina Pascucci[/caption]

Ma che me stai a di? (Ma che cosa dici?) (But what are you saying?)
Photo by Marina Pascucci


The hand enclosed by the thumb and four fingers, up toward the mouth, has become common all over Italy. It’s also kind of a polite way of saying, “Well, fuck you.”
<strong><em>Ao! M’hai sentito?! (Eh! Mi hai sentito?!)</em></strong> <strong>(Hey, did you hear me?)</strong> Photo by Marina Pascucci

Ao! M’hai sentito?! (Eh! Mi hai sentito?!) (Hey, did you hear me?) Photo by Marina Pascucci

“Ao” is a common greeting on the streets although this gesture is not. Who can’t hear Romans?

<strong><em>Anvedi questo. (Ma come il sei vestito.)</em></strong> <strong>(But look at how she’s dressed.)</strong> Photo by Marina Pascucci

Anvedi questo. (Ma come il sei vestito.) (But look at how she’s dressed.) Photo by Marina Pascucci


Dress like a typical American in Rome, you’ll be sure to have this happen behind your back.
<strong><em>Ah FICO! (Sei molto BELLA!)</em></strong><strong>(You are BEAUTIFUL!)</strong> Photo by Marina Pascucci

Ah FICO! (Sei molto BELLA!)(You are BEAUTIFUL!) Photo by Marina Pascucci


This is what I do behind Marina’s back.
<strong><em>Li mortacci tua! (Maledetto te!</em>)</strong> <strong>(May your entire family die!)</strong> Photo by Marina Pascucci

Li mortacci tua! (Maledetto te!) (Your entire family is dead!) Photo by Marina Pascucci

This is as bad as it gets, something you say to the person who ax murders your family or what Marina would say if she saw what I gesture behind her back.

<strong><em>T'aa appoggio. (Sono per te.)</em></strong> <strong>(I'm with you.)</strong>

T’aa appoggio. (Sono per te.) (I’m with you.)

A simple agreement goes a long way in Rome.

<strong><em>Te gonfio! (Quando ti incontro ti uccido!)</em></strong> <strong>(When I meet you I'll kill you!)</strong>

Te gonfio! (Quando ti incontro ti uccido!) (When I meet you I’ll kill you!)


I find Italians the nicest people in the world so I’ve never used this. Feel free to use it when you realize a cabbie ripped you off as he drives away.

The heart of Umbrian wine country reveals a rising star: Sagrantino

Me at my start of the Anteprima Sagrantino wine fair in Montefalco.

Me at my start of the Anteprima Sagrantino wine fair in Montefalco.


MONTEFALCO, Italy — One of my pleasant surprises after retiring to Rome with a taste for wine and no car is I never have to leave the city to taste the best wines in the world. I never even have to visit a restaurant or wine bar. All I have to do is wait for the wine tastings that come to Rome nearly every weekend. Piedmont. Puglia. Bio wines. Chianti. Nearly every theme under the massive Italian wine umbrella makes its way to Rome where I can drink my way through an entire region without ever leaving a conference room.

However, I must admit these wine tastings, called degustazioni in Italian, miss a lot of local flavor. You can hold them in the most beautiful hotels in Rome, such as the Radisson Blu, but you only get, literally, a taste. You don’t get the feel. You don’t see the vineyards shining in the sun. You don’t smell the French Oak in the storage rooms. You don’t see the sprawling winery setting in the rolling hills. Degustazioni make you feel like you’re in Rome.

Wineries make you feel like you’re in Italy. Old Italy. Where grapevines hang over picnic tables and entire villages revolve around the wine production calendar. Sometimes you have to get closer to the wine to truly taste it.

For some reason, however great Italian wine is, it tastes even better where it’s made.

After five years in Rome, I finally had that opportunity last week. My good friend, Alessandro Castellani, a sportswriter for the ANSA wire service and Italian food and wine connoisseur, got an invitation to attend the Anteprima Sagrantino. It’s a fair featuring the rare, delicious and little-known Umbrian wine called Sagrantino. It’s held in Montefalco, a town of about 5,800 in the heart of Umbria and the center of Sagrantino production.

It sounded like a great time: two days drinking one of the most underrated wines in the world, stay overnight in a beautiful hotel that has hosted movie stars, eat Umbria’s great local cheeses and meats and visit a couple wineries in the quiet off season.

I decided to tag along.

This was not only two days of drinking wine. It was two days of drinking wine in Umbria, which is rapidly becoming my favorite wine region in Italy. That’s a little like being the prettiest woman in Italy, too. The competition is fierce.

Alessandro picked me up near his home in northwest Rome and drove the 90 miles north to Montefalco. Driving anywhere with Alessandro is like getting a loud lesson in Romanaccio, the Roman dialect devoted entirely to profanity. Every car is driving too slow; every truck is driving in the wrong lane. Then again, he was in a hurry. To wine lovers, Anteprima Sagrantino is like a toppled milk truck near stray cats.

