My five favorite wine bars in Rome: The perfect Roman-tic evening

Photo by Marina Pascucci


I’ve always told people wanting to party in Rome that this city isn’t a bar town. It’s a restaurant town. However, it is the world’s greatest bar town in one specific genre: wine bars.

Called enotecas in Italian, they enjoyed a renaissance in the 1990s and now are my preferred destination on any night out in Rome. With the world’s greatest wine (Stick it, France.), Rome’s enotecas never fail to deliver. There are few simple pleasures in life greater than sitting on a quiet Roman street, drinking good wine with good friends and staring at 2,000-year-old, back-lit monuments.

Enotecas have been around Rome a while. Despite wine pouring like water here ever since the Roman Empire, the first acknowledged bar aimed specifically at wine enthusiasts is generally considered Cavour 313, which was established in the Monti neighborhood near the Colosseum in 1935.

In the ‘60s and ‘70s, they became gathering places for Italy’s new left who liked a little Chianti and smoked mozzarella with their Karl Marx. Other enotecas popped up but it wasn’t until the 1990s, when Italy had its biggest economic boom since World War II, did enotecas begin to flourish. Major Italian wine families such as the Antioris, the Gajas and the Fresobaldis felt they could capitalize on Italians’ extra spending money by specializing in gourmet wines. Improved technology increased wines’ quality without increasing the price.

With tourism making Italy Europe’s No. 1 destination in the ‘90s, Romans began toasting the new prosperity with wines from every corner of the country.

Today with Italians suffering through a major recession, the enoteca is still the local gathering place. Wine is not only one of Italians’ four major food groups but it is also still remarkably cheap. At the best wine bars in Rome, you can find a good, high-quality glass of wine for as little as 6 euros. You can find bottles for 13. It’s a cheap, fun night out and with Italian wine having much fewer sulfites and preservatives than American wine, you not only won’t wake up broke, you won’t wake up hung over.

After seven years in Rome over two stints, I’ve been to dozens of enotecas. This week I returned to some of my old haunts as well as tried some new ones to compile my five favorites, in order. In my research I considered wine variety, cost, atmosphere, location and history. Clip it and bring it with you on your next Roman holiday.

Salute!

Giuseppe at Il Goccetto.


1. Il Goccetto, Via dei Banchi Vecchi 14, https://www.facebook.com/Ilgoccetto/, Monday-Saturday 6:30 p.m.-midnight, Tuesday through Saturday noon-2:30 p.m., 06-9027-9201. When I first moved to Rome for my current stint in 2014, I lived in a two-room, cave-like flat for two months while looking for a permanent home. It was a short stumble from both Campo de’ Fiori, Rome’s party piazza, and Il Goccetto which became my local hangout.

Despite its close proximity to teeming Campo de’ Fiori and it creeping into recent guide books, Il Goccetto remains predominantly local. Well-dressed, beautiful people come in after work from offices and shops in the neighborhood for a glass of wine before going home. Or they return at night and join a crowd that spills onto its quiet street in Centro Storico.

Its building is so old, the sign over the door still reads a generic “VINO E OLIO.”

It’s widely been called “the coziest wine bar” in Rome. It doesn’t mean it’s too crowded. You either sit at about a dozen small tables or stand at the small bar overlooking some of the delicious antipasti dishes on display in a glass case. Try the smoked salmon with one of the white wines they have displayed on a small blackboard on the wall.

The prices are reasonable and is a good destination for gift wine. Wine bottles stack the bar from floor to ceiling.

VyTA. Wallpaper photo


2. VyTA Enoteca, Via Frattina 94, 9 a.m.-11p.m. daily, http://www.vytaenotecalazio.it/, 06-877-06018. This is my new discovery. Opened a year ago by Nicolo Marzotto, who owns the Santa Margarita wine group in Northern Italy, it is a high-end wine bar specializing in the underrated wines of Rome’s Lazio region. Located a block off tony Via del Corso, VyTA continues the area’s upscale vibe with a long, polished bar, nice high tables and a back lounge area with overstuffed couches.

It is here I discovered such great local wines as Cesanese, a deep, juicy, ruby red wine from Frascati, Lazio’s most predominant wine town southeast of Rome. I also fell in love with Malvasia, a rich, widely produced red table wine that has become highly popular in Rome. So fascinated with Lazio wines and inspired by VyTa, I toured Lazio wine country for a recent blog.

VyTA has a restaurant upstairs and a terrific antipasti menu, including arguably my favorite suppli, Rome’s famous fried rice and cheese balls.

The wines are two or three euros more expensive than in other enotecas but you’re also paying for the atmosphere and location, both of which are worth every centesimo. It is only three blocks from the Nuovo Olimpia, one of Rome’s few English-language cinemas.

Good wine and a good movie you can actually understand is a great date night in Rome.

Del Frate


3. Del Frate, Via degli Scipioni 118, 12:30 p.m.-2:45 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 6 p.m.-midnight Saturday and Monday, https://www.enotecadelfrate.it/, 06-323-67437. This is my sentimental favorite. During my first stint in Rome from 2001-03, I lived in Prati, the neighborhood next to the Vatican. Del Frate, just four blocks east of Vatican City, was my enoteca hangout. It’s my most romantic enoteca, a small room with cozy tables and blown-up displays of wine labels on the wall.

When I returned Wednesday, a cooing couple sat next to me as soft music played overhead. I upgraded and had a wonderful Brunello di Montalcino Col D’Orcia that was well worth the 10 euros. However, many of the wines on the ever-present blackboard are 6-7 euros.

Established in 1991, Del Frate has outdoor seating available at wine barrels on the quiet sidewalk and a restaurant is in an adjacent room that dates back to 1922.

Cul De Sac


4. Cul De Sac, Piazza di Pasquino 73, noon-12:30 a.m. daily, http://www.enotecaculdesacroma.it, 06-688-01094. In 2001 I did a story about Rome’s enoteca boom for the Los Angeles Times and Cul De Sac was the first wine bar I hit. Set in a bustling piazza nearly adjacent to Piazza Navona, Cul De Sac has been around since 1977 and has been a gold standard ever since.

No enoteca in Rome may have a bigger wine selection. Its wine menu is — get this — 144 pages long. It’s a book the size of an atlas. It lists 1,500 wines from all 20 regions in Italy. The Tuscany section alone is nine pages. And the selection ranges from a 16.90-euro bottle of Barbera Vegia Rampana to a Barolo La Serra for 384.30 euros.

Cul De Sac has five rows of outdoor tables where you sit elbow to elbow with strangers. It’s a good chance they’re tourists. They make up about 65 percent of the clientele. No, Cul De Sac is not where you go to meet locals but some places attract tourists for a reason. Cul De Sac is fabulous.

The inside has a single row of tables down a narrow hallway where waiters zip up and down using wire snares to pick wine bottles from the highest shelves. I had a lovely Porto Tawny from Portugal for 4.90 euro and a Primitivo di Manduria from Puglia for 5.20.

They have a full menu but I go for their antipasti plate, a large wooden cutting board covered in salamis, prosciuttos and cheeses.

Enoteca Buccone


5. Enoteca Buccone, Via di Ripetta 19/20, 9 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m.-11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Sunday, https://www.enotecabuccone.com/, 06-361-2154. Whenever I’m near Piazza del Popolo, home of three of Caravaggio’s masterpieces and the last beheading in Rome from 1826 (There’s even a plaque!), I stop by Buccone two blocks south. The ancient space started as a coach house, then became a tavern before turning into a wine bar in 1969.

It claims to be the first enoteca in Rome to serve high-quality wine and they still do. When I visited Wednesday, a man pointed out a small sign advertising a Brunello Reserva from the famed Franco Biondi Santi winery for a mere 8,800 euros. It’s under lock and key in another room.

But there is plenty of wine for the common man. The wine-by-the-glass menu has all the Italian standards such as Montepulciano, Barbera and Aglianico for 6 euros, all served with a complimentary cheese and cracker plate. You can get a Barolo, Brunello or an Amarone for 15. I saw a nice bottle of 2017 Chianti for only 13 euros and a Barolo Ca’Bianca for the fantastic price of 31.

Don’t just go to Buccone for the wine and food — they serve lunch and dinner — but go for the history. The furnishings, including a classic old cash register, date back to the early 20th century. Famed filmmaker Federico Fellini hung out here and Cameron Diaz stopped by while filming in Rome.

Abruzzo home raffle went so well, Brit is doing another not far from L’Aquila and its comeback story

The town of Santa Stefano di Sessanio shows the beauty of the Abruzzo countryside and the work still being done from the 2009 earthquake. Photo by Marina Pascucci


L’AQUILA, Italy — Jamie Abbott learned it’s pretty easy to sell a slice of heaven. Now he wants to sell another. The line has already formed to the right.

Remember my March blog on the Englishman who raffled off a house in rural Italy for 50 English pounds (about $65)? Well, he easily sold all 6,000 tickets in a heated frenzy and in the live June 29 drawing, which drew an audience on Facebook of 2,500 people, it went to a young Italian man of about 30.

The bathtub in their home they’re raffling off in Caporciano. Jamie Abbott photos

The view from the 1,290-square-foot home.


Jamie is looking to do it again. This time, for the same 50-pound ticket price, it’s the house where he, his wife Lea and their two young daughters live. It’s a 1,300-square-foot house with three bedrooms, two bathrooms, two large woodburners, vaulted ceilings and a huge terrace with views of the forest and mountains. It’s in the town of Caporciano, with all of 215 people, a megalopolis compared to Carapelle Calvisio (pop. 90), Abruzzo’s smallest town where the raffled house sits.

The two villages, 10 miles apart, are at about 2,700 feet in the beautiful, rolling hills of Abruzzo. This is the Italian region tucked in the back pages of tour guides, the place everyone overlooks on their journey to the next Tuscan winery or Adriatic beach or Roman ruin.

Squeezed between Rome’s Lazio region and the Adriatic, Abruzzo is a land of cool mountain air, sprawling national parks, unspoiled villages, spectacular cuisine and Montepulciano wine. Sprinkle it all with hearty locals still fighting back from a devastating natural disaster and you have Old Italy, the Italy you see in romantic movies.

I know. The Abbotts hosted Marina and I one August day and we experienced all of the above in a few hours.

Marina and I took the dirt-cheap Flixbus from Rome two hours to the Abruzzo capital of L’Aquila. This is the part of Central Italy that goes from green plains and walled, hill towns to thick forests and green mountains. The forested hills stretch high toward the Apennines which cut down the spine of Italy. Barely another structure is in sight.

Jamie Abbott and Lea Abbott Loft raffled off their last house for 50 pounds. Photo by Marina Pascucci


However, as much as Mother Nature blessed Abruzzo, she has also been a complete bitch to it. For centuries Abruzzo has been poleaxed by earthquakes, from 1315 when 1,349 died to the 2009 quake that killed 308, injured 1,500, damaged up to 10,000 buildings and left 65,000 homeless.

As soon as Jamie picked us up in L’Aquila, we could see the lingering after effects. We looked up at empty shells of buildings, many without windows or pockmarked like honeycomb. Massive scaffolding held up others. Hovering over it all were giant cranes, their towers looking like giant praying mantises picking up the pieces. Marina and I looked at each other. It reminded us both of what we’d seen in March.

Beirut.

The long sign showing mugshots of some of the 25 students killed when their building here collapsed. Photo by Marina Pascucci


We went up one hill where a large fence blocked off an open pit. It looked similar to the surroundings of the World Trade Center after 9-11. L’Aquila, a university town, had a large student housing structure here. It collapsed during the earthquake, killing 25. Some of their mugshots adorned one of the many signs, one of which quoted noted Chilean poet Pable Neruda: “E’ prohibito piangere senza imparare (It’s not allowed to cry without learning).”

Jamie was in his home in Caporciano on that April 6 day. At 3 a.m. he was sound asleep when his bed “just danced across the room,” he said. The lights started flickering. Household items started crashing. His car alarm started ringing. Growing up in Colchester, England, and working many years in London, he’d never experienced an earthquake. He only moved to Abruzzo four years earlier.