I’ve often called Umbria “Tuscany Light.” It has everything Tuscany has — walled towns, mountains, vineyards — at cheaper costs and a fraction of the tourists of its northern neighbor. It’s the only region that does not border a sea or another country. Thus, it has fewer outside influences. It has remained true to itself and to the relatively fewer outsiders lucky enough to discover it.

I love driving into Umbria, on uncrowded roads, through rolling hills, past walled villages perched high on cliffs like magic kingdoms. Deeper in the heart of Umbria, I pass vineyards, olive orchards and deep, green meadows. It’s now winter. It’s cold, in the low 40s. The vines are bare. But no matter.

Part of the 12th century wall that surrounds Montefalco's old town.

Part of the 12th century wall that surrounds Montefalco’s old town.

You don’t have to drink wine outside under grapevines.

I tell people that to reach Montefalco, you go to Bastardo and take a right. True. Umbria has a town called Bastardo, named for the Osteria del Bastardo (Bastard’s Inn) around which the town was built in the 17th century. Montefalco has a much more romantic origin. Falcons were known to fly majestically around the foothills of the nearby Apennines mountain range.

Montefalco’s old town sits inside a 12th century wall. This once star-crossed village existed peacefully under the rule of the Papal States for 400 years before the unification of Italy in 1861. We stopped just outside the wall at Villa Pambuffetti, a four-star palace set in the middle of 10,000 square yards of gardens and century-old trees. The lobby looks like an Italian grandmother’s living room with overstuffed chairs and couches and a fireplace to warm your hands. A big jar of sugared jellies and chocolates share a coffee table with the daily papers. Tony Curtis once stayed here.

Lobby at the Villa Pambuffetti

Lobby at the Villa Pambuffetti


But the real star of Montefalco is Sagrantino. If you’ve never heard of it, let alone tried it, don’t feel bad. Like Umbria, it’s little known and underrated. The big reason is the Sagrantino grape is only grown in Umbria. Thus, Umbria, off the beaten path, is the only place that makes the wine. It’s an Umbrian tradition for a new grandfather to buy 12 bottles of a vintage and save it for 25 years until the grandchild marries.
Corso Goffredo Mameli in Montefalco.

Corso Goffredo Mameli in Montefalco.


While the grape has been around since the 16th century, Sagrantino wine is relatively new. It was mostly used to make the sweet Passito wine used during mass in Catholic churches. Being a close proximity to Rome and its 900 churches, Montefalco did a thriving business. But in the 1970s, technology improved and the Sagrantino, made from 100 percent Sagrantino grapes, received the official DOC denomination in 1979 and the higher-rated DOCG in 1992. Sharing center stage here is Montefalco Rosso, using a blend with Sagrantino, Sangiovese and another grape such as Colorino.

Expansion worked. Today, 63 wineries dot the wine map around Montefalco. Most are exporting, some as much as 40 percent and to as far away as China and Japan.

I had only a passing knowledge of it. Meanwhile, Alessandro, who had lauded this festival for weeks, was panting like a thirsty dog.

We entered through the walled city’s huge arched door and up the narrow cobblestone street to a nearly hidden hallway holding a large conference room. Here was my familiar territory: a square room with 40 wineries sitting table to table all offering four or five of their best wines.

Wine stores with plenty of wine props are sprinkled all through Montefalco.

Wine stores with plenty of wine props are sprinkled all through Montefalco.


Sagrantino is a hard grape to grow. It needs a long, hot season and has one of the highest tannin levels. It’s twice the level of Nebbiolo, the base for my favorite Barolo wine, and Cabernet Sauvignon. It makes Sagrantino a much drier red wine. Look at the wine and it is a deep purple, with an almost black center. It just so happens purple is my favorite color.

Thus, Sagrantino is absolutely beautiful to behold — particularly in a glass, even at 11 a.m. when we started drinking.

I became a huge Sagrantino fan before lunch. Among the metropolis of Montefalco wineries, Arnaldo-Caprai is one of the best known. At wine tastings, I always start by asking for their medium wine. Not the best, not the worst. Alessandra Nobili of Arnaldo-Caprai started me with a 2015 Collepiano and it was very good, rich and full with the taste of plum and cinnamon I’d read about.

Then she graduated me up to a Sagrantino celebrating the winery’s 25-year anniversary last year. Simply called 25 Year, it was one of the best red wines I’ve ever had. No wonder. It’s 50 euros in Italy, and about $150 in the U.S. where Arnaldo-Caprai has a base in New York.

Iacopo Pambuffetti holds up the Sagrantino from his  family's Scacciadiavoli winery.

Iacopo Pambuffetti holds up the Sagrantino from his family’s Scacciadiavoli winery.


Another big winery here is Scacciadiavoli. It sells in 14 states in the U.S., plus Europe, United Kingdom and Japan. Iacopo Pambuffetti, a cousin of the hotel owners, is a big, jovial bearded member of the winery’s founding family. He speaks of Sagrantino as if it’s a family member, too.