One of the many buildings still under repair in L’Aquila. Photo by Marina Pascucci


“I didn’t want to wake anyone up so I went and turned my car alarm off,” he said as he drove through L’Aquila’s otherwise pleasant tree-lined streets. “Everyone was out on the street. No, they said. It’s a big, big earthquake.”

No one died in Caporciano 20 miles away. Five people died in Castelnuovo, two villages over. Not knowing if the house was safe, Jamie spent a month precariously dashing in and getting supplies and sleeping either in his car, with friends outside the village or others in Pescara, Abruzzo’s major seaside town 50 miles away. Finally an inspector making the long rounds came to Caporciano and deemed the house habitable.

Jamie moved back in but the sorrow never moved out.

“I was just shocked and sad,” he said. “Everyone in this area was affected or knows someone affected majorly by the earthquake. They either died or lost their house. I felt I wanted to stay. Many people say, ‘Why are you still here? Just go back to England and carry on there.’ I really felt it was home.”

The countryside outside L’Aquila is still seeing the effects. Photo by Marina Pascucci


As he continued driving we could see why. The narrow country road climbed into the hills, occasionally passing through hamlets with only a few buildings, some with scaffolding and others still the same charming centuries-old yellow stone architecture. Small stone paths led up off the main road toward small homes. We barely saw another person.

Jamie knows these roads like his old home in England. He and Lea have an antique Italian furniture online business called Rustic Italia (https://www.etsy.com/shop/rusticitalia) and they comb these hills looking for items they ship as far away as Australia. He never tires of the drives.

“When we talk to people we compare Abruzzo with Tuscany and Umbria which are inundated with tourists and have a sense of everything been discovered,” he said. “Whereas here there’s so much to discover which is one reason we really, really love it. It’s very special.”

Climbing up to 2,775 feet, we weaved our way through the village of Prata d’Ansidonia, a town of 487 people that dates back to the 4th century BC. Heavily damaged by the earthquake of 1703, it still hasn’t recovered from the 2009 earthquake. We walked under scaffolding covering a narrow stone path where an intimidating fence kept us from continuing. The path beyond has been ruled too dangerous to walk.

The staff at Borgo dei Fumari. Photo by Marina Pascucci


No matter. The curtailed end of the path was our destination. A modest sign over a door designated Il Borgo dei Fumari. In a building more than 600 years old, the restaurant oozes as much country home charm as anywhere I’ve been in Europe. Fumari comes from fumare, the Italian word for “to smoke.” Every room of the three-story restaurant has a fireplace.

The friendly, attentive staff led us to a private room featuring stone floor and walls and featuring an elegant gold tablecloth, two wine cabinets and a door opening up to a patio with a view of the Abruzzese countryside. Flower pots lined the patio rails.

I could imagine curling up here in the winter, the yearly snow piled up on the hills outside the window, a fire roaring and a rich Montepulciano in my hand.

Unfortunately, the restaurant was built just before the 2009 quake. It suffered little damage but had to close as the damage surrounding it made it inaccessible. It reopened three years later.

Emidio Pepe is one of the most popular wines in Abruzzo. Photo by Marina Pascucci


This is where you go for a sampler of Abruzzese’s underrated cuisine. Hugging mountains with cold, wet winters, Abruzzese cuisine is hearty. Its highlights are lamb, mutton and macaroni pasta. Leading ingredients are saffron, rosemary, chili peppers and truffles, lots and lots of truffles. These are the cherished mushrooms scattered all through Central Italy and are priced all the way up to $2,700 an ounce

After Lea joined us, Jamie ordered the grande antipasto. Out came an endless parade of appetizers. First came scomorza, a Southern Italian curd cheese, with jam and almonds. Then came grilled mushrooms and zucchini, a quiche with chili peppers and truffles, bruschetta (toasted fresh bread) with truffles and lard, potato squares, polpette checci (chickpea meatballs), cheese in a marmalade sauce, sliced local salami, mozzarella with truffles and tropea cipotle (caramelized red onions) and pizza fritta (a fried ring of pizza dough).

All washed down with a bottle of Montepulciano from the local vineyard Emidio Pepe, it was the perfect setting to discuss one of the Abbotts’ favorite topics.

Raffling off a house in this countryside.

This house in Carapelle Calvisio received bids from 40 countries. Jamie Abbott photo


“We sold 6,000 tickets and that was our goal and our maximum,” he said. “We could’ve sold 2,000-3,000 more. It was crazy.”

It started last winter when Jamie saw a blog I’d written in January about an American who bought an 800-year-old farmhouse in Umbria and turned a few grape vines into a fledgling vineyard. Jamie asked if I’d be interested in an Englishman raffling off a house for the price of a good meal. I’d heard of small, struggling towns in Italy raffling off houses for as little as a euro.

This was an opportunity to get the inside of how you beat a collapsing Italian housing market. We did a phone interview and I posted the blog. The next day The Local, Italy’s only source of English-language news, reprinted it. Then so did Travel & Leisure. Then Business Insider. Then Il Messaggero, Rome’s main newspaper. Soon word spread around the world with Yahoo South America and the Eastern European press joining the publicity train.

Seeking a minimum of 4,000 tickets, he reached the 6,000 mark shortly thereafter. It raised 300,000 pounds, about 50,000 pounds more than the value of the house with the rest going to marketing costs and the 15,000-pound second-place prize. People bought them from 40 countries, from as far away as the Galapagos Islands.

Now people wanting to raffle their properties are coming to him for advice. What does he say?

“You would need to be on the bureaucratic side,” he said. “Follow the rules and make everything be honest and be transparent. Give the whole package. One of the things that certainly helped make it very successful is we linked our Facebook and Instagram and social media and included ourselves within that. Many people who do this, there’s no face to it.

Jamie and me in Carapelle Calvisio. Photo by Marina Pascucci


“Try to give it authenticity.”

He recalled one raffle in England that sold 700,000 pounds worth of tickets for a first prize that was only 100,000 pounds. He said they claimed the other 600,000 pounds was for marketing costs.

His transparency overcame skeptics concerned about a scam. However, I asked him how he answered those who wondered about the 6,000-1 odds.

“In terms of a lottery or a prize drive the odds are good,” he said. “Lotto is 1 in 49 million.”

The event went over so well and with the infrastructure already in place, they want to do it again. Why not? He has 4,500 people who bought tickets who are still interested in trying their luck a second time.

Don’t worry about the Abbotts. They can rent for a while until they find something to restore or buy close to their daughters’ school.

“We’ve actually developed a brand,” he said.

The houses in Carapelle Calvisio date back to the 1400s. Photo by Marina Pascucci


After lunch we drove to Carapelle Carvisio, a small collection of stone houses spread out on a hill. Their raffled house, a rustic, yellow stone building, sits unassumingly near a half a dozen multi-level structures, all dating back to at least the 1400s.

It would be ideal for a young family or someone writing a novel. While singles probably shouldn’t apply, the Italian who won is a bachelor who’s using it as an investment.

Marina and I could live here. It’s only 40 minutes from the sea and the 70 degrees we experienced that day was 20 degrees cooler than in Rome. We could live there just for the food and wine. We continued driving up into the hills. Jamie pointed up to the top of one hill where above the village of Rocca Calascio is a castle. Surrounding it is an abandoned village totally open for anyone to explore.

We drove by the village of Capestrano, home of the Capestrano Film Festival that showed 20 films from around the world last month. He pointed out Castel del Monte, the village where George Clooney, who lives on Lake Como, filmed “The American” and fell in love with the area.

For long stretches of our day we saw no other cars. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Marina and I then noticed something. We saw no other cars. Not one. It was August, the height of Italy’s tourist season, and we didn’t see another tourist. But it’s not like you’re alone out here.

“Sometimes you’ll see 50-60 wild boar on these roads,” Lea said.

We continued climbing past red and white barriers that close off the road during the winter snow season. We entered the Gran Sasso mountain range and Jamie pointed out Corno Grande, a 9,550-foot mountain he invited me to climb with him this fall. If the view from down below is this spectacular, I won’t find words for what I might find up there.

Arrosticini at Ristoro Mucciante. Photo by Marina Pascucci


We finally reached a huge clearing where we found the cars. They had all stopped at Ristoro Mucciante. This is prototype Abruzzese barbecue where they serve the trademark Abruzzese dish, arrosticini. Jamie and I went inside to what looks like a huge butcher shop. Inside glass containers are sausages, bacon, beef slabs, ribs and lots and lots of skewered beef. These are the arrosticini, lean mutton you cook yourself on narrow, free standing coal barbecues. Jamie bought 15 of them and we sat down on one of the plethora of picnic tables with local Marcetto cheese spread on fresh local bread and the ubiquitous bottle of Montepulciano.

I’m not crazy about mutton. I had a lot in Kyrgyzstan in May and I’m still picking bits of fat from my teeth. But these mutton morsels were so lean they nearly melted in my mouth. Barbecue is one of the few things I miss in the U.S. but nowhere in Texas or Tennessee can you eat with this backdrop.

The Abruzzese version, with the surrounding mountains, pine and fir trees and old Italian vibe, who needed a backyard in a suburban cul-de-sac?

While L’Abruzzo has returned to livability, a lot of work is still being done. Photo by Marina Pascucci


We ended our day back in L’Aquila. After seeing L’Aquila’s ugly past, we saw L’Aquila’s bright present and future. We passed numerous new buildings built to replace the damaged old. High-end jewelry stores and hip fitness outlets lined Corso Federico II, part of the city’s main drag.

It emptied into Piazza Duomo where we could see seven cranes hovering in the air. The Duomo’s beautiful round tower, badly damaged, has been restored. People came in and out of Chiesa di Santa Maria di Suffragio, the aptly named church that has a plaque listing all 308 people who died. It includes 20 children.

The four of us at Ristoro Mucciante.


On the piazza, couples walked hand in hand. Teens flirted. We bought gelato and sat with locals enjoying life as if it never stops in a place this beautiful. With a black cherry gelato cone in my hand, the only signs of the earthquake was the cracked concrete on the piazza.

Santa Maria del Suffragio was badly damaged but has been mostly repaired. Photo by Marina Pascucci

I wished Jamie good luck in his next raffle, which will begin soon. You can sign up and see more photos at http://www.winahouseinitaly.co.uk. Their Instagram account is @your_italian_house.

Mamma Mia! Skopelos and Sporades Islands are specks of paradise in the Aegean Sea

The isle of Tsougrias, only four miles from Skiathos, has no inhabitants.


SKOPELOS, Greece — Three times a week for the last few years, the little Attikon Open Air Cinema on Skiathos has played “Mamma Mia!” Besides being the worst movie Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan ever made (There’s a reason none of her 21 Oscar nominations were for her singing, and James Bond DOES NOT sing.), it is a chick flick of nauseating proportions. It’s so sugary sweet, you could pour the script on pancakes. Yet the film is revered on this little Greek island as if it’s “Gone With the Wind.”

The Greek gods of Zeus, Poseidon and Apollo have been replaced by Abba.

Yet behind the schlocky script, sleazy characters and song and dance routines right out of the Des Moines Dinner Theater, the scenery is worth an Oscar. If you don’t know the 2008 movie, it’s about a young woman who’s getting married and invites three men from her mom’s past hoping she’ll meet her real father. Her mother runs a hotel in Greece and organizes the wedding on an idyllic Greek island right out of the pages of Homer.

Skopelos.

It is about 80 miles north of Athens in the Sporades Islands and about 15 miles from our hotel on Skiathos. White, sandy beaches. Dramatic cliffside scenery. Languid port lined with restaurants slinging cold beer and fresh seafood. Oh, yes. The cute white chapel where the wedding in “Mamma Mia!” takes place, one of 360 churches on the island, sits atop a cliff like an empty souvenir stand. Meryl Streep pilgrims and bored, henpecked men make the climb up for their significant others’ star Instagram posting.

The view from our fourth floor at the Esperides Beach Hotel on Skiathos. Photo by Marina Pascucci


While my girlfriend, Marina, gets weepy discussing the movie, Skopelos lured me with its other charms, such as its 36 beaches. It took a lot to get me off Skiathos. On our second straight August on Skiathos, we upgraded to the four-star Esperides Beach Resort. It has a gorgeous circular pool around a concrete island of lanais chairs. An affordable beach bar sits next to a beautiful sandy beach with nary a rock and water so clear we could identify the fish swimming around our ankles. Our balcony overlooked it all and the breakfast buffet (Marina’s one travel must by threat of garotting in my sleep.) had everything from tiropitas (Greek cheese pies) to baked beans and sausage. It seemed to cater almost entirely to Greeks, English and Italians. The hotel manager said I was not only the only American in the hotel, I was the only American they’ve ever had.