“I love Sagrantino because it represents very, very well my region,” he said. “And it’s an incredible wine. If you want, you can put it among the top wines in Italy.”

He then talked about how well it goes with wild boar and lamb, goat cheese and dark chocolate. I hadn’t eaten since a cornetto on the ride up. My taste buds were hyperventilating. We were in Italy.

In Italy, wine tasting is foreplay.

Alessandro and I went to Olevm (the Latin word for “oil”), a small home-style restaurant with olive print tablecloths and a big chest of drawers holding olive and wine in the middle of the upstairs dining room. Black and white photos of Italian movie legends such as Alberto Sordi and Sophia Loren eating pasta hang on the walls.

Chicken in Sagrantino sauce at Olevm.

Chicken in Sagrantino sauce at Olevm.


We had bruschetta with olive, zucchini and potato spreads then I had pasta with greens followed by chicken in Sagrantino sauce (I’m wondering if they use Sagrantino to run their cars, too.). It’s the first time I’ve ever had purple chicken but the unique combination is something that should be exported as well.

Placated with carbs, we entered Anteprima Sagrantino’s war room: the media tasting room. Converted from the Montefalco city council chamber, it sported five long tables with nine seats each, all with six glasses, breadsticks and a spit bucket.

The place was empty.

We took our seats and the young server gave us a list of 45 wineries we could taste. Oddly, we had to try a minimum of six. Who was I to argue? We tried (gulp!) 10: six 100 percent Sagrantino and four Passito.

Me and Alessandro Castellani in the media tasting room.

Me and Alessandro Castellani in the media tasting room.


I am not a wine connoisseur. When I taste a wine I rarely can separate the cherries from the tobacco, the plums from the raspberries. Most who say they can are full of fertilizer. They’re trying to impress their date or the sommelier server, most of whom try hard not to roll their eyes. I am not a wine snob. I can tell a red from a white and that’s about it.

But I know what I like and the best of the bunch was the Moretti Omero, rich, deep and the kind of flavor that lasts in your mouth long after you swallowed. Fruits? Christ, I don’t know. Who cares? I just knew I had to buy a bottle.

The highlight of Anteprima Sagrantino is the winery dinner. About 20 journalists, wine writers and freeloaders poured into cars and headed first to Scacciadiavoli for an aperitivo. Scacciadiavoli is the area’s oldest winery, established in 1884. It sits just east of Bastardo with 86 acres anchored by two large white buildings that look like simple churches. Downstairs in the tasting room where we mingled with Montefalco’s crem della grapes while munching on fried baccala’ (cod) and bread with anchovies, washed down with the winery’s sparkling wine.

We then piled back in the cars for a short drive to Le Cimate where we sat in a large modern dining room. Bordering the room were four large tables featuring cheeses, main dishes, wines and made-to-order desserts. It was gluttony paradise.

I sat next to Giulia Goretti who has traveled all over the world promoting her Vini Goretti family winery near Perugia, Umbria’s capital about 30 miles to the north, and two around Montefalco. This winery goes back four generations dating to the early 1900s. When she talked about Umbrian wine, I listened.

“It’s something more special now,” she said. “When you are proposing an Umbrian wine you are proposing something different, something that not many people know. A lot of times it’s more interesting than other regions that are more known.”

Between bites of nearly orgasmic tortellini in cheese topped with truffle shavings, I asked her how so many wines in such a small region can compete against each other. It’s like 30 gelaterias on one block in Rome.

“The world is very big,” she said. “We export a lot. And every Sagrantino is different.”

Perticaia winery started in 2000.

Perticaia winery started in 2000.


The next morning, Alessandro and I went to the outskirts of Montefalco to the small winery of Perticaia (meaning “plow” in the Umbrian dialect and marking the transition to agriculture). Started in just 2000, it’s a split-level mustard-colored building with 123 acres of vineyards and 200 olive trees. In winter, its vegetarian is bare, making the landscape almost ghostlike in the morning fog. But inside the warm, light-filled tasting room, we tried 10 — count ‘em, 10 — wines that belie the size of the winery. I especially liked the brand new 2018 Sagrantino and the 2012 Montefalco Rosso.

We left fat and happy (me a little more as Alessandro had to drive back to Rome) and couldn’t help noticing the smiles on all the faces of the wine people we met. This truly is a wonderful business, manufacturing something you love and can share with the world in a beautiful setting. The stress of economics, competition, weather and marketing doesn’t seem to faze these people. If wine is the key to a stress-free life, maybe I should increase my intake.

Francesca Mechella in Perticaia's storage room

Francesca Mechella in Perticaia’s storage room


“We are always in front of a glass of wine,” Goretti told me. “We are always at a table with a lot of people, talking and drinking and laughing. How can you not be happy? That’s why it’s the best life ever.”