Last year we were among the many Italian residents who took advantage of the 90-minute direct flights from Rome. As I blogged last year, Skiathos has 65 beaches and a string of buses that cruise up and down the southern road linking them all. The island has a new and old port, all teeming with great tavernas where I could drink my ouzo on ice and many romantic restaurants with their own twists on the delicious Greek traditional dishes. I could live on Greek salads.

In fact, on Skiathos, I do.

The harbor on Skopelos.


But after so many days in paradise, you greedily want more. So from our beach dock we took the water taxi 15 minutes to the old port where we boarded the Kassandra Delfinous for one of its daily trips to Skopelos. The Kassandra Delfinous is a 150-foot yacht with seating areas in the open-air port and aft.

The Kassandra Delfinous is a cattle car. About 200 people poured onto the boat, giving us a dim glimpse of what a cruise would feel like. Marina and I gave blood oaths never to take a cruise vacation and fortunately this was only one day.

But unlike cruises where you go an entire day without seeing land, the views were spectacular. Coming out of Skiathos harbor we could see some of the beautiful high-end homes built along the sea. We saw the pine forests above the beaches and pleasure boats bobbing up and down on the water.

Marina and I on the Kassandra Delfinous.


It’s only 15 minutes to Skopelos, an island of 37 square miles, just slightly bigger than Mykonos. Skopelos comes into view in the form of Kastani Beach, featured in a “Mamma Mia!” scene that fortunately escaped my memory bank. Kastani is a gorgeous beach stretching about 200 meters where a rocky outcrop separates it from another stretch of sand. A hidden trail through some vegetation leads to another small, secluded beach.

Despite 200 of us invading this beach and certainly pissing off those already on it, it didn’t feel very crowded as we laid on our beach towels for a couple hours. I always say you have no idea what freedom is like unless you decide on what Greek island you want to visit on your way to a boat dock. Greece has 6,000 islands. Each one has its own history, geography, beaches.

Skopelos has a beach definitely worth the big screen.

Kastani Beach on Skopelos.


We next stopped in Skopelos town, one of two “towns” on the island. The dock is lined chock-a-block with restaurants with covered, outdoor seating at tables all looking out onto the water. Marina and I ventured up the hilly historical center of the town looking for a taverna off the well-beaten path. We passed jewelry stores, clothes stores, souvenir stores. We saw one restaurant. It was closed.

We passed a local who looked as if she was showing around some visiting friends. We asked about a restaurant off the dock.

“I’m sorry. We only have two,” she said. “And they’re closed until evening.”

Souvlaki on Skopelos.


Too hungry and thirsty to be crestfallen, we took a seat and feasted on giant shrimp, souvlaki and a mountainous Greek salad topped with that huge, gorgeous chunk of white feta cheese covered in rosemary. Along with an ice-cold beer, it didn’t feel touristy at all. It felt as if we were eating in a Greek grandmother’s seaside home.

(By the way, the Ancient Greek civilization flourished in the 8th century B.C. However, the Greeks still show evidence they have the same superior minds that gave us democracy, architecture and theater. Every beer we ordered came in a frosted mug. The Greek beer scene hasn’t advanced like the rest of the world but the country’s national Mythos beer tasted like the best in the world just the way it was served. Italy? Get on board.)

Skopelos dates back to the 8th century BC.


Ironically, Skopelos was once famous for its wine. The Cretans introduced viticulture during the Bronze Age, Sophocles even wrote a play called “Philoctetes” which includes a wine merchant on his way to “Peparethos,” the island’s first name before it was changed to Skopelos, which comes from Staphylos, the Greek word for grape.

On the way back to Skiathos, we cruised by the Al Giannis Chapel of “Mamma Mia!” fame. I think I saw a woman walking up the steep steps dragging a man wearing a birdcage around his neck. We had a long swim at sunset on beautiful Lalaria Beach on Skiathos before heading back to the port.

Our outer-island exploration wasn’t over. Every day as we took the steps down from our fourth-floor room, we looked out into the Aegean to see a small island out in the sea. It wasn’t too far, maybe four miles.

The beach on Tsougrias.


It’s the isle of Tsougrias, a natural habitat governed by Skiathos with one of the best nutshell descriptions in the Greek Islands:

It has a beach, lounge chairs and a bar. That’s it. It has no inhabitants. A small boat leaves Skiathos every morning and in 10 minutes we stopped at a tiny dock. About a dozen of us walked briskly along fine, white sand to the plethora of comfy lounge chairs, all with accompanying umbrellas.

With a backdrop of pine trees, it was the perfect paradise to while away an entire afternoon. We had nothing to do and nowhere to go. Well, we walked the 20 feet to the bluest waters we’ve seen in Greece. It’s the kind of blue that changes shades as you wade out 100 meters up to your neck. It went from green blue, to sky blue to royal blue, an absolute rainbow of the best the Aegean Sea has to offer.

It doesn’t get much more isolated than on Tsougrias.


In early afternoon we sat at the bar with the sandy floor and ate roast chicken off giant spits spinning slowly next to the beer spigots. Along with a big Greek salad and an ice-cold beer, we sat in the shade and wondered about the paradise we’ve discovered. From one paradise to another to another, Greece’s Sporades Islands are 90 minutes from Rome but light years from Rome’s problems. The Sporades have no garbage. They have reliable public transportation. They have no mafia. They are specks in a blue sea that make you throttle back and realize there is no such thing as wasting time doing nothing.

Marina and I have decided the Sporades will be our annual August getaway. Sandy beaches. Greek salads. Frosted beer mugs. Every day sunny, dry and in the ‘80s.

These are scenes I don’t mind seeing again.

Bolt reunion in Greece: He’s alive and well and didn’t remember us

We found this month-old kitten near death atop a gutter on Skiathos three years ago. Today Bolt is thriving, with some bumps, at the Skiathos Cat Welfare Association. Marina Pascucci photos
SKIATHOS, Greece – We were going to go viral.

I was sure of it. This reunion had all the trappings that pull on heartstrings, from Facebook links to the Animal Planet channel. Everyone would weep, including Marina and me. The setup was made for the big screen – well, at least, a little screen – and I’d practiced using my cell phone’s video camera beforehand.

Marina and I returned to Skiathos, the Greek island in the North Aegean, to see little Bolt, the kitten we saved from certain death atop a Skiathos gutter three years before. Bolt is alive and well in the same Skiathos Cat Welfare Association we left him.

I could picture it: We’d walk into the cat sanctuary’s giant yard and out of 150 cats, Bolt would race through the entire herd and jump into our arms, his memory flashing back to when he was a sick kitten, like a hidden dream finally uncovered.

Everyone remembers the viral video of the huge lion in Kenya jumping into the arms of his two Australian handlers who returned after rescuing him as a cub from a London department store cage. After 10 years away, the lion recognized them. The lion’s giant paws nearly engulfed their heads in affection. It brought tears to the world’s eyes.

Would Bolt be next? Let’s put it this way:

Picture a scowling couch potato when a solicitor visits. Bolt didn’t move. He didn’t blink an eye. We found him in a little cushioned bed by a shelter. He looked at us with all the enlightenment and excitement of a bored 3-year-old.

In other words, he acted like a cat.

We did get some quality time with Bolt, but it wasn’t easy after he had five teeth pulled.


Forget Animal Planet. We just hoped Bolt would let us pet him. It took Sharon Hewing, the sanctuary’s founder and director, to pick him up by the scruff of his neck and hold him down while we precariously stroked his orange fur. Bolt struggled to break free.

Our reunion, the one we hoped would go video viral, lasted all of about three minutes. (see video).
“He’s not afraid of humans,” Sharon said. “He’s just afraid of new people.”

The back story, however, is quite touching. My blog from 2016 brought some readers to tears. I even welled up writing it. As we walked down the hill from our hotel to dinner, we found him motionless on a curb. His eyes were sealed shut from mucous. One leg was disfigured from infection. We took him back to our room. He licked a little milk off my finger and we put him in a warm basket with blankets. We hoped he wouldn’t die.

He didn’t. He hung in there and we took him to the sanctuary where Sharon did some medical magic and brought him back to life. By the time we left Skiathos a few days later, his eyes were open and he was eating normal food. We named him Bolt, for the champion sprinter we hoped he’d run like some day.

Sanctuary director Sharon Hewing with Sophia, whom she rescued after her mother was killed by a car a few days earlier.

For three years we monitored his progress from afar. It was overwhelmingly positive. He had grown into his huge, bat-like ears. He played with the other cats. He ate normally. His infected leg didn’t seem like an issue. I sent occasional cash contributions earmarked for his care. The pictures we received, of him climbing a couch, eating with others, sleeping peacefully, warmed our hearts.

As Marina, who has saved many cats in her life, often tells me, “When you save a cat, you save the world.”

Unfortunately, our reunion was a combination bad timing and overly optimistic expectations. Before our mid-August arrival, one of the sanctuary’s volunteers, Chrissy Tuffin, wrote me saying, “I must warn you that Bolt doesn’t like being picked up or held. He’s not let me near him.”

We also happened to arrive the day he had five teeth pulled. Think it hurts for humans? It’s worse for cats. Bolt was mad at the world and we showed up.

Marina had plenty of attention from the 150 cats on the property.


We let Bolt go to sit in the bushes alone and Sharon and I retreated to the privacy of her small house on the property. We had to weave through more than 150 cats who were playing, sleeping or rubbing against my leg in an attempt to seduce me into petting them. One cat kept nibbling on Marina’s neck.

Out of 150 cats, Bolt seemed the most unfriendly of them all.

“Not all are sociable,” Sharon told me. “About 10 percent you can’t get close to. I can go up to him but not strangers. It depends where they come from. Maybe they remember things that happened to them before I got them.”

If that’s the case, Bolt doesn’t remember Marina or me. No wonder. His eyes were sealed shut nearly the entire time. However, he does apparently remember the painful shots Chrissy gave him during those scary, iffy, first few days at the sanctuary.

“I’d give him shots and he’d scream!” Chrissy said. “I’d put food down and he’d run back in his cage because he knew he was safe there. It made me weep.”

The sanctuary’s cats crave affection, even from each other.


However, at least he’s alive and relatively healthy. His right back leg looks normal but the infection left it useless. He’s essentially a three-legged cat although he’s the fastest three-legged cat in the Greek Islands.

While our reunion wasn’t perfect, I did get my feline fix. Photo by Marina Pascucci


“The leg’s no problem,” Sharon said. “Not at all. No issue. He runs as fast as the rest of them. When I go down to feed them in the morning, he’s one of those that runs from the top to the bottom because they get fed first. He’s very social with the other cats.”

Sharon and her volunteers are the real heroines in this story. Without them, Marina would still be weeping as she did in the restaurant the night we found Bolt. Originally from England, Sharon started the association after moving to Skiathos in 2004 and seeing the huge cat population on an island without even a vet, let alone a sanctuary. She works up to 18-hour days feeding cats, getting them to the one vet who did arrive and rescuing other cats abandoned by their mothers or evil swine with second homes here and no more need for a cat.

Two days before we arrived, a mother cat was killed by a car as her three kittens watched. Terrified, they hid in the bushes in a rainstorm. Sharon found them after two days and tried nursing the soaked kittens to health. Only one survived. Named Sophia, she sat on my lap and closed her eyes as I rubbed her tummy. She seemed to smile.

“That’s the best part of it,” Sharon said.

The sanctuary has a kiosk in town to collect food and supplies from locals.


Since our first visit, Sharon has put a kiosk near the town center. People drop food and supplies for the association and the local government has put feeders all over town for the many strays still roaming the streets. It started a nutrient program and gives funds to the local vet for sterilization.

Her next goal is a new place. Her sanctuary has a beautiful view of the Aegean and a smaller house for kittens down the road isn’t far from a beach.

Marina at the Skiathos Cat Welfare Association entrance.

Still, she needs more space. She has money for a bigger sanctuary but the Greek paperwork makes the transition impossibly slow.

We visited Bolt two more times, both with the timing of a tsunami at a company picnic. He was down in the kitten house, inside the supply room resting in a cushioned cabinet. He just had blood tests taken and was still woozy from the pain killers.

I’ve had bad weeks before but Bolt happened to have one of his worst during our visit.

I tried luring him toward my hand, awaiting to caress him. He looked at it as if it was a zip-code directory. Fortunately, except needing medicine for a little feline immunodeficiency, his blood tests came back negative.

The cats are happy and well taken care of at the sanctuary over the sea. Photos by Marina Pascucci


Marina and I wound up holding and caressing a wide array of fat, happy little kittens waiting for adoption. On that end, the association is booming. Sharon said this year so far people have adopted about 50. Many come from the United Kingdom. That’s not good. If Brexit passes Oct. 31, it will be nearly impossible to import cats from Greece.

No, I couldn’t adopt Bolt. I travel too much. In Rome I’ve had two top-floor apartments with way too much exposure and too many escape routes. In fact, I wondered if the sanctuary would be better for Bolt than someone’s home.

That night at a volunteers dinner in the lovely restaurant, Porta Rossa, ironically right across the street from our hotel, I met Nina Lobregt, the Dutch volunteer who helped care for Bolt for two weeks after we brought her in. She thinks they should amputate the leg. It still bothers him, she said. But more importantly, he could use a home.

“It’s strange because he was quite sociable with humans in the beginning,” Nina said. “He will be perfect in a home as the only cat. He gets the attention as the only one and he will change completely.”

Anyone out there want a three-legged cat from Greece? Or any other cat? Contact Sharon at her website: https://www.skiathos-cats.org.

Doom and gloom turn to cautious optimism as a new season for facelifted AS Roma begins Sunday

New Roma manager Paulo Fonseca led Ukraine power Donetsk Shakhtar to the last three league titles. Gazzetta del Sud photo


This off season I changed my greeting at my local coffee bar. Every time I walked into Romagnani Caffe across the street from my Rome apartment I greeted the Romanisti coffee jockeys with “FORZA ROMA!” the long-time mantra of every AS Roma fan, meaning “GO ROMA!” They, in turn, greeted me with the simultaneous, seemingly rehearsed, traditional response in chorus: “SEMPRE! (ALWAYS!)”

Since last season ended in May, however, the exchange has been altered. I’d walk in with my morning Corriere dello Sport, chronicling another horrid off-season drama, and before they even handed me my usual cornetto and cappuccino, I’d say, “Siamo fottuti.”

(“We’re fucked.”)

They didn’t even acknowledge my growing command of Romanaccio, the dialect within the Roman dialect devoted entirely to profanity. They were merely slumped in resigned agreement. They handed me my breakfast and listened to me curse at my outdoor table as I read details of what appeared to be the fall of the Roma Empire.

“Roma Empire” is a headline I’ve dreamed about since attaching my heart to this soccer team in 2002. Since retiring here in January 2014 and transforming from sports writer to sports fan, it has been a painful tease. Following AS Roma as a born-again fan is like getting tickled with a feather — one with a dagger on the other end. You feel a tingling sensation then get knifed in the heart.

Roma Empire? How about the Bhutan Empire? In our 92 seasons we’ve won three Serie A Italian league titles, the last in 2001. Our last trophy was the 2008 Italian Cup, a national tournament the league’s upper echelon doesn’t sober up for until the semifinals.

The leadership of Roma icon Francesco Totti has been missing since he retired to the front office after the 2017 season. Virgilio Sport photo


Then came last season, a nine-month colonoscopy with only occasional relief. Club icon Francesco Totti had retired after 2017 and gritty leaders Radja Nainggolan and Kevin Strootman were jettisoned in favor of mostly a bunch of stiffs.

We bombed spectacularly out of the Champions League and Italian Cup, mercifully fired the embattled Eusebio Di Francesco in March and as interim manager, old Rome native Claudio Rainieri couldn’t repeat his magic in leading little Leicester City to the 2016 Premiership title. Roma finished sixth and out of this season’s Champions League, which earned the club 51 million euros last season, a booty Roma desperately needs again while it waits for its pipe dream of a new 1 billion euro stadium. Roma barely qualified for the Europa League, European soccer’s equivalent of the NIT.

Losing 7-1 to Fiorentina in the Italian Cup was the beginning of the end for Eusebio Di Francesco. Il Messaggero photo


Then it got worse.

The club gently but unceremoniously pushed out beloved captain Daniele De Rossi, who replaced fellow Rome-native Totti as the face of the franchise but flew off to Boca Juniors in Buenos Aires. Totti tired of his opinions being ignored as a club director and quit, lambasting the club as he followed out the door his boss, sporting director Monchi, who had already bolted in disgust after his bosses fired Di Francesco.

At one point this off season, Roma had no manager and no sporting director. The best defender, Kostas Manolas, was headed to Napoli; the best striker, Edin Dzeko, was headed to Inter Milan; their best young player, 20-year-old Italian international Nicolo’ Zaniolo, was being dangled in front of rich, salivating suitors; fallen striker star Gonzalo Higuain dissed Roma to stay with Juventus; and the goalkeeper was about my age.

For three months, I thought the headline of this preview would be, “I MAY SOON KNOW WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE AN OREGON STATE FOOTBALL FAN.”

I was going to spend an entire season at my Abbey Theatre Irish Pub and my local Birrotecca Stappo with fellow Romanisti, attracted more to the great pub grub than the weekly drubbings on the big screen.

Then things changed.

New sporting director Gianluca Petrachi led Torino to Serie A promotion in 2011 and two Europa League bids. Tottoasroma photo


With the season opener Sunday night, a series of dealings has put some optimism back in my bark. James Pallotta, the Boston-based owner who occasionally has been the most hated man in Rome since Nero, hired a sharp sporting director in Gianluca Petrachi, who had Torino punching above its weight for the last 10 years.

For manager they hired Paulo Fonseca, whose movie-star good looks won over female fans and his three recent titles with Donetsk Shakhtar, the Juventus of the Ukraine Premier League, won over the male fans. While Manolas did leave for Napoli, Dzeko and Zanioli re-signed, Roma pinched a promising 24-year-old goalkeeper from Real Betis named Pau Lopez, acquired Italian international defender Davide Zappacosta on loan from Chelsea and signed midfielder Leonardo Spinazzola who last season helped lead Atalanta to its first Champions League berth.

They looked better on paper. But if you read on this site how much trash is in Rome you’ll know how much paper is worth in this town. I needed to see them in action.

I saw them win a friendly on the road at Lille, which finished second in the French League last season, then beat a full-strength Real Madrid at home on penalty kicks in the Mabel Green Cup.

Fonseca replaced Italians’ traditionally snoozy, heavy-on-tactics and defense with an aggressive, attacking style that produced a flurry of shots against both clubs. Dzeko had two assists at Lille and scored against Real off a beautiful pass from Cengiz Under, a promising 22-year-old Turk who combined with Zaniolo for 14 goals and 13 assists the last two seasons. Lopez made some highlight-reel saves behind a defense that pressed higher and set up more counter attacks.

“This season the objective is to return to the Champions League (by finishing in the top four),” Fonseca said, “but in two or three seasons I’m convinced we can win a title.”

Since I punted my objectivity on Roma nearly 20 years ago, I called a trusty Rome-based soccer journalist. Paddy Agnew (@paddyagnew) has been penning great copy about Roma and the Italian League since 1986 and now writes for World Soccer, my favorite soccer magazine in the world. Jaded and tough from also covering the cesspool that is Italian politics and the Vatican, Agnew backed my cautious optimism — with a caveat.

Who’s the face of Roma? Alessandro Florenzi, the Rome native who inherited De Rossi’s captaincy, was so elated about Dzeko re-signing he offered him his captain’s armband. Dzeko, his mouth not nearly as loud as his deadly legs, turned it down.

“It’s a different year for Roma because it’s the first year for God knows how many years — 25 years — when they haven’t had either Totti or De Rossi around,” Agnew said. “It’s different looking Roma. My question would be, who’s actually the team leader?

“They really don’t have a bad squad. The question is who is the boss man on the pitch? That’s what Fonseca must work out. If he works that out you could have a good year.”

That’s my worry. When De Rossi was injured — and, at 36, he has developed the shelf life of handmade linguini — Roma had no direction. It had no bite. Zaniolo had about as much fire as anybody and he still looks like a kid who eats Orange Slices after games.

Edin Dzeko’s 87 goals in 179 games are already fifth on Roma’s all-time list. Goal.com photo


The best news, and what convinced me not to torch my AS Roma potholders and beach towel, is Dzeko’s re-signing. Considered the best Bosnian player in history, he has scored 87 goals in 179 games, already fifth in Roma history in only four seasons. If he left for Inter, saremmo fottuti (We’d be fucked.)

The next most is Florenzi with 28 in 262 games.

“The thing about Dzeko is he’s a one-man team up front,” Agnew said. “He can get ahold of it and even though he’s got three defenders hanging onto his shorts, he can hold on to it for a while. For a big man, he has really good feet and is good passing the ball. On top of that he gets into the box and scores goals.”

Problems remain, of course. They’re going to miss Manolas, whose heroic winning goal against Barcelona two seasons ago overshadowed his stripping of Lionel Messi who was driving for a winning goal of his own. Lots of pressure is on Manolas’ replacement, Gianluca Mancini, a 23-year-old who came over from Atalanta. They could use another striker to take some pressure off Dzeko.

With the market window closing Sept. 2, Roma is looking at Nikola Kalinic, 31, a Croat international who sat on Atletico Madrid’s bench most of last season, and defender Daniele Rugani, a 25-year-old who didn’t even make Juventus’ road trip to Parma Saturday and is interested in Roma.

I’m not the only one whose optimism is growing. The club sold fewer than 19,000 season tickets, well under last year’s total of 22,000. However, Friday the club sold 12,000 tickets alone for Sunday’s opener against Genoa.

It’s a nice bump but only 30,000 for a season opener? In Rome? I shouldn’t be surprised. Maybe it’s because half of Rome is out of town on their annual August holiday, but there is less buzz about this team than at any time in my memory.

“I know what you mean,” said Agnew, who lives just outside Rome in Trevignano Romano. “In other years there was a bigger buzz that we could do something this year and get back to the heights of competitive days. I don’t get that feeling at the moment.”

I agree with him on what has made so many turn their backs on this team.

“Two things obviously have spoiled the atmosphere at Roma,” he said. “Totti’s press conference in May in which he basically, this great Roma idol, shat on them. He just essentially accused the management of being both incompetent and disloyal and not having made it clear to him what they wanted him to do and then when he did give advice paying no attention to it, indicating with these guys in charge of the club there was going to be problems up ahead. The fans listen to this closely. Then he said, ‘I’m leaving the club’ which is a bigger statement than all of it.

Daniele De Rossi joined Boca Juniors after 19 years with his hometown Roma. Il Post photo


“Then you have the other iconic figure, De Rossi, who wants to stay. If I was the club director, I’d have kept him on for at least another season because of what he could offer in terms of experience and understanding of the entire environment.”

My sportswriting experience has jaded me too much to hope for a title run. I’ll settle for a top four finish. Inter Milan, under new coach Antonio Conte, looks like it has closed the gap on Juventus. I want to see how the pressure to not only win a record ninth-straight title but not lose in the Champions League will affect new Juve coach Maurizio Sarri, whose Europa League title last season wasn’t enough for Chelsea fans to appreciate.

Napoli has established itself as a consistent top three and Manolas strengthens its defense, Atalanta is Italy’s new rising star and Milan still has the country’s best goalkeeper in 20-year-old Gianluigi Donnarumma.

Meanwhile, Lazio still sucks.

A crowd of only about 30,000 is expected Sunday. AS Roma photo


(Actually, it doesn’t. I just like my Laziali friends to read that.)

At least now I don’t need to call my sister, an Oregon State grad, and ask how to brace myself for soul-crushing public humiliation every weekend. I know exactly what I’ll say to the boys in Romagnoli Sunday morning in preparation for a new season with surprising promise.

“FORZA ROMA!